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Transition's life as a straw man

I am currently reading Carl Sagan’s excellent book ‘The Demon-haunted World: science as a candle in the dark’, which I picked up for a song in a second hand bookshop when I was last in London. Although published in 1996, it is as relevant to today as when it was published. Its focus is on the need for critical thinking and for a grounding in science, and it contains a great chapter called ‘The Fine Art of Baloney Detection’. Here he sets out what not to do when trying to assess the validity of an argument, and common ways that people make flawed arguments. One of those is creating a straw man, which he defines as “caricaturing a position to make it easier to attack “. Having spent Monday morning debating on ABC Radio in Australia with someone who has done just this, I wanted to offer a few thoughts on being a straw man.

An Australian academic, who I won’t name here (no it’s not Ryan Giggs), has been doing some research into Transition and has decided (not a new argument by any means) that Transition is flawed and doomed to being ineffectual because it doesn’t have an overtly political standpoint. That’s a reasonable argument, not one I agree with because I think there are many ways of being political and of making change happen, but a reasonable argument. But in advance of our discussion I was sent a list of the key points she wanted to bring to it, and I was left with the growing, and familiar, sense of being set up with Transition being presented as a straw man, as being asked to defend Transition as something that anyone who knows anything about it would know that it clearly isn’t. Here are some tasters of points she made. You may also have encountered some of these things in doing Transition in your own community:

  • “The transitions movement advocate eco-housing, but many of the recycled materials are sourced from places like Mumbai where impoverished people, including children sort through filth and dangerous projectiles for as little as a dollar a day so westerners can have their eco-houses”
  • “Globalisation has lifted consciousness on crimes against humanity, poverty and human rights. If we return to localisation and nationalism, won’t it make it easier for governments and corporations to hide their abuses?”
  • “In Australia many small communities are often isolated, patriarchal, fourth generation dominated, inbred and lack biological and cultural diversity. Many are on the brink of collapse because of this. History shows that the collapse of civilisations takes place when, [1] essential resources run out [2] when communities become so small and isolated that they lack sufficient biological [genetic] and/or cultural pooling”.
  • “The transitions movement advocates reducing carbon emissions, but reducing emissions will not stop the mining for minerals or the continued global militarisation, which are the greatest polluters. The transitions movement targets household emissions, but these pale against the big polluters”.
  • “The environment/transitions movements have generally called for a cut in emissions, but fail to address the exported pollution. Localisation will not stop this”.

So lets have a look in more detail at that straw man…. What she has done here is to base this on an assumption that Transition actively argues the following:

  • That it is the only approach and the only response we need. She assumes that we are putting Transition out into the world as a model we claim works definitively and that it will be sufficient, on its own, to solve all the world’s ills. To argue that Transition fails because it fails to “stop the mining for minerals or the continued global militarisation” is like also blaming it for not curing cancer or solving the Israeli/Palestinian crisis.
  • The thing about Transition promoting building materials recycled from Mumbai scrap heaps is bizarre frankly. We promote local, natural building materials…. this is an amazing straw man to set up, one based on nothing so far as I can see…
  • She confuses localisation with self sufficiency. Localisation is about the increased meeting of local needs through local production where possible (especially for food, energy and construction), and about promoting import substitution. Self sufficiency is neither possible nor desirable. No-one is talking about severing connections to the rest of the world, but trying to meet much more of our core needs locally, in order to create new jobs and employment and to make them more resilient. She assumes that 100% localisation is possible…
  • She also assumes that those involved with trying to localise their economies are unable to distinguish between a good and desirable version of localisation (founded on social justice, community ownership of assets, co-operative values, social enterprise, increasing biodiversity and so on) and a bad one (founded on feudalism, concentration of power, based on a turning of collective backs on wider issues in the world and so on). My experience of Transition initiatives is that they very much base their work on the former. Why anyone would want to dedicate their time to the latter is a mystery.
  • She assumes that Transition is only about small communities, rather than being also about cities, towns and settlements at all scales.

