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A critical response to Michael Brownlee’s call for ‘Deep Transition’

I read Michael Brownlee’s recent piece ‘The Evolution of Transition in the US‘, with a mixture of fascination and a sense of disquiet that increased the deeper I got into the piece. The concept of Transition has been regularly critiqued, a positive process which has helped to shape what it is today. Most critiques run along the lines of “Transition, nice idea, but it isn’t [ ... ] enough”. So, for Alex Steffen, Transition isn’t technologically savvy or optimistic enough, for the Trapese Collective it isn’t politically savvy enough, for John Michael Greer it is guilty of ‘premature triumphalism’, for Ted Trainer it isn’t sufficiently rooted in alternative culture or focused enough, while for others it is too riven with New Age thinking and pseudoscience. Now, according to Brownlee, it is fatally flawed by not having the ‘Sacred’ at the heart of what it does.

Michael’s work, and his proposal for a realignment of the Transition approach, clearly emerge out of a deep affection for the idea of Transition, and are based on much of his dedicated and committed work, doing Transition on the ground, as well as acting as a prolific Transition trainer. What he is proposing is an evolution of Transition (a Transition 2.0. if you like) to what he calls ‘Deep Transition’, a version of Transition which is explicit about the central role of the ‘Sacred’ (although exactly what that actually means is never defined). While there is much in his piece which is insightful and clearly builds on a rich understanding of Transition, it raises several points which concern me greatly and which, with the greatest respect, I would like to explore here.

Developing National Transition Identities

One of Michael’s key arguments is that Transition in the US needs to be different from Transition in the UK and to find its own identity and voice. We agree entirely and Transition Network has taken this approach from the start, observing over these few short years in many countries around the world the self-organising emergence of Transition at the community level, and the emergence of national ‘hubs’ to support that effort (already in place in a number of countries). In every place this looks different. Every place develops its own distinctive ‘Transition culture’. The role of Transition Network is to support that, not to control or dictate it, or, as Michael puts it, “bring Transition to the US” – or anywhere else for that matter.

In New Zealand for example, which is very grassroots driven, they decided not to sign the MoU we had suggested at all, and instead they developed their own model. And we wholeheartedly supported them in that. In Brazil, Transition is emerging at the grassroots, translating both the model and the materials into the culture of the place – and we’re doing as much as we can to support that. So, while we’re not trying to dictate the form or approach, we are absolutely adamant that the emergence of Transition needs to be a collaborative process, built on the foundations of vibrant Transition initiatives at the local level, and that any new reframings of the Transition model emerge in the same way.

It is not, therefore, the case that being able to develop a “uniquely American approach to Transition” will “require that we once again declare our independence from England and establish our own independence”. Every place where Transition emerges is encouraged to make it their own, but to do so collaboratively: we encourage that absolutely. Talk of “declaring independence from England” runs directly counter to the spirit of collaboration that we have tried to foster from the beginning, and which most people involved in Transition seem to understand implicitly.

What we are up against – senses of urgency

Michael then goes on to set out what he sees as being the key challenges that should underpin the Transition approach. These include, unsurprisingly, peak oil and climate change, as well as economics, which is, according to Michael:

“…precisely the area that the founders of the Transition movement in Totnes have been so skittish about taking on as a part of the context for Transition”.

I don’t see that Transition Network has, in any sense, been ‘skittish’ about economics as a possible third strand of Transition. For example, we wrote a section on economics for the recent Dutch edition of the Transition Handbook. We gave Stoneleigh a prominent role at the last conference and have facilitated subsequent talks by her. We’ve collaborated with Chris Martenson to get his Crash Course material over here and facilitated meetings with government officials for him. We’ve blogged an “Economic crisis” event that involved Tim Jackson and Naresh Giangrande. None of us can think of any talk we’ve given in the last few years that didn’t include a reference to the economics of energy descent. Rather, we have engaged with the issue in a variety of ways, and various events organised by the Network have explored the question of whether Transition should explicitly make economics a clear strand of its work.

For me personally, I have been reluctant to weave an explicit piece about economics into my own presentations, as I feel that with climate change there is a scientific consensus, peak oil is an issue I understand enough to be able to discuss and defend it, economics on the other hand is hugely complex with very contrasting takes on what is happening. Is Stoneleigh right, that we are about to see the imminent collapse of the financial system (she did say at the 2010 Transition Network conference that by now my house should by now be worth what it was in 1974, which is patently isn’t). Is Herman Daly right, that a Steady State economy is possible? Or is the Ellen McArthur Foundation right, that we could create a ‘cyclical economy’? Or perhaps Tim Jackson is right that we can create ‘prosperity without growth’? I don’t know, and for me to put all my eggs into one of those baskets would be an act of faith, not one of a reasoned and informed evaluation of the information available.

