Thursday, August 4, 2011

Making transition happen, starting now

an edited version of these thoughts appeared in Transition Voice

The Transition Town movement starts from the realization that our modern consumer culture way of life is not sustainable. Put simply, we use too much oil and other fossil fuels -- resources that will not last forever and are being used up fast. Fossil fuels permeate modern life – whether we are at home, at work, at play, or moving in between, we are almost always burning fossil fuel. Our everyday lives are filled with petroleum-based plastic stuff that comes to us from around the world on fossil-fueled networks of production and distribution. The modern world is literally made out of petroleum and relies on fossil fuel the way a body relies on blood.

At the same time, the intensive burning of fossil fuels required to power our way of life is actively damaging ecosystems around the world and provoking devastating climate chaos. And not only that, we are, in the medium-term, running out of cheap, easily-accessible oil. We've already used up more than half of it. Inevitably, the supply of cheap oil will dwindle and the socioeconomic system that relies on cheap oil as lifeblood will expire. So our way of life is damaging the earth, and cannot go on much longer in any case. And yet our "leaders" are almost uniform in their head-in-sand, full-speed-ahead approaches in the face of this crisis. At this point, we no longer have the luxury of waiting to be led; we have to act now. And this is where the idea of transition comes in.

The transition movement looks to be a few steps ahead of the curve of the collapse of oil-dependent societies. Rather than waiting for the crash and hoping for the best, Transition Town groups are plotting controlled descents off their addiction to oil by creating ways of living that are less and less dependent on non-renewable sources of energy. The crucial goals of transition are to power down from fossil fuel dependence and localize our ways of life, seeking to create lives and livelihoods rooted in our communities, rather than in an unsustainable global system of inequality managed by and for a plutocratic ruling class.

Transition envisions a regrouping, a reworking of our lives and communities to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and other unsustainable, ecologically-destructive practices. Such a transition necessarily involves the creation of new forms of society, new ways of organizing ourselves, that enable us to achieve the best lives we can using our freedom and responsibility. Transition in this sense entails a psychosocial migration, a trek off the grid of modern capitalist consumer culture and into a new frontier of human living. As with any long-term human endeavor, things surely won't end up as we imagine it from here – things will go the way people take it, which is how democracy works. But the important point here is: we can start now. We can get going and start making transition happen.

It helps to think of transition as a medium to long term process, albeit an urgent one requiring diligent effort. We don't have to do it all at once, we just have to get going and then keep making progress. It may be baby steps or it may be long strides depending on your situation, but the point is to start down the path. There are three levels at which we can all start doing things more or less right away:
(1) the household;
(2) some grouping of locally-related households, the sizes of which, from Resilience Circles to Transition Towns, will depend on the particulars of our local communities; and
(3) a global community of households creating a broad community of interest and sharing, developing stores of wisdom and experience, and being whatever else we and the heirs of our democracy decide we want to be.

The individual/household level is the one where we have the most control over our lives. Ideally, we would all live on urban, suburban, or rural homesteads where we produce significant amounts of food for ourselves and our friends while living in super-efficient homes using renewable energy. There are people doing this, and we should celebrate and learn from them. But even if that possibility seems a long way off for many of us, we can all find ways to keep moving, bit by bit, off the grid of corporate-orchestrated consumer culture. We can start consciously using less electricity; examine your bill and determine to use fewer kilowatt hours every month. We can reduce our use of gasoline by driving less and walking, biking, and using public transit more. We can seek out local food producers, help foster local economy, and reduce the carbon footprint of our diets. We can resolve to avoid corporate chain stores that suck money from local communities while peddling cheap, throw-away goods made in Third World factories. We can strive to live by the principle "Reduce-Reuse-Recycle – In That Order" as a way to rein in the consumerist tendencies our society fosters. It seems important to acknowledge up front that the individual path to transition will include quite a bit of "inconvenience." That inconvenience is our karmic wage, the withdrawal pain required to kick the modern consumerist habit. Ultimately, powering down our households and localizing our ways of life are not only smart and forward-thinking, but also the right thing to do.

