The Trouble with Transition

Great post last week on Transition Network by blogger Ann Owen called The Trouble with Permaculture.

Just as I did in my recent look at the same topic, the Cult of Perma, Ann draws on Peter Harper’s fascinating critique from early last year and comes to pretty much the same conclusions that we do:

I’m not surprised that Permaculture hasn’t caught on with mainstream food growers. When I first encountered it about twenty years ago, I found it off putting, to say the least. Maybe it was the way it was presented as the ultimate solution to all the world’s ills, or maybe it was the zealous, superior attitude of its devotees, telling me how to garden when most of them wouldn’t know one end of a spade from the other, but I concluded that Permaculture was something that urbanite dreamers did from their armchairs and was to be avoided like any other cult.

Permaculture and the Transition movement have always been closely associated with each other- Transition founder Rob Hopkins after all first concocted the Transition idea while teaching permaculture in Ireland, and Transition is often seen as a form of “social permaculture” that also promotes of course the gardening and land management ideas of permaculture.

So seeing a Transition blogger refer to permaculture as “Cult” seems pretty outspoken, and controversial- risking raising the ire of the very “urbanite dreamers” who in fact play an important role in supporting both movements. (Imagine having this discussion about, say, the value of homeopathy: “all that Quantum memory of water stuff? just over-enthusiastic hippies. Rubbish. Homeopathy is still really cool though.”)

Like Harper though I dont feel Ann really manages to join the dots and make the logical conclusions from her initial promising start. She continues by saying, that was then, in the old days, and she has come a long way since then. Although as a grower herself she can see that growing strange vegetables underneath fruit trees and mulching won’t manage to challenge monocultural straight rows and maybe a tractor or two in terms of doing the heavy lifting of feeding the planet, she still believes in the Cult of Perma:

Permaculture is now an integral part of my life; it offers me a different way of seeing the world and of understanding how it all works. I find that when I’m not sure of something, checking it against the three PC ethics of Earth care, people care and fair shares, gives me an additional perspective.

What then could this way of seeing mean or have to offer, given that the founding idea of permaculture is indisputably an alternative food-production system, that closes energy loops, uses “multi-functions”, stacking, learns from Nature and, yes, mulches? Like Peter Harper, Ann does not equivocate in dismissing the naivety of permaculture gardening as nothing more than zealous ignorance:

I still get irritated with wide eyed, blue sky thinking permies though, who despite knowing sod all about vegetable growing, come and tell us that we are not doing it “right” in our market garden, because if it’s hard work, it can’t be PC. Apparently, you can design hard work out of gardening; in PC Lala land, all you have to do is wander through your food forest with your mouth open and ripe, juicy fruit will just fall in! Isn’t it exactly because of this desire to grow more food with less effort we ended up with industrial agriculture? And is it maybe also because it became so effortless to grow masses of food, we ended up valuing it so little that we waste tons of it every year?

What is left, after permaculture-as-alternative-to-industrial-monoculture has been dismembered by one of its own? After a few more well-placed blows to the already floored beast that was permaculture, Ann gives a surprising answer as to what she still finds valuable in it:

The greatest benefits of PC thinking for me have been the permission to give time to “Observe and interact” and then to “Accept feedback and apply self-regulation”. Even failures are only another source of information and learning that way and thus part of “Obtaining a yield”. Using “Slow and small solutions” overcame the frustration that we could not afford to put more capital in and create a greater impact more quickly, as did “Use and value renewable resources and services”, which for us meant that we discovered how much we could do with what we had and made “Produce no waste” a logical choice. It’s a slow process, but it has a certain elegance to it, which I’ve come to appreciate. Unlike the over zealous permie, I don’t hold to many fixed ideas anymore, but garden with a perpetual willingness to be surprised.

