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12 Feb 2008

Does Peak Oil Really “Make Ordinary Politics Irrelevant”?: Rupert Read misses the point about Transition Initiatives.

rupertIt 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.

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.


Patrick Cleary
12 Feb 12:08pm

I also read Rupert Read’s article in Green World (excellent magazine by the way) and was taken back by his criticism of transition towns. However, I think Rob’s comments are a little unfair.

The first point is that Rupert has given his own viewpoint, which I know does not reflect the wider views within the party so it’s therefore unfair to criticise the party as a whole on the basis of this article.

Secondly, the emphasis on the positive that characterises the transition movement is great and makes the concept much easier to sell at the local level where people are crying out for stronger communities etc. When it comes to the national/international steps needed to address peak oil and climate change it can be much harder to emphasise the positive and may even be misleading to do so. For example, contraction and convergence would involve a huge transfer of wealth from rich to poor and is a very hard sell in a rich country like Britain. I would argue that the Green Party is the only party to face up to this. The other parties pretend that we can have business as usual and save the planet, which is deeply misleading. As George Monbiot says in today’s Guardian “global supplies of political courage appear, unfortunately, to have peaked some time ago.” The one thing you can’t accuse the Green Party of is cowardice and courage is something we are going to need plenty of.

Finally, it seems the Green Party always gets it in the neck for a lack of electoral success when this is mostly a function of our profoundly undemocratic voting system. Indeed, it is quite amazing that Britain has a functioning Green Party at all and we are the only major western European country without greens in parliament.

I think to an extent, Rob has fallen into the same trap as Rupert in running down the very people we should be encouraging. In our case (West Kirby) we would never have become a transition town if there hadn’t been an active local Green Party on which to springboard.

Rupert Read
12 Feb 1:08pm

dear Rob [et al];
I broadly agree with Patrick. You have I’m afraid interpreted my remarks [which, as Patrick points out, were my own personal comments, in a column intended to provoke thought, in an internal Party magazine] in a negative way, when they were not intended in such a way at all.
I am a huge fan of Transition Towns (and am signed up to the ambition to have a Transition University here at my own University, UEA Norwich), though I don’t think you’d know it, from Rob’s comments above. As I say quite explicitly in my column and blogpost, the Transition Towns idea can save the world — PROVIDED that it is implemented in conjunction with Green macro policies (such as Contraction and Convergence and Carbon Rationing). What prompted me to write the comment piece was not any disagreement with Transition Towns nor with you personally, Rob — as you may recall, the one time we have ever met and discussed this in person (at the Big Green Gathering a couple of years back) we found ourselves basically in complete agreement over the need to marry macro and micro level initiatives such as carbon rationing and transition towns.
The only thing I have a gripe with is the way that some in the – inspiring, vital — Transition movement (and in the broader Peak Oil movement) tend to regard TTs as a REPLACEMENT for conventional political / electoral action which could put in place the changes that we so desperately need. There ARE some who believe that “peak oil renders ordinary politics irrelevant” — and some of them are in the Transition movement. I have met them. I am talking about ordinary people, who have (not un-understandably) given up on ordinary politics. So when you say, Rob, that you “know of no-one in the Transition movement who would make such a statement”, I’m afraid that you are mistaken. Ask ordinary punters in the movement what they think, and I guarantee you that you will find some who have given up voting, some who say that all the Parties are as bad as each other, some who say that governments will never implement the changes needed in order to stop dangerous climate change so there is no point even trying to implement such policies at national or international level and the whole burden falls on ‘us’ locally, and so on.
That was all I was saying: that this is a dangerous belief. Because Transition Towns alone WILL send a price signal that leads to more rapid consumption of fossil fuel resources.
Ask any economist — including green/ecological economists — and they will confirm what I am saying. You cannot solve a tragedy of the commons by means of local actions. You can only solve it by putting in place a framework that enables such local action to leap from being a minority pursuit to suddenly becoming the new common sense.
The answer is to back Transition Towns up with an agenda that reinforces what they are doing. That is the point of my column — NOT to attack Transition Towns, but to support them, and help them to succeed!
There is a lot more to say in response to what Rob has said here, but I will write that ‘more’ on my own blog, rather than leaving an excessively long comment here.
I hope I have said enough to make clear that I am sorry that Rob received my column as criticism of the Transition Towns initiative — for it was intended rather as the simple pointing out of how the kind of thing that the Green Party is doing and what ‘Transition Towns’ is doing are two sides of one coin. They are complementary — you CAN’T have one without the other.

Rupert Read
12 Feb 5:58pm

For the full-length version of my piece on Transition Towns, which may be less susceptible of misinterpretation than the compressed version that was published in GREEN WORLD, please goto

Jane Buttigieg
12 Feb 7:45pm

Rupert said:
”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”.

