Transition Towns Interview

Earlier this year the journalist James Gray interviewed me to get my views on the Transition Town movement which I had been peripherally involved with during its inception in Kinsale six years ago.
James never got around to publishing so I’m posting it here as I wrote it back in March, with a couple of updates as indicated:

James Gray interviews me on Transition Towns
Mar 31st 2011

JG: Could you briefly explain who you are, what you do and how you became involved in the Transition movement?

My name is Graham Strouts, I teach Permaculture and Green Building at Kinsale College of Further Education, which was the birth place of Transition Towns.

The course I teach was founded 10 years ago by Rob Hopkins and I took over from him when he moved to Totnes and started the Transition Towns Network.

I like to think I played a small but crucial role in TT- it was myself who gave Rob his first copy of The End of Suburbia, the film that first turned me onto the concept of Peak Oil which was about 6 years ago. Rob immediately turned this into a class project, the Kinsale Energy Descent Action Plan, still available by download from his website. We were very excited about peak Oil at the time- I was then a very typical environmentalist, fairly anti-modernist, anti-technology and convinced the world was going to hell in a handcart. For myself and my colleagues, Peak Oil was a huge opportunity to say, hey, now we know the end of civilization is coming and we even have a date- Peak Oil was set to occur in the next few years, by round about now, according to oil geologist Colin Campbell and many other Peak Oil Doomers, so this was seen as a great opportunity to galvanise the complacent public to mend their evil ways of pursuing mindless consumerism and growth and start growing vegetables and cycling.

I guess I got caught up in the wave of Transition in its early stages also because I was jumping into Rob’s fairly large boots in the college and it was easy to generate interest in the new project. I began touring the country giving Peak Oil talks, explaining how growth was finished, new technologies were a fantasy, we would all be better off living close to nature and with simpler lifestyles.

Although I was involved with the very first meetings of Transition Towns in Kinsale, I actually live an hour-and-a-half away in West Cork so soon dropped out; so in fact I have had no direct involvement with Transition Towns at all since then. In fact, my only involvement seems to have become one of its most strident critics on my Zone5.org blog!

JG: Rob Hopkins’ Transition Culture website states that “it is inevitable that life as we know it will collapse catastrophically and very soon”. What do you make of that claim?

{Update: Rob is revising his “Why Transition” Page, perhaps partly as a result of this discussion in which he responds:

you then drag up, rather unfairly, a quote from what must have been the very early days of Transition Culture (“society will collapse catastrophically and very soon”) to suggest that that is still my stance. In the recent debates with Michael Brownlee (http://transitionculture.org/2010/12/06/a-critical-response-to-michael-brownlees-call-for-deep-transition/) you will see that I argue very strongly against that sense of some impending catastrophic collapse. .

}

Well this is a very good example of classical doomer-speak, and the mindset behind it is one that I am very familiar with because as I say it is one I used to share, and was one of the people around Rob before he left Ireland who promoted and explored these ideas together. However, it is actually at odds with other expressions of the Transition model which is supposed to put a positive spin on things and avoid the doom-speak of collapse. That is why it is called “Transition”- a gentler and less scary process that will happen over longer time scales.

There have been many voices in the past predicting collapse and die-off which have proved spectacularly wrong- Ehrlich’s predictions of mass famine in the 1970s for example, which failed to predict the Green Revolution (something reviled as a huge mistake by many Greens- despite the alternative being the deaths of millions.) So it is important to see this view in the context of the colorful history of doom-mongering.

Let’s break it down: first of all is it “inevitable”? In a general sense, it is a dangerous game to predict the future, so even if we take the conventional environmentalist’s view that everything is getting worse- what Bjorn Lomborg refers to as “The Litany” -then collapse is not necessarily inevitable, although we might feel it is very likely: we just cannot preclude new technological developments for example. (Candidates for new energy sources could be shale gas, Thorium reactors, breakthrough solar- yes they will not directly replace oil, especially liquid fuels for transport, but even though an energy transition will take decades, that is presumably where the vast bulk of human ingenuity and innovation will be directed, not into Transition.)

How about “catastrophically” ? That seems a very loaded and emotional phrase, and really would depend on who you are, what resources you have etc. as to whether such a collapse would be catastrophic. Also, even within the Peak Oil movement there are different takes on this- John Michael Greer for example in The Long Descent sees impending collapse as a long-term process that may take a century or more- more a series of recessions/depressions and lengthy periods of not much happening otherwise.

So the language used in this quote suggests collapse as an event, as if at a certain time it will all go “boom!” and we will say “that was the collapse”- I dont think it will be quite like that. For many people life has got tougher since Lehman Brothers went down, but there is much that would still pass as “normal” still around.

That said, it is hard to be optimistic and positive about the future right now in the midst of the greatest financial collapse in modern history, with the worst probably yet to come; war in North Africa and rising oil prices. But we are clever monkeys and have come through many set-backs in the past.

