After he spoke on the panel about local solutions at the ASPO-USA Truth in Energy Conference held in Washington, DC earlier this month, I asked John Michael Greer to give us some of his thoughts about the Transition Movement. He obliged us and so we offer his comments in full below. Greer is the author of numerous books on peak oil and other subjects including The Wealth of Nature: Economics as if Survival Mattered.
Q. What do you think of the Transition movement’s decision to focus on communities, rather than (say) individuals, nations, or anything else in between?
Somebody had to try it, but it doesn’t seem to be working so far. By and large, Transition has fallen into the standard model of contemporary activism—that is, it’s given rise to small groups on the margins of society, pursuing their projects as if the rest of the world was watching, which it isn’t. It’s indicative that in Totnes, one of the two towns on the planet that has actually finished crafting a Transition Plan, only around 5% of the local population took part in the process at any level. Even that level of public involvement appears far beyond the reach of most US Transition groups.
Does that mean that trying to organize on a community-wide basis was a mistake? Not at all. It may still be worth trying, though a move away from familiar but ineffective organizing strategies could be indicated. What it means, rather, is that community organizing is only one of many possible directions that need to be explored, and other options may turn out to be more productive. We simply can’t know in advance, which is why pursuing as many different options as possible is a good idea.
Q. What do you think are the main obstacles that the Transition movement faces?
Here in America, at least, the level of denial that surrounds the end of the age of cheap energy makes a movement like Transition a very difficult sell. Still, Transition has made things even more difficult for itself, in part through the adoption of the standard model of contemporary activism. Some parts of that model—for example, consensus decisionmaking—are red flags for many who might be interested in Transition, because they have seen the problems with that model in other contexts already.
A broader issue is the focus on communities. I hear from many people who, knowing the temper of the communities where they live, recognize that trying to launch a Transition movement there would be an utter waste of effort. I also hear from many people who would rather gnaw on a dead rat than take part in a movement that consists mostly, at this point, of attending meetings. Much of my work in helping inspire responses to the post-peak future could reasonably be described as providing options for people who feel that the Transition movement provides them with none.
Q. Where do you think the Transition movement might be able to go from here?
That’s a good question. I haven’t read the latest publications out of the movement—it’s not really that relevant to my own work, and my book-buying budget is far from unlimited—but if I gather correctly, there’s been a certain broadening of options, a shift away from the linear progression from forming a group to establishing a Transition Plan. That could be a good thing, or the opposite.
It could be the opposite because every activist movement faces the temptation to exist for the sake of existing, abandoning its goals in favor of ever vaguer abstractions that, since no one can be sure what they would mean in practice, continue to justify holding meetings and pretending that something is being done. There are severe problems with the notion that writing a Transition Plan is a significant accomplishment—every municipality in America has plans on file for dealing with energy scarcity, drawn up in the 1970s, which have been gathering dust ever since—but at least it’s a measurable goal.
The current shift toward broader options could be a good thing, though, because nobody, anywhere, knows for sure just what has to be done in order for communities—or, for that matter, individuals—to get through the end of the age of cheap abundant energy with the least possible misery and loss. If Transition is open to having local groups embrace radically different organizational structures and practical agendas, and local groups make use of that freedom, it’s quite possible that the evolutionary process thus set in motion might stumble across viable routes into the future.
That requires a tolerance for disagreement and contradiction that’s rare in contemporary society, and especially in activist circles; the fixation on consensus in those circles is one measure of the difficulty so many people have these days dealing with forthright disagreement. Still, when you’re trying to find the best route through unknown territory, coming up with a consensus in advance is usually a bad idea; it’s usually better to have scouts head out in whatever direction seems best to each of them, and report back on their experiences, whatever those happen to be.