I want to begin by recapping what I see as the two most important points I’ve made so far about the Transition Movement, its significance, and where and why I think it is stumbling, and I’ll do this by quoting my own previous two essays in this series.
First, on the importance of Transition:
But here’s why I think we need Transition as an organization: Transition brings together all sorts of transitional, sustainable, and resilient acts into a unified movement with a definable identity–or at least it might. Transition with a capital T is what might provide a narrative and a set of unifying principles to all sorts of isolated acts that may help us power-down or build local resilience, and in so doing might also multiply their significance. More important in my mind, Transition is one of the few organizations (outside a few underfunded think-tanks) that tells the truth about climate, energy, and our ecology, while at the same time connecting these truths to issues of social justice, economic inequality, a peace movement, and an understanding of complex international geo-politics, while at the same time yet again, rolling up its sleeves and building things.
However, while I think Transition US is thriving at the level of its leadership, regional and national, I don’t think its model of local initiatives is working very well, mainly because they have a difficult time attracting and then sustaining a growing and active membership. The Transition message is crucial, I think, and its models are an important part of what we need going forward. But until a larger group of people take up Transition as a primary source of identification, we will continue talking almost exclusively to a very few of ourselves about the only way to lessen catastrophic suffering for humanity and the rest of the biosphere.
Another way to articulate this is a question: how can Transition be reimagined so that 50 or 100 thousand, Americans are committed to Transition in an ongoing and semi-permanent way, and to the extent that they see membership in their local Transition Initiative as one of the main definitions of who they are and what they believe and what they hope for?[i]
In my second installment, I tried to provide a very partial answer to this problem of participation by looking at the Transition narrative, which is compelling yet unsustainable as an ongoing draw. I conclude that “we need to recreate it [Transition] 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.” The words I would underline here — because of their connection to the idea of a movement, to sustainability, and the issue of personal identification and commitment — are time, drama, and history. As I had noted:
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.
And so people gradually drifted away, leaving many local groups and initiatives empty of people, lacking in activity, and generally in hibernation if not entirely shut down. My overall purpose in writing this series is to raise questions about how Transition might become a space and a community that provides what people want and need while staying true to its missions of powering-down and building resilience. My working answer is to consider modeling Transition Initiatives more like a faith community and more like a political party — two things that are central to many people’s identity, and to which they show up and work at and for (dare I say) religiously.
Transition and Politics
First I want to ease into my thoughts about what the model of a political party can offer Transition with some more general thoughts about the broader issue of transition and politics. As a way of situating my own perspective I would also note that during the heyday of Transition Milwaukee’s activity I, along with the rest of the group, was pretty adamant about steering clear of partisan or even electoral politics. Politics, I felt certain, would encourage too much compromise on principles, and threaten the rather unpopular part of Transition’s mission — that we might actually have to “make do” with less. This, in turn, might threaten its role as a truth-teller about difficult and truly inconvenient aspects of the American way of life. This is all to say that the idea of a Transition adopting certain aspects of a political party has not been a long-running pet project of mine.
In this way I have been part of what seems to have been a pretty broad consensus about keeping Transition separated from politics in the usual sense. But I have been thinking about this “keeping clear” lately, and wonder if it was not actually a choice encouraged by the specific historical moment, and one not possible in others. Similar to this “apolitical” bent, moreover, I also think has been the evolution the broader intellectual, critical, and activist associations[ii] in which Transition plays a major part. On the whole, it did not initially think through politics too deeply for similar historical reasons. Here’s what I mean by this more specifically: Transition and its attendant books and blogs have been working through the consequences of peak oil, climate change, and ecological overshoot for a number of years — starting with the energy and lifestyle consequences of course, but then economic and cultural consequences as well. Consideration of the political consequences of peak oil has, at least in our little corner of the world, lagged a bit behind the consideration of the other consequences. To put it a bit more brusquely, for a time Transition operated in a bubble in which politics did not intrude. This, I will suggest, shortly, is most clearly visible in the original Transition narrative and the notion that a new culture might be designed by a cheery troupe of permaculturalists.
