Transitioners debate how to engage Occupy movement

Berlin OWS event with Guy Fawkes mask

How should people in the Transition movement wear the mask of Occupy? Photo: cadillacdeville2000 via Flickr.

“The Transition Towns movement teaches us that peak oil and climate change are a threat to democracy and economic justice all by themselves,” writes a blogger for the Organic Consumers Association. “No amount of democratic reforms or economic regulations will save us, if we don’t also transition from fossil fuels to more resilient, lower carbon systems.”

Yet, the post continues, the Occupy movement reminds Transitioners that we can’t adequately address peak oil and climate change without democracy and fairness in the economy. Their blogger then goes on to recognize that Occupiers have picked up on their own some of the open ways of the Transition movement: decision-making by consensus and making cooperative action plans to increase community resilience.

Rob and the mob

But not all Transitioners agree that Occupy is a good angle for local groups devoted to making their communities more resilient.

“I personally resonate with the Occupy Wall Street action––a lot,” said one participant in a discussion about Occupy on the Transition US listserv in early October. “But I  see my choice to support that action as one I would make as an individual, possibly with others, and not one done in the context of activity within my local Transition initiative. I don’t see the  Transition response as so much protesting against something, but rather, in creating alternative solutions. As Rob Hopkins says, Transition is more of a party than a protest march.”

Speaking of Transition movement founder Rob Hopkins, last week he paid a visit to Occupy London Stock Exchange. At first, Rob was disappointed with what he saw there.

Instead of the well behaved protesters focused on economic inequity that he’d expected, he found an uneven group (including some clearly drunk and mentally ill people) representing a grab bag of lefty and fringe causes: “There were 9/11 conspiracy theorists, the Zeitgeist movement, Socialist Worker, all manner of single issue groups as well as just some very angry people with a lot of chips on their shoulders.”

But on spending more time at the occupation and having a chance to talk to occupiers about Transition issues, he became a fan:

However, as the day passed, it all started to make sense.  What Occupy is doing that matters so much is that it is holding a space.  It is holding a space where the discussions can take place on their own terms about what is broken and what needs fixing.  It is underpinned by a realisation that this is a crucial time of change where everything is on the table, where business-as-usual is no longer an option.  It isn’t making demands because that would put the power in the hands of the people in power to decide whether or not to respond to them.  It is holding the space for the conversations, and is doing so on its own terms.  I admire that.

I got yer economic growth right here

Meanwhile, back in New York, the Post Carbon Institute sent filmmaker Ben Zolno to check out Occupy Wall Street and talk about the ecological limits to economic growth and hand out a hundred copies of Richard Heinberg’s new book The End of Growth.

Zolno talked to Occupiers and heard valid complaints about making the current system more equitable — putting more Goldman Sachs executives in jail, for example — but little about the fundamental problems of that system. For Zolno, a lack of ecological awareness may be Occupy’s Achilles heel:

The real story is that our economic system requires infinite inputs, on a planet with finite resources. It’s just not physically possible to continue this way. Sooner rather than later we’re going to run out of the resources that maintain our growth.

Thus, most “solutions” of equity and accountability will actually make things worse–by increasing participation, increasing growth, speeding up the train’s path toward ultimate destruction of the planet we depend on to further our quantity and quality of life.

I certainly see Zolno’s point. But at this point, I’m less concerned about Occupiers getting right the connection between the economy and energy than in the vitality of the conversation they’ve started.

For thirty years, big corporations have worked hard to turn the citizens of the world’s industrialized countries into mere consumers. The Occupy movement seems to be like a big open-air school to turn us all back from consumers into citizens with permission to think for ourselves and the tools to see why we ever stopped doing it in the first place.

A de-programming that profound will take time. Meantime, as we face peak oil and other limits to economic growth, we will need to firmly establish the principles of equity and democracy, so that the energy descent and economic contraction will be fair rather than fascistic.

— Erik Curren, Transition Voice

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  1. Auntiegrav says

    My new bumper sticker idea: “America doesn’t need Anarchists: We have Economists.”

    Whatever form you choose about transitioning, the concept is this: Learn to live as though collapse has already happened.