Underneath these kinds of ideas however I think there lurks a very obvious sub-text: that the modern world with all its inequality, environmental destruction, plastic bags, and reality TV is just really really bad and a bit of collapse would really be no bad thing. Doomers don’t just believe in collapse, they want it.
I know, because I used to think that way myself.

{Update: A recent concerning development is that Transition seems to be becoming more focused on protest, in contrast to Hopkin’s previous views. This new direction further supports my view of the “subtext”- if Peak Oil is imminent and expected to lead to collapse, why would we need to protest against energy production? See also this discussion. and Ben Pile’s post on other frakking protests.}

JG: What do you understand by the terms “great awakening” and “great unleashing”? They sound quite religious, almost millenarian – is that a fair assessment?

“The Great Unleashing” is a sort of inaugural event for a Transition Town to launch itself. I have never been to one. I understand the term as a somewhat humorous attempt by Rob to make the whole concept more appealing, exciting and give it a positive feel. It is part of the general TT vibe that change will be “more like a party than a protest march”- a terribly naive view that lies at the heart of the whole problem.

We cannot and we will not voluntarily reduce our living standards by reducing fossil fuel use and “going green” whatever that means. What has happened I think is that wealthy middle-class people in the west have so much taken-for-granted wealth that they believe poverty is actually preferable. Yes, there are problems associated with wealth, including confusion about identity and purpose and meaning, which is why there is so much interest in the nebulous concept of “building community”; but these pale into insignificance compared to the problems of poverty.

“The Great Awakening” refers to the supposedly progressive view that “everything in the modern world is rubbish” and there is a much better “alternative” way, ie Transition, that can revolutionize life and take us to the promised land. So yes this is quite religious, and messianic I think. It is very similar to New Age/Buddhist guru Joanna Macy’s term “The Great Turning”. When we live in a world where 2 billion people have not yet experienced basic benefits of development such as secure food supplies and running water and electricity, the idea that the “western mode of development” is deeply flawed and there is a better way is vacuous and narcissistic at best.

Many greens and others on the left are convinced- as I was- that the problems of poverty are largely because of capitalism, something which I believe is really just based on ignorance of human history. A hundred years ago we were all poor, most women spent many hours every week washing clothes by hand, just as they still do in much of the world today.

I dont know any environmentalist who washes clothes by hand, or who would like to live without electricity, or who makes all their clothes by hand. These things are hobbies really, nice to do on holiday perhaps.

The plain fact is that, at present there is no good alternative to fossil fuels, and we all want them. There is no “alternative energy” any more than there is “alternative medicine”- just energy that delivers and is affordable, and energy that doesnt. Renewables at present technology cannot replace fossil fuels- the “alternative” is living with blackouts, not just for the one hour of Earth Hour, but all the time. I actually know people who think this would be preferable.

JG: You’ve said that Transition’s relationship to science is “ambivalent and contradictory”. Could you explain what you mean by that?

When I wrote that I was really referring to climate change activism being based on science, but many other things advocated by Transition- alternative medicine, promotion of Organic food which is more expensive and has lower yields, opposition to GE crops- being opposed to the scientific evidence.
So there is clearly a strong anti-science, anti-rationalist, anti-Enlightenment strand to Transition, and great support for alternative therapies and all kinds of woo.

The more I thought about this the more it started to look as if climate change was the ONLY issue in the Green movement that is based on science.

However, my views on this have changed recently also as I have become skeptical of climate change alarmism. This is a much harder position to argue than skepticism about homeopathy etc as I found out when previous colleagues turned on me as a “denialist” for criticizing Al Gore and quoting Lomborg.

This is far too big and controversial an issue to go into much here, but briefly, I believe it is quite plausible that the IPCC is really a political organisation, and the science it represents is far from the consensus. This issue is so heavily politicized, there is so much at stake in terms of policy and economics, that yes I believe much of what we are told is “the settled science” has actually been corrupted- a sort of “virtuous corruption”. Climate science is based on “post-normal” science using computer models to predict the future. It simply isnt credible that this is in any way settled with regard to such a complex system as the global climate. There is far too much we just dont know about the basic physics. More than that, there is clearly no straight line from science to policy. Many prominent climate scientists, such as Professor Mike Hulme at UEA, are also concerned about the hype around climate change. It is an important issue but it doesnt trump issues around poverty, preventable diseases etc..

