The Dark Side of Transition Towns? Worldchanging Slams Transition Movement

Image credit: Narocroc

We TreeHuggers have long been inspired by the Transition Movement's positive response to peak oil. From planting nut trees for food security to launching local currencies, Transition Initiatives are promoting real, boots-on-the-ground action. But they have not been without their critics, arguing that Transition feels like a rebranding of the back-to-the-land movement, or hinting that it is deeply skewed to the left-leaning, hippy end of the cultural spectrum. Now Alex Steffen of Worldchanging has weighed into the debate, claiming that Transitioners exhibit a "casual eagerness for the death of others."Alex Steffen's piece, entitled Transition Towns or Bright Green Cities, argues that while the movement has inspired many to take action, its sights remain woefully low. In face of impending environmental and social catastrophe, says Steffen, "all over the world, groups of people with graduate degrees, affluence, decades of work experience, varieties of advanced training and technological capacities beyond the imagining of our great-grandparents are coming together, looking into the face of apocalypse... and deciding to start a seed exchange or a kids clothing swap."

He also cites an alleged current of gleeful anticipation for a collapse of the status quo inherent in the movement. He claims that movement founder Rob Hopkins (see my interview with Rob Hopkins for more on his philosophy) talks "almost cheerfully about passing peak oil, widespread food shortages and the idea of globalization crashing suddenly" and he quotes Jennifer Gray, founder of the US arm of Transition, as telling the New York Times that she expects a "a big population die-off."

Steffen then goes on to argue for what the world needs from a social movement. The only trouble is, as Rob Hopkins points out in his response to Alex Steffen, much of what he advocates seems to gel rather nicely with the Transition concept. From reaching out to people who have been made afraid of participation to reengaging with democracy, Steffen's list in many ways mirrors much of what Transition should be—and, at its best is—about.

I suspect, as is often the case with this type of debate, both sides have a point. Rob, quite understandable, takes offense at being labeled a doom monger delighting in the death of others, and he claims to have not met anyone in the movement who fits that description. And I'd agree with him, to a degree. What set Transition Towns apart for me, having begun my awareness of peak oil with a rather depressing viewing of The End of Suburbia (followed by a very gleeful discussion of how the world would soon see how we hippies had been right all along!), was how this movement took an inherent threat and tried to engage people with a positive vision of the future. The result has been inspiration, where cynicism might otherwise flourish, and it has been collective action, where you might otherwise see apathy or self-interest.

Having said that, I think there is a cultural bias within the Transition movement that lends itself to some solutions, and not to others, that stems from its roots in the permaculture movement. And I suspect that is what Steffen is reacting to. From the groups that I have met and been involved in, there seems to be an inherent interest in the low-tech, appropriate technology type solutions—be it vermiculture, organics or rocket stoves—and a mistrust of many things high tech or market driven, from electric cars to photovoltaics.

I was once told by an eager transitioner that the embodied energy of PV was greater than the power it generates. When I presented him with evidence to the contrary, he didn't refute that evidence, but rather pointed out that simply slapping on solar to our current system wouldn't solve anything. In other words, he didn't want solar to succeed.

But it's crucial to note that this is more of a cultural bias of some of the people in Transition, not of the Transition Movement itself. In fact, everything I have read about and from the Transition Movement has positioned it as non-ideological, practical and pragmatic. I don't see any reason why electric cars can't be a part of a Transition Movement, any more than a compost bin can. All it needs is for the EV geeks to turn up to the meetings and to make their case.

I'll admit that I have my own cultural bias, albeit a bias toward sitting on the fence. I've always tried to remain open minded about technologies and methodologies. From high-tech luxury green condos to really, really free markets we need a myriad of solutions to the myriad of problems that we face. After all, gardening is the best metaphor for everything.

Perhaps the best example that Transition Initiatives are an incredibly positive part of that vision lies in Rob's response to Steffen itself. Having refuted some of his arguments, and taken (I think rightly) objection to some of the more hyperbolic charecterizations, Hopkins takes the opportunity for some self reflection: "Perhaps if he manages to miss what Transition is about in such a way, his piece bats the challenge back to Transition; how well are we communicating what we are doing?" That's the sign of a movement willing to learn—even from perspectives that it disagrees with. I didn't think it was possible, but my love for the Transition Movement just got a little bit deeper.

Tags: Activism | Peak Oil | United Kingdom | United States