(artwork above from The Transition Handbook)
For the last year or so I’ve been involved with our local Transition Initiative, and have communicated with many members of Transition initiatives around the world. Several of my articles on Transition-related topics have been published by web sites (like Energy Bulletin) that focus on how we can cope with emerging energy, ecological and economic crises, and some have been used by other Transition Initiatives in their community planning and resilience activities.
What I like best about the Transition Movement’s approach is that:
- it’s communitarian: it uses co-developed, collaborative, bottom-up strategies,
- it draws on emergent collective wisdom within and between Transition communities (rather than relying on experts or gurus),
- it’s locally-focused: every community will face different challenges when these crises hit, so there is no one right answer for coping with them, and
- it’s inclusive: it embraces anyone who thinks it makes sense to increase preparedness and resilience for dealing with peak oil, climate change, and/or economic crises, regardless of where they are on the political spectrum.
What Transition communities are doing is necessary and laudable, and will go a long way to helping these communities and their residents prepare for and cope with energy, ecological and economic crises.
Many Transition communities’ preparedness and resilience plans seem to be based on the hope that with such planning and transition work we’ll be able to maintain our quality of life, though more sustainably and responsibly, after the transition period. Unfortunately, our energy, ecological and economic systems are complex, globalized and interconnected, so it is likely that (a) a crisis in one system could trigger others, in any of the three systems, and (b) a cascading series of crises could quickly render any such plans obsolete and inadequate.
What will happen, for example, if economic crises bankrupt governments so they cannot provide the public transport needed to cope with energy crises, or if (as we’re seeing with Japan’s tsunami’s impact on its nuclear power) an ecological crisis exacerbates an energy crisis and precipitates an economic one? Or worse, what happens if a series of cascading crises or waves of crisis (many pandemics have several “waves”, and often economic recessions have “double dips”) leads to a total collapse of our energy, ecological and/or economic system?
At the risk of exasperating my crisis-fatigued colleagues in the Transition Movement, here’s a collapse scenario, not inconsistent with those of many researchers, scientists, historians, economists and theorists who’ve looked at peak oil, runaway global warming, economic depressions and the history of civilizations.
It’s a collapse scenario rather than a crisis scenario because it anticipates a dramatic and permanent shift in how we live, rather than just a transitional period of invention and adaptation that we have to go through before returning more-or-less to the style of life we’ve become accustomed to today. I personally believe that if our planning, project work and capacity-building are far-reaching enough to help us cope with a complete system collapse, it could well be the difference between the survival and extinction of our species.
Here’s the scenario, in five stages, showing how a crisis in one area can precipitate or worsen crises in other areas and eventually lead to system collapse. After I describe the stages in the scenario, I’ll explain how I think the Transition Movement could organize to help cope not only with crisis, but with collapse.
Scenario part one, 2011-2015: (01a) Reported G8 unemployment rates reach 20% (real rates reach 40%) and many workers take pay cuts. (10) A worsening poverty crisis is exacerbated by the onset of chronic deflation, hurting those on fixed incomes most and precipitating a worsening (07) personal debt crisis. Meanwhile military and bailout spending combined with unwillingness to raise taxes and falling personal incomes produces (01c) declining tax revenues and (07) runaway government debts. As (07, 01a) consumers run out of income and credit to spend, business profits stall and begin to plunge (01b). Oil revenue dependent states (Mideast, Mexico) begin to fail (13) as oil production peaks and declines. (12) Hurricanes, droughts, floods, glacial melt and forest infernos increase in frequency and severity.
Scenario part two, 2015-2025: (01abc) The vicious cycle of declining employment, wages, prices, consumption, revenues, taxes and profits continues and accelerates. (07, 10) Deflation gives way to hyperinflation as peak oil production impact is reflected in prices of gas, transport, food, health supplies, agricultural supplies and manufactured goods. Defaults on personal, corporate and government debts soar, leading to bankruptcies, foreclosures, currency crises and devaluations. (03) Governments seize and ration critical energy supplies. (13) Many small nations fail, some falling to criminals, drug cartels and warlords, most just balkanizing as local authorities take over governance and essential services. (02) Agricultural subsidies are abandoned as governments find them unaffordable, worsening the unsustainable industrial agricultural system. Some foods just disappear from the shelves. (06) Many governments walk away from social security, health, education and infrastructure maintenance services to fend off bankruptcy. (05, 04, 11) Water crises cause deaths and riots in China and disruptions in the Western US and other countries. The refugee situation worsens as climate change refugees join economic refugees in camps filled to overflowing all over the world.
