Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Premature Triumphalism

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.

39 comments:

paperclip said...

I think you mean a camel is a horse designed by committee?

martin said...

Hello John

It's a shame about the presentation and I hope it didn't give too many people a negative impression of the Transition Town movement.

As someone involved in a transition initiative in my home town (Ely, UK) I shudder at the thought of being labelled '“the most inspiring movement in the world”. I can't see how this helps anything at all, other than alienate people.

In my group we have a wide range of future visions and they don't all agree. We don't have the process all mapped out and are always telling people that "we're making it up as we're going along". This is the honest truth. There is so much too do and hard to find time when one has a full time job and kids to attend to.

The Transition Town movement has given me hope where I once had despair. It's not perfect, it is only one of a number of initiatives, movements and organisations across the world trying to deal with the situation we face.

Thanks for an excellent blog

DomK said...

Dear JMG,

I enjoy your blog for some years and I'm currently reading your last book (sometimes difficult because english is not my mothertongue).

I especially appreciate this post because I'm on the process to launch a transition initiative in my town in Switzerland and your critics are very valuable.

I agree on most points but I see other very interesting elements besides reskilling and local food production.

Although the "energy descent action plan" and the "desirable future" might turn to be wrong as you wrote, there are some valuable by-products of the transition initiative.

The process is as important, if not more, than the target. It is about building resilience. Resilience is very helpful against the unknown. It is also about community in a world (at least mine) where people are very isolated from each others, think that everything is decided in some far government office, know few other people, must pay for basic services, do not dare to ask an oignon to their neighbours, etc.

The whole process re-creates an active, dynamic and potent community. It brings back power and intelligence to the commmunity so that it can respond properly to various future risks and menaces.

The peak-oil and climate change arguments are easy to understand, easier than Chomsky or JMG, but I see them more as catalysts and one should not focus only on them, especially when we are going to be hit by a serious economical crisis.

Regards, Dominic Kuster

Russ said...

I appreciate your distinction between inductively saying, "Here's where we are; where can we go from here?" and deducing from "Here's where we want to go; how can we get there from here?"

I think any effective plan will have to incorporate both, since people need both a grip on current reality as well as an attractive goal to shoot for.

As for whether or not the goal is actually achievable, I think that's of secondary significance. I'm reminded of Sorel's "social myth" doctrine - what you're planning to do once you get somewhere, and what you actually do once you do get somewhere, are two different things, and the one does not necessarily have to have anything to do with the other. The point is to motivate people, give them something to fight for, make them feel the fight is worthwhile.

As for your French revolution reference, I think that's something of a straw man. Opponents of action can always cite the worst results anyone with a plan ever came to, as a way of guilting by association anyone else who has any sort of plan. Not that I think you have any malicious intent, but it's still the same technique used by those who do.

(As for whether or not the French Revolution did lead to bad things, I suppose reasonable people can disagree about how much the guillotine was needed, and whether or not they went too far with it. I personally believe the Gironde and the Enrages, and of course the king, had to go, but that it was with the Dantonists that the revolution truly did start eating its children.
Similarly, to what extent the Revolutionary Wars were revolutionary aggression, as opposed to self-defense and counterattack vs. reactionary monarchist aggression, is a matter of dispute. It's obviously a dialectical relationship.)

Peaksurfer said...

One of the tools in TT's kit will serve it better than most of the rest. That tool is the feedback loop. TT morphs. It evolves. It learns from both successes and failures and adds the lesson to the curriculum. It is unlike many of the prior revolutions precisely for this reason; it shuns dogma and rotates out its leaders and founders. This technique may dilute some of the original vision (and hoopla), but the pragmatic approach will continue marching it towards its goals.

Frank said...

