Friday, February 05, 2010

On Transition Towns *and* Bright Green Cities

This essay was prompted by a critique of Transition Towns by Alex Steffen. While praising of its ability to free people from their isolation, he was less enthusiastic about the empahsis it placed on reducing global He was particularly critical of the romantic 'dark green' nihilistic mindset he perceived as being attracted to the movement (I referred to it as 'masked apocaphilia'). Transitions Towns is currently a phenomenally successful and empowering movement so, as you can imagine, Alex copped an earful in response. Although the bulk of the commentary was quite interesting, it was pity that it was concerned with defending the Transition Town movement's attitudes, and almost completely ignored the more thought provoking part of the essay (what might transcend transition?)

I resolved to see what I could come up with. The problem was, I had never investigated what Transition Towns before, and didn't know how fair Alex's assessment had been (for the nutshell, I think his way of expressing his concerns was unnecessarily confrontational, and was not fair to the stated aims of the TT movement. Nevertheless, he was right to point out that obsessing with collapse precludes thinking about more optimistic possibilities. Attracting this sort of mindset could be a possible failure mode for the movement as its popularity increases)

So, I went off and read Rob Hopkins Transition Handbook.

I will summarise the main points below, but recommend you check out the official site in case I 'get it wrong'

The Transition Town movement is concerned with 'closing the loops' of production in society. It is motivated to do so by two impending crises:
1. peak oil: the prospect that 'texas tea' is going to be harder to come by as time goes on. (there are a number of other peaks as well: water, food, uranium..., but we'll keep it simple)

2. climate change: despite inconvenient truths about stubbornly persistent Himalayan glaciers, things are going to get rather hairy in the not too distant future.

Together, TT foresees these effects as combining to bring about a collapse in civilisation. It seeks to ward off this unfortunate outcome by analysing what makes society so vulnerable to these problems, and doing something about it.

One of the main risks that TT identifies is the increased dependence on globalisation of trade: not only does this involve shipping goods across large distances (with associated costs) but it also reduces community resilience by removing the need to maintain 'traditional' everyday survival skills. This process has been going on for centuries: when did you last milk a cow, or sew your own clothes, grow your own food or, really, see your local community as being relevant to your life?

The aim of the TT movement is to reverse this trend. It seeks to do so by encouraging groups to get together to come up with an 'Energy Descent Action Plan' for their locality to wean it off a dependence on high energy consumption lifestyles to be able to make do with what's to hand. Drawing from techniques derived from permaculture and drug rehabilitation programs (oil usage as an addiction), it establishes a ten step plan for achieving this.

This is a very potted description of TT and, put like this, it is easy to see how Alex concluded that the movement was prone to obsess about putting up the shutters against the gathering storm. In fact, the way in which the TT is structured to approach its goal has a number of safeguards against introversion. It's ten-step program is meticulous about seeking to include all community members, and *not* relying on a few visionary types (which could otherwise result in a gated commune, of no use to anyone)

One of the most consistent criticisms levelled at Alex was that he didn't get TT and had made his comments based on a very superficial reading. There may be a certain truth here but, it overlooks Alex's own background in the sustainability movement, that his approach is a good deal more holisitic, and that his overall aims are a little more ambitious aims

What does a bright green city look like? Alex doesn't quite know yet (he's still writing the book!), but he has made a few tentative projections.

All of this is encompassed by Transition Town principles! So why the flurry?
1. TT places a greater emphasis on peak oil than climate change
2. despite protestations, there *is* an element in the TT movement which focusses on collapse as inevitable, and therefore irresistible


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