Update 21-01-12: Anyone who has been around permaculture for a while, especially in Australia, will have guessed straight away that the person being discussed on the Permaculture Research Institute’s site in the Permaculture and Metaphysics post was none other than Geomancer extraordinaire Alanna Moore, author of Sensitive Permaculture with whom I crossed swords a few years ago over this very issue.
Rob joined in the discussions on my blog- he was at the time an ardent supporter of non-rational explanations for crop circles- and then, without discussing with me first, built a blog post around my supposed lack of courtesy towards Ms Moore during the debate, “Why Civility Matters in the Transition”, in which, rather than addressing the issues of science and rationality, or the use of legal threats to stifle debate, he suggested that my sarcasm was a prime example of some kind of moral decay that was threatening to lead us all into darkness.
In truth, Rob has always been a vocal Warrior for Woo.
By a curious if not actually cosmic synchronicity, the very day I posted the last item on woo in permaculture, Rob Hopkins was posting a parallel post on Transition Culture about more woo, this time in the form of a film I was previously unaware of called Thrive:
What do you do when you are the heir to the Proctor and Gamble fortune and you have spent years surrounding yourself with new agey thinking and conspiracy theories? You make a film like ‘Thrive‘, the latest conspiracy theory movie that is popping up all over the place. I’ve lost count of the number of people who have asked me “have you seen ‘Thrive’?” Well I have now, and, to be frank, it’s dangerous tosh which deserves little other than our derision. It is also a very useful opportunity to look at a worldview which, according to Georgia Kelly writing at Huffington Post, masks “a reactionary, libertarian political agenda that stands in jarring contrast with the soothing tone of the presentation”.
Since the post was complimentary to my own and raising similar questions, I joined in the debate and sent in this comment:
I hadn’t heard of this film previously, thanks for alerting me! I’ll hardly be rushing out to view it, and of course you are absolutely right to challenge fantasies of conspiracy theories and free- energy machines.
There does seem to be a considerable cross-over with a lot of stuff Transition and the Greens/Left are also infected with that seems impossible to overlook- as Robert correctly states above King of Woo Deepak Chopra is also a darling of the Schumacher College of Woo where you also teach:
Can we expect to see from you as forthright an expose of the woo promoted by this new film, as you have done for Thrive?:
featuring Holmgren, John Seed and Stephen Harding (also of Schumacher)and others:
Permaculture and transition are also full of woo, and Im not the only one to have an issue with this:
The comment was held in moderation- and then I received this email from Rob:
Thanks for your comment. I think at this stage, given that your engagement with me has descended to point of labeling me “a professional purveyor of woo”, and that you quite clearly disagree with virtually everything that is talked about on Transition Culture and take an overtly antagonistic stance to it, if we just agree to disagree, and I don’t post on Skepteco and I don’t post your comments on Transition Culture. Your ongoing engagement is puzzling, like a lover of beef continually posting comments on a forum for vegans and berating them all for not sharing his culinary passions. Unless you post anything that defames Transition or myself personally, I will no longer go anywhere near Skepteco, and will no longer post your comments on Transition Culture unless you feel that I have personally slighted you in some way (unlikely, but do let me know). It’s a shame, but we have done the ‘Is Transition riven with woo’ rubbish to death I feel, and there is little to be gained from going over it again and again. You think it is, I think you are wrong. It’s your passion, your Inquisition, and it’s not one I share to anything like the same extent. There we go.
Best of luck
Now, before continuing I should address the issue of my charge that Rob is “a professional purveyor of woo”.
This was in a comment after my post on Christopher Hitchens in which Rob concluded his case against the Iraq war by saying:
Ah but then presumably the reason I don’t think it was a supportable idea was because I’m not ‘rational’ enough?
I have to admit that, since I have been debating Rob for several years on a wide range of topics such Crop Circles, alternative medicine and Anthroposophy, I found it irresistible to respond to this direct question thus:
@Rob Hopkins- I would not be one to accuse you of being “rational”- you are in fact a professional promoter of woo (among other things)-
-the “(among other things)” being carefully added in because naturally I do not think that all Rob does is promote woo. However, I meant it in a factual, evidence-based kind of sense, with specific reference to the Transition publications that bear Rob’s name:
Transition Handbook,(2008) p. 110:
..Conventional and complimentary practitioners are seen very much as two sides of the same coin
Transition Timeline (2009) Shaun Chamberlin (Forward by Rob Hopkins)
What used to be known as “alternative medicines” were embraced, as practices like herbalism, acupuncture, massage and osteopathy became core pillars of public healthcare, with a big investment in teaching these skills
leading to a blossoming of independent regulated practitioners in most communities.
Transition in Action (2010)
Strong and active group of local biodynamic farmers and growers
Local evening classes help people to measure their own energy levels through kinesiology and biofeedback
I have previously asked Rob if there is any woo in the new book Transition Companion but have not had a response. (Since I havn’t managed to get my hands on a copy yet I would be obliged if anyone could help me on this.)
On this last example from the Transition in Action, Rob defended the inclusion of kinesiology, saying:
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.
