Transition Culture

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

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11 Oct 2011

“Communities are more important than individuals, and probably more important than states and nations”: An interview with Bill McKibben

Last week Bill McKibben was in town, and I was lucky enough to get to interview him for half an hour before his talk to a packed St. John’s Church in Totnes (which Jay Tompt reflected on here).  I had asked for some questions for Bill on Twitter, and apart from the frankly bizarre “will I ever play the piano again?”, tried to weave most of the questions people sent into the interview.  My thanks to Bill for finding time in his hectic schedule:

Hi Bill… great to see you… what brings you to Totnes?

The two things that bring me to Totnes are wanting to get back to Schumacher College for a little while, which is a remarkable place, especially on this 100th year of Schumacher, and wanting to get back to Totnes and see the ‘Mother Church of Transition’!  (laughs). You know, I spent a lot of my time in motion around the planet and I run into and work with Transition Towns all over the place and get to see all of the amazing stuff that’s going on, but it will be fun to be able to tell them all about what’s happening back at ‘the source’.

You’ve been quite busy the past few weeks in the States!

I’ve spent more nights in jail than I have at home in the past couple of months, which is probably not a good ratio.  We’ve been fighting very hard this plan to run a pipeline from the tar sands of  northern Canada down to the Gulf of Mexico and I kind of organised the biggest civil disobedience campaign in the US in over 35 years or so.  And we’ve had another huge global day of action at with thousands of events mostly based around the bicycle, taking place in pretty much every country on earth.  So between those two things I’ve had enough to do.

Why are the tar sands so important in the fight against climate change?

We should have been involved in this fight a long time ago because they are wrecking indigenous land as they mine this stuff and the pipeline is a clear and present danger to the land it traverses, but I didn’t really get involved with it until the great climatologist James Hansen and his team at NASA wrote a paper documenting just how much carbon there was up there in Canada.  It’s the second largest pool of carbon on Earth after Saudi Arabia.  If you could burn all that oil overnight, which thank God you can’t, you would raise the atmospheric concentration of CO2 from its current 393ppm, already much to high, to about 540ppm.  As Hansen said, in technical scientist’s language, and I quote, it would be “essentially game over for the climate”.

So we gotta stop it from happening.  We burned Saudi Arabia, and that raised the temperature of the Earth a degree, we didn’t know about climate change when we went into Saudi Arabia, so no great shame on us.  But if we go into the second Saudi Arabia knowing what we now know, and do the same thing, then we’re the worst kind of idiots.  And we will, without huge uprising to prevent it, because there’s a lot of money to be made there, and a lot of powerful people who want some of that money.

Recently Mark Lynas and Stewart Brand have argued that the green movement has “lost its way” recently.  How do you stand on that?

I don’t think that there’s been, at least around climate, much of a movement.  That’s what we’ve been trying to build over the last 3 or 4 years.  There’ve been all kinds of expert scientists and things saying what needs to happen, but what we’ve lacked has been a movement.  I think we’re just finally now building one.  In terms of nuclear power, I think politically, post-Fukushima, its not actually going to happen in most places that have democracies.  That’s just reality.  The reason it wasn’t happening before Fukushima and this still applies, is because it is too expensive.  It’s one more effort to build big centralised power, but it’s ruinously expensive to do it this way.

At this point, all the hip engineers and scientists are far more interested in what they call ‘distributed generation’ and think it makes a lot more sense to build spread out, redundant grid-tied systems that take advantage of things that nature would just as soon give us for free, sun and wind.  So I hope we head in that direction.  You can make an argument for nuclear power, I just don’t think it’s going to happen, because among other things it’s deucedly expensive to do.

You named your organisation  We’re currently at 393ppm.  Is it actually possible to get back to 350ppm?

Oh sure.  Physically it’s possible.  If you stopped burning carbon tomorrow, well before the end of the century you’d be back to 350ppm.  You’d do some damage in the meantime, there’s already a lot of damage being done, but oceans and forests do suck carbon out of the atmosphere, that’s how we got all those oil fields and coal beds in the first place y’know.  Physically it’s possible.  The question is whether it is politically possible or not?  And I don’t know.

It’s a really hard stretch Rob… fossil fuels is a central part of the world economy, so getting off it requires both the kind of local example that Transition provides such good examples of, and, and these are complementary and not at all competitive, a strong political battle to, among other things, change the price of carbon.  And when we do, these battles are complementary, because it will make it much easier for people to understand the need to Transition, once the price of energy reflects the damage it does in the atmosphere.

What’s the role of communities in mitigating and adapting to climate change?