Re-programming our lives at the household level is necessary, but it's not sufficient – we cannot be satisfied with being powered-down hermits. In order to enact the new societies that will make the transition to a post-growth world, we need to move to level 2 and act with others. This means reaching out and finding people in your area who are on the same path and forming a community around the practices of localized, powered-down living. The particular next step available to your household will depend on where you live. Some of us probably live in communities where enough people understand the issues we face and are willing to act so that a Transition Town initiative on the UK model, including the development of a town-wide interest in and effort toward reducing fossil fuel use and relocalizing, can be viable.

Many of us do not live in communities where a large-scale transition initiative has any reasonable chance to effect the necessary changes in the necessary time frame. It may be unfortunate, but we do not have time to wait for the people in our neighborhoods/cities/regions to wake up and take responsibility for working our way out of the petroleum and plutocracy based mess we're in. We have to start now to build life-raft communities in which to float way from the sinking ship of capitalist modernity. And even without a town-wide initiative, we can make things happen. One idea is for members of a household following the post-growth path to find two to four other households doing the same thing, and then do it together – MAKE A TRANSITION COMMUNITY!

Some organizers based at the Institute for Policy Studies in Boston are trying to help people form these kinds of micro-communities aimed at sustainable, resilient living, which they call common security clubs or resilience circles . They have even developed a 7-sessioncurriculum to help circle members develop a group understanding of the issues we are facing, and find the beginning of the path forward to a better, more democratic way of living.

Some people may prefer a less-structured approach. The key is to focus on being people who work together to move down the path to transition. I think it would be good to have regular group dinners to be together, talk about life and what's going on, discuss progress and setbacks in the quest to power down and localize. Members could look for ways to share and work together to create things, get things done, and "make things happen" – creating better, freer lives in the process. And as group members share, provide mutual aid and moral support, and act as well-intentioned interlocutors thinking through the way forward, they will create a new kind of community, a community of people taking responsibility for their lives, a community in transition.

When feasible and desirable, one resilience circle could work with others in the area to make things happen on a larger scale, maybe group currencies and barter fairs, cooperative enterprises and community defense militias. In some cases, linked micro-communities of transition-trekking households might be a firmer foundation for post-growth community creation than a full-scale Transition Town initiative. Since the resilience circle idea starts with finding and recruiting three or four households of like-minded people, rather than creating a community-wide publicity campaign that will inevitably fall flat in some places, resilience circles seem like something most of us could reasonably get started in the near term. (I haven't been part of a circle yet, but have talked to a couple of people about it and hope to help make it happen sooner than later. It seems like the best available way forward in the conservative rural city where I am living.)

Finally, it seems to me that there would be value in moving transition forward on a third level – as a worldwide community of households, connected through the internet, sharing certain basic values and endeavoring to work together to advance the concepts and practices of post growth, post peak oil living. Most obviously, such a community would develop a store of experience and wisdom, a register of trials and errors, that would enable local groups to make faster progress than if they had to run every trial themselves. Beyond the establishment of a community of experience, this third level of transition can help groups make connections for trade and cooperation, and will encourage and facilitate the maintenance of certain kinds of 'translocal' expertise among individuals in far-flung groups (expertise in computers and communications come to mind). As with any community created by people practicing democracy, our third-level, internet community will become whatever we and our ancestors make of it. And in fact it will never stop becoming what we make of it because democracy is not an ideal state to be achieved, but a never-ending process to be involved in; democracy is the freedom and responsibility to continuously create community and society.

Transition is a path. As an individual or a community, we cannot get there all at once. But we can get on the path, as an individual and a community, and keep going. That is what we can do and how we can make things happen. Crises beyond our control may affect the pace of transition in one way or another, for all we know humanity may already be doomed to extinction, but if our concern is to do what we can do, and to keep moving forward, then we are making transition happen, making progress on the trek off the grid of the dying social formation of the modern capitalist West and into a wide-open democratic frontier of freedom and responsibility.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Reform or Regroup?

these thoughts originally appeared in Transition Voice -

Few would disagree that the contemporary capitalist societies that define the "Modern Western world" are in crisis. The crisis takes the form of a "syndrome," a condition made up of a variety of "symptoms" that relate to each other in complex ways, including economic collapse, endless wars, climate chaos, and energy depletion. The symptom most likely to affect the lives of significant portions of the population in the near-term is the "economic crisis," "the jobs crisis," or, to put it more specifically, the inability of the financial management authorities to "grow the economy" sufficiently to ensure everyone has access to food, clothing, shelter, and the basic respect required for democracy. As I see it, the "economic crisis" is really a crisis of plutocratic governance and resource depletion – at this point in our history, capital, and the social power defined by capital, have become so concentrated in the hands of a minority, self-interest-driven 'overclass' that a growing percentage of the population is in real danger of falling out the bottom of the mainstream society held together by capital-power.

