Transition Towns or Bright Green Cities ?  

Posted by Big Gav

Alec at WorldChanging has a comparison between the "transition town" movement and the Viridian "bright green cities" vision - Transition Towns or Bright Green Cities?. I like the phrase "bureaucracies use boredom the way a skunk uses smell".

What can any of us do in the face of planetary catastrophe?

Staring into the ecological abyss, it's easy to feel small and unimportant. Edward Abbey wrote truly, "Sentiment without action is the ruin of the soul." But it's often hard to see how any actions we might actually take, as individuals, will have any meaningful effect, whatsoever: leaving aside the pablum about small steps and each doing our part, we all know in our hearts that taking out the recycling will not do much to slow the melting of Greenland.

The best thing, the really hopeful thing, about the Transition Town movement is that it breaks the emotional isolation privatized responsibility inflicts on us, and makes us part of a group working together towards change. ...

Yet, ultimately, the Transition Town approach stifles its own potential impact.

The Transition movement seems saturated with what Michael Lerner called "surplus powerlessness" disguised as practicality. 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.

Transition thinking seems obsessively focused on coordinating individual actions (like helping people barter their free time or connecting people who want to garden); even at its most ambitious, it generally focuses on building alternative systems (say, starting a local currency scheme) rather than reforming the larger systems that shape life all around us (say, starting an actual credit union or rewriting banking regulations).

Part of this is the legacy of the counter-culture out of which it emerged. Part of this is that Transition Towns aim to offer a way to step out of emotional paralysis by saying "just go ahead and do something, anything." Part of it is intentional: groups spread more rapidly when the demands placed on their members are minimal. However, the approach also betrays a far darker mindset.

3) The Dark Side of Transition Thinking

The movement's founder, Rob Hopkins, talks almost cheerfully about passing peak oil, widespread food shortages and the idea of globalization crashing suddenly. Jennifer Gray, the founder of Transition U.S. (the American wing of the movement) told a New York Times reporter that she expects “a big population die-off." Board member Richard Heinberg says that central governments will "have to self-destruct in favor of local autonomy" and that "overpopulation will eventually be solved by starvation and disease."

That sort of casual eagerness for the death of others is appalling. Worse, the strategy implicit in this vision of transitioning -- that there can be local soft landings in the event of a global hard crash, that indeed the only proper scale at which to prepare for a soft landing is at the local level, and that perhaps collapse will solve some of our problems -- is delusional.

Collapse is not a tool for social change. It's essentially impossible to look at history and find a case where large-scale collapse has lead to anything other than lots of destruction, hunger, disease, suffering and a decline into widespread violence and warlordism. If you want to see what happens when large numbers of urban people encounter situational collapse, look at what happened in Liberia. Anyone who thinks an energy descent plan prepared by a community group future-proofs them against people like Charles Taylor has simply taken a vacation from reality.

Local efforts can't protect against the violence of a systemic breakdown. The same thing is true of public health and epidemiology, of disaster response and trauma care, of famine protection and crop insurance, and so on and so on. To plan for the collapse of large-scale systems is to plan for widespread evil and suffering; ethical planning for the collapse is impossible: post-collapse idealism is oxymoronic.

Indeed, if anything, places that are by global standards rich and well-educated need to be preparing to be bulwarks of stability in a chaotic world, to be more deeply invested in making things work for everyone.

4) What We Need Instead: Bright Green Citizens

What we need is a movement of local efforts aimed at changing things that matter at scales that matter, based on the politics of optimism. The first step in those efforts is to stop seeing the systems we depend on as out of our control. They aren't, and that we're so convinced they are is a testament to the dedication of the powers that be to shoo us away from interfering in their profits.