Communities are the integers of this operation.  They are more important than individuals, and probably more important than states and nations.  In terms of adaption, most of my intellectual work, my writing work in recent years has been about the need and the possibility to build strong local economies.  One of the reasons that is so important, perhaps THE reason why that’s so important, is because that’s what we will need in order to adapt to that which we can no longer prevent in terms of climate change.

The problem is that communities by themselves can’t get this job done.  We’re not going to do it in the time that physics and chemistry allow us by addition alone, “my town does this, your town does it, then maybe your brother-in-law sees it and tries to talk his town into doing some of it and so on and so forth”.  That’s happening, and its good to see it happening, but as you know it has not yet bent any of the curves of carbon emissions.

We are also going to have to work by multiplication, and that’s an inherently political process.  That means changing the rules of the game, and the reason that it is such a hard fight is that there are people making so much money doing what they are doing now, and they are willing to spend some of that money to work the political process and make sure we don’t get change.  So it’s a constant, constant battle, and that work we need to carry on at a national and even a global level.

It’s one of the great ironies and paradoxes that at the same moment that we need both stronger communities than we’ve ever needed them before and we really need, almost for the first time, a working global system, because we have the first really global problem.  I mean, nuclear weapons were, in a sense, a global problem, but they were confined to a certain number of states.  Compared to this it was a relatively simple problem, because everyone could picture the destruction that comes with a few nuclear bombs, but it’s harder to picture the destruction that comes with the explosions in millions of pistons that take place every minute of every day.

One of the things that is very live within Transition is that edge between activism and protest culture and ‘doing Transition’.  Where do you sit with that?

One of the reasons we set up in the way we did was precisely with that in mind.  We didn’t want to build a kind of big, centralised organisation, we wanted to have a campaign that would allow people to spend most of their time doing what all of us should do, be at home working on our own communities, and yet have some way to come together with other communities all over the world and multiply one’s political power.  That’s why when we do days of action it’s thousands upon thousands of places in hundreds of languages in hundreds of countries and it’s beautiful and powerful.

We also need some centralised campaigning around certain particular pressure points because we gotta score some victories and put the other side on the defensive.  So it was really good to be in Washington at the White House at the centre of power and to watch for two weeks as a hundred people a day showed up from every state in the union and got arrested.  Many of them were people who are working on Transition back in their communities, probably most of them.

Yet they also recognised the importance of doing this kind of work.  There’s no either/or, it’s got the be both/and, especially now, because one of the things I think we have come to realise in the past year or so is that peak oil isn’t going to do any of this work for us.   It’s true that we’ve had peak oil in conventional terms, and it’s also true that the high price of oil, and the profits to be made since there’s no carbon penalty attached to it, have driven people to find more than enough unconventional oil and gas to keep us going way past the point where we’ll break the climatic back of the planet.  As I said, there’s as much oil in the tar sands of Canada as there is in Saudi Arabia, and at $80 a barrel, they’re happy to pull it out of the ground for us.

I’ve brought my copy of ‘The End of Nature’ which I read when I was 24…

I wrote it when I was 27!

… it was certainly one of the most impactful books I read in my whole life.  I wonder how you personally, having been immersed in that understanding, that knowledge, for the past 20-30 years, how do you keep smiling and keep going and not just weep in a corner somewhere?

That’s a very good question, and actually when the book came out, I was in a pretty dark place for a while, and sometimes still am.  But, two things.  One, there is a certain amount of catharsis in writing and getting your own angst out onto everyone else…

Yeah, thanks for that …

.. and in the second place I have a certain advantage now which is that I’ve been living with this stuff for 23-24 years, day in and day out, and at a certain point it’s like you get over grief from someone dying and you just go on and so in a certain way I’m probably more emotionally prepared to deal with climate change than people who are learning about it for the first time.  It’s part of my mental framework, I know what the stakes are, and now I assuage my grief simply by working very, very, very hard and I find that helps.

I think I would be rather grief-stricken if I didn’t have some way to get up every day and really fight.  Frankly, some of the time I take out whatever grief I have on the people I’m fighting, there are days when I really despise and hate the oil companies and coal companies and take a certain unholy amount of pleasure in trying to make their lives more difficult, even if we don’t win!

Is your sense that the tar sands campaign is starting to have an impact?

Look, it’s changed the odds a little bit.  Most likely we’ll still lose, there’s, at current value, 3 or 4 trillion dollars worth of oil that’s recoverable.  3 or 4 trillion dollars puts a lot of pressure on systems, it’s like a law of nature almost!  The odds are against us, but they’re better than they were a few weeks ago!  We’re fighting real hard.  The one reason we have any kind of chance is because President Obama gets to make this call by himself without Congress in the way, and we’re trying to demonstrate that there’s some political pain if he makes it the wrong way.  It’s a hard thing to do in a country where the alternatives are nutty Republicans, so who knows how it all works out, but we’re fighting hard.

