First Published at resilience.org
The global predicament cannot be solved other than through a Transition Towns movement, and the emergence of such a movement has been of immense importance. But I fear that the present movement is not going to do what’s needed. Four years ago I circulated reasons for this view. I recently made an effort to get current information from various people in the movement and I fear the case for doubt is even stronger today. Here is a brief indication of my main concerns.
I take it for granted we agree that the global situation requires massive system changes, including scrapping the growth economy, de-growth down to far lower per capita levels of production and consumption than rich countries have today, and the market must be prevented from determining our fate. These things cannot be done unless there is transition to a basic social pattern involving mostly small, highly self sufficient and self governing and collectivist communities that maximise use of local resources to meet local needs and which are content with very frugal material lifestyles. Only settlements of this general kind can get the per capital resource rates down sufficiently while ensuring ecological sustainability and a high quality of life for all. (Those rates will probably have to go down to 10% of their present levels: For the reasoning see TSW: 2017a.) This does not mean deprivation or hardship or abandoning high tech, universities, sophisticated medical facilities etc. (For the detail TSW 2018a.)
The transition needed is so historically massive and unprecedented that it is not likely to be achieved, but when our situation is understood it is the only goal that makes sense to strive for. It will not be done by governments. They will not attempt to do it. They will not even recognize that it needs to be done. They are totally locked into trying to make the growth and affluence system work. Virtually none of your politicians or bureaucrats grasp or have any interest in the basic limits to growth analysis of our global predicament or what changes are imperative.
Two classes are responsible for this suicidal commitment. The first is the capitalist class which must have constant expansion of opportunities to invest their ever-accumulating capital. The second includes…almost everyone else. Progress defined as increasing material wealth has been so deeply entrenched in the Western mentality since the Enlightenment that challenges to this conception are ignored.
The transition will only become possible as the coming time of troubles intensifies, i.e., as we descend into massive terminal depression. The task for us here and now is to try to increase the numbers who will be able to lead the way to the sane option when breakdown begins to make it obvious that the old system is no longer going to provide for them. Over the last few decades the Eco-village movement and the Transition Towns movement have been of immense historical importance in taking the first steps in what we must hope will be this process.
But what they are doing now could very well come to nothing. Many believe that’s what will happen, including I assume just about everyone on the red Left. This is primarily because when it comes to transition theory these movements are at present essentially mindless, theoryless, and deliberately so. They have nothing to say about how the things being done are going to lead to a world order that is sustainable and just. By what mechanisms or chain of causes is developing more community gardens etc. supposed to culminate someday in a society that is not run by and for the rich few, driven by market forces and geared to perpetual growth? Why is it a mistake to believe, as many do, that starting more community gardens etc. will only lead to a society that remains grossly unsustainable and unjust but has some community gardens etc. in it?
That there is no need to bother about these questions is made clear in the Transition Towns literature. It tells us to “just doing something, anything.” This is the message in one of the movements’ gospels, The Power of Just Doing Stuff: How Local Action Can Change the World. Their newsletters and other literature do not discuss how the activities enthused about at length are supposed to do what centuries of strategic thinking and hard work and fighting at barricades have failed to do. Two hundred years of struggle for a better society, suffering, organising, and bloody turmoil, informed by enormous amount of theorising, tract writing, conferences and intense debate between various transition theorists. Evidently all that can now be seen to have been unnecessary and a mistake; no need to form and debate theories of transition, just “do something–anything”, and in time we will find ourselves in a good society.
The literature does not even explain why localism is important, why it is necessary to achieve sustainability. Why isn’t it better to support green political parties towards the day when they take power and get the right policies enacted? Here’s why: only very small scale economies can cut the resource costs right down. I have recently completed a study comparing egg production costs for the typical supermarket/industrial path with those for the village or neighbourhood co-operative path. The ratios for dollar and energy costs are over 200 to 1. This is because proximity enables outputs such as manures from co-op production to go straight to nearby gardens, fish ponds and methane digesters, and it enables kitchen and garden “wastes” to go straight to the chickens, eliminating all need for transport, feed production factories, packaging, advertising, waste removal and dumping, and avoiding carbon emissions and soil damaging agribusiness etc. etc. See Trainer, 2018.