There are several reasons for this lag, and for this bubble, a first one being that it simply takes time to sift through bushels and bins of coming consequences, and a second one being the switch in focus from peak oil (which has more obvious economic consequences) to climate change (which demands international political cooperation). That’s part of it. But there may be another more simple reason for this politics-free bubble. For the entire history of the Transition Movement, until a fateful day last January, it was dominated by political leaders such as Tony Blair and Barack Obama. As distinct political personalities, each was important in and of himself. But they also represented a distinct cultural mood. Even the election of the hapless George Bush occurred at a time (and maybe in part because of it) in which the future of a long-term globalist Pax (minus the threats that only we seemed to be aware of) appeared relatively plausible. The year 2000 and the nearly decade and a following it (9-11 notwithstanding) did not appear at the time as moments of great political change and transition — at least not for most people and at least not compared to the present. I’m sure many people can think of plenty of counter-examples, but I’ll stand by this generality for the time being. While the economic crash beginning in 2008 challenged (for a moment) the global economic order and the perceptions around it, it didn’t challenge a politics as usual mentality here in the U.S., at least not for most prosperous and educated cultural elites.
Obama’s Presidency, for its part, provided a sort of bland political cover for more radical activism. Certainly he wasn’t doing enough on national issues of energy and the climate, but there wasn’t any sense that he and his administration would oppose any of the projects or the ethos of Transition Initiatives. One could even imagine (wrongly, I’m pretty sure, but still somewhat plausibly) Obama waking up to the Transition sensibility after a stroll through the White House’s new organic vegetable garden. To put it another way, the political sphere appeared neutral–or if not neutral, abstract enough that we could focus on local projects in a way that kept us from asking an important set of questions: what sort of political obstacles or backlash would Transition face if it became successful? How would it define itself in a contentious environment? How would it manage issues of inclusion and exclusion if it came to be appropriated? And most importantly, and less hypothetically, what sort of political disruptions should we expect from peak oil or peak economic growth. What would politics on the back side of the net energy curve look like? Obama’s Presidency, it seems to me on reflection, allowed a sort of cognitive free-pass when it came to many issues of political power like these. Certain questions just didn’t elbow their way to the front of our consciousness.
That of course has begun to change with the election of Trump, in which the use and abuse of power became anything but abstract. The nasty and hateful side of politics could not fail to catch one’s attention. A case can be made that Trumpism is a reaction to many of the same things that Transitioners have long been concerned with — globalism, economic disenfranchisement, the decline of local or regional manufacturing, even life within a zero-sum economy. But except according to a few unrealized policy impressions half-articulated here and there, Trump comes up with the opposite answer that most people devoted to Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share (and the respect of limits) would. As David Brooks has said, Trump provides the wrong answer to the right question. And while this means something very different to me than it does to Brooks, I think there is some truth to this statement from a Transition perspective.
