26 May 2011
Transition’s life as a straw man
I am currently reading Carl Sagan’s excellent book ‘The Demon-haunted World: science as a candle in the dark’, which I picked up for a song in a second hand bookshop when I was last in London. Although published in 1996, it is as relevant to today as when it was published. Its focus is on the need for critical thinking and for a grounding in science, and it contains a great chapter called ‘The Fine Art of Baloney Detection’. Here he sets out what not to do when trying to assess the validity of an argument, and common ways that people make flawed arguments. One of those is creating a straw man, which he defines as “caricaturing a position to make it easier to attack “. Having spent Monday morning debating on ABC Radio in Australia with someone who has done just this, I wanted to offer a few thoughts on being a straw man.
An Australian academic, who I won’t name here (no it’s not Ryan Giggs), has been doing some research into Transition and has decided (not a new argument by any means) that Transition is flawed and doomed to being ineffectual because it doesn’t have an overtly political standpoint. That’s a reasonable argument, not one I agree with because I think there are many ways of being political and of making change happen, but a reasonable argument. But in advance of our discussion I was sent a list of the key points she wanted to bring to it, and I was left with the growing, and familiar, sense of being set up with Transition being presented as a straw man, as being asked to defend Transition as something that anyone who knows anything about it would know that it clearly isn’t. Here are some tasters of points she made. You may also have encountered some of these things in doing Transition in your own community:
- “The transitions movement advocate eco-housing, but many of the recycled materials are sourced from places like Mumbai where impoverished people, including children sort through filth and dangerous projectiles for as little as a dollar a day so westerners can have their eco-houses”
- “Globalisation has lifted consciousness on crimes against humanity, poverty and human rights. If we return to localisation and nationalism, won’t it make it easier for governments and corporations to hide their abuses?”
- “In Australia many small communities are often isolated, patriarchal, fourth generation dominated, inbred and lack biological and cultural diversity. Many are on the brink of collapse because of this. History shows that the collapse of civilisations takes place when,  essential resources run out  when communities become so small and isolated that they lack sufficient biological [genetic] and/or cultural pooling”.
- “The transitions movement advocates reducing carbon emissions, but reducing emissions will not stop the mining for minerals or the continued global militarisation, which are the greatest polluters. The transitions movement targets household emissions, but these pale against the big polluters”.
- “The environment/transitions movements have generally called for a cut in emissions, but fail to address the exported pollution. Localisation will not stop this”.
So lets have a look in more detail at that straw man…. What she has done here is to base this on an assumption that Transition actively argues the following:
- That it is the only approach and the only response we need. She assumes that we are putting Transition out into the world as a model we claim works definitively and that it will be sufficient, on its own, to solve all the world’s ills. To argue that Transition fails because it fails to “stop the mining for minerals or the continued global militarisation” is like also blaming it for not curing cancer or solving the Israeli/Palestinian crisis.
- The thing about Transition promoting building materials recycled from Mumbai scrap heaps is bizarre frankly. We promote local, natural building materials…. this is an amazing straw man to set up, one based on nothing so far as I can see…
- She confuses localisation with self sufficiency. Localisation is about the increased meeting of local needs through local production where possible (especially for food, energy and construction), and about promoting import substitution. Self sufficiency is neither possible nor desirable. No-one is talking about severing connections to the rest of the world, but trying to meet much more of our core needs locally, in order to create new jobs and employment and to make them more resilient. She assumes that 100% localisation is possible…
- She also assumes that those involved with trying to localise their economies are unable to distinguish between a good and desirable version of localisation (founded on social justice, community ownership of assets, co-operative values, social enterprise, increasing biodiversity and so on) and a bad one (founded on feudalism, concentration of power, based on a turning of collective backs on wider issues in the world and so on). My experience of Transition initiatives is that they very much base their work on the former. Why anyone would want to dedicate their time to the latter is a mystery.
- She assumes that Transition is only about small communities, rather than being also about cities, towns and settlements at all scales.
Another interesting straw man version of Transition was set up recently on the website Spiked by Colin McInnes who wrote a scathing critique of the idea of localisation, citing Transition as one of its key proponents, stating:
“… at its core, localism is in many ways an indulgent form of self-interest. A self-sufficient community is exactly that. It is independent of the cares or needs of other communities and is unwilling to engage in the wider human enterprise … we should reject these new forms of localism. We should have as little interest in growing our own food or generating our own energy as we have in producing our own steel. If we leave energy to energy utilities and food to efficient large-scale farming, we can enjoy the products of both while undertaking a myriad of other productive tasks, and so ensure growing prosperity for all”.
