Tuesday, 12 February 2008

‘Transition Towns’ are great – but they won’t save us, without help

[Prefatory note: A shortened version of this opinion piece has just been published in GREEN WORLD magazine. Here is the full version -- I am publishing it now on my blog, to allay the misplaced fears [see

http://transitionculture.org/2008/02/12/rupert-read-misses-the-point-about-transition-initiatives/#comment-54940

; see also my comment, the second comment on the piece] of the excellent Rob Hopkins, founder of the 'Transition Towns' initiative, that I am somehow an enemy of Transition Towns. I hope that it is clearer from this than it may have been from the inevitably-compressed GW piece just what it is I am saying:]

On the airwaves so far this year we’ve heard a lot from the nuclear lobby and its apologists. And they are gagging for a techno-fix to keep in place the current unsustainability of the energy-obese West. Meanwhile, there is a growing ripple of underground excitement about a remarkable idea for how to maybe reduce energy demand radically – in a manner that will render the hungry search for greater energy supply increasingly unnecessary. More and more people are talking about how 'Transition Towns' (www.transitionculture.org ) might change the world and save us from oil depletion and climate catastrophe. And they are walking their talk, across the country, in ever-growing numbers.

A transition to a lower energy future is certainly badly needed, and so the Transition Towns movement, which looks to develop NOW ways in which to live with the power way down, is obviously deeply to be welcomed. But there is, I’m afraid, one critically important respect in which the bold hope vested in this movement as it stands could not possibly come true:

The Transition Towns movement alone cannot save us, because, within the existing economic system, some reducing their use of fossil fuels is received by others as a price signal that it is OK to use even more fossil fuels. I.e. For every litre of petrol that (say) Totnes or Stroud does not use, everyone else in Britain is very slightly incentivised to use more petrol, by the price not going up as much as it otherwise would. Thus (e.g.) others’ even more unsustainable commuting patterns will almost entirely cancel out the positive effect of Totnes.

This means too that, as resource depletion crunches (http://www.roadtransport.com/Articles/2008/01/31/129670/worried-about-oil-shortage.html ), successful Transition Towns will not be able to count on accessing even the small amount of oil that they still need. For the price will be through the roof, with others having guzzled what the Transition Towns voluntarily eased back from guzzling. (This is a classic case of the so-called ‘Tragedy of the Commons’.)

Transition Towns are a wonderful and inspiring experiment. But, alone, they can function only as demonstration projects. They show what is possible. But in order for them to be part of a movement that actually reduces overall use of fossil fuels, legislation is needed. Legislation that enforces lower overall use of fossil fuels, and/or, I suppose, legislation that obliges every town to try to become a transition town. Legislation that treats precious natural treasures such as oil – and a liveable atmosphere – as true commons, held in common by all and (as much as possible) in perpetuity.

And that is where party politics comes in. Unless we g/Greens force political change through the electoral mechanism, then the 'Transition Towns' vision of how why we might make a transition to a saner future would remain unattainable. A lifestyle choice is not enough: Tragedy can only be averted, if collective action is forced by us all upon us all. Science and equity must trump free-for-all price ‘signals’. ‘Transition Towns’ pride themselves on being a community of people working together, and that’s great – but the truly collective and communal response to our plight, the response that most deeply acknowledges our interdependence upon one another, must think and act across a much larger piste. The admirable local action of Transition Towns is countermanded by economic effects of that action elsewhere in an unreformed more global economy.

So: if you hear a Transition Town afficionado speaking about how Peak Oil renders ordinary politics irrelevant, please beg to differ. Without policies such as carbon rationing (http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/tony_juniper/2006/07/carbon_is_it_rationing_or_regu.html.printer.friendly ), and, at a global level, ‘Contraction and Convergence’ (http://www.gci.org.uk/contconv/cc.html ) being put into place, the Transition Towns movement will do virtually nothing to prevent the onset of climate catastrophe though excessive burning of fossil fuels.

Because, as fast as oil runs out, so – unless we change the political economy of the nation and indeed of the world radically, and fast – the existing system will look to exploit other more carbon-intensive fossil fuel sources (as I explain at http://oneworldcolumn.org/132.html ), such as tar sands and of course coal.

