Transition Towns or Bright Green Cities? The Color of Movements or the Color of Life?

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.TransitionTownFirst, 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.

Absolutely essential documentary viewing would be “What A Way To Go: Life At The End of Empire”; “Blind Spot”, and “The Great Squeeze”.

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.

11 Responses to Transition Towns or Bright Green Cities? The Color of Movements or the Color of Life?

  • jason says:

    Very nice rebuttal, better than that of Hopkins actually.

    I detect in Steffen a man who has not yet been able to grasp reality.

    All that marred your essay here for me was the absence of Greer from the recommended reading! But will he read it anyway?

  • Thanks Jason. Well, I had a ton of books that I wanted to suggest, but I couldn’t list them all, and as you say, would he read them anyway?

  • jason says:

    Heh, well then experience will be his tutor.

    I don’t blame anyone for being upset when trying to deal with our situation of course. But that is what it is: it is simply being upset. ‘All you transitioners are heartless’ is a wail from the soul about the loss of a dream. Still, lashing out at others who are dealing with it is no way to lead! Nice to see your level-headed response — and many other good ones too.

  • mtobis says:

    “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”

    I couldn’t be more totally in disagreement with this. It most certainly IS our main challenge to prevent the collapse of the larger systems.

    Anything else is mystification and begging for disaster. I get the sense that you are practically begging for the death and suffering of billions of people on an unprecedented scale just so you can have a chance to try out your beet and turnip pie recipe.

    We don’t have a choice but to precent the collapse. Every single thing we do has to be directed toward the soft landing, not the post-apocalyptic scenario. We have to steer, not to bail out, because there is no lifeboat. If worse comes to worst a few survivors will probably swim to some distant shore, but the Transition movement will not get to pick them.

    “What do I and my loved ones and my community need to do to prepare? ”

    You are a free person; what happens is therefore in part up to you.

    What you need to do is lend a hand to avoid the catastrophe, not to “prepare” for it. There is no preparation for the worst case, and if we do avoid the worst case it won;t be because people have been upping their skills for a preindustrial world that can never be returned to us. “Preparing” rather than “repairing” is hugely irresponsible.

    Please get real. It’s like you’re in a car falling asleep at the wheel and your only thought is to make sure your airbag is charged. What you need to do is to pull over. You need to acknowledge that the tragedies we might face will be your own fault as much as anyone else’s if you don’t bend your will toward avoiding them. I am sorry but I read your position as deeply and terrifyingly selfish and immoral. I’m sure you don’t think that of yourself, but our responses to the current predicament couldn’t be more different.

    Count me with Alex.

  • Please watch the documentary “What A Way To Go: Life At The End of Empire” twice–as documentary film maker Michael Moore did, and who proclaimed it the best documentary he had ever seen–then get back to me about how we should “prevent” collapse.

  • mtobis says:

    I said what I have to say about that movie a couple years back, and I stand by it.

    How should we “prevent” collapse? If there were a one-line answer I would tell you.

    Not by running away from the problem, that is for sure. Developing skills for a post-apocalyptic world is a harmless pursuit, but since none of us can imagine what that world will look like and very few of us will survive to see it, it’s not better than harmless. Avoiding the crunch and minimizing the crunch are what we need to do. My own focus is outreach.

    You’ve certainly confirmed Alex’s view that American Transition folks tend to the apocalyptic. I think there may be a carryover from the more bombastic evangelistic religions where the collapse is a sort of vindication of the righteous.

    But even if there is a crash, it is far from clear how bad a crash, how sudden, how debilitating. So just cheering the crash on is immoral.

    The practice is very difficult but the principle is very simple. Do everything you can to reduce or avoid the damage. I can’t imagine understanding the problems and not doing anything to ameliorate any of them.

    Adapt to the damage once you survive it and know what it looks like. I can’t fathom people putting this cart before this horse. It’s just as crazy and lazy to resign yourself to catastrophe as to shrug and expect that “they” will figure it out. There is no “they”. There is just “us”, and every one of us is responsible for the outcome.

    What I spend my efforts on is trying to communicate climate science and whole systems thinking. What you should do is not clear to me. Developing alternative forms of energy, transportation, food, distribution of goods, or entertainment might be good examples. But I promise you that putting the word “prevent” in scare quotes isn’t it.

  • I don’t know who you think is “cheering” the crash. I’m not! Nor am I attempting to stop what has a life of its own. There’s a vast difference between recognizing what is inevitable and cheering as it unfolds. John Michael Greer has given us a great analogy: Collapse will be much more like rolling down a bumpy hill than falling off a cliff. I have written my book “Sacred Demise: Walking The Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse” in order to help readers prepare emotionally and spiritually. I heartily recommend that you read it so that you understand where I’m coming from and where I’m NOT coming from and how seriously I am taking the unraveling of the world as we have known it. Yes, we must do everything possible to minimize the damage, but when the evidence overwhelmingly indicates that a tsunami is on the way, it is irrational to talk about preventing a tsunami. What IS rational is external and internal preparation.

  • jason says:

    Mtobis, you’re mixed up.