Thanks for your insights Archdruid. It seems modern Western Culture is infected with the notion of "one right way". The one right way to address the future follows along with this notion of all of us finding this one right way and following it. We see this example pervasive in mainstream agriculture, commerce generally, and throughtout our culture if we look for it. I would maintain that Nature teaches us that in order to be resilient, we need diversity. The example of diversity can also be clearly seen in indigenous cultures, of which very few are left for now. The way of Nature would advocate that, for example, people check out our notion of how the address the future at our project, EntropyPawsed
But rather than trying to follow our example, use what is learned to compose their own design, based upon the unique qualities of themselves and their place. I believe this is also fundamental to Permaculture. In order to leave a reasonable Earth to the children of future generations, however, it seems we must as a species either get lucky, or quickly develop perceptions such that more of us can see our problems at their fundamental level. In this way perhaps we can design for the future in a way that gives us a reasonable probability of success. Perhaps there is an irony here, the advocacy of diversity, and the recognition of a need generally for greater perceptions. Ahh.. just one more opportunity for self observation. Thanks, Frank

karensav said...

What an excellent and thoughtful analysis. I completely agree.

I wish you would choose another blogger skin. However vaguely elegant, white on green is tough reading for these old eyes, and I would read many more of your excellent analyses if they were black on white!

Rob said...

Dear John,
Thanks for your comments on Transition, which were very insightful and useful. I have just written a response to your piece, which I hope you find useful and interesting. Thanks for all your writing, which I find very illuminating. My response is at http://transitionculture.org/2008/11/20/responding-to-greers-thoughts-on-premature-triumphalism/
With very best wishes
Rob Hopkins

yooper said...

I agree completely with your line of thought here John. We 've been down this road before...

"Isolationism" always produces problems unique within itself, are these self induced problems worse than what's precieved to be the outside threat wheather real or not?

Once a fraction of the population removes itself from the main body (isolation), the extinction process begins........ Can anyone give me an example, where this hasn't been the case?..................

Not too far and not too long.....

Thanks, yooper

Todd said...

JMG,

Thanks again for your thoughts. I am involved with the Transition initiative in my city. I won't try to sell you on it, but I'll try to address your concerns (which of course make me feel like I'm giving a sales pitch).

Your concern that "the gamble be recognized as a gamble" is something that people in the movement are very upfront about. I don't think many people are deluded that we're going to pull this off flawlessly and emerge on other side unscathed.
Those involved n my community have a pretty healthy understanding of the problems we're facing and that as the industrial age party is comes to a close there is going to be a big mess.

When we discuss the future it often takes place in two parts: the future you'd like to see and the future you expect. Needless to say, the former is a lot rosier than the latter. I've seen many people break down and cry while discussing the future they expect. Can it hurt though to try to cultivate a positive vision for the future? Many people cannot act without it. They get paralyzed by fear.

I've seen a few techo-fantasists drawn to Transition that believe if we act fast enough we'll be able to watch TV powered by PV on the roof and drive around in compressed air cars (the air car's my favorite), but that is not the norm.

I wasn't there so I won't defend the speaker you saw, but I know him well. I will say that I've caught myself doing the sales pitch a few times because, quite honestly, I'm having a lot of fun working on Transition. It's brought me a small bit of optimism about the future.

At its core, Transition is about building community and making it more resilient. I have met many more of my neighbors and community members than I would have had I not been involved in Transition. In fact, I feel closer to my community here than any other place I've lived. For that reason, there is a lot of fun and excitement around Transition in our town, but I wouldn't call it "premature triumphalism."

Todd

P.S. - love the book.

John Michael Greer said...

Yes, I thought this one would get a few responses. Many thanks to all, and especially to those of you who are involved in the Transition Town movement; your willingness to discuss my critique calmly -- rare on the Internet! -- speaks very highly of the TT project.

A few specific comments:

Paperclip, "tiger" is the way I'd always heard it.

Russ, most interesting. I don't see the French Revolution reference as a straw man, of course; since the French Enlightenment pioneered the idea of planned social change, it's relevant to see where those schemes led. The point isn't that the results of the French Revolution were "bad" -- it's that things did not go the way the philosophes predicted, and some of the results were very, very far from their intentions.

Karensav, these posts also appear on Energy Bulletin, where they're in plain old black on white.