Strangely I heard this same theory from someone I was talking to recently and I think it comes somehow from economic theories of supply and demand. The disappointing thing about hearing this from a green candidate is that it ignores the fact that for many people, fossil fuel reduction is becoming more of a necessity than a lifestyle choice. As we enter a recession and household bills start to skyrocket the way they currently are, there will be many who are living in cold homes not because they are choosing to reduce fossil fuel consumption but because economically they have no other choice. Fuel prices are up at the pump higher than they have ever been, but more crucially, electricity bills are soaring. If there is, as suggested, a decrease in prices as a result of people cutting down on fossil fuel usage, I can only wonder where it is being experienced. Will people on lower incomes ultimately to be to blame for the higher usage of others as a result of having to use less I wonder?

Rupert Read
12 Feb 10:58pm

In specific response to Jane: I fear you are missing the point somewhat. The blunt reality is that oil prices would be even higher, were it not for you and I being economical in our use of fossil fuels / electricity, etc. … The unconverted many are free-riding on our backs.
The only way around this is concerted political action which prevents free-riding. Sorry to have to say it: But: We do need sticks as well as carrots.
Is this is a disappointing thing to hear from a Green candidate? I hope not. It is a realistic thing to say. We have to be realistic, if we are to realise our dreams.

Mark Forskitt
13 Feb 6:01am

Interesting stuff. I am not surprised organised political parties participating in electoral politics find Transition thinking a chllanege. It is. Whenever people self organise to a common societal goal they are practicing political will. They al;ways find it invigorating taking things in their own hands rather than waiting for ‘them’ to hand it down. Check out the reaction of ‘established’ political parties to the emergence of the co-operative movement or trade combines or syndicalists and you wil see a common trait.

Rupert Read
13 Feb 8:41am

Mark; please do go to my blog and read my detailed response to Rob. I think you may then agree that I am up for the challenge.
The point is to self-organise in a way that can be successful, rather than mostly futile. You guys really need to think hard about the ‘free rider’ economics intellectual challenge that I am laying down for y’all. Unless you have a coherent response to it, then there is a real danger that your superb efforts will be far less successful than they could be.

At the risk of being cheeky, I don’t know if my latest post is relevant, but carbon credits/trading have gained a lot of momentum over here and the EU seems quite enthusiastic about it. It seems like a coherent strategy (and it addresses the challenge of peak oil) but there’s all kinds of problems with it. Be interested in hearing what you think.

Barbara Tam
13 Feb 3:50pm

What is so good to see is the dialogue that is happening here!
If we all do not continue the conversations, listen openly and fully, and think carefully and deeply of the concerns we all share, THAT is when we are in real danger. Please let us keep talking in all its best forms!

It takes ALL of us in this Great Turning.

13 Feb 5:06pm

Hi Rupert,
Many thanks for such a thorough response to my piece, and for taking the time to so patiently work through it. I agree with most of your points, as you say, Transition Initiatives need Green support and vice versa, indeed many TIs around the country have people from the Green Party involved and that is great. The two dovetail together very well, although the process of course has no particular political affiliations and is open to support from wherever (within reason!).

In essence I agree with all that Rupert writes above, and in relation to his point about the rest of the world piggy backing on our hypothetical oil frugality, I am not an economist, but it feels to me, as I said, that peak oil, in combination with recession, is going to impact in such a way that those who might exploit this potential oil ‘glut’ will have a fairly hollow victory in the medium term. This is about building resilience, and those who do so quickest will be leaner and more able to weather these storms. In reality though I suspect that the recession we are beginning to slide into will dampen demand and it will be that which will cut consumption as much as our efforts. That will do the same in other places too, but ironically it will also lower prices, so perhaps people will stop discussing peak oil so much! In essence, I don’t really worry about whether other people will pick up our leftovers, there is nothing we can do about it, and as you say this is about setting an example and doing what is, at the end of the day, the right thing to do.

I was heartened to read your agreeing that the role of politics is to provide the legislation to enable bottom-up responses, something we seldom hear from other political organisations. Anyway, thanks for your reply, and for your support. It is much appreciated.

Jason Cole
13 Feb 6:42pm

“The Transition Towns movement alone cannot save us, because, within the existing economic system, some reducing their use of fossil fuels is received by others as a price signal that it is OK to use even more fossil fuels. I.e. For every litre of petrol that (say) Totnes or Stroud does not use, everyone else in Britain is very slightly incentivised to use more petrol, by the price not going up as much as it otherwise would. Thus (e.g.) others’ even more unsustainable commuting patterns will almost entirely cancel out the positive effect of Totnes.”

I don’t think that, for such small reductions in fossil fuel demand, that there is going to be a noticeable price change; more likely than not it will remain where it is.

Also, the elasticity of demand means that even if the price does change by the odd percent, it’s not going to translate into a corresponding change of demand.

We’re over £1/litre for fuel, and the M25 is still getting jammed.

Philip Booth
13 Feb 11:16pm

It would seem after reading this that Rupert and Rob are not really at odds after all – as a Green party District councillor involved very much in Transition Stroud I would wholly agree with the sentiments of the letter below – especially the last line – Transition Towns have been a wonderful refreshing positive energy that is blowing through our town and supporting and encouraging the changes that need to be made – but equally we need more elected who are really listening and can argue for the changes we need….

