Stories from the mountain-top
[I lied when I said this would be a 2 part reflection. It turns out that it will be composed of 4]
Part 2: Stories from the Mountain-top
In his “TED Talk,” Rob Hopkins notes that the Transition Movement “feels historic, tries to create the sense that this is a historical opportunity to do something really extraordinary.” The complementary focus on action and our timely historical moment permeates many aspects of the Transition Movement.
When I do talks on the Transition Movement, I am quick to emphasize our focus on efficacy and action, sharing with my audience the sense of empowerment that Transition has given me and how this empowerment has filled me with great hope and joy. I regularly compare my current approach, in which my Transition friends and I have taken active responsibility for our communities, to my earlier days as an armchair environmentalist, in which my most constructive activity was yelling at the TV and bemoaning the stupidity of Republicans to anyone who would listen (our dog and two cats). In my Transition presentations, I contrast the jubilant and dynamic “solutions focused” orientation of Transition members to those hapless Sierra Club people huddling in uncomfortable and self-conscious clumps of 2s and 3s on a windy corner with their predictable signs and bothersome petitions. Transition, I brag, has taken a deep and hard look at our current situation and has dug in and started working on community based solutions. “Put on your helmets,” I tell the audience. “Buckle your chinstraps.” “Lower your head and go out and do what you can.”
As part of its focus on action in the present--the moment at which oil is peaking--as a time of opportunity for decisive action of historical consequences, the Transition Movement embraces the act of telling stories; stories are a crucial tool for this monumental change--as important, perhaps, as our new-found ability to darn socks and grow Kale. As Hopkins puts it in The Transition Handbook, one of the unique aspects of Transition is the way it “paint[s] a compelling and engaging vision of a post-carbon world in such a way as to enthuse others to embark on a journey towards it” (94). This is done through stories, whether stories of a possible and brighter future, or stories from the future about the magnificent accomplishments that emerged from our current “historical opportunity”: “this in essence is creating new myths and stories that begin to formulate what a desirable sustainable world might look like” (94-5).
The very fact that the book is a “handbook” tells us much. Its layout, graphics, even its size and shape reinforce its unique blend of theoretical and historical background with its call to action and engagement. As such, Hopkins has a remarkably utilitarian view of stories and narrative. Their value is in the works and deeds that they can inspire, enthuse, or motivate.
Less apparent, however, is the sort of story that Transition uses as its underlying structure. In his seminal Tropics of Discourse, Hayden White revealed the way in which all history follows familiar narrative patterns found in fictional narratives and that the message, moral, or lesson of any given history has much to do with its narrative typology and structure. There is no such thing according to this view as neutral history. In its very telling, history is an act of ordering, emphasizing, condensing, marginalizing, featuring, and focusing. It is an incessant act of seeing things in terms of something else.
White further explains that there are only four basic types of narrative: Comedy, Romance, Tragedy, and Farce, though sophisticated stories usually contain elements of more than one type. The story which underpins the Transition view of history, and thus the future it projects, is clearly Romance. Romance is a story of triumphant overcoming by a protagonist who wants something, and is successful in his quest for it. As with all narrative, the conclusion of the story is based on the degree to which the protagonist does or doesn’t get what she wants, while the main drama consists of the obstacles with which the protagonist is confronted in his or her quest.
Whether a the story ends up a Romance, Comedy, Tragedy, or Farce is, then, largely a matter of whether the protagonist is stronger than these obstacles, whether they be natural forces, other people, even internal barriers. In a Romance human will and bravery, whether that of an individual, a nation, or the entire species, are ultimately superior to the obstacles. In Tragedy, the obstacles are represented as insuperable forces against which the human will, as mighty and as heroic as it may be, will always find itself powerless in and to the end. (Comedy and Farce are characterized by partial success, rather than the full success of failure of Romance and Tragedy.)