    The Occupy movement is a means of accelerating the collapse without calling it that. To call for equality and redistribution of wealth is actually a call for the downside of Peak Growth, made from the peak itself. As growth decelerates, the disparities are more obvious, but they don’t really change until descent starts. That’s when the accumulation of wealth no longer adds to the accumulation of wealth: there are no more frontiers of workers willing to sign away their souls in order to support the plutarchs and oligarchs. They have to start buying votes and paying dividends to get people to fight as mercenaries or to buy their stocks. If they spend wisely, they can moderate the descent somewhat. If they act as “authority” figures and try to hold court over humanity, they will end up with their necks in the guillotines. Their fate is up to their selfishness and foresight.
    Our fate is in the fields and towns. The Occupy movement is setting up prototypical towns that will have to learn that they cannot survive with such numbers without the System of systems to feed and shelter them. In order to feed and shelter themselves, their groups will have to disperse around the countryside with hand tools and cooperation. Somewhere between these extremes of choice and power will be the future of the world. Democracy isn’t necessary, but it keeps people feeling like they are less exploited, and if wielded well, can moderate the strife. Otherwise, any charismatic despot has the opportunity to “lead” people to the “promised land” and kill everyone they decide is not like them.

  2. says

    Auntiegrav makes some interesting points.

    My thought was that if you want quick change using a “known” solution the current approach of guarenteeing large loans, grants, etc. to large corporations makes a certain amount of sense.

    However, if you want people to support your solution, you would be better off going with a broader based, messier approach.

  3. says

    Erik. Great post! But I disagree with some of the points you (and those you’ve quoted) make.

    I’m involved in Transition Norwich, where there is also an active occupation, which I have been popping in on from time to time.

    I don’t deny that many occupiers’ understanding of ecology is lacking. In fact, one of the reasons why people have suddenly struck out now is because they have suddenly woken up to the fact that the wool has been over their eyes for so long because the establishment has been so bad at teaching those concepts, either through media channels, or through the education system.

    However, there is an important question here: which comes first, tackling climate change and resource depletion or economic growth and a failing monetary system?

    Occupy Norwich has agreed by consensus “We cannot conceive of a solution to global warming that does not also increase global equality”. And this is the way round I believe it must be.

    Our consumerist culture is driven by corporations’ need for growth, and those at the top of that system who cream off large portions of the profits and reinvest it in dirty industries for short-sighted economic gain. Until such a system is broken, no amount of light-bulb changing, market gardening or community-funded alternative energy systems will be enough to save our planet.

    I believe in the positive locally-focused future that Transition stands for, but I do think a more sustainable economic system is a core part of that, and the MOST URGENT global change that is required to get us there.

    • says

      Simeon, great to hear from you in Norwich and greetings to your Transition group there. It sounds like you and your people may have figured out a neat way to bridge energy and eco issues with those of equity and fairness. I couldn’t agree more that a more sustainable (or a less suicidal) economic system is needed to get us to the future Transition envisions. The awareness you’re spreading will help, I’m sure.

  4. says

    These are changing times, slowly more and more people are waking up to the destructive nature of economic growth.

    I am part of Transition Glastonbury, a member of the Green Party and a director of the Green Gathering, i have spent years trying to raise awareness of the corrupt systems that we are currently ruled by.and trying to promote the idea that we can all live in harmony with our planet. i believe there is strength in numbers and to a degree we should all recognize the work of others who are trying to change a system that is failing. after all it is one of the great government strategies “divide and rule”, and as long as each small group doesn’t recognise or show support for another the government and the corporations have control.

    My concern is that the corporations are ruling the government, a government that is supposed to support the people? if the government simply demanded the tax that the large corporations have avoided paying by off shore accounts and clever accounting this country wouldn’t be in the financial mess it is currently in. similarly it could be promoting green energy supplies that would create jobs, rather than supporting the French nuclear industry which is planing to build multiple power stations in this country with massive hand outs from the public purse not only for the build but also for decommissioning of plants that are to old to continue producing and will remain dangerous for generations to come.

    If a small percentage of that money was ploughed into renewable energy not only would we have safer energy systems, we would not be leaving behind a problem for future generations to deal with. We all have to make change and compromise to ensure that our planet will continue to support life, rather than what we have at the moment which is a race that expects to much. So we have to try and roll back the clock be in tune with the seasons grow more of our own food and consider whether we really need a vegetable that was flown half way around the world for us to eat, or wear cheap clothes produced by a 9 year old who works 12 hours a day for a few pence in the hope that this will keep their family from starving while the fat cats still keep getting fatter off of their slavery.

    While ever more produce is shipped around the world just to keep the economic wheel turning.

    We all need to think more and act more as the government want us to carry on mindlessly rather than pay attention to the words of occupy, Transition or another movement that challenges the strangle hold the corporations have over them.

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