But the point here for the discussion of Transition is that climate change is used to further the same quasi-religious agenda- fossil fuels are the life-blood of the modern world, the modern world represents the Fall from the Garden of Eden, therefore we should turn away from fossil energy. The problem is no-one who advocates this wants to implement this in their own lives. They want to have their cake and eat it. The fundamental issue here is the conflict between Green models of “alternative development paths” and addressing poverty. Tragically, the naive romantic views of many Greens may actually be causing terrible suffering because of opposition to development which they themselves have already had the benefit of. You can see this in mindless opposition to genetic engineering for example. In listening carefully to what some greens say such as Vandana Shiva for example it is very hard not to conclude that they actually want to keep people poor. They think they are happier and better off as poor peasants, and should be protected from the excesses of western consumerism and some aspects of this approach really do exhibit the most reactionary, anti-democratic and paternalistic attitudes towards other people.

I personally know people who have explicitly stated that we should not try to feed the hungry if it involves using genetic engineering, and others who have in all seriousness stated that a mass cull of a couple of billion people would be a Good Thing. The view that many environmentalists are anti-human is quite true in my opinion. Thing is, they dont include themselves in this.

JG: That Transition movement seems to place great emphasis on using “stories and myths” to persuade a sceptical public. That could be viewed as quite dishonest and deceptive. Do you have concerns about that?

Yes I agree this seems dangerous and deluded. In fact it almost seems to be a celebration of delusion- “let’s tell ourselves- and others- stories”- the main one being that things were better in the past when we lived in small rural communities and wore home-spun clothing. It is born of the arrogant certainty of the religious and evangelical- we are right, the reason others dont agree and join us is because they have the wrong story. But actually the story that Transition is spinning on many levels is deluded, and this is why it does not gain wider support. Most people do still know what poverty means, that’s why they embrace conventional modes of development and growth.

JG: You’ve said that Transition has a “cultish aspect” and that you’re concerned by the New Age/alternative therapy influence. Could you explain what you mean by that?

You can see this clearly with the promotion of alternative therapies like homeopathy.{viz Transition Timeline.}
Also the connection with groups like the Soil Association which promotes its own agenda of the benefits of organic food, despite what the science says. Organic food is more expensive because it takes more land and labour and in some cases more fossil energy because the land is tilled more often; and there is no evidence it is better for your health or the environment overall. It is a marketing device for a niche product for the wealthy. More than that, the SA (which still promotes homeopathy) had its roots in far-right nationalism in the 1930s and 40s and the remnants of this influence can still be seen in its connection to Biodynamics, a system of magical rituals used in gardening and farming devised by Rudolph Steiner and adopted first by the German Nazis. The link here is “Pure Soil-Pure Food-Pure Blood” and I believe many in the organics movement do think this way.
See:
http://www.dcscience.net/?p=3853
http://biodynamicshoax.wordpress.com/

They are obsessed with purity of the farming methods and therefore the food they eat, and there is a real elitism here, which supersedes any concern of yield or feeding the hungry. Steiner’s’ system is called Anthroposophy and goes far beyond biodynamic farming into education- the Steiner-Waldorf schools, Anthroposophical medicine, Eurythmy, – a sort of movement practice, even Triodos bank is an anthroposophical bank. Anthroposophy is clearly a cult, perhaps the most successful and influential cult in the modern world. It is certainly prominent in the organic movement- biodynamics and organics are much more closely connected than most people realise.

Ive debated the influence of Steinerism with Rob, he seems to me to be extremely prickly about the topic. {eg there is a strong connection between Transition and the Schumacher College, which teache pseudo-scientific courses like “Holistic Science” and has a strong Steiner/Anthroposophical influence.} At the very least, there is great tolerance for the Cult of Steiner, and very little tolerance for critics such as myself. In my opinion, cults such as Anthroposophy are very dangerous and reactionary and should be clearly part of what we are fighting against, I do not see any common ground or shared interests with them.

In addition, there is probably a general New-Age influence, which means some Transition groups like to sit in circles holding hands and talking about their feelings. A very popular part of Transition seems to be the Heart and Soul groups it seems. There is a strong influence of the Deep Ecology of Joanna Macy for example, and connections to Findhorn. While this is not the only aspect of Transition, it does seem to be a significant source of support for the movement, while on the other hand it may of course put others off.

JG: Finally, to end on a positive note – it would be really helpful if you could tell me what Transition’s strengths are, why (if!) you feel it’s important and how you’d like to see it develop.

As I say I am not directly involved with any Transition Towns but some of my students are of course involved, and I occasionally give permaculture workshops to Transition groups.
I think one of the main reasons they are popular is that many people want “community”- they like to sit in groups and feel supported. It could be the same as with churches- “belief in a deity is optional” – it’s all about building community support structures. This sort of function could be hugely important, but I dont know how successful they are in this kind of community work, but I am suspicious that transition will do it better than other more established community initiatives that dont have all the cultish baggage associated discussed above.

In terms of actually achieving its stated goals of preparing for peak Oil and Climate Change, I think there is so much general naivety and ignorance about energy and climate issues I am doubtful Transition will achieve very much. However, there is huge interest now in gardening and growing food, and although actually none of us really want to become peasant farmers and it will remain a minority activity, there is no harm in it and lots of benefits educationally, socially and possibly even economically. As a horticulturalist myself of course I think this is a strength, but would like to see it happen without the ideological baggage of the organic movement.

