Alex Steffen’s “Transition Towns or Bright Green Cities?” of October 26 presents a kind of spectrum for environmental groups, ranging from “dark green” to “light green”, that may be more about visual impairment than color-coding. That is to say that it attempts to analyze and classify the Transition movement without actually seeing what it is at all.First, when Steffen attempts to define what Transition Towns are, his emphasis is primarily on action. While it is true that action is substantial part of the movement, anyone who wishes to understand Transition must also grasp its three essential pillars: Head, Heart, and Hands. Head refers to educating ourselves regarding the realities of Peak Oil, climate change, species extinction, and myriad other challenges of the twenty-first century. Heart refers to the “Heart and Soul” aspect of Transition which relates to finding meaning and purpose amid the swirl of emotions we are certain to experience as we deepen our understanding of the challenges and their implications. Last, for a very good reason, is the Hands pillar which refers to learning new skills that will be necessary in order to survive in a post-industrial world and taking action in our communities to implement the Transition model. Without the pillars of Head and Heart, action will not be sufficiently informed and may be ineffective.
Additionally, Steffen gets his numbers wrong when he speaks of “people in perhaps as many as 250 towns now actively taking part.” In fact, there are Transition initiatives in over 1500 communities globally, and about half of those are in the U.S.
As Steffen moves into addressing “the limits of Transition” he states:
“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.”
What, I ask, is “powerless” about these actions? Steffen answers from his perspective in the next paragraph when he asserts that:
“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 [my emphasis] that shape life all around us (say, starting an actual credit union or rewriting banking regulations).”
On this point Steffen gets it dead right—Transition does focus on building alternative systems rather than reforming larger systems. You see, this is why the “Head” pillar of Transition is so critically important. If one does not do the research which is ubiquitous, but exquisitely compiled in Rob Hopkins’ Transition Handbook, then one will miss the factual information that if assimilated, will preclude any hope that “larger systems” bought and paid for by corporations and their legislative minions can alter the present suicidal trajectory of the human race.
That Steffen has not done his research is telling from this point forward in the article, attested by statements like:
“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.”
In fact, Transition does not encourage people to “just go ahead and do something, anything.” That is precisely why the Transition Handbook was written—to educate readers in what the issues actually are so that they can address them strategically and skillfully on the local level.
Then comes the really telling portion of the article where Steffen evaluates Transition as “dark thinking.” Before examining his specific misinterpretations of statements from people involved in Transition, let’s notice the disparaging word “dark.” Then let’s step back and ask the question: When people on the Titanic in the wee hours of April 14, 1912 were hysterically trying to find a way to save themselves, would it have been appropriate to call their thoughts, feelings, or actions “dark”? Obviously not because they knew they were perishing. Only individuals who do not understand that the planet and the entire earth community is perishing can talk about “dark thinking” in relation to movements like Transition. Only those who have done no or only cursory research on oil depletion, climate change, species extinction, and overpopulation—or have chosen to immerse themselves in rosier assessments of these issues—would refer to the Transition model as “dark.”
But even more amazing is Steffen’s misinterpretation of statements by individuals involved in Transition:
“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.’”
No one that I know in the Transition movement “talks cheerfully” about any of these topics. Quite the contrary. If the individuals who founded the movement and contributed to the handbook were joyously celebrating the collapse of civilization and all of the misery that it will entail, they would first of all be psychotic, and secondly, they would not have needed to create a Heart and Soul pillar in Transition to assist people in finding meaning in the midst of horror.
Only individuals who have not fully educated themselves about the state of the planet could deny that its systems are now in a profound process of collapse—a process which is exacerbating daily. The Transition movement is not arguing that collapse is a “tool for social change”, but simply that it is happening, it probably now has a life of its own, and that there’s virtually nothing that large-scale systems can do about it except to intensify the process.
Some fundamental scholarly research that I recommend to Alex Steffen would be: The Collapse of Complex Societies, by Joseph Tainter; Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Richard Heinberg’s The Party’s Over and Peak Everything; The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler; Dmitry Orlov’s Re-Inventing Collapse; and Endgame, Vol. I and II by Derrick Jensen.