Scenario part three, 2025-2050: (01) The most difficult stage of transition sees the continuation of the slow collapse of the industrial economy producing a Great Depression, with most governments (06) cutting back to minimal services, millions of corporations folding, (09) stock and housing markets collapsing, and defaults leading to massive levels of bankruptcy and foreclosure. Most people in once-affluent nations see their credit, savings and pensions disappear and their net worth become negative. (07) Repeated government defaults and devaluations lead to abandonment of most currencies, with only currencies backed by gold, oil or other commodities still having any value. Some community-based local currencies emerge to fill the void. (13) China, India and a score of other large nations join Mexico as failed states, leading to anarchy, civil war, charismatic leaders, totalitarianism and massive emigrations. (11) The last large forests disappear, and waves of pandemics hit plant and animal food supplies, which, combined with (5) a growing scarcity of fresh water and the impact of peak oil on large-scale agriculture leads to the complete collapse of the industrial agricultural system – corporations abandon farms and food production facilities, and they are occupied by squatters and self-organized community food co-ops. Famines become commonplace as a result of severe oil, water and food shortages. (04) The refugee crisis becomes so severe that it cannot be controlled by police and military patrols, so international agreements are created that allow anyone entering or leaving a signatory state other than in an authorized vehicle to be shot on sight; this draconian threat sharply reduces cross-border refugee flows and stems an international catastrophe. (08) With no oil left for non-approved, non-essential food, transport or production activities, international trade slows almost to nothing, and goods that cannot be produced domestically become very scarce.
Scenario part four, 2050-2075: As we enter the second half of the century, old crises subside and new ones emerge. (01) With the collapse of the industrial economy, people get used to making do without jobs (and creating some of their own), and learn to live without (06) government programs , without (07) national currencies, and without (09) credit or pensions. With nothing left to fight over, wars diminish as people in each remaining nation and area struggle to deal with (04) the huge number of displaced and homeless people all around them. (11) Pandemics continue as health and hygiene worsens in many areas and as climate change allows tropical diseases to thrive in once-temperate climate zones. (02, 03, 05, 08) People begin to refer to these times as The Era of Scarcity, as oil becomes unavailable even for essential services, water is rationed, food shortages continue to ravage struggling nations, and manufactured goods become so scarce that most people now work in ad hoc recycling and reuse jobs. (12) With no government resources left for management and emergency programs, massive fires burn out of control on abandoned lands, whole provinces are abandoned to sand and drought and floods, and when severe storms hit cities, the cities are simply shut down. Many areas that were desperately pillaged for coal or dirty oil, and many now-damaged nuclear power sites, have become so toxic to life they are declared international quarantine zones; there is no money for remediation.
Scenario part five, 2075-2100: As the century nears its close, the process of transition to a post-cheap oil, post-stable climate, post-industrial economy world is well advanced. The world has become relocalized, and poorer but more resilient in the process. The economy is now dominated by cooperatives and local subsistence enterprises providing essential goods and services to their communities. Communities provide almost all of their own services, and the artifacts of centralized economies have mostly disappeared – central interest rates, stock and commodity and housing markets, big corporations, central governments, central currencies, large-scale farms, large-scale utilities. With a steady-state economy there is no inflation or interest rate anymore, and communities issue their own non-fiat currencies. The vestiges of crisis remain, however, and there is debate on whether the ongoing challenges of (04) homelessness and poverty, (05, 03) extreme scarcity of fresh water and energy, (12) ever-increasing ecological disasters like rapid sea-level rise and runaway global warming, and (11) the seemingly endless waves of pandemic disease preying on the weakened social fabric, will continue for so long and remain so overwhelming that the human species, already drastically reduced in numbers, with a birth rate far below replacement levels, will even survive another century.
. . . . .
Many people see this scenario as too dismal to take seriously, but, from what writers like Jared Diamond have described, it’s not an atypical civilization collapse scenario. And every civilization has collapsed. So if this is what we could well facing, what could the Transition Movement do now to help us be ready for it, prevent some of its worst effects, mitigate others, and enable us to adapt to what we can’t change?
Let’s take a look at the 13 crises depicted in the above scenario, in turn, to see what we might be able to do, at the local community level, and in coordination with other communities. I’m presuming that we can’t expect governments to help, for reasons explained in the scenario. So left to our own resources, how could we tackle each of these crises, even as the systems are collapsing? Could we, in fact, see some of them not as crises at all, but as opportunities to live better?
Most of the suggestions below are preparing strategies, rather than mitigation or adapting strategies. And the appropriate strategies will vary significantly from area to area; I was thinking of Vancouver, Canada when I put this together.