Rob, many thanks for a thoughtful response. I've added a comment to your post.

Danby said...

yooper said:
Once a fraction of the population removes itself from the main body (isolation), the extinction process begins........ Can anyone give me an example, where this hasn't been the case?..................

Uhh, the Amish? They've been culturally isolate for about 350 years now. Of course, they started with a real organic culture, not a made up one.

FARfetched said...

[My second] 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.

I don't have a dog in the Transition Town hunt, just to be clear. I think the leg up that it has, though, on past movements is this: whatever problems are caused by de-industrialization, the root cause (energy depletion) is well known. Thus, were I involved in a TT project, I would simply ignore the plots & charts that purport to lead us to a better future and attack the root cause of the problem. The future approaches at a rate of 60 seconds per minute; any locale with their energy supplies secured will be much more pleasant to live in.

Blackbird said...

Hi JMG,

Well written. I can't help but think that transition towns (or enclaves within towns) will pop up regardless of whether they were in the works ahead of time or as a natural response to tougher times ahead. While nobody can ever envision how the future will play out I think there are some clues that we (or our children) will look back upon and see as obvious and there should be an attempt made at present to try and prepare for them.

You make a very good point about how the transition town needs to market itself in a transparent manner (eg. some of this may work - some of this might not work).

I think probably the best thing that will come out of any transition town effort will be a bringing together of like minded people who are looking to help prepare for a darker future in a positive and sharing way.

Cheers,
BB

tristan said...

I always heard it was "the platypus was an otter designed by committee".

Consumer said...

JMG,

I think the important thing about the Transition Town movement is that it is different than the current set-up, and thus suffers from discrimination because it is different. While you seem to be more resistant to this way of thinking than most, I think you are somewhat guilty as well.

I think that people put an undue burden of proof on new ideas, even when the current ones are bad. If someone tried to pitch the idea of any current town or city set-up, while we were all living in Transition Towns, it would be laughably bad. To me, that means that it IS bad, it just happens to be the way things are.

In other words, I think that Transition Towns should be judged on a fair playing field with the current set up, and doing this probably come out far ahead.

PS - Re the camel, I'm pretty sure it's the horse.

John Michael Greer said...

Farfetched, exactly. One of these days I'm going to do a post on the application of game theory to peak oil -- one of the central rules of game theory is that the most consistently successful strategy is to identify the worst outcome and eliminate it, then do the same to the next worst, and so on. More on this later.

Tristan, it was obviously a very busy committee!

Consumer, it's always easy to compare the imagined future of a Utopian social movement with the grubby realities of the world as it exists, and have the movement come out ahead. The future predicted by Marx sounded really great; compare that with life in the Soviet Union, and that's another story. While I doubt the Transition Town movement will end up as dystopian as Marxism did, it's unrealistic to think that the reality will be as attractive as the fantasy.

RAS said...

I've had some uneasy criticisms of the TT movement but haven't been able to put them into words. You did that very well, JMG and thanks. I am very glad the movement exists, however, despite its flaws.

I've always heard it was the horse. But, I guess it depends on where you live. If you're a desert dweller, the reverse may very well be true!

yooper said...

Danby, I hate to differ with you, but the Amish have always been within the main body of the popluation.

Perhaps, you missed the point I'm trying to make? I stand by the principle of the statement I made...

I will give you, that the Amish appear to be an adaptable type of people. There is one (certainly not all) Amish community that I know of, that appears very well suited, if a sudden collapse should take course. However, if catabolic collapse should be the course, I would not know, as the conditons of an evolving environment will change with time..) This is the cyclic mindset, rather than the linear one of known concepts at this present time.. Of course, none of us really knows for sure what the challenges may be, in the new environment that is ever oncoming......

I do believe that is what John is trying to get across here....

Thanks, yooper

mczilla said...

At least one thing seems reasonably certain - it was a horse.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Design_by_committee

http://www.saidwhat.co.uk/quotes/favourite/sir_alec_issigonis/a_camel_is_a_horse_designed_by_a_committee_4200

http://quotationsbook.com/quote/2607

David said...

