Review: 21 Stories of Transition and the Great Imagining: Why Transition Matters

Originally posted on transitionnetwork.org

Written by Eric Lindberg

Rio, Kyoto, Copenhagen, and Paris

In December, representatives from governments from across the Earth will descend upon Paris in hopes, once again, of hammering out a global agreement to limit carbon dioxide emissions to the point where human civilization might expect a reasonable chance of survival.  Although there is greater urgency that ever and growing consensus that “something must be done”, no one really expects a meaningful, enforceable, and ultimately effective agreement to emerge from Paris.   Even if an agreement is reached, judging from the pre-summit carbon pledges of 147 nations, proposed reductions are not nearly enough to prevent a 2 degrees centigrade rise in global temperature.[i]  Just as carbon emissions continued to rise after Rio, Kyoto, and Copenhagen, it is hard to imagine how the Paris summit might represent a true turning point, even as we move closer and closer to a point of no return.

Meanwhile, in villages, neighborhoods, and communities, large and small, from across the globe, action is being taken and hope, nevertheless, lives on.   Countless groups and organizations are heeding history’s call and taking matters into their own hands.  With open hearts, open hands, and open minds, people on every continent and from every walk-of-life are coming together to create real solutions.  They are sharing, cooperating, helping, and taking responsibility for the future.  The global ecological and resource crisis, as our official leaders regularly demonstrate, could easily incite retrenchment, competition, and the fearful protection of privileges that will ultimately mean nothing.  But it could, as ordinary people are proving, be the inspiration for a great imagining unlike any the world has ever seen. 

It is this Great Imagining, in the face of a global crisis and official paralysis, that I want to talk about here.  I hope, even plea, that my friends, acquaintances, and readers will take another look, while asking themselves, “what can I do?”  “How can I be a part of this?”

The grassroots response to climate change, resource depletion, growing inequality, and widespread global injustice comes from every quarter.  But one of the greatest sources of inspiration has originated from the International Transition Movement, a loosely-united assembly of communities following the lead of a humble and mild-mannered English community organizer, teacher, and leader of considerable genius named Rob Hopkins.  About a decade ago, Hopkins set out to imagine how we might build just and sustainable communities that would serve the real needs of everyone.   The result was first a Transition Town, and then another.  Following these heartening initiatives, Hopkins put together The Transition Handbook, whose message of community, local resilience, and the good life that renewed communities might afford remains intact throughout the revision of approach and tactics seen during the intervening years.

In advance of this year’s international climate conference (COP21), Hopkins has assembled into a single collection 21 Stories of Transition, highlighting some of the accomplishments that Transition Groups from around the globe have made.   Hopkins changed my life with his Transition Handbook and I’m getting that feeling, once again, that the 21 Stories might provide another watershed moment for me.  It’s time to make another big push here in Milwaukee. 

Beyond Carbon

Read in the context of the Paris Negotiations on climate change, the 21 Stories are hardly what one might expect.  But that is the hidden genius of the Transition Movement.  Sustainability, as Pope Francis has recently argued, is not just about atmospheric chemistry rather it calls for a new paradigm that integrates the ecology of all life with social justice and an inner transformation of human beings away from competition and consumption towards full and authentic development.  In this vein, Hopkins and his collaborators share accounts of a caring group in Devonshire, the rise of alternative currencies in communities such like Brixton and cities like Bristol.  There are accounts of community-driven and financed energy collectives, and lots of tales of local food production and distribution; Transition Streets, like many of the featured projects, are geared towards neighborhoods uniting to find a way to reduce their carbon footprints.  But equally important are stories of rainwater harvesting in the Brazilian megatropolis of Sao Paulo, a repair café in Pasadena, a Free Store in Pennsylvania, or the growing emphasis on crowd-funded local entrepreneurs.  