This readiness to just do anything that appeals and failure to think carefully about what needs to be done is also evident in the adoption of alternative currencies. Most if not all of these adopted within the movement are like the Brixton pound which involve substitution of new notes for old. These can have some publicity and feel-good value but cannot perform the most valuable function of alternative currencies; i.e., creating economic activity by enabling people dumped into idleness and poverty by the mainstream economy to begin producing and exchanging to meet each other’s needs. Varieties of a simple LETSystem can do this. I detailed the point in my earlier critique. More recently Marshall and Oneill, (2018), have found unsurprisingly that the Brixton pound is probably making no difference to the local economy.
It is not just that the strategic logic of the movement is not explained, it is also that the goals of the movement still remain extremely vague. Here is all that is said on the topic in the recent 63 page document,
“It is about communities stepping up to address the big challenges they face by starting local. By coming together, they are able to create solutions together. They seek to nurture a caring culture, one focused on connection with self, others and nature. They are reclaiming the economy, sparking entrepreneurship, reimaging work, reskilling themselves and weaving webs of connection and support. Courageous conversations are being had; extraordinary change is unfolding.”
So now you know precisely what the movement is all about, and how it is going to save the planet.
The rest of that document is like the movement’s other “explanatory” literature in detailing procedures for setting up and running groups and activities (e.g., “Awareness raising”, “Form subgroups”, “Build a bridge to local government”) but throwing no light on what the groups are then supposed to do or why. Presumably the answer is, “just do something/anything.”
Nor does this literature provide groups with any assistance or suggestions derived from experience regarding what might be the best projects to undertake, what has been found to work well, what ones are too difficult, what seem best for spreading public awareness, etc.
The most commonly expressed goal of the movement is for towns to achieve resilience, in the face of looming energy problems. I strongly disagree with this. The goal should be to develop settlements that enable a sustainable and just world, and these must have such simple systems and lifestyles that present rich world per capita resource use can be literally decimated. These settlements will indeed be highly resilient, but that is not a sufficient or focal factor; a settlement could be very resilient but still involve high levels of consumption of things provided by an unjust global economy.
Another major concern I have is that there is almost no reference to frugality and a simple lifestyles as a goal, let alone as the most important goal. The consumer society obsession with wealth, property, travel and affluence must be replaced by non-material sources of life satisfaction. Implausible? Too hard? Maybe it is, but then we will not make it. It is not possible to design and get to a sustainable and just world unless we make this huge cultural change. Again this goal cannot be achieved without the most massive transformation of systems far beyond the town borders; the elimination of the growth economy, the phasing out of most heavy industry, radical restructuring of national economies, global de-growth, etc. etc.
Above all there seems to be no interest in developing strategies to increase public awareness of the need for extreme, radical and rapid global transition towards localism. There is now widespread discontent with this society, hence Trump, but very little understanding that the big global problems are due to the consumer-capitalist-growth-and-affluence-forever commitment. The discontent is only fuelling demands to get the economy going again. Virtually all Australian politicians are fiercely dedicated to “growth and jobs” (the governing party’s winning election slogan) and most people only want higher wages, lower energy prices and more property and cruise ships. We will get nowhere unless and until there is a high level of public awareness of the need to scrap growth, market domination and wealth-obsession etc. At this early stage working on that mentality should be our top priority, and people involved in Eco-villages and Transition Towns are in an ideal position to do it because they can point towards viable alternatives. But they are more or less not doing it, certainly not prioritizing it.
I strongly believe that the things happening in the Transition Towns and Eco-village movements are of the utmost importance, and are crucial and necessary as the first steps that must be taken in the required revolution — but I believe that on their own a) they will come to nothing of global significance, and b) if they are to be significant they must be informed by the correct transition theory and strategy. That is, by a vision of how to get from here to there that is in fact correct, that will actually get us there. None of us knows what that theory is (I’ll sketch my view below), but we had better think hard about what it is if we are to have any chance of getting it right and not going down paths that cannot succeed.