I am suspicious of the idea that ad hoc voluntary community groups will be able to achieve much in areas that really require professional expertise and bodies such as energy supply and so on, but encouraging more democratic engagement in decsion making is a good thing in general. The problem is with Transition I dont really agree any more with many of the policies it is actually advocating. In common with much of the wider Green movement, it could really be a force for harm in terms of energy policy.

However, I was approached in college yesterday by a researcher from UCC who is looking at developing biodigesters which also produce compost from green waste and seaweed, who wants to work with Transition Towns in Kinsale and around Ireland, and this seems like a very positive project that could really help make a difference. This is the kind of practical, well-researched and science-based project that Transition should embrace- a far cry however from such concepts as The Great Awakening.

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18 Comments

  1. A fascinating and important discussion. While I agree with Graham about the exclusive (if you don’t believe in it you’re not welcome unless you keep very quiet) nature of the New-Age and the particularly horrible influence of Steiner, I don’t think a certain amount of doomersim is a bad thing. When I started to gently campaign about the madness of extreme consumerism in the early 1980s I was convinced that the economic models being practiced were in face giant pyramid schemes. I was convinced by the work of theorists like A. G. Frank, Herman Daly and Galbraith. I used to say things like, “in 20 or 30 years we can expect an economic collapse in the west” and that “we can expect economic convergeance between communism and capitalism in the East and West” – everyone said I was crazy and even some doomers wouldn’t listen.

    But it has turned out to be true; not because I had a special insight but because I owned a modest calculator, library books on limits and systems theory and a copy of the laws of thermodynamics.
    So when doomers say, often correctly, that we can’t carry on as we are they are not necessarily wanting doom but saying that we need to enact change as soon as possible. Of course, many doomers want doom but many don’t. I am somewhere in the doomer camp myself but I keep trying to convince myself otherwise.

    Reply
    • Hi Nick
      thanks for your comment. What interests me in particular is why many of the same people who have been saying “peak Oil! the end is nigh!” are the same people who are protesting against the development of new resources of energy, including shale gas, nuclear, etc, which is one reason why I am skeptical about the PO hypothesis these days.

      Reply
  2. Sorry about all the typos in the above, couldn’t find my glasses.

    Reply
  3. In spite of having some time ago vowed to avoid responding to Graham’s blogs any more, I do feel duty-bound to respond to this one. I have no idea who James Gray is, but I am glad he didn’t use this interview, firstly because, as I will go on to point out, it is littered with inaccuracies which would devalue whichever forum it was published in, and secondly because he didn’t offer the right of reply, which would have led to a more useful and more balance piece. However, from the tone of his questions, it is clear that he wasn’t looking for a balanced article, rather for a lone voice wanting to put the boot into Transition. Many of the points that Graham raises here have already been responded to at great length by myself on various posts of Graham’s, ad nauseum.
    Graham’s take on the world has become increasingly Daily Mail over the past couple of years. When he was in his ‘Ben Goldacre of environmentalism’ phase I quite enjoyed it, and while certainly not agreeing with all of his posts, it was often illuminating. Now however, he appears to have morphed into something closer to Jeremy Clarkson. Fair enough, each to their own, but it is clear at this stage that there is little to be gained from engaging Graham in discussion, but for any other people who read Graham’s piece, and James’s very loaded line of questioning, a few points need making just for clarity’s sake and for the public record.

