[This is the second part of a series. The first part can be found here: https://www.resilience.org/stories/2017-08-07/on-transition/]
The brilliance of the Transition Movement comes largely from its narrative. This should not be surprising for much of human brilliance shines from our stories and tales, providing the glimmers and flashes of hopes in the face of the shadow of death. It is the foreknowledge of our own inevitable end, and the desire that life should nevertheless go on, that creates such strong narrative desire in humankind.
As a cultural theorist, I am skeptical about most claims regarding human universality and hold that most of what is interesting about human beings is culturally and historically specific. But I have never doubted the universality of story across time and place. Without narrative—whether yours comes from the heavens, the earth, of the desires of the upright walkers between—there is no meaning. It tells us where we have been, who we are, and where we might go. As Roland Barthes once remarked, we may not be able to understand and accept the strange ways of alien cultures, but never for a moment do we fail to understand their stories. Unlike poetry, he explains, narrative is translatable with little loss of meaning, for narrative is the very thing that situates meaning in the first place—explains the ritual, sheds light on the poem or dance, or the otherwise indecipherable tablet. History, for its part, is little more than the story about our stories, often employing similar plotting devices.
To highlight Rob Hopkins’ ability as a supreme narrator is not to downplay his other estimable qualities–his ability to organize, his energy, his humility and compassion, his devotion to the small and the beautiful. By thinking of his work as story-telling, it may appear that I am making a distinction between narrative and story, on the one hand, and historical truth, on the other. That distinction, I believe, is mainly false. We like to think of the historical accounts others cling to as fiction, while we want to see our own as accurate. I am instead suggesting that all histories contain a large element of emplotment and figuration, of imposing upon the thrum of a thousand voices a more narrow and tidy organization that does not exist prior to the telling of the historical story. “Not to know,” said Nietzsche, “but to schematize—to impose as much order upon chaos as our practical needs require.” This isn’t to say that histories, including the one Transition employs, are false. Nor is it to deny that some narratives purposefully mislead, or are born of a great cultural sickness, or tremendous acts of denial, while others have uplift or emancipation as their purpose.[i]
It is possible to get a glimpse of the dynamics of historic storytelling by looking, briefly, at “the” story of industrial progress of which the peak oil narrative plays an interesting, if mainly invisible, role. For any who doubt the role that the peak oil narrative plays in the Transition Movement, I suggest only to revisit the opening sections of The Transition Handbook. About this role I will say more below. Rob Hopkins rocked my world, and those of many I know, by the way he renarrated the peak oil narrative, which in turn had renarrated the story of industrial progress. When I say he rocked my world, perhaps I mean he rolled it, for the dynamic of The Handbook was to turn on its head what had just been turned on its head. Marx, for his part, merely turned Hegel on his head.
Peak Oil Turns the Story of Industrial Progress on Its Head:
Industrial societies tell a story about their progress from an agrarian society, in which most people were involved in difficult manual labor, to a leisure society, where physical labor involves great and powerful machines and increasing numbers of people work with their minds–what is now misnamed as the knowledge economy and, before that, was heralded with books proclaiming the rise of the creative class. This story has been most fully and loudly articulated in the United States, where the American Dream has been all but enshrined in law.[ii] The American dream is more a promise—that each generation will live better than the previous one. It is largely a story of affluence, though various subcultures and political parties will also emphasize less material gains like civil rights (or criticize their uneven progress). Regardless of political affiliation or ideological wing, nevertheless, American politics is geared towards increased affluence and increased freedoms, with (typically) only marginal arguments about what sorts of freedoms are most important. In times of crisis or contraction, American politics talks only about how to make America great again.
Above is a graph depicting long-term economic growth, and thus growing prosperity and freedom from difficult manual labor.[iii] It puts into numbers and a graphic shape the American promise of ever-increasing prosperity. Although there was a time in which political liberals may have chafed against the emphasis on economic growth, economic growth is one of the main political stories we hear and has been fully embraced by liberal America and Europe. If you doubt this, just tune into “liberal NPR” on a day when economic data is released and hear how many times, and with what language, the reporters celebrate economic growth, or warn of the “headwinds” it might be facing.
The story of peak oil turns this graph on its head by noting two or three simple facts: first, that this economic growth has always been accompanied by increased oil consumption, and that the only times oil consumption has leveled off or decreased has been during times of recession. And second, that oil is a finite resource that will eventually reach a peak in production and then will begin to decline. Evidence for this sort of peak, of course, comes from the way oil-producing countries and regions have peaked and then declined according to a bell-shaped graph like the one below. Insult is added to injury by closely examining the history of discovery alongside the history of consumption, by examining the local consequences of peak production in various nations (Syria, for instance), and so on.