Another interesting straw man version of Transition was set up recently on the website Spiked by Colin McInnes who wrote a scathing critique of the idea of localisation, citing Transition as one of its key proponents, stating:

“… at its core, localism is in many ways an indulgent form of self-interest. A self-sufficient community is exactly that. It is independent of the cares or needs of other communities and is unwilling to engage in the wider human enterprise … we should reject these new forms of localism. We should have as little interest in growing our own food or generating our own energy as we have in producing our own steel. If we leave energy to energy utilities and food to efficient large-scale farming, we can enjoy the products of both while undertaking a myriad of other productive tasks, and so ensure growing prosperity for all”.

His article again sets Transition up as a straw man so that he can rail against it. “We should have as little interest in growing our own food or generating our own energy as we have in producing our own steel” is a great line, but it entirely misses the point. He argues that Transition is terrible because it wants to turn its back on progress and science (it doesn’t), it wants to return to a kind of Maoist self-sufficiency (it doesn’t), it harks back to some imagined golden age of rural idyll (it doesn’t), it wants to make every community an isolated, insular, patriarchal backwater (it doesn’t). McInnes’s railing against localisation and against Transition is founded on such a spectacular misunderstanding of what both those things actually mean that the chapter on localisation in the forthcoming ‘Transition Companion’ uses it as the foundation for explaining what localisation actually does mean.

Our Australian academic raised the same point, “In Australia many small communities are often isolated, patriarchal, fourth generation dominated, inbred and lack biological and cultural diversity”. Apart from being a rather offensive way of talking about rural communities (plus inbreeding is not restricted to isolated rural communities, just look at the royal families of history) it is also bizarre to argue that the transforming of currently thriving communities into inbred, dull, patriarchal and oppressive communities is in any way an aim of Transition.

None of this is to say Transition is beyond criticism, nor that it should not be critiqued and pulled to bits, but creating a flawed version of what it is and then rubbishing that really does nobody any favours, nor does it really deepen anyone’s understanding of things. I think it is good to respond to these things though when they arise. Pat Murphy of Community Solutions recently wrote a lengthy critique of Transition which I imagine few people made it to the end of, which mixed some very useful insights and observations with some very odd assertions. In one piece he stated that Transition is “surprisingly critical of environmentalism” and that Transition’s argument that perhaps a different approach to change might be useful was rubbishing, undermining and disrespectful of the environmental movement. In a comment I responded:

I have been involved in the environmental movement since I was 17, have been involved in numerous demonstrations and protests, was involved with the movement resisting new roads being built in the UK in the 1990s, have been pulled off diggers by security men and have spent many years promoting and teaching natural building, permaculture and practical skills. I compost, I cycle, I don’t fly, I grow food, I have insulated my house, I have an annual gas bill around a third of the national average and have dedicated my life to environmental action. To say that I do not hold the best interests of the environmental movement at heart is rubbish and is insulting.

By way of an analogy, in 1977, the Sex Pistols released the single ‘God Save the Queen’ just before the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. It was hugely critical of the monarchy, and, had the music industry not fiddled the charts, would have been the No.1 single on the week of the Jubilee. The band themselves were vilified, attacked in the streets, declared public enemy number one, portrayed as enemies of the state.

In the film ‘The Filth and the Fury’, Johnny Rotten from the band said “you don’t write a song like ‘God Save The Queen’ because you hate the English race. You write a song like that because you love them, and you’re fed up of seeing them mistreated.”

I feel much the same about the environmental movement. I don’t know since when it was not OK to not challenge the movement, to say that it needs to develop different ways of communicating, or to argue that it might, in some aspects, become complacent or lost. I am critical of it because I love it. If I didn’t care for it, I wouldn’t bother.

I love my children, my family. Doesn’t mean I can’t constructively criticise what they do or offer my thoughts. So to state that I am anti-environmentalist, or that to suggest there is a different approach is actually quite offensive and absolute nonsense. I think you are the only person who has ever argued that Transition is potentially damaging to the environmental movement. I also can’t imagine it is an accusation I will ever read from anyone else in the future.

Where straw men do emerge in our collective work promoting Transition, I think it is best to name them as such. There is much to debate and much to discuss, but it is vital that we at least base those discussions on common understandings of what we’re talking about. I realise looking back over this piece prior to posting it that it has been an uncharacteristically grumpy post. Apologies. Normal service will be resumed tomorrow.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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