    • He starts with a quote he attributes to me, that peak oil means that “life will collapse catastrophically, and very soon”, in spite of, in a recent exchange, my having stated that that was written many years ago and is not a position I still agree with, yet he then goes on to berate me for taking this position, in spite of his acknowledging that it is no longer my position! Rather a waste of everyone’s time.
    • The interviewer asks for his take on Transition’s use of the term ‘The Great Awakening’, stating that he feels it to be a term which is “quite religious, almost millenarian” which Graham enthusiastically denounces as “quite religious, and messianic I think”. However, slight problem here is that the term ‘The Great Awakening” is used nowhere in Transition. I have never heard it. Who uses it? The term ‘The Great Unleashing’ is sometimes used by initiatives to describe their launch event, but the term is a playful mix of giving a sense of starting something that will grow rapidly from that moment, mixed with a small amount of Viz-style smutty schoolboy humour. For both Graham and the interviewer to so enthusiastically leap to denouncing the use of the term ‘The Great Awakening’ when no-one actually ever uses it does rather smack of “don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story”.
    • Graham then starts on about their being a “strong anti-science, anti-rationalist strand to Transition”. I have responded to this before, see here (http://zone5.org/2011/06/open-letter-to-rob-hopkins-and-transition/), it is simply rubbish, but again, it suits Graham’s position to maintain that this is the case. At this stage, there is really no use in arguing this…
    • Graham presents himself here as the great critic of Transition, with great insight, yet statements like “the problem is no-one who advocates this wants to implement this in their own lives” is just insulting to people engaged in doing amazing work both in their communities and in their own lives. He sounds like Louise Mensch who was on ‘Have I got news for you” last week (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3252FSW7OC4) attacking the Occupy LSX people for daring to question capitalism, while at the same time queuing up to by coffee from Starbucks and having mobile phones! Graham clearly feels it is irreconcilable to want to see the rapid and urgent phase-out of fossil fuels, to be working towards that end in a pro-active way, yet to live in a society where, at present, survival requires that you still use them sometimes. This is an absurd argument! He creates a black and white polarity that really serves no-one as a basis for discussion.
    • He then completely misunderstands the use of ‘stories’ in Transition, once again taking the idea to suit the picture he is choosing to paint of Transition.
    • He repeats his ‘cultish aspects’ accusation, yet bases it entirely on one reference in Shaun Chamberlin’s ‘The Transition Timeline’ to homeopathy. He wheels out the tired old rubbish that because Hitler liked the idea of farming without chemicals, therefore the entire organic movement has fascistic sympathies, which is, frankly, slandering many many people, as well as being utter rubbish. There are no ‘cultish aspects’ to Transition, other than those in Graham’s fevered imagination. Again though, why let the facts get in the way of a good story.
    • He also drags out his ‘Transition is rooted in Steiner’s philosophies’ line, which is really getting very tired and dull at this point. In spite of my exhaustively having responded to this after a dreadful article Nick Nakorn wrote a while ago (http://nicknakorn.wordpress.com/2010/06/29/mystic-shadows-of-colour-2nd-part/), here we are again, with Graham arguing that I am “extremely prickly on the subject”! No, just bored… the only thing that prickles me is that after such a detailed (and time-consuming) rebuttal of Nakorn’s piece, which Graham still cites as gospel, is that I have still not had any response from Nakorn himself to it. Graham once chided me for saying this, telling me that Nakorn had been unwell, yet I see he is responding to this post, indeed calling it “a fascinating and important discussion”. A response to my comments on your error-ridden article would be really appreciated Nick, if possible, especially given that Graham is still clearly citing it almost as an academic reference.
    • Graham states that “some Transition groups like to sit in circles holding hands and talking about their feelings”. Yawn. Let’s just put this one right. Transition groups hold meetings, and some may choose to do so sitting in a circle (not one with a pentragram drawn in the middle or a virgin sacrifice…)… but to say they are “holding hands” is pejorative, and how would Graham know what happens at a Transition initiative’s meetings anyway, how many has he been to? Do other groups find it more conducive to good conversation to all sit in rows? Be good to find out what particular seating plan Graham feels would rid the meeting of any danger of being accused of promoting ‘woo’. If Graham has attended any Transition group’s meetings, did they all hold hands at all? A few times? All evening? And from whatever happened there he can safely extrapolate up to the all Transition initiatives in 34 countries? Come on. .. As for “talking about their feelings”, is that such a bad thing? If that’s all they did, yes, that would be somewhat pointless, but doing Transition work can be intense and challenging, and it has been found that sharing that with others makes the work of the overall project more effective. Yet Graham strings all this together, Clarkson-like, to make it sound like the New Age Love-In here would like to portray Transition as, or some psychotherapy group or something. He stoops to new lows here.
    • Then even when asked if after the preceding barrage of disinformation, opinion and invective, he might like to say something nice about Transition, he can’t resist a dig about ‘cultish baggage’, and closes with the great quote that it “could be a real force for harm in terms of energy policy”. This is opinion not fact, and opinion I would hugely disagree with, and have already debated with Graham at length (i.e. http://zone5.org/2011/06/open-letter-to-rob-hopkins-and-transition/).

    If I were James Gray, I’d have been embarrassed to publish this. As an insight into Graham’s increasingly aggressive approach to tackling what he sees as a world ridden with woowoo, Transition seems to be getting it in the neck. If he truly is the climate skeptic, peak oil bashing, cornucopian voice of reason he now likes to portray himself as, there are plenty of other targets he could choose, yet it’s far more fun, apparently, to wheel out this tired old rubbish once again, Steiner blah, cultish blah, anti-technology blah. I have no intention of getting into another debate with Graham on this, as he will no doubt rudely, as when I last responded to such a piece, respond by scrawling all over my response and while not yielding anything useful. Rather I wanted to correct a few things so that the casual reader, and James Gray himself, might not be left with the lasting impression that the Transition movement is in any way like the ridiculous caricature that Graham paints of it. Graham is fond of the quote attributed to Lord Keynes, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”. Given that so many of the ‘facts’ in this piece are clearly anything but, will we see any evidence of his having changed his mind? If so, it would be a first.

