The Tao of Pangloss

I had some more feedback last week, this time from Chris Smaje on his Small Farm Future blog, in which he continues his critique of eco-pragmatism:

Point #3: here’s an example of what I mean from Graham Strouts, an aggressive eco-panglossian: ‘Fifty years is a loooong time in the world of energy’. Well maybe, but it just got a lot closer now that the government has committed to Hinkley Point for the next 45 years (actually, 45 years plus a few thousand more to look after the spent fuel). But what does Strouts really mean? That people sometimes underestimate energy reserves? For sure, but then 50 years is a blink of the eye in human history. I think what he and the other eco-panglossians actually mean without caring to say so explicitly is ‘we don’t know how it will be possible to sustain our existing massive energy demands long-term, but somebody’s bound to think of something’.

Yep that’s me! Just sittin’ around waiting for someone to think something up! I like the notion of the “eco-Panglossians” although I resent the charge of “aggressive”: honestly, I’m a pussycat really:


That is all we Tiggers do, just blithely assume with neither rhyme nor reason that humans will continue to innovate and develop new technologies, that science will continue to develop our understanding of the universe and that this will translate into actual useful stuff like new sources of energy.

      "Not Panglossian"

“Not Panglossian”

This then is the challenge for the Eeyores of the world like Smaje: what reason do we have to suppose that this point right now is the point in time when millennium of human progress ends and begins to go into reverse? As Julian Simon argued so cogently in The Master Resource, what reason do we have to assume that the future will be so unlike the past? After all, since I am just an energy consumer and not a scientist or engineer myself, I can afford to just frolick around enjoying the benefits of the modern world without worrying too much about how exactly we will power the future; but I can be confident that the -I’m guessing- several million engineers and physicists whose job it is to work this out are not just sitting around, but working very hard on these very problems.

This does not mean I assume success. It is simply a question of applying Occam’s razor and asking: what is more likely? That we will just curl up and die? Or that the best minds on the planet will continue to develop, messily, in fits and starts, and always imperfectly, working solutions that actually turn out quite well when you look at the big picture?

In all fields of energy production research continues, innovations are emerging: wind, solar, natural gas, oil, nuclear. The “eco-pragmatist” is just that: not an idealist who assumes we will all have jet-packs, but the “possibilist” who sees that what we have already achieved would have seemed highly improbable to previous generations.

The Eeyores have always been with us, and so far they have always been wrong. Since no-one can predict the future with any certainty, in an entropic universe they will always be proved right in the end, I guess. But to argue, as many anti-frackers and power-downers do, that we should ban a useful source of energy because it “won’t last forever” or it will “create dependency” seems to be unnecessarily gloomy, and to lack imagination. Smaje pulls me up for saying 50 years is a long time in the energy world, when it is but a blink of an eye for humanity- so what? The point is, the overwhelming likelihood is that long before shale gas reserves are exhausted we will either have found “something else” or we will have continued to increase those reserves as technology improves, in combination with improving efficiency and better targeting of our use of energy.

It is not a perfect world. The driver of innovation- what makes this likely to continue to improve our lives- is precisely that we do not live in the “best of all possible worlds.” The world needs continual improvement. In any particular endeavor, there is no guarantee of success. Just as evolution does not result in perfection, but just in something good enough for its niche- “survival of the fitting”- so technology does not follow some kind of god-given path to heaven. So we can embrace Hinkley C as a victory against extreme Luddism of the Greens, while lamenting that it is not Thorium, or a generation IV design which re-processes its own fuel; or that as a society we do not have the 20:20 vision that might have lead us to waiting a few years for much cheaper and less disruptive Small Scale Modular reactors to start rolling off assembly lines. One thing we can be sure of, Eeyore has not been helping make rational decision on energy just by sitting under a cloud of his own making and whingeing.

Smaje argues:

In his dreadful (albeit nicely written) book Whole Earth Discipline Stewart Brand chastises greens for their arrogance in worrying about the world we bequeath to the future, for how can we know what technologies and what concerns future generations will have? Nice trick, but not convincing. Since indeed we can’t know, it behoves us to try to leave the minimum amount of mess for them to have to deal with.

Why not convincing? Since we cannot know, we should not stop development and technology that will benefit not only us, but of course by extension future generations. This is the same problem with the Precautionary Principle, and climate advocacy that assumes we can know now what would be best for future generations. After all, would we really be thanking those engineers in the 1850s if they had said, “Better not start the oil age- our great grandchildren won’t thank us for it!” Of course, we should be thanking them- without oil we would mainly still be peasant laborers, uneducated and with short lives; as for leaving a “mess”, remember, coal saved the forests, and oil saved the whales. (H/T @Colin_McInnes).

The Eeyores of this world are miserable because they cannot control the outcome, so they want to settle for mediocrity which at least they can claim as their solution. Unless a technology is perfect, with no possible downsides, they will do everything they can do dismiss it. And they cannot accept human foibles which mean that at least some of human progress is driven by what they consider to be base human impulses, like responding to competition, or even greed. They never stop to ask if they are not subject to the same qualities themselves.

Smaje is completely wrong about the nuclear waste issue: nearly all nuclear waste is far less dangerous than the anti-nuke propaganda would have us believe, and apart from using the high-grade waste as fuel in advanced reactors at some point, there are plenty of other solutions. The real problem is political: Greenpeace and other Dark Greens cannot accept ANY solution to nuclear waste, as that would be perceived as “accepting” nuclear power. So we have to put up with less than optimum solutions. Truth is, the claim that nuclear waste is a significant problem for future generations- who remember will have better technology than we do now- is as bogus as the claim that GMOs pose a health risk.

This is why Eeyore-ism is so dangerous and negative: it promotes fear-mongering and false information, which leads to bad decisions and creating problems where there are none. Alarmism can be dangerous.

In the case of climate, we are being asked to sacrifice prosperity now – and by extension impoverish future generations- who will consequently be far less able to withstand the onslaught of bad weather, natural of man-made. All this for a distant threat which may turn out to be relatively benign.

Maybe what we need is Pro-actionary Principle. The concept was conceptualized by Max More, as discussed in this interesting article by Steve Fuller. (See also Judith Curry.) The Proactionary Principle favoured by the “Up-wingers” argues that taking calculated risk is an essential part of being human. To stifle it is to go down the road of political correctness-gone-mad, preventing children from climbing trees and running in the playground, and shackling humanities’ creative impulse.

Smaje laments:

If people sort out clean energy, there’s still a raft of issues such as water scarcity, phosphate scarcity, soil loss, past carbon emissions, anthropogenic nitrification, oh and social justice, to keep us eco-realists worried.

You can almost hear his hands wringing together and his mournful cries of “woe is me!” I can’t do better than quote Climate Chimp who gets my Tweet of the Week Award:

Pragmatists do not claim to be living in a perfect world, but a world of possibilities, a world where we can at least in our imaginations, symbolically but potently, reach for the stars.

In contrast, Eeyore sees everything humans do as being Bad. In truth, it is not the Tiggers of this world who believe in perfection, but the Eeyores, who cling with deep mournful sighs to a lost world of romantic perfection, a fantasy of pristine Nature from the past which our imperfect human technology can never match.

For them, nothing we do will ever be good enough :(

{H/T @Pdiff1 for Winnie-the-Pooh inspiration}

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  1. “Since indeed we can’t know, it behoves us to try to leave the minimum amount of mess for them to have to deal with.”

    What an absurd statement founded in precautionary principle gibberish. If we can’t know, how can we possibly know what will “leave the minimum amount of mess”? How can we know that these “super green” policies won’t, in the end, leave a worse mess than is already present?

    While the long term is an admirable target, it can never be addressed directly. The only rational approach then, is to empower the short term to the highest possible degree, thereby ensuring that the next generation has the optimal chance of addressing their own problems. We have no hope of solving the problems of people living in the long term, especially given we have no clue what those problems will be. It is in our potential, however, to set the next generation up for a running start. That is our obligation to the future. It is not ignoring the long term, but acknowledging where we have the best chance of influencing it.

    Tigger1 over and out! :)

    • Eloquently said Bill. Obviously the capacity of the next generation depends on how well placed we leave them in terms of technology and wealth, not just in terms of eco-system “health”- which is somewhat nebulous in itself. But remember the Brundtland Commission’s definition of sustainable development:

      Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

      -this is the cornerstone of mainstream environmental thinking, normally interpreted as meaning, leave Mother Nature in Her pristine State and completely quit any non-renewable resources.

      • So the problem lies with the interpretation of this definition. One only has to look at the predictions made in the 50s and 60s for the year 2000 to understand that “future generations” is meaningless beyond your own children, and even that may be a stretch.