So what happens from here? It is possible the plutocrats will seek to enact 'reform,' as FDR did in the New Deal, introducing new programs and regulations and laws intended to effect some degree of sharing of the wealth produced by the growth society. This approach starts from the insight that if the money economy does not provide more or less everyone with food and shelter and a bit of free time, people will fall out of the money economy and no longer be integrated into the social system that produces profit for the wealth holders. Ultimately, real "share the wealth" reform would have to be aimed at something like what the corporate pundits derisively call the "European model" in which tax policy is used to ensure the rich don't get too rich and the poor don't get too poor. But even if the plutocracy seeks the path of reform, it seems likely to be much harder to pull off now than in the 1930s, at least in part because of the intensified globalization of wealth accumulation, and in part because capitalism's founding myth of infinite growth is running out of steam.

In the 1930s, the smarter plutocrats understood that keeping everyone on the inside of the system helps ensure the system's continuation, a longer-term goal worth giving up some wealth-power. Of course, even back then there were strident opponents to reform among the economic elites, and today's plutocrats don't seem as smart as their ancestors. It is easy to imagine the plutocrats of the Fox News era rejecting the idea of reform ("socialism!") until it's too late and the whole thing – capitalist modernity as a society and way of life – will burn itself out.

To me, this seems like the more likely scenario, especially considering the largely-ignored, happening-now consequences of climate chaos, caused (it is reasonable to believe) by the very lifeblood of modern capitalist society – the burning of fossil fuels. Throw in the impending crisis of increasing oil scarcity and it appears the whole modern capitalist ponzi scheme – rooted in the delusion of infinite growth – has run its course – the bubble at the bottom of all the other bubbles appears to have burst.

So maybe the plutocrats will attempt reform, or maybe they'll go down like the power-mad captain of a sinking ship. But no matter what, we shouldn't be waiting around to see how they play the collapse. We should be asserting and enacting our basic democratic right to have a say in how our societies and lives are organized. The question for us, it seems to me, is which approach to pursue: REFORM or REGROUP.

Again, reform may not be possible, depending on how the plutocrats proceed. But if possible, some significant democratic reforms could include much more sharing of the wealth of society, the end of corporate personhood, proportional representation, cooperative nonprofit management of vital community resources, and other policies. But can anyone really see this happening? In this society, at this time? My sense is that some significant percentage of the wealthy, their lackeys, and minions would resist this kind of reform to the point of violence, willing to bring down everything rather than share power. Further, even if successful, it has to be noted that the power that would be shared is the power to manage a complex, centralized social system based on materialist consumption and profit, a social system on the brink of collapse. Do we really want to share that power? Or should we do something different? Wouldn't it be a better strategy, for future generations and our own peace of mind, to move past the idea of reform and head straight to REGROUP?

The crisis of capitalist modernity – the sudden shakiness of what had seemed so powerful and secure – provides an opportunity to regroup: to rethink and reorganize the ways we live our lives. Through the cracks of our crumbling society we can glimpse the profound human truth underlying every society: the truth that we, as members of groups, create the reality of our societies and everyday lives. You can think – you can use language to communicate – you can work with others to get things done and make things happen; those capacities, those powers, those freedoms are the root of society and reality – it all comes from there, from us. Taking to heart this profound truth about what it means to be human opens the beginning of a path to creating whole new societies, new voluntarily-associating, self-governing groups – 'neopublics' whose ongoing democratic processes will lead to ideas and practices and ways of living we cannot even imagine from where we are now. In other words, for those of us who would go for regrouping rather than reform, the capitalist crisis presents an opportunity to start down a new, r/evolutionary path of freedom and responsibility – the path of true democracy.

I would almost always support people using opportunities to fight for a more fair share of power, or better working conditions, or any issues involving the advance of democracy over plutocracy. But I would also assert that the better longer term goal is not a fair share of the plutocrat's power, but new ways of doing things, new democratic societies in which the kind of power plutocrats wield (power related to the elite management of a complex, highly-stratified, centralized society) does not exist.