- Loss of most jobs, personal disposable income, business profits and government revenues: The industrial growth economy is a treadmill, and it’s not sustainable. We are co-dependent with businesses and governments on its continuance (indeed, its continued growth) and when it stops, we’ll all suffer together. Some things we might do in our Transition communities:
- Create local livelihoods using local supplies providing essential goods and services to local customers. We will have to relearn how to make a living for ourselves, and this will probably have to be done through cooperatives that are not dependent on profits or growth for sustainability.
- Help wean existing enterprises off dependence on profits and growth (i.e. dependence on external investors) and off dependence on imported supplies and exports to other markets.
- Educate and encourage community members to buy local, and to be willing to pay more for more durable goods.
- Relearn to make, do and repair things ourselves, and share equipment and skills so that we need not spend money buying them from outsiders.
- Learn from each other how to live within our means.
- Work collaboratively with governments to rationalize what services they can reduce or stop providing without causing suffering to citizens, and how they can devolve authority and responsibility to local communities to reduce bureaucracy and spending.
- Collapse of industrial agriculture and resultant food shortages and famines: We have become dependent on mass produced, unhealthy, oil-dependent, mega-polluting, animal-suffering dependent, massively subsidized agriculture, and it’s not sustainable. Here are some things we might do in our Transition communities before and as it falls apart:
- Set interim targets towards a 2025 target of 100% local, organic food self-sufficiency, and work toward that target. There is a huge amount of relearning and redeployment of labour involved in doing this, and a long lead time needed to heal and prepare the soil for it.
- Get governments to end agribusiness food subsidies, and encourage community members to buy local. Provide local subsidies to the poor to enable them to afford local organic food.
- Strongly encourage community members to become vegan.
- Teach community members how to prepare and cook their own nutritious, delicious meals, especially those living alone. Make community pot-luck meals endemic.
- End of cheap energy, and energy rationing: Peak oil theory suggests that with exploding demand (especially from Asia) and now declining supply, prices will soon soar, and governments are likely to impose rationing to ensure essential oil-dependent goods and services (food production, heating, emergency services, transport and production of essential goods) continues. Here are some things we might do in our Transition communities as this happens:
- Set interim targets towards a 2025 target of 100% local, renewable energy supply, and work toward that target. There is a huge amount of research, learning and investment needed to achieve this, and in most areas it is unachievable, but it is worth striving for. When it is not achievable, the community needs to make hard decisions on how to fill the gap, and what to do if and when the government imposes rationing and/or ceases energy-dependent services, and if and when blackouts and brownouts become commonplace, or the grid fails, or local oil suppliers simply close down for lack of product to sell.
- Specifically, target and work towards ending the need for private vehicles, improving electric train, bus, ferry and other local passenger-only mass-transit services. Make community members aware that electric private cars and car-pooling are only a stopgap solution, not a sustainable one. Encourage and enable bicycles, walking (including fitness), and other zero-energy transportation.
- Get governments to provide tax credits for renewable energy and energy efficiency projects. Provide local subsidies to the poor to enable them to afford local renewable energy.
- Get community members to accept that airlines, air cargo and long-distance truck transport are horrifically energy-inefficient and work with businesses and governments to phase them out before we have no other choice.
- Global flood of immigrants and refugees: We are already seeing the first evidence of this in massive exoduses from war and natural disaster areas, as well as impoverished nations whose ecosystems have already been desolated. No area of the world will be exempt, so we must be prepared to accept our share, which in most cases will be orders of magnitude more than we’re used to or would ideally want to accept. Fences, camps and gunboats will soon no longer be enough. Already, many affluent nations are paying/bribing poor nations to prevent their own citizens from leaving, to try to stop the crisis at its source, but this isn’t sustainable either. Here are some things we might do in our Transition communities as hordes arrive at our doorstep:
- Educate community members on what to expect — how many and when, and how many will be ‘legal’ under immigration quotas and how many will just show up. A lot of scenario analysis is needed to ascertain this; we need to know.
- Work with community members to appreciate that discouragement (through laws, offshore camps, or guns) is not going to work, and to develop a community immigration welcome and management program to cope with the flood rationally, systematically and fairly, and integrate new members into the community effectively. It will have to deal with a host of issues: health and disease, food, poverty, skills and livelihoods, housing and homelessness, education and family services, language learning etc., many of which will compound the challenges in other Transition areas.
- End of cheap water, and water rationing: The situation for water and the situation for oil are analogous. Here are some things we might do in our Transition communities as it starts to run out:
- Set interim targets towards a 2025 target of 100% sustainable local-source water (and zero waste/zero blackwater), and work toward that target. That will be a challenge even for many who have already achieved this, since glacial runoff (river) water supplies are diminishing worldwide, and demand (including agricultural and industrial) is increasing at an enormous rate.