And yes, Steffen is correct when he notes:
“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.”
Yes, yes, yes! Although, it is debatable whether Transitioners generally are “idealistic” about the collapse of large-scale systems. What is probably more accurate is that most people who are involved in Transition hold a vision of what is possible and are working to that end; at the same time, however, most understand the momentous, formidable consequences of humanity’s continuation of its current suicidal tendencies, as well as the catastrophic repercussions of collapse.
I must adamantly disagree with Steffen’s insistence that we need “bright green” anything on a large scale. For him, it appears that “large” is the only scale that matters because he seems not to have grasped that “large” is synonymous with empire, “large” is part of the problem, and “large” is unraveling at lightning speed. He wishes us to stop seeing these systems as “out of our control” when that is precisely what is so. The ship is taking on water faster than anyone can cope with, and it is, quite simply, sinking. As for myself, I don’t want or need a “politics of optimism” or the re-arranging of deck chairs. I want nothing less than a lifeboat, and Transition gives me the best one I’m aware of at the moment.
As for the charge that the Transition movement is cynical, my experience has been quite the opposite. If one defines cynical as: “distrusting or disparaging the motives of others; showing contempt for accepted standards of morality by one’s actions; bitterly or sneeringly distrustful, contemptuous, or pessimistic”, Transition eludes this definition. Researching the current state of the planet in terms of energy, environment, an economics renders any thinking human being wary and cautious regarding larger systems—their integrity, their motives, and their long-term future. However, caution is not synonymous with cynicism.
Steffen refers to the etymology of the word “cynic” as related to “dog” in the sense that to be cynical is to be obedient. More specifically, however, the connection between “cynic” and “dog” actually originated in Ancient Greece when philosophers compared the cynic with the dog who continually gnawed on a the same bone, over and over. In that connotation, the behavior of the cynic is similar to the definition of insanity which is essentially doing the same thing over and over again getting the same results, but each time expecting a different outcome. In my experience this is much more descriptive of the behavior of the larger systems that Steffen purports are necessary for change, and light years removed from anything I’ve witnessed in the mission or behavior of the Transition movement.
Clearly, Steffen has an aversion to all things dark, but had he read the Transition Handbook, he would have encountered a remarkable optimism and positive vision, yet an optimism tempered by the realities of the research to which the handbook directs the reader and which seems to have eluded him.
I could not do justice to Transition if I did not interject the one aspect of it that has not yet been discussed in my response to Steffen, namely, the Heart and Soul pillar. While he observes Transition as falsely optimistic, his “bright green cities” vision is a chimera—an engineered extension of empire, highly unlikely in the face of all the realities he has chosen to overlook: energy depletion, climate change, and global economic meltdown. Since the beginning of human history, the wisdom of ancient traditions has reiterated that life is not always as it seems. That which appears dazzling is not always desirable, and that which appears dark is not always wisely averted. Sometimes that which we fear most is our redemption. The greatest minds of human history: Socrates, Plato, Shakespeare, Jung, Einstein—to name a few, were not repelled by dark realities, but rather embraced them, however reluctantly, as conduits to deeper truth and more exquisite creativity.
Spin it as we will, the human race is precariously poised on the cliff’s edge, hanging by its fingernails. Our challenge is not to try to prevent the collapse of the larger systems, but to respond with resilience and self-sufficiency and to ask the kinds of questions that wisdom traditions and the greatest minds in human history have always asked: Why is this happening? What meaning can I and my community find in this unfolding of events? What do I and my loved ones and my community need to do to prepare? And perhaps most importantly, what is my purpose in being here at this time? What have I come here to do? What can I contribute?
These are questions I address in my book Sacred Demise: Walking The Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse. A “dark” book? Only if one insists that the dire condition of the planet and its inhabitants precludes opportunity to do what Steffen asks of us when he says, “It’s time to make ourselves into the people who can do what’s needed.”
How we perceive the condition of our world determines whether we experience ourselves as passengers on the Titanic or on a luxury cruise ship that is having intermittent propeller problems. It’s much more about the color of life than the color of movements.