Thanks for another sterling post, JMG. This one (like so many) resonates with some of the places my head is at these days. We just got through municipal & regional elections here in BC, and everyone around me is all deflated from the let-down of seeing the same old schlubs back in power -- or replaced by Schlub 2.0 (the best-case scenario of electoral politics).

It makes me think that having too much faith in our ability to predict the future is somehow allied to our inability -- really a perceived but illusory inability -- to change the present. We have all internalized a story whereby we are powerless before huge implacable forces (parents, school, church, workplace, gummint, etc.), so we project our frustrated urge to control and change our intolerable circumstances onto a future vision of how we want things to be.

Having said that (and noticing that it doesn't seem as profound as it did a minute ago), I do think that the Transition 'movement' has some good feedback mechanisms built in. I especially like Heinberg/Vail's notion of resilient communities, which comes from an approach of provisionality and bricolage, as opposed to one in which we work backwards from an ideal future state to find the supposedly deterministic pathways leading from now to then. Resilience is a goal that can be found within the present circumstances and nurtured to become more widespread and predominant. It's not completely different from a measured and humble TT kind of approach, but the stance is one more directed towards grasping firmly onto the conditions where we are now; so it might help people avoid the frustration that comes from always being stuck in the imperfect now and seemingly never really moving much closer to the perfect then.

(Curses on English for using the same word for temporal distance forward and backward.)

Lance said...

I remember all those books I looked through that showed we would all drive George Jetson cars by the 1980s, and travel intergalactic distances by the 2000s. I have been watching old tv shows on Hulu this week, and "Land of the Giants" is set in the 1980s and "Lost in Space" takes place in 1997. Of course there's also the famed "2001." None of that has happened. Instead we have iPods and DVDs and the Internet. I guess cell phones are sort of like the communicators in Star Trek.

I automatically distrust and dislike when I feel someone is trying to sell me something. Sort of like when you just want to wander among the cars on an auto sales lot, see what's there, what features and prices, enjoy looking at the new models just for aesthetics or fantasy --and then some hyper sales guy comes up and starts his rap. All that does is make me walk off the lot.

I think the theme of this blog is simply put:

a. Human history and natural history both show you can't really direct the future to achieve some defined, planned result

b. One can and should take personal responsibility to learn diverse practical skills (some everyone should know, and some should be building blocks for a more interdependent community)

c. The best way that either cultural and natural systems have a chance of surviving unforeseen challenges (gradual or catastrophic) is diversity...we cannot say which choice/species will ultimately be favored by evolutionary forces (how did we mammals succeed the dinosaurs and how did the VCR beat out Beta), but our best bet is as wide a range of choices/species/adaptation/genetic pattern as possible--- the old saw "Don't put all your eggs in one basket" is apropos across the board

Ok, so that one can agree that the future cannot really be planned, that personal responsibility and action is ONE key, that diversity is our best shot at SOMEONE surviving, and that we are all in this same sinking ship...now what?

I do know that when in a survival situation with a bunch of people (plane crash, shipwreck, etc), even if it is "hopeless," the first thing to do is prevent panic and resulting violence. One of the most important things to do is organize and give everyone a useful task: gather firewood, salvage materials, find food, first aid, check communications, exploring the area for resources, etc. Even the disabled, old, or very young need tasks they can understand are useful, to themselves and the group, if it is taking care of the injured or counting aspirin tablets or cigarettes. This sense of shared purpose, and empowering the individual, is vital.

Now having said I personally despise the hard sell, branding, product-oriented, "Powerpoint" BS that is de rigeur in contemporary society, it is good to put everything we can on the table, from the most "ridiculous" (in current thought) to the most "realistic" (in current thought). At this point, nothing should be excluded, Transition Towns, whatever. It doesn't really even matter if TT are total BS or not. It is however about developing a social psychology to prevent panic and hopelessness to control the raging wildfires to come.

PS. I still think urban homesteading in condemned, decayed urban cores should be one thing on the table :-)

Zach said...