    One cannot both plan to prevent collapse and also mitigate its effects. To mitigate the effects of something accepts its reality; that’s what Carolyn means by not trying to prevent the collapse — or the decline, or whatever other vocabularies are apt.

    Again and again I come across this muddied thinking. Why are you assuming that ‘collapse’ means ‘worst case’? Have you defined both of these terms with the care such a decision deserves or are you simply emotionally reacting to them?

    As Carolyn mentions we are going to be rolling down a bumpy hill. That’s what’s happening. To yell “We should be at the top of this hill!” as we pound down it helps nothing. But to accept we are rolling down and build some wheels that make the journey less bumpy, and maybe a parachute to slow the rate of descent — that helps a lot.

    There’s nothing ‘apocalyptic’ about this idea. It is common sense. The apocalypse (and the old testament fear of god) is *inside the heads* of those who cannot see that things do sometimes come to an end, and that this end doesn’t mean the universe itself stops. This is what unacknowledged fear of death does to the soul. That idea of ‘the end of this civilization’ suddenly equating to judgment day is pure mythology.

    Nobody is suggesting we are returning to a preindustrial world — haven’t you noticed that Greer’s next book is called ‘The Eco-Technic Future’. Does that sound like 1580 to you? You want to “adapt to the damage once you survive it” — so therefore there will be damage, and why should pretend there won’t be? Will this help us to survive? Hardly!

    What we want is something that will *work* — civilization as we have it now is not going to, and greater simplicity *will* be required. You say you know systems theory — have you been paying attention to Greer’s ideas about systems, and did you notice his recent mention of Ilya Prigogine? Greater energy running through a system causes greater complexity in that system. What do you think less energy running through it will cause?

    ‘Developing skills for a post-apocalyptic world’ is not what Transition is doing, it’s pure Mad Max thinking! Not only in a gradual cultural descent in the west, but actually everywhere and at all times, the ability to feed and clothe oneself isn’t some exotic post-holocaust technique, it’s just mundane reality. A hundred years ago, by far the majority of people had a hand in feeding and clothing themselves. There’s nothing remotely ‘post-apocalyptic’ about these abilities — except in a mind that is still expecting the ever-greater tech progress of these last decades to continue without the fuels that powered it. That world is vanishing.

    Do you feel that ‘communicating climate science and whole systems thinking’ is frowned upon in Transition? Why, for goodness sake? Who is going to object? No-one I know. But if you know about ecology and our current economic complex systems, you will know they are in for a shakedown. The idea that knowing enough about that shakedown will prevent it is what Kubler-Ross used to call ‘denial’. Carolyn’s book is intended to get you a little further, on to the stage of ‘acceptance’ — which does not mean powerless doom to any but the irrational.

  • Thank you Jason. By the way, “apocalypse” does mean the “end” of anything. It comes from a Greek word that means “the unveiling”. Let’s see, that would be Enron, Wall St. bailouts, the intentional creation of the housing bubble, Bernie Madoff, massive, canerous corruption in Congress, all the unanswered questions about 9/11, Peak Oil, Peak Everything, the insolvency of the U.S. government–let me count the ways. The unveiling is an enormous gift because it allows us to sift through the lies and create a totally new paradigm. What is important about the collapse of civilization is not the actual collapse, but the end of a paradigm that has done nothing but rape, pillage, and plunder the human race and the entire earth community. It is now OUR job to write and live the new story.

  • jason says:

    Oh well my personal take is that our civilization has been pretty wonderful and pretty awful, pretty smart and pretty stupid, and in this, resembles other civilizations pretty well. The stupidities we see here in these stages — and doubtless the ones to come — is just what happens when civilizations die. I’m quite happy to ‘uproot the tree with reverence’ as Tolkien has it, because it had lies and truths mixed; I honour it for what it was and for the things in it that are still useful or interesting.

    The enormous energies that go into making a civilization and hurling it through time, interacting with its resource base in so many complex ways, aren’t yet understood. We can hope to learn from our mistakes if we preserve some precious conclusions carefully I think, but the creation of paradigms in humanity is not a wave of events that’s altogether the result of conscious engineering. I hold an intention for a new way, and watch our chance to influence the process. But I think civilizations grow, I don’t think we design them.

    Yes, the ‘unveiling! Very helpful concept. Religiously speaking, it removes the veil that separates the wished-for and the non-physical from material reality, and says it has gone for good. That’s the gambit of every cornucopian: we can have our ideas in their perfection here on earth. All they are doing is ignoring the way this earth works, and going against the very ecology that describes it — stages and energies that go into the way nature writes ‘stories’ aren’t based on endless growth, nor simplistic triumphant conclusions… things weave in a very complex and beautiful manner.

    That veil is in place for a reason. :)

    What’s a pleasure is seeing you call for reality as the basic principle, rather than wishful thinking. The economy is wishful thinking right now. Wishful thinking and greed, as you suggest, are often not that different for our species…

  • As I point out clearly in Sacred Demise, there have been some stunning accomplishments in Western civilization–art, music, poetry, and myriad forms of creativity and innovation–all coming at a very expensive price because of the paradigm on which civilization is based. What is needed is a new paradigm in which these accomplishments do not come at the expense of our humanity or our ecosystem.

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