Transition, Environmentalism and Positive Thinking

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Pat Murphy  February 28, 2011

There are many positive things about the Transition Movement. It is reality based in its understanding that our problems are severe and unlikely to be solved by new kinds of technology, either conventional or “green.” Rob Hopkins, Transition’s founder, also understands that the changes will be massive in scale and scope. Transition advocates for permaculture principles which are at least grounded in the concept of a low energy and more “Agrarian” (as described by Wendell Berry and other American writers) way of living.

There are some ways in which it is not positive, the most important one being its attitude toward environmentalism. I am unaware of the history of the environmental movement in the U.K. But I am very much aware of the movement’s work in the U.S. having been a member of a dozen organizations (Sierra Club member since 1976), an environmental advocate, and a protestor/marcher/picketer.

Rob Hopkins is surprisingly critical of environmentalism. In the Transition Handbook [1] negative comments about environmentalism are common. Following are six examples:

“What might environmental campaigning look like if it strove to generate this sense of elation rather than the guilt, anger and horror that most campaigning invokes? What might it look like if it strove to inspire, enthuse and focus on possibilities rather than probabilities?” Page 15

“…the scale of this transition requires particular inner resources, not just an abstract intellectual understanding. This is relatively new ground for the environmental movement….” Page 79

“Enabling change has always been the Holy Grail of environmentalists, but it has largely remained frustratingly elusive. Although there have been successes, overall the environmental movement has failed to engage people on a large scale in the process of change, certainly not on the scale of the wartime mobilization now necessitated by peak oil and climate change.” Page 84

“A common idea in environmental campaigning is that if people know how awful things are, they will change. So the focus of many campaigns is on delivering information, often with disturbing graphic images and horror stories. Awareness raising is of crucial importance – but you only have to look at a pack of cigarettes to see the limits of this approach. The information ‘Smoking Kills’ in big letters isn’t enough to discourage most smokers.” Page 86

“It is one thing to campaign against climate change and quite another to paint a compelling vision of a post-carbon world in such a way as to enthuse others to embark on a journey towards it. We are only just beginning to scratch the surface of the power of a positive vision of an abundant future: one which is energy-lean, time-rich, less stressful, healthier and happier. Being able to associate images and a clear vision with how a powered-down future might be is essential.

I like to use the analogy of inviting a reluctant friend to join you on holiday. If you can passionately and poetically paint a mental picture of the beach, the sunset, and the candle-lit taverna by the sea, they will be more likely to come. Environmentalists have often been guilty of presenting people with a mental image of the world’s least desirable holiday accommodation – some seedy bed and breakfast near Torquay, with nylon sheets, cold tea and soggy toast – and expecting to get excited about the prospect of NOT going there. The logic and psychology are all wrong.“ Page 94

“How the Transition Approach is Different from other Environmental Approaches”. Page 135 (The table from this reference follows)

Conventional Environmentalism

The Transition Approach

Individual Behavior

Group behavior

• Single Issue • Holistic
• Tools: lobbying, campaigning and protesting • Tools: public participation, eco-psychology, arts, culture and creative education
• Sustainable development • Resilience/relocalization
• Fear, guilt and shock as drivers for action • Hope, optimism and pro-activity as drivers for action
• Changing National and International policy by lobbying • Changing National and International policy by making them electable
• The man in the street as the problem • The man in the street as the solution
• Blanket campaigning • Targeted inventions
• Single level engagement • Engagement on a variety of levels
• Prescriptive – advocates answers and responses •Acts as a catalyst – no fixed answers
• Carbon foot printing • Carbon foot printing plus resilience indicators
• Belief that economic growth is still possible, albeit greener growth • Designing for economic renaissance, albeit a local one

A few months ago, I watched a TV show available on the Internet featuring Michael Brownlee and three other Transition leaders.[2] A recent film clip was shown of Hopkins, representing his more recent thoughts on the environmental movement, again comparing the environmental movement approach to a seedy bed and breakfast noting “Particularly in relation to climate change the environmental movement has really not been very skillful in catalyzing people to respond to it.” I found it significant that this particular clip was shown out of many possible ones, emphasizing the Transition bias against environmentalism.

In Rob’s response [3] to Brownlee’s article (discussed in my paper “Is Transition Still ‘Going Viral’ ”) [4] he adds some additional critical words saying:

“For me, if Transition has done one thing well over the past 4 years, it has been the designing of an approach that comes uncluttered by much of the baggage that has encumbered environmental responses over the past 30 years. These responses have often been perceived as being smug, judgmental and against lots of stuff without a very clear idea of what it is for.”

I find this a disturbing viewpoint. Many of us in the peak oil/ climate change movement are concerned – even fearful – for the future. And many of us (including me) are environmentalists. Moreover, some of the opinions presented are questionable. For example, the campaigns against cigarette smoking have not failed in the U.S. It has made particularly strong progress against formidable efforts by the cigarette industry to stop it. Its success has been based on education and lawsuits against the manufacturers. Figure 1 [5] shows this.


Figure 1

The heavy criticism of the environmental movement in the U.S. is mostly corporate based. The 2004 controversial essay entitled The Death of Environmentalism -  Global Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World by Shellenberger and Nordhaus [6] also said that the movement was ineffective. It ignored forces arrayed against citizens who are trying to stop the destruction of the planet. It should be noted that contributions to environmental organizations in the U.S. are in the range of $6 billion yearly. There are ten million Americans who support such organizations financially, many of whom also volunteer in different ways.

Guilt, anger, fear, shock, and horror are not the right words for the emotions of Americans who are working in defense of planetary survival. Nor do millions of people view environmentalists as smug, judgmental, ‘against’ rather than ‘for,’ and limited to abstract intellectual understanding. I think the diverse groups in the environmental movement are very clear about their purposes, and I don’t see them as radically different from the more recently formed peak oil and climate change movements.

Transition leadership should be aware that in the U.S. negative comments about environmentalists come, as I earlier stated, mostly from corporate public relations offices (oil companies, coal companies, car companies, developers, etc.). Many will recall the financial contributions of ExxonMobil (the energy company that has worked hardest to deny Peak Oil) to organizations that supported its anti-environmentalist orientation. This was a scandal exposing the world’s major oil company’s concentrated effort to damage the environmental movement.

Criticism of environmentalism is at the core an argument against direct criticism. Transition sets up a straw horse which argues that environmentalists are negative, that they have failed because of their negativity, and therefore Transition will succeed because it is positive. In a blog entry entitled “The power of positive” [7] by Joanne Poyourow she re-addresses the Michael Brownlee conflict, challenging his attitude, and recalling the “…. lively lessons we’re being sent daily from the UK and from Transition initiatives around the globe. The early Transition materials twinkle with British humor, even with abject silliness.” She adds that environmentalists have been crying “I have a nightmare” for three decades and that they are making very little progress. She then contrasts this “nightmare approach” to being positive saying:

“Positive sells. Positive is enticing. Positive action gets the blood pumping and the energy flowing, and suddenly the sense of possibilities starts growing. The hope grows, and with it, the creativity. And it’s that creativity we need to bring out and tap into if we’re going to succeed in designing a Creative Descent from this energy and consumption pinnacle.”

This “positive attitude” approach, integrated with Transitions’ repeated negative commentaries on environmentalism, fits into a pattern described well by Barbara Ehrenreich in her 2009 book  Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. [8] Ehrenreich challenges the American love affair with positive thinking and calls for a new commitment to realism. She notes that being positive has now become portrayed as the key to success and prosperity. She discusses its applicability in evangelical mega-churches that preach the good news that you only have to want something to get it, because God wants to “prosper” you. She also reviews the history of the medical profession that prescribes positive thinking for its presumed health benefits, pointing out how later research challenged all the assumptions of positive attitudes’ effect on cancer. Of great significance was the fact that Stanford psychiatrist David Spiegel reversed his 1989 work, acknowledging that support groups do not give survival advantage.

Most important she shows how bright-siding has become rooted in the business community, where the refusal even to consider negative outcomes—like mortgage defaults—contributed to the current ongoing economic crisis. Ehrenreich notes that on a personal level, positivity leads to self-blame and a preoccupation with stamping out “negative” thoughts while on a national level, it’s brought the nation to an era of irrational optimism resulting in disaster. She notes that in business if you are not positive you are criticized for not being a “team player” which can destroy one’s career.

Ehrenreich suggests that by being relentlessly upbeat we miss out on what is authentic. The positive thinking-inspired sense of entitlement helped convince homebuyers or homeowners to take out mortgages that sober, realistic second thought should have told them were not affordable. She emphasizes the importance of critical thinking, which requires skepticism, and points out that most human advancement stems from that perspective. And she warns against the dark side of this particular world view which discounts anyone who is not positive.

It is possible that environmental criticism is fundamental to Transition strategy; that is, it needs an antagonist against which to position itself. Transition strongly emphasizes positive thinking and contrasts its point of view with the supposed negative thinking of environmentalism and others. It emphasizes the importance of constantly painting a “compelling and engaging” vision of the future. However, there are far too many of us environmentalists that are working extremely hard to mitigate the risks of increasingly dangerous trends. And we reject both the idea that we have not been successful and that positive thinking is the breakthrough we need. What we need is critical thinking – and well thought out action.


[1] The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience 2008 Chelsea Green

[2] Tamara Banks of Colorado Public Television Studio 12 takes a look at the Transition Cities movement Accessed Dec 30, 2010

[3] A Critical Response to Michael Brownlee’s call for ‘Deep Transition’ by Rob Hopkins, Dec 6, 2010


[5] Gallup Update Shows Cigarette Smoking Near Historical Lows July 30, 2007

[6] The Death of Environmentalism -  Global Warming Politics in a Post-Environmental World by Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus

[7] “The power of positive” by Joanne Poyourow

[8] Bright-sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenrich, Metropolitan Books, October, 2009


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