Any last thoughts for the Transition movement?

The good news is, and we’ve talked mostly about bad news, the good news is that every place around the world is starting to kick in in a really strong way.  I watch it in the US and the local food movement is astonishing.  It’s carrying the field before it.  Last year the US Department of Agriculture said there were more farms in the US than the year before, the first time that’s happened in 150 years.  That’s really good news.  The biggest demographic trend in American history has bottomed out and is beginning to reverse.

So I think the good news is that given time, we can do this.  The bad news is that unless we can get carbon under control, we’re not going to have the time to do it, and instead of making a nice beautiful cultural transition to something different, we’re just going to end up fighting and endless series of rescue operations and emergency battles and so on and so forth.  So much as I would like to be at home in Vermont, I seem to spend virtually all of my time on the road, if not in jail!  There you are!

… and we’re very deeply grateful for it….

… and I’m so grateful for all the work you guys are doing because that’s what makes me what to keep going, the thought that there really is some vision on the other side of what the world might look like.  So, we shall see!

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


Tony Lane
11 Oct 10:39pm

It is always refreshing to hear the need for working with nature reaffirmed. But there is still too much opposition, we need a stronger value system to underpin it all. That what we do is more governed by a morality. A civilised society would have that in place and plan accordingly. I would reducate and swap materialism for creativity. That still remains under developed in most of us, sadly. Tony Lane

Auzzy Mark
12 Oct 1:42am

I agree with your comments Tony. I think we will see an accelerated awakening to the necessity and joys of nature as materialism takes its place in history. It looks like this will be forced in the shorter term through global economic meltdown. I take heart in the framework that is being put in place by ordinary people through Transition to catch people as they drop out of the rat race.

Millions of people doing their bit towards Transition is critical, but then a single issue like the Tar Sands comes up that threatens to swamp those individual efforts to reduce GHG emissions. I believe our future is both local and global and the work that Bill is doing on the grander stage is just as critical.

Bart Anderson
12 Oct 9:01am

I know this isn’t question isn’t critical to the fate of the planet, but … what was the “frankly bizarre “will I ever play the piano again?” ”

As Checkov said, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.” !

Jonathan Smith
12 Oct 12:00pm

Bill is an inspirational speaker and a leading light to many. I really respect his work and this interview was really interesting.

What I do struggle with however, environmentally and ethically, is people travelling around the world preaching their message. His carbon footprint must be enormous!! The same applies to the likes of Al Gore, and this was one of the real dichotomies of An Inconvenient Truth (having just presented climate graphs Gore’s at the airport…again!).

I’ve always swung between the need for bottom-up and top-down action. In truth both are necessary, as Bill points out, but I feel that bottom-up has much more integrity and resilience – and that’s why I’m involved in Transition.

But will it bring enough change, on a big enough scale, quick enough? A very difficult question…

Bill Campbell
12 Oct 1:19pm

@ Johnathan, I know what you mean, but I believe the pro’s far outweigh the con’s. It’s not like that flight would have been cancelled if that seat wasn’t filled, is it? And if it’s going anyhow…? I’m not educated enough to know how to analyze the cost/benefit ratio of footprint vrs message, but I’m thinking that it is heavily in favor of the message in terms of potential long term, more folks on board, benefit.

Kenrick Chin
12 Oct 2:37pm

The people in Transition, 350 and everywhere else are doing important and necessary work but this will not bring about the change on a global scale that is required to move civilization away from the brink. We will see change only when people’s lives and pocket books are directly under attack.

The economic, environmental and social crises are all tightly intertwined. We began the year with Arab Spring in the Middle East. We witnessed extreme drought in the US Midwest and now severe flooding in Asia. The EU economic crisis followed by a global financial collapse is inevitable. The Occupy Wall Street protests are signs that people have had enough. While we all hope for peaceful change, it is not going to happen that way. The established elite have too much to lose and will put up a fight. Change will happen through revolution.

Bart Anderson
12 Oct 6:46pm

About flying …

There is a need for certain individuals to fly and appear in person across the globe. The question is — is it worth the greenhouse emissions?

In the case of Bill McKibben or Al Gore, the answer is clearly Yes. (We might express it as “Greenhouse Gases Saved versus Greenhouse Gases Expended”, like EROEI).

So for me, this is a non-issue.