I get a sense from how Michael builds his case in his article that he has drawn together all the very worst forecasts of everything and used that to underpin his case for ‘Deep Transition’. I think all we can say for certain is that:

a) we are, at the least, very close to the peak in world oil production, that the impacts of this are uncertain

b) no-one has yet demonstrated that economic growth is possible without the availability of cheap energy to make it happen

c) the science on climate change is, frankly, terrifying.

However, to argue that within 2 years, peak oil will be an issue of “who lives” is a lazy way to describe it and an unhelpful sweeping generalisation. Some places won’t feel much of an impact at all for years. On the other hand, for people living where there’s very little energy and the hospitals can’t afford the diesel for the generators, it is, right now of course, a life or death issue. In the US though, the subject of his piece, I would guess that within 2 years peak oil won’t be an issue of “who lives”.

Also, there are some elements of Michael’s analysis that don’t seem to stand up to historical analysis. For example, he writes that “industrial civilisation destroys communities”. While on the one level this could be argued to be the case from a Robert Puttnam/Happiness Index analysis, it is also important to note that at present, industrial civilisation is, for much of the world, the only thing that feeds, clothes, employs and heats and cools billions of people. Yes it is deeply flawed, yes it is highly oil vulnerable, yes it is pushing the biosphere to the edge of collapse, yes it is grossly unequally distributed, but is Transition, at this point, in any position to take over and run an alternative infrastructure? To argue that ‘industrial civilisation destroys communities’ is hugely over-simplistic.

Then there is the question of urgency. Michael writes:

“… there is a growing and indisputable recognition that our collective predicament is far more serious and more urgent than many of us had been willing to actively contemplate. This is being increasingly reflected in the larger Transition movement, sometimes to the apparent dismay of its founders”.

I have to say I have absolutely no idea what he means by this. Does any of the above communicate a lack of a sense of urgency? I sense in Transition initiatives, and in everyone I come across who is involved, a deep sense of urgency, of focused commitment. I don’t think that one needs to exaggerate threats and try and terrify people into a sense of urgency. The facts are motivating enough on their own. Indeed there is lots of research showing that bombarding people with terrifying information is far more likely to lead to a Flight/Fight/Freeze response than to constructive engagement. It is rarely an effective approach to engaging people in my experience.

Pattern Language

Next Michael discusses the ‘Pattern Language’ approach I am using for in my next book as a tool for redefining the Transition approach and how it works. I am not using the term ‘pattern language’ anymore, as it seemed to bewilder so many people, and therefore now refer to them as ‘ingredients’, which seem to resonate much better. While Michael and I are both great admirers of Alexander’s work, I’m not sure I agree with Michael’s analysis of what Alexander is saying. Michael argues that:

“… all this (the section Michael chose from Alexander’s writings) may seem rather mystical, even spiritual. Well, perhaps it is. We eventually discover that what Alexander is pointing to is that wholeness and connectedness and aliveness and sacredness and holiness are all one seamless unfolding evolutionary process”

I think this is a misreading of Alexander’s perspective. I have never found anything in his writings that talks about “sacredness and holiness”. Alexander talks about the ‘quality that has no name”, a quality of built environments that brings them to life, but it is not my understanding that he is referring to the ‘Sacred’ in the way that Michael is. I will be meeting and interviewing Christopher in a couple of weeks for this website, so will explore this further with him. Michael continues:

“In the UK, this bold re-conception is being delivered under the banner of “Assembling Transition” and Hopkins has taken to call the patterns he has identified as “Transition Ingredients”—as if Transition is some sort of recipe to follow, a kind of cake we can just cook up! Unwittingly, Hopkins may be condemning Transition to the same kind of fate that has befallen a mechanistic view of Nature and the Universe … as I delve deeper into all this, I find myself suspecting that Rob may be ignoring the deeper aspects of Christopher Alexander’s work”.

This is a matter of opinion on which we respectfully diverge. What I am doing with this project is to reflect better the model of Transition that I see unfolding in countless Transition Initiatives. It is not one necessarily underpinned by ‘the Sacred’, but then nor is Alexander’s. It is not about teaching everyone to make the same cake, rather the observation that in doing Transition in a range of settings, there are certain stages or phases that most initiatives go through, and that there are certain ingredients people use, but everyone makes different cakes, cakes specific to culture and to place. This approach doesn’t tell people how to do it, rather offers them useful pieces, ingredients they can use to create whatever they want to.

Further, criticism of the approach I’m taking, which mirrors Alexander’s pretty much to the letter is, by implication, a criticism of Alexander’s too. The only divergence between Transition’s use of “Pattern Language” and Alexander’s is that, based on feedback from transitioners, we’re choosing to call the discrete elements “ingredients” rather than “patterns”.

The Role of the ‘Sacred’

Now we get to the element that is the cause of the bulk of my disquiet (sorry to grumble so much folks, it’s not my usual style….). Michael states unequivocally that:

“our preparation is likely to crumble unless we are able to connect with and cultivate the aliveness, the wholeness, the healing and the sacredness that underlies the Transition process”

… and later he states that, the way forward for the US is what he calls ‘Deep Transition’ – i.e. a Transition that is “all about the sacred”.