- Institute voluntary rationing programs now (e.g. no watering lawns, no unattended garden watering, no golf course watering except with water collected right on the course property, steeply progressive per-litre charges)
- Governments reducing and abandoning services: The biggest challenge with massive government deficits and debts is not that these can never be repaid (governments can always devalue or default on their debts, just as bankrupt companies and individuals can); it’s that when they want to borrow additional funds, no one will lend them the money. When that happens, governments have no choice except to raise taxes (which is somewhat ineffective in a recession) or cut services. Although sometimes bankrupt governments choose to cut military spending (the UK gave up on Suez when it could no longer afford the fight), history suggests that cuts are more likely to be made to social security, pensions, health, education and transportation. If/when that happens, here are some things we might do in our Transition communities to replace the lost services:
- Unschool our kids, in community. I’ve written about this a lot.
- Learn to manage our own health. If a community’s members learn to self-diagnose, self-monitor, and self-treat minor and simpler illnesses and injuries, the public health system can focus more on serious illnesses and injuries. We should also fight the absurd neoliberal ideology that centralizing health services increases efficiency, and press governments to relocalize health services.
- Learn to do without heavily-subsidized public transportation. The best way to do this is to decentralize our economy and our governments (many of the suggestions above have that effect), so we need to travel shorter distances, and so that bicycles and walking become viable alternatives.
- Prepare to make do without social security or national pensions. This means that most people won’t be able to “retire”, and will need some viable livelihood for life. It also means that we in our communities will have to take responsibility for supporting the local people who now depend on federal programs.
- Debt crises, currency crashes and the end of fiat money: At the heart of our current financial crisis are governments printing money to cover soaring debts, debts caused by military adventures, insane tax cuts for the rich and corporations, and bailouts of irresponsible and incompetent corporations. This is unsustainable, and it is only the fact that most of the world is still, against their better judgement, accepting US dollars as the international standard, that is keeping the US dollar from collapse, taking with it many other currencies. Eventually money only has value if there is something real behind it. Fiat money is “valued” at what the government decrees it to be worth, and if there’s nothing behind it it will, eventually, lose its value (ask Argentinians). Here are some things we might do in our Transition communities as this happens:
- Encourage community members to sell off investments denominated in fiat currencies, and pay off personal debts.
- Rehearse what life will be like if our investments, and our cash, become worthless over a few years. How will we live, and what will we offer to get the goods and services we need?
- Launch local community currencies (LETS), to learn how they work, and how to manage them collectively, so that when the official currencies become worthless we have something to fall back on.
- End of cheap imports, and global goods scarcity: Because of cheap labour, an artificially suppressed Chinese currency, agricultural subsidies, and cheap oil prices, we have become dependent on cheap imports for almost all manufactured goods, and for much of our food supply. This is unsustainable. Here are some things we might do in our Transition communities to prepare for the end of cheap imports and a commensurate global scarcity of many manufactured goods and foods:
- Relearn how to make and grow in community the things we now import (this ties into the suggestions under points 1 and 2 above). Some plants won’t grow where we live, so we will have to shift what we eat to accommodate the foods that will. Focus should be on essentials: food, clothing, energy, water and shelter, and, arguably, information and communication technologies, which will be essential for collaboration with other communities when it becomes unfeasible to travel to them.
- Educate and encourage community members to buy local, and to be willing to pay more for more durable goods (from point 1 above).
- Relearn to make, do and repair things ourselves, and share equipment and skills so that we need not spend money buying them from outsiders (from point 1 above).
- Collapse of stock and housing markets, credit, and value of savings and pensions: It’s ironic that working class people, the main victims of the global corpocracy, are as dependent as their employers on business profits, since much of what’s in most workers’ savings and pensions is publicly listed stocks. When those profits plunge, the market crash will eradicate the value of savings and pensions. Here are some things we might do in our Transition communities as this happens:
- Encourage community members to sell off investments denominated in fiat currencies, and pay off personal debts (from point 7 above).
- Rehearse what life will be like if our investments, pensions, and our cash, become worthless over a few years. How will we live, and what will we offer to get the goods and services we need (from point 7 above)?
- Renegotiate mortgages as house prices fall. Sooner or later, with so many houses “under water” (worth less than the mortgages on them), either banks are going to have to foreclose on so many properties they won’t be able to unload them, or they will have to (and damned well should) write off the excess of the mortgage over the property value. [An aside: Want to try an interesting experiment? Put the current value of your house, and what you think it might rent for in today’s market, into this calculator, and see whether your house is (still) significantly overvalued].
- If you’re still a ways from retirement, prepare to make do without retirement, and to identify some viable livelihood for life. And our communities will have to take responsibility for supporting the local people who won’t have a pension or a way to make a living in their later years (related to the 4th suggestion in point 6 above).