Note that he doesn’t deny that kinesiology is nonsense- and dangerous- but rather exasperatedly berates me for not appreciating the collaborative process that went into the production of the Totnes EDAP. Earlier he had described how his attempts to include Critical Thinking as one of the core themes in the Transition model was perceived as just sounding too clever, and was divisive and so was dropped. I applaud his efforts to at least try, but he now seems to have given up completely- rather than supporting my stance (which to his credit Rob has at least tried to do) he has acquiesced to the demands of those who want to co-opt Transition to promote their own superstitions.
To me, this just smacks of moral cowardice. Rejecting a rational approach in the context of an important and influential global movement is a mistake which will certainly not be without consequences.
Which brings us to the issue of the film Thrive, which Rob angrily denounces because, well, it is full of woo:
Wheeled out as ‘experts’ to support the film’s arguments are Deepak Chopra and, erm, David Icke, among others. Gamble is keen on talking about “my research”, yet his research, such as it is, is so undemanding that I am reminded of Sir Terry Frost’s words, “if you know before you look, you cannot see for knowing”. Gamble wheels out the classic conspiracy theorists’ gambit, “could I be wrong? Perhaps. But what if I’m not?” No, you are wrong. And even if you were right, you have presented us with so little evidence to back up you claims that you would have no way of knowing whether you were right or not.
But this is a slightly different kind of woo, coming as it does from the Right, advocating free energy machines, UFOs and conspiracy theories by the bucket load- all apparently to hide a libertarian agenda of no government and no taxes.
What is fascinating is the comments which were posted on the blog, several of which take umbrage not only against dictatorial tone- “to be frank, it’s dangerous tosh which deserves little other than our derision…Avoid.”- but also his conclusions. Free energy appears to be quite popular as a possibility amongst some of the Transition supporters it seems; and reducing the role of government and lowering taxes in favor of more community-based and self-reliant approaches seem on the face of it quite compatible with the aims of Transition.
Doug Atkins says:
…But you are dead wrong about this, Rob. And your position reveals a danger about Transition: that it appears to feel that peak oil is identical to energy power-down, and that power-down needs to be the basis for cultural transition….
So my question is, given that kinesiology, say, is really completely on the same basis as free energy or UFOs in terms of its credibility, and at least some Transitioners apparently feel they would like the movement to be open to such things, how come Rob takes such a strident stance against some kinds of woo, but not other kinds? Is not all woo equal under the evidence? Is Transition taking a partisan and divisive approach to certain types of woo which are considered perhaps inferior or unworthy for this august organisation?
If those commentators who liked Thrive had partaken in the collaborative writing of the Totnes Energy Descent Action Plan would their views on Free Energy etc have been excluded- or perhaps included, alongside all the other woo?
Other points in Rob’s otherwise interesting review may not have been thought through too clearly, or may reveal again an some of the underlying contradiction within Transition, especially concerning renewable energy and climate change policies:
I would argue that it is only the realisation that we are nearing the end of the age of cheap energy, cheap fossil fuels, that is finally bringing some sense, some awareness of the fact that we live on a finite planet and that we need to live more responsibly.
This is a tautology- if we had free, inexhaustible energy, we wouldn’t be on a finite planet. The fact that we have to face limits is necessary to teach us that… we have limits.
One could argue from a religious or moralistic standpoint, that we would be like spoiled children if we had all this free energy- that we need limits and hardship “for our own good”-(actually, as David Holmgren taught me in a class on systems theory, if we had free energy, we would be able to overcome all other limits of resources- eg we could desalinate the oceans, fly to other planets etc..). Perhaps that is what is being argued here- that technology and abundant energy is just no good, whether “free” or otherwise. (Unless it is useless, like solar panels ;).)
Free Energy that involves breaking the laws of physics is as near to impossible as you can get; but new nukes- Integral Fast Reactors, Thorium reactors- could conceivably replace fossil fuels and allow the continuance of Civilization as we know it- something Rob is of course totally opposed to, as is his right; but while many still oppose nuclear, it is not deluded to consider its increasing relevance plausible and perhaps even urgent- this would however be rather inconvenient for the Transition narrative.
As I read the review, while agreeing of course with much of it, I wondered why Rob saw it necessary to take such a strident stance against it when there is so much similar nonsense around, but when I saw the comments I realized that Transition itself has already been infiltrated by this kind of thinking, that it may be a threat within the movement.
There may also be competition with Transition from outside groups, for example the Occupy Totnes Movement promoted the film Thrive in December.
There are many cross-overs as well between the libertarian woo and the Earth religion woo. The belief that there is a conspiracy to suppress alternative medicine (wish there was!) for example is of course what most greeny people who like that sort of thing believe. This kind of conspiracy thinking is exactly what quacks want people to believe.
Letting any kind of woo go unchallenged will naturally permit the entry of all manner of noxious beliefs into your movement, because they are fundamentally anti-science and therefore reactionary.
It is, of course, Rob’s choice if he wants to ban me from his forum. But his is not only a personal blog, but the mouthpiece for a global environmental movement. Excluding the moderate voice of reason that I try to represent in my own small way may not be the most politically astute move for a man under pressure from David Icke fans.
I will return to the issue of the cross-over between libertarian- and earth-religion beliefs in a forthcoming post.