All of a sudden (when given a back side not based solely on what Tom Murphy refers to as ruthless extrapolation, the exponential growth graph is no longer a story of progress: instead, it is a story of vulnerability (because everything we believe to be good is dependent on oil or energy); it is a story of false hopes and expectations (because there is little public discourse surrounding the true source of our wealth and how it cannot be permanent); it is a story of impending crisis (because one need only recall the recessions and upheavals that have occurred when recessions and depressions have struck, often because of minor decreases in the flow of oil). It is, moreover, possible to put all sorts of additional graphs depicting negative consequences that parallel the arc of economic growth–graphs depicting CO2 emissions, deforestation, species extinction, and so on. Was this actually progress, the Peak Oilers and their fellow-travelers were able to ask, or was it just another example of cultural hubris reaching for new heights as it increasingly overshot the carrying capacity of its resource base?
Of course one of the main arguments surrounding peak oil, to the extent that there was any widespread knowledge or discussion to begin with, was whether or not humans had finally found the technologies that had once and for all freed them from nature and any Malthusian traps–whether, as the economists claims, human ingenuity will always produce a better and cheaper alternative in the face of scarcity. Those of us who have considered the best and most well-informed arguments from both side of this debate see that those who deny human dependence on natural resources and stable climate are putting a lot of faith in their belief that someone will think of something, which they support with the evidence that “they always do.” This, most of us realize, has only been true as long as the flow of cheap oil has been able to increase on a yearly basis, and that prior to about 1860 often times no one could think of something. I could go on and on as a partisan in this global struggle over the true meaning of our recent history, but that would be to lose track of my focus, here, on Transition–an organization and a movement that stands unified in its belief that humans are a part of nature, that their economic activity requires natural resources and energy, that there may not be another source of energy that can behave like oil, coal, and natural gas, and that our dependence on these fossil fuels and the beliefs and desires they inspired is probably lethal.
Presented as such, the peak oil narrative is fairly pessimistic, if not apocalyptic. It tells a story about a crisis in human civilization and, as does a 2010 report from the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff (military), forecasts dire circumstances if we cannot find an alternative source of energy and cannot continue to grow the economy.
A severe energy crunch is inevitable without a massive expansion of production and refining capacity. While it is difficult to predict precisely what economic, political, and strategic effects such a shortfall might produce, it surely would reduce the prospects for growth in both the developing and developed worlds. Such an economic slowdown would exacerbate other unresolved tensions, push fragile and failing states further down the path toward collapse, and perhaps have serious economic impact on both China and India. At best, it would lead to periods of harsh economic adjustment. To what extent conservation measures, investments in alternative energy production, and efforts to expand petroleum production from tar sands and shale would mitigate such a period of adjustment is difficult to predict. One should not forget that the Great Depression spawned a number of totalitarian regimes that sought economic prosperity for their nations by ruthless conquest.[iv]
Transition Turns Peak Oil and Industrial Decline on Its Head:
The beauty of the Transition Movement, and the brilliance of Rob Hopkins and a historical narrator, is to provide a narrative according to which this crisis is actually an opportunity. True, Hopkins admits, the coming of peak oil represents a huge threat to our relatively high levels of current stability, not to mention the luxuries, comforts, and longevity that most of his first-world, educated, middle-class, and affluent readers enjoy. But since William Wordsworth began rhapsodizing over lakes in Northern England or Jean Jacques Rousseau began to talk about the virtues of a more rugged and primitive way of life, if not before, there has always been a cross-current within modern and industrial culture that questions some of the benefits we have gained, and mourns some of the former joys and simplicity we have lost. No matter that Hopkins explicitly identifies the pitfalls of Romanticizing the past, he plays upon a very acute, modern discontent that has great historical roots–a discontent over the price we pay for our highly complex and always growing modern culture.