One especially inspiring story tells of Greyton Transitioning Town in South Africa.  Here, local volunteers have built two businesses, which are used in large part to finance an “EcoCrew environmental awareness programme,” focusing on educating children and giving them a leading role in the creation of local food, parks, and recycling activities.  One of its most significant roles, however, is the social integration in this part of the world in which the open wounds of apartheid are widely visible.  Although the commitment to the environment is central, as with many Transition projects, the most impressive results come in the form of small-scale civic development, of a child finding purpose, or a circle of care gathering up the lonely. 

As Hopkins explains, this sort of caring community and concern with social justice are central to Transition’s ideals, as are principles of supporting each other, with a focus on “qualities like enjoyment, self-development, a sense of belonging and the dignity in work” (Twenty One Stories, 13).  The installation of solar panels or wind turbines makes immediate sense if our most pressing challenge is to decrease the burning of fossil fuels, and it takes only a primer on the role of fossil fuels in industrial agriculture to see why small-scale local farms and community gardens loom so large in the imagination of the Transition Movement and in the 21 Stories. 

But the emphasis on community, the celebration of place, or the enhancement of human dignity, helps explain why Transition ranges far beyond issues of carbon emissions.  It is in this spirit that we hear about a Free Store, in which people donate what they don’t need and take what they do.  The same goes for an account of people in Pasadena showing up periodically to darn each other’s socks and straighten someone’s bike tire, or Transition Totnes’ grass-roots attempt to augment dwindling county services for the sick and needy.  Yes, the reusing and repair of existing products is “good for the environment,” but the value of community action is worth far more.

About the Carbon

It is easy—perhaps too easy—to fault our official leaders with cowardice and inaction.  But when we send national representatives to an international global warming summit, they are sent with an impossible mandate:  protect our national privilege (or increase it), preserve our way of life and our every expectations for increased material acquisition, maintain the economic growth required to keep national banking systems intact—oh yeah, and cut domestic carbon emissions (but not more than others nations are willing to cut theirs).   

We blame our leaders for their shortsighted calculations.  But part of the reason these climate agreements fail to make meaningful change is simpler than is generally acknowledged, and lives, hidden and unseen, in both the hearts and homes of nearly every citizen of advanced economies and industrialized democracies.  It is about what we want, expect, and demand.  It is not possible to maintain our way of life, maintain economic growth, and cut carbon emissions.  Nor is it possible to engage in competitive statecraft and reduce the burning of fossil fuels.   

There is, then, a crucial nugget of truth, largely ignored in the mainstream press, in what we have gotten from Rio, Kyoto, Copenhagen, and probably Paris: a sustainable future requires a contracting economy, a slowing down of production, and a broad curtailment of individual consumption.  If our leaders presented us with this, they’d be hung by their heals in the village square.  We want our leaders to cut global carbon emissions; but we also want a way of life that only fossil fuels can deliver.  Until we understand the contradiction and begin to untangle the complexities of a transition to a low energy way of life, we should not expect too much from our elected governments.

Consider, as a sort of mental exercise, what would happen if we were to switch off the fossil fuels and run on available renewables as of today: as it turns out, we’d have to reduce our consumption by about 90%.  That means getting rid of 90% of what you have and 90% of what you do and where you go.   Develop these renewables at a plausible rate, on the one hand, and reduce our atmospheric carbon emissions at a meaningful rate (the one at which we and other large mammals may survive at a robust level), on the other, and we’re looking at a 75% reduction in economic activity over the long and permanent run.   We might quibble about the exact figures; but there is no question of running our current, competitive, growth-dependent, and leisure-based way of life without the use of fossil fuels—those same fossil fuels that will kill us off if we cannot kick these habits of competition, growth, and, leisure in the form, mainly, of consumption.[ii]

Sure, we hear the promises of “sustainable development” and “green growth.”  The abiding faith—or is it the lack of any plausible alternatives?—is that we can take our current systems of production and distribution and plug them into a new (sustainable and consequence-free) fuel source with only minimum disruptions.  But, at the same time, international carbon-cutting agreements are rejected for one, and only one, reason: that they will hurt our economies, slow down the rate at which we make, buy, and sell goods.  These agreements will force compliant nations to lose their competitive advantage to nations that don’t comply.   

