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Green Wizardry: A response to Rob Hopkins

Since the Green Wizards project got under way two months ago, I’ve wondered off and on whether it would field any sort of response from the Transition movement. Thus it was not exactly a huge surprise to read Rob Hopkins’ blog post on the subject yesterday. I admit that the tone of his response took me aback, and so did the number of misrepresentations that found their way into it; I have no objection to criticism – quite the contrary, an idea that can’t stand up to honest criticism isn’t worth having in the first place – but it might have been helpful if Hopkins had taken the time to be sure the ideas he was criticizing were ones I’ve actually proposed.

When I sat down to start this week’s post this morning, I considered going through his comments one by one and correcting the misrepresentations, but what would be the point? Those who are minded to take his statements at face value will doubtless do so anyway; those who are interested in checking the facts can find my views detailed at quite some length in the series of posts beginning June 30 of this year. Instead, I think it’s more useful just now to talk about the things Hopkins’ critique got right. Rob Hopkins is a smart guy, and even though he’s garbled a fair number of the details, his post raises useful points regarding some of the core issues I’ve tried to bring up in the Green Wizards posts.

The first of those is that one of the motivations behind the Green Wizards project is a recognition of the limitations of the Transition Towns project. I’ve discussed my concerns about that movement on several occasions on this blog, and don’t see any need to repeat those comments just now. The crucial point, though, is one that Hopkins himself cheerfully admits: that neither he nor anyone else in the movement can be sure that it will accomplish what it’s trying to accomplish.

That’s a bold statement, and one that’s worthy of respect. Still, it has implications I’m not sure Hopkins has followed as far as they deserve. If the difficult future ahead of us can’t be known well enough to tell in advance what strategies will best deal with it, in particular, it seems to me that it’s a serious mistake to put all our eggs in one basket, whether it’s the one labeled "Transition" or any other.

This is the underlying strategy that guides the Green Wizards project. I’ve argued here that the best approach to an unpredictable future is dissensus: that is, the deliberate avoidance of consensus and the encouragement of divergent approaches to the problems we face. The Green Wizards project is one such divergent approach. It tries to address a broad range of possible futures with a flexible set of tools, but there are no guarantees; it’s entirely possible that the project will fail, or that the future will turn out to be so different from my expectations that it could never have succeeded at all.

That last comment could be said just as accurately of the Transition approach, and of course that’s exactly the point. Neither project offers an answer to all the challenges the future might dump on us, and neither one is guaranteed to work. This is why I’ve tried to craft the Green Wizards project to fill in some of the gaps the Transition Town movement fails to address. Does that make the two projects mutually exclusive? Not at all; it could as easily be argued that they’re complementary – though it also needs to be remembered that the two projects taken together don’t cover all the possibilities, either. Other projects will be needed to do that, and if we’re lucky, we’ll get them.

This leads to the second point that Rob Hopkins got absolutely right, which is that the Green Wizard project isn’t a solution to every problem the future has in store for us. I’m not at all sure where Hopkins got the idea that the project is predicated on an imminent fast collapse, which is very nearly the opposite of my views – the most popular of my peak oil books so far isn’t titled The Short Descent, you know – but he’s quite right to say that I consider peak oil, and more generally the impact of fossil fuel and resource depletion on an economy and society that depends on limitless growth, to be the core driving force of the next century or so of social crisis and disintegration. (The main impacts of anthropogenic climate change, according to most climatologists, will come further down the line.) That’s what the Green Wizard project is intended to address, and criticizing it for not trying to do what it’s not intended to do is a bit like criticizing a hammer because it’s not a very good saw.

The Seventies-era appropriate technology that’s at the core of the project, for that matter, is only one of many options that could be used within the strategy I’m proposing. I chose that option partly because it’s something I happen to know well, having worked with it for thirty years now; partly because it evolved to deal with the consequences of energy shortages in a time of economic turmoil, and that promises to be a fair description of the decades just ahead of us; and partly because I’ve discovered that a great deal of what was learned back in the days of the appropriate tech movement never got handed down to the people in today’s peak oil scene.

I’ve also found that a great many people who are worried about peak oil take to the old appropriate tech material like a duck to water, once they learn about it, and are refreshingly likely to do something practical with it. One of the challenges most of us who speak publicly about peak oil face all the time is the honest question, "Yes, but what can I do about it?" Hopkins has offered his answer to that question, and it’s an answer that’s clearly satisfactory to many people, but it’s not suited to everybody.

The birth of the Green Wizard project itself came about as a result of that last fact. The project started with a post here that tentatively suggested the archetype of the wizard, and the toolkit of the old appropriate tech movement, as the starting points for an option worth exploring as we move deeper into the Age of Limits. That post fielded more comments and email than any other Archdruid Report post has ever gotten, and a very large number of the responses amounted to "This is what I’ve been looking for." Many of the people who responded in that way have gone on to begin saving energy, planting gardens, and doing other admirably practical steps. Should I have closed that door in their faces, and insisted that they had to embrace the Transition agenda or do nothing at all? I trust not.