What we’ve learned from Trump, or maybe from the disruptions caused by the peaking of the global economy, or the fallout from its carbon emissions, or the effort used to prop it up — what we’ve learned is that the use and abuse of power will be one of the most significant aspects of our lived realities. I don’t think this was fully appreciated in the earlier days of the Transition Movement. I certainly didn’t appreciate it. But from this new perspective, one in which the fighting over political interest has become more heated and more violent, a Transition narrative in which peak oil produces a moment of clarity, a clear fork in the road, and an opportunity to design a new culture starts to look a little too simple — and to the point where I now wonder why I wasn’t incredulous of the notion that cultures can be designed right from the start. To be clear, I’m not rejecting the idea of opportunity, altogether, only the idea that this is an opportunity that can be seized in short order, and likewise the idea that cultures might be designed. As Marx said, man [sic] makes history, but not just as he pleases. One can design an organization (at least for a while), and in rare cases (and under very specific cultural conditions) a new government. But a culture? — the collective beliefs, customs, achievements, and social interactions of a specific group living under specific conditions.[iii] That would be like designing an ecology, something with the same sort of immensely divergent riot of life.[iv]
While the initial Transition narrative imagines a creative and peaceful Transition based on inclusion and acceptance, significantly absent from these scenarios were all the expectations and entitlements that are part and parcel of the American and European way of life — a way of life that Transition challenges specifically at the level of expectation and entitlement (however optimistically and upbeat); a little too much taken by its own optimism, I wonder, did it forget about the fear and anger that would arise the moment expectations and entitlements are in the least bit threatened? Absent from the Transition scenarios, in other words, were all the raised fists, rubber truncheons, loaded guns, careening cars, the growing disregard for civil institutions and the rule of law, and unsteady hands clutching the bully-pulpit and groping towards the nuclear buttons. This, rather than community sing-alongs, I’m afraid to say, is what life on the backside of the peak oil (net energy, economic growth) curve is going to look like, even in our part of the world.[v]
More generally, one of the lessons of Trump (and of much of European politics over the past 5 or more years, I’m largely inferring) is that the peaking of the global economy, or of global net-energy, or stalled economic growth, will be a time of violence, renewed bigotry, civil wars, international conflict. Under the previous realm of expansion enough of the globe could come out ahead in our various competitions to make nice guys like Obama seem like the future of global politics. But under a realm of contraction, strong-men who will help people fight for what they can cling to or grab will find themselves in ascendency. It will, we can already see, be a time of walls and borders, of taking sides, of contracting trust horizons.
I’m not jumping to the conclusion that Transition is likely to be the object of repression or political violence. While it does feel different now than it did when we were living under the gentle and thoughtful smile (and adult emotional regulation) of Obama, Transition is both too white and too small to generate much opposition; and, to be honest about it, my own middle class, white, native born privilege is almost as safe as it was a year or two ago. Rather, I’m suggesting that the Obama bubble and the expanding global horizons that form the largest part of our national mythos (and Europe’s) made it possible to imagine a world in which a new culture might be designed, in which Peak oil would generate thoughtful responses and a mature cultural reckoning. There was plenty of historical evidence all along to dampen that sort of expectation but I, for one, was too blissed out from the smell of baking bread from our new community cobb oven.
We forgot, I think, that cultures are contested. Hegel is important in this respect, though a dialectic is far too neat and simple a model for the riot of identity and difference — if only we were dealing with mere dualities! But even in that simplified model, culture, consciousness, belief, and identity are always and only the product of conflict and sometimes resolution and then more conflict. Under the best possible case scenario in which Transition gains great cultural traction, it would at the very least contend with a great and probably violent counter reaction.
As it turns out (so far), the peaking of world net energy and economic growth rates and the point of climate destruction no-return have passed us by and we’ve seen a concomitant rise in conflict and political tension, but all of it has been taking place between pre-existing big time players. The opportunity that peak oil (etc.) was supposed to present has (so far) resulted in renewed hostility between Democrats and Republicans, rural and urban consciousness, secularism and fundamentalism, extreme right and probably a more extreme left.[vi] It has resulted both in the renewed aggression of old forms of hate and the renewed hostilities between international foes. As is so often the case when people are scared, have their privilege threatened, or the very possibility of their existence endangered, they dig into old positions and grab familiar weapons and hate the different-looking or sounding person the local demagogue points at. Don’t get me wrong, I think Transition might play an important role in this riotous context, but not without some pretty serious reckoning of its own.
To sum this up another way, the idea that Transition might peacefully design a new culture may, ironically, be the sort of thinking that periods of great at cultural expansion (and economic growth) have made possible — those heady days of open frontiers and seemingly endless possibilities pursued by relatively few aspirants.[vii] Those “yes we can” years may exist mainly in our rear-view mirrors. We are moving towards a “me first” and “don’t fuck with my stuff” sort of culture. Transition can fight this, but probably not redesign it. To reference one of my least favorite authors, the world is now hot and crowded, but also probably decreasingly flat with every passing year. While it may appear that I am striking a hopeless tone, I would put it somewhat differently. I would be more apt to make a comparison between the path to resolution made by Thomas the Tank Engine (in 20 minutes) to Homer’s Odyssey or Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. We can still find our way home. It’s just going to take a lot of time and involve countless struggles and obstacle — and even then success is not guaranteed. As George Washington said during the Revolutionary War, “we cannot insure success but we can deserve it.” But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe the coming ugliness will send people running towards the alternative we can offer. If I thumb through all the historical examples I can think of, this “ugliness” gets pretty bad before people break on through to another side.