Cynicism, boredom and fear are their tools. They reinforce, at every opportunity, the idea that government is broken, that civic engagement is for dupes, that real rebellion involves shutting up, making money and spending it. They craft public process to sap the will of the public to engage: as Richard White writes, bureaucracies use boredom the way a skunk uses smell. They make an effort to keep us in a state of constant economic and social anxiety undermining our willingness to connect with and trust each other. Whether these tools are used consciously or unconsciously is completely beside the point -- you can apply whatever degree or lack of conspiracy theory you like: the effects are observable, and well-documented.

The great secret here is that we are more powerful than any of us usually admits. While it is true that organized greed beats unorganized democracy every time, it's also true that organized, educated, passionate democracy is the most powerful political force ever seen, and we live amidst an exploding proliferation of tools for organizing our communities, sharing our knowledge and connecting our passions. ...


"we live amidst an exploding proliferation of tools"

Shouldn't this be: "we live amidst an exploding proliferation of fools"?

If upward of 50% of the population disagree that we face any problems whatsoever, or that solutions to such problems are a matter of future technology just waiting to be invented, then any form of democratic action on these issues is going to be stifled by the majority. They either don't believe in climate change or peak everything, or believe in the economist's magical market solutions. Who is going to riot for austerity when the key to the continuance of our current way of life is just a spark of inspiration away, as we are constantly reassured?

"To plan for the collapse of large-scale systems is to plan for widespread evil and suffering; ethical planning for the collapse is impossible: post-collapse idealism is oxymoronic."

Yet we are already surrounded by widespread evil and suffering, so any form of collapse is going to be yet another variation on the theme. Post-collapse idealism seems to be the natural end point of understanding just how great the social inertia is. It's akin to saying we need to wipe the slate clean to have a chance at change. Copenhagen and the expected lack of useful results in the face of destruction of the biosphere will illustrate this sufficiently (I do hope to be shocked at how wrong I was).

Is there a difference between an understanding that some form of collapse is likely given all the evidence, and a fervent apocalyptic desire for collapse? Can the distinction be made about which camp a person falls into just by considering snippets of their comments on collapse? Characterising all people that say collapse is inevitable as wishing for apocalypse would seem to disregard a lot of harsh realities about humanity, and other people's understanding of them.

Of course it would be wonderful if we could reclaim democracy and save ourselves, but where does this start? If we cannot take control of the local power structures such as regional councils what hope is there of reclaiming power at state and federal levels? Transition Towns would seem to be a positive step in that direction, perhaps not for the practical projects they implement, but because of the discourse and power relations they create and change between the populace and the elected officials.

I also fail to see how local soft landings in the face of global collapse are delusional? Conditions vary widely across short distances now, so why shouldn't they in the future? The fact that travel will be hindered thanks to peak oil would seem to make future isolation even more probable, therefore increasing the chances of localised soft landings if people are prepared on that local level.

In the face of a whole lot of harsh realities concerning human nature, our collective effect on the environment, and decline in the resources needed to support modernity, the Bright Green Cities, whilst a noble call to arms, seems more seated in delusion than any practical approach that might come from Transition Towns.

Anonymous   says 10:32 AM

The Transition Initiative has become soft of a buzz around the world, especially around the United States. I hear what your saying in "Transition Towns or Bright Green Cities, but I'd like to point out that neither Rob Hopkins nor the core of the transition movement disagree with the fact that what we desperately need is systemic reform, actually recreation. Bringing people together, helping them to discover, as Hopkins' terms it, their "collective genius," is perhaps the most important step we as individuals can make to speed up larger system changes. The point of transition towns, cities... the movements, is increasing education, empowerment, consciousness and awareness. We can make much more of a difference as a collective cohesive group than we can on our own. Instead of Bright green citizens, we need bright green communities. That's the Transition movement.

Also, the transition movement isn't relying on collapse for reform. These people are realizing that collapse is inevitable if we continue living and thinking the way we currently are. They realize we need to start changing now. So they're doing it, and by increasing the resilience of local areas, setting up, as Heinberg calls them, lifeboats for both themselves and others.

Join them. They could you use you.

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