Saturday, April 16, 2011

Why transition? A first look at concepts

In this first post, I would like to set the scenery by offering some conceptual distinctions. Not the most sexy way of starting out, perhaps, but I do feel this is necessary so that we are clear about the general direction of our investigation. There will be plenty of more precise, concrete, and detailed discussions of alternatives and proposals later on. But they make little sense if we are too confused about what we are looking for, or if we wrongly think we agree, when in fact we don't. Activists as well as thinkers (of course many of us are both) should always treat themselves to moments of stepping back. Just take this post as one of those moments. The subsequent posts will be more moments of stepping in.

So -- what exactly do I mean by the word "transition"? It is supposed to be a third way between two other options: on the one hand, revolution which involves a very particular view of political and social action (namely, a wholesale "turning-around" of all institutions at once, usually through the intervention of an avant-garde or through the pressure of the street, and requiring violence); on the other hand, collapse which occurs when a situation has worsened to such an extent that incumbent institutions simply cave in (which then ushers in a period of chaos or disorder, followed by various possibilities -- some authoritarian, some democratic -- for a long trajectory of gradual reconstruction). Revolution is intentional and monolithic. Collapse is unintentional and also usually pretty monolithic (since the main structures are the ones that crumble), and it usually leads to various scattered remains being picked up by whoever then has the intention of doing something new.

The revolutionary model is being recalled to our awareness these days by the insurrections in many Arab nations. There are many variants of a revolution, and I am not sufficiently of an expert on them to want to spend a lot of time on them right now. In any case, when it comes to the challenges that we face in the economic and ecological arenas, I am not at all sure that the notion of revolution, as a political concept, is really relevant. That is because the "enemy," who plays such a crucial catalyzing role in a revolution, is really difficult to pin down. Is it capitalism? And if so, what features of it that would warrant a wholesale, possibly violent upturning? Financial rapacity? Fair enough, but who are the actors that maintain it? Can they be compared to corrupt or bloody rulers in a country? Exploitation? Okay, but who is exploiting whom in a globalized system of trade? Don't many people, as consumers or as investors, and often quite unconsciously, actually benefit from others being exploited on the other side of the planet, or right in their back yard? Or is the enemy technology? And if so, is technological progress really univocal enough so that we can group all of it into a homogeneous bundle that would justify revolutionary technophobia? Hardly. These questions seem to contain their own answer: No, the revolutionary model with its binary logic ("us" versus "them") and specific political tactics ("we" eliminate "them") is hardly relevant for the issues we are facing.

What about the collapse model? Well, even though I am not really one for catastrophic scenarios if they can be avoided -- and the transition model caters precisely to this concern -- I do have to admit that, in many respects, a large-scale collapse of our industrial-financial capitalist reality, driven by cheap transport and affordable fossil fuels, and conducive to both peak oil and worrisome climate change, does not seem completely unlikely. Immersing oneself in the growing literature on collapse (not just Joseph Tainter's and Jared Diamond's pathbreaking books, but also the more recent and well-documented work of, a.o., John Michael Greer, James Howard Kunstler, Dmitry Orlov, or Michael C. Ruppert), one emerges with the impression that unless the opulent portion of humanity really takes a major turn towards new ways of life and new economic practices, the not-so-distant outcome will indeed be a systemic breakdown. And for all I can tell, especially when I take an honest look at my own highly ambiguous -- to say the least -- position towards scaling down on things that I am used to (computers, iPod, automobile, air travel, etc.), such a breakdown may be the only thing that will impel humanity as a whole to take that turn. Simply because, then, there won't be any other choice but to gather up the surviving bits and pieces of a defunct system and recycle them into whatever can be reinvented or discovered. John Michael Greer's two books, The Long Descent and, perhaps even more so, The Ecotechnic Future, are remarkable instances of a credible case for a collapse-and-muddle-through scenario. Greer also has an uncanny ability for tracing out credible future scenarios. If you complement that with reading the visionary and very entertaining book by Sharon Astyk, Depletion and Abundance: Life on the New Home Front, which argues in favor of retrieving self-sufficient and scaled-down ways of life, you do get a sense that this may indeed be what awaits us (like it or not), given our seemingly constitutive sluggishness and, frankly, lack of will and concern.

The transition model tries, in a sense, to steer a middle way between revolution and collapse. Transition can be compared to getting an airplane to fall from the sky in a fully controlled fashion -- an accomplishment known nowadays as "landing," utterly baffling and yet totally trivialized. The jet airplane neither falls abruptly from the sky, nor does it remain in flight while mutating into a completely different machine. Transition is intentional, just like revolution. It involves deliberating, tracing out possible scenarios, and then making decisions as to which one we think we can pursue. Transition also has a collapse-like flavor, in the sense that it consists in readjusting many crucial parameters of the incumbent system -- and that readjustment will usually have a "downward" feel to it. Some things need to be done without, in the short and medium run, and sometimes also forever more, but this can be turned into subsequent opportunities for a positive outcome -- namely, a safe landing after a downward-sloping path...

The originality of the transition model is that we deliberately choose not only the speed and deceleration of our landing maneuvers, but we also deliberately select the landing track on which we intend to touch down. In fact, Rob Hopkins, the initiator of the Transition Towns movement, regularly speaks of "energy descent." It's a fair enough expression, since there is no getting around the fact that reduction and rescheduling, as well as even a modicum of selective "de-growth" (I will touch on this in later posts), are indeed part of the transition model. The thing is, all these have to be intentional, hence deliberate and deliberated between the actors concerned. And they do not imply a directive on a predetermined set of "acceptable" ways of life; these are supposed to emerge creatively along the process of (a) touching down safely and (b) exploring the track one has landed on.