A Political Transition Organization?
So those are my admittedly sketchy thoughts on why Transition (and me as well) imagined a future strangely free from violence and conflict that seems an inevitable response (underway, but just getting going I fear) to diminishing natural resources and a climate in crisis. But my vague suggestion that Transition as an organization might in some ways model itself after political parties has little to do with any attempt to gain widespread power under such conditions. Following the path taken by Lenin (who did see a crisis as an opportunity) may be as plausible a path forward as any other one, but it certainly isn’t the one I would choose. Rather, my political musings are far more subtle and, I have to admit, difficult to explain. This may in large part have to do with the fact that I’m struggling to come up with or find a concrete vision that is compatible with my perceptions about current realities. I’m more here to raise questions that offer practical next steps.
But to the extent I’ve worked any of this out, my thought that Transition might model itself after a political party,[viii] instead, has more to do with the issue of time. Unlike a movement, which as I previously noted requires constant progress forward towards a transcendent goal (often envisioning a post-political world)[ix], a political party is a sort of space holder in time, in which beliefs and interests might be articulated and held. In American politics, for instance, a true-believer in our democratic system doesn’t expect either the Democrats or the Republicans to achieve a final victory in which partisan politics will dissolve. Rather (in the idealized vision) each expresses a view point and promotes a set of interests that will be held in permanent tension with each other. While I don’t hold this idealized vision of democratic politics (but also don’t have a valid alternative), I have come to appreciate the way both Democrats and Republicans are in it for the long haul. Liberal values are not a movement, nor do permaculture values have to be.
In contrast, both Communism and in some ways National Socialism, imagined a post-political epoch in which a renewed cultural vision and a new kind of humanity would render conflictual multi-party politics irrelevant. What, I ask without any hyperbole or hysteria, but with curiosity, is Transition as a Movement’s relationship to these questions and these issues? If it doesn’t imagine a post-political time, how does it understand its relationship to politics and power, to policy and law, to the clash of competing views and interests? How, if it became powerful, would it treat those who disagree with it (even if the future of the biosphere were (is) at stake)? How would it respond to those who want to crush it? How and when does it fight for what it believes in?
It is here that we venture a pragmatic articulation of some of these ideas and questions and experimentally put them into practice. I have to admit I don’t have very developed ideas at this point. But I have imagined attempting to come up with a party platform mainly as a sort of intellectual and creative exercise. I’m thinking of something more broad and imaginative than the beleaguered Energy Descent Action Plan. What positions do we support and how do we vie for their acceptance and implantation? Do we assume these positions can be pursued through the current political system, or do we envision a new political system? More speculatively, what sort of civic and political culture does Transition envision? (Peaceful, joyful, and loving I know, I know, but that’s only going to cut it if we recede from politics as I will in my next installment suggest how we might.) We may assume that we’re entirely secular, until someone points out that we’re treating a certain vision of nature as a new theology. Because nature is (to “us”) obviously sacred, what is our policy towards heretics? We entertain ideals of direct democracy. But as John Adams pointed out more than two hundred years ago, direct democracy will give us Jacobins. Do we have an improvement over three branches of government and a bicameral legislation? Even more speculatively, I’ve spent much of my intellectual energy over the past year and half pondering the question of freedom, for as freedom is currently defined it is largely a matter of the freedom to consume. I hear lots of vague talk about the difference between nominal freedom and authentic freedom, but it ignores the tremendously complex and often violent history of authenticity.[x]
More pragmatically, what if Transition were to support, as a sort of trial balloon and according to its new party platform, a candidate for the Berkeley School Board, the Portland Water Utility Commission, the Madison zoning board, or even the city council in some hippie backwater or another? If such a candidate could actually run on a platform of powering down, degrowth, and local resilience (and not just the increasingly popular and less threatening last term in this list), why not? In nations with a Parliament, why not a Transition candidate there? If, as I believe, one of Transition’s primary missions should be to get the word out about an alternative world view, one according to which we can’t keep trying to grow our way out of problems, but need to shrink our way out of them instead, then let’s get the word out however we can.