People on the red left think the path the Eco-village and Transition Towns movements are taking are laughably wrong. Are they mistaken; can we show this? I think they are mistaken and have put my case in detail several times (e.g., Trainer, 2016), but my point here is that people within the Eco-village and Transition Towns movements appear to have no interest whatsoever in thinking about any of this. Just do whatever nice green local stuff takes your fancy and eventually the planet will have been saved.
The Simpler Way Transition Theory
From the perspective of The Simpler Way this revolution will have two stages. The first, well underway, involves increasing recognition that the old project of growth and trickle down in the pursuit of affluence is not going to provide for all and that radical system change is required. Stage 1 involves the gradual establishment of various aspects of the required alternative, i.e., those that can be set up now within the old system. These practical steps can have important educational effects, in spreading awareness of the feasibility and attractiveness of alternative ways, and more importantly of introducing a radically alternative world view. They can demonstrate lifestyles, values, systems and ways of proceeding that contradict the old competitive, individualistic, wealth and greed-obsessed culture. When the serious breakdowns and depression impact and increasing numbers are unemployed etc. hopefully people will be realize they can to come across to the new ways we are establishing in their neighbourhoods and towns, and quickly increase the numbers and scale.
But this localism is far from enough. Towns and suburbs and eco-villages will always be significantly dependent on distant inputs, on boots and chicken wire and electric pumps and stoves and medicines as well as on the distant mines and power stations, and ships and corporations that produce the resources and the factories that process them. Most of the things that Eco-villages today consume are being produced outside them. Towns will always be to some considerable extent dependent on their national and global economies. How is setting up a child-minding co-op today supposed to contribute to making these bigger and more distant systems sustainable and just? Clearly that cannot be done without astronomically big revolutions in national and international economies, political systems and, most difficult, in cultures. No need to think about it?
My (uncertain) view is that an effective causal chain to Stage 2 could eventually emerge if towns come to focus on gradually taking as much collective citizen control of their own fate as is possible, and then seek to continually extend this outlook and capacity beyond the town. Setting up nice green ventures that will function within the rules and limits of the existing economy, or parallel to it, as many community orchards and co-ops do, does not move us in this direction. But it is a quite different game when the town starts asking questions like, ”What are our most urgent needs in this town? Do we have bored teenagers and lonely old people? Do we have unemployed people? Are there people who don’t get enough good food, or need assistance with coping, or who are homeless? Governments and officials are not solving these problems. Let us think about what arrangements, what co-ops and mini-banks, and committees we can collectively set up to meet some of those needs drawing on our local resources, especially of time and skill and concern.”
This is to begin the creation of what The Simpler Way approach refers to as a town “Community Development Co-operative”, intended to start building an Economy B, i.e., our own mostly cooperative arrangements to meet urgent needs underneath the old Economy A. We clearly assert that the goals, means and values of Economy B flatly contradict those of the old economy, especially in …
- targeting neglected community needs,
- preventing market forces from determining what happens,
- working cooperatively, not as individual entrepreneurs (although there can be a considerable role for small private farms and firms),
- minimizing resource use,
- maximizing local self-sufficiency by harnessing the time, skills and enthusiasm the town has.
The resources that exist in any town for building a powerful Economy B are considerable. Just reflect on the huge amount of time now wasted watching trivia on a screen. (My Remaking Settlements report, TSW, 2017, emphasised that if people in the small outer Sydney suburb studied gave a mere one hour a week to community working bees then 2,000 person hours a week could be going into enriching the suburb materially and spiritually. )
So to me the emergence of this determination of ordinary citizens to take collective control, to set up our arrangements to solve our town’s problems, is the crucial turning point. This is a going beyond merely setting up another enterprise within the old society. It involves the development of a consciousness whereby we feel we “own” and are responsible for our town; “This is our town and we have got problems. What are we going to do about them?” There are towns and regions operating with this orientation. Possibly the most impressive example is the Catalan Integral Cooperative (See TSW: 2017B) which provides many goods and services to many hundreds of people, while emphatically refusing to have anything to do with the capitalist market system or the state.