We may like the idea of an international climate agreement, but we probably wouldn’t like consequences of a meaningful one.  And so our leaders give us a watered-down and face-saving compromise.  Our way of life and our national power and prestige, it turns out, is fossil fuel based.   We can’t have it both ways.  “Your money or your life,” Barbara Kingsolver once quipped, “is not supposed to be a rhetorical question.”  But that, in effect, is the decision we have to make, but have been unwilling to accept. 

Viable Alternative Systems

Our current systems, as Hopkins puts it, “are meant to support and provide for us, and to enable us to flourish and thrive” (9).  But they cannot survive in a low carbon or sustainable world.  This is the basic knot that must be untied for us to get a real climate solution.   As Hopkins rightly points out, these systems are already “failing us spectacularly,” but if we remove the fuels--coal, gas, and oil--which provide them with what remaining benefits they have, they would fail us entirely.  This is true even if we attempt to make a slow transition to new fuels, while attempting to keep the old systems in place.   As a practical matter, we don’t have the capacity to feed, cloth, and house ourselves without massive use of fossil fuels.  Our current systems, let me say again, cannot survive in a low carbon world.  We need new systems.

We are of course talking, here, about things like a food system run on an industrial model, which requires massive fossil fuel inputs, while poisoning us with sugars, toxins, and fats.  We are talking about an economic system based on perpetual growth, a social system based largely on competition, an education system that trains children to make money rather than things, a system of technological development that accepts no limits, and a list could go on and on.  Yes, these systems have created some verifiable marvels, but our appreciation of them also requires that we bracket-off their collateral damage and disconnect their spectacles from their lethal nature.  For all these other systems are high-energy systems.  They can work quite well, if unevenly, but only if fed with limitless amounts of consequence-free fossil fuels.   All our modern industrial systems, this is to say, are dependent on the mother of unsustainable systems—the energy system that, quite literally, is threatening to do us all in.

While the best and the brightest attempt to hold these failing and clearly lethal systems together with a high-sounding and self-impressive version of duct tape and bailing wire, Rob Hopkins and the Transition Movement set out over a decade ago to engineer replacement systems that might actually work under lower energy conditions.  As Hopkins as recently written, “It is to building that viable alternative that I put my shoulder.  It is celebrating that viable alternative that will be the focus of my time in Paris in December.”[iii] 

Instead of finding support and nurture from systems requiring chemical inputs, intricate parts manufactured across the world, and panels of technological specialists flown in from the nearest city, these “viable alternative” systems are overwhelmingly local.  They are powered by muscle and basic tools, and require no more specialization than one might find in one’s neighborhood.  They replace wizardry with local wisdom, and at root are based on the lost arts of community and cooperation, with which almost anything of immediate use and simple beauty might be nailed, stitched, and mortared together.

The easiest of these replacement systems to grasp is the food system, perhaps because food’s fundamental status remains embedded in our sense of self, despite the best efforts of the packaging, the branding, and the barrage of advertising harassment telling us to eat the corn-fructose combination with the tiger mascot instead of the one represented by the cute bears.  Instead of depending for one’s daily bread on the whims of international finance and commodity markets, Monsanto intellectual property, and a whole heap of chemicals we can scarcely pronounce, let alone digest, most people will often gravitate towards a local food system when given the chance.  Growing food, after all, is something humans have done for millennia, and a local and sustainable food system only requires simple things that we can see, smell, touch, and, of course, taste.   But producing enough to live on also requires practice, hard work and commitment, as well as some fundamental changes in the overall economy.

Simplicity, common sense, and community self-reliance, nevertheless, are the hallmark of the 21 Stories,as well as the thousands of projects not featured in the book.   Instead of waiting for someone to build a 250 miles per gallon super-car, why not get out the old bike?  Instead of waiting for some new ultra-green nano-technology to do all our daily slicing, dicing, pressing, closing, communicating, heating, and cooling, why not find someone who can sharpen your knives, solder that loose wire, lend you a fan, or fix your windows?  Instead of shipping some faddish culinary delicacy from the South Pacific, why not prepare salvaged food that someone else is throwing away?  Instead of stretching your tight household budget to include gym membership and special energy shakes, why not get together with your neighbors, dig in, plant a garden and keep a few chickens?  Instead of waiting for the next financial crisis and the sudden loss of a lifetime of savings and investment, why not create a local currency with which you can buy and sell some of life’s basic necessities no matter what else happens?

