"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Troubled Transition

Alex Steffen has made a very cogent complaint about the Transition movement. Although I remain a member of the Transition Austin group, I also remain frustrated at its stubborn attachment to small scales and romantic thinking.

A particularly striking example of the problem (and of obtuseness regarding Steffen's complaints) appears here from Carolyn Baker.

Let me state that I remain an admirer of Rob Hopkins and his approach to things. I'm also an admirer and a friend of most of the people I have met through Transition Austin, a very interesting, kind and decent group indeed. That said, I share Alex's frustrations, and perhaps my reply to Ms Baker will clarify things for those who aren't getting it.

My reply, admittedly perhaps just a little overheated, did not pass moderation. (Update: It appeared moments after I posted this!) And I seem to have the ear of some of my most admired Twitter follows on this one, so here it is for what it's worth.
"Spin it as we will, the human race is precariously poised on the
cliff’s edge, hanging by its fingernails. "


"Our challenge is not to try to prevent the collapse of the larger systems"

I couldn't be more thoroughly in disagreement with this. It most certainly
IS our main challenge to prevent the collapse of the larger systems.

Anything else is mystification and begging for disaster. I get the
sense that you are practically begging for the death and suffering of
billions of people on an unprecedented scale just so you can have a
chance to try out your beet and turnip pie recipe.

We don't have a choice but to prevent the collapse. Every single thing
we do has to be directed toward the soft landing, not the
post-apocalyptic scenario. We have to steer, not to bail out, because
there is no lifeboat. If worse comes to worst a few survivors will
probably swim to some distant shore, but the Transition movement will
not get to pick them.

"What do I and my loved ones and my community need to do to prepare? "

You are a free person; what happens is therefore in part up to you.

What you need to do is lend a hand to avoid the catastrophe, not to
"prepare" for it. There is no preparation for the worst case, and if
we do avoid the worst case it won't be because people have been upping
their skills for a preindustrial world that can never be returned to
us. "Preparing" rather than "repairing" is hugely irresponsible.

Please get real. It's like you're in a car falling asleep at the wheel
and your only thought is to make sure your airbag is charged. What you
need to do is to pull over. You need to acknowledge that the tragedies
we might face will be your own fault as much as anyone else's if you
don't bend your will toward avoiding them. I am sorry but I read your
position as deeply and terrifyingly selfish and immoral. I'm sure you
don't think that of yourself, but our responses to the current
predicament couldn't be more different.

Count me with Alex.


Unknown said...

I can't be bothered to register for yet another site, so I'll post my wisecrack here:

``I have written my book “Sacred Demise: Walking The Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse”''

Q. E. as we mathematicians say D.

Ric said...

Well said. Your reply was not "overheated". It was just right.

Michael Tobis said...

``I have written my book “Sacred Demise: Walking The Spiritual Path of Industrial Civilization’s Collapse”''

Oh, my, I thought at first that was an obscure joke that was partially escaping me, not an actual quote from Dr. Baker!

"Q. E. as we mathematicians say D."

Yes, indeed.

Nick Palmer said...

I admire the Transition town movement but I think a better approach to potential catastrophes coming our way is "NEVER SAY DIE!

Nick Palmer said...

By which I mean we should prepare for the worst whilst giving it our best shot with all we've got to try and head off that "worst" happening

King of the Road said...

I don't have much to add to this conversation, but as one who has flirted with (and still does to an extent) both survivalism and hippiedom, the worst of the transition town ethos seems like the unholy child of a marriage between these two lifestyles.

I'm just not ready to give up and head out to the Wind River range in my truck camper.

Dol said...

The transition way of thinking mirrors much of the analysis in academia that I come into contact with - it can be *very* crudely black and white: market / large-scale / 'productivist' = BAD and local / co-operative / 'interpersonal' = GOOD. The "good" tends to come under the heading of 'alternative food networks' in the literature - and it has an allergy to any sort of economic thinking. Economics, it seems, is merely one of the Masters Tools, and the master's tools will never dismantle... etc.

Let's presume for a moment that Dr. Baker is correct: it could only be through chance, because (and this is a presumption on my part) I can't imagine it's based on actually analysing how people are going to eat without economies of scale in food production.

That said, such questions are now appearing in academic thinking in the UK; I'm going to a seminar at the end of this month -


p.s. yay, got through a whole post without linking to my own blog like some kind of blogwhore!

Dol said...


"We have created this monster of a food system that shamelessly puts profits ahead of the needs of people and the planet. But the reality is delicious nourishing food grows naturally from the earth and is a fundamental human right and need."

I'm not sure whether I should be getting as ansty as I do about this kind of thing - maybe it doesn't matter, if people are doing good things. I just find the lack of acknowledgement of what larger-scale economics (in terms of distance as well as size) has done a little galling.

Hank Roberts said...

> Sacred Demise
Head asplode: http://www.tor.com/images/stories/stories/Swirsky/MemoryOfWind/full_Swirsky_Weber_410_435.jpg

Michael, thank you.

You've had the right practice clear for years. You're the best example going of understanding the situation with both passion and compassion.

Tangentially related, have you ever read this short story? The recent Romm/Wossname kafoodle reminded me of this:


Michael Tobis said...


Geeze if I'm the best example going you'd think I could make a living at it... sigh...

But many, many thanks for the kind words just the same.

I also enjoyed the story though I didn't quite see how it was apropos to anything. But I did have occasion to pass it along to an old friend who is suffering from an excess of onionosity at the moment.

Dano said...

I only just now read this. Of course you need action like this thing just described (that I never heard of). Just as you need other sorts of actions from the bottom-up and the top-down. It all matters, and none of it solves much in and of itself but all together gives y you resilience. Which is the point.



Unknown said...


I just tried posting a comment but I believe a technical glitch might have erased it after I hit the send button.

If it went through, then you should delete this as it says the same thing.

So I'm afraid Hank doesn't get the joke, when I ask sarcastically in my post if Michael is now a "delayer." Can't a guy have some fun with a throw-away line at the end of a post?

Anyway, I'm on record as a big fan of Michael's, and it is my hope that the points he makes in this particular post are debated, rather than the EPA's action.