By saying this, I’m not suggesting that he isn’t correct in his assessment that the benefits of industrial modernity may not be worth the cost (I am at this point convinced that they are not). But the strength of the Transition version of the Peak Oil narrative comes in large part from its conviction that we may as well Romanticize bucolic and pastoral simplicity, because history (now depicted in geological graphs) isn’t going to give us any real choice in the matter. [v]
To put this another way, the crisis in modern(ist) culture that a Peak Oil narrative forecasts presents a legitimate cultural crisis, but a crisis most specifically for those values that a Romantic counter-culture has, since modernity’s first rumblings, always questioned. But until Peak Oil, and this is an important part, this Romantic counter-culture had always been optional. It is something we could choose at the all you can eat buffet of modern lifestyles. The anti-modernist Romantics may have had great reason or sentiment behind their cause all along, but until Peak Oil showed up in town, their argument lacked one of history’s most important movers of its plot—namely necessity.[vi]
The story that Hopkins tells in The Transition Handbook, then, is one of Romantic necessity—and he tells it with great gusto. For evidence, of course, we can look to the several places where he suggests that life in a low energy society might be preferable to modern industrial society, and the way he provides brilliant exercises in back-casting and imagining a future in which humans are more focused on what humans really need: good food, community, and each other.
That picture is nicely filled out with another concept of necessity—or something like it—that goes under the name of resilience. Just as our dependence on an finite substance whose supply is about to go into decline suggests that local simplicity will be necessity, so also does an understanding of natural and ecological systems show that we are living in a highly unresilient society—one that might be shocked into an unrecognizable state by only minor changes in the supply of natural resources and the humans systems that depend on their perpetual increase. Again, science is used to support a two-hundred and fifty year old counter-culture.
My analysis and analytic tone should not be mistaken for rejection of these truths. Oil will peak, modern society is completely dependent on natural resources, and our networks and systems are quite fragile. What I am interested in interrogating, though, is how and why these truths moved so many people within the subculture that is reading these words to such ardent action. We may like to believe that our attraction to Transition is based solely on our scientific reason and our adherence to authentic human values; but to maintain such an innocent view of ourselves, I think, is also to misunderstand the logic of collective action and the way social movements really work.
It is here, then, that we might introduce the most significant plot-twist offered by The Transition Handbook and by the Transition Movement. What I have described so far is already a fairly dramatic encounter with human history, with crisis and possible solution. But I think this only scratches the surface of the drama and resolution that Transition promised, and upon which so many of its local initiatives eventually floundered. So here’s the plot twist. As we have seen, a lower-energy, local, community-based future is in some ways inevitable—mainly because its opposite, a high-energy, globalized, individualistic, increasingly networked and complex society is unsustainable. And unsustainable means: cannot continue to work. Unfortunately, however, our addiction to energy, individualism, consumerism, and complexity means that we as a people may cling desperately to these values until it is too late to find a graceful way down the backside of the energy curve. This appears to be modern culture’s unhappy destiny unless its heart, head, and hands can come to grips with the true direction of history. Necessity notwithstanding, the successful transition of our society is anything but guaranteed.
This, says Hopkins, is where you come in. You need to help guide humanity along the path of inevitable necessity. Here, I think, are the most important lines written in The Transition Handbook, repeated several times in more or less the same way:
The concept of energy descent, and of the Transition approach, is a simple one: that the future with less oil could be preferable to the present, but only if sufficient creativity and imagination are applied early enough in the design of this transition.
We have a choice. We can descend the hill on which we are standing if the same imagination and drive that got us to the top in the first place can be harnessed. The reality is that the only way from here is down (in net energy terms), but that ‘down’ need not necessarily mean deprivation, misery, and collapse. . . . The idea of energy descent is that each step back down the hill could mean a step towards sanity, towards place, and towards wholeness. It is a coming back to who we really are. . . . Energy descent is, ultimately about energy ascent—the re-energizing of communities and culture—and is the key to our realistically embracing the possibilities of our situation than being overwhelmed by their challenges. (53)
Before I unpack the many layers of meaning and significance packed into these two paragraphs, I want to acknowledge the risk in performing this deconstruction—the risk, namely, of questioning what some might see as the sacred bonds that hold the Transition organization together and of criticizing its very admirable founder—who remains one of my personal heroes. I don’t take this risk lightly, but proceed because I am convinced that these bonds aren’t working at the level of the local initiative, and in part because a sort of mythology may have been built around a particular (and particularly dramatic) notion of energy descent that is leading Transition as an organization astray.[vii] I should underline with the boldest strikes possible that I agree, moreover, with most of the basic precepts or facts asserted by Hopkins: that an energy descent is inevitable, that life lived more simply might be better in many ways, and more fundamentally that Transition veers away from the idea of energy descent at its own peril. Energy descent, living with less, radical simplicity—these are what are unique and crucial about Transition. The moment that Transition initiatives get too focused on solar panels or marginal decreases in one’s personal carbon footprint—rather than a broader cultural change—I for one wince just a bit.