From this perspective, the rise of local currencies, the Pasadena Repair Café or Fishguard’sSurplus Food Café begin to look less like counter-cultural pottering and more like a serious attempt to find something that can, and will, work.  The rise of local farms, food markets, community gardens are only the tip of the iceberg of this imaginative reengineering of our life systems.  The creation not only of local currencies, but a whole network of local and community based responses to the increasingly undependable whims of the global economy, of government budget cuts, and unpredictable employment lies at the heart of Transition.  One of its keywords has always been “local resilience.”  While the terms of Transition’s resilience-based self-description tend to be based in the language of care, or small-scale entrepreneurial innovation, or community action, or the envisioning of a better future for one’s family and neighbors, underlying it all is a serious questions: how could you get by on an energy diet one fourth the size of your current one?  What would you do if the trucks stop running or the banks shut down?  Who can you turn to for help? 

 

The Great Imagining

If, however, we suppose that the power of the Transition Movement lies primarily in its practical ability to engineer and implement new, replacement systems, then we sell it far too short.  The genius of the Transition Movement, it seems to me, is more subtle yet also more fundamental.   It presents a fresh and alternative way of seeing—and of valuing.  It has not only imagined a new set of possibilities, it has taken the next crucial step and created working models for the rest of the world to see.  The 21 Stories represent only a selection of these working prototypes and provide a taste of this other way of seeing, valuing, and relating to others and the Earth.

This way of seeing is the most important component that has been missing from international climate agreements.

Social psychologists have wondered at the resistance of many conservatives in the Anglo Saxon world to the science of global climate change.  What force of denial could lead to the dismissal of undisputed science?  The conclusions of this psychological research tell us something very important about belief and social and political change in general.  The greatest source of conservative denial is not, as some would have it, based on their inability to accept the scientific evidence.  Rather, it has to do with a more general picture about how the world works and should work that conservatives hold dear.   As Naomi Klein has suggested, if conservatives “admit that climate change is real, they will lose the central ideological battle of our time—whether we need to plan and manage our societies to reflect our goals and values, or whether that task can be left to the magic of the market.”[iv]

Liberals, in contrast, have (as conservatives like to point out) been arguing for decades that we need to manage our economy more vigorously.  The idea of an international agreement whereby governments cap carbon emissions and invest public money in renewable energy is not only acceptable to many liberals, it actually represents a form of progress that liberals have been hoping for all along, with liberal economists like Paul Krugman naively arguing that a renewable energy revolution is just what we need to spark our economy and ignite another century of economic growth.  To put this another way, using another term from social psychology, while liberals tend to like the solutions (as they conceive them) to climate change, conservatives have a distinct case of solution aversion, which is strong enough to taint any associated scientific evidence.   So repugnant is a solution that threatens the sanctity of the market that they can’t bring themselves to accept that there is a problem in the first place.

This same dynamic can, surprisingly, be seen in the same liberals who are celebrating the idea of international climate agreements.  Although they are jubilant at the prospect of investing public money in clean energy or fashioning a “New Deal” based on energy transformation, their disposition turns sour—and even downright nasty—when these same anti-denialists are confronted with the possibility that wind turbines and solar panels will not be able to replace the power (and the economic growth) we have enjoyed from fossil fuels.  Regardless of the data and mathematical evidence, these same critics of conservative climate deniers often reject anynotion of the limits of renewable energy on the veryface of it, supposing (I can attest first hand) that anyone who even suggests such a possibility must be an enemy of humanity itself.

