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Responding to Greer’s thoughts on ‘Premature triumphalism’

It was good to read John Michael Greer’s recent post about the Transition movement, entitled Premature Triumphalism, because as a long admirer of Greer’s work, I was looking forward to hearing his take on the subject. His piece is based on hearing a talk on Transition at the recent Community Solutions conference, and he raises some important points, most of which I have to say I agree with entirely and find his analysis very insightful. I want to start my response to his piece by drawing your (and his) attention to what I think is the most important thing on the Transition Network’s website, the Cheerful Disclaimer.

The 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.

Everything that you read on this site is the result of real work undertaken in the real world with community engagement at its heart. There’s not an ivory tower in sight, no professors in musty oak-panelled studies churning out erudite papers, no slavish adherence to a model carved in stone.

This site, just like the transition model, is brought to you by people who are actively engaged in transition in a community. People who are learning by doing - and learning all the time. People who understand that we can’t sit back and wait for someone else to do the work. People like you, perhaps…

These are times in which many many people feel bewildered, lost and really rather scared. Anything that appears to offer a successful way through can generate a wide range of responses. We deal with this all the time at the Transition Network. For many people, coming across Transition, especially for those that have undergone their peak oil ‘dark night of the soul’, discovering Transition can be like falling in love. In the first throes of a love affair, everything about our new partner is wonderful. They are the most beautiful, funny, gorgeous, sexy, witty person we have ever met. Over time of course, things become less heady, and although things calm down and become more realistic, it doesn’t mean that we no longer care for them or that that person isn’t right for us.

Likewise with Transition, many people encounter the model, the tools, the Network, and enter what we might call ‘Super Exuberance Mode’, where they feel they have found the One Thing That Will Save Us. Over time, this then calms down, and they become more realistic and grounded, but although that early stage is a powerful experience for many, it also has its inherent dangers. What is happening in the US now is that Transition is starting to spread in various places, helped by the publication of Transition Handbook there, the formation of Transition US, set up to support and enable its spread, and by some early adopters who are generating some good media coverage. What is vital though, as Greer observes, is that it remains grounded, and expectations aren’t created that are entirely unrealistic.

What actually is this Transition thing? It is a Purpose and a set of principles, a 12 Step model people use, a Network of people around the world, many practical projects some of which have worked and some of which haven’t, and the Cheerful Disclaimer. That’s it. Beyond that, it is an invitation to get involved, to input and to help shape this approach. I often liken Transition to being a huge, and vitally important social research project. Those tools and principles continually evolve through a constant series of iterations.

It started with the Kinsale Energy Descent Plan which went around the world, generating a lot of enthusiasm as well some constructive feedback. That then shaped the way Transition Town Totnes happened in its early stages, as well as the experience of some of the early adopters like Lewes, Penwith and Stroud. The feedback from that led into the writing of the Transition Primer, the free pdf. guide to starting an initiative. That is a continually revised guide, now in its 26th version. The feedback from the places doing trying out the suggestions in the Primer led to the writing of the Transition Handbook. The feedback from the Handbook is now being collated in the collaborative rewriting of the Handbook, and also in the Transition Movie, out next Spring, which is being filmed by those out there doing it. This way of working is, for me, the Cheerful Disclaimer in practice. We don’t know how to do this, but the more of us that are doing it, the better and clearer idea we will get.

Although at Transition Network we have some suggested templates for presentations, we don’t dictate what people will use to give talks about Transition. They speak from their experience, their passion, their enthusiasm. As a result, some people will be more in Super Exuberance Mode than others. We discussed today trying to ensure that anyone giving a talk about Transition include the Cheerful Disclaimer somewhere in that. Hopefully people will take that on. There is, however, a fine line, a careful balance, between communicating inspiration and enthusiasm, and generating the kind of headshaking and ‘blistering comments’ Greer picked up at the back of the hall.

Whenever I speak about Transition, I stress that we don’t know if this will work, that it is a collaborative adventure, an ongoing, long term experiment. Actually, a lot of people come up afterwards and say that they felt that was the most inspiring aspect of the talk. ‘Premature triumphalism’ should be avoided at all costs, and certainly we emphasise that again and again through the Transition Training, and through all the output from the Network.