    Reply
    • Hi Rob
      thanks for your thoughtful response, and welcome to Skepteco!
      Ill leave James to respond to the points you address to him, if he’s reading.

      He starts with a quote he attributes to me, that peak oil means that “life will collapse catastrophically, and very soon”

      As you say, I refer to our recent exchange on the issue; it puts the discussion in context, as both you and I came from the same place on this originally. I have written extensively about why I have changed my views away from doomerism; it would be fascinating to read more about your own shifts- you seem a little coy about them! This quote was indeed prominent on your website- has it been taken down on account of my earlier post on the subject? Clearly, this is a substantial and very important shift in your thinking; I would have thought it would deserve a full post on TC, and that many Transitioners would want to know your current views on Collapse.

      slight problem here is that the term ‘The Great Awakening” is used nowhere in Transition.

      True! I dont know where James got it from. It is mentioned here on Rick Ross- so maybe the poster there called “organic” heard it referred to in the meetings that they had attended.
      It is however used by Joanna Macy in connection with her concept of The Great Turning; I think actually that may be what James meant, and what I assumed he meant- Joanna Macy and her “Work that Reconnects” is of course one of the main sources for the work on Inner Transition- it is an integral part of the Transition Movement.

      Graham clearly feels it is irreconcilable to want to see the rapid and urgent phase-out of fossil fuels, to be working towards that end in a pro-active way, yet to live in a society where, at present, survival requires that you still use them sometimes.

      You misrepresent my position Rob- and the reality, which is, we cannot urgently or quickly phase out fossil fuels. It wont happen for decades. Coal is making a come-back even; and the more the activists you admire so much oppose nuclear and shale gas, the more it will inevitably grow in its use. However, it is not even the Evil West with its horrendous consumer ways that is largely responsible for this- it is the giant new economies of India and China. So please, take your Transition movement over there where it might do some good- and see what response you get from those yet to have the benefits of your “oil addiction”.

      statements like “the problem is no-one who advocates this wants to implement this in their own lives” is just insulting to people engaged in doing amazing work both in their communities and in their own lives

      Well, what do you consider to be “amazing work” ?- there are a number of intertwined issues here, but basically, campaigning against, say nuclear or shale gas, decades before there is any real chance of replacements by “renewables”- which of course have their own problems anyway- smacks of a combination of energy-illiteracy and hypocrisy: I dont see anyone making the kind of cut-backs in energy consumption that would meet the kinds of changes we are told will be needed. The reason is obvious- to voluntarily give up significant amounts of fossil energy for most people simply means poverty. “Transition in Action” concludes that the UK will only get about half way to replacing fossil fuels with renewables. My view is, it is only a combination of improved technology in renewables, and improved efficiencies, that will achieve this- technology, much more than lifestyle changes a la transition, will make the difference- but not for decades in all probability.
      My comment is even more relevant and applicable to food production- being “anti-industrial farming” is pointless unless most of us choose to go back to being peasants. And we wont make such a choice, and if we have to it will be miserable, and I think we should be honest about this.

      He then completely misunderstands the use of ‘stories’ in Transition

      I dont think I misunderstand – a story is a story, it ain’t a fact. And the Transition “story” is a) questionable- we will more than likely find substitutions for oil and will not suffer a collapse- and b) changing- you at least no longer wish for a collapse (others may disagree with you); c) unrealistic-we dont want to be peasants, it wont be a party! see above; d) misguided- we are not “addicted” to oil, we use it for perfectly rational reason of the quality of our lives. Choice is everything- and choice and freedom is what we will lose without oil. e) flat out wrong- economic growth is indeed good for the same reasons, we need more of it because there is still a lot of poverty, it doesnt just depend on draining oil wells but also comes from technology and trade, and it can and does in fact help repair much of the damage done on the way up and provide new solutions.

      He repeats his ‘cultish aspects’ accusation, yet bases it entirely on one reference in Shaun Chamberlin’s ‘The Transition Timeline’ to homeopathy.

      This is simply not true. Chamberlin had a whole chapter expressly stating that “alternative therapies” will form a “pillar” of medicine in the future after Transition- they will effectively have surpassed real medicine! Transition In Action has a whole chapter on health and well-being with much of the same- three mentions of herbalism on one page even, and, amazingly, this on page 111:

      -social evening classes help people to measure their own energy levels through kinesiology and biofeedback

      Biofeedback may possibly have some basis in science depending on the application, but kinesiology?! pure woo. Then there is the chapter on “Inner Transition” based on Deep Ecology, Joanna Macy and eco-psychology. Pure woo- and it all depends on that all important story we tel ourselves about Nature, our place in the world, the State of the Planet etc..
      Then there are the strong links with Schumacher College. By the way, whatever happened to Critical Thinking in the Transition Ingredients? Of course it never really was Critical Thinking because there had to be room for “other ways of knowing…” And there are many other examples. I find it astonishing that you are in such complete denial about this, there does not appear to be any attempt to hide it- talk about the Emperor’s New Clothes!

      the only thing that prickles me is that after such a detailed (and time-consuming) rebuttal of Nakorn’s piece, which Graham still cites as gospel

      I did not cite Nick’s piece here, nor have I done at all recently, nor do I take it as Gospel, but clearly Transition is happy to work with anthroposophists, and fits in very well with the steiner-oriented philosophy of Schumacher college for example.