His article again sets Transition up as a straw man so that he can rail against it. “We should have as little interest in growing our own food or generating our own energy as we have in producing our own steel” is a great line, but it entirely misses the point. He argues that Transition is terrible because it wants to turn its back on progress and science (it doesn’t), it wants to return to a kind of Maoist self-sufficiency (it doesn’t), it harks back to some imagined golden age of rural idyll (it doesn’t), it wants to make every community an isolated, insular, patriarchal backwater (it doesn’t). McInnes’s railing against localisation and against Transition is founded on such a spectacular misunderstanding of what both those things actually mean that the chapter on localisation in the forthcoming ‘Transition Companion’ uses it as the foundation for explaining what localisation actually does mean.
Our Australian academic raised the same point, “In Australia many small communities are often isolated, patriarchal, fourth generation dominated, inbred and lack biological and cultural diversity”. Apart from being a rather offensive way of talking about rural communities (plus inbreeding is not restricted to isolated rural communities, just look at the royal families of history) it is also bizarre to argue that the transforming of currently thriving communities into inbred, dull, patriarchal and oppressive communities is in any way an aim of Transition.
None of this is to say Transition is beyond criticism, nor that it should not be critiqued and pulled to bits, but creating a flawed version of what it is and then rubbishing that really does nobody any favours, nor does it really deepen anyone’s understanding of things. I think it is good to respond to these things though when they arise. Pat Murphy of Community Solutions recently wrote a lengthy critique of Transition which I imagine few people made it to the end of, which mixed some very useful insights and observations with some very odd assertions. In one piece he stated that Transition is “surprisingly critical of environmentalism” and that Transition’s argument that perhaps a different approach to change might be useful was rubbishing, undermining and disrespectful of the environmental movement. In a comment I responded:
I have been involved in the environmental movement since I was 17, have been involved in numerous demonstrations and protests, was involved with the movement resisting new roads being built in the UK in the 1990s, have been pulled off diggers by security men and have spent many years promoting and teaching natural building, permaculture and practical skills. I compost, I cycle, I don’t fly, I grow food, I have insulated my house, I have an annual gas bill around a third of the national average and have dedicated my life to environmental action. To say that I do not hold the best interests of the environmental movement at heart is rubbish and is insulting.
By way of an analogy, in 1977, the Sex Pistols released the single ‘God Save the Queen’ just before the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. It was hugely critical of the monarchy, and, had the music industry not fiddled the charts, would have been the No.1 single on the week of the Jubilee. The band themselves were vilified, attacked in the streets, declared public enemy number one, portrayed as enemies of the state.
In the film ‘The Filth and the Fury’, Johnny Rotten from the band said “you don’t write a song like ‘God Save The Queen’ because you hate the English race. You write a song like that because you love them, and you’re fed up of seeing them mistreated.”
I feel much the same about the environmental movement. I don’t know since when it was not OK to not challenge the movement, to say that it needs to develop different ways of communicating, or to argue that it might, in some aspects, become complacent or lost. I am critical of it because I love it. If I didn’t care for it, I wouldn’t bother.
I love my children, my family. Doesn’t mean I can’t constructively criticise what they do or offer my thoughts. So to state that I am anti-environmentalist, or that to suggest there is a different approach is actually quite offensive and absolute nonsense. I think you are the only person who has ever argued that Transition is potentially damaging to the environmental movement. I also can’t imagine it is an accusation I will ever read from anyone else in the future.
Where straw men do emerge in our collective work promoting Transition, I think it is best to name them as such. There is much to debate and much to discuss, but it is vital that we at least base those discussions on common understandings of what we’re talking about. I realise looking back over this piece prior to posting it that it has been an uncharacteristically grumpy post. Apologies. Normal service will be resumed tomorrow.
26 May 8:19am
This is a brilliant application of clear-sighted logic – one that, as you have shown, is shockingly uncommon. It’s very hard to teach how to write logically when students are bamboozled with the kind of argument you’ve outlined here on a pretty much daily basis and no-one takes the time to pick apart how the arguments work (or don’t, to be precise). I’ll be showing this to my students for its clarity and readability. Thanks once again.
26 May 8:45am
Your writing is excellent and commendable, not only in its logic and structure but in the choice of addressing these attacks on the Transition Movement. Although necessary, I hope it doesn’t take too much of your time.
Unfortunately I believe that engaging in these intellectual bouts just feeds a vicious cycle draining energy and time from the crucial work that defines Transition. The more important work of showing tangible functioning systems as viable alternatives to a dysfunctional society helps generate a virtuous cycle which gives us a chance.