This leads in turn to the third point that Rob Hopkins got unquestionably right, which is that the Green Wizard project is not aimed at building resilient communities. That’s the core of the Transition Towns strategy, if I understand Hopkins’ writings correctly, and the Transition Towns program is certainly one way to go about trying to do that – though it’s not the only way, and not necessarily the best way in every case. What I’m not sure Hopkins has grasped is his strategy isn’t the only game in town.

To begin with, as I’ve just mentioned, there are plenty of people who are interested in doing something about the challenges of the future, but for whom the Transition program is not a viable option. There are people, quite a few of them, who live in communities full of rock-ribbed conservatives who believe that global warming is a hoax manufactured by the Democratic Party and that we’d have all the oil we need if the government allowed unrestricted drilling, and as many who live in communities full of liberals who believe just as firmly that their SUV lifestyles can run just as well on wind farms or algal biodiesel as on fossil fuels. There are people who, for one reason or another, are not suited to the work of community organizing, and others who have been there, done that, and would sooner gnaw a rat’s pancreas than sit through another round of long meetings in order to produce another round of elaborate plans that everyone involved knows will never be anything more than ink on paper. Insisting that such people ought to follow the Transition program anyway is not going to have any useful result.

Yet there’s another issue I don’t think Hopkins has addressed, and it comes right back to his cheerful admission that there’s no guarantee the Transition program can do what it’s supposed to do. The Transition program assumes that the best way to deal with the impending crises of the future is to organize for resilience on a community level, and it also assumes that the best way to do this is to produce a discreetly managed consensus within individual communities, turn that consensus into a plan, and then act on the plan. Neither of those assumptions is a certainty, and there are reasons – some of which I’ve discussed in this blog – why strategies based on them may be doomed to fail.

This point deserves making in the clearest possible terms. It’s pure speculation, however appealing the speculation might be, that communities are the best option, or even a workable option, for building the sort of resilience Hopkins has in mind. Even if he’s right, it may no longer be possible to build communities that are resilient in any meaningful sense, in the face of the troubles bearing down on us at this point. Even if it is still possible to do so, the methods the Transition movement proposes may not be a viable way of doing it. Based on his public writings, I believe Hopkins would agree with these statements. That being the case, though, we’re back to the point I made earlier: in the face of an unpredictable future, it’s wise to explore more than one possible response.

The Green Wizards project is an attempt to create one of these alternative responses. As I’ve already suggested, it’s partly inspired by an attempt to fill in some of the gaps left open by the Transition program, and so it should come as no surprise that it differs from the Transition program in a great many respects. It doesn’t claim to be a solution to every problem the future might throw our way, and so it’s pretty much guaranteed that there will be things the Transition program covers that the Green Wizard project does not, and vice versa. It doesn’t focus on the creation of resilient communities, but instead of criticizing it for that reason, Hopkins could as well have said that Transition already has that covered, and alternative projects could use their time more wisely by tackling other issues Transition is not well positioned to address – which, again, is what the Green Wizard project is trying to do.

That this wasn’t his response troubles me. That’s not because I think Hopkins ought to accept all the presuppositions behind the Green Wizards project – if he did that, presumably he’d have launched some project like it, instead of the one he did in fact launch – or because I think the Green Wizards project shouldn’t be criticized. As I mentioned toward the beginning of this essay, any idea worth having is worth critiquing, and the skill of learning even from harsh criticism is essential to projects of the kind Hopkins and I are pursuing, each in his own way. Equally, when criticism misses or misunderstands its target, it can be useful to point out where this has happened, and try to clarify the issues under debate. Still, there’s a line of some importance between such responses and the kind of defensive stance that treats any critique as an assault to be repelled, and any alternative project as a potential rival to be quashed.

I don’t think that Hopkins and the Transition movement have crossed that line yet, and I trust they will recognize the risks and stay well back from it. Still, it worries me that recent responses on the part of Hopkins and other people in the Transition movement to criticism have begun to display traces of the defensiveness and the spirit of rivalry to be found beyond that line. I’m thinking particularly of the responses fielded by Alex Steffens’ critique of the Transition movement on his Worldchanging blog. I’m by no means a fan of Steffens, but he raised points that deserve more attention, and a more substantive and less dismissive response, than I feel they received.

Ultimately, though, the way people in the Transition movement choose to respond to its critics is their choice, not mine. Meanwhile, the Green Wizard project is moving ahead. I’m pleased to announce that after many requests from participants in the project, an online forum for aspiring green wizards is live at http://www.greenwizards.org; a tip of the wizard’s hat to Teresa Hardy and Cathy McGuire for the hard work that made this happen.

I’m by no means sure what the next steps forward will be. This project is barely two months old, and has already expanded and developed in ways that I never anticipated; for the foreseeable future, at least, improvisation is the order of the day. Still, aspiring green wizards and more casual readers alike can expect another exploration of the practical options ahead of us in next week’s Archdruid Report post.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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