Yooper,

I can add to Danby's example of the Amish (one of the fastest-growing demographics in the US, btw):

-- The Hutterian Bretheren (Hutterites), another Anabaptist group similar to the Amish but with distinct theology and community rules.

And two big examples, so obvious they're easy to overlook:

-- Mormons (not so much today, but look at the first century of the LDS)

-- Jews (where the word "ghetto" comes from)

So, I don't think you can draw a simple relationship of "isolation and withdrawal = extinction". Particularly in the Jewish case, there are many who'll argue that it's been the key to their ethnic and cultural survival in a changing world. (Obviously, this point is vigorously debated!)


peace,
Zach

Lynnet said...

Speaking of the "committee animal", if I was in a desert I'd rather have a camel than a tiger or a horse. (I'd always rather have a camel than a tiger, as a personal animal.) The camel has a number of truly exceptional adaptations to its environment. We could do worse than make the camel the mascot of the coming transition.

James said...

Interesting comments.Transition town is getting people together and stirring the thinking a bit. Like minded people are talking after the meetings and getting to know each other. Those with the skills are moving ahead and not waiting for formal organization. That can't be bad. The leaders aren't going to do it, and nobody, as far as I know, is celebrating. There is ttown stuff going on in Boulder County, Colorado and a lot of it involves money. The dissidents and the anarchists are concentrating on the stuff that costs nothing or very little and are growing strawberries and winter squash in their backyards. I don't know what will happen beyond that, but there is dissension in the ttown movement, which is probably healthy. Those of us who have the background to concentrate on what can be done locally are doing that. Others are talking about vague projects like local currency and the leaders of the local movement are not following the 12 steps. What's going on in other parts of the world?

Farm boy in the city.

lagedargent said...

Dear Mr. Greer,

After reading your last blog - a very balanced critique of the Transition Town movement - I happened on an article at News.BBC and wondered if - no kidding - Belarus might be the country to set a benchmark for our future.
(See article.)
It's still very back-yardish to modern standards, but, as the article states, it has survived the desintegration of the FSU remarkably well, and might even, by its relative isolation, be able to manage the worldwide credit crunch. It has a totalitarian regime - President Lukashenko sees himself as 'the father' of his people - and its economy is still 75% old-style USSR planned economy, but exactly by that fact, its population is mostly self-supporting - they'd better.

>> A High Technology Park has opened in the capital Minsk - a sort of Belarus Silicon Valley, offering IT companies based there a tax haven until 2020.

"Belarus should emphasise strongly its unique selling points," says Natalia Leshchenko, a senior expert with Sovetnik, a London-based consultancy.

"It is a key transport hub, a source of cheap and skilled labour, of huge fresh water reserves and it prides itself on its organic way of life." <<

What do you think? Could this combination of part 'Silicon Valley' potential and a simple, overall agrarian life style be a key to future survival, while more 'developed' Western nations crumble?

Best regards,
Ronald Langereis
Amsterdam - the Netherlands

John Michael Greer said...

A few more comments:

RAS, agreed. I wish the best for the Transition Town movement -- that's the motivation behind any sympathetic critique.

David, are you familiar with Warren Johnson's Muddling Toward Frugality? His arguments in favor of muddling is central to the viewpoint I'm trying to present here.

Lance, I'll be responding to your question -- "what now?" -- next Wednesday. Stay tuned.

Ronald, one of the uncomfortable facts of political life is that a dictatorship can respond to crisis more efficiently than a democracy. When the Castro regime in Cuba had its oil supply cut off at the fall of the Soviet empire, Castro didn't have to negotiate a response with powerful senators and businessmen from Cuba's agriculture and energy industries; he simply gave orders, and anybody who disagreed could discuss the matter all they wanted with their fellow political prisoners.

Belarus is in the same situation. If Lukashenko happens to choose an effective response to the current crisis, he can make it happen. Does that justify the absence of basic freedoms that usually goes along with autocracy? Political scientists are still arguing over that one, but I admit I'd rather live in a dysfunctional republic than in an efficient dictatorship.