        Extrapolations beyond established data are tenuous at best. Extreme extrapolations beyond established data are certain to be wrong and often deadly (see O-Rings and the Challenger accident, for example). When it comes to predicting the future, it’s best to stick close to home :)

        BTW and IMO, leaving Mother Nature in Her pristine state, by definition, compromises the future generations and ultimately, there are no non-renewable resources. That interpretation is complete bunk. :P

  2. An excellent article that clearly focusses my own position that is somewhere in the middle, generally, though I’m optimistic on some issues and less so on others. I’ve always been pro-modernity and pre-progress but I’m utterly pessimistic concerning politics – particularly as the industrialised countries seem to be re-embracing values such as sexism and racism that have, since the 1950s, showed massive improvements. I’ve never considered greening the planet to be a technical problem and my ‘only just’ opposition to nuclear has always been political rather than technical.
    I remember a massive argument I had many years ago when the local anti-nuc group wanted me to help with a campaign to stop reprocessing trains going through Watford Junction. My position was that we had some of the best reprocessing tech in the world so it was better that waste came to the UK than was dumped in an African lagoon somewhere. “But we thought you were anti-nuc!” they cried. I pointed out that while I preferred the investment to go into super-insulation of buildings (still best value), we might need nuclear (we do now) if governments don’t plan ahead.
    On fracking for shale gas, I’m less optimistic having read about the sheer quantity of ‘clean’ water used that is undrinkable once mixed with additives; but, again, it’s a political point that really ought to be solved with regulation were it not for the outrageous margins of some energy operators. But, having joined some of the anti-frack web-clubs, I’ve found another anti-science community that is no help at all in getting the correct information to me or anyone else – the UK campaign seems to be run (again!) by Steiner people.
    Technology is not the problem, it’s politics.

    • Thanks Nick. Is the UK anti-fracking campaign really run by Steiner people? Seems incredible- any evidence for this, ie names of leading figures?
      There is a hysterical anti-fracking campaign which pumps out continual propaganda and misinformation, just as there is with nuclear. Water use is not a problem except in water-stressed areas, and the thing with all this kind of technology is that it is improving all the time and new innovations are being developed as we speak. For example see this article on potential to use salt water instead of fresh.
      see also: Energy Facts: How Much Water Does Fracking for Shale Gas Consume?
      Techniques have improved and the water requirements per frack are declining; there are also techniques that use gas instead of water, and proposals even to use CO2 and combine fracking with CCS. None of this will bring cheer to those whose opposition is purely ideological and who want a total ban regardless. The last thing these people want is to actually solve the environmental issues.
      The bottom line is: we need gas, which is cleaner than the coal it can displace. Simple maths tells you, if you ban gas, you get coal, not wind or solar.

      • Interesting to read the critiques.

        The Clarke article is clearly polemical. Spring doesn’t advocate grazing on all deserts, only those which once were grassland, before modern human intervention. An estimated 60,000,000 of free roaming aboriginal US bison /must/ have resulted in a different landscape than is seen today (there were 90,000,000 in 2012, so modern intensive methods have only improved on this by 50%!).

        The Merberg article makes quite reasonable criticism of Savoury’s language. I think though, that Savoury is really defending a key insight, a paradigm shift, rather than a specific set of techniques. And I sympathise with that – in regard to appropriate landscapes.

        The McWilliams article says environmentalists blame 10,000 years of overgrazing – that is just daft. “symbiosis between grazing herds and grasses has historically worked best to sequester carbon when the animals lived the entirety of their lives within the ecosystem, their carcasses rotted and returned their accumulated nutrients into the soil” may well be the key criticism.

        Seems to me Savory’s approach is far from discredited, and indeed still very promising
        (I admit the unscientific hyperbole in the TED talk is annoying)

        Will raising yields allow more land to go back to forest? Not if we don’t take a longer perspective on landscapes that accepts them. I wonder what you thought of Monbiot’s parallel argument

        I found the closest thing to a description of Chris Dixon’s proposed method for retreating open wooded pasture in the UK
        Another parallel.

        You asked about why now. Endangered animals follow endangered landscapes, and ecosystems. We may be able to recover totem species from captivity. But the detail of interacting species and habitats once completely lost will be unrecoverable.

        • The growing of food in the most efficient of ways is a separate issue from re-wilding or ecological restoration: I think one thing is for sure, most methods favoured by permaculturalists and Food Sovereignty advocates are less efficient and productive than they need be, and therefore take a lot more land. If they were more widely practiced- let’s say there was a reversal of urbanisation with millions going “Back to the Land” this would be obviously be devastating for the land. Poor, low-efficiency farming diffused throughout the landscape is the last thing the re-wilders would want. Going back to nature would be a disaster for nature.
          In terms of eco-restoration, Emma Marris’ book “Rambunctuous Garden” is essential reading.

  3. typo – pro-progress

  4. The sixth and largest mass extinction being in full swing. We have punctuated this equilibrium, & there will be a mighty ruckus as things find a new one. Biodiversity may look like panda-loving window dressing, but it is diversity that creates robust systems, as well as being the store of the best medicinal biochemicals, and the highest level most robustly tested biotechnology there is. Bring back the animals, bring back the landscapes, and we could be feeding the world already – meat and all:

    • Biodiversity is really important but I’m not sure Savory’s ideas are the way forward. He has been promoting them for some decades now but they have never really sparked the interest of the scientific community because the little evidence he points to for it working is pretty weak; it hasnt really been replicated by anyone else; the suggestion that we should massively increase livestock production seems counter to all environmental thinking, both Dark Green and more conventional. Basically he is claiming advocacy for something unproven that at best can only be seen as of marginal use in a few very specific situations; we should be very skeptical of one lone voice claiming a single solution to such a vast problem! But he is also misunderstanding the problem since deserts are far more diverse already than he gives them credit.
      TED Talk Teaches Us to Disparage the Desert
      Cows Against Climate Change: The Dodgy Science Behind the TED Talk
      All Sizzle and No Steak

      An alternative approach involves sustainable intensification in agriculture- increasing the productivity of land through precision techniques, GMOs, no-till, drip irrigation etc- and thereby leaving more land to go back to forest.

  5. Elena P

     /  October 31, 2013

    Hi Graham,
    I am deeply impressed by this blog and your posts.
    To challenge things and pose doubts, reflecting upon one’s assumptions is what I like the most. So thank you for this body of work…
    I would like to ask you what do you think of the work in Agroecology done by Jairo Restrepo and Eugenio Gras, and I would love to hear your comments on Chromatography (Ehrenfried Pfeiffer). Also I would be interested on your point of view on Altieri’s work.

    Thank you

    • Thanks Elena
      Chromatography- apparently also supported by Restrepo- is pure pseudoscience. Pfeiffer was a collaborator with Steiner. This kind of stuff is the biggest millstone around the neck of “alternative agriculture” advocates. Unless critics of agribusiness/capitalism/neo-liberalism completely reject pseudoscience of this kind, they can have zero credibility and are certainly doing more harm than good. I have written about Steiner here: Ecofascism Revisited.
      I have nothing against agro-ecology per se- it has an important role to play. But it tends to be aligned with reactionary pseudoscience and, like permaculture, claims to be a complete solution- we actually need both. Here is a useful critique:
      Food Sovereignty and its Discontents.

      The Food Sovereignty movement could play a crucial role in this endeavour because the agro-ecological practices it advocates must be part of a comprehensive approach to sustainable intensification. Unfortunately, the movement still prefers political confrontation to cooperation on the ground, and its baseline assumptions of agriculture are defensive, not progressive. This article shows why these baseline assumptions are misleading even if they sound intuitively right. Sub-Saharan Africa has become a net importer of food because ideology has always mattered more in agricultural policy than the knowledge gained from farmers‘ experience in the field and from agricultural research. The Food Sovereignty movement is right about the mistakes of neoliberal economic ideology, but it is silent about the fact that most famines actually occurred under socialist and communist regimes that pursued the goal of food self-sufficiency. The concept of Food Sovereignty still contains too much old left-wing ideology and too little creative thinking on how to make better use of today‘s global new knowledge economy to promote sustainable development. The movement could either become an obstacle to future food security, if it sticks to its ideology-based and confrontational rhetoric, or part of the solution, if it decides to extend collaboration beyond like-minded groups and engage in joint pragmatic action.

  6. I share your optimism for the future and want to address your comment that “in an entropic universe, they [doomsters] will always be proved right in the end.” My optimism comes from that in an entropic universe, the doomsters will always be proved wrong. Entropy is the driving force of the universe. In closed systems (the universe is a closed system) the entropy will always tend to increase. This is the second law.

    Looking at the planet as a system, the presence–miracle of life is the universe acting to increase entropy. The inexorable progress of humanity is an expression of increasing entropy. It is quite beautiful, the complexity that evolves around us and through our actions. While the universe’s entropy will tend to increase, the same is not guaranteed at the level of humanity.