Is she kidding? Is this all that permaculture has become? A set of banal tropes about “giving permission” (huh?) to “observe and interact” and have patience in building capital (that’s actual money she’s talking about- doesn’t sound too permacultural does it?) ? Apparently, all those courses and design manuals amount to nothing more than the kind of advice Granny taught you when you had your first kitten or couldn’t wait til Christmas. (David Holmgren’s 12 permaculture Design Principles are indeed inspired by 12 common proverbs such as “a stitch in time saves nine” etc.. Wise words no doubt.)

Ann ends her blog with some advice to her fellow Transitioners who might dabble in this arcane art:

To finish, I have some advice for budding Permaculture Designers: consider this proverb when deciding upon your diploma designs: “Cobbler, stick to thy last.” We need PC design, but leave the land based ones to people with land based experience and work within your area of expertise, be it finance, economics, health, transport, planning, architecture or rocket science, as long as you know what you’re talking about.

Right. We need PC Design, but apparently, according to Ann, PC is such nonsense that it has really nothing to offer actual real design of, you know, actual physical landscapes and certainly not food production, even though that is precisely what it was created for. But anything else is fair game, which rather begs the question, if you do know anything about those other disciplines- finance, health, transport- why would you think some strange cult based on proverbs could actually help you at all? One of the comments says that they agree PC is useless for growing food- that is why they are going into something cultish called “People Care”. I don’t blame them at all- much easier than gardening or farming any day.

This seemed deeply confused. These people clearly needed some help and as it is a subject that I have looked into rather a lot I rolled up my sleeves and joined the comments, which had been generally supportive of the article, along the lines of “well done Ann, that badly needed saying!”

What ensued was an interesting experience.

In response to my first comment, which mostly agreed with Ann in her assessment of PC as a cult, and after she had visited my own post and blog, she says:

I disagree with most of what you say, but then I would imagine that such is a familiar experience for you. From browsing your blog a little I can see that you find a lot to disagree with all round and do not shy away from letting the world know. Still, something seems to keep on bringing you back here, be it hope or despair is only for you to know. Thanks for commenting, but I had rather hoped for a more mature and honest discussion that would separate the nonsense from the valuable, the latter of which there is a lot of in all three movements that you so casually discard.

But I was agreeing with her! In fact our posts had a lot in common. It also seemed odd to feel the need to tell another blogger that they “do not shy away from letting the world know”- isnt that the whole point of blogging?

Whatever. There then followed an interesting exchange with one James Young, a wide-ranging debate that covered the poor yields of Organic agriculture and what could be done about it, GMOs and fracking. We each exchanged links in support of our respective arguments- or, rather, I linked to scientific evidence, James at first just gave his unsubstantiated opinion- then completely mis-read and mis-quoted me on peak oil, dismissed my evidence as “letters”, called me “slippery”, accused me of “cherry-picking” and then, when he finally did give a reference (for the supposed better nutritional value of Organic vs conventional produce) he linked to quacko supremo Andrew Weil.

James did come up with one absolute classic re fracking:

You can’t jump to the conclusion that aquifers have not been poisoned because its too early to tell. Your assumption that is must happen immediately is premature. This is what makes oil companies so despicable, its very hard to trace what’s happening underground, happens over time spans of years, and then link cancer and other health problems to it, and then being able to litigate and prove it in court. Just ask the resident of Libby, MT.

ROLF its very hard to trace what’s happening underground !! I love it- typical of those evil devious oil and gas companies deliberately drilling deep underground so you can’t see what’s going on! Even Monsatan didn’t think of that one. At least you can see what’s happening on a wind farm- not much when the wind isn’t blowing!

Apart from that little gem, so far so just-another-arguing-with-trolls-on-the-internet-thread.

And then, just as it was getting interesting, Wham! Ann, as moderator steps in:
(My emphasis):

It’s getting boring…
21 January 2014 – 10:40am — Ann Owen

I’d like to thank all of you who have taken the time to counter the Ministry of Misinformation’s minion’s ramblings. You’ve patiently and quite thouroughly dismantled those arguments that have been proved wrong many times over some years ago.