LeoBro said...

John, you raise some valuable points, and your criticism of the exhuberance of the presentation you saw is entirely justified.

I tend to agree with Rob Hopkin's response (linked in an earlier comment). The Transition Handbook and website do make it clear that nothing is certain about the process. I've read Rob's Handbook, and while it is inspiring, it's not accurate to call it "triumphant."

I've noticed a pattern whenever a set of ideas are given a label: people who have been involved with the ideas welcome the label as a convenient symbol to represent the body of ideas. The problem comes when those same people try to share the ideas with others. They tend to emphasize the label. Most people's natural reaction to the label is "cult-aversion" -- a sensible assumption that this must be too good to be true.

I've seen the same thing happen when sensible people first hear about Permaculture.

In this case it sounds like whoever gave the presentation did not define Transition well. But I would suggest that some in the audience were guilty of an reflexive cult aversion if they could not see past the label -- or at least be open to the possibility that there was more to it than the label suggested.

As for your argument that working forward from where we are is more effective than working backwards from where we want to be: again, I agree with Rob on this. We certainly need to work with what we have. But you can't build anything new without visioning it first. I'm a software developer, and when designing a new application, you don't start with what the programming language can do, you start with what you'd like the program to do.

What we have now is so broken that we do ourselves a great disservice to bind ourselves to it. It will require a dedicated leap of faith, great inspiration and imagination to make the quantum jump to a better world. But it is that leap of faith that has been behind every good idea.

And yup, there's no guarantee of success.

Thanks for this excellent discussion.

John Michael Greer said...

Leo, if we knew the programming language for human society, we could set out to design the society we want and then get there. The problem, of course, is that we don't -- and past attempts to make a better world in a single quantum leap have a long history of making matters worse than they were, not better. It's a mistake to assume that just because the current structures of society have severe problems, any change is for the better!

Still, this is clearly a topic that needs more discussion, and I'll go into more detail in next week's post.

yooper said...

Danby, if you're still wondering to what I'm alluding to, let me be frank. What I was referring to was distance to a sustainable habitat...Not some sort of ethnic differences, nor certain groups living inside the bosum of civilization....... As sustainable habitats gets increasingly smaller the distance between these habitats becomes greater. Once these favorable habitats becomes unpregantable then the population becomes isolated... Of course, when distance is being contemplated another dimension is involved, that is "time"... This concept is scientific fact, however, very hard to comprehend.

When I wrote my thoughts about "isolationism", I was reminded of a lady who was contemplating on going to an island located on the Pacific coastal region, very much wanting to being apart of a TT there. This came about when both John and I were on another site (this spring) and this person asked what we thought...At the time, I would not elaborate to this women exactly what I thought of this situation, especially on this other man's site, (I did check out her site and situation) and that I would, once John brought about his views on this topic here (which at the time, I thought was right around the corner). So, this is my response to her, if she is indeed "listening".

Again, I'm very much in agreement here with John's thoughts about TT's might be and only offering a biological perspective of those TT's favoring "isolationism". That is all.....

I provide examples of this concept over at my site.....

Thanks yooper

yooper said...

Btw John, thanks for explaining this concept in no uncertain terms in your new book, "The Long Descent." The Chinese example, is perfect....

Russ said...

past attempts to make a better world in a single quantum leap have a long history of making matters worse than they were, not better. It's a mistake to assume that just because the current structures of society have severe problems, any change is for the better!

"Worse than they were" - but for whom?

"severe problems...better" - for whom?

It may not be completely on topic to bring this up, but the fact is that whenever we consider whether any proposal might make things better or worse, we do need to ask, which interests are we talking about?

You refer to "society", but the fact is Thatcher was right (though not in the sense she claimed to mean) when she said, "There is no such thing as society".

What that really means is, "society", at least modern mass societies with extreme division of labor, is a free-fire zone of zero-sum conflict among mutually exclusive interests.