As Rupert says, one of the important functions of Transition Towns is to enable demonstration projects for a more sustainable future.

The success of the Transition Town initiative, both here in Stroud and nationally, has been that it enables a grassroots response to concern about Peak Oil and climate change. As a grassroots organisation, with real people, we can develop projects and change our behaviour, supported by fellow Transitioners. We can be working examples of the low-carbon life that will be the future for all of us. Economic systems and legislation are theoretical frameworks which guide our behavioural choices. Yes, they are important, but action is where it is at.

In Transition Stroud we are now working with the District Council and Local Strategic Partnership to develop co-operation, raise awareness of the issues and to change policy. This is not a ‘fantasy’. It is real engagement with politicians and the community. Our last session on planning issues identified how the Planning Department can support the decentralisation of energy production.

Last year, we arranged for Richard Heinberg (‘The Party’s Over’ – Peak Oil expert) to speak here in Stroud. We engaged the District Council around the issues, and Heinberg made a special presentation to the Council. On the back of this, we started dialogue with key council officers, using the Portland, Oregon Transition Plan as a working model for change. Jointly this led to the creation of a Think Tank to develop a district-wide adaptation plan to Peak Oil and climate change.

Transition Towns and the Green Party. Ideal bedmates.

Fi Macmillan
Business and Government Group
Transition Stroud

13 Feb 11:39pm

I think the economic principle being discussed is the Jevons Paradox – the idea formulated in 1865 that making coal-burning more efficient will lead inexorably to the burning of more coal. Rob previously wrote about Newcomen’s steam engine dramatically increasing the use of coal Jevons’ book ‘The Coal Question’ noted this, but also saw that James Watt’s more efficient version was what made coal-burning really take off, inaugurating the ‘age of steam’. A book has recently been published, extending the theoretical basis for the paradox and giving it strong empirical support: The wikipedia entry on the Jevons Paradox doesn’t (yet) take account of the authors’ empirical data.
It might be reasonable to suggest that if you aim for efficiency you probably won’t get frugality (or a saner society) as a byproduct, but if you aim instead for frugality (or a saner society), you might get efficiency as a byproduct. There are two warnings in the Jevons Paradox: 1) increasing the efficiency of technology is a losing battle. 2) Market-based solutions, in the absence of legislation, are unlikely to overcome the paradox. So we don’t just need better technology – we also need greener social institutions that are able to keep up with the negative effects of that technology. A good recent example is the 25 pound congestion charge on 4×4 cars in Central London. This is how it worked:
1) A non-partisan campaign groupformed and proposed it.
2) The Green Party and others campaigned for it.
3) The Mayor legislated for it.
The economic outcome is that 4x4s will have to become cheaper to compensate for the higher charge to enter London. But the social outcome is more significant: 4x4s are just a little bit less attractive – an effect that now has some momentum. As Ken Livingstone says:
“I believe that this ground breaking initiative will have an impact throughout the world with other cities following suit as they step up their efforts to halt the slide towards catastrophic climate change. I think this scheme will also start a cultural revolution whereby drivers in every city in Britain start to think about the impact on the environment of their choice of car and how they plan their journeys.”

14 Feb 4:50am

I agree that this is a false debate. Electeds and TTs complement each other; I hope they can compliment each other as well.

Since no one has brought out this point, I will note that what is being talked about here is “Jevon’s Paradox”, so named for Peak Coal-er William Jevons (1835-1882).

He noted that ” It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economical use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.”

The poor fellow had the bad luck to publish his book– quite brilliant, insightful, and full of conscience, a few months before oil was discovered in Pennsylvania, at which point fossil fuels truly began to decline in price (and rise in consumption).

So let’s build Transition Towns, and let’s elect folks to speak up for carbon taxes and Contraction and Convergence strategies.

Rupert Read
14 Feb 4:00pm

This is a great discussion, here.
Thanks, Rob, for your comment, above!
You are of course correct that it will be a hollow victory in the medium-long term, for those guzzling on the extras left over from we low-impacters.
What we need to try to do, as well as building resilience, is to build a political movement that stops that guzzling, in order to prevent catastrophic climate change.
Onward united to and as the Great Turning!
Best, Rupert.

[…] debate over here between Rob Hopkins of the Transition Towns intitiative and Rupert Read, philosopher and Green […]

15 Feb 3:51pm

I too agree that TTs and the Greens should be natural partners. I think that this debate loosely reflects the broader debate in green circles about peak oil.

My own experience of this is that, despite the big overlap in concerns and in responses between TTers, the wider peak oil community and those in the green movement, many greens find it just as hard as the wider population to take on board how peak oil changes nearly all of the givens.

The whole notion of free-loaders (Jevon’s Paradox) doesn’t apply in a world of with a contracting energy supply. And, as Rob says, building resilience – simplifying complex “highly coupled” support systems – becomes key. Even though there is a lot of commonality around the responses (renewable energy, local organic food, relocalisation) the context and motives will change completely. Those in a specific location who use energy more efficiently will benefit tangibly themselves, especially if they build resilience into their energy/food support systems, even if some others choose not to at first. It won’t be simply a question of voluntary or morally imposed self-restraint, as many Greens still seem to think. It will be first and foremost a question of improving our personal, economic and later physical circumstances and those of our communities.