It’s been quite useful in generating interesting replies, but I’ve now become fed up with the flawed logic, the defense of GM and fracking and a writing style which has all the appeal of a three year old’s projectile vomiting. I will therefore delete any further comments that I deem are only there to misinform, insult and provoke and that do not offer anything new to this comment thread.

Nice! Keep it classy Ann. And indeed, my detailed reply, carefully adressing each of James’ concerns with carefully researched peer-reviewed articles and studies (I have way too much free time…) was deleted as promised. I post it at the end of this for the record.

Things then took another bizarre turn as another commentator decided that all this to-ing and fro-ing with peer-reviewed this and scientifically-referenced that was not getting us anywhere and all I should do is go and have a couple of beers in their garden and just believe.

Ann fully concurred:

Graham, I wouldn’t dream of deleting any constructive comments, nor kind replies. But if I decide that a comment is deliberately provocative or trollish, I do use my priviledge to get rid of it. I’m sure you do the same on your blog.

Why it is better to discuss systems of food production in situe, like in a field or garden is because it keeps it real. Too much already gets decided by bureaucrats that have never had mud on their hands and so we get ridiculous regulations and funding systems that in the end cause damage and counter productive working practices. No book learning can compete with a farming family’s generations of experience.

In fact there is nothing remotely trollish or untoward in the comment (see below), and she had already stated that she would delete me for “defending GE and fracking”- ie for disagreeing with her and with the Party Line on these issues. Yet, another (excellent) comment was left stand, even though it strongly supported most of what I was saying, and also defended GMOs.

The idea that science is no good and we should discuss empirical facts in a “field or garden because it keeps it real” is a complete negation of her point in her own post above:

how do you know that polycultures provide a higher total yield than comparative mono cropping, if you don’t measure it?

Science Schmeiance. Ann has now come full circle, her eyes have glazed over and she is emphasising the anti-science heart of Transition. And of course, as is usual when debating quacks, plenty of dry “academic” sources are fine to quote when they support their case. Worse, the comment No book learning can compete with a farming family’s generations of experience. is insulting to the legions of scientific farmers who also have been farming for generations, and who know the importance of yields and how to measure them.

Isn’t Ann by now sounding exactly like those starry-eyed over-zealous urban hippies who just *know* PC is a better system but are clueless about gardening? “Alternative farming” is like “alternative medicine”- if it worked, it would just be called “farming”.

I protested, and asked Ann to remove her own clearly offensive comment, to no avail.

None of this is particularly strange or unexpected. What is odd and somewhat disturbing from a psychological point of view is that a thread like this is held up proudly as if this will really look good for this movement. They run a closed shop, but a very confused one, that permits obvious critiques of PC as a gardening method, then refuses any further debate on whether permaculture really has any value, tying themselves in knots to justify why this doesn’t invalidate the whole point of Transition.

There is only one explanation, and that is the Trouble with Transition.

Like Permaculture, it’s a Cult, as all this surely only serves to prove.

Deleted comment, in response to this comment on Transition Network:

22 January 2014 – 8:27pm — Graham Strouts

James: as your links on fracking make clear- and as I said earlier- there were a handful of cases of water contamination from fracking in the early days. Most drilling experts indeed have said that contamination of drinking water with fracking liquids is highly improbable. Even critics of fracking tend
to agree that if wells are designed properly, drilling fluids should not affect underground drinking water. Industry officials also emphasize that all forms of drilling involve some degree of risk.
The question, they say, is what represents an acceptable level.

The other piece is really inconclusive- this one study uses a novel method linking water contamination with gas deposits, but it is really just speculation whether this is from fracking. Methane contamination from natural faults may be quite common in some areas, but not usually at dangerous levels. Neither of these pieces would support in anyway the hysterical opposition to fracking, with a call for a total ban. They are engineering and regulatory issues. With hundreds of thousands of fracked wells across the US, it seems implausible that there is wide-spread contamination if this is the best evidence there is.