- Wild fluctuations in inflation/deflation, interest rates and commodity values: Most people have never experienced chronic deflation, hyperinflation or double-digit interest rates. We’re going to have to learn to cope with all of these. Here are some things we might do in our Transition communities to be prepared:
- Tell stories about what life has been like with deflation, hyperinflation and double-digit interest rates. Run scenarios so people can learn what they should do if/when these occur.
- As chronic deflation takes hold, prepare for annual wage decreases instead of increases, and figure out how to adjust your budgets and lifestyle accordingly.
- When hyperinflation is predicted, prepare for daily price increases for essential goods, for credit and savings to disappear, and for the value of your pension (if the stock market crash hasn’t wiped it out already) to vanish. In these situations, cash is king — for an hour, after which it’s worth a lot less. Daily life is perpetual turmoil, and what was a decent wage today is a starvation wage tomorrow.
- When double-digit interest rates are predicted, prepare for a plunge in housing values (mortgages become unaffordable), and pay off your debts on time and your mortgage before the rate comes up for renewal (if you have a variable rate mortgage, you might want to lock in or sell your house now).
- Pandemics (four kinds: human, food plant and animal, forests): We normally think of pandemics as epidemic diseases of humans or poultry, but all living species are subject to them, and farmed animals and mass-produced crops are especially vulnerable because there is so little genetic diversity to reduce the spread, and because farmed animals are cooped up close together. Forests are also vulnerable as tropical tree pests move to temperate zones as global temperatures rise, and find hosts with no natural immunity. Here are some things we might do in our Transition communities to be prepared:
- Stop buying from and supporting agribusiness, and buy instead from local, organic farmers whose products are more diverse and spread out and hence less vulnerable. Get governments to end agribusiness food subsidies. Set interim targets towards a 2025 target of 100% local, organic food self-sufficiency, and work toward that target. (from point 1 above).
- Develop local community pandemic scenarios and preparedness plans, and periodically simulate and rehearse as a community how you would respond if a pandemic of any of the four kinds occurred.
- Eco-disasters (storms, floods, tsunamis, droughts, earthquakes, desertification, wildfires, sea level rise) and loss of habitats: The potential impact of such disasters depends heavily on where you live, and some areas are more vulnerable than others. Here are some things we might do in our Transition communities to be prepared:
- Identify the various types of possible disaster, and the likelihood of each occurring in your community.
- Develop local community disaster scenarios and preparedness plans, and periodically simulate and rehearse as a community how you would respond if a disaster of any kind occurred, focusing on the types of disaster most likely to affect your community.
- Have a debate on whether, given your community’s exposure to energy, ecological and economic crises compared to other areas, your community is a good place to live as we begin to face these crises. This could be especially pertinent if your community is heavily urban, suburban, in a low-lying coastal area, an arid area or a high-risk earthquake zone. Perhaps instead of preparing for major crises, it might make more sense to move to an area better equipped to withstand them.
- Failed states, global wars and global crimes and crime networks: Politics is always the wild card in crisis situations, and it’s hard to know how to prepare for situations like a civil war or political disintegration in a neighbouring country, or an invasion from a country desperate for your resources. I live in Canada and fully expect that when the US runs out of oil and water they will come and take ours, by any means necessary. I have no idea how to prepare for this, or even if it’s possible to prepare for it. I think Transition communities will have their hands full with preparations for the other 12 types of crisis in any case, so I won’t make any suggestions for dealing with wars and invasions.
The above ideas are just my suggestions. They won’t be needed, or work, in all areas. More importantly, each community needs to develop its own process to draw on the knowledge, ideas and perspectives of its community members to surface and implement the appropriate strategies for dealing with crises and especially collapse scenarios.
How might this happen? I have said before that I think the most important job of this century will be the facilitators and mentors who will help communities organize and address these issues now and as they occur. There are many techniques (like Open Space) that could be employed, but much depends on the culture and composition of each group. I think competent facilitators will emerge in each community and the success of the preparation, mitigation and adaptation strategies each community develops will, I think, be largely a result of how well the Transition groups in those communities were facilitated.
Currently, from what I’ve seen and been told, many Transition Communities have created “working groups” that are focused on specific issues such as developing renewable energy, food sufficiency, creating local livelihoods, etc. These seem to work well in focusing members on specific short-term activities within members’ areas of competency and passion. But I challenge whether this kind of structure will be appropriate for dealing with the longer-term issues, especially if and when the collapse scenario appears to be the most likely one (I think it already is, but I’m patient, sometimes). Some of these collapse-level crises will require an interdisciplinary approach, a mix of idealists, imaginers, critical thinkers, pragmatists and activists to grapple with effectively. As Einstein said, we won’t solve the complex problems of the future with the current thinking that has produced them.