Part of this incredulity has to do with the liberal faith in continued progress, the power of human inventiveness, and the overriding hope that all people might one day be freed from kinds of difficulties and indignities that the middle class European and American lifestyle seems to afford.  Part of it has to do with most middle-class people’s dislike of a solution in which middle class comforts and privileges and white-collar skillsets play a decreasingly central role.  That we might become more agrarian and less automated or more interdependent and less autonomous, that traditional inhibitions on the freedom of consumption might have some sense to them after all, that Silicon Valley might be turned someday into pasture—all this  strikes many a progressive as the height of defeat or regression into a dark past.   Progress has always (or for a few hundred years, at least) meant the transition from agriculture to industry, and from industry to some largely imaginary global technological post-industrialism.  Few are prepared to embrace an international climate agreement that threatens this trajectory—which, it turns out, a meaningful limit on carbon emissions would, in fact, do. 

 I am tempted to say that liberals, like conservatives, are suffering from solution aversion; but I think we are dealing with something even more fundamental than that.  It is not so much that they (like just about everyone else in industrial society, liberal and conservatives alike) would not accept a solution that involves the powering down of industrial society; rather, for most, this is simply unimaginable.  If we can’t live with current levels of comfort, convenience, choice, mobility, and leisure, we may just as well give up.  Only a plan that promises increased industrial development and lower carbon emissions is, according to this view, conceivably acceptable.  No such plan exists, nor can it.  Industrial development and sustainability are incompatible, the liberal faith in green growth notwithstanding.  

This is where Transition and its Great Imagining can step in.  Transition, with other similar movements, has recast the very notion of progress, value, and good.  They have shown how the thriving of humans is not dependent upon industrial development, and therefore, has demonstrated how human well-being is, in every sense, compatible with radically decreasing use of fossil fuels It presents a solution to climate change which might overcome the initial aversion that liberals, conservatives, and everyone in between all have for anything other than industrial development.  As Hopkins explains, “The systems that are meant to support and provide for us, and to enable us to flourish and thrive, are failing spectacularly.  This is increasingly self-evident to people, wherever they are within those systems.  Yet all over the world, in creative, passionate, and brave ways, and motivate by a tangible sense of what is possible, people are coming together to create something else.  Something so much better” (9).    Whether or not Hopkins was thinking in precisely these terms when he wrote this, these people are providing an alternative that imagines the unimaginable while easing solution aversion.

This, I think, is why when I first read the Transition Handbook in 2008, it took my breath away; it was a revelation--for it at once presented a clear and unvarnished understanding of our current predicament in relation to fossil fuels and their lethal side effects, alongside a positive and hopeful vision for a future free from our current and unhealthy addiction to fossil fuels.  Previously, I too would have had blank mental spaces for a world in which we had not replaced our energy from fossil fuels with some alternative.  Nothing existed outside of this possibility beyond some hazy and disconnected images of stranded vehicles and abandoned buildings.  The Transition Handbook filled these blank spaces with life. 

As Hopkins wrote in The Transition Handbook, “the key message here has been that the future with less oil could be better than the present, but only if we engage in designing it with sufficient creativity and imagination” (77).  This better future, then, is not better only because it isn’t lethal to the very viability of our species, but because it can create just, humane, cooperative, and community systems in which we might truly thrive.  Or as Richard Heinberg put it, even as energy and the economy come to an industrial peak, there are many things of even greater value that are not at their historic peaks, things such as community, satisfaction from work well done, intergenerational solidarity, cooperation, happiness, ingenuity, artistry, or beauty of the built environment.[v]  The Transition Movement reminded me of the power of community, the value and pleasure of manual labor, the basic fact that things don’t make people happy—nor do comforts.  Rather, other people do, as does a sense of purpose, something to believe in and to celebrate.  None of these more basic human goods required fossil fuels, nor substitute wind turbines or biodiesel. 

This, in short, is the message that the Transition Movement has for COP21 and for the rest of the world—that we can re-envision a bountiful world that is compatible with the environmental and atmospheric requirements of life on Earth.  21 Stories of Transition shows us what this world might possibly look like.  It shows that it is not only possible, but that it is already underway and that those who are taking action are thriving and are full of life, purpose, and joy.