      Yet Graham strings all this together, Clarkson-like, to make it sound like the New Age Love-In here would like to portray Transition as, or some psychotherapy group or something.

      There have been interesting discussions on your own blog on this issue- it is not just me, it is clearly somewhat contentious within TT as well. The Heart and Soul groups are important I think, and see my comments above re eco-psychology/Deep Ecology. Talking about feelings is fine of course, but when guided in the context of pseudo-scientific “stories” it becomes cultish.

      “and closes with the great quote that it “could be a real force for harm in terms of energy policy”.

      I would like to see a much more informed and technical examination of the realistic potential of wind and solar before Transtion aligns itself with the anti-shale gas movement as well as the anti-nuclear industry; policy needs to be based on facts, not on stories.

      Reply
  4. Hi Rob

    Thanks for your comments.

    Just to give you some background, I was thinking of pitching a feature on the Transition movement and was intrigued by Graham’s take on it all. I have a particular interest in the spiritual aspects of political and social movements, so this seemed like an ideal topic.

    I sent Graham some questions to make sure I really understood what he was saying and to get some good – and, yes, provocative – quotes that I could use for a full-length piece. *Of course* I would have given you a right to reply – more than that, I would have sought a full interview with you.

    However, I had lots of other things to work on and simply forgot about the piece. Now, over six months later, Graham’s posted his responses and I’m glad he has – I find the whole debate fascinating.

    Hope that helps to clear things up.

    James

    Reply
  5. Interesting point I wanted to pick up on from Graham’s response about the Critical Thinking section that was written for the book and posted in draft form. He implies that I binned it because I never really agreed with it in the first place, but the story is more complex than that. In the end I decided not to include it, and I want here to share why. The work of Transition is about supporting community, about seeking common ground and building on that. I found that whenever I introduced Critical Thinking in as something that should perhaps be a central explicit plank of Transition, it proved to be divisive, it would sap the energy from conversations, it would polarise.

    The more I pressed it, and tried to engage people in discussing this, the more I found that people (and before you wade in Graham and say well what do you expect given that everyone involved in Transition is up to their armpits in woo, this was people across a wide spectrum) felt that I was trying to prove how much clever I was than them, to rubbish their keenly held personal values. It was a fascinating process, and I note often in the comments at Zone 5 many people experiencing the same response.

    I came to think that saying “if you get involved with Transition you must first renounce any elements of your world view that I, or Graham, or Richard Dawkins might find objectionable” was a one way round to nowhere in particular, certainly to polarising and dividing everyone. I took the decision not to include it, after many nights of chewing it over. What I tried to do instead was to make sure that the idea was woven in in other ways, such as the section on measurement, and many other parts that argued the case for good research and gathering of evidence. I think it is a stronger, more inclusive book for it, and personally, I found the whole process of thinking it through very useful, in terms of where making critical thinking explicit is useful, and where it is anything but.

    Thanks

    Reply
  6. @Rob-
    very interesting, thanks.

    It wasn’t so much that I think you don’t agree with Critical Thinking so much as you don’t understand it. I dont know if those discussions are still up, but the two I remember looking at all had a “get out of jail free card” in that it was presumed there are “other ways of knowing” (apart from reason and evidence)- ie, critical thinking has its place and uses, but we are a welcome to just make stuff up whenever we want.

    More to the point, since Transition is so strongly wedded to “alternative therapies’, kinesiology (!!), biodynamics (also promoted uncritically in Transition in Action) and the quasi-religions/pseudoscience of Deep Ecology and eco-psychology, the idea that it could claim to be based on critical thinking is of course absurd.

    The Environmental movement is not just a pragmatic approach to environmental problems; it is about shaping the kind of society we live in, controlling our use of energy etc; PO and AGW are to a large extent merely means to this end.

    Transition is quite explicitly up to its neck in woo; it is not the case that the movement is about PO and AGW responses, and just happens to attract some people who also have an interest in alternative therapies and New Age religion etc; on the contrary, Transition actively promotes these things as part of its quite overt agenda.

    I havnt seen the new book yet, is the Heart and Soul stuff and alternative therapies promoted there as well?

