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Why "green wizards" get us nowhere new...

Transition Culture is back! After a month of Cornish beaches, hemp lime plastering, wood store-building, cinema visits, catching up with friends, storytelling festivals, campfires and wrestling with cabbage white caterpillars, normal service is resumed. Nice to see you again, you’re looking well. I’m kicking off again with some reflections on John Michael Greer’s ‘green wizardry’ concept, which he calls “the current Archdruid Report project”, which will no doubt generate some interesting debate. Greer, for those who don’t know, is a blogger and author whose work I usually admire greatly, whose excellent blog can be found here.

Green Wizards….

So, first question, what is a ‘green wizard’? Greer defines green wizards thus, “individuals who are willing to take on the responsibility to learn, practice and thoroughly master a set of unpopular but valuable skills – the skills of the old appropriate technology movement – and share them with their neighbours when the day comes that neighbours are willing to learn”. The idea, as I read it, is that any notion of a co-ordinated response, a la Heinberg’s ‘Powerdown’, a scenario where communities self-organise and work with, or without, their local authorities, to start the rebuilding of that settlement’s resilience, reduce its oil dependency and carbon footprint, is now for the bin, condemned as impractical and unrealistic. Greer appears to have given up any notion that such a thing might be possible, stating “a movement is a great thing if you want to hang out with congenial people and do interesting things together. It’s just not usually a good way to make change happen”.

What Transition and Green Wizardry have in common….

Both Transition and green wizardry are based on the ideas that peak oil, and peak various other things too, will lead to a future of economic contraction and declining net energy availability, where the communities that are most successful are those that have most successfully strengthened and refocused their local economies in advance. Both (as I understand it) believe in the need for stronger local food networks, more back garden production, more local ownership of key utilities such as energy generation, and for a rediscovery of local building materials, seasonal foods and so on. Greer’s latest post, The Care and Feeding of Time Machines, is a fascinating distillation of useful tips and ideas around season extending, which will be of great interest and use to many involved in Transition. Much of the information being unearthed and rediscovered by the green wizards will be very useful for those involved practically in building resilience at a local level, and it is a very valuable and fascinating project. I do, however, have a few concerns about green wizardry, which I would like to reflect on in this post.

The dangers of setting up a straw man

In recent weeks, Greer has been taking swipes at the Transition approach, both in his posts and also in the comments threads. A while ago I responded to a piece Greer wrote which accused Transition of ‘premature triumphalism’: I’m all for people picking at Transition, questioning, debating and challenging it, but it does get frustrating, as we saw recently with Alex Steffen, when Transition becomes a straw man, when it is presented as something it isn’t in order to enable to writer to prove his or her point, or, more commonly, to propose something else they see as being a superior and more appropriate idea. The Transition I read about in Greer’s posts often isn’t the Transition I recognise from the work I do. Some examples:

  • He has referred to a “number of Transition Town activists who have found their way onto municipal payrolls has excited grumbling from members of less successful pressure groups”… which when I objected on his comments thread saying I don’t know of any such person, said that he had got that from the ‘Rocky Road to Transition’, itself a very badly researched document…
  • He dismisses Transition by saying that “many people in the peak oil scene have chosen to downplay the difficulties and insist that we can have a bright, happy, abundant future if we just pursue whatever baby steps to sustainability we all find congenial” … does that ring bells for any Transitioners out there? Thought not…
  • Transition’s “fixation on optimism makes it raise expectations it can’t possibly fulfil: the question that hasn’t been settled yet is what happens to it once it becomes obvious”, again rather missing the point…
  • Transition is often dismissed by Greer as being a ‘revitalisation movement’, which I interpret as meaning that it is content to tinker around inconsequentially at the edges without doing anything meaningful, revitalising the existing model rather than suggesting anything else meaningful. Again, not the Transition I recognise….

He takes particular exception to the notion of Energy Descent Planning, of the idea of intentional planning for energy descent, arguing:

….the core argument of last week’s post centered on the possibility of building a better future by deliberate planning, and many of the comments and critiques took issue with my suggestion that this is not only impossible but counterproductive. While most of these latter noted that they were participants in the Transition Town movement, the ideas they expressed in that context are anything but unique to that movement; rather, it expresses a consensus that extends through most of the peak oil scene, and indeed, most of contemporary society. Despite its popularity, though, this confidence in our ability to plan the future seems woefully misplaced to me, and the reasons that have forced me to dissent from the consensus may be worth discussing here.