His argument is that at the heart of the challenges facing us is a crisis of a culture that has become disconnected both from nature and also from a sense of connectedness to the rest of life. There’s some validity to this argument but the conclusion Michael reaches from it – i.e. you can’t successfully do Transition without engaging the ‘Sacred’ as a central part of the approach – seems to be the perfect recipe to alienate, bewilder and sideline Transition in the US or anywhere else, to condemn it to the back pages of Kindred Spirit magazine and restrict it to a very narrow slice of society.

For me, if Transition has done one thing well over the past 4 years, it has been the designing of an approach that comes uncluttered by much of the baggage that has encumbered environmental responses over the past 30 years. These responses have often been perceived as being smug, judgemental and against lots of stuff without a very clear idea of what it is for. The Transition idea has spread into businesses, organisations, Councils, the media and so on, as an idea that is simple to understand and accessible to people from all manner of mindsets. Making a central and explicit connection with the ‘Sacred’ would be a sure-fire way to consign Transition back to the left-field, far away from businesses and communities everywhere.

Michael writes that “when people hear the word ‘cosmology’ they sometimes automatically think it is somehow religious”. I think he misses the point. When people hear the word ‘Sacred’, they automatically think it is somehow religious. To be talking about the ‘Sacred’ in Christian or Muslim communities which have their own very strong sense of what the sacred means, would be highly divisive. And we’d find a similar response if we used it to engage and work with agnostics, atheists and others who don’t share that world view. The idea that such an approach would be a guaranteed way of deepening engagement in the US seems poorly judged to me. In fact, I would argue that in the current economic climate, with unemployment running rife, a focus on, for example, social enterprise and economic localisation would be far more relevant and gain much deeper traction. We might also find that encouraging increasing levels of scientific literacy among Transition groups to better equip them in evaluating different options might also help gain more traction.

That is not to say that the ‘inner’ aspects of Transition have no place, they clearly have a vital role to play. Offering tools to make people more personally resilient, better able to cope with rapid change, and better able to communicate with each other, are vital. Much excellent work has been done by Transition trainers and others developing tools to strengthen the inner aspects of Transition, and it is one of the key things that distinguishes Transition from other approaches – this is not purely an external process of creating CSAs and running Open Space events, it is also about supporting communities, and each other, through times of rapid and deeply challenging change. Skilfully presented, this is an absolutely key aspect of Transition.

However, what Michael is writing about is something different. Inner Transition is not necessarily about the ‘Sacred’, although for some people it might be. It can be seriously misleading, in my opinion, to explicitly intertwine the two. There is a certainty to Michael’s writing that I am convinced others will find deeply alarming. For example, his assertion that “it is our belief if you’re not spiritually connected to the Earth and understand the spiritual reality of how to live on Earth, it’s likely you will not make it” would permanently alienate a massive proportion of the people we’re trying to reach.

Closing Thoughts

As I mentioned at the beginning, Transition is often subject to critiques of its approach and its underlying thinking, and it is in these discussions that the evolving edge of Transition can be found. It is here that ideas and challenges to a comfortable consensus emerge and shift the thinking out of its comfort zones. For me, this is one of the areas where Transition feels most alive. Michael is to be thanked, like others before him, for pushing Transition out of its comfort zone and asking it some testing questions. In Transition, we have tried to support an approach where these things are debated and discussed openly, and that any moves forward or evolutions to the approach are based on what emerges from that. I hope that Michael’s piece, and this response, will lead to a debate on these issues.

However, it is my sense that any new evolutions of the Transition approach should emerge from Transition initiatives on the ground, from the people themselves, from a wide background of beliefs, convictions, political backgrounds and class/racial backgrounds, who are out there, trying things out, dedicating their time to the idea that a more localised, more resilient, less-oil dependent future is the one they want to grow old in and see their grandchildren thrive in, rather than being developed in isolation.

There is something about how Transition is currently communicated that fires people, which leads to their putting their shoulder to bringing Transition into being. Insisting on the idea that ‘Deep Transition’ is the future for Transition in the US context implies that what everyone else is doing, and has been doing for the past four years is, by implication, ‘Shallow Transition’. For me, the future of Transition, in the US, or anywhere for that matter, would stand the greatest chance of being successful if it is based on a blend of practical action, community engagement, ‘inner Transition’, social entrepreneurship, social justice, paying careful attention to deep engagement, basing its choices on the best evidence available, creating new economic models for inward investment, and finding skilful ways to engage local businesses and local government. Clearly Michael is passionate about what he has set out here, and feels it to be a valuable approach and an enriching model. I wish him all the best with his work, but for me what he has set out here isn’t Transition, or rather it is one take on a small aspect of Transition developed by a small group of people, and should be seen in that context.

Editorial Notes: Carolyn Baker weighs in on her website here.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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