Transition links up very closely to the idea of conscious evolution: While the collapse model is often predicated on an ecological notion of "succession" -- that is, the idea that systems break down, go through a series of endogenous mutations, and reach a new equilibrium down the line (see Greer's discussion in chapter 2 of The Ecotechnic Future) -- the transition model relies on deliberate institution- and culture-building. It is, therefore, an intrinsically political model and it requires its politics to be spelled out precisely by those who are doing the institution-building, i.e., the whole democratic collectivity in the most desirable cases. So there is a point in common with the revolutionary model, although the similarity stops here: A transition is not a revolution because, basically, it does not follow an exhaustive ex ante blueprint. In fact, this is where the transition model hooks up with aspects of the collapse model, in the sense of relying on a rather organic and bottom-up conception of overall change. If I were not afraid of being misunderstood, I would surmise that a transition combines "deliberate collapse" and "decentralized revolution." Maybe this speaks to your sensibility, but if it does not, just don't follow the thread of that metaphor further... (Better metaphors for this distinctive middle path may come to my mind in later posts. Suggestions are welcome.)

What I see as particularly interesting in the transition model is that it allows us to think at two levels at the same time:
  • the level of what I will call framework conditions for change, i.e., the general features our institutions should have so that we can encourage change in the right direction
  • the level of the life choices for individuals and communities which given framework conditions make possible, and which are the substance of change
Framework conditions (such as, for instance, new modes of political government, a new financial structure, new legal frameworks for enterprise, or a new income-redistribution scheme) come about through a political process and are, therefore, deliberate and deliberated. Life choices (such as, for instance, voluntary simplicity, devoting one's research to the physics of renewable energies, changing one's mode of consumption, insulating one's house, or investing one's money in an ethical fund) are also deliberate but should not, if at all possible, be "forced choices." We all know situations where we think we are choosing freely but are, in fact, faced with a choice set containing only one possibility. If this is what the framework conditions end up doing -- i.e. if, for instance, the new incentives, rules, and regulations amount to an ecological dictatorship -- then we are no longer in a transition but in a revolution. The transition model relies crucially on citizens being given both the resources and the time to reflect and act, and this involves necessarily the possibility not to act immediately and in a rush. Life choices can be very difficult to make, and honoring the conflicting demands of our lives may mean that we might not want to become part of the "first wave" of pioneers who move quickly. The transition model can and should accommodate such situations; the revolutionary model is unable to (and history has, alas, shown abundantly how revolutionary factions treat the reluctant and recalcitrant).

The transition model figures prominently in one of our decade's most influential books, Tim Jackson's Prosperity Without Growth, which originally (in its report version) had as its subtitle: "The Transition to a Sustainable Economy." Although I do not agree with all the proposals set out by Jackson, and I believe he is leaving out some crucial areas of reform (more on this in later posts), I do believe his book is a definite landmark because he is one of the first economists of this new century to have put on the table the twin issue of framework conditions and life choices, attempting to link them together into a coherent whole through a macroeconomic framework that can allow for microeconomic changes. (He draws part of his inspiration in that area from a somewhat less well-known book, Peter A. Victor's Managing Without Growth.) One of the key questions that needs to be asked as we reflect, and act towards, a transition is: What framework conditions are we going to deliberately create so that the forced economic growth that is currently built into our economic system releases its stranglehold? This implies a deep modification of certain key framework conditions (most notably, credit and money as well as income redistribution) but it does not imply a preordained set of ways of life to be forced on citizens in the name of "sustainability" or whatever other slogan we might cherish. The transition model rests on a fundamental trust in human nature: If framework conditions change in the right way, there will be an emergence of the "right" or "sustainably feasible" ways of life. People are not homo economicus: They are caught in a system and they willingly go along with it, but if macro-conditions change many are prepared to investigate alternatives. It's just a question of unleashing that "natural" inquisitiveness of citizens, which the current economic conditions and constraints tend to stifle (except for a small minority of pioneers). Of course, this fundamental trust is open to discussion, and I sense that adepts of the collapse model harbor much less trust in human reason. But this will be one of the key issues to be discussed on this blog.

In the next posts, I would like to gradually unravel the key aspects of what I see as a credible model for a transition towards a more ecologically and socially viable economy. I call it the "Next-Step Economy" simply to emphasize that although I believe we do have to make deep changes in our institutions -- and hence create some radically new framework conditions -- these changes cannot imply that everyone's lives will be overhauled completely and brutally. If Rob Hopkins's Transition Town movement is any indication, this concern is shared by many of those who are busy reflecting on feasible and desirable pathways out of the current quagmire. (See Hopkins's remarkable Transition Handbook.) Life choices there will have to be, but the transition model carries the hope that they can be effected in a reasonably gradual and progressive way. This hinges, of course, on there still being enough time to avert the dangerous cumulative processes which the collapse thinkers are rightly emphasizing. I am not minimizing the relevance of collapse scenarios. But perhaps, as suggested by my colleague Jean-Pierre Dupuy (see his remarkable book, in French: Pour un catastrophisme éclairé: Quand l'impossible est certain, which can be translated as Enlightened Catastrophism: When the Impossible Is Certain), we can use the threat of virtually certain and inevitable collapse scenarios to act in such a way as to avert that threat. Just maybe. But we can never be definite about it. And that, too, is part of the somewhat tragic ethos of the transition model. It's also part of what makes that model so fascinating for those of us who seek a democratic, reasoned, but also critical and emotionally engaged, pathway out of today's blind alleys.

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This post from the "Eco-Transitions" blog by Christian Arnsperger is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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