I gave a (rather long) peak oil presentation to a local Green Party group last year and was asked a good question afterwards – how do we as a political party sell this to the electorate. My answer then was that, as the effects of peak oil kick in, the political response will have to change to be akin to that ca. 1940. Then Churchill – as leader of a national coalition – was straight with the electorate when he told them that there were no easy answers – there would be blood, sweat and tears. Unless and until that sort of political discourse starts and the kind of single-minded, urgent WW2-level mobilisation to back it up, anything that is happening politically nationally and internationally will at best be fiddling while Rome burns. That doesn’t mean that ordinary politics has become revocably irrelevant, it just means that the national political process is not addressing the real problem we face.

In the current period (before peak oil starts to bite) a different approach, like that of Transition Towns, emphasising the positive, is the most productive. As things change, particularly if there is an event that brings a sudden discontinuity, the political message will change. Not that emphasising the positive won’t always be important.

My own view is that, if we are lucky and if we manage to influence enough influential people at the national, European and global level, there is a chance that they will take some measures that constitute meaningful, beneficial responses. If we are unlucky, and we don’t; political intervention nationally and internationally will just make the problem worse. My guess is that the “lucky” scenario is about 10 to 20% likely and that the “unlucky” scenario 80 to 90% likely.

Rowena Moore
15 Feb 10:28pm

Fascinating. As a Conservative involved locally with our Transition initiative I find the people in the Green party who claim they can be ‘the only party’ who might solve our problems somewhat terrifying! Not to mention uninformed. Try reading ‘Blueprint for a green economy’ from the Conservative Quality of Life review published last September
and you will see a very comprehensive policy proposal from one of our main parties – leading edge and this is at a level where top down change can really happen. Only when we as an electorate bother to get involved in the political process do we find out about political difference – and similarity. My attraction to TT comes from it being a different ground up approach for anybody, heartfelt from the urgent global need for change, without being hijacked by any political party for its own interests.

David Lashley
16 Feb 4:48pm

I would like to try to clarify a point for those like me who have no background in economics but are trying to follow this debate.
My question is; isn’t the whole point of Jevon’s Paradox that it exists in a time of a bountiful supply of energy and so it is irrelevant (at least past the short-term) when peak-oil is thrown into the mix? Adam – is this what you mean when you say that “The whole notion of free-loaders (Jevon’s Paradox) doesn’t apply in a world of with a contracting energy supply”?
Any responses would be welcome.

Rupert Read
17 Feb 12:42pm

Rowena: I wish you luck: But I have very little hope for any of the main three delivering the needful changes. The key reason why is that you, the LibDems and New Labour are al thoroughgoingly committed to neo-liberal economics. This points in the OPPOSITE direction to the changes that are needed. As fast as your manifesto becomes ‘environmentalistic’, so your Party’s belief in ‘cutting red tape’, in ‘making things easier for business’, in building roads and airports and coal-fired and nuclear power stations etc. undermines any progress you make elsewhere.
What we need is not environmentalism attached to an agenda which in other respects involves business as usual. What we need is ecologism (See e.g. Andrew Dobson’s book, ‘Green political thought’.)
And, as I bring out in my discussion of this on my blog, we need moreover ecologism across large tranches of the world. ‘Ecologism in one country’ is pretty hopeless. But that of course doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to make Britain one huge demonstration project — we should.
I am also given hope by the increasingly global nature of the anti-globalisation movement — and of the Green Party, the closest thing we now have to a truly European and to some extent global political Party.

Rupert Read
17 Feb 12:56pm

On Jevon’s Paradox: Rog is right that this is a key starting point of mine. It’s implications are scary, and they DO apply to the position that we are now in, despite what a couple of posts above appear to imply. This is so for the following two reasons:
1) Inasmuch as Peak Oil is upon us and oil is running out, recall that energy descent involves not a complete giving up of any reliance upon oil / carbon-based energy, but a radical reduction. But this means that one still needs some: and so it is very important to the possibility of the Transition movement building genuine resilience that the remainder is not just guzzled. This is where politics comes in, to manage energy descent among everyone, including would-be ‘free-riders’. A Transition Town deprived of ANY oil at all is a Transition Town in free-fall.
2) One needs to take in the terrifying truth mentioned in my article: that, unless we stop it politically, Peak Oil will result in the tar sands, the oil shales, heavy oil, coal including heavy-sulphur coal (and including the gasification and ‘petrolification’ of coal) being exploited far more heavily, so long as they yield a positive energy balance. This means that Peak Oil will not magically save us from dangerous climate change — it will MAKE IT WORSE. Peak Oil will unleash climate cataclysm — unless we restrain these exploitations of fossil fuels, by politics and other means.
For the 2 reasons given above, Jevon’s Law is not rendered otiose by Peak Oil. ON the contrary — it is more pressing than ever. (See also my Point by Point response to Rob H., on my blog.)
…Across the country, across the continent, and across the world, we need collectively to implement the g/Green agenda. (By the way, Simpol may be a critically-important tool here: ).