I also think a key element of resilience is being prepared for what cannot be predicted or even anticipated: so-called Black Swan events. I don’t think anyone can yet envision what would happen if, for example, GMO crops produce some unforeseen nightmarish consequence, or if something produces a large-scale nuclear meltdown, or if bioterrorism becomes simple enough for individual crazies to become proficient at, or if the US dissolves Soviet-style into 50 countries, or if any of a million other seemingly improbable or impossible events occurs. That’s why I’m a believer (see my comments on crises 11 and 12 above) in scenario planning, simulations and rehearsals, where we can “play” with improbabilities and learn to develop the agility and resilience to accommodate them if they, or anything like them, actually occurs.
That’s one of the reasons I’m developing The Transition Game (another reason is that I think games are a good way to engage younger community members in Transition). I’m still thinking this through, but I’m envisioning a game where:
- everyone playing the game would either win (by cooperating effectively) or lose together (i.e. the game would not be competitive); the more players, the greater the likelihood of the group winning
- a computer (or manual scoreboard) would track critical measures of the community’s well-being (e.g. population, production, community “wellness”) and indexes of the severity of each of the 13 crisis issues, each “year” as the game is played
- crises emerging in one area would affect other areas, using the logic illustrated by the arrowheads in the scenario diagrams above (e.g. a worsening/improvement in any of crises 01a, 01b or 01c would subsequently worsen/improve the other two)
- successful strategies would not try to “fix” the problems, but rather prepare for, mitigate the extent and effects of, and/or adapt to, each of the crises
- each player would select in advance a set of abilities, drawn from something like this list of critical knowledge, skills and capacities; they would be expected to exemplify those abilities during play, and the abilities that no player selected would be maintained in a “community weaknesses” list, which could (as events in the game unfold) prove to be the group’s undoing if some situation absolutely requires that someone have that ability
- decisions would be made collaboratively, by consensus, not by each player “in turn”
- Black Swan events would be incorporated, including the ability of players to make some up on the fly
I know there are some environmental games out there already; if anyone has played any of them and has comments that would be useful to consider in the design of The Transition Game, I would welcome them.
I hope this discussion is useful to Transition Communities, and will share any feedback I get with the Transition Network, and back with you, my readers. I know there’s a lot in here; thanks for listening.
. . . . .
PS: I finally got around to updating my “About the Author” bio and Signature Post list on the right sidebar.
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Amazingly detailed, strategic and practical post Dave. Worth saving… thank you for this.
I notice you haven’t mentioned “pink swan” events such as breakthroughs in collective intelligence or energy/food production. Do you think it is worth making efforts to foster the right conditions for such events to occur?
Thanks for the info. While I agree that we should all be preparing for some homegrown ways to support ourselves, what about all of the people who simply aren’t going to be able to compete on this level? Even right now, the middle-aged population is pretty much excluded from most ways of making money and while we may all need to earn income or some means of currency we can use to exchange our skills for goods/services, it just doesn’t seem likely that this is actually going to be viable for most of the population, not even accounting for the infirm, elderly, incapacitated or whatever. Just looking around currently, it seems to me like the only ones who have a shot at anything are the very smart, the wealthy, those who happen to be at the right place at the right time, and maybe people who work for Seth Godin. As for the rest of us? I don’t know how we’re supposed to survive.
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Thank you for touching on one of the issues that has kept me from having much use for the whole Transition Movement. In the end the Transition Movement seems to be committed to a particular vision of how “The Descent” will happen. This is perfectly understandable, as in order to have a cohesive movement on any level, there needs to be a common goal for everyone to work towards. However, and reading Wendell Berry’s essay “In Distrust of Movements” is informative here, by hewing to a certain “narrative” of The Descent, the Transition Movement must deny the existence of other EQUALLY PLAUSIBLE narratives. Again, I don’t deny the need to have a common narrative, but from my reading the various branches of the Transition Movement seem to be woefully short of Plan B, Plan C, Plan D, the “Plan for everything going to hell in a handbasket next month”, etc.
With that said, I hope you do not mind a bit of (hopefully) constructive criticism from someone outside the whole Transition framework.
First off, the entire Transition Movement seems to be founded in, and view the world through, a left-wing/liberal ideology. Unfortunately ideology of any sort requires putting on a set of blinders to those issues that do not fit the ideological worldview, and I’ll try to reflect this in my criticism. Now before you dismiss me as some sort of right-wing nut, fear not, I have plenty of criticism and contempt for the political Right as well, if someone forced me to declare an affiliation, I’d probably say “Tolkienite Anarcho-monarchist” and take advantage of their confusion to make my escape.