In the same way, there's no such thing as "the economy" (e.g. the way globalist cheerleaders always say "free trade is good for the economy" - no, it's good for some interests, and for pumping up the fraudulent GDP, but not for others), and no such thing as "America" itself.

I bring this up because I think it's a serious problem the way even the best people tend to lapse into the cant of abstracted comprehensive terms which are meant to elide the realities of interest struggle, when it's this struggle which is a major part of the problems we face, and something which needs to be taken into account as we try to figure out what to do.

Naresh said...

Hi John;
Thank you for your thoughtful and insightful criticism. I must begin by saying that i have been a fan of your blog for several years and have appreciated your insights and thoughtful and positive analysis of the many trends and convolutions of the unwinding of the industrial age. I co founded Transition Town Totnes with Rob Hopkins and am the one referred to in the energy bulletin piece of yesterday, Naresh Giangrande, who is currently doing a speaking and training tour of the USA, Canada, NZ, Australia, and Japan.
We desperately need thoughtful and constructive criticism of the Transition Town movement (TTM) especially from those like yourself who understand the implications of peak oil (how many more times – for my sins will i have to explain to someone what it is and why they should be concerned about it!!) and is aware of the complexities of the situation that we face and the multiple uncertainties and indeed lack of any certainty. AS our compatriot Yogi Berra once said “Predictions are difficult especially about the future.”
This brings me to the first point -visioning a future. We can and must vision the future we want. If we don’t start by attempting to create a vision of the future beyond either the rigid and disempowering ‘You can’t stop progress’ or the fear based, ‘It will all end in tears’ one of the other of those will probably be where we will end up. We suffer from a collective lack of vision. So when someone like Barack Obama comes along who talks vision -wow, something happens. We experience the same wow factor in Transition. Will it work and turn out as we wish, well who knows? To say it hasn’t happened in the past as envisioned is not an argument for it not happening now nor is it say it will. Do you have any other suggestions?
In our Training for Transition we invite participants to go on an experiential journey to a Transitioned future. The results never fail to surprise some. Something gets engaged in this imaginary journey that is beyond our minds. Many connect to a facility in themselves they didn’t know was there, a creative potential that is empowering and exciting.
AS Rob mentioned on his blog what we are developing in Totnes is less of a Energy Descent Plan than Energy Descent Pathways. We are working with scenario planning tools to develop potential pathways to a sustainable future rather than more concrete plans. This we feel is a constructive way to engage people in discussions about the future without either having to argue about timescales or indeed the need to use less energy, but rather imagining and planning how different scenarios might play out. It’s fun, playful, and thought provoking. No one can reliably predict what an energy scarce carbon constrained future will look like, but by having a go we can start and begin moving the frames of future thinking and planning.
We welcome constructive criticism and engagement with the TTM . This is the essence of the TTM, our call to action is ‘Please join us!’ . We have worked out the A-C of Transition (we think), but the D-Z will be a collective, collaborative effort. The most useful criticism comes from those who are actively creating the future they want in whatever way that is taking place in their lives. We are indeed mindful of creating a monoculture of futures work and sustainability. We need a diversity of approaches.
The TTM is clearly riding on a wave and we have speculated about how long this wave may last before we figuratively hand over the baton to others; and there are many others who are doing equally valuable work, The Natural Step comes to mind, and there are many inspiring projects and organisations. That gives me hope, along with the many who have responded to the Transition call to action and are creating a sustainable human presence on this planet.

John Michael Greer said...

Russ, of course any term such as "better" or "worse" is a value judgment. The Khmer Rouge doubtless considered the mass murder of a couple of million Cambodians as an improvement. So? I suspect you and I, and the great majority of readers of this blog, share a common sense of what "better" and "worse" would mean in our own lives.

Naresh, as I mentioned in response to Leo, I'm clearly going to have to expand on my critique of the Transition Town movement's reliance on imagining a desired future and then trying to build it. There are certainly alternatives between that, on the one hand, and the sort of disempowering utterances you've listed, on the other. I've done my best here and elsewhere to discuss what I think needs to be done instead, and my forthcoming book The Ecotechnic Future will go into more detail on that subject.