Compare the peer-reviewed Molofsky paper It documents 1,700 water sample tests, finding no statistical correlation between gas wells and methane contamination.
This report from the University of Aberdeen concluded

Published peer-reviewed data suggest that there is a low and probably manageable risk to ground water from fracking
Less than 1% of water in the UK is from private wells in any case- fracking would not be a risk to general water supplies. Like any industrial process, it is a question of good management, not scare-mongering.

The “flaming faucets” scene in Gasland is a fraud btw: the cases filmed were from biogenc methane, not fracking.

Humanure? Not much nutrients there either. The N is all in the pee of course, as every permaculturalist knows. The question is, why is Organic farming continuing to live off Haber-Bosch subsidies at all if the answer is that simple? Use of human effluent is prohibited under Organic standards due to contamination issues; how exactly are we to get everyone’s’ poo composted and shipped to the farms in any kind of efficient way? Clearly it is not practical- nor would it supplant synthetic fertiliser or solve the yield problem.

Organics and nutrition: Andrew Weil is a nutritional quack who directly profits from sales of organic and “health” foods: its like giving me a study from Monsanto (only worse). It is not a peer-reviewed study. Your quote is cherry-picking (there are just as many studies that show the opposite, or no difference).

This article gives the actual peer-reviewed science: the fact is, you get differences in nutritional content between vegetables- on Organic/conventional, between different Organic and conventional foods. The differences are generally very small and the results of studies vary. The Dangour systematic review 2009 found no significant differences, as discussed in this article. But in any case, if you get enough nutrition from your food anyway, small marginal increases in more expensive Organic food has no practical benefit. That is the real point- conventional produce is just fine.

GMO using less pesticides? Really? And your proof is a letter?

No, the proof is the peer-reviewed study in Nature linked to and quoted by the Scientific American article by Prof Pam Ronald, a government scientist with many published studies herself. This is real science as opposed to your assertions-without- evidence and conspiracy theories. “Science takes a long time to catch up” is ludicrous! We dont know things like this without science; you claim “other ways of knowing” (anecdotal observations) and then quote your own “science” at me is a contradiction.

“Superweeds” are a result of agriculture, not just GMOs: all weed control measures have selection pressure; you have to be clever to be a farmer, the issues are no surprise, but are well understood. It’s just another scary term to avoid actually understanding the real issues in farming and how they can be adressed. This article gives a good overview.

Fracking has helped the US lead the developed world in reducing its CO2 by switching from coal to gas; GMOs reduce CO2 emissions from farming by allowing no-till farming on a much larger scale.

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  1. Most interesting – the phrase “No book learning can compete with a farming family’s generations of experience” also struck me as pretty appalling and verging on the xenophobic – if a farmer’s daughter or son attends agricultural college along with the sons and daughters of people involved in non-farming activities (ie, from elsewhere) then are the non-farmer families’ offspring automatically deemed to be unable to compete because of either their genetic inheritance or their location? Though I’m not in favour of woo, I’m even less enamoured by the blood and soil aspects of the green movement – but I suppose blood and soil is a type of woo too – it just feels more dangerous.

    • well I didnt read it like that Nick. I dont think she was talking about competing, more about “knowledge” and “other ways of knowing”. It is certainly a bonkers comment- implying that ALL farming families see things the way she does- rejecting science, embracing anecdotes and personal experience- and all coming to the same conclusions! By definition, most farmers are not “alternative’ farmers anyway. This is akin to anecdotes along the lines of “homeopathy cured my hamster.” What is most curious is that permaculture is supposed to be “holistic”, seeing the Bigger Picture and making connections that the “mainstream” is too dim to see. In fact it is the opposite- myopic and completely closed-minded, with an atomized perspective that refuses to look beyond the end of its own nose- or outside the bubble of the Cult.


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