    We have a choice. We can as the Luddites want limit our entropy growth. This will cause our society to become more at risk to butterfly catastrophes, where minor and seemingly random shocks cause a negative entropy gradient and lead to collapse. This is very similar to Resilience Thinking in analyzing ecological systems. Or, we can embrace the change around us and allow complexity to occur. Collin McInnes pointed out that oil saved the whales and coals saved the forest. Those technological improvements increased humanity’s entropy drastically. It also increased the entropy of the planet and other life forms by reducing the pressure we were exerting on our natural world. Here nuclear energy has the potential to further increase humanity’s entropy and the entropy of the planet, by decoupling our lives and impact on the planet form our own actions. We are in a sense allowing the planet to compete with us. In this form of competition everyone is better off.

    A physicist friend was asked to summarize all of science into one tweet. He did so in three words, “Entropy always wins.” It is for this inexorable reality that the doomsters will always be wrong, unless we let them be right. The choice is ours, which side of the entropy gain do we want to be on? Accept reality and the world around us and embrace complexity. Or, live in a world of fantasy acting to fight universal forces, where we will ultimately be overrun by entropy’s inexorable march forward.

    • Thanks for your very interesting comment- not sure I understand this bit though:

      Collin McInnes pointed out that oil saved the whales and coals saved the forest. Those technological improvements increased humanity’s entropy drastically. It also increased the entropy of the planet and other life forms by reducing the pressure we were exerting on our natural world.

      so if we use more concentrated forms of energy, this increases entropy, am I right? just want to make sure I understand entropy correctly!

      • As our society grew and exerted pressure on the environment for resources, we strained the ecosystem reducing the ecological entropy. We made the environment more fragile, and in some instances caused regime change from one stable configuration to another. When we added energy sources that were “outside” of the ecology, we increased our energy consumption–availability of useful work and entropy while simultaneously reducing our pressure on the environment. By reducing our environmental demands we allowed the entropy to grow in the environment.

        As we scaled our use of fossil fuels our consumption created a new set of constraints on the environment–pollution. This is why further decoupling of our society from the environment is needed to ensure our future growth and preserve the world in which we inhabit.

  7. Chinampas (good permaculture design here are an example of an ecologically-mimicing (& reintroduce wetland riparian habitat largely drained) food growing system, and reckoned to be the most highly productive agricultural system.

  8. Hi Graham,
    I’m new to your blog and have really appreciated it so far. I’m pretty new to the green movement and all of the doom talk has really rattled me so it’s great to hear a different perspective on it. I don’t know if this is the right place for this but I was wondering what your thoughts are on this article

    I’d appreciate your insight =) Thanks!

    • Hi Sarah thanks for your comment.
      Ted Trainer- where to start?

      The big problems, particularly climate change, are so serious that they cannot be solved without unprecedented and extremely radical change, including abandoning the obsession with economic growth, market systems, and high living standards.

      Oh dear- so the first question is, which would be the bigger disaster- abandoning high living standards or dealing with climate change? One obvious point is that we know the effects of poverty- shorter and more miserable lives, less access to modern health care, less education etc.. The effects of climate change are actually unknown (despite what Al Gore might have you believe ;)) -but what we do know for sure is that a changing climate- indeed any negative effects of the weather of climate, natural or man-made- will hit the poor hardest. The wealthy will obviously be much better placed to withstand whatever is coming down the road re. climate- building better flood defences, developing technology to adapt in farming (eg drought-tolerant or flood-tolerant crops) is obviously something that will be far harder if we collapse the economy. So Trainer’s basic premise seems deluded from the start.

      The fundamental cause of the global problems threatening humanity is a grossly unsustainable level of over-consumption. The per-capita rates at which people living in rich countries are using up resources are far beyond levels that can be kept up for long or that could be extended to all the world’s nations. Yet most people fail to grasp the magnitude of the overshoot or its significance. The reductions required are so big that they cannot possibly be achieved within a consumer-capitalist society. Among the factors that policy makers are ignoring are standards of living, available land, carbon emissions, and economic growth.

      Trainer starts from a post-modern delusion that is at the core of environmentalism: he thinks that there was some kind of “natural” state for humans to live which was fine and sustainable, and the wealth of the modern world is a Bad thing and “unsustainable”. So again one should ask the question, would we really be better off by returning to the life of Medieval peasants? Would that solve our problems? The truth is, our “natural” state is one of a desperate struggle for survival; only human technology can improve on this. There has been an environmental cost, but the benefits hugely outweigh this.

      More than that, Trainer ignores the fact that there remain a couple of billion people who have never left that state of poverty, they have never been able to approach levels of western consumerism Trainer rails against; if CO2 is your gripe for example, emissions in the US and Europe have been stable of declining for over a decade, nearly all the increases come from the developing world. Maybe Mr. Trainer should focus on telling the hundreds of millions on China and India who have been and continue to come out of poverty through development that poverty would be much better for them. Good luck with that.

      Trainer uses Australian levels of resource and land consumption and extrapolates for the whole world; however Australia is exceptional in that it is a vast country with a relatively tiny population, so quite unrepresentative. If you did the same exercise starting with Manhattan for example, where people are just as rich but live in a very dense compact city, where less than half the inhabitants own a car, you would draw very different conclusions.

      Trainer’s basic philosophy is based on the zero-sum “limits to growth” view, which is highly questionable and fails to account for growth through innovation which will always do far more in terms of addressing temporary or regional resource constraints than “lifestyle changes” such as permaculture or Transition Towns, which are essentially playthings of the elite and wealthy. I see zero evidence that such things have made any real difference in reducing resource consumption.

      Limits to Growth thinking has been repeatedly shown to be extravagantly wrong, because the technological development that Trainer begins by dismissing as a “myth” has always been underestimated: the carrying capacity of the earth is largely a function of human technology: as our food producing systems improve, we feed more people with less land. By banning or limiting new technology in agriculture- GMOs for example the land requirements per person will certainly increase, the opposite of what Trainer says needs to happen. Compare this recent paper challenging the ecological footprint analysis.

      Also, his pessimism seems straight-forwardly misplaced: things are getting better.

      Trainer ignores population- growth rates are stabilizing because of the demographic transition which is clearly a consequence of the development he rails against: Trainer seems to wish for a top-down socialist one-world solution-HIS solution- but his whole theory is based on flawed data and a flawed understanding of the world; not only that but his “solutions” would make the problems far worse: as Matt Ridley says, “a return to Nature would be a disaster- for Nature”. Population growth would rapidly return of we lived as peasants again for example.

      Hope that helps!!

  9. Nice of you to engage with my post, Graham, I didn’t think you were still lookin’ – there’s plenty more on my blog about golden rice, Malthus etc for you to get stuck into.

    I shan’t respond in too much detail to the above, but I’ll make a few points in an effort to identify where I think you eco-panglossians are misreading your critics. Not that I think it’ll make you change your ways, the Eeyore in me says.

    Point #1: Your arguments depend deeply on a notion of smooth, uninterrupted amelioration throughout human history and prehistory that can only be achieved through technological development. This leads you into using words like ‘reverse’ ‘backward’ ‘progress’ ‘development’ ‘improvement’ etc unselfconsciously as empirical and philosophical givens. But it’s not warranted by the facts of history or the possibilities of either philosophy or technology. Manifestly, the Eeyores as you call them haven’t always been wrong.

    Point #2: Because you project your politics onto history and your view of history is so teleological you’re incapable of understanding critics of your view as doing anything other than adopting its mirror image, namely that the past was better and things are getting worse – which is why you keep accusing me of things like believing in a ‘lost world of romantic perfection’ despite citing no evidence for this from anything I’ve actually written. My article ‘Genesis & J. Baird Callicott’ in the ‘Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture’ addresses itself to this stifling progressive/romantic duality of improvement/degeneration and why it is so pointless and obstructive of sensible debates on contemporary environmental issues.

    Point #3: it’s funny that you think my kind of position is timid, negative, miserable and joyless, because that’s exactly how I see yours, for reasons that I touch on at I do sometimes wonder if you secular ideologues of progress are just sublimating your fear of death and your hopes of heaven into your teleological schemes of human progress. I agree with you that it’s no bad thing for society to have some risk-takers – the trouble is we’ve built our contemporary ideology around this almost in its entirety. The point is not so much that I fear it’ll all go wrong, though that may certainly be a problem – and one whose possibility at least you seem to acknowledge. The point is that I don’t think it’s a very good ideology, and it causes a lot of people a lot of misery.

    Point #4: I accused your eco-panglossian position of amounting to ‘somebody’s bound to think of something’, adding that they may not. You seem to agree, so I guess we’re clear on that point. At least you’re more honest than Bill Price’s laughable ‘setting up the next generation for a running start’.