    So I feel that these ideologies have a strong influence on the direction that Transition is taking- wooly thinking is not confined to alternative health, but also energy policy, renewables etc, and this is very dangerous because it leads to a completely unrealistic understanding of what these options are capable of;

    it’s a disconnect from the reality that we all need energy, that we only want to go back to the land if we also retain many of the options of industrial back-ups and technology from poly-tunnels to the best tools etc..

    Reply
  7. roger adair

     /  November 9, 2011

    Can you guys not manage to keep the word count down? Is what you have to say so important it requires such verbosity? It really doesn’t encourage many other folk to join in.

    IMHO TT is a cult which is dangerous in as far as it fills worried peoples minds up with all sorts of unrealistic expectations as to what is possible and leads them to invest scarce time and energy in many pointless activities. e.g. formulating so called energy descent plans.

    Reply
  8. Graham
    Re. your snide comment on Transition Culture about kinesiology. I have a mental picture of you getting your hands on a copy of ‘Transition in Action’, the Totnes EDAP, and going through it with a highlighter, not looking at the scale of the community consultation that went into it, not looking at the depth of the engagement, not looking at the number of people who fed into it, not looking at the detailed research around food and energy, but just scanning it for anything you decided to constitute ‘woo’ in order to rubbish and denigrate the whole process.

    The Totnes EDAP came about from asking many hundreds of people for their vision of how Totnes might most successfully navigate energy descent, and see that as an opportunity. As such, it contains the input of all those people, their ideas, their visions. You may be able to sit in your intellectual ivory tower and rubbish things because you see instances where peoples’ understanding of science doesn’t match yours, but as someone working with the diverse, messy, vibrant thing that is a community, I don’t have that luxury. I am not going to take ideas and suggestions offered in good faith by all those people and edit out all those I disagree with. That would be arrogant, disrespectful and self-defeating.

    As a result of your highlighter pen session you clearly now feel you can rubbish anything that any Transition group does anywhere by flaunting the word ‘kinesiology’ at it. I think that is childish, smug and really rather pointless.

    Reply
    • Thanks for your fascinating and insightful response Rob. Probably best not to mix up different threads on different blogs- I know Im finding it confusing as well!
      I invite readers who want to follow this up head over to this thread on Rob’s site.

      Meanwhile, this comment from the IEA seems relevant:

      ‘”Environmentalists who believe a massive global investment in renewable energy is the answer to future demands are “smoking dope,” International Energy Agency deputy executive director Richard Jones said Wednesday.’

      Of course this is just the opinion of Richard Jones; I do NOT mean to imply any smugness or arrogance towards dope-smokers myself.

      Reply
  9. roger adair

     /  November 10, 2011

    IMHO TT is a cult which is dangerous in as far as it fills worried peoples minds up with all sorts of unrealistic expectations as to what is possible and leads them to invest scarce time and energy in many pointless activities. e.g. formulating so called energy descent plans.

    A key feature of cult mentality is to studiously ignore and refuse to engage with any external opinion.

    Reply
  10. “A key feature of cult mentality is to studiously ignore and refuse to engage with any external opinion.”

    Very true!

    Reply
  11. roger adair

     /  November 10, 2011

    …Hence the great reluctance of the great leader to parley with the proles…

    If you look carefully at Kinsale, Totness et al you will find the professional
    classes busy trying to future proof their priviledged eco niches come what may dressed up with a lot of greenwash eco burble.

    Reply
  12. justin

     /  February 7, 2012

    Amen brother! Is this Roger Adair, ms in energy management? I enjoy and absolutely agree with your article on:

    http://www.energybulletin.net/stories/2010-11-25/how-sustainable-renewable-energy

    Thanks for providing your valid point of view to the government funded propoganda of Green Energy. A coworker was trying to get me into a pyramid scheme selling free green energy with nrg energy inc.. Let me know what you think. If you have any more articles or references, I’d love to read.

    Reply
    • roger adair

       /  February 11, 2012

      Sadly the whole renewable energy field is awash with scammers and if something sounds too good to be true……..

      I have a few older posts on http://www.energybulletin.net/node/12040
      and http://www.energybulletin.net/node/13119 which you may find of interest.

      I used to post on FEASTA and Transition Towns Ireland but those places too are now
      awash with lots of less than enlightening puffs which makes it hard to find the good stuff.

      My present project is a well past peak oil murder mystery novel set on the Costa del West Cork. Ex Garda, and now volunteer town sheriff, Gerry O’Shea,has been dragged away from his fishing and endless historical research project into the existential question as to who really killed Michael Collins.

      A body has been found battered to death and dumped in the humanure compost heap in the walled garden of a “big house” rural agricultural collective. Without computer records or forensics Gerry starts to unravel a saga of intrigue and revenge amongst the community that stretches back into the dim past. He slowly uncovers a frightening dark secret threatening the precarious everyday balance of survival……..

      Reply

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