INDEX - FUTURE ID# 0803-18



POSTED: 21 NOVEMBER 2008 - 10:00am HST

Premature Triumphalism

image above:" Triumphal Arch" found at

by John Michael Greer on 19 Nov 2008 in

In last week’s post, I mentioned in passing that a presentation at the 5th Annual Peak Oil and Community Solutions Conference at the beginning of the month had left me with hard questions about the Transition Town movement. A good fraction of the comments I received in response to that post centered on that one brief reference. This probably shouldn’t have surprised me; these days, the Transition Town movement has become one of the more popular responses to the emerging crisis of the industrial world, and its spread has generated both a great deal of enthusiasm and a rather smaller amount of criticism.

I think both of those are merited. So far, at least, the Transition Town movement has done more and gotten further than most other responses to the crisis of the industrial age, and by any measure, some of its achievements are worth celebrating. The core idea of the movement is that a small geographical area – a town, a village, an urban neighborhood, or the like – can make the transition to a postpetroleum world by harnessing the ideas and efforts of local people. The plan, now available in book form, starts with a small steering group of activists who raise public awareness, forge alliances with local activists and governmental bodies, manage the process of putting together a consensus vision for a sustainable future, and finally midwife the birth of a plan, modeled on that vision, that can be adopted by the community and put to work.

It’s an engaging project; still, two things give me pause. The first, frankly, was the presentation I watched, a slick sales pitch that started by proclaiming its subject “the most inspiring movement in the world” and went on from there. If you’ve seen talks put on by well-funded activist groups any time in the last few decades, you know how this one went: the global problem painted in black and white, the implied failure of all other responses, the inspiring story, the appealingly described plan, the clever double binds that give it emotional conviction, and the slow drift toward hard sell at the end. I’d been reading Gregory Bateson on the flight out, so the double binds were hard to miss – “The Transition Town process doesn’t tell you what to do, and we’re telling you to do the Transition Town process” was one of the better examples.

For all that, the presentation did what it was supposed to do. The presenter had a crowd of people around him after the lights went up, though there were also plenty who left shaking their heads, and I heard blistering comments in the back of the meeting room and in conversations out in the lobby. Still, it’s one thing to generate enthusiasm and harness it, and quite another to be sure that the resulting energy is going somewhere useful. The Transition Town movement seems to have done a fine job of the first; it’s the latter that concerns me, and informs the second of my two concerns about the movement.

That concern unfolds from the basic assumption underlying the project: that a contemporary community can imagine a better future and then successfully plan out the route there in advance. That’s a popular assumption nowadays, and of course it’s been basic to most ways of thinking about social change since the heyday of the Enlightenment more than two centuries ago. Most of the French philosophes whose ideas lit the fuse of the French Revolution claimed that a better world could be planned out in advance and then put in place by the collective will. Note, though, that this isn’t how things turned out; what replaced Louis XVI’s feeble monarchy was not the happy republic of reason so many people expected, but rather a parade of tumbrils hauling victims to Madame Guillotine and the cannon and musketry of the Napoleonic Wars.

To judge by recent history, we are no better at guessing the future than the philosophes were. We do know a few things about the most likely future ahead of us. We have good reason to think that the decades to come will bring sharp decreases in the energy per capita available to people in the industrial world, and in all the products and services provided by energy – which, in an industrial economy, means every product and service there is. We have good reason to think that the current human population is more than the world can support once fossil fuels run short. We have some reason to think – at least this is the point of view that makes sense to me – that these processes will bring the decline and fall of industrial civilization, along a trajectory like those of other civilizations that outran their resource bases. How these broad patterns will work out in the microhistory of a town or a region, though, is anyone’s guess, and history seems to take an impish delight in frustrating our expectations.

Planning for the future becomes especially risky when, rather than starting from present realities and trying to figure out what can be done, it starts from a vision of a desirable future and tries to figure out how to get there. The gap between the futures we imagine and the realities that replace them, after all, tends to be embarrassingly vast. Many of my readers may recall, as I do, what the year 2000 was supposed to be like, according to accounts in the 1960s: manned bases on the Moon, undersea cities dotting the continental shelf, fusion plants turning out limitless cheap power, geodesic domes everywhere, and commuters traveling by helicopter instead of by car. One forward-thinking builder in Seattle during those years topped his new parking garage with a helipad and control tower in hopes of getting a jump on the competition. As far as I know, no helicopter ever landed there, and the garage with its forlorn tower was torn down to make room for condos a few years ago. How many of today’s plans will face the same sort of disappointment? I doubt the number will be small.