    • Bullshit. You’re just another two-bit alarmist anti-nuke/anti-GE activist just like all the other greentards, completely ignorant and more than happy to spread misinformation to score political points. Green elitists like you really don’t deserve the “running start” civilisation has given you.

  10. Great illustration of how very thin your veneer of learning and reasonableness really is before your rancid aggression and intellectual limitations unmask you. Graham, go and teach yourself some history. You could try to appreciate that there’s more than one way of interpreting the world and more than one way to live in it while you’re about it – it might save you from the hubris of thinking that only stupid people can possibly disagree with you. I’m glad at least that the clever scientists you’re backing are taking things like soil erosion and phosphate inputs more seriously than you. Of course, there’s a worthwhile debate to be had about the issues you raise but you’re clearly not the person to have it with – instead of engaging with me you simply resort to insult. You lecture me about elitism while expressing your thanks that “we” aren’t still peasant labourers, despite the fact that as many people are going hungry today as existed worldwide at the beginning of the 19th century – and, no, that doesn’t mean I think the 19th century was better than the 21st. Your ludicrous panglossianism is lessTigger, more Mickey Mouse.

    • Tom

       /  November 19, 2013

      Fantastic response Chris. Having been at the receiving end of some ludicrously disproportionate vitriol from Graham, I admire your level-headedness.

      All that is manifested on this albeit-entertaining blog is pure ideology (“humans will continue to innovate and develop new technologies, that science will continue to develop our understanding of the universe”) paraded as ‘reason’ or ‘progress’ or some other nonsense. The fact that ad hominem attacks (“You’re just another two-bit alarmist anti-nuke/anti-GE activist just like all the other greentards, completely ignorant”) have to be rolled out so quickly and so often makes the shallowness of Strouts’ stance totally transparent.

  11. I vowed years ago never to comment here again, following being regularly on the receiving end of just the kind of abuse doled out to Chris here (“greentard”? What on earth kind of term is that?!!). I did however state that if I felt I had been criticised or attacked in a way that was unreasonable, I reserved the right to reply.

    Graham writes that Transition initiatives are “essentially playthings of the elite and wealthy”. No examples are provided. Perhaps Graham you might like to tell that to the people doing Transition in the favelas in Sao Paolo in Brazil, in Brixton where Brixton Energy is creating a dynamic model for people on low incomes to invest in community-owned renewables while also creating training for local young people and insulating their homes. You might like to mention it to the communities ravaged by austerity in Portugal who are setting up vibrant Transition initiatives. Or indeed a wide range of places doing great stuff. Of course some Transition groups operate in wealthier places, some in poorer places. To focus on the wealthier ones and to use that to dismiss an entire movement of thousands of diverse places around the world comes across as ignorant, deliberately misinformed, and just dishing out cheap abuse to make yourself feel better.

    I notice that Nick Nakorn is here, still dishing out his “Steiner people are behind everything I don’t like” nonsense. Just for the record Nick, I am still waiting for some sort of response to the detailed rebuttal I posted of your pathetic Google-driven “Transition is a Steiner cult” nonsense piece (, which Graham described as “a fascinating and worrying analysis”, in spite of it being utter nonsense from start to finish. Nick, a response, and indeed a retraction, would be great, and long overdue.

    This idea that Transition groups are “essentially playthings of the elite and wealthy” captures what it is that has gone so horribly wrong with this website and the views it peddles, namely the complete absence of any analysis of power and where it lies. Are we really meant to believe that Transition represents the elites and the wealthy, while dismissing climate change, rubbishing renewables, focusing the production of food into the hands of fewer and fewer companies, shifting to huge centrally-controlled power sources such as nuclear are benevolently about shifting power back to ordinary people? Come on…. As one commenter once put here, you’ve “lost your moral compass”.

    Of course, if this website is to be believed, not only are Transition groups “playthings of the elite and wealthy”, we are also all closet Nazis, infatuated with Steiner and with rolling around in the mud medieval-style, determinedly rejecting scientific advances and believing in fairies. The only problem with the carefully-constructed and evidence-based hypothesis is that it doesn’t actually represent anyone I know who does this stuff. Oh well, never mind that…

    • Hi Rob! thanks for your comments and welcome back. It does come across as a bit of a rant though to be honest.

      Graham writes that Transition initiatives are “essentially playthings of the elite and wealthy”. No examples are provided. Perhaps Graham you might like to tell that to the people doing Transition in the favelas in Sao Paolo in Brazil, in Brixton where Brixton Energy is creating a dynamic model for people on low incomes to invest in community-owned renewables while also creating training for local young people and insulating their homes. You might like to mention it to the communities ravaged by austerity in Portugal who are setting up vibrant Transition initiatives. Or indeed a wide range of places doing great stuff. Of course some Transition groups operate in wealthier places, some in poorer places.

      leaving aside that we might not always agree on what constitutes “doing great stuff”…

      I completely accept that many poor and disadvantaged people are involved in Transition. However, I argue that the Transition Towns movement in concept is part of and reflects closely the aims of the general environmental movement which is indeed elitist: for example, Transition is indeed closely aligned with Green elitists and their ideologies, including Prince Charles as I have discussed here; Schumacher as I have discussed here; and Vandana Shiva who I have discussed here and here. And also of course despite your curious denials, Transition is indeed strongly aligned with other pseudoscience such as Joanna Macey, Deep Ecology, Anthroposophy and alternative medicine.
      Cults work by having a broad appeal, which often includes the vulnerable and poor: naturally, Transition would mean very different things to the poor than to western greens: for the poor, a few solar panels and gardens can make a lot of difference; for the wealthy, they tend to be more a life-style choice. But the ideology behind movements like Transition is essentially conservative and paternalistic towards the poor: it is preferable to keep them poor while ostensibly helping, but because they are not supposed to develop much beyond peasant farmers (they are romanticized as living close to nature) the effect is largely reactionary. Transition is of course anti-growth and development- gardening and renewables would never be enough to bring people out of poverty, they need industry as well, but that is not part of the game plan!
      So all these broader ideologies are conservative, elitist and do indeed have some roots in the Far-Right. I think this is most clearly seen in the “work” of Vandana Shiva.
      I don’t dismiss climate change, but try to show the actual science is far less alarming than activists like to make out, and that it is largely mediated through a reactionary political movement.
      Your stance on genetic engineering, fracking, nuclear and renewables etc. is not based on facts or analysis, but on green conservative anti-modernist, anti-science ideologies and activism. It is not unreasonable to humorously caricature Transition and similar movements- including permaculture- as proposals for Maedaevil re-enactments or yearnings for Big Rock Candy Mountain. The problem is, these fantasies are impacting real policy to the detriment of the rest of us. “Greentard” is a derisive word for greens who adopt pseudoscience on some of these issues; I used it above in frustration with the response of Chris who ignores all the substantive points I made in the post and hides behind a smoke-screen of “ideology” to avoid the actual evidence.

    • Of course, if this website is to be believed, not only are Transition groups “playthings of the elite and wealthy”, we are also all closet Nazis, infatuated with Steiner and with rolling around in the mud medieval-style, determinedly rejecting scientific advances and believing in fairies. The only problem with the carefully-constructed and evidence-based hypothesis is that it doesn’t actually represent anyone I know who does this stuff.

      I dont think this is true! I know several people involved in Transition who do indeed fit that description pretty well at least in part and you know them too!! (Not the “closet Nazis” part- I argue the movement draws some of its ideas from traditionalist roots which were indeed shared by the Nazis and other Far-right groups; I certainly dont claim Transition is directly inspired by Nazism; but that some of its origins are to be found in far-right and conservative politics resulting sometimes in bedfellows of dubious merit.)

    • I think your comments about Nick are a bit spiteful really, bringing up a post of his from more than three years ago- maybe time to let go? As I say, I agree with Nick that there are influences and support from Anthroposophists, and have made clear the issues I have with this. You might be more diplomatic given that Nick’s position seems more moderate than my own- in that post he states:

      My aim is not to rubbish the TTN; in general I think it is an extraordinary project that will, hopefully, spread the concepts of energy decent and community resilience. Indeed, there is so much I approve of in TTN’s general approach, that any connection to the racist doctrines of Steiner and similar nonsensical New-age mysticism should be pro-actively opposed to ensure the TTN can not be used to mobilise fascist tendencies; something that must be guarded against during times of economic and social collapse; of which I am sure there is more to come.

      Nick’s position seems to be that he supports the general aims of transition in so far as they accord with his own fairly left-ish views, and he wants to protect Transition- which he believes as important- from right-wing infiltration. The risks of this in the depression might be something you should take seriously and address constructively with regard to your movement. Your hurt tone would more suggest that you dont want the cover to be lifted on these more unsavory alignments of Transition – you seem keen to defend them rather than take a hard look at what the politics of Transition really are.