On the other hand, many climate conferences require hundreds of attendees fly to Denmark, Mexico or Indonesia … there’s got to be a better way.

I like Rob’s low-key decision not to fly anymore, and instead to be a presence via the Web.

David Eggleton
13 Oct 12:44am

I’m very disappointed that Bill mentioned only forests and oceans as carbon sinks, for two reasons in particular. First, ocean acidification is already big trouble and, second, I know he has been briefed on the huge opportunity in restoring grasslands via intensive rotational grazing. See and links that are there.

13 Oct 6:33pm

“…peak oil isn’t going to do any of this work for us.”
So Peak Oil isn’t what it was cracked up to be then? It was never about running out, but trying to stop anything that might allow the continuation of industrial society- nuclear, shale gas- not out of necessity but because of ideology.

Jonathan Smith
14 Oct 5:22pm

I find the arguments around flying or not fascinating – and very relevant to the whole movement. I can see the argument for some people flying to “spread the message”. I do not accept the argument “the plane is going anyway so it’s OK” – aviation companies, like other businesses, work on supply and demand.

I feel the symbolism of people not flying is highly significant. I massively respect the likes of Rob Hopkins and Patrick Whitefield for choosing not to fly, and telling everyone about it (aside from all their other excellent work). In an age where we have amazing global communications it’s possible to virtually appear at conferences on another continent from your home.

Where this matters is that we can demonstrate that the not flying, growing veg, doing local apple pressing, making willow baskets, investing in local renewable energy…all these improve your life, do not disadvantage you and are very positive. Collectively these impacts are hugely significant.

If you look back through what Bill says, whilst the achievements are significant, his globe-trotting lifestyle doesn’t sound very enticing, fulfilling or happy! What was that phrase about ‘party or protest march’?!

John Bell
14 Oct 6:07pm

Having listened to the shrill debate over Global Warming (GW) I would like to offer my take on it all, from a non-partisan, engineering perspective, being as realistic as possible. I live pretty modestly by American standards, and it does offend me a bit to see suburbanites driving H2s. I can afford to drive an H2, but I have better uses for my money. I am all for conserving energy and oil because they are expensive, not because I believe in GW.

I notice that GW has morphed in to Climate Change (CC), which on its face is an admission that evidence for rising global temperatures is lacking. Bait and switch! Now any change at all is “evidence”, and of course the climate is always changing everywhere. This smacks of religious faith; a believer sees her god acting everywhere because she was told that her god “drives the universe”. The invisible and the non-existent look a lot alike. To the believers, CC now drives all weather everywhere, even cooling is change, and so no matter what happens the believers feel vindicated.

I often hear that “Weather is not climate” coming from the believers, but when I read their articles they often cite extreme weather to be the result of GW. Must there be extreme weather to do the damage claimed? Is it possible to have no extreme weather and still suffer the claimed ill effects of GW? This reminds me of pareidolia, looking for a cryptic sign from heaven, like a Jesus face on a tortilla. Must there be a hurricane or a drought to prove the existence of GW?

The claims strike me as “the end of the world” all over again. A look in to the history of end times prophesies shows them to be based on faith, not scientific fact. The media love to jerk everyone around, keeping them running scared, always buying more media to feed their morbid fantasies. Big scares mean big profits. At first we had the end of the world because of the return of Jesus, then it was an asteroid, then it was global cooling, then it was the population explosion, then it was Mayan doomsday, then it was a volcano, then it was Y2k, then it was aliens, then it was AIDS, then it was a comet, then it was nuclear war, then it was the last of the crude oil, then it was the flu, it is always something! Remember when a “low carb” diet was fashionable? It faded off the radar screen because it was bull. Diet fads come and go just like end times prophesies. This is business as usual for the fear mongering press. Warnings of doomsday have always been good press, it sells copy, and GW is a real cash cow to the newsman who will milk it to his dying day. GW will always be the disaster that is always just around the corner, but never materializes.