If I have all this agreement, what then is the disagreement or problem with this succinct statement of Transition’s mission? First let me note the elements already discussed present in this passage: the idea of energy descent, of course, and the Romantic notion of authenticity and the belief that our “true selves” lie outside of the false promises of industrial civilization. Like all political narratives, moreover, it presents and dramatizes a possible outcome that hinges on “choice” and thus on the reader or participant. Also significant is where Hopkins places his reader in history—on the top (implied) of a hill, not unlike the place of climax or crisis in the rising and falling drama of a well-crafted narrative. These are all important dramatic hooks to inspire the reader, but the biggest hook is the implied statement that you (we) might just be the creative geniuses who can guide us towards a dignified energy descent. There is more than a little bit of flattery and, I have to admit, possibly some potential egomania[viii] in this suggestions—a suggestion moreover that provides the focus for what sorts of activities Transition Initiatives are supposed to engage in, described in considerable detail throughout the remainder of the Handbook: the visible manifestations, the modeling of joy and happiness, the rather improbable notion that a new culture might be designed if only the designers possess sufficient drive and imagination.
I should admit, here, that this hook grabbed me and grabbed me hard when I first read these words. If I’m honest about it, I think at some level I said to myself, yes, I do have that sort of imagination and drive, the necessary creativity and ability to harness deep human values to practical creations: I can help design a new and better culture. Most political narratives and hooks make appeals somewhat like this, suggesting, for instance, with your vote or your protest you can put yourself on the right side of history. The Transition Handbook goes much further, when it says that you can actually design that history, if only you gather up your friends and unleash your collective genius. So powerful was this appeal to my sense of who and what I wanted to be that I turned off a good bit of my critical thinking capacity, accepting the notion of Romantic Authenticity and cultural design as useful fictions for a much greater cause.
I will return again in my next installment to talk at greater length about the false notion that culture can be designed and suggest, for now, that this appeal to the reader’s sense of creative and goodhearted genius was bound to fail regardless of what was to occur on the ground in terms of the global dynamics of oil production. But it is certainly the case that rise and fall of so many local Transition Initiatives had something to do with the way oil did not peak in the way we thought it might. Richard Heinberg spoke at the US Transition Gathering about the demise of the peak oil narrative, though many of us have been talking about it since David Holmgren’s article, “Crash on Demand,” which received much commentary including my own “Agency on Demand.”[ix]
All the peak oil experts, including Hopkins, assured us that there would be a bumpy plateau of oscillation as the global oil markets were pinballed by rising prices, the resulting renewed investment in marginal oil, and, at the same time, economic contraction, followed by decreased demand and falling prices, and thus perhaps economic “recovery”–all of which have been best detailed in recent years by Gail Tverberg. But despite these warnings that peak oil would not be an event, I think many of our local initiatives were organized around the hazy and intoxicating belief that the peaking of world oil would result in a moment of clarity as increasing numbers of people would come to realize the perils of industrial society, would begin to look around for alternatives, and would see the happy and joyful Transitioners with their new and resilient models and systems. I’m not sure I can identify a particular place in The Handbook where this is expressly articulated.[x] But I do know that many of us expected throngs of people to join us as oil prices continued to rise and economic institutions began their slow but permanent collapse.
To put this another way, Transition, it seems to me, was built around a sense of imminence and a sense of a relatively fast-moving crisis. That’s one of the reasons it was called a “movement.” We may have told ourselves that we were in this for the long haul, but with our modern attention spans most of the people who joined or dabbled with Transition had a sense of a 3 or 5 year long haul and were emotionally unprepared for the recovery (however temporary and uneven, or even mainly rhetorical) of international finance, the rising production of liquid fuels, even if with little net energy gain, and the return to growth and middle-class normalcy. We built our work-groups, installed our community gardens and spent hours learning non-violent group decision making.