Proponents of the Transition Town movement are gambling that their case is different – that this time, at least, it’s possible to for a community to imagine a desirable future, put together a plan to get there, and have the plan succeed in what promises to be an uncommonly difficult historical period. An old proverb reminds us that a camel is a tiger designed by a committee, but Transition Town proponents are again gambling that their case is different – that the sort of group process that usually fosters bland compromises based on conventional wisdom will manage this time to pick strategies that will cope successfully with the turmoil of a challenging future. They are also gambling, of course, that the effort put into making Transition Plans will create something more useful than the dozens of progressive energy plans that were adopted by American municipalities in the 1970s, and have been sedulously ignored ever since.

Is that gamble worthwhile? In many cases, actually, I think it is. Even if the broader agenda of the movement fails, some of its elements – such as encouraging people to relearn practical skills, and fostering local food production – will likely prove helpful in almost any future we’re likely to encounter. What’s crucial, though, is that the gamble be recognized as a gamble: as a venture into unknown territory that carries no guarantee of success. The value of the movement can’t be known for sure until we see how Transition Towns weather the end of the industrial age. Since that process promises to unfold over decades or even centuries, any conclusions based on today’s experiences are tentative at best, and it also needs to be remembered that a monoculture of paradigms is just as deadening as any other kind.

Back in the heyday of the New Left, seasoned radicals used to warn their juniors of the dangers of “premature triumphalism” – the notion, as popular as it was mistaken, that revolution was right around the corner and we would all soon be eating strawberries and cream in the people’s paradise. The temptation of premature triumphalism seems to afflict any movement that attempts to bring about social change; the neoconservatives who are now stumbling toward the exit doors of American public life had a thumping case of it and, in the usual way, got thumped. Like so many others, they are finding out that announcing victory too soon is a great way to gain followers in the short term, and an even better way to lose them all in the longer term when events don’t live up to artificially heightened expectations.

I hope the Transition Town movement manages to dodge that bullet. People in that movement have put together a toolkit that may well have broad uses as we get ready for the end of the industrial age; they are conducting an intriguing experiment, and early results look promising; they are understandably enthusiastic about their project. All this is welcome, but I’m still reminded of the old shopman’s rule that you don’t actually know how to use a tool until you are ready to name at least three ways it can be abused and at least three situations where it’s the wrong tool for the job.



POSTED: 28 OCTOBER 2008 - 9:00am HST

Communities plan for a low-energy

image above: Volunteers from East Sussex cut grass and weed around gooseberry bushes

by Judith Schwartz on 11 September 2008 in

‘Transition initiatives,’ begun in Britain, aim to empower people to tackle effects of climate change and decline of oil.

A year ago, Pat Proulx-Lough felt so overwhelmed by reports about climate change that she couldn’t even listen to the news. “My husband was finishing a dissertation on water resources, and I became hopeless and fearful,” says Ms. Proulx-Lough, a therapist in Portland, Maine.

Fast-forward to summer ’08 and Proulx-Lough is not just hopeful, but excited about the future.

What happened? She tapped into the Transition movement.

Transition Towns (or districts, or islands) designate places where local groups have organized to embrace the challenge of adapting to a low-oil economy. As the movement’s website ( states, it’s an experiment in grass-roots optimism: Can motivated citizens rouse their neighbors to act in the face of diminished oil resources and climate change?

“ We don’t know if this will work,” says Ben Brangwyn of Totnes, England, who in 2007 helped launch the Transition Network to support Transition Towns worldwide, “but if we leave it to the government it will be too little, too late. If we do it on a personal level, it won’t be enough. But if we do this as a community, it may be just enough, just in time.”

The Transition movement is high-concept and hands-on, combining homespun common sense and camaraderie (bread-baking workshops, “seed-sharing Sundays”) and sophisticated 21st-century organizing (Skype audio conferencing, online wikis, open space technology).

Each Transition “initiative,” as it’s called, begins with a core group willing to serve as a steering committee. In Sandpoint, Idaho, for instance, Richard Kuhnel assembled a group through small discussions at his home. Next comes an action plan and lots of old-fashioned unpaid legwork.