In fact, this is already starting to happen. This is where the real commercial sector energy ‘action’ is, not in the lumbering nuclear distraction. Terrifyingly, the energy-intensive process of extracting usable petro-substitutes from the tar sands has already begun: even 'good old' BP, who with good old greenwashed boldness now of course characterise themselves as ‘Beyond Petroleum’, is moving in on the action (http://environment.independent.co.uk/article3239364.ece ), and lessening the bite of Peak Oil only by producing and burning much-higher-carbon alternatives.

The prognosis is extremely challenging. Peak Oil will hasten climate catastrophe – unless g/Greens manage, and fairly soon, to change the rules of the game, for everyone… and not just for the converted few.

6 Comments:

Blogger scott redding said...

The way that I read Rob was that he disagreed with the idea of "collective action being forced upon us" ... "legislation that obliges every town" ... and that you won't have people buying into a cross-party bottom-up process if you impose things top-down. I don't see how your "director's cut" version of your article addresses this!

12 February 2008 at 14:59  
Blogger Rupert said...

Hang on: your ellipses and omissions are prejudicial, Scott.
Collective action "being forced upon us all _by_ us all" -- that is what I said! We need collectively to ensure that we collectively do this. It cannot be individualised - that is liberal fantasy.
We need a cap, IN ORDER that the bottom-up process can actually succeed in its aims.

12 February 2008 at 16:42  
Blogger Dorothea said...

I don't see this as "collective" any more than any other legislation in Britain has ever been "collective".

Legislating to control damaging, destructive or anti-social behaviour is a simple matter of law and order like any other.

The problem is simply getting that critical mass of the population behind environmental protection.

13 February 2008 at 20:16  
Blogger Rob said...

Thanks for that Rupert, I hadn't seen this full version when I responded... it is much clearer and detailed... thanks...
Rob

13 February 2008 at 21:01  
Blogger KiltedGreen said...

Hi Rupert,

"The Transition Towns movement alone cannot save us, because, within the existing economic system, some reducing their use of fossil fuels is received by others as a price signal that it is OK to use even more fossil fuels."

Is this not a little disingenuous? Who said they could 'save us'? Certainly I've never heard anyone in the TT movement say such a thing. How about if I said: "The Green Party alone cannot save us, because, within the existing global system, some countries reducing their use of fossil fuels is received by others as a price signal that it is OK to use even more fossil fuels."

Again, I can't imagine that anyone in the GP has said or would ever say such a thing - it's a straw man argument. Also, even if they did, on a global scale it seems your own argument trips over its own shoelaces.

We desperately need the Transition movement, the Green Party, Greenpeace, the WDM, Rising Tide, FoE, changing light bulbs, Plane Stupid, government action, UN action etc, etc if we're to deal with the huge issues facing us. None of these alone will 'save us' - together, and with a lot of spirit, guts and determination we all might manage it. Let's make the whole greater than the sum of the parts.

Regards,

Stephen

14 February 2008 at 20:47  
Blogger Rupert said...

Stephen; I agree.
My point was only directed against those in the Transition movement who say that ordinary electoral politics is no longer necessary. If you are not one of those people, then we have no disagreement.
On your remark: "How about if I said: "The Green Party alone cannot save us, because, within the existing global system, some countries reducing their use of fossil fuels is received by others as a price signal that it is OK to use even more fossil fuels."?": See my 'Point by Point response to Rob Hopkins', above. 'Ecologism in one country' IS indeed pretty hopeless. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to make Britain one huge demonstration project -- we _should_. I am also given hope by the increasingly global nature of the anti-globalisation movement -- and of the Green Party, the closest thing we now have to a truly European and to some extent global political Party.

17 February 2008 at 12:19  

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1. 2. 3. Rupert's Read: ‘Transition Towns’ are great – but they won’t save us, without help 4. 12. 15. 16. 17. 18. 19. 20. 23. 24.

25. 26. ‘Transition Towns’ are great – but they won’t save us, without help 27. 28.

29.