But back to how might Stage 2 goals be achieved. The core element in TSW transition theory/hope is that as the depression sets in and the supermarket shelves thin out people will recognize that their town must get those basic inputs from the national economy. Even if a town succeeds remarkably in cutting consumption, living frugally, sharing and building the capacity of the local economy to provide, it will realize it can’t survive long without lots of imported items. This will generate powerful demands from the towns on government to dramatically reorganise and restructure the national economy so that it redirects productive capacity towards providing the local economies with the (few) basic inputs they must have.
This is similar to what happens in wartime. Governments suddenly find that they must go heavily “socialist”, regulating, subsidizing, banning, relocating, rationing, phasing out whole industries and setting up new ones; so it is doable. We have to hope and work for widespread realization that this macro-economic restructuring must be done, and the coming break down will help us with this “educational” task.
But the situation will be far more difficult than in World War 2, where there was no energy problem and no threat to the basic economy driven by growth and market forces, and indeed and the new directions generated vast profits for the corporate sector (e.g. by transferring car production to tank production.) This time the restructuring will involve the phasing out of most industry. Remember the magnitude of the overshoot … we must de-grow to maybe 1/10 of present levels of production and consumption. And this will not be a matter of choice and most of it will not need to be done by heavy-handed government. The mother of all depressions will do much of the job, sending most firms bankrupt through lack of resources, energy and demand. Possibly the biggest task for national governments will be enabling the establishment of many new rural settlements to take in the many who no longer have jobs producing vast amounts of frivolous consumer rubbish.
All of my above theorizing might be totally mistaken. But theorizing like this is absolutely crucial, and the Transition Towns movement isn’t doing it. Many have a very different theory of transition to that sketched above; many think nothing can be done until the capitalist system is overthrown and this will probably involve a lot of violence, Fotopoulos ridicules Marxists but thinks all energy should go into re-gaining national sovereignty and dumping policies imposed by the transnational elite so we are then in a position to decide what kind of society we want. Most green people seem to think getting more green politicians elected can achieve planet-saving legislative change. These differing theories have very different implications as to where our scarce energies should be directed. The Marxists think Transition Towns people are wasting their time. The typical green thinks Marxists are wasting their time. I think the greens are wasting their time. It should be obvious that we urgently need more thinking about how Stage 2 of this revolution can be achieved and what you and I should be trying to do to advance it.
To summarise what I would like to see people in the movement do:
- Talk about and debate these issues, at least a whole lot more.
- Clarify your goals. I hope you emphatically decide the ultimate one is to model and start moving us to a globally sustainable and just society.
- Focus attention on the claim that a good society must be extremely different to this one, requiring the eventual scrapping of some of its core institutions and systems. Or do you think your goals can be achieved within this society i.e., via some reformed version that is still driven by growth, or market forces or the quest for “high living standards”.
- Give much attention to the logic of strategy; what should we be doing here and now because it will eventually lead to our ultimate goals.
- Especially, encourage thought and discussion about the Stage 2 goals, and about how Stage 1 activities can contribute to their eventual achievement of the necessary Stage 2 national and global restructuring, i.e., to a zero-growth and non-market driven new economy.
- Think about my argument that the crucial sub-goal or turning point is the emergence of a determination to take control of your town’s fate, by collectively developing your own Economy B.
Marshall, A. P., and D. W. (Oneill, (2018), The “Bristol Pound; A tool for localisation?”, Ecological Economics,146, 273-81.
The Transition Team, (2016), The Essential Guide To Doing Transition. Totnes, Devon.
TSW (2017a), The Limits to Growth, thesimplerway.info/LIMITS.htm
TSW (2017b), The Catalan Integral Cooperative. thesimplerway.info/CATALAN.htm
TSW (2018a), The Simpler Way; Main outline. thesimplerway.info/Main.htm
Trainer, T., (2016), “A critique of Leigh Phillips’ assertion of the Tech-Fix Eco-modernist faith”, Resilience, 7th April.
Trainer, T., (2017), Remaking Settlements, thesimplerway.info/Remaking.htm
Trainer , T., (2018), “Comparing the monetary, resource and ecological costs of industrial and Simpler Way local production: Consider egg supply.” Thesimplerway.info/EGGS.htm