Premature Triumphalism

In last week’s post, I mentioned in passing that a presentation at the 5th Annual Peak Oil and Community Solutions Conference at the beginning of the month had left me with hard questions about the Transition Town movement. A good fraction of the comments I received in response to that post centered on that one brief reference. This probably shouldn’t have surprised me; these days, the Transition Town movement has become one of the more popular responses to the emerging crisis of the industrial world, and its spread has generated both a great deal of enthusiasm and a rather smaller amount of criticism.

I think both of those are merited. So far, at least, the Transition Town movement has done more and gotten further than most other responses to the crisis of the industrial age, and by any measure, some of its achievements are worth celebrating. The core idea of the movement is that a small geographical area – a town, a village, an urban neighborhood, or the like – can make the transition to a postpetroleum world by harnessing the ideas and efforts of local people. The plan, now available in book form, starts with a small steering group of activists who raise public awareness, forge alliances with local activists and governmental bodies, manage the process of putting together a consensus vision for a sustainable future, and finally midwife the birth of a plan, modeled on that vision, that can be adopted by the community and put to work.

It’s an engaging project; still, two things give me pause. The first, frankly, was the presentation I watched, a slick sales pitch that started by proclaiming its subject “the most inspiring movement in the world” and went on from there. If you’ve seen talks put on by well-funded activist groups any time in the last few decades, you know how this one went: the global problem painted in black and white, the implied failure of all other responses, the inspiring story, the appealingly described plan, the clever double binds that give it emotional conviction, and the slow drift toward hard sell at the end. I’d been reading Gregory Bateson on the flight out, so the double binds were hard to miss – “The Transition Town process doesn’t tell you what to do, and we’re telling you to do the Transition Town process” was one of the better examples.

For all that, the presentation did what it was supposed to do. The presenter had a crowd of people around him after the lights went up, though there were also plenty who left shaking their heads, and I heard blistering comments in the back of the meeting room and in conversations out in the lobby. Still, it’s one thing to generate enthusiasm and harness it, and quite another to be sure that the resulting energy is going somewhere useful. The Transition Town movement seems to have done a fine job of the first; it’s the latter that concerns me, and informs the second of my two concerns about the movement.

That concern unfolds from the basic assumption underlying the project: that a contemporary community can imagine a better future and then successfully plan out the route there in advance. That’s a popular assumption nowadays, and of course it’s been basic to most ways of thinking about social change since the heyday of the Enlightenment more than two centuries ago. Most of the French philosophes whose ideas lit the fuse of the French Revolution claimed that a better world could be planned out in advance and then put in place by the collective will. Note, though, that this isn’t how things turned out; what replaced Louis XVI’s feeble monarchy was not the happy republic of reason so many people expected, but rather a parade of tumbrils hauling victims to Madame Guillotine and the cannon and musketry of the Napoleonic Wars.

To judge by recent history, we are no better at guessing the future than the philosophes were. We do know a few things about the most likely future ahead of us. We have good reason to think that the decades to come will bring sharp decreases in the energy per capita available to people in the industrial world, and in all the products and services provided by energy – which, in an industrial economy, means every product and service there is. We have good reason to think that the current human population is more than the world can support once fossil fuels run short. We have some reason to think – at least this is the point of view that makes sense to me – that these processes will bring the decline and fall of industrial civilization, along a trajectory like those of other civilizations that outran their resource bases. How these broad patterns will work out in the microhistory of a town or a region, though, is anyone’s guess, and history seems to take an impish delight in frustrating our expectations.

Planning for the future becomes especially risky when, rather than starting from present realities and trying to figure out what can be done, it starts from a vision of a desirable future and tries to figure out how to get there. The gap between the futures we imagine and the realities that replace them, after all, tends to be embarrassingly vast. Many of my readers may recall, as I do, what the year 2000 was supposed to be like, according to accounts in the 1960s: manned bases on the Moon, undersea cities dotting the continental shelf, fusion plants turning out limitless cheap power, geodesic domes everywhere, and commuters traveling by helicopter instead of by car. One forward-thinking builder in Seattle during those years topped his new parking garage with a helipad and control tower in hopes of getting a jump on the competition. As far as I know, no helicopter ever landed there, and the garage with its forlorn tower was torn down to make room for condos a few years ago. How many of today’s plans will face the same sort of disappointment? I doubt the number will be small.

Proponents of the Transition Town movement are gambling that their case is different – that this time, at least, it’s possible to for a community to imagine a desirable future, put together a plan to get there, and have the plan succeed in what promises to be an uncommonly difficult historical period. An old proverb reminds us that a camel is a tiger designed by a committee, but Transition Town proponents are again gambling that their case is different – that the sort of group process that usually fosters bland compromises based on conventional wisdom will manage this time to pick strategies that will cope successfully with the turmoil of a challenging future. They are also gambling, of course, that the effort put into making Transition Plans will create something more useful than the dozens of progressive energy plans that were adopted by American municipalities in the 1970s, and have been sedulously ignored ever since.

Is that gamble worthwhile? In many cases, actually, I think it is. Even if the broader agenda of the movement fails, some of its elements – such as encouraging people to relearn practical skills, and fostering local food production – will likely prove helpful in almost any future we’re likely to encounter. What’s crucial, though, is that the gamble be recognized as a gamble: as a venture into unknown territory that carries no guarantee of success. The value of the movement can’t be known for sure until we see how Transition Towns weather the end of the industrial age. Since that process promises to unfold over decades or even centuries, any conclusions based on today’s experiences are tentative at best, and it also needs to be remembered that a monoculture of paradigms is just as deadening as any other kind.

Back in the heyday of the New Left, seasoned radicals used to warn their juniors of the dangers of “premature triumphalism” – the notion, as popular as it was mistaken, that revolution was right around the corner and we would all soon be eating strawberries and cream in the people’s paradise. The temptation of premature triumphalism seems to afflict any movement that attempts to bring about social change; the neoconservatives who are now stumbling toward the exit doors of American public life had a thumping case of it and, in the usual way, got thumped. Like so many others, they are finding out that announcing victory too soon is a great way to gain followers in the short term, and an even better way to lose them all in the longer term when events don’t live up to artificially heightened expectations.

I hope the Transition Town movement manages to dodge that bullet. People in that movement have put together a toolkit that may well have broad uses as we get ready for the end of the industrial age; they are conducting an intriguing experiment, and early results look promising; they are understandably enthusiastic about their project. All this is welcome, but I’m still reminded of the old shopman’s rule that you don’t actually know how to use a tool until you are ready to name at least three ways it can be abused and at least three situations where it’s the wrong tool for the job.