"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Transition Towns: Mostly Harmless

I dabbled in the Transition Movement for a little while but quickly became disillusioned for exactly the reasons Alex Steffen describes in a controversial article on WorldChanging.

When I retweeted that article, gl33p, a buddy on Twitter, warned "Nonconstructive conflict on solution side limits network strength. Solidarity smart, no shortage of humans: nonzerosumgame", and I think that gl33p raises a good question.

It's clear that a focus on marginal backyard farming is not going to go far toward the massive reorganization of society that is needed. The question raised by this article is whether it does substantial damage. Should we be okay with the most idealistic and dedicated people focusing on a shabby sort of localism, because it offers some solace and some community? Or should we be concerned over the zero-sum game of attention being drawn away from the really big tasks of reinventing, well, everything, at scale?

It's a hard one. For me, thinking about the problem at scale and casting about for something to do about it is obviously the right thing to do. But then I'm a geophysicist. Most people, even those who see the great outlines of the problem, can't really begin to get a handle on the stocks and flows, the major risks and the minor ones, the tradeoffs and triages we will have to face.

I agree that there is something scary and off-putting about Transition, especially its accommodation to the paranoid survivalist streak in America. I also understand that many people just see a perfectly innocent revival of the hippie philosophy, and maybe Transition is that too.

So in the end, I just decided to put my attentions elsewhere, and not express my concerns. Had I done so, the concerns would be very similar to Steffen's. That said, I'm not entirely sure it was worth saying. I guess you pick your battles, and becoming too much like Totnes Town is hardly the biggest threat we are facing, you know?

On the other hand, the Totnes model really won't solve America's energy-intensive infrastructure, and won't make the southwestern urban landscape pedestrian friendly nor its climate conducive to casual gardening. Totnes has the advantage that it was a town in the first place.

1 comment:

Dol said...

Hello - got here via RealClimate. Interesting post: I'm struggling with modelling the question of trade-offs between 'local' and 'global' as part of my PhD - there's a dearth of good analysis of this hugely important issue. The best stuff I've seen is very abstract Krugman-esque models, asking "how does agglomeration come about?" and varying two main parameters to answer: transport costs and economies of scale. However, the pre-math economic geography stuff is still best for getting some intuitive insight into the issue - not mathematical but very empirical. For example, I recommend getting hold of a 2nd hand copy of this very accessible book:

Edgar M. Hoover, The Location Of Economic Activity (Mcgraw-Hill Book Company Inc, 1948).

I share your concerns over localism, particularly the sense that some people are egging on a future they really won't like when it arrives. People seem to forget that e.g. the European Union was an economic project specifically designed to end centuries of war by tying people together economically. We really, really don't want to lose that. That said, there is scope for a balance - and there's a lot to be done to push 'localisation externalities' of the kind the transition movement seems to collectively want. Like most things in life, it's about a (somewhat boring) middle way.

Interested to note the different emphasis to Transition in the states. Definitely less survivalist in the UK, more Women's Institute Jam Making.

I note you work on the 'optimal use of information.' I'm sort of amateurishly trying to think about informatin in my PhD. Would love to know what you thought about e.g. Stafford Beer vs Hayek's take in information I blog about here: http://www.coveredinbees.org/node/165