While the concerns – climate change and peak oil (the idea that the world will soon pass its maximum petroleum production and start to decline) – are somber, the approach is upbeat. As the movement’s founder, Rob Hopkins, is fond of saying, “It’s more like a party than a protest march.”

Such ebullience is not typical of ecological realism. According to Michael Brownlee, who was active in the Boulder County, Colo., Transition launch, “the gloom many people feel stems in part from a sense of powerlessness.” The Transition movement advocates no-nonsense routes to local preparedness, rather than waiting for government to step in. “People come in very concerned about climate change, the economy,” Mr. Brownlee says, “but as they become involved in projects … they rediscover community. Once they feel reconnected to those around them, it changes their whole outlook. The anxiety and depression fall away.”

The movement began, improbably, three years ago with a student project. Mr. Hopkins, a teacher of permaculture – a holistic, ecologically based approach to agriculture, energy usage, and building design – was working with students at the Kinsale (Ireland) Further Education College. They were trying to devise a plan to wean the town off fossil fuels by applying ecological principles on a large scale.

Hopkins brought the model to his home town of Totnes, in southwest England, in 2006, and the idea quickly caught on and spread. Ben Brangwyn was inspired by “Transition Totnes” to leave his job in information technology and devote himself to organizing Transition’s online communication and resources. His hope, he says, is “to encourage every community to proactively prepare for reducing carbon [output] and increasing resilience.”

Rooted in England, sprouting in US
The Transition model still hovers below the radar in the United States. In late July, Ketchum, Idaho, became the third US Transition Town, joining Boulder County, Colo., and Sandpoint, Idaho. (Boulder is holding the first-ever Transition training in the US on Sept. 13 and 14, in fact.) In the UK, where it began, the Transition movement is a cultural phenomenon, with more than 70 Transition Towns in place and many more mulling it over. There’s even a Transition story line on “The Archers,” Britain’s long-running radio soap opera. In all, worldwide, some 100 communities from Fujino, Japan, to Waiheke Island in New Zealand have met the criteria to claim the Transition mantle.

To Glen Brand, director of the Sierra Club’s national Cool Cities campaign, which promotes clean energy solutions, the Transition movement “provides a fresh perspective for educating the public on local sustainability in an era of looming climate change and depletion of fossil fuels.” The key, he says, is to “make sure that ‘Transition’ means meaningful action with local clean energy and other sustainable solutions.” Aaron Heurtas, spokesman for the Union of Concerned Scientists, says such local efforts “help to drive all levels of government to take the actions which will be needed to address these issues.”

The goal is not to replace ongoing en viron mental and economic projects. Sand point Mayor Gretchen Hellar says the movement serves to “bring together all groups” working on sustainability, organizing community efforts while not duplicating effort.

A tool kit for responding to warming
Since its founding three years ago, the movement has made “raising awareness” the first step. But, says Jennifer Gray, who spearheaded the effort to launch the second Transition Initiative in Penwith, Cornwall, “We’ve got raised awareness. The climate is changing. Prices are rising…. Transition initiatives are about more than awareness. It’s a tool kit, a template for how to respond, practical projects people can get their teeth into.”

One item in the Transition tool kit is “reskilling” – reviving energy-frugal skills that past generations took for granted, such as how to repair something rather than buying new and how to grow and preserve food. Says Proulx-Lough, who has spent time in Totnes twice this year: “A workshop on darning socks – that’s practical action, and an excuse to do things together!”
Among other Transition activities:

• Planting nut trees on street corners and orchards in the city.
• Signing up 50 people to buy solar hot-water heaters so the units can be purchased at a discount.
• Interviewing seniors who recall what living a low-energy life was like.
• Holding bicycle-repair workshops

If a Transition Town outwardly looks no different from any other community, it’s because much of the “action” takes place behind the scenes: organizing lectures and films that build awareness; networking with other locations on the Web; meeting with city officials.

Every initiative is different. “It’s all about asking questions of your community and encouraging people to solve their own problems,” says Proulx-Lough. Creative, idiosyncratic responses reflect a town’s culture and history or piggyback on other local programs. Lewes, in East Sussex, a market town for the better part of eight centuries, is poised to launch its own currency. The goal is to stimulate the local economy and help insulate it from the vagaries of the national and global markets. (The Totnes Pound, accepted in about 60 local shops, has been in circulation for more than a year.)