I am not optimistic, neither am I pessimistic, each and every one makes his or her choices, to act on the available information, or not to act. Each is responsible, as I am responsible in creating the best possible functioning lifestyle which is both resilient and sustainable (resilient first) for myself and my family, my friends and available to as many people as possible. Time will tell and the “proof will be in the pudding”, so let’s get on with it, there’s no time to lose!
And thank you again for your tireless work, we see you!
26 May 9:37am
“… uncharacteristically grumpy”? Blimey. I laughed out loud a few times.
Well. It’s irritating when you realise that bright people aren’t looking for a discussion, but are reacting to it as it’s not exactly how their worldview works, and then project their baggage onto the topic, right? Therefore just looking for a fight, yes? They’re flailing their anger at anyone (who isn’t a follower of theirs) who’ll stand around long enough to take it? My mum has many pithy one liners called up her sleeve, and one of them is
“You know you’re in trouble when someone says ‘I like to have a good argument'”…
26 May 11:09am
Harrumf’s accepted in good humour Rob – big glove, James
26 May 12:44pm
The arguments of the woman you were debating with on Australian radio are ludicrous, but we have to remember that some people are reeled in by them. It’s important to ensure that we lay out a positive vision that appeals to people about Transition at the same time as countering arguments like them.
26 May 2:23pm
You know when someone you are debating something with has really ‘lost’ it when they call you a ‘fascist’ ….
Then again, many of my students struggle to understand the difference between localisation and autarky, or to see that there is something really politically challenging in concentrating on developing our power to ‘do’ things, rather than emphasising either ‘their’ power to stop us, or what ‘they’ are doing that they should stop.
Although not about Transition, localisation or peak oil at all, John Holloway’s new book ‘crack capitalism’ – about working in the cracks, in the free spaces or niches in a wider capitalist society, shows just how radical things like Transition can be. I get really cross when the same people who criticise global northerners for being ‘middle class’ and ‘apolitical’ about global injustice also applaud the Zapatistas, the Argentine pickets, MST land occupiers in Brazil, who are also in the project of making a better world from below…
26 May 2:45pm
Don’t be hard on yourself about the post. Its exactly this quality of thought and insightfulness that brings me back time and again to read your blog. I’d go so far as to say that we need to ask others we respect outside the green movement to critique it, thereby gaining a prospective we wouldn’t normally see.
26 May 2:51pm
Like all arguments there is a need to put the facts in context of the bigger picture. The purpose from all those involved should be to look at what is the truth not to try to win arguments or score points however clever or entertaining it might seem. Certainly we must dispose of fallacious arguments. I would use in such discussions the reference point of values. Carl Sagan writes with great perception and passion for the truth. Another writer that all presenters should be familiar with is Tom Crompton author of Common Cause. i enjoyed reading the discussion. It is necessary to disavow mistaken thinking including mine.
26 May 3:12pm
One reason Transition lends itself to misinterpretation is that it is a very amorphous movement with no clear spiritual leader to lay down a dogma. I know people see that as a strength, but having that vacuum has a downside.
While Rob serves that role by default, he continually tries to evade that designation (even though he had to rush to Transition’s defense against Greer last year) but there are clearly other forces that are eager to define Transition in their own image (think Mike Brownlee and Deep Transition).
So even for Transition advocates to say what is or isn’t Transition is hard to do with authority since Transition in one place will be different from another. For all of Rob’s aversion to survivalist thinking, or to new ageyness, Transition probably does take on more of that flavor in some areas depending on demographics. And no cardinals (that I know of) are being dispatched from Totnes to put a stop to it.
So it’s very easy for someone to cherry pick a sampling of Transition in one area and make a generalization about what it centrally stands for based on it.
26 May 5:01pm
I enjoyed reading this article. My understanding is that your protagonists (?) obviously do not understand the philosophy behind the Transition Movement and our concerns. By that I mean the concern some of us meer mortals, at the grass roots level, have about climate change, peak oil and the loss of Community and the sense of belonging. For me Transition simply means a movement back towards sustainability. Like my childhood “family” (local south Yorkshire pit/farming/steel village community) and I experienced in the 50’s and 60’s. We wish a return not to the old days, as grim in some ways as they were, but to, for example, the joy of talking to strangers and working with them for the good of all. That may sound rubbish to some. To me, it is a profound principle of (permacultual) philosophy.
26 May 9:27pm
From what I’ve seen, the “straw man” arguments come from two very different sources:
1) Those places like “Spiked” that are not in any way sympathetic to what we are trying to achieve. From my point of view, they are just static and can be ignored.