Encouraging community members to become vegans is horribly short sighted, and is ultimately an ideological decision, not a rational one. Unfortunately a false choice is often made which pits factory farming and CAFOs against vegan permiculture. The fact is many societies have traditionally employed animal husbandry as part of a sustainable lifestyle. In fact in many parts of the world, where agriculture is no feasable, grazing animals have been the basis for human nutrition for thousands of years. Furthermore livestock do an excellent job of converting inedible (by humans at least) plant into an edible form. Most of the vegan-permiculture methods for replacing meat are needlessly complex and labor intensive, and amount to a solution in search of a problem. The other major flaw with veganism in The Descent is going to be the need for the other products from animals that will be necessary in a localized economy aside from meat. Without industrial synthetic alternatives, we’ll be needing leather for a vast array of uses, in addition wool, down and feathers, fur, glues made from animal hides, casein (milk-based) glues and paints. Some of these products would be very difficult to replace when the industrial economy disappears, and there are no viable, low-energy, plant-based alternatives.
I’m sorry to say but your section on immigration looks like wishful thinking to me. Planning for absorbing masses of migrants or refugees is simply not possible. Not only are the sort of Black Swan events that could trigger the direction and timing of the migration basically unknowable, but unless the migration is at a very small scale and low rate, there is no way for a community to absorb much more than a tiny percentage of it’s existing inhabitants. It is interesting that you use the analogy to a flood to describe the flow of migrants, because the rational method of dealing with a flood is to put up barriers to channel the water elsewhere. It really is not reasonable to expect a community in a low-energy future, with probably limited surplus capacity (after all the whole goal is for a community to not exceed the carrying capacity of it’s ecosystem is it not?) to absorb an influx of migrants. Of course the bigger issue here, and one of the areas where the left-liberal bias of the Transition Movement is particularly crippling is the unwillingness to deal with matters of defense, both personal and community. Saying that communities will have enough to deal with dealing with your first 12 points is unfortunate, since how we protect ourselves from a potentially violent future will affect our planning in other areas. The Transition Movement seems to take for granted that the police will always be around to protect us personally and that the military will always be around to protect us collectively, when in fact this might not be the case. In a low energy future rural areas may simply no longer be under any effective police protection. How a community deals with crime or the armed gang that inexplicably shows up looking for women and loot should not be dismissed so readily. However it seems to me that the potential solutions lie outside the pale of consideration.
In the end I think the above work has a number of good points, and is certainly thought provoking. Personally I think setting goals out to 2025 is not particularly helpful, as events may over take society sooner than that. I think we’ve reached the point today where these things should already be in place, or at the very least a solid date like 2025 should be replaced with “ASAP”. Thanks again for the thought-provoking piece, and I hope my criticism was constructive.
Overall, a well thought out article Dave. As also noted by Radoje, the suggestion of veganism may be short sighted. Although it is currently a popular fad, there is mounting evidence that vegan diets may suppress the human immune system and reduce the health of the human brain, especially in children. Voluntarily reducing personal health resilience during times of stress, physical hardship and possible reemergence of communicable diseases, may not be conducive to personal survival. I would like to point out that without personal survival, all else is of little value. Instead it should be noted that western culture currently supports the consumption of excessive amounts animal protein, and that a return to a smaller scale consumption of range feed animals on native grasses would be a far better use of dwindling resources than trying to continue to produce megatons of corn and soybeans.
I believe that to pass through the approaching transitions, our capacities for compassion and cooperation will be put to the test, and will likely make the difference between survival and chaos. On the other hand, the shear scale of the potential for human suffering may also require some degree of callousness towards events that could be overwhelming. For example, most of the world population now lives in areas that are far beyond the natural carrying capacity of the land they have inhabited. A diminishment of food distribution is almost guaranteed to cause migrations. However, if you are already in a situation where your area is barely able to feed the people that are already there, a flood of immigrants would not change the amount of arable land available, other than perhaps to reduce it. It is hard to see how this could work out well for everybody, no matter how compassionate one feels. Smart people will be looking at the carrying capacity of where they are now based on alternatives to industrial agriculture, and making appropriate plans before they are caught by surprise. Estimating what population density could be supported in your local area in a powered down society should be a part of every Transition Initiative.
“Encourage community members to sell off investments denominated in fiat currencies, and pay off personal debts.”
I’m going to be a devil’s advocate here but why pay off debts? Why not borrow now and pay it back in installments in the future with increasingly worthless money? Keep paying the mortgage but declare bankruptcy in this future world as it would seem just about everyone who is not prepared for these scenarios would do too? What good is a having a good credit score when there will be no credit? Or when your creditor won’t exist?
Why not just borrow as much as you can right now to prepare for the coming crisis and put the money into things that can’t be seized by creditors in bankruptcy (here in the States your house is the big exempt asset). Then again, what would the banks do in the face of 100 million bankruptcies or mortgage defaults anyway? What good is seizing a house when no one has money to buy it?