    • I note that your drive-by comment is not followed up by engagement with any of the issues I have raised. No surprises there Rob! I should point out again that Rob is happy to make snarky commments here when it suits him, while I am banned from commenting on his site for years now.
      Couldnt resist this though:

      While responding to a comment here I just came across this page about Eliza Cowdray who seems to be a good example of the green elite I am talking about: yes I know she is not Transition Towns (or perhaps she is?) and you have not directly aligned with her (or have you?) but she seems to be very much in the mold of Prince Charlie and their whacky views on food, health and the environment. And over at Chowdray Park where she is using her families’ wealth to practice her new-found sustainability without any risk to herself (this is NOT the same as peasant farming- more hobby farming by the idle aristocracy in search of Meaning for themselves) they really do practice… Medieval re-enactments. Fun for all the family!

  12. There was precious little in the way of ‘substantive points’ or ‘actual evidence’ in your post, just a lot of generalities about how you think scientific progress will solve current problems. Followed up by a diatribe against me containing no substantive points at all. You’re quick to decry the ideology you detect in other people’s arguments, but when you get called out on the ideology in your own you react like some crazed attack-dog, and then, when you’ve calmed down, ideology suddenly becomes a ‘smoke-screen’ that justifies scare quotes. If you had even a moderately sophisticated grasp of debates in agronomy, development studies and social science you’d appreciate that delivering sustainability and social justice is complex and uncertain terrain. Instead you reduce it to a cartoon duality of progressives vs reactionary romantics. And, repugnantly, you invoke the suffering of the poor to grandstand your own particular politics against the supposed ‘elitism’ of others like me who take a different view on how to deliver sustainability and social justice – without, as Rob points out, any kind of analysis of social power that might suggest you really understand what elitism means. You deride pseudoscience, but you seem to lack sufficient scientific nous to see it in crabel2013’s peculiar take on entropy. Why does it matter to you to decide whether to look at the future with optimism or pessimism? The future requires neither of us, just decisions about which options to choose on the basis of our best guess as to how things will unfold. Your optimism is a timid clutching after social ideologies you’re either too scared or too self-interested to question.

    Anyway, I’m glad that there are some other voices on here calling out your blog for what it is. Like Rob, I’m resigning forthwith from further comments – albeit with the same caveat – because I don’t think any further feeding of your curious need to hurl abuse at people is useful to anybody, including you.

    • Evidently I only wrote this post in response to your own quite unsolicited “diatribe” against me Chris.
      Here is a substantive point you have ignored: your vacuous misinformation and scare-mongering about nuclear power, which shows you to be just another ant-science greentard. The rest is empty waffle.
      Here you can find clearly stated questions from an earlier discussion on Golden Rice and your general attitude to specific technologies that you dont like and spread misinformation about, which were put to you many times, which you entirely ignored.

  13. Rob,
    three years ago, soon after your comments on my blog, I started to write a comprehensive reply but realised I would simply be repeating all that I had observed in Mystic Shadows of Colour parts 1 & 2. – indeed, a reply would have been longer than the original piece because each point would have to be defended and explained further in the light of your unwillingness to engage constructively in the issues I had outlined – it simply was not a productive use of my time in my view.
    In your comments then and now you seem to use think that ‘Google Research’ is somehow disreputable yet, as you well know, the internet is where everything is these days. My piece was in the tradition of social comment and polemic and, while I’m happy for anyone to produce cogent counter arguments or not to like my style of writing, I do not think it fair to compare such observations with academic research; many bloggers and occasional writers provide no supporting material at all.
    My dislike of all things Steiner is partly because I think his so-called spiritual nonsense is damaging to rationality and thus to any discourse about anything (though that problem is common to all religions), but my specific objection is because his creed is a modern, explicitly racist doctrine and the ‘Green’ middle classes to whom his ‘sprituality’ appeals have many, many other similar ideas to choose from that do not carry his underlying racist perspective. That people choose to associate with Anthroposophy in the knowledge that Steiner’s perspective is racist is simply a measure of how low down on their list is the well-being and comfort of people not in their tribe.
    The Green Party’s latest research into the diversity of their membership shows how few BEM people are involved in environmental issues and part of that is the embedded racism (and anti-rationalism that underpins it). All I have ever asked of the green movement is to put forward rational non-racist arguments that allow the participation of anyone concerned with the issues; yet such inclusivity seems only of passing interest to the green movement in general and is actively opposed by those for whom Anthoposophical organisations represent a valued means of social exchange and practical support.
    Within many groups to which I otherwise might feel inclined to associate with – either because I’m interested in, or supportive of, the issues – such as Occupy, protecting badgers, anti-Fracking and so-on show their enthusiastic support for Steiner in their blogs and social networks and, naturally, I test the waters. I have found doors closing very rapidly in response. If the green movement is serious about inclusion, individuals and organisations might well consider disassociating themselves entirely from all things Anthroposophical – all the excuses for not doing so simply underline how embedded Steiner’s racism has become.

  14. Good morning Graham.

    [snip- irrelevant snark and waffle. noone is going to read through that}

    No I don’t know Eliza Chowdray, but it seems to me that if someone who is in her position wants to use some of her wealth and land to trial lower impact ways of producing food, you could of course sneeringly accuse her of pointless hobby-farming, or you could think fair play, people certainly do a lot worse with their money (i.e. investing it in coal or apartments in Dubai), and for all you know there may be a research element to what she’s doing and it could yield productive learnings. Your rush to dismiss what she’s doing, given your supposed commitment to innovation and research, is instructive.

    Your stuff about Transition being a cult (yawn), and being “essentially a conservative and paternalistic towards the poor” is such nonsense, and shows firstly how thoroughly out of touch you are with what we’re doing, and secondly the lenses through which you filter everything. We’ve debated this stuff to death. I think you are wildly wrong. Your characterisation of the ‘green movement’ is SO lazy, it is far broader and more diverse than you present it) in the way you present. Yet still you ignore any questions around power and privilege. That’s because you cannot defend it.

    Of course EDF and Chinese investors have more power than communities opposing nuclear power. Of course Tesco and Walmart have more power than the communities that oppose them. Of course Monsanto and the investors behind biotech have more power than the groups and farmers standing up to oppose it. Of course the fossil fuel industry, with its revolving door with government and huge legal budgets, have more power than groups trying to oppose expansion of fossil fuels or to protect themselves against those companies. George Monbiot wrote recently about how it is the corporations that run the country, not the governments any longer. Worth a read if you didn’t see it.

    Ask the communities in Ecuador who, after a huge oil spill, finally got their government to sue Chevron, who promptly refused to pay, saying they should be tried in the US. They then were tried in the US, lost that too and were fined billions of dollars, which they also refused to pay, and they have now launched a counter lawsuit against the solicitor who prosecuted them for “racketeering”.

    As one of the lawyer in the case put it: “This is an extraordinary case, which has degenerated into a Dickensian farce. … Chevron is using its limitless resources to crush defendants and win this case through might rather than merit.”

    {snip- off-topic}

    As for the idea that somehow Transition is “impacting on real policy to the detriment of the rest of us”. I wish. All that cleaner air and cleaner rivers, rapidly growing renewables sector, less traffic coming into cities and more cycling. Damn you, green paternalists!! You may choose to believe that “the actual science (on climate change) is far less alarming than activists like to make out, and that it is largely mediated through a reactionary political movement”, I personally think that’s rubbish, that the science is clear, unequivocal, and that urgent policy changes are needed if we are to avoid changes to the climate that will make the fires in Australia, and recent hurricanes and typhoons look like “the good old days”. Of course James Delingpole and his ilk will complain, but as I see it, what you dismiss as “reactionary political movements” are the only people putting themselves between ourselves and an unliveable climate. You really think future generations will thank you Graham for your stance on climate change? I doubt it very much. For someone who argues that the evidence base is all important, it is you, rather than the “greens” who have allowed your politics to push the evidence to one side. Of course Nigel Lawson’s take on climate change isn’t, for a moment, “essentially conservative and paternalistic to the poor”, he really is speaking up for the poor of the planet, not, of course, for the unnamed fossil fuel interests who fund his foundation. Hurrah for him.

    I’ll respond to Nick in a while (sorry Graham, can’t do it instantly, have to feed my kids, get them off to school, go to work etc), but thanks Nick for replying, I appreciate it.


    • Your rush to dismiss what she’s doing, given your supposed commitment to innovation and research, is instructive.