Let’s return here to the Cheerful Disclaimer, not I, nor anyone else involved in Transition would argue that it is a strategy that will definitely work, that Energy Descent Plans, community visioning, or any other ‘deliberate planning’ approaches are guaranteed to work. Transition is a collective experiment, an invitation to be part of a huge research project, learning through doing. It is not so much the ‘mass movement’ that Greer rails against, rather it is people around the world working at a community level to see what works, and what is appropriate in a range of contexts (urban, rural, developing world etc). My point is that it is easy to present a picture of what Transition is that suits the argument you want to make. What feels unhelpful though is to use green wizardry as a way of dismissing or brushing aside Transition, when both do different things, appeal to different people, and are needed simultaneously. So what could be the limitations of the green wizardry concept?

The Limits of Gathering an Appropriate Technology Library

Another of Greer’s recent posts, by way of an example of how green wizardry seems to be working in practice, discusses a key issue that a society engaged in adapting to energy descent will need to address, namely peak phosphorous, and then gives Greer’s reflections on the matter, followed by a list of suggested resources. Greer is particularly keen on books from the ‘appropriate technology’ movement of the 1970s, suggesting that ‘how-to’ books have never been bettered since those times of counter culture, energy crises and xerox machines.

I have lots of books from that time on my shelves. Indeed, in my early 20s I hoovered them up at car boot sales, second hand bookshops, wherever I could find them. I still have most of them, John Seymour’s books, a great little book on urban gardening called “Your Home Grown Food”, gems such as “Common-sense Compost Making”, “The Self-Sufficient House”, and little booklets on making your own windmills and solar panels. When I moved to Ireland I picked up many more at house sales when people who were the ‘back to the land’ generation of the 1970s had house clearances, and threw out loads of great little books on beekeeping, making your own yeasts and coracle building (in most cases I was pretty convinced they had done none of those things…). I remain a kleptomaniac for such books, and covet my collection.

I also collect books, when I can find them, from the 1940s/1950s, Dig for Victory books and gardening books written by old fellas who grew up on allotments and grew leeks up to their waists. There is much that can be learnt from those books, but also a great deal best left behind. I have a lovely old book called ‘Fruit Culture for the Amateur’ by W.F. McKenzie, published in 1947, which recommends DDT as a new insecticide, offering the key piece of Health and Safety advice: “DDT is non-poisonous to human beings and animals”. Whether from the 1940s, or the 1970s, thinking and solutions have evolved. While still often insightful and valuable, much of the literature from the 1970s was based on the idea that you needed to drop out of society, get some land, buy a farm, become as near self-sufficient as possible.

Energy books assumed you wanted to be ‘off-grid’, rather than the perhaps less anti-social approach favoured today of generating energy to feed into the grid. Food production books often assumed you had acres to play with, and books on energy in buildings assumed you were starting from scratch. Greer may argue that there were also some excellent urban appropriate technology books, and groups such as the New York Energy Task Force who promoted urban wind power, but there is a danger, I think, in assuming that we can just go back to those books 40 years later and pick up from there.

Geodesic domes, for example, big in the 1970s, are largely accepted now as actually being quite rubbish. Windmill designs from then have been hugely improved on since. Our understanding of energy performance in buildings has come on hugely, the materials available are much better, our knowledge of how to use local and natural materials in buildings has evolved greatly, our understanding of soils, gardening systems and so on, have come on since then too (I would rather, for example, rely on Adam Weissman and Katy Bryce’s ‘Using Natural Finishes’ book (published 2 years ago) as a ‘how-to’ for making clay plasters than ‘Shelter’ or any of the other far more speculative books from the 70s). I can’t help thinking that the idea that we will see the rapid onset of peak oil and economic collapse, at which point society starts to unravel, and desperately and reverently turns to a few enlightened souls who are fortunately bravely clutching a load of tatty books from the 1970s, and who are then able, from those curled and well thumbed xeroxed pages, to rebuild the world anew, is somewhat naive.

Also, much of that literature is rich on ideas, but very short on measuring, on assessing whether they work or not. Was Ruth Stout, referred to in Greer’s phosphorous post (I too have some of her books), a great visionary, whose straw-based mulch gardening system was a radical gardening breakthrough, or was she a fruitcake, the neighbour from hell, whose system gave initial promising results but which robbed soils of nitrogen and bred slug populations that pulsed across the garden in a frothing gelatinous tide? Do we actually know? Did anyone actually test, measure or evaluate what she did (I get the impression from her fascinating and highly entertaining books that she certainly wouldn’t have done so)? Where are the companion volumes that went back and tested the results of the experiments of the 1970s? How are the first Earthships bearing up? The first underground houses? I suspect that rather like permaculture’s fabled chicken greenhouses, basing our green wizardry on the literature of the 1970s could lead to much that we rely on turning out to be myth, unsubstantiated fables.