Philip Booth
17 Feb 4:36pm

I can only agree with Rupert’s concerns about the three main parties abilities to tackle climate change and Peak Oil – whatever blueprints they produce they still rely on a perpetually expanding economy – it is just not possible – which is why we need Transition Towns and Green politics all the more to show there are alternatives – but equally it is great there are voices in those other parties who are calling for these issues to be addressed.

I’ve just returned from the Green party conference in Reading and the speech by Principal Speaker Derek Wall could be useful to this discussion:

“The present economy drives ecological destruction and unless we find an alternative to it, it will sub-prime mortgage the near future. To keep the increasingly risky and unreal economy afloat we have to keep on consuming. If we spend less then unemployment rises, homeowners who lose their jobs can no longer keep up with mortgage payments, houses are reposessed, credit card debt cannot be paid, and the vicious spiral of negative economic growth leads to poverty and mass unemployment. The system eventually rebounds but with a huge cost in insecurity and human misery. We have an economy which is irrational and unecological, which increasingly no one understands and is, increasingly, no fun. We have to create an economy that gives access to things we all need, from warm homes to healthy food to secure pensions, and creative good work in secure posts without the ever increasing overuse of resources. We can have an economy that meets human need and not the greed of a few. It’s about being on the side of ordinary people, and not about making the economy more market-based that ultimately only benefits the super rich.”

The full text of the speech is available at:

Rowena Moore
17 Feb 7:35pm

Dear Rupert and others who have been kind enough to respond to my comment. Have you actually read the Blueprint document? Those that have, and I include environmentalists of a distinctly non-blue persuasion have been impressed with it. It totally takes on the need for a holistic approach to the environment, not just as an add on. Here is the first quote of the report – perhaps it will inspire you to look into it!
‘The great Error of our Nature is not to know where to stop; not to be satisfied with any reasonable
Acquirement; not to compound with our Condition; but to lose all we have gained by an insatiable
Pursuit after more.’
Edmund Burke, 1757 Clearly a Conservative favours a market based approach, but this does not deny that markets need regulation, legislation and at times this may need to be pretty strong. It is not just ‘business as usual’. In any economic system, what gets measured gets done, and currently we have a very ‘money and GDP’ orientated system, but it is shifting as consumer power and knowledge and understanding of the interrelationships of what we do shifts, and as Corporate Social Responsiblity starts to become more than just tokenism. To me something like Fairtrade is a good example. People will pay more for something that they understand is part of a better whole. What I dont’ understand about the Green party perspective (and belive me I have tried) is how you think that a policy that is based around a more communal ownership of resources is going to work – how on earth do Green party people really think they can either tax and spend or else ‘reappropriate’ to do such a thing fairly and effectively? It has never been shown to work. Our local Green party councillors who I like but think are misguided in their political beliefs (clearly we are different!) sent me something called the Political Compass, an online tool measuring your position on the political spectrum. Have you tried it? What fascinates me is that you perceive me as a Conservative as a complete free marketeer whereas actually I came out midway between ‘communism’ and ‘neo-liberalism’ – somewhere in the middle in terms of approach to markets. But the Green party councillors came out way off in the bottom left quadrant at the extreme of the spectrum of ‘communism’ and ‘anarchy’. How can the Green party seriously suggest that communism and anarchy is the way to go? Any enlightenment about Green party policies would be appreciated as if I felt they were the right way to go then I would get behind it, but to date I have seen nothing to persuade me. I am looking for the practical, the implementable and the consistent… not just rhetoric.
Hence my involvement with Transition Towns, and hence my concern that TT should remain apolitical, as it is only through good quality debate by people from all parties and view points that we will really change our futures for the better.

Rupert Read
17 Feb 7:57pm

thanks for this thoughtful message. The Burke quote is great.
You say you don’t want rhetoric. Ok, then, I’ll make it really simple:
Do you believe in economic growth without end? Your Party does — Cameron [like all its Leaders ever] has said so, on numerous occasions (though he uses the oxymoronic expression, ‘green growth’ to try to make it sound better).
But the fundamental point about Transition Culture is that it accepts that we have (b)reached the limits to/of growth. The Green Party accepts that too — ecological thinking requires us to stop, now, before it is too late.
If the Conservative Party were ever to give up the shibboleth of trying to create more economic growth, then I would start trusting what it and you say. Until then, your good intentions will not, I’m afraid, make any odds.

Rowena Moore
17 Feb 9:16pm

Hi Rupert, thanks for coming back to me so quickly. Do I believe in material growth without end – no, it cannot be – as clearly the planet has limits and you only have to look at the WWF One planet living approach to see that we cannot continue consuming as we do.

