Transition Culture

An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

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4 Mar 2010

“Genuine resilience results from expanding the human footprint”. Discuss

ecobuild2There have been critiques of Transition in the past, such as the Trapese Collective’s one, or other more ranty online versions, usually from the very deep green Left, who argue that unless it can get rid of capitalism/economic growth [insert personal pet political issue here] first then it is unforgivably naive.  It was interesting therefore, at EcoBuild 2010 at Earl’s Court on Tuesday, as part of a session called ‘Sustaining Transition Initiatives’, to hear a talk by Alastair Brown of mantownhuman give a talk attempting to put the intellectual boot into Transition.  It was coherent, articulate, well illustrated … and utterly mistaken.

Brown was the last of 4 speakers, the previous ones having been myself, Liz Cox of nef and Mark Brown of Transition High Wycombe, who gave a great explanation of the difficulties they are facing trying to make Transition work in a commuter town.  Brown’s talk was a great setting out of the cornucopian technofix school of thinking, so prevalent in architecture and planning schools, where architects can magic new cities into creation in complete defiance of the laws of thermodynamics, a la Paul Romer.  There are no limits to growth, he argued, we will never run out of energy, we always step off onto a better one.

The problem is you see that environmentalists have so convinced themselves and others that the game is up that they are stifling the very creativity that a bright, shiny new future depends on.  The idea that the world can have “too much growth” he argued, is based on a very pessimistic view of humanity.  As ‘solutions’ all that Transition and the green movement offer is censure and restriction, making people feel guilty, whereas what we need is a more expansive point of view.  He said that we need to be building new cities based on creativity, not a vision of the world where people are isolated on their allotments (!).  It was a staggeringly uninformed presentation, with no sense of limits to growth, and with a distinct lack of the word that, alongside energy scarcity and climate change, make his gleaming new vision so unattainable, debt.

The chestnut however came at the end of his talk, one line of text that topped a slide with images of gleaming new cities and an industrial urban future.  “Genuine resilience results from expanding the human footprint”.  This remarkable piece of illogic summed up the whole talk…  I am still trying to figure it out.  Following his talk I got to give a short response, which challenged most of the points he had raised.  The first question from the audience however provided a more succinct and pertinent critique of this critique.  A slow speaking, Russian-sounding gentleman said “I think you have great guts coming here with such bollocks”.

So anyway, here’s your homework.  “Genuine resilience results from expanding the human footprint”.  Discuss.

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


Tom Rushby
4 Mar 8:22pm

I caught Michael Braungart’s lecture on Wednesday at Ecobuild and if one subscribes to his view that we should be thinking not only of minimising our ‘negative’ footprint but maximising our ‘beneficial’ footprint, then the argument does make good sense. However, until our ‘positive’ footprints outweigh our ‘negative’ ones then I would have to disagree. So, should the question be how can we turn our footprints positive?

Anne Howe
4 Mar 9:18pm

Genuine resilience results from expanding the human footprint can be taken in two ways. Looking at it from your point of view Rob, it would indicate business as usual which is not acceptable to you but I think Mr Brown might be envisaging a future where we use more technology in a different way and that new ideas will come forward. To dismiss new ideas is similar to when people said man would never fly or cross the atlantic and with hindsight we know that these things did in fact happen. So expanding our minds to find a solution to an impossible problem is what you have both in common. Your approach is to work with the resources of nature and humankind as where he is waiting for one of us to come up with a technological solution. Problem with that is that our children have not really had creativity instilled into them in their education and all the creative skills he is banking on are very slim. Although I am certain that some genius will come up with new ideas to widen our awareness, I more than likely put my hope in humanity as a whole. the ‘me’ culture is what got us in this mess in the first place. Transition is a good way and we wait to see if there is another one that can go alongside. I am following the barefoot abundance method, i.e. living well on less. Its not for everyone but I know I am working on reducing the harm I do to the planet, one footstep at a time. They will call us the eco pioneers one day…..