Some of the publishers who were producing books in the 1970s, some of the books that are on the wizards’ reading lists, are still publishing. The Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales, for example, are still publishing ‘how to’ books, and very good ones too. Books on how to clean dirty water, build your own solar systems, grow your own food. But they are not still just publishing facsimiles of their 1970s output, their current books are much more up-to-date, much better publications. Also, today’s challenges are different. As previously mentioned, many of the books produced in the 1970s assumed the reader was building from scratch, had land, no debts and so on. For most people today, the challenge is very different. How to retrofit a poorly-built house? How to reinhabit a house that is too big for your family? How to get out of debt? How to garden on concrete? Can I make a garden that I can take with me when I move between rented accommodation? I find little of use in addressing those challenges from my 1970s book collection.

Do ‘Green Wizards’ build community resilience?

This is the ultimate question for me. Would having green wizards in my community make it more resilient? I don’t think so. When talking about resilience, I mean the ability of my community to withstand shock from the outside, to not unravel at the first sign of difficulty, and to be able to reinvent itself, using the shock as an opportunity to reimagine and remake itself in a way more appropriate to a world of energy descent. For me, resilience refers to more than the ability to not fall apart when catastrophe strikes, rather resilience is a desirable state in itself, something to strive for because, if done properly, it stands a higher chance of meeting our needs in uncertain times than business-as-usual does.

My first point here is that there are already plenty of green wizards in my community, people with a range of skills. Transition’s working assumption has always been that we need a ‘Great Reskilling’, that we have become collectively vastly useless. However, the research I just completed that looked at Totnes found that actually people are far more skilled than we might give them credit for. The survey I conducted showed that 66% of people stated that they were ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ at food growing, and other methods such as focus groups confirmed this, that a lot more people are gardening than one might imagine. They learn not from government programmes, but largely from friends and neighbours, from people, like green wizards, who are just living it and doing it. The idea that we can build resilience by brushing up on canning techniques and swapping knitting techniques, while not wishing to dismiss the importance of those skills, is rather missing the point.

My initial thinking (around the time I wrote The Transition Handbook) was that, as shown in the graph to the left, that levels of core resilience skills (growing food, basic house repairs etc) were high in the 1950s, and have fallen steadily ever since, as those skills have become less and less useful. As one oral history interviewee who was a teenager in the early 1960s told me, gardening was, by then, perceived by that generation as “something you did if your Dad caught you”. It is easy to percieve that from that point forward, practical skills have fallen by the wayside, as we have moved from a producer society to a consumer society.

In reality, that wouldn’t appear to be the case. Each decade brings a new ‘pulse’ of people learning these skills (see left) , in the 1970s inspired by the appropriate technologists, John Seymour and the whole ’self sufficiency’ movement, in the 1980s the early permaculture movement, and so on, until today, where there is a huge interest in learning how to grow food, and indeed to relearn a wide range of practical skills. I would increasingly argue that the challenge that we need to address in order to move forward in the best way to build resilience is not through ‘building community’ (a subject I have addressed previously), or through a crash course of community reskilling, but rather through issues of governance and social entrepreneurship, areas where the green movement has fallen short for many years, and which aren’t addressed in green wizardry at all.

Where ‘Green Wizards’ Fall short.

The ‘Green Wizard’ concept is principally, as I understand it, conceptualised as a response to peak oil. It is based on the assumption that everything is going to unravel very fast and that this is the best way to respond. Fair enough, there will be many different ways people will respond, there is no one-size-fits-all response that will grab everyone, and ‘Green Wizardry’ is, in that context, just as valid a response as Transition, as engaging in political campaigning, protest, standing for office, or whatever.

What green wizardry is definitely not, though, by any stretch of the imagination, is a response to climate change. Becoming a walking appropriate technology library is not going to do anything to reduce your community’s carbon emissions. Climate change doesn’t work like peak oil. It isn’t something that builds to one moment of collapse, a point where circumstances determine that suddenly people see that you were right all along. The need presented by climate change is to reduce emissions today, and to cut them as hard and as deep as possible. Our 1970s ‘how-to’ library has nothing to say in terms of measuring carbon, nor how to most effectively reduce it, producing nothing like Chris Goodall’s ‘How to Live a Low Carbon Life’.