Some communities, like Totnes and Boulder, with their reputations for alternative lifestyles, might seem natural spots for Transition groups. The same could not be said for Penwith, a high-poverty area at the southwestern tip of Britain. Ms. Gray describes the challenge of persuading a population struggling with day-to-day subsistence to devote time and resources to such an ideal:

“ Penwith is like an island,” Gray says. “People feel insular, and there are high levels of drug addiction and unemployment.” She ran a dairy farm there for several years and now lives in northern California. As a farmer, a parish councilor, and someone with a business background, she could speak to people with diverse backgrounds. “To do this, you need someone who’s a bit of a chameleon,” she says.

While there were plenty of naysayers, Gray did gain community support. “Everybody has a hook,” she says. “You just have to find it. Rising oil prices: They get that hook. Penwith is at the end of the supply chain. If oil goes high enough, people won’t get it here. Therefore it’s important for laying the structure” for a low-carbon future. Ironically, Penwith’s very isolation may mean an easier shift away from oil: “People in Penwith actually remember what life was like without oil. People made do,” she says.

US size, car dependence are hurdles
The fact that, unlike the UK, most US communities were built around the car is a challenge for the Transition movement in the US. Another is the nation’s sheer size. “It’s difficult to know how best to organize,” says Pamela Gray (Jennifer’s mother), a trustee of the Transition Network, whose focus is building resilience into healthcare systems. Britain has a strong, cohesive media that reaches a broad audience, she notes, whereas in the US it’s more diffuse.

Still, interest is mounting. “The Transition Movement is about to break on these shores,” Brownlee, the activist from Boulder County, Colo., predicts.

As Portland Mayor Edward Suslovic observes, “financial pain is increasing [people’s] receptivity to sustainability practices in general.” Whether you believe in climate change or peak oil makes no difference, says Sandpoint Mayor Hellar. The sustainable principles embodied in Transition “are not only good for the pocketbook, but good for the community.”

12 key steps toward transition

This is An edited version of a list that appears on the Transition Network’s website (

1. Set up a steering group and design its demise. Once a minimum of four subgroups has formed (see Step 5, below), the steering group should disband and reform with a representative from each subgroup.

2. Raise awareness of the potential effects of peak oil and climate change by showing films, holding panel discussions, lectures, etc. Identify your key allies, build networks, “prepare the community … for the launch of your Transition initiative.”

3. Lay the foundation. Network with existing groups and activists. Make it clear that a Transition initiative is designed to incorporate their efforts.

4. Organize a “great unleashing,” a memorable event to mark the project’s coming of age, probably 6 to 12 months after your first conscious-raising event. This builds momentum and “celebrates your community’s desire to take action.” The Unleashing should be “in a spirit of ‘we can do something about this’ rather than doom and gloom.”

5. Form subgroups. Smaller groups should focus on specific aspects, such as food, waste, energy, education, youth, economics, transportation, water, local government, and so on. The question for each: What’s the best way to make the community more resilient and reduce its carbon footprint?

6. Use open space technology for meetings. OST is an organizational strategy with “no agenda, no timetable, no obvious coordinator, and no minute-takers.” (See: “Open Space Technology: A User’s Guide,” by Harrison Owen. More information is available online.)

7. Do things. “Your project needs, from an early stage, to begin to create practical, high visibility manifestations in your community.”

8. Facilitate the “great reskilling.” For society to adjust to a lower-energy future, the thinking goes, people must relearn skills that sustained past generations: repairing, cooking, bicycle maintenance, gardening, etc. They are empowering as well as fun.

9. Build a bridge to local government. “You will not progress too far unless you have cultivated a positive and productive relationship with your local authority.”

10. Honor elders. “To rebuild that picture of a lower-energy society, we have to engage with those who directly remember the transition to the age of Cheap Oil, especially the period between 1930 and 1960.”

11. Let it go where it wants to go. “Your role is not to come up with all the answers, but to act as a catalyst for the community.”

12. Create an “energy descent” plan. “Each subgroup will have been focusing on practical actions to increase community resilience and reduce the carbon footprint.” Combined, these will help create an “energy descent” action plan in response to peak oil and climate change.

see also:
Island Breath: Salvage Sociaties
Island Breath: Scarcity Industrialism

Island Breath: Power Down Revisitied 10/17/07