4 Mar 9:55pm

Moving from a sedentary lifestyle in cars, trains and planes to one of walking and cycling, a localised economy is developed. Goods are bought and bartered from neighbours, and people get to understand the true needs and wants of those around them.

A bigger footprint? You’ll need comfortable shoes as your feet get wider from all that weight-bearing walking…

Tom A
4 Mar 10:12pm

Abolutely brilliant! Thanks Rob.

4 Mar 10:15pm

Monoculture, a crop of identical species, requiring identical conditions.. This deprives an environment of diveristy.
Looking at the design of a singular leaf on a tree, consider how, if our dwellings, or communities were so well planned, that they could be duplicated, provide benfits to greater, fullest society.
Filtering the nutrients, dross and all from dysfunctional cities as time passes by, allowing the creative benefits to flow.
Instead of gluttons for energy, such communities might all be collectors of energies, that supply the nearest – city – a place where greater densities of people thrive in the community areas, while dwelling in modest homes, oft stacked – to help a beneficial critical mass..

4 Mar 11:15pm

I love it!
“It doesn’t matter who you vote for you’re bound to get a politician.” (source unknown)

5 Mar 12:37am

I was interested to hear about Mark Brown of Transition High Wycombe, who gave a great explanation of the difficulties they are facing trying to make Transition work in a commuter town. I just visited the Transition High Wycombe website and it looks like an excellent website. My friends and I in Transition Town Koganei which is a commuter town near Tokyo are experiencing some difficulties trying to make Transition work. In Japanese a commuter town it is actually called a ‘bed-town’ a place where people put their heads down at night. Many people work in Tokyo & typically leave home in Koganei at 7am and don’t return home until 8pm, 9pm or 10pm.
I lived in St. Albans for a number of years and also in High Wycombe for a few months so I also know the UK commuter town atmosphere quite well. People tend not to say hello to each other in communter towns. It is probably true to say that there is a stronger sense of local community and belonging in inner city areas (like Brixton or the East End of London or the Shitamachi inner city area of Tokyo) or in more rural towns (like Lewes or Hayama & Fujino in Japan) than in commuter towns.
Probably a different approach is needed when trying to make Transition work in a commuter town. We have yet to discover what the best approach is for a Transition Commuter Town. How do you persuade people who have worked long hours in the city from Monday to Friday to invest some of their hard-earned & valuable free-time (refreshment time) on a Transition project in a town that they don’t necessarily have a very strong sense of connection with?
I would be interested to hear what Mark Brown said about his experience in High Wycombe. Perhaps we could start sharing ideas about trying to make Transition work in a commuter towns near London, New York, LA, Paris, Tokyo, etc.

Darren (Green Change)
5 Mar 4:12am

“Genuine resilience results from expanding the human footprint.”

Err, where exactly are we going to expand this footprint to? We’ve pretty much trampled all over this planet. Is he suggesting we need to start colonising space?

I’m not convinced he actually understands the concept of a footprint.

John Powers
5 Mar 4:17am

Was the speaker Alistair Donald? Or do you have it correctly, Alistair Brown?

5 Mar 4:32am

Until Dwellings,Homes near commerce are permitted equal or greater density – heights etc – the suburbs will continue to sprawl.
The commercial stakeholders with thier published advertising profiles seem to carry substantially greater weight in local council planning departments
even in eternally distant Perth, Western Australia.
-we,in Perth – surrounded by a sea of terracotta roofed suburban housetops..

Steve Atkins
5 Mar 10:26am

How funny! …i feel quite sorry for the consumer guy, don’t worry ‘Mad Max’ will get him!

; )

5 Mar 6:25pm

looking at Trapeze Collective’s leaflet I felt irritated that such a thoughtful and non-attacking critique was so rubbished by yourselves.(don’t know who the author of your piece was)OK it was rather long but stressed many times it was not against many of TT’s objectives and seemed to me to be calling simply for more debate and discussion about the political and economic context we are operating in- not saying we have to get rid of capitalism first.Parodying serious debate like this certainly annoyed me as someone just getting interested in TT movment.

No, no, Rob, you’ve missed the point entirely. We DO need bigger footprints. See, when working in our gardens, we need to avoid compacting the soil as much as possible, in order not to destroy the habitat of our hard-working friends, the soil microorganisms. So what we need to do is wear big shoes or boots that spread out our body weight over the largest feasible surface.

My Buffalo boots give me impressively large footprints, as I had occasion to observe in the snow today while checking to see how the garden looks as winter recedes.

6 Mar 2:53am

Your conversational opening has left me open-mouthed and speechless!

7 Mar 1:01am

I would like to take an opportunity to respond to your statement regarding the cornucopian technofix school of thinking prevalent in planning schools. Having graduated from a Royal Town Planning Institute (RTPI) Planning Accredited Masters within the last two years and having subsequently worked as a town planner I feel that whilst I am not able to speak on behalf of architecture I am possibly able to respond on behalf of planning.

In the Masters that I under took a compulsory course was on Sustainable Places. Within this course the different approaches of Sustainable Development were discussed, from those advocating an ecological modernist approach to a decentralist, low impact approach.

However planning as a profession, operates with the parameters of national governmental Planning Policy Statements.

Planning Policy Statement 1: Sustainable Development states that, “Sustainable development is the core principle underpinning planning.”

One of the four aims of SD as set out by the government is,

“the maintenance of high and stable levels of economic growth and employment.’

Planning policies at the regional and local level have to fit within the criteria as laid out within governmental national criteria. Accordingly whilst planning schools will teach different viewpoints they are training students to work within a profession, which is restricted to working within governmental policy. Accordingly whilst being encouraged to think independently, we are restricted in our working lives, to operating within parameters as set by national government for example, promoting,

“the maintenance of high and stable levels of economic growth and employment.’

Many planners will question personally this definition however they are not in a position within their working lives to operate outside of this definition. They will however take any opportunity to promote alternative ideas within the profession. Recently the RTPI has launched 7 commitments relating to climate change,

and has provided discussion forums on its website on peak oil.

Yes I will admit that the planning profession and planning schools are not at the forefront of change when it comes to climate change and resource depletion. However they are starting to address these issues and smearing planning schools with the statement that they possess a cornucopian technofix school of thinking is in my view a deeply flawed view.

Personally I feel that the Transition Movement has been a very successful vehicle in promoting a transition towards a more resilient society, however it is not without criticism on its own part. Far too often I feel that it possesses an elitist attitude, failing to work with the wider green movement, criticising those that use other methods of change such as attending demonstrations, direct action etc.

Whilst I accept that the advocates of the Transition Movement may not see these methods as being right for themselves, the attitude that others should renounce them are in my view limiting. To each their own. Personally I feel that there are many different approaches to create change, which can be complementary and whilst one approach may be inappropriate to one person it does not mean that it is necessarily wrong for someone else.

Whilst I accept that this response is to a degree rambling, I feel that it is important at least to me, to question views that I do not agree with.

7 Mar 1:39am

In not so distant past,foods were hunted and gathered.
Tribes, groups,families,armies walked across continents on foot – before walls and fences to direction. Ergonomic routes were the norm before
‘as the eagle flies’ – as trains, boats or planes.
Crops were tilled by hand –

at least a portion of those energies came from natural foods, and also from the oxygen from the abundant foliage cover in most parts of the world.

With the O2 of those vast forests now diminishing
for a century, the increased CO2 is seen more significantly to be increasing.
Einstien may have offered answers for everything.
Reflection will allow us to see what may have been, might not have been so bad after all..
and amalgamation of the ergonomic and the sustainable, while considering and including the fullest range of diversity – might help future generations..

Nick Towle
7 Mar 10:28am

In opening I would ask for the definition of ‘genuine resilience’ as it’s possible that you’re asking for discussion on two differing concepts. A process that we all need to engage in is to define what it means to be resilient and identify measurable elements which give a fair indication of whether our efforts are moving toward or away from this. I believe I’ve read something along these lines on your blog before.
I believe it’s also important that we don’t waste too much effort in defending ones idea, instead strive to demonstrate what is to be gained through realising the idea.