      There is no rush- I have been painstakingly building up this argument in extensively researched blog-posts for the past couple of years, and of course there are many erudite authors and commentators who would agree with me. The point is that, like Prince Charles, it is all smoke-and-mirrors: you can experiment with anything if you have the money to do so, and make traditional farming look really appealing -so long as you have the much-hated supermarket as a back-up. This is all Organic farming is- a life-style choice for the privileged, exactly as I say, which has proved extremely successful at demonising the industrial systems which feed us- possibly to the detriment of some who avoid vegetables out of fear of nasty chemical residues, but cannot afford the more expensive organic alternative. I DO think that there is a role for organics for research etc but what constitutes “Organics” is based on woo (19th Century beliefs that synthetic chemicals are somehow unwholesome) it is not the most promising model. It really is just Medieval re-enactment, isn’t it Rob?

      Your characterisation of the ‘green movement’ is SO lazy, it is far broader and more diverse than you present it) in the way you present

      For the most part, on my blog I always take care to use precise quotations and address specific writers, so no this is not correct. I do not characterise greens unfairly, they speak for themselves. Yes, the green movement is diverse- it might even still include me!- but it is always very clear who I am adressing and what beliefs I am challenging (usually the Darker Green religion).
      But what is really interesting, given that you raise the issue of diversity of the movement, is the split within the Greens regarding Climate Change and Nuclear. Being anti-nuclear is a core part of the Green creed- hardly likely to change. But this is problematic, since only nuclear is capable of providing a low-carbon substitute for fossil fuels. Your anti-nuclear position is only viable because you suffer from the delusion that wind and solar can replace coal, oil and gas. They cannot. You quote Monbiot, but of course he is indeed one of the prominent Greens who accepts the necessity of nuclear to help cut carbon emissions, and is prepared to call out the woo that activists rely on.
      I know this is the sort of thing that will have you spitting bile at me and swearing to never return to Skepteco, but I put it to you: the reason you cannot upset your voluminous anti-nuke constituents is because they are mainly Dark Green woo-merchants who reject science and evidence. Just a thought.

      Yet still you ignore any questions around power and privilege. That’s because you cannot defend it.

      This is the same point that Greens make all the time, and I have indeed addressed it on numerous occasions. For example see this my post Science and the Greens.

      It works like this: start from the ideological position that capitalism and corporate power is the crux of our problems; ignore data to the contrary; lie and scare-monger about the environmental impacts and the data; when challenged on the facts, simply use the get-out-of-jail-free card: the scientists are in bed with the capitalists. Science in a capitalist society is always corrupt because everything is pressed into service of the capitalist system. We don’t need any actual evidence of this (although corruption in science is surely a problem) – it is an indisputable fact that follows inexorably from our first assumption about capitalism being the Root of All Evil.

      (Except when talking about things that we like or find useful such as computers and coffee. Your computer is giving you cancer and could blow up at any minute. Oh the corporations say it is safe and wont do you any harm? Well Doh they would say that wouldn’t they!!)

      Bell and Corner are quite correct of course to point to the importance of political context that science operates in, but seem oblivious to the political power-context that environmentalism operates in: why should science want to learn anything from Green activists when they have taken an absolutist stance and routinely reject evidence? What has science got to learn from a movement which takes an uncritical view of alternative therapies and organic farming, both powerful vested interests with deep pockets and considerable political influence but no time for old-fashioned things like evidence? All they end up confirming is that anti-capitalism and a vague leftish concept of “power” is routinely used as an excuse for thumbing the Big Green nose at science. If there is a political case to be made against the adoption of GMOs or nuclear power, we are certainly not getting it from the Greens, who seem only too willing to lie about the evidence in order to promote their own ideology.

      As Stewart Brand says, “being against all corporations is as intelligent as being against all countries.” But ofcourse you, like all Green leaders, are not against all corporations- only the ones whom you can gain political capital from by being against. You, just like everyone else in modern society owe your standard of living very largely (but not only) to corporations and the products they manufacture for you. This is why we are all so much richer than in the past, something you retro-romantics just cannot bare to admit. It’s not me who has no analysis of power and privilege, it’s you- I can see it works both ways, and I also of course give an analysis of Green political power, something which you naively or self-servingly assume to be completely apart from any power structures.

      Consider this: Monsanto are supposed to be the epitome of corporate gigantism, threatening to take over the world’s food supply (LOL!)- yet they have been kicked out of Europe, their products rejected- so where does the power lie? Much of Africa has rejected GMOs under threat of consumer boycotts, lead by Greenpeace, leading to preventable hunger and misery for thousands if not millions. Greenpeace Inc. have a seat on the UN, which is more than some sub-Saharan African countries have, yet they are not democratically elected. Their stance on GMOs and nuclear power is opposed to the majority of scientists. So where is the balance of power, Rob? Where is your analysis of Green Power Politics? The answer is, you have none, because you personally benefit from this power, and because you just cannot believe that anyone on Your Side could be anything other than Good, Pure and True.

      Same with climate change. The appeal to “future generations”, though forming the back-bone of climate activism, is nothing but empty rhetoric (see the post above and earlier comments.) Nice try,but obviously the same could be asked of you: will these mythical future generations thank you for crashing the economy, attacking science that can make prosperity for everyone, and forcing us into a hopelessly ineffective “soft energy path” just to gain political capitol and a higher public profile? I dont think they will. Yet once again you ignore where the power is- climate policies are largely top-down policies imposed from the political classes; Al Gore’s film set the standard for fear-mongering which you are happy to continue with here. If you want to invoke science, you actually need to refer to it: the latest IPCC report does NOT support your rhetorical claims that AGW is currently leading to increased extreme weather.:

      This is exactly the kind of fear-mongering that the Green movement depends on to drive itself and gain support: fear is great for getting activism but it is not so great for making rational decisions. And that I think is where the main problem with your movement lies.

    • Just a word of advice Rob: nothing provides more evidence for the cultish nature of Transition than your own behaviour here (and elsewhere). You are the Cult Leader, but seem intensely brittle, suggesting you have no real faith in your own work, fearing that it could collapse at any minute despite being a global movement. You cannot tolerate the slightest bit of criticism and lash out against anything that poses a challenge. This is one of the hallmarks of a cult- no criticism or dissent in any way can be tolerated. You increasingly sound megalomaniac I am sorry to say. I assure you, this blog only becomes a threat to Transition when you come here and leave ill-considered words that will inevitably come back to haunt you later. This post was not written at all with Transition in mind, I was very surprised you felt the need to respond in the way you did to what was really an off-hand comment re. Transition. I honestly wonder as I have done many times over the years whether you are getting good advice- If I was in your movement I would be very concerned to see the Leader behave this way.

    • I should point out that I do now seem to have left a comment on Rob’s blog- for the first time I think in nearly two years, so thanks to Rob if he has changed his policy; it was nearly two years ago that I was banned from Transition Culture for uttering the immortal words in a tweet that Rob is “a professional purveyor of woo”.
      Worth reading this post with reference to Nick’s claims that Transition is full of woo (it is) Rob Hopkins bans me from Transition Culture.

  15. Dear Nick

    Thank you very much for responding. I’m glad you are recovered from your illness and able to have this conversation finally. I appreciate the good things you had to say both about Transition and about myself in the piece. I’m glad you overall think that what we’re doing is worthwhile. It is one thing to say that to reply would have taken too much time, but surely even an acknowledgement at the time would have been civil, given that I had taken the time to rebut, point by point, your post?

    What I objected to was the 2+2=5 approach which led to all kinds of ridiculous flights of fancy, leading you to a place where you could write something like “The Transition Town movement, I hope and imagine, would not see itself as supporting dictators like Pinochet” with a straight face.

    You write of my “unwillingness to engage constructively in the issues I had outlined”, I felt I had given a pretty comprehensive response, pointing out where your 2+2=5 logic took you beyond the realms of reality. You have a stated opposition for Steiner, many aspects of which I would agree with, but as I said, it is not my witchhunt. If you substitute ‘Steiner’ for ‘Jewish conspiracy’, your piece reads like many conspiracy theory articles, weaving webs out of mist in order to support a pre-determined position.

    In particular I objected to your statements that:

    * Transition Town Totnes is “heavily influenced by Steiner”, a statement for which there is no evidence at all
    * That Transition Culture, the blog I write, is “full of mystical nonsense”. I would challenge you to identify some please, taking the dictionary definition of “involving or characterized by esoteric, otherworldly, or symbolic practices or content, as certain religious ceremonies and art; spiritually significant; ethereal”.
    * You wrote “TTT that has been so successful due in no small part to the South Devon Steiner School”, yet as I pointed out, TTT has operated in virtual isolation from SDSS, bar one talk and one use of their room. Given that we have been operating since 2005, I would hardly take that to imply that they have been pivotal to our success.

    As I pointed out in my original reply:

    “I’m sorry, but you could just as easily build an argument that we are unduly influenced by the FreeMasons (we held an event in their hall once, the only one available that night), the Church of England (we have held dozens of events in their hall), or possibly the Methodists (their hall is currently our venue of choice). All organisations no doubt with a few skeletons in their cupboards you could build a case that we have now woven into our organisational thinking. You could suggest that we are unduly influenced by the corporate sector given that I once gave a talk to the ProBus Club, retired professional business people … and so on and so on….”