The 2005 hurricane season and Katrina seemed to be the final nail in the coffin, but the next season was hurricane free, which had the faithful backpedaling like mad. Just remember, the computer models have adjustable gains which can be tweaked to report whatever is needed to get the next federal study grant.
Notice the hypocrisy from rich believers. They tell us that we need to sacrifice and cut back and go without, but they do not practice what they preach. They zoom around in private jets, easily pay huge electric bills, and drive in SUV motorcades with 11 tractor-trailers following. This reminds me of televangelists like Jimmy Swaggart preaching about living a pious life, then getting busted for hiring a hooker. If they believe then they should lead by example. Imagine everybody in the world flying around the globe preaching to everyone else to stop using so much energy. Reminds me of Multi-Level Marketing.
Some middle class people preach a “green” life style. But look past the claims; they use just as many lights and computers, drive cars, have kids, eat food, heat and cool their homes as those who don’t claim to be “green”. They proudly tell others how green they are for buying a few CF lights, recycling some plastics and buying a few products claiming to be “earth friendly”. They think putting a wine bottle in the recycle bin makes a big difference. That is irrational exuberance and is far more of a fashion statement than anything that could make a difference. In fact it is a form of auto eroticism – feeling good without making a baby. It is the current fashion to pay lip service but not really sacrifice anything; it is a way to relieve some of the guilt.
Another odd item is when a developed nation like the US tells someone like Brazil not to cut down their forests, because the world needs the trees to forestall GW. I love trees as much as anyone, but the USA did the same thing when she developed, so let us who live in a glass house not throw stones.
GW claims remind me of Irving Langmuir’s description of Pathological Science, which are;
• The maximum effect that is observed is produced by a causative agent of barely detectable intensity, and the magnitude of the effect is substantially independent of the intensity of the cause.
• The effect is of a magnitude that remains close to the limit of detectability, or many measurements are necessary because of the very low statistical significance of the results.
• There are claims of great accuracy.
• Fantastic theories contrary to experience are suggested.
• Criticisms are met by ad hoc excuses.
• The ratio of supporters to critics rises and then falls gradually to oblivion.
Pathological science, as defined by Langmuir, is a psychological process in which a scientist, originally conforming to the scientific method, unconsciously veers from that method, and begins a pathological process of wishful data interpretation. Langmuir never intended the term to be rigorously defined; it was simply the title of his talk on some examples of “weird science”. As with any attempt to define the scientific endeavor, examples and counterexamples can always be found.
I’m a mechanical engineer and understand energy and chemistry a bit more than the average bear. To listen to pundits and politicians talk about ceasing CO2 production is laughable! To do so would have us all living as we did before we learned how to produce and control fire. Even if GW is happening for sure, and everybody agrees on it and really sees it, what could we possibly do anyway? It would still be the same song, let others sacrifice in order to fix it! There are over 6 billion people on earth and more every day. If it is really happening it is far too late to do anything, anyway. CO2 production has always been a byproduct of the rise of human civilization. If there is a problem then it is population.
Another item that bothers me is this: if, on average, the whole earth has warmed just one degree Fahrenheit in the last 100 years, then how can that cause any ice to melt in an area whose average temperature is well below freezing (32° F)? If one area must cool while another warms, then what are the benefits of the cooling? The stories always presume that even a little warming is harmful, so by the same thinking a little cooling must be equally helpful. But we never hear about the good effects, this makes me suspicious of a scam.
Oil, coal, wood, and natural gas are “free” energy. By this I mean that, for example, a person’s own hand need not turn a crank to generate electricity. Many live well and enjoy luxuries by using this free energy. Oil is made in to thousands of useful products. If GW is really happening, it is a price we must pay for the use of abundant free energy.

15 Oct 2:19pm

@John Bell “If GW is really happening, it is a price we must pay for the use of abundant free energy.”- you’ve hit the proverbial nail on the head.

Good discussion featuring McKibben and Robert Bryce author of “Power Hungry” here:

The debate is clearly between those who feel people have the right to cheap abundant energy and those who think they should be able to control people’s energy use (which means controlling everything in their lives) by nebulous notions of future “climate change”. Note that McKibben invokes the canard of extreme weather events as a scare-mongering tactic in this case. (There is little if any good evidence to link extreme weather with CO2 emissions.)

In the interview here with Rob, McKibben lays the blame of failing to stop Co2 as with the oil companies because of their wealth and power- ignoring the obvious, wealth and power comes from having something useful to sell, something everyone wants.

There are simply enormous sums of money going into climate change activism, not least from the UN itself- and still they are losing the debate.(How much funding, direct or indirect, do Transition groups get from this I wonder?)

It is a fantasy that we can voluntarily reduce fossil fuel consumption to any great degree, and increasingly it appears to be a fantasy that we will have to because of Peak Oil: McKibben admits as much, since if we were running out of affordable fossil fuels, there would be no need for a protest movement on CO2.

McKibben also claims nuclear will not be unrolled because it is expensive- as if “renewables” like wind and solar are not?! New reactors running on Thorium are coming down the line which is a source of fuel unlikely to run out for hundreds of years.

Bryce’s book, which I strongly recommend Transitioners to read so as to be informed by the other point of view, argues that the best way in any case to decarbonise the economy is a gradual move into gas, which is happening as a result of market forces and technology, