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Pat Murphy March 21, 2011
Developing this eight part critique on the Transition movement via a series of blog entries has been highly educational. I had hoped to do one more on the topic of relocalization but other demands on my time require that it be deferred. I feel the existing blogs provide a sufficient review of the Transition Movement.
For this final post, I will focus my comments on some of Transition’s strategic principles. After all, at the end of the day, people’s question about Transition may be “So do you like it or not?” However, the question I ask myself is “Is Transition an important movement for the U.S. that will help us address Peak Oil and Climate Change?” I have four considerations in answer to this which are:
Transition’s Success Claims
Cheerful Disclaimer Commentary
Collective Genius Argument
What next for Transition
Transition’s Success Claims
Transition leaders’ claims of success are largely a function of its supposedly “explosive” growth. The dual threats to humanity from Peak Oil and Climate Change are significant and I feel strongly that people should not be misled with exaggerated marketing statements. They need factual verifiable information. Recently I made my weekly visit to the Transition US web site where I observed a one hour video presentation by official Transition trainer Tina Clarke made in February 2011 at Greenfield Community College in Massachusetts. She opened her talk with the comment “There are a thousand communities in the UK where this whole thing started and there are thousands more around the world.” She referenced transitionnetwork.org which shows 352 initiatives worldwide, 200 of them in the UK as of March 1, 2011. By Transition records, there are hundreds (not thousands) of communities that have started Transition Initiatives; but the Transition leadership constantly and consistently refers to thousands of communities. It is very difficult for me to accept this level of hyperbole. If Transition cannot succeed based on its actual record but requires an order of magnitude exaggeration, then its future is dubious.
Cheerful Disclaimer Commentary
The Transition U.S. Vision, Mission, and Strategic Action Plan include the “Cheerful Disclaimer” restated here. 
Cheerful Disclaimer - Just in case you were under the impression that Transition is a process defined by people who have all the answers, you need to be aware of a key fact. We truly don’t know if this will work. Transition is a social experiment on a massive scale. What we are convinced of is this:
If we wait for the governments, it’ll be too little, too late
If we act as individuals, it’ll be too little
But if we act as communities, it might just be enough, just in time.
The Cheerful Disclaimer acknowledges that Transition is a social experiment. But more important in the statement is a core principle that questions the contribution of individuals and governments. In my talks to Transition groups and others, I discuss what key individuals are doing, particularly individuals in my local community of Yellow Springs. I also explain important programs and activities of the U.S. government and non profit organizational efforts. More often than not, someone in the audience queries this, wondering why I bring up government and individuals since Transition focuses on the community to their exclusion. I cannot accept this particular Transition perspective, particularly in the U.S.
In one sense, the whole Peak Oil movement is the work of extraordinary individuals starting with M. King Hubbert in the U.S. and continuing with people like J. Gever, R, Kaufman, D Skole and C. Vorosmarty (authors of the 1986 book Beyond Oil), Matt Simmons, Ken Deffeyes, Steve Andrews, Randy Udall, Michael Klare, Richard Heinberg, and Michael Ruppert, to mention some early pioneers. There are a few dozen other U.S. authors and key activists who are the leaders of this movement. Even Rob Hopkins’ personal significant contribution seems a contradiction to the idea that individual efforts will be too little. In terms of climate change, the leading figures in the U.S. are individuals such as James Hansen and Bill McGibbon. They are backed up by researchers in climate change, many (if not most) of whom are directly or indirectly funded by national governments. To date, most of the efforts have been by governments and individuals and small non profits – there has been little “local community” involvement in the sense that Transition uses it.
Solutions are also coming from individuals, both those in government and without. Consider the work of the Passive House movement (highly individualistic Germans and Americans) and the Building America high performance building program (government backed). The dynamic shared transport movement springs very much from innovative individuals such as Sean O’Sullivan (entrepreneur) of Avego in Ireland. David Pimentel (educator) is a classic individual contributor with his many decades long analysis of energy and food. There are many more.
One could easily interpret the Cheerful Disclaimer statement to imply that Transition may possibly be the only viable alternative to disaster, since no one else is trying to organize communities as they are. Transition proposes to be unique, which it is, and that may be its appeal. However, it gives the impression that its supporters have the only solutions (or the ways of finding them) with all others being likely to fail. The missionary zeal that accompanies its uniqueness is disquieting. Some Transition advocates have reacted negatively to my examples of good government programs and some absolutely heroic individual efforts. The devaluation of individual work is surprising and the assumption that governments cannot or will not make a contribution is naive.
One possible result is a separation between Transition advocates and the activists who are working directly on the core issue of climate change and peak oil – consumption. Governments, individuals and non profits will continue to go about their business of reducing energy – knowing that in doing so society is likely to change dramatically. I live in the community of Yellow Springs (population 3,500), which is taking important steps to curtail fossil fuel use – steps supported by the local government. This is happening without an Energy Descent Action Plan. We have six passive house homes and retrofits underway, three farmers markets and several CSAs.
Collective Genius Argument
The Vision and Mission of Transition is stated as follows:
Vision – Our vision is that every community in the United States has engaged its collective creativity to unleash an extraordinary and historic transition to a future beyond fossil fuels; a future that is more vibrant, abundant and resilient; one that is ultimately preferable to the present.
Mission – Transition US is a resource and catalyst for building resilient communities across the United States that are able to withstand severe energy, climate or economic shocks while creating a better quality of life in the process. We will accomplish our mission by inspiring, encouraging, supporting, networking and training individuals and their communities as they consider, adopt, adapt, and implement the Transition approach to community empowerment and change. The Transition approach is based on four key assumptions:
That life with dramatically lower energy consumption is inevitable, and that it’s better to plan for it than to be taken by surprise
That our communities currently lack resilience
That we have to act collectively, and we have to act now to build community resilience and prepare for life without fossil fuels
That by unleashing the collective genius of our communities it is possible to design new ways of living that are more nourishing, fulfilling and ecologically sustainable
The Vision statement emphasizes the need for a community to have “engaged its collective creativity.” The first three assumptions in the Mission statement discuss the “problem,” the “need for resilience” (which I covered in depth in an earlier blog entry) and the “need to act collectively” within a geographic community. The fourth and final assumption says “that by unleashing the collective genius of our communities it is possible to design new ways of living that are more nourishing, fulfilling and ecologically sustainable.”
Unleashing the collective genius and engaged its collective creativity seem to be the core principles of the Transition program. The Handbook and many other Transition documents describe the process of how to do this – to some extent it is a formula for change. And the Energy Descent Action Plan (EDAP) is the final product of Transition’s 12 step program. These principles are a statement of belief about how people work together, which is not my personal experience. I have had very fulfilling jobs in multiple occupations and have had wonderful relations with people and organizations in a wide variety of circumstances addressing a myriad set of opportunities and problems. I have never experienced this kind of group metamorphism and am not sure it is possible. In my experience, in any group of ordinary people some useful ideas may arise in a visioning or brainstorming type of process. But more often, innovations and solutions tend to come from a unique minority of people of extraordinary ability or insight. In many cases group thinking from average people has been insufficient to solve complex problems. The names mentioned earlier, including Rob Hopkins, illustrate my point.
As part of its program, Transition emphasizes the necessity of “engaging the whole (or entire) community.” This “whole collective community” unleashing concept was not proven in Totnes. Analysis shows it to be far less than the entire community, maybe 800 people in the Totnes and District area out of a population of 24,000 people. I suspect it may well be the reason why so few EDAPs have been completed. Transition promises success if one follows its rules or patterns or ingredients (while allowing local customization) which will unleash the creativity of the community to define unique solutions. If the EDAP never gets written or if it is not effective, the Transition group might falter. I wonder if Totnes has experienced an unleashing of its creative genius as exemplified in the plan or possibly since the plan was published almost a year ago. Little is written about it. This view of the way people cooperate is a risky bet on the future.
What next with Transition
Undoubtedly the lack of a worldwide unleashing of community creativity in completing EDAPS must be apparent to Rob Hopkins and he may well be devising a new strategy. A hint of this is seen in a recent blog in which he says (under “The Challenge”) “Creating an Energy Descent Action Plan and/or the intentional relocalization of a community will raise a lot of questions.” This “and/or” statement may imply a shift away from the EDAP focus to something less ambitious. I know of two U.S. Transition Initiatives that are abandoning the EDAP as too complex and unlikely to succeed. Rob’s new approach may be explained in a book he began in June, 2010 after the completion of the Totnes EDAP.  This book, a sequel to the Transition Handbook, is in the format of Christopher Alexander’s 1977 book A Pattern Language. The proposed title is The Transition Companion: making your community more resilient in uncertain times.”   Preliminary publication date is September 2011.
Transition leaders’ hope of taking the primary leadership role for the nation and the world in addressing Peak Oil and Climate Change is doubtful. Their dream of “engaging the whole community” to transform society is more difficult than anticipated. Transition Initiatives may become just another special interest group addressing peak oil and climate change, but with a strong emphasis on a wide range of permaculture activities and options. As noted above, Transition seems to be moving away from EDAPs or at least extending the completion of the EDAP to some future time. It would be a shame if Transition ended up becoming a blogging network of philosophy and local interest reports that do not adequately prepare the U.S. for the coming changes. My hope is that it becomes better grounded in what it can actually accomplish and that its leadership stops overstating its capabilities and results.
Transition groups, be they small (2 or 3 people) or larger, are part of the answer. I would hope that they would not see themselves as in competition for the hearts and minds of other people who are also taking action to reduce CO2 and fossil fuel consumption but who are not attempting to create a new culture. Such people are working within the limits of their community and some are working with their elected officials and utilizing state and national programs. Our problems are too complex for a “one size fits all” approach.
 Beyond Oil: The Threat to Food and Fuel in the Coming Decades J. Gever, R, Kaufman, D Skole and C. Vorosmarty Ballinger Pub Co Jan 1986
 Ingredients of Transition: Strategic Thinking March 3, 2011 http://transitionculture.org/2011/03/03/ingredients-of-transition-strategic-thinking/
 Rethinking Transition as a Pattern Language: an introduction June 4, 2010 http://transitionculture.org/2010/06/04/rethinking-transition-as-a-pattern-language-an-introduction/
 Starting Monday: Will You Help With Re-Writing the Transition Handbook? Sept. 17, 2010
 An interview with Christopher Alexander Dec 23, 2010 http://transitionculture.org/2010/12/23/exclusive-to-transition-culture-an-interview-with-christopher-alexander/
 Your help needed with naming the sequel to ‘Transition Handbook’ Jan 10 2011 http://transitionculture.org/2011/01/10/your-help-needed-with-naming-the-sequel-to-transition-handbook/
 Seeking photos that capture the spirit of Transition Feb 17, 2011