2) Criticism from longtime activists. Here I think we should be more sympathetic. It’s puzzling at first because the arguments typically don’t make any sense — in contrast to the way these people usually write.
I think that some of these critics have been crying in the wilderness for years, and are taken aback by what seems the easy, unearned success of Transition. “There must be something wrong!” they think.
Then we in Transition become defensive, and we begin an unpleasant, dysfunctional spiral.
I think the solution is to honor those pioneers upon who work Transition has built. They kept the flame alive when society was hostile or dismissive of the values of sustainability.
26 May 10:19pm
I recently had the chance to speak on our National Radio with Kim Hill, a very well followed and long-time interviewer, who opened by using the words “survivalist movement” in the same opening sentence as “Transition Towns”.
Imagine me sitting there, hearing these words coming through the headset, while I waited in front of a mic in another city, waiting to be introduced.
I though, “Uh Oh, here we go.”
On reflecting on this 25 minute interview afterwards, I was very happy with it, and realised she had given me ample opportunity to show Transition Towns in a very good light – as a self-organising movement that is building a network of main stream sensible, practical, and self-responsible individuals who are responding to well grounded data about our present reality.
Her line of questioning was perfect, because it gave me a chance to allay the misconceptions and fears people have about social change movements.
27 May 4:32pm
Just remember that it would be worse if no one was talking about Transistion.
As long as they keep mentioning the website address then people can find the facts for themselves.
I don’t mean to belittle your work, but i like the idea that Transition isn’t supposed to be about following a leader or Guru, but about hearing the message.
Transition was the first time that the connection between Energy, Enviroment and Economy was made clear to me.
It’s not important how people make the Transition but they start to Transition NOW!!!
27 May 4:56pm
I was surprised by Rob’s criticism of my posting “Transition, Environmentalism and Positive Thinking”. http://www.communitysolution.org/blog/?p=214 He wrote that I had said Transition’s argument that perhaps a different approach to change might be useful was rubbishing, undermining and disrespectful of the environmental movement. He also wrote that I had stated he was an anti-environmentalist. In addition he wrote that I was the only person that had ever said Transition was “potentially damaging” to the environmental movement.
Not recognizing these terms, I reviewed the article for the words “rubbishing, undermining, disrespectful, anti-environmentalist, potentially damaging”. No such words were in my posting. I simply did not say any of this.
Rob’s posting was entitled “Transition’s life as a straw man”. He lamented the concept of setting up a “straw man”, defined as “caricaturing a position to make it easier to attack”. I think his attack on my article is an excellent example of just what he objects to.
28 May 3:22pm
Christer Soderberg, 26 May 8:45am, says:
[quote]Unfortunately I believe that engaging in these intellectual bouts just feeds a vicious cycle draining energy and time from the crucial work that defines Transition.[/quote]
Agreed. I come across these strawman arguments all the time in climate change comments. I have a useful one-liner that highlights the ridiculousness of some arguments (others feel free to use):
“Shorter xxxxxxx: There is no global warming, there is warming but it’s nothing to do with carbon dioxide and the carbon dioxide causing the warming has all come from volcanoes.”
The quote from Spiked is just somebody thrashing about as they attempt to defend the Infinite Growth Paradigm in its death-throes. Localism will be the default position once oil-based transport becomes prohibitively expensive in certain sectors – it will be the sensible economic position to take.
Cheers – John
13 Jun 9:01am
This is a really great piece. Helps us to see which arguments are worth engaging with and which are scarecrows. It’s important to decide whether someone has misunderstood what you’re saying or whether they are ‘purposefully’ distorting your argument in order to strengthen their position. Reflecting on a recent meeting I suddenly thought – that was a straw-man situation, it wasn’t that the person didn’t understand our position, but they seemed to purposefully misrepresent it, in order to defend their (personal) agenda and make out that we were excluding their input. (this is even when we are both on the same side, with very similar aims!)
21 Jun 1:57am
Much gratitude to Rob for shining such generous light on on such a mean minded way of viewing a version of Transition that does not exist.
The Australian in question was born in England and has devoted much of her recent life to gathering academic credentials. Her academic rigor leaves much to be desired and the damage she can cause is quite substantial hidden behind a cloak of credibility.
It is important that this extreme behaviour is stopped and illuminated as soon as it appears. Thanks for the tools Rob the “straw man” is a great way to deal with it as when I was confronted by it on air I found it hard to get across to the interviewer that I could not argue at all as what we were discussing were two different things….what Transition is and how it is working so successfully in Australia and the Transition she put forward that no one could possibly support.