    You claimed that Ashoka share “an inference to sympathies with karmic re-incarnation and charismatic fascism”, based, apparently just on the fact that they are named after an ancient Indian king. I have been involved with them for a few years now, and have seen absolutely no evidence of any such thing. They promote social enterprise around the world. End of.

    If you take having once had any involvement at all with anything to do with Steiner as evidence of complete an unequivocal support for everything Steiner ever stood for, then you will be building a very long list. Michael Gove has said far more positive things about Steiner education than I ever have. It is true that the environmental movement as a whole is not as diverse as it could be, but I think to blame the influence of Steiner for that is fanciful. There are many people, both within Transition and also in the broader environmental movement, doing a lot of work to address that.

    It is entirely understandable that you have issues with Steiner and the dubious nature of some of his assertions and his philosophy. I find much of what he had to say odious too. However, to argue that the ‘green movement’ (a hugely broad spectrum, as I reminded Graham above) is all infatuated with Steiner bears no reality to my experience of it. At all.

    You write that your piece was a “social comment and polemic”, and I get that. But even social comment and polemic has an obligation not to drag other peoples’ reputations and hard work through the mud in order to enable you to make your point. I appreciate that you are concerned that what you perceive at Steiner’s underlying racism may somehow tarnish Transition, but I can assure you that, other than your piece, that has never been an issue. As I said before, I would appreciate your retraction on the three points above.


  16. I have already said this on Nick’s original blog, but you are missing the point Rob: it is unquestioningly true that Transition attracts and is supported by those sympathetic to Anthroposophy, alternative medicine, and Organic gardening. I have referenced where you can see Transition actively promoting such woo in its own literature above. To deny this is true seems just bizarre. It is undeniable! That doesnt mean everyone in Transition supports these things, indeed I have seen some interesting debates on these issues from within the movement on your blog. Obviously Organics is a big part of your movement, yet Organics is really just the acceptable public face of Biodynamics. The Green Party also has or still does promote/align with Biodynamics and Homeopathy. I can only guess that the increasingly desperate denials are because somewhere inside you understand how serious a threat this is for your movement.

  17. Well thank you Graham. The usual old guff, and editing my comment for me, thanks! I wasn’t aware that your site moderation extended to pruning the comments people post here. Interesting to see the bits you cut out deeming them “[snip- irrelevant snark and waffle. noone is going to read through that}”. For those still reading this thread, it was my taking issue with the term “greentard”, which Graham feels free to hurl out. I guess you’ll never get to see it now.

    I joined this thread to make a point, and I have now made that point. I’ll leave it to the reader to determine its worth. As for the rest, same old boring nonsense I’m afraid. Debating with Graham is like repeatedly slamming your own head with a car door. I’m sure others reading this who have similarly waded in will know the feeling. Quite how sticking up for oneself and defending something against uninformed nonsense quite constitutes megalomania will remain a mystery. Good luck and cheerio.

    • The usual old guff, and editing my comment for me,

      That would appear to be a derogatory comment. (Just pointing that out.) Your comment was edited for brevity, and it was off-topic: in many of our exchanges over the years you have preferred to discuss the “tone” rather than the substance, a useful diversionary tactic.

      Quite how sticking up for oneself and defending something against uninformed nonsense quite constitutes megalomania will remain a mystery

      Another derogatory comment. Au contraire, I am very informed and reference everything. Both mine and Nick’s critiques are not of you personally, but of Transition, and of the wider Green movement (in my case at least), you make yourself a target by taking it all so personally and taking it upon yourself to single-handedly defend the whole movement. But half of what you say is just about quashing any dissent- you have not refuted ANY of the points I have made! Or hardly engaged with them.
      Come on Rob, we can still make this useful by looking properly at a substantive point: how about the nuclear issue: which is more important to you, saving the world from Global Warming or banning nuclear and shale gas? This is a very hot topic for Greens considering the way energy policy in the UK is going, and the shift of some prominent Greens over to support nuclear. Dont forget Hansen et al’s recent appeal to environmental groups to embrace nuclear as the only way to meet carbon targets. To dismiss this issue as “the usual guff” or “uninformed nonsense” does not show you in a good light I have to say!

    • So just to tease out the climate issue:
      you say

      the science is clear, unequivocal, and that urgent policy changes are needed if we are to avoid changes to the climate

      weeeelllll…. What does the science say? That we are all certain to fry if we dont follow YOUR policy preferences? No, the science most certainly does not say that; the bit of the science that is “unequivocal” is that human-caused CO2 is exerting warming pressure on the climate. This could be a problem- but everything else is up for grabs, ie the science is uncertain and the policy response is not only down to science. So, we do not know how much warming we are causing; we do not know what the impacts will be; we do not know what if anything we can do about it. Or rather, it is certain that we can do nothing dramatic or conclusive about global warming, because we need to keep doing the things that might be causing it for the foreseeable future. The only credible route out of this, if de-carbonisation is your aim, is short/medium-term substitution of coal with gas- this most urgently needs to happen in China of course; and long-term transition to nuclear.
      The great thing about this plan is that it is win-win: you dont even need to “believe” in climate change to embrace it, because these are cleaner and ultimately more efficient fuels than coal and oil. So we can stop the bickering, yay!
      Except we can’t because greens think wind and solar will do the job; as Prof David MacKay says, “Im not pro-nuclear, just pro-arithmatic!”
      Greens, like permaculturalists, just dont do numbers though. Problem. So what happens is you get coal, and higher emissions. I have blogged about this several times so Im not gooing to leave loads of links, but I recommend reading Dieter Helm’s evidence to the House of Lords.
      Note that his underlying point is that policy has been dictated by the conviction that peak oil/gas will make renewables competitive. (NB: this again shows how climate/energy policy are indeed dictated from the top- policies based on green views on peak oil, they are not minority views but are driving current policy.) I kind of sense Jeremy Leggett’s comments in your interview with him betray a certain desperation that this is no longer the case, that shale gas has changed all that, but even he admits solar needs gas back-up. Which is every cloudy day.

  18. Graham. I hadn’t noticed your comment, and yes, the ‘ban’ still applies. Not “for uttering the immortal words in a tweet that Rob is “a professional purveyor of woo”, but because you were the most tedious troll, contributing nothing useful, as I put in the email I sent to you about it which you then published. I also stated I would not get involved here unless you wrote derogatory things here which I felt needed a response, hence my brief reappearance here. I have not, to the best of my knowledge, written anything derogatory, nor even mentioning you over at Transition Culture, so therefore there is no reason to change that.

    • That’s too bad. “Trolling” just means anything you dont agree with! Suppress dissent! As I explained on my post about this incident, I wasnt even the only one on the Thrive thread who took issue with your position, yet I am the only one singled out as a “troll”. Now, I also dont like trolls who dont add anything to the discussion, but I have not banned anyone- if the comment is pertinent I will publish. So my recent comment is nothing to do with Transition being full of woo or not, and taking issue with specific points Leggett was making, civil, relevant and on topic. But banned just the same. Here is the comment anyway, removed from this interview with Jeremy Leggett on Transition Culture:

      Interesting interview- but should we take Leggett at face value, since he is CEO of a private energy firm? Most likely he is somewhat biased to the interests of his own industry, which ofcourse has to compete against the prospect of cheap gas and vast base-load capacity of nuclear power.

      Specifically, I am curious how these two statements can be reconciled:

      they’ve made a crazy decision to commit vast numbers of billions of our money far into the future for a French and Chinese nuclear power plant on the coast of Somerset.


      More money is going into renewables than is going into fossil fuels and nuclear combined

      -the second seems highly unlikely, but if it is true it would be an even bigger waste of money since renewables only provide a small fraction of our energy- you imply we are actually paying more for that small fraction than for the lion’s share.

      I would take issue with nearly everything else Leggett says here as well- Germany will never be 100% renewables, it isnt physically possible, not even 80% is remotely plausible. It will never hapen because wind and solar are intermittent and highly diffuse sources of energy compared to gas or nuclear. It’s physics not politics. Nor is it clear why renewables advocates justify wind and solar as “renewables” at all- they have a life-span of only 20-25yrs, they rely on mining for rare-earths at substantial environmental cost, they still need fossil/nuclear back-up, they have a footprint that is probably better than wind and solar all things considered…. If Leggett is really concerned about climate change is worried about shale gas wells peppering the British landscape as in Pennsylvania (which obviously would not happen) he should back nuclear. Solar will do essentially nothing to reduce emissions, under any scenario.