All these half-formed notions may amount simply to this: the desire for the lofty goals of Transition to be spelled out as needs, beliefs, positions, and interests in such a way that they can be held and maintained without any illusions about some sort of imminent (or immanent) melting away of globalism, the liberal-capitalist state, and the likelihood of violence employed against any true threats to prevailing structures and manifestations of power. I don’t propose any of this under the expectation of some near-term political triumph. Rather, I propose this as a way of keeping Transition beliefs and desires alive and perhaps growing in strength and numbers. It’s a matter of holding space within the unpredictable ravages of time and yes building real stuff (sleeves rolled up) upon what we know and believe, but not with any grand plans about a new culture. But as I’ll suggest in my next set of articulations, political enunciations may not be the best means of holding space and projecting beliefs.
[i] I’m shooting in the dark a bit here on numbers. The Sierra Club has 3 million members, but its membership numbers are not the same thing as major commitment, and appreciating our national parks is far different from questioning your way of life. That there are 20 thousand Americans who are at least willing to seriously entertain the Transition message might be implied by the fact that an article posted on Resilience a few years ago received ~20K facebook likes, against about 80,000 distinct reading. Currently the Transition US Newsletter is received by about 10,000 people. While extensivity is possible to measure, intensivity is much more difficult to gauge. How many of us are there who would accept “Transitioner” as our primary identity? How many have Transitioned as much as is practically possible? How many are capable of making that commitment without major ideological transformation? How many are poised to make such an ideological transformation?
[ii] I’m referring to the sort of work that revolves around Resilience, and includes the handful of authors and bloggers who share in the belief that if our ecological crisis can be averted, it will be by powering down and consuming much, much less.
[iii] I do think there is an argument that culture, so defined, is adaptive and that Transition is trying to adapt our current culture to a lower energy future and is doing so by designing new models of interaction, belief, and even desire. And that is an effort in which I am in this very moment putting my effort. But the idea of a designing a culture downplays the forces or resistance, of action and reaction, the deadweight of cultural inertia, the sheer heterogeneity of it all. Politics might be defined as the institutional effort to create an order out of all of this. The Permaculturalist and industrial farmer, alike, might be described as politicians of the soil.
[iv] It is perhaps worth diving back into some of the best permaculture texts and reminding ourselves what can and cannot be designed, what the limits to design are, and while we are at it, consider a vast number of significant historical attempts to design a new culture, or worse, a new kind of human. We speak of “paradigm shifts” as if we know exactly what the current paradigm is, and as if we are not also playing with explosive ordinance.
[v] Which isn’t in the least to say we shan’t have our singalongs. It is, as I’ll later suggest, to reconsider the social significance and personal meaning we get from them.
[vi] As a Hegelian, I’m groping towards some new synthesis; but at this late age in the world’s history, I’m not expecting that synthesis to be the identity of identity and difference nor a global permaculture. The end of history, at least not in that sense, is not immanent.
[viii] I’ve repeatedly emphasized the “modeled” in the hopes that I won’t be misunderstood as saying Transition should become a political party.
[ix] This is where the Obama bubble comes in. The political neutrality or abstraction that I tried to describe allowed Transition to imagine a post-political world without all the nastiness that other movements that have worked to design a new culture have ended up creating. Irony of irony, we mistook certain aspects of this pre-peak moment for possible aspects of our permanent future—a sort of extrapolation that, when performed by economists, makes us break out in hives. That’s why I am wary of talk about paradigm change. Whose paradigm, delineated according to what critieria?
[x] About which I wrote a five hundred page dissertation a couple of decades ago.
Teaser photo credit: CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54973