12 Feb 2008
Does Peak Oil Really “Make Ordinary Politics Irrelevant”?: Rupert Read misses the point about Transition Initiatives.
It was fascinating to read Rupert Read’s recent article posted both on his website and reproduced in the Green Party magazine Green World entitled *‘Peak Oil’ only makes the Green Party message more urgent”*, in which he sets about the Transition movement for being naive and even potentially harmful. *”Next time you hear a Transition Town aficionado peaking about how Peak Oil renders ordinary politics irrelevant, please beg to differ”*, he writes. However, Read’s piece betrays such a profound misunderstanding of where the Transition movement is coming from that I feel duty bound to respond.
There are a few key arguments that Read uses in his piece which I will address below, but his core argument is basically that any successful transition away from dependence on fossil fuels cannot happen independent of legislation and politics, and that the Green Party is the only party capable of providing that. The first of his specific arguments, the one that I am still scratching my head about days after reading his piece, goes as follows;
>”The Transition Towns movement alone cannot save us because, within the existing economic system, some people reducing their use of fossil fuels is received by everyone else as a price signal that it is OK to use even more fossil fuels”.
This seems like an astonishing argument from a member of the Green Party, to suggest that it is counter-productive to reduce fossil fuel consumption in one place because it will just increase it elsewhere. I sometimes hear the same argument from those who suggest that there is no point in our doing anything to lower our carbon emissions because China and India will never do so. So does Read suggest that instead we just madly consume whatever fossil fuels we can in order to use them up as quickly as possible? No. His argument is that what we need is “legislation that enforces lower overall use of fossil fuels and/or that forces everyone to try and become a Transition Town”. In other words, all stick and no carrot.
It is absurd to suggest that reducing dependence on fossil fuels is counter-productive for many reasons, including the following;
1. It inspires other places. Places such as Findhorn and BedZed with their low carbon footprints show the rest of the world what is possible in an inspiring way. There is no research to the best of my knowledge to indicate that communities living next to those places feel duty bound to increase their fossil fuel consumption due to that left over by their more frugal neighbours
2. This is about more than just cutting consumption. In the Transition approach, the cutting of carbon emissions/fossil fuel consumption is a way of making the settlement in question more resilient, with a stronger local economy which in turn unleashes all kinds of other positive economic feedbacks
3. In the context of the peak oil argument, as the price of liquids fuels starts to rise, it will be the degree of resilience that has been put in place that will be important. Delight at being able to pick up, for example, Totnes’s fossil fuel leftovers, will be short lived and entirely counter-productive.
It seems to me that legislation will struggle and be ultimately ineffectual if it is fighting against rather than with the will of the people. Read misunderstands the Transition approach when he writes “the Transition Towns movement alone cannot save us”. No-one has ever said it can. Transition Initiatives are seen as one of a hierarchy of approaches that will be required to get us through the twin crises of peak oil and climate change. We will need international action such as Contraction and Convergence, the Oil Depletion Protocol, strong international climate legislation and a moratorium on biodiesel production. We will need national action such as strong climate legislation with realistic targets, a carbon rationing system such as Tradable Energy Quotas and a national food security strategy, and we will need more local solutions. That said, Transition Initiatives can do a lot more than merely, as Read sees them, “function as demonstration projects”.
For me, if Totnes were to be the only Transition project in country it would have failed. Isolation is not a viable response to the challenge that peak oil presents us with. Hence the Transition Network, which now comprises around 40 formal Transition Initiatives on a range of scales, and over 600 more at earlier stages of this process. It is not unimaginable that we might move to a stage where the majority of settlements in the UK adopt this process, and start engaging with proactively designing their pathways to a lower energy future in the form of an Energy Descent Plan, seized by the potential such a future holds. The suggestion that Read puts forward of legislation that “forces everyone to try to become a transition town” misses the point completely. That would surely be the fastest way to kill the idea stone dead.
Legislation at each of the three levels outlined above needs to be based on enabling the building of resilience at a local level, alongside cutting carbon emissions. That legislation may come from parties such as the Green Party, or may even come from other political parties. There is often discussion about how politically difficult it will be to get elected on a platform of “vote for me, and every year your consumption of energy, carbon producing goods and services and travel will fall, but you’ll be happier for it”, a difficulty reflected in the Green Party’s poor standing in recent elections. As well as encouraging and supporting political representatives who are skilful at turning that message into both votes and legislation, we also need to find other ways of initiating and supporting that change, and the Transition movement is our attempt at doing that.
The key point about legislation is that its role should be to support and enable the Transition work happening at a local level. We often tell local authorities who ask us how they can start a Transition Initiative that they can’t, their role is to support the process not to drive it. Similarly, the role of legislation is to do the same thing.
There is no suggestion that *“peak oil renders ordinary politics irrelevant”*. I know of no-one in the Transition movement who would make such a statement, one that seems to have particularly got under Read’s skin. Of course we need ‘ordinary politics’, but we cannot wait for/depend on it. The beauty, as I see it, of the Transition approach is that it engages people at a community level, and it makes preparing for life beyond cheap oil feel like an exhilarating challenge, a historic opportunity to do something extraordinary. Indeed I suspect that what makes it more powerful is the fact that it is not an overtly ‘green’ approach. It steps outside the usual suspects and is all the more powerful for it.
We are seeing in emerging Transition Initiatives around the country groups of farmers coming together to re-engage with their neighbouring communities to look at how they can, together, rebuild the local food economy. We are seeing groups of business people coming together to look at how they can best support their local Transition Initiative. We are seeing local councils getting behind Transition Initiatives and specifically stating that they see their role as to support their local Transition group. I believe that within such emerging dynamics is a more productive route to change than “forcing everyone to try and become a transition town”.
Perhaps the Green Party should be looking at how to engage with and support this emerging groundswell rather than seeing it as competition. The Green Party has done much that is wonderful, and contains many inspired, principled, dynamic activists, no doubt such as Read himself. But any frank assessment of where it finds itself as the country teeters at the top of the peak oil curve, about to enter a crushing recession, hideously dependent on cheap imported food, would suggest that we need, at this historic juncture, more than just the Green Party.
In the conclusion to their recently-published and essential reading Climate Code Red report, David Spratt and Philip Sutton write;
>“sometimes we dare to imagine that there could be a really rapid transition, a great national and international mobilisation, to a safe-climate, post-carbon sustainable way of living. We now need to “think the unthinkable”, because the sustainability emergency is not so much a radical idea as now simply a necessary mode of action.
What concerns both Transition Initiatives and the Green Party is how best to design a pathway through this ‘sustainability emergency’ to the benefit of everyone. However, unless we also have a tool that motivates and engages people in seeing these challenging times as also being a thrilling opportunity, we are always going to struggle, and we will end up needing to resort to imposing change from above resulting in a long and drawn out process of the public being dragged, kicking and screaming, into the post carbon age. The Transition movement may not, in the long view of history, turn out to have been that approach, but whatever that approach ends up as being, it is hard to imagine that it wouldn’t use many of the tools it has been developing. At the moment, it appears to be unleashing a spirit and a depth of engagement that Rupert would do well to support rather than belittle.
(There is an interesting look at this discussion over at Smokewriting.