But I’m not sure that material and economic growth are the same thing. Should you advise me about say giving a speech on a street corner, and I in exchange give you a Shiatsu massage, we could either both pay eachother for the priviledge (and hence ‘increase’ economic growth), or we could swap (and not make any impact on ‘economic growth’ whatsoever). Neither way of conducting the exchange would have any carbon related impact whatsoever (except in the mere fact that you and I exist and consume resources to live outside of this exchange), but both ways can increase our utility / happiness/ wellbeing – however you like to look at it. So there is a way of non material growth that can be very good and I welcome it.

I think that it is in this oversimplification of ‘economic growth’ that we may find space to argue, but I suspect both being TT supporters we probably have quite similar views on where we want to get to, just maybe different ideas about the best way of getting there? And hence my repeat query about how the Green party thinks it is going to get to this better end state by the tools of state. To my mind we can only get there through political will to change coupled with a very efficient economy to deliver a level of wellbeing – both through material and non material things – in the most environmentally sustainable way. I think Cameron gets it though sadly haven’t had the opportunity to personally question him – but everything I see coming from him resonates in the right way. The Quality of Life review that produced the Blueprint document certainly got it – if you read it you will find that they do indeed say that very thing – we cannot have constant material growth. I don’t think the entire Conservative party gets it yet – just as I don’t yet think lots of people or the media get it. But I see us each spreading a message through our own networks that swells the chorus – and that way we will see cultural change.

Lucy Skywalker
17 Feb 9:46pm

Way forward??…

A Vision for Somerset as a Sustainable Community has just been published. This seems a ground-breaker, like Kinsale EDAP was. And yes, it’s political, relevant urgently now. It arose directly out of the despair several Climate Action people felt, when their agenda, after having been courteously heard and agreed at the local council meeting, was not even mentioned in the feedback. The Local Area Agreements talks-in-progress across the UK right now are simply missing the facts of Peak Oil and the cutting-edge of Climate Change, to the point of grave, dangerous irresponsibility.

“A Vision for Somerset” states (a) the bad news, that the dangers are greater than most people think (with articles from New Scientist etc to back up the info of dangers) (b) the good news, that many more groups are arising in response to the awareness of these dangers than either the media or the government are so far aware, and (c) practical issues grouped as Policy, Lighting, Heating, Transport, Community, Food, Construction, Empolyment, and Local Energy Generation. I’ve put some of this on the website, with hyperlink to the pdf-file.

I see an opportunity here. Can we study this document and work together to improve it and produce an agreed template to correct or even supersede the LAA? It seems this is not too dissimilar to the Kinsale document in scope, but it’s directed to the political work-in-progress. It will surely also help Transition groups build collaborative EDAP’s in all localities. I’ve posted it on our website and rebuilt the forum so that people can post comments there. It’s therefore not just a local project and risks problems of size. I’m willing to give it a go, and work with what arises… But what comes first is the fearful waking-up that nobody wants to face – No Business As Usual Any More – or hopefully we can engender something more like, “The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to an end. We are entering a period of consequences” – Winston Churchill, 1936.

Rupert Read
18 Feb 8:56am

IN reply to Rowena’s latest: This is a great message; thanks.
I wish the Tory Party were full of people like you; then I wouldn’t have to fight so hard against the utterly dreadful environmental impacts being made by our (pro-incinerator, pro-road-building, pro-airport, anti-wind-power, pro-nuclear) Tory County Council, here in Norfolk!
Yes, I’ve read the Quality of Life review — it seems to me at best very ‘light green’ indeed. Here is our London Mayoral candidate’s critique of it:
Your big question is why we need to use the state to make the political changes that are needed in order to make Transition Towns have the real-world impact that they deserve. And the answer is straightforward, and brings us back to my original article: The state has to provide the caps that make a framework within which public goods (such as limits to pollution so that we stay within our ecological limits) are incentivised and public bads are disincentivised. The only fair way to do this is through carbon entitlements, etc. [See e.g. ] That is why it is Green Party policy to introduce such a scheme. Without such a scheme, either one introduces regressive carbon taxes (which s what, inasmuch as its policies address the issue at all seriously (not much) the Conservative Party proposes to do, in effect punishing the poor for the emissions of the rich); or one simply gives up the ambition to be serious about carbon-reduction nationwide, and so about Contraction and Convergence etc. worldwide.
As I have argued elsewhere (see links in my posts above and see recent posts on my blog): there is no voluntary-based way of reducing fossil fuel use, ESPECIALLY once one reaches the limits to growth, and less for one person simply opens up the opportunity of more for another. The climate crisis and Peak Oil introduce a renewed and utterly vital role for the state: setting the framework which gives us some chance of acheiving climatic balance again, by creating the conditions under which low-carbon living can happen for all.
Opposition to the positive use of state power is nothing less than a total disaster, an abnegation of responsibility, in the historical period that we are now in.
And please recall: it is unbridled corporate power — it is the unleashing of capital that has been the big economic-political story of the last 25 years or so — which has got us into this emergency in the first place…

Rowena Moore
18 Feb 10:01pm

Dear Rupert, thank you, I am enjoying this political discussion – and it helps to improve all our understanding. I think you choose to mis-represent the Tory party in your comments though no doubt some of them have some foundation. As you say, not all Tories think the same way that I do – the beauty (and challenge) of a broad, argumentative body! Specifically re carbon allowances the Conservative Blueprint document says:
“The concept of
PCAs (Personal Carbon Allowances) is attractive; it is the current complexity of implementation that suggests that the funds would, at
present, be better spent elsewhere.” Not quite your interpretation.