Green wizardry also falls short because it fails to acknowledge that a transition on the scale it is presumably designed as a reponse to will be anything more than purely a challenge of an absence of practical know-how. Communities faced with the realities of energy descent, whether rapid onset, stepped descent or rapid unravelling will be faced with much more than simply a need for windmill designs and guides to making good compost. It is not purely an outer process, indeed the practical solutions side of it is the easier side. Ensuring clear communication, dealing with conflict, supporting people through the grief of the future not turning out in the way they had spent their lives so far imagining it would, is equally important. Are the green wizards also dusting off 1970’s self help manuals?

I also can’t help thinking that there isn’t actually anything very new about the idea. There are already lots of places where people are finding and exchanging this stuff. A good permaculture design course is, in effect, an immersion in much of it, but with an angle of how to practically apply it all. There are web fora where this stuff is discussed, such as the excellent permies.com, as well as organisations like Garden Organic and others, who facilitate the sharing of tips, ideas and insights. In that sense, I see little new in the green wizard concept.

‘Told You So’

The part that grates most with me is the element of green wizardry that resonates with the things that always hacked me off most about certain elements of the green movement. This is captured in Greer’s statement “… share them with their neighbours when the day comes that neighbours are willing to learn…”. The Green Wizard, with his or her new and indispensible knowledge about appropriate technology, can now sit at the local bar, smug in the knowledge that when everyone else ‘gets it’, he/she will finally be valued, finally gain the appreciation they have for so long been denied.

Perhaps a less condascending position might be to assume that within the community a wide range of skills already exist, and we might bring people together physically, rather than virtually, such as at this event, coming soon, to share them. A huge range of knowledge exists in any community, and often community organises in a wide range of ways, many of which we may not even be aware of. Which would do more to make our communities more resilient, green wizardry, or volunteering for a local charity, helping out on the organising committee of a local carnival, volunteering for a local school? It is a serious question. One appears to take a somewhat aloof stance of knowing what a community needs, of knowing the skills people don’t have but need to acquire, the other a more open view which is there to support, observe, interact, learn and offer. It is an important distinction.

Final Thoughts

Unlike green wizardry, the Transition approach requires that we move out of our comfort zones, that we engage with people we otherwise wouldn’t engage with, that yes, we learn skills we otherwise wouldn’t, but we also organise meetings, events, learn how to run businesses, start to take up the responsibility for creating the new low carbon economy, engage, on our own terms, creatively with local governance. The idea that a sustainable, resilient future will emerge only when those around us ‘get it’ and seek us, and our knowledge, out, as argued by Greer, as and when things get dire enough, is a dangerous one, and one, I am concerned, that will get us nowhere.

Richard Heinberg, in the foreword to the paperback edition of ‘Peak Everything’, writes “the genius of the [Transition] movement lies in its engagement of the citizenry first”. Nothing new there really, but for me, green wizardry falls down in that rather than engage the citizenry, it falls back on the aloof superiority of the environmental movement, stockpiling knowledge for “when the day comes that neighbours are willing to learn”. If we are to come anywhere near to doing what needs to happen in order to have settlements sufficiently resilient to weather the shocks of the next few years, whether they be related to climate change, resource depletion or economic shocks, we need to scale up our thinking, think bigger, reweave connections and relationships, and start building a new infrastructure where we can.

This will not be able to be brought into being purely by communities of course, it will also need local government, national government, and international action. But a retreat to the belief that those of us who have stockpiled practical knowledge now comprise some kind of enlightened brotherhood (or sisterhood), whose role is to wait for the rest of the world to come to its senses and come seeking out our great wisdom, is somewhat dangerous. Rather, I would argue, we need to step out of our comfort zones and think bigger, see that we have a huge amount to learn, not just from dusty appropriate technology books, but also from those around us. I’ll close these reflections with a quote from David Orr’s book ‘Down to the Wire’, which captures the scale of what we need to be doing, whether we call it Transition, green wizardry, or whatever….

“Every increase in local capacity to grow food, generate energy, repair, build and finance will strengthen the capacity to withstand disturbances of all kinds. Distributed energy in the form of widely disbursed solar and wind technology, for example, buffers communities from supply interruptions, failure of the electrical grid, and price shocks. Similarly, a regionally based, solar-powered food system would restore small farms, preserve soil, create local employment, rebuilt stable economies, and provide better food while reducing carbon emissions and dependence on long-distance transport from distant suppliers. The primary goal in rethinking development and economic growth is to create resilience – capacity to withstand the disturbances that will become more frequent and severe in the decades ahead”.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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