Most good stories are meta-stories, just as most good history is meta-history. By this I refer to the way in which in addition to the structuring of the events into a dramatic shape, there is either explicit or implicit commentary on alterative story-telling.methods woven into the storyline or narrator commentary; these alternative modes are simultaneously degraded and used to represent competing view-points. This is where we can see Hopkins’ true effectiveness as a story-teller. Not only is the Transition story committed to avoiding a tragic or farcical ending, alternative modes of story-telling, themselves, form some of the obstacles that a successful Transition must overcome. The Transition outcome will be a triumphant one only by overpowering possible tragic, comic, and farcical voices, or rather by showing that other responses to Peak Oil—alternative narratives to the Transition one--will lead to unhappy tragic, comic, or farcical outcomes
These alternatives, the possible stories we might mislead ourselves with as we begin our descent from the Peak are of course “business as usual,” “techno-fantasy,” or “hitting the wall,” or, in Pat Murphy’s scheme, Plan A (business as usual), Plan B (business as usual but with renewable energy), and Plan D (dropping off the cliff). It would be possible to compress each one of these alternatives into a corresponding narrative mode, but the distinctions are not quite as neat as that, and all of them do contain elements of multiple modes, especially tragedy and farce. However, the division of stories into four schemes with one mode given prominence by the “argument” of the drama is hardly remarkable and the four-part modality is the most common scheme of meta-narratives such as Hopkins’.
As I noted, all stories have “arguments” and one of the most important points of contention is which narrative mode should be favored. While from the standpoint of the story of human destiny, Romance and its happy and successful overcoming would seem the natural choice, histories written in the Tragic, Comic, and Farcical voice would hardly make this concession, but instead order their fictive worlds in such a way that the other ones will seem insufficient. Romance is generally painted as debilitatingly simple and naive.
I must therefore conclude with a word about the way Hopkins orders his “fictive world” (which is not to say that it is fiction or false) in such a way that Romantic overcoming would appear as the unquestionably worthy form of narrative conclusion. How, in other words, does he make his “argument” not only about the truths of climate change, Peak Oil, and the value of community resilience, but about the ordering our imagination according to a Romantic structure, a structure according to which we may confront obstacles, overcome them, and then, in a sense, live happily ever after in our relocalized and reskilled communities? How does Hopkins make this rather simplistic scenario feel like it is a fair representation of the multifarious chaos of reality?
Hubbert’s curve. Not only is this the most recognizable icon of “Peak Oildome” as Sharon Astyk puts it--our basic cognitive map--the notion of an ascent to and then from a clear Peak provides the model for Hopkins’ dramatic shape. As the simplest form of story, Romance thrives in a world with this sort of linear rise and fall. More specifically, the historical period that falls within Hopkins purview can be represented as the march of history up the curve of energy use. As in the work of Murphy, Heinberg, and to a lesser extent Kunstler, nearly all historical events are explained according to fossil fuel consumption. This is not to suggest that all events of the industrial age cannot be tied in some way to increased energy use. Rather, what is unique about the work of much Peak Oil literature is the way in which history is rewritten in terms of Hubbert’s curve, and the way in which it is forcefully argued in this literature that this curve provides the most important terms according to which history ought to be understood.
Nevertheless, with a present perched on top of this heady and precarious peak, it is easy to “create the sense that this is a historical opportunity to do something really extraordinary.” Here, we are standing at the crux of history, at a moment of the most dramatic decisiveness, when the future of the world may be decided. It is intoxicating, perilous, momentous, serious, urgent. It is easy, here, to motivate, inspire, and enthuse. “The view from the mountain-top,” as Hopkins entitles Chapter 2 of the Handbook, provides great range and perspective. From here we can gaze downwards and identify traces of our upward tracks. From here we can look out upon the future, a future which will, according to this story, always involve some sort of “return”-- a word prevalent throughout The Transition Handbook and infused within the Transition imagination of re-skilling, relocalization, rebuilding – as we descend from these great but unsustainably rarified heights to a world built on a more human scale.
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