As far as your suggestion to "Please join us," thank you, but in the ecology of ideas, as in any other kind, the health of a system is a function of its diversity. One of the comments I made in my post sums up my response: "a monoculture of paradigms is as deadening as any other kind."

in_the_light said...

Great discussion!

I feel that what JMG is getting at could be said in this way as well:

There is nowhere to hide from what is happening.

While, god bless them, these people creating the TTs may not be intentionally hiding out, one has to ask if TTs aren't a form of escapism.

I am an idealist by nature. And TTs seem to be an idealist's playground. So don't get me wrong, this idea of coming together with a group people and intentionally creating a community to power down with makes me more than salivate. My first reaction is to run all over it like my son on a jungle gym. It's the stuff that I go crazy over. At the same time, I have learned a few things in my short life. One of those things is that I use my idealist tendencies to escape the world that I see as less than ideal.

Now let me be clear here. I am not accusing any TT members of being escapists. I think that is a judgement that only each individual can make about him/her self. What I am saying is that one has to stop and ask the question "Is the energy behind this creation the energy of escapism?"

With love and respect
Mat

James said...

Hey All,

The tt people are not all cast from the same mold. Some, no doubt, are escapists, other are not waiting for the group, but are doing. Planting garden, and building rooms that collect solar heat are not escapist activities. There are other types that I have not thought of and have not mentioned here. But they (we) are a diverse group. The choice is to do something or do nothing.

FARfetched said...

Interesting thoughts here, as usual.

Personally, I think TT — as well as the things we do as individuals — are simply a matter of being proactive. Isn't it easier, after all, to have emergency items at hand before the emergency strikes? One could think of TT as much the same thing, only extended to communities… a community that's prepared to deal with energy scarcity in advance is going to cope better, that's all.

Looking forward to tomorrow's column.

bosuncookie said...

You wrote: "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."

This passage--and others from your writing where you posit that the descent will indeed be long and presently unknowable--must have been on my mind when I read an essay called "The Indian's New World: The Catawba Experience." The essay explores how the Catawba Indians of piedmont North and South Carolina adapted and evolved in the face of arriving European forces, especially microbes, traders (the purveyors of "new" technology) and settlers.

This passage at the end of the essay reminded me of your writings: "Like the Puritans in New England, Catawbas found that a new world did not arrive all at once and that localism, self-sufficiency, and the power of the old ways were only gradually eroded by conditions in colonial America."

Maybe the 200 year plus adaptation of the Catawbas could be seen as the long ascent! (Well, ascent! only if you were a fan of "democratic" capitalism prior to the financial unraveling.)

Note: the essay is from a book entitled "American Encounters," by Mancall and Merrell.

OneCrazyMama said...

I thoroughly enjoy your posts, although, from my own religious POV I cannot always fully agree on all points raised.

You mention evolution, and it brings to mind an interesting concept I've read in Christian apologetics that suggests evolution--or creation itself is free to be what it is. Human life, then, is the portion of creation fully capable of interacting with the creator--the only portion able to fully connect and interact with the divine.

From my vantage point, as a Christian, the relationship itself is the only point. History itself does not matter. It does not progress or regress--it simply is. It is a backdrop, another fad, a hairstyle, a meme or two, etc.

Why does a creator create? Love of creation. Why is all of creation free? Because it is loved and the creator desires a relationship with what the creator loves. Where are we headed? Wherever. There is no destination anymore than husband and wives ride off into the sunset after they marry or children cease to be family once they go off to attend college.

I may or may not be in the majority, but I just wanted to put my two cents in as a modern-day Christian.

Of course, I'm far from being a scholar of any sort, and I only vaguely aspire to even make it into the ranks of the many Armchair Philosophers of my class--so, I guess I can't say much. But, I felt compelled to say it.


As always, it has been a pleasure to read your very well researched and articulated thoughts, Mr. Greer. Thank you for sharing them!