I wholly believe in the power of the state and regard its use as essential in the current face of climate change, however it is what we do that I am trying to tease out. So I think we are in agreement that we need the State to provide the strong framework within which actions such as those that TT seek become universal. What I’m trying to tease out from you is how the Green party plan to do it as what I see are strong ‘mega-state’ tendencies and a somewhat naive approach to practicality. I also see quite a bit of reactionary ‘smash the toffs’ type rhetoric which seems less than constructive. As I live in a 5 bedroom home am I a toff? Or because my hubby grew up with an outside toilet until age 11 are we ‘not proper toffs’… seems a bit oversimplified to me. We are all vastly materially rich in the UK compared to most of the world’s population.

Ps I actually think true independents have the best of it politically and maybe the shame of it all is that you and I are each taking party sides and not heading off into ‘independent’ land…..

Jason Cole
18 Feb 11:54pm

I think you both (Rupert and Rowena) need to cast aside the stereotypes and ecological one-upmanship; it adds nothing but delay to the outcome.

Human beings, by their nature, are efficient; they take the path of least resistance. This creates a problem for the 3 main parties, because if, say, one proposes petroleum rationing, the others look more attractive, even though the rationing option may be the best for the country.

The only way forward I can see working is the cross-party approach, such as the work done by the APPGOPO (The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Peak Oil and Gas):

19 Feb 2:40pm

I’d also pick up on Jason’s comment. Although, of course, politics is key (for the reasons Rupert stated), politics will be operating under such different circumstances post-peak. Life for most of us will be harder – physical discomfort and inconvenience, shortages and high unemployment in many sectors – than most electors and politicians currently recognise. The state’s ability to “solve” problems will be constrained financially and energetically. The state certainly will not be able to promise a materially more prosperous tomorrow.

There is now and will increasingly be an imperative for politicians to work on a cross-party basis if today’s “debate” between the parties is not to become a meaningless irrelevance.

David (16.2.08:4.48pm), yes, exactly, I was trying to say “(Jevon’s Paradox) doesn’t apply in a world of with a contracting energy supply”. It is one of the givens that no longer apply as it does now. It will be in people’s personal, selfish interest to reduce their energy use.

The only things that will detract from this are:

  1. most people don’t know when/how they use energy and therefore don’t know how to reduce their consumption effectively. These people will blindly either go on consuming unnecessarily or they will go without and suffer more than necessary.

  2. most people believe they have an entitlement to use and waste energy. They will be angry at those who try to take away their “energy rights”.

Both these phenomena are already evident but they will both intensify greatly post peak.

We need to cut coal, marginal oil use quickly enough to avoid runaway climate change; and conventional oil and the regional gas quickly enough to stay ahead of their depletion curves. Therefore, we need as high a percentage of the population as possible to reduce their energy use voluntarily, we need a policy framework, supported by all the major parties in what may well be a government of national unity that promotes “common purpose”. Without this national political framework, we will have a situation where Transition Towners and other concerned people are working towards a managed energy descent and others are struggling to maintain BAU.

Rupert – I have the feeling you still see peak oil as a political threat that undermines campaigning on climate change rather than a physical reality which further complicates and constrains our responses to climate change. Have you read the Heinberg essay on bridging peak oil and climate change activism? One of the key quotes for me is “our goal must be to deal with reality (rather than merely our preferred image of reality), and reality is complicated.”

Rupert Read
19 Feb 3:33pm

Dear Rowena;
All this stuff about ‘toffs’ etc. is a complete distraction, and nothing to do with the Green Party.
The facts are simple: the Green Party is the only Party in Britain which has carbon rationing / DTQs as Party policy, without which there is no effective framework via which to make the kinds of changes that Transition Culture promises a reality.
So I cannot agree with Jason: Those who are serious about Transition Culture working need to look and see which Party is promising to do what is needful, and draw the requisite consequences.
But where Jason is probably right is that this party-political debate has probably gone as far as it can usefully go in this forum. Those who want to continue, I suggest adjourning somewhere else (e.g. my blog), and let this particular thread draw toward a close.

Rowena Moore
19 Feb 11:05pm

Hi Jason, Sorry, I am not trying to engage in ecological one-upmanship, but am trying to understand the differences (and similarities) in different party political approaches. I completely agree with you that it is cross party working that has the best opp for solving all this and am glad you mentioned the APPGOPO which I haven’t yet been too but others from our TT group have.

Thanks to you and to Rupert for this discussion. I don’t need to continue this debate but started it here as I think that the transition movement does itself a huge disservice if it becomes political – which I saw happening within this forum and therefore felt I needed to raise my voice.

Clearly lots of us will have strongly held views but I think for Transition concepts to work we get the best results if we work across our usual divides – that way we really get creative. And also to help us learn from and understand eachother, which I think is a big part of Transition ethos.