[Prefatory note: A shortened version of this opinion piece has just been published in GREEN WORLD magazine. Here is the full version -- I am publishing it now on my blog, to allay the misplaced fears [see

http://transitionculture.org/2008/02/12/rupert-read-misses-the-point-about-transition-initiatives/#comment-54940

; see also my comment, the second comment on the piece] of the excellent Rob Hopkins, founder of the 'Transition Towns' initiative, that I am somehow an enemy of Transition Towns. I hope that it is clearer from this than it may have been from the inevitably-compressed GW piece just what it is I am saying:]

On the airwaves so far this year we’ve heard a lot from the nuclear lobby and its apologists. And they are gagging for a techno-fix to keep in place the current unsustainability of the energy-obese West. Meanwhile, there is a growing ripple of underground excitement about a remarkable idea for how to maybe reduce energy demand radically – in a manner that will render the hungry search for greater energy supply increasingly unnecessary. More and more people are talking about how 'Transition Towns' (www.transitionculture.org ) might change the world and save us from oil depletion and climate catastrophe. And they are walking their talk, across the country, in ever-growing numbers.

A transition to a lower energy future is certainly badly needed, and so the Transition Towns movement, which looks to develop NOW ways in which to live with the power way down, is obviously deeply to be welcomed. But there is, I’m afraid, one critically important respect in which the bold hope vested in this movement as it stands could not possibly come true:

The Transition Towns movement alone cannot save us, because, within the existing economic system, some reducing their use of fossil fuels is received by others as a price signal that it is OK to use even more fossil fuels. I.e. For every litre of petrol that (say) Totnes or Stroud does not use, everyone else in Britain is very slightly incentivised to use more petrol, by the price not going up as much as it otherwise would. Thus (e.g.) others’ even more unsustainable commuting patterns will almost entirely cancel out the positive effect of Totnes.

This means too that, as resource depletion crunches (http://www.roadtransport.com/Articles/2008/01/31/129670/worried-about-oil-shortage.html ), successful Transition Towns will not be able to count on accessing even the small amount of oil that they still need. For the price will be through the roof, with others having guzzled what the Transition Towns voluntarily eased back from guzzling. (This is a classic case of the so-called ‘Tragedy of the Commons’.)

Transition Towns are a wonderful and inspiring experiment. But, alone, they can function only as demonstration projects. They show what is possible. But in order for them to be part of a movement that actually reduces overall use of fossil fuels, legislation is needed. Legislation that enforces lower overall use of fossil fuels, and/or, I suppose, legislation that obliges every town to try to become a transition town. Legislation that treats precious natural treasures such as oil – and a liveable atmosphere – as true commons, held in common by all and (as much as possible) in perpetuity.

And that is where party politics comes in. Unless we g/Greens force political change through the electoral mechanism, then the 'Transition Towns' vision of how why we might make a transition to a saner future would remain unattainable. A lifestyle choice is not enough: Tragedy can only be averted, if collective action is forced by us all upon us all. Science and equity must trump free-for-all price ‘signals’. ‘Transition Towns’ pride themselves on being a community of people working together, and that’s great – but the truly collective and communal response to our plight, the response that most deeply acknowledges our interdependence upon one another, must think and act across a much larger piste. The admirable local action of Transition Towns is countermanded by economic effects of that action elsewhere in an unreformed more global economy.

So: if you hear a Transition Town afficionado speaking about how Peak Oil renders ordinary politics irrelevant, please beg to differ. Without policies such as carbon rationing (http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/tony_juniper/2006/07/carbon_is_it_rationing_or_regu.html.printer.friendly ), and, at a global level, ‘Contraction and Convergence’ (http://www.gci.org.uk/contconv/cc.html ) being put into place, the Transition Towns movement will do virtually nothing to prevent the onset of climate catastrophe though excessive burning of fossil fuels.

Because, as fast as oil runs out, so – unless we change the political economy of the nation and indeed of the world radically, and fast – the existing system will look to exploit other more carbon-intensive fossil fuel sources (as I explain at http://oneworldcolumn.org/132.html ), such as tar sands and of course coal.

In fact, this is already starting to happen. This is where the real commercial sector energy ‘action’ is, not in the lumbering nuclear distraction. Terrifyingly, the energy-intensive process of extracting usable petro-substitutes from the tar sands has already begun: even 'good old' BP, who with good old greenwashed boldness now of course characterise themselves as ‘Beyond Petroleum’, is moving in on the action (http://environment.independent.co.uk/article3239364.ece ), and lessening the bite of Peak Oil only by producing and burning much-higher-carbon alternatives.

The prognosis is extremely challenging. Peak Oil will hasten climate catastrophe – unless g/Greens manage, and fairly soon, to change the rules of the game, for everyone… and not just for the converted few.

30. 31. 32.