Perhaps Rob you could invite Alistair Brown to a challenge. He could be supported to take over the architectural design and planning of an appropriate seaside village (where the occupants were inspired by his manifesto and vision) and to grow this into the future city that he envisages. You’d have to give his project city a funky title like ‘Atlantis’.
Simultaneously you would continue to work on the Transition process and using some commonly agreed measures of resilience we could assess the differences over time.

Admittedly this would be a long process, but in effect we already have one city in the world that is a manifestation of his vision, Dubai. I believe Dubai really resonates with one of the core summary statements in the OilManCity manifesto and the philosophy of their work ‘For: An architecture that imposes its will on the planet’.

Incidentally there is an entire school of thought originating from the US that believes the ‘laws of thermodynamics’ don’t exist, they’re simply an intellectual creation that hold us back from realising our full human potential. I could see us wasting a whole lot of time that we don’t have in trying to understand such thinking.

Let’s keep working on the inspiring visions that are being generated by the Transition movement.
Yours for the future,
Nick T

7 Mar 10:43pm

“Genuine resilience results from expanding the human footprint”.
Is that guy living on another planet? That’s the only place we could expand the human footprint to.

8 Mar 11:10am

A couple of things I wanted to come back on. Jane, I did a more lengthy response to the Trapese thing at One of my main problems with it was how little research they had actually done, they hadn’t read the book, spoken to any of us, so as a critique I found it really disappointing.

Guy, I agree with you that planners have to work within a context that might not be of their choosing. I didn’t intend to slur the people themselves, rather the mindset one encounters among architects and some planners, that we are planning/designing for a world of unlimited resources. It was especially evident at the TED talks I attended, the idea that there are no limits to what architecture can achieve. I feel that needs to be challenged, the idea that is, not the inidividuals, who, as you say, in planning, work within a framework that is very much oriented in the other direction. Some brave and visionary souls though are pointing in a different direction, (such as the Buenaventura POst Oil Plan, and they need all the encouragement they can get…

Mark Brown
9 Mar 10:26am

Just to confirm that Rob is describing the words of Alistair Donald…. Not to be confused with the presentation that I did on the difficulties of Transition in a Commuter Town at the same event! Don’t confuse the “Mr Brown” described with ME please. If anyone is interested to know more about that work feel free to contact TTHW via our web site at

Alistair’s views were interesting and reminded me of the book “Bottomless Well” by Peter W Huber & Mark P Mills (subtitled “The twilight of fuel, the virtue of waste, and why we will never run out of energy”). They postulated that we would never run out of energy because mankind is just so darn clever. It all sounds very reasonable that somehow the human spirit is constrained unreasonabley by a bunch of environmentalists. But it is an elegant fantasy. The finite limits of this solitary planet are well documented. Environmentalists have little to do with it. Nature offers its own constraints. Of course with sufficient technology we could replace every natural service that nature offers us. But we do not yet live in such a sci fi world. I suspect we are both after the same thing – the world of Star Trek. A universe where mankind has learnt from its mistakes and transitioned to clean and renewable energy sources. The TV and Movie interpretations of Gene Roddenberry’s vision shows a much wiser human race with access to untold amounts of energy. The cities have great skyscrapers and some live apparently divorced from the natural world. However, whenever this vision zooms into the way people and communities behave you see something different. You see active and thriving communities. You see people tending plants, you see markets, you see trees… Maybe this sci fi utopian vision is fantasy too but there may come a day when Alistair’s vision and OUR’s become true simultaneously. Where we disagree is on the roadmap to that destination.

9 Mar 1:51pm

Sami Grover over at Treehugger just posted a good piece reviewing the mantownhuman manifesto referred to above… excellent stuff…

9 Mar 11:13pm

‘..the idea that there are no limits to what architecture can achieve.’

Its not all that long since large chunks of Europe were destroyed in the second world war ; the generation is just passing of architects and town planners who worked to rebuild and to create a new world of progress in the decades that followed. It didn’t all work out of course, but maybe it worked enough that there is still a belief that the way the built environment is designed can make people happy?