But then nothing happened, or at least not anything that brought the throngs to our doors. Instead we got the vague hope of the Obama years, falling fuel prices, lots of (often false) headlines about the revolution in renewable energy, and a decided lack of any of the sort of drama that—whether explicitly or in some vague and unconscious way–the Transition Movement, in its first manifestation, depended upon. We were built for action, when, perhaps, we also needed to build up a capacity for multi-generational waiting. As John Michael Greer has often pointed out, history is foreshortened in our history books, and events that took decades, even centuries, are depicted as singular and all- encompassing dramatic events. So too will be the case with the demise of industrial civilization.[xi]
If I am correct, then it is time for the Transition Movement to sober up (and in many ways, I have to be clear, it already has–though I don’t think it hasn’t been fully redesigned for this new sobriety). We people who have slugged it out and remain willing to do so—for whatever reasons—we need to use that same drive and hopefulness and creativity to recreate Transition. More specifically, we need to recreate it with an entirely different sense of time, drama, history, choice, and design. It is time to rebuild Transition still around energy descent, but one without any remaining illusions that the peaking of world net energy will be a moment or event and certainly not a moment of clarity. It will in large part be a period of greater cultural denial and head-burying, of conflict and power-grabs, than the moment of cultural reckoning that Transition initially hoped it might be. And as I said in my first installment, and as I will argue more in my next one, the models offered by faith-groups and political parties may help greatly in this redesign for a world of slow-moving and perhaps unsolvable crises along with great struggle over the meaning of current historical change.
Before signing off I need to note once more that these are my own impressions and that Transition is thriving to the extent that it is because of the very qualities that the Movement has inspired in many people. Perhaps most early-adopters were not as intoxicated as I was by the sense of possibility that I’ve tried to identify. Perhaps its most solid leaders sobered up long ago and have already retooled for this longer haul. Most importantly, Transition has utterly refrained from doing what most struggling movements or political ideologies do. It has not looked for someone outside of itself to blame. There is no sense that we were sabotaged or undermined by some purported enemy from within or without. Of this fact, as a dedicated Transtitioner, I am awfully proud.
[i] The best account of history as an emplotted narrative comes from the work of Hayden White, especially his magnum opus, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century History.
[ii] Charles Hall and Kent Klitgaard argue that it was, with the Employment Act of 1946. FDR’s “Four Freedoms” Speech Likewise operates almost as an addendum to the Bill of Rights that promises increased affluence for Americans and the world.
United States Joint Forces Command
Joint Futures Group (J59)
112 Lake View Parkway, Suffolk, VA 23435.
Attention: Joe Purser, 757-203-3928
It is interesting to note, with shivers on the spine, that the main signatory from the Joint Chiefs has the last name of Mattis.
[v] I can perhaps describe the strength of this necessity with a personal example. I was trained with a modernist and postmodernist sensibility about modernity, that accepts its inevitability and to a greater extent celebrates values of instrumental and pragmatic, anti-essentialist, anti-foundational, absolutely secular critical reason. And yet, within this sensibility there was still a certain ambivalence about modernity, a lingering anti-modernism (think T.S. Eliot’s high modernist nostalgia) for which I could find no real philosophical justification that didn’t make me look a bit too much like Martin Heidegger for my own comfort. But for me at any rate, the moment that the end of modernity receives a sort of historical necessity (as readers of Hegel and Derrida collide with readers of David Holmgren and M. King Hubbert), all sorts of values that had been expunged from my own intellectual culture—and beyond that, from my range of possible consideration–now make increasing sense.
Put more generally, if true, the necessity of simplicity, contraction, localization, and narrowed material horizons depicted in the peak oil story puts into question, finally, the unquestioned expansive, limit-busting, cosmopolitanism that has overwhelmingly informed intellectual culture over the past half-century at least. Of course the hippies, dreamers, tree-huggers, and dancers who play such an important role of in the Transition Movement may roll their eyes at this digression into intellectual history: they knew all along that modernity never stood a chance against the natural wonders of nature, never mind our incisive critique of the nature/culture distinction.
[vi] Some of my more consistent readers may have wondered from time to time about my emphasis on the importance of Hegel. Hegel is important, I would argue, because he is one of the greatest narrators of historical necessity. His is a philosophy of necessity.
[vii] I should note that Transition Initiatives, both internationally and locally have worked hard to create projects and visions not dependent upon a peak oil driven crisis. But I nevertheless still believe that many initiatives lost their initial and often intoxicating sense of purpose when the mythology could not be sustained in the face of life’s more complex and competing ebbs and flows.
[viii] To be clear, I don’t perceive any egomania in Hopkins and believe that Transition as a movement has been brilliant in the way it has embraced humility.
[x] Though the very notion that local initiatives should prepare Energy Descent Action Plans, which in turn might be favorably received and acted upon by our local governments suggests a sort of snowballing effect that did not, in fact, occur.