Thanks and best wishes.

Rupert Read
20 Feb 9:45am

Jevon’s Paradox DOES still apply, at the limit to growth. In the following sense: If ‘efficiency’ is introduced into the system (e.g. by Transition Culture) thus freeing up some maxed-out ‘resource’, then what has been freed up is immediately swallowed up by free-riders, unless that is prevented by (e.g.) capping total and individual consumption.
However, in most other respects I welcome David’s message. Yes, I am reading Heinberg’s excellent book right now, as it happens. Yes, I see Peak Oil as a “physical reality which further complicates and constrains our responses to dangerous climate change”.
However, and this is critically-important, though it has not been present in much of the debate above: the key ‘constraint’, as I argued in my column and as I have shown in my OneWorld newspaper column and in posts on my blog etc., is that Peak Oil will lead to / is leading already to a reaching for other more carbon-intensive forms of energy. Let me put it this way: The strains upon our society by a rapid transition are almost the least of our worries. If we as a society avoid/postpone those strains by means of dipping heavily into carbon-intensive alternatives to oil, then we will buy ourselves another decade or two of energy-obesity, at a terrible cost. For we will initiate then a climate cataclysm.
It seems to me that this is highly-likely to happen, without enormous political will. It is highly-likely, in other words, that politics will unfortunately NOT be exposed to the very difficult conditions that David envisages, soon enough… There will be a direly-strong temptation to soften the Transition: by burning the oil shales, the tar sands, the heavy oil, the vast reserves of coal, and gestures at doing so ‘cleanly’ will conscience-salve only…
Peak Oil makes the need for a cap to be placed on carbon emissions and for most fossil fuels to stay in the ground MORE urgent. Peak Oil will in effect precipitate climate apocalypse, unless we put in place the needful caps at national and world levels, fairly soon.
[See also the brilliant and terrifying report, for more detail.]
We need to find ways of enabling people to understand the dire need for carbon rationing and contraction and covergence soon; otherwise, our future, and the chance of building resilience and effecting a transition, will be swept aside by an avalanche of CO2 emissions and ‘positive’ (sic.) feedbacks.

Marke Pawson
22 Feb 4:35pm

All political parties will see TT as a threat, because it works outside the party system and could make that system redundant. Our government has, essentially, no energy policy- recourse to nuclear generation can hardly be called a serious policy. At Glastonbury Town Hall, on 16th March, we hope to show how communities can develop their own local, low-tech, renewable sources of energy.

22 Feb 5:31pm

Rowena – I think you are absolutely right when you say “..I think for Transition concepts to work we get the best results if we work across our usual divides – that way we really get creative. And also to help us learn from and understand each other, which I think is a big part of Transition ethos.”

Rupert – “Peak Oil makes the need for a cap to be placed on carbon emissions and for most fossil fuels to stay in the ground MORE urgent.” Or maybe it changes where campaigning needs to be focused. Here in the UK, we should not be building any more coal power stations and we should be getting as much renewables capacity up and running as possible.

Given that peak oil appears to be happening now and the gap between supply and normal demand is growing now, I think it’s unlikely that any political process will be able to curtail use faster than it will be curtailed anyway through depletion.

UK politicians have no influence on how much more of the tar sands are dug up. My only hope is that nature will take care of it sooner rather than later, as tar sands production is rapidly draining Albertan aquifers and their remaining natural gas.

Coal is the real biggy, as there is sufficient of it left to take us to a place we really don’t want to be climate wise. Here, is where climate change campaigners should focus their efforts and where politicians should direct policy change.

Rowena Moore
22 Feb 10:45pm

Responding to Marke – I hope that all political parties see TT as a positive force for good (and not alientation) and a way of re-engaging people at both local and national levels with what life is like and how different things we do affect our lives and that of others – ie everything that to me politics is about.

Political parties are made up of myriad people such as myself and clearly each person comes with different hopes and fears and there are often differences across a spectrum within a Party.

As part of a political party I welcome TT as there is widespread apathy and disengagement with the existing political process. I also think TT is quite a lot about self-responsibility and community empowerment and that this is something that the ‘State’ tends to take from us as individuals, so if TT represents a shift back towards more self-responsibility and empowerment then that is a welcome thing.

Rupert Read
23 Feb 1:17pm

For reasons explained in earlier posts on this thread, I disagree with Marke. Far from making political parties redundant, Transition Culture will only work if politics provides the framework to enable it [TC] to make a difference to levels of fossil fuel consumption.
I have today published an op-ed column in the EASTERN DAILY PRESS putting forward an ambitious idea which could help this happen in a big way. Here is the link:
[If for some reason that link doesn’t work, then use this one instead:

Marke Pawson
7 May 4:36pm

Adam (13th Feb.) refers to Churchill’s coalition government (1940-45)In May 1940 it was realised that party government was unable to take the steps for our survival in the face of a threatened German invasion, because such steps would be unpopular with the electorate. Our present government is in the same position and its vague and contradictory policy on energy is a symptom of this. If we neede a coalition government in 1940, surely we need one now.