I have no idea, never having been there, of the US context for all this. There is fascinating work going on, translating Transition into a range of cultural contexts. We now have full translations of the Primer in Dutch and Japanese, and partial translations into French, German, Spanish, Italian and Hungarian, translated by the initiating groups in those countries themselves. The Handbook is now published in German and shortly in Italian. Yet beyond the language issues, there are the cultural issues of how this model adapts. The best people to work out how Transition works in the myriad of communities on a wide range of scales across the US are the inhabitants of those communities themselves. This is the model that is working in other places, New Zealand being an especially good example of this. It may be that being more effusive about it works better there (had Obama, rather than saying ‘yes we can’, said ‘well we might be able to, I have no idea, but I get a sense that we probably could if we work on this together and then kinda share our experiences’ he may not have got so far).

It feels vital to me that Transition doesn’t repeat some of the things that the permaculture movement has got wrong. As my recent post about chicken greenhouses showed, one of the things permaculture has been really poor at (in my opinion) is on researching itself. Enthusiastic teachers went around the world teaching tools and techniques, yet with no-one following up behind studying if these things actually worked. I am trying to get hold of an electronic copy of a brilliant analysis of the Australian Permaculture movement by Russ Grayson which holds many important lessons for Transition, which I will post here when I do. Being honest and open about what works and what doesn’t is vital.

With regards to Greer’s other point, that there is no point visioning the future because we have no idea what it will be like, I disagree. Of course we don’t know for sure, but the point is that we need to start planning for life beyond oil now, indeed Bob Hirsch might argue (if he wasn’t warning us all to stop talking about peak oil in case we depress the chances of the revival of economic growth) that we should have started this planning 20 years ago. In doing that planning, it strikes me that that needs to be based on realistic assumptions about the future, rather than the assumed line rising from left to right on the graphs of most business and development planners (more houses, cars, jobs, growth, energy).

With my background in permaculture design, I approach the transitioning of my town, the cutting of carbon emissions and the building of resilience, in the same way I would approach a garden design. First there is an observation phase, a taking stock, of assessing what the resources are that we have to work with. Then there is an evaluation of that, which leads into the design stage. Why these stages matter is that then when we come to action, to implemenation, we know we are directing our energies in the most productive way. We know we are applying our limited energy and resources in the way that has the most leverage. Starting with a vision ensures that we know where we are aiming for, that the first steps we take are the most skillful and the most appropriate, rather than dashing around doing things that in the moment feel right, yet which lack any strategic underpinning.

No-one in Transition would ever say that the Energy Descent Plan they produce is the hard and fast plan for the next 20 years. In the same way that in permaculture design, the implementation of our plan is followed by an ongoing process of ‘tweaking’, of continual revision, so that the plan remains contemporary and relevant, our EDAPs are always work-in-progress. In the process of creating the Totnes Energy Descent Plan, it is striking that although the Plan is based on a vision of the town in 20 years, the majority of practical actions tend to cluster in the first 5 years. What is key, to return to Greer’s point, is that EDAPs look at possibilities, rather than probabilities. It is a key difference, and one that will be stressed in the forthcoming ‘Transition Timeline’ report, coming soon from Transition Network.

Greer concludes his piece by saying “all this is welcome, but I’m still reminded of the old shopman’s rule that you don’t actually know how to use a tool until you are ready to name at least three ways it can be abused and at least three situations where it’s the wrong tool for the job”. I think at this stage, as I hope I have set out, that across the Transition network, we can now name many more than three for both of these. The ethic of collaborative exploration and openness to failure embodied in the Transition model means that this is a powerful, exhilarating and timely approach, not because it is fully formed, inherently wonderful and guaranteed to suceed, but precisely because it wears its heart on its sleeve, is honest about what works and what it doesn’t, and because it thrives on the journey of figuring out what successful pathways down the energy mountain will look like in practice. For me, the not knowing is what makes this all fun, and it is the potential of the cultural, social and economic renaissance that could arise from our getting this right that propels me out of bed every morning.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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