  19. Rob,
    Again, there’s no point in me re-writing my original piece in order to answer issues I have already outlined so i will take just one of your points above and reproduce the context as an example:

    you say above:

    “What I objected to was the 2+2=5 approach which led to all kinds of ridiculous flights of fancy, leading you to a place where you could write something like “The Transition Town movement, I hope and imagine, would not see itself as supporting dictators like Pinochet” with a straight face. ”

    Here is the context from my original piece:


    “One of the naiveties of libertarian politics, typified by right-wing anarchists such as the economist Friedrich Hayek, is that social justice can not exist in a free society because resources can only be distributed by the price mechanism unless distributed by totalitarian regime. In Hayek’s schema, an unregulated free-market goes hand in hand with the spontaneous and uncontrolled creation of efficient distribution mechanisms in which the price mechanism ensures that all those capable of participation have access to goods and services. In conversation with the Reason organisation Hayek confirms his views:

    Hayek: I think there is a little shift recently as a result of my outright attack on the concept of social justice. It is now turning on the problem of whether social justice has any meaning at all and, of course, social justice is essentially based on some concept of merit. I’m afraid I have shocked my closest friends by denying that the concept of social justice has any meaning whatever. But I haven’t been persuaded that I was wrong.

    Reason: Well, then, why isn’t there any such thing as social justice?

    Hayek: Because justice refers to rules of individual conduct. And no rules of the conduct of individuals can have the effect that the good things of life are distributed in a particular manner. No state of affairs as such is just or unjust: it is only when we assume that somebody is responsible for having brought it about.

    Now, we do complain that God has been unjust when one family has suffered many deaths and another family has all of its children grow up safely. But we know we can’t take that seriously. We don’t mean that anybody has been unjust.

    In the same sense, a spontaneously working market, where prices act as guides to action, cannot take account of what people in any sense need or deserve, because it creates a distribution which nobody has designed, and something which has not been designed, a mere state of affairs as such, cannot be just or unjust. And the idea that things ought to be designed in a ‘just’ manner means, in effect, that we must abandon the market and turn to a planned economy in which somebody decides how much each ought to have, and that means, of course, that we can only have it at the price of the complete abolition of personal liberty.


    Hayek’s unreserved support for the fascist Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet somewhat undermines any claims that Hayek’s supporters might have concerning a positive appreciation of Hayek’s ethical values. Far-right and neo-conservative organisations, for whom Hayek is a guru of sorts, are greatly in favour of individual freedom and antipathetic towards social justice; they are (in their own eyes) bravely standing up to Political Correctness and rarely support civil rights. Within that social and political milieu typified by the promotion of free-market, spontaneous self-organisation, the freedom of the ruling elite to be racist (or sexist or homophobic or islamaphobic) outweighs the freedoms denied to groups subject to unreasonable prejudice and social pressure; for such privileged anarchists, society (and thus social pressure) does not exist and every individual has as much chance of winning the capitalist race as any other; it is no coincidence that one of Hayek’s greatest admirers was Margaret Thatcher (also a personal friend of Pinochet) and that some of her greatest admirers are the power-elite at New Labour.

    The Transition Town movement, I hope and imagine, would not see itself as supporting dictators like Pinochet. Indeed, Transition Culture suggests that one of the criteria for setting up a transition initiative is human rights:

    1. 13. a commitment to strive for inclusivity across your entire initiative. We’re aware that we need to strengthen this point in response to concerns about extreme political groups becoming involved in transition initiatives. One way of doing this is for your core group to explicitly state their support the UN Declaration of Human Rights (General Assembly resolution 217 A (III) of 10 December 1948). You could add this to your constitution (when finalised) so that extreme political groups that have discrimination as a key value cannot participate in the decision-making bodies within your transition initiative. There may be more elegant ways of handling this requirement, and there’s a group within the network looking at how that might be done.


    Yet, if one searches the Totnes Transition Town website using the search-term ‘racism’, not one single example is returned by the search engine. The search term ‘feminism’ likewise yields no results. ‘Human Rights’ returned only 6 results: Two in relation to Albert Bates, a speaker at an event who had experience in human rights campaigning; one in relation to mobile phone masts; two in relation to HIV and one in relation to diverting tax. And though one is thankful that human rights are mentioned in passing concerning the above issues (HIV/aids in particular), none of the search results were in relation to inclusivity and enfranchisement in respect of race and gender; it is as if such social problems did not exist.

    The Hayekian resemblance is further enhanced by the TTN’s opinions concerning spontaneous organisation as the Transition Initiatives Primer explains:

    Although you may start out developing your Transition Initiative with a clear idea of where it will go, it will inevitably go elsewhere. If you try and hold onto a rigid vision, it will begin to sap your energy and appear to stall. Your role is not to come up with all the answers, but to act as a catalyst for the community to design their own transition.

    If you keep your focus on the key design criteria – building community resilience and reducing the carbon footprint – you’ll watch as the collective genius of the community enables a feasible, practicable and highly inventive solution to emerge.


    TTN’s Naresh Giangrande outlines how these community initiatives link to anarchism:

    This is an anarchic, grass roots, democratic, citizen based initiative. We are aiming to reclaim power over our lives and the resources in our area. We will certainly engage with local government, but will act independently from local government.

    We are staying out of party politics, but parties might want to align themselves with the process, or not!

    Neither of us has any idea how the process will unfold and where it will go. That’s part of the beauty of it for me. It’s unpredictable. We have set the process in motion and then are allowing it to happen. Chaotic in the sense of chaos and complexity theory. There is no way of predicting what might happen or when, like predicting the stock market or the weather. We will be responding to events and happening as and when they happen, and let those events and happenings guide us. When dealing with complex systems with many different feedback mechanisms and inter-relations there is no way of knowing how they will inter act and what will be created.

    Open space events: Whoever comes is the right person. Self organising. Whoever wants to be part of it can, and can take whatever responsibility or role they wish.



    Rob, bear in mind that Mystic Shadows of Colour was specifically about issues of ‘Blood and Soil’ influences and, throughout the piece, I’m referring to that topic as fully explained in the introduction.

    As I’ve said before, there’s not a lot of point in replying to your objections when I’ve been reasonably thorough in my explanations already. All I can say now is to repeat that the problem of racism (mostly structural and institutional) within the green movement is quite real and needs to be addressed – inclusion is important and will not be improved by anarchism – it’s ‘Inclusion 101′ if you will.

    Best wishes Rob, but you really should be taking these issues seriously.

    • Thanks Nick- and you are welcome to continue to post anything you like here- but I will have to ask Rob to take his response back to your own blog- he is no longer welcome here.
      Here is why: Rob explains above that I am banned from his blog for being a boring troll; yet he sees fit to come here whenever he feels Transition is being criticized; his justification for this is that he does not write about me or my blog on his own. This exemplifies Rob’s megalomania: he identifies completely with the Transition movement, so any criticism of Transition is taken as a personal attack on himself (which explains his rabid responses). However, this is clearly asymmetrical: I am not a global movement! Unlike Rob, I am not a public figure with a global profile. He needs to be held to account in much the same way that a politician needs to be- even more so, since he is not elected. This is a very real issue which coincides I think with some of the issues you are raising.

      In this thread, Transition was mentioned in passing in a comment response to someone else, purely as an example of issues in the wider Green movement. So naturally, if Rob responds, he will inevitably be involved with discussions on all sorts of issues, from inclusiveness to energy and climate policy- the exact same discussions in other words from which I am excluded on his own blog. Moreover, under cover of responding to critiques of Transition (aka Mr. Rob Hopkins the person) he spends several hundred words discussing my use of a word in connection with another debate entirely, makes numerous snarky remarks about myself, dismissing my work as “guff” etc, and uses this forum to attack you and re-ignite a debate that started on your blog 3 years ago. Clearly this goes far beyond merely defending Transition, but in any case the boundaries cannot be rigidly set: if he can attack me for “dismissing renewables and climate change” here, he should be open to my comments on the same topics on his own blog.

      Message to Rob Hopkins: this blog may on occasion host posts that are critical of the Transition Towns movement, its philosophy and politics. It may also host opinions and critiques of you yourself in your capacity as the movement’s leader and an unelected public figure. This is my right as an individual citizen and private blogger.
      Regrettably, unless you admit my comments on your own blog I will be unable to host your responses here.

  20. Lizzie

     /  November 27, 2013

    Graham, you are doing like-minded people a great disservice here. You are coming across very aggressive, petulant and sore. Humility is the friend of persuasive argument…

  21. Lizzie

     /  November 27, 2013

    You are actually killing the pro-science message and alienating people.

    • Do you think Rob might also come across badly and be alienating people? Methinks you are partisan… It would be good to read something interesting from you on the original post, or comment on the issues Rob raised eg is a lot of the Green movement, including Transition, elitist and driven by privileged conservative westerners? or the case for renewables vs nuclear wrt AGW?

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