I’m just trying to figure out what the advantage is of paying off debt if the currency fails and/or we get hyperinflation and/or your scenarios come to pass. Thanks.
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I find this really fascinating. Actually, I first read only the scenarios and realized with some distance that this is the Great Game of surviving the global civilization crash (and remain human) that we will be playing until the end of our lives (and our children, I am hopeful, will play too). It is also excellent tool for quick (self)diagnosis… I will try to come with a quick scorecard for my country (Czech Republic in central Europe) and it would be interesting to know some scorecards for other countries (sure, much depends on the actual community where do you live).
I enjoy reading your analyses of both your personal path and what you see going on around you. Your personal observations are most poignant and thought-provoking, you put into the public sphere stuff most of us have great difficulty sharing. But that is the stuff that we all learn from.
Your speculation on what will happen with current world crises, and how the Transition Movement fits into that is interesting but necessarily limited. There are so many things that go on that you can’t track in the diagrams that you use, so many things and people “flying under the radar”. Until they don’t.
I used to have, and occasionally still do, a very cynical and pessimistic outlook on the future of this world and humanity in it. A few years ago I spent a summer at The Farm in Tennessee and the key thing I learned there was how much I don’t know about what is going on “under the radar”.
Later I moved to the Big City of Toronto, and landed in a wonderful neighbourhood almost completely created from scratch by a few individuals who wanted to raise their kids in a good place. So they created a good place. And it caught on, word of mouth spread about this good place and good people moved into the area. Pretty soon it was no longer word of mouth and real estate agents were now touting the benefits of buying a home in this great neighbourhood community. Small businesses popped up in nearby abandoned commercial districts. Non-profit community groups took off on the neighbourhood energy to make it an even better place, not only for the good people who moved in but also for the older denizens and poorer disadvantaged folks who had no choice about being there. When you live in a good place you want to keep it that way, and when you are surrounded by good people good things happen.
I don’t think that Toronto neighbourhood is unique or unusual, that kind of thing is happening everywhere. I have moved again, to a poorer more rural area of the country, and again I find magical community-oriented things happening, in support of local agriculture, resistance to environmentally destructive forces, community-building, rich art and music culture, etc etc etc. None of this is Transition Movement stuff, this is all just folks making lives for themselves, getting along and adapting in place.
Myself, I was a single parent on welfare for 8 years, and then worked at below-the-poverty-line wages for another 3 years. I was successful in raising good young men and I learned a lot of getting-by skills that make me confident of living out the rest of my life no matter what the circumstances. Without a job now I live in a place that supports my lifestyle and I am content. I have travelled, I have met a lot of people in many different circumstances and lifestyles, have learned a lot and am ready to learn a lot more.
I once picked up a hitchhiker, a young man with no visible supports in place, but tremendous optimism, idealism and energy. I had no intention of picking up a hitchhiker but he cajoled me into it and I am glad he did. From him I learned about the transformation taking place in American cities of the Rust Belt, he told me amazing stories of environmental reclamation and community building in the midst of squalor and decay.
There are young people making bold moves into alternative lifestyles, there are older people applying what they have learned by getting involved in (or creating if they don’t already exist) community and municipal organizations and moving things along in a positive direction. It would be nice if bigger government structures were onboard too, but it is not necessary, there are good people doing good things all over the place, individually and in groups and communities. I think the Transition Movement is one such good thing, but not the only one. There is no Transition group where I am now and I don’t miss it, there’s plenty happening without it.
I don’t believe anymore in a Great Civilization Crash, I don’t even believe in Jared Diamond Collapse scenarios (read “Questioning Collapse”). A few years ago I visited an ancient sacred Mayan cave in Belize with a small group led by a local guide. Naively I asked our guide whatever became of the Mayans and he grinned and pointed both thumbs to his chest: “We’re still here.”
Drawn by your mention of a transition game… I work for Transition Network and have for several years been exploring and experinenting with a Transition game called the Quest which arose out of the workshops the transition tales project runs in schools, and has been played with groups of all ages
it sounds as though you game has some remarkably similar elements – it would be good to talk about this as I have been considering marketng the game for some little while now, with the support of young people.
How can I get in touch?
Hi Dave and Steph,
I found this during a search for transition games, as I realized that may be a way to create a common awareness in this rural Moravian village; In my thesis I argue that it’s not possible, but I’ll give it a try anyhow! ( http://permalot.org/files/u2/MVJ_Thesistest.pdf )
I’d be happy to get in touch with both of you and see if we can make it together…or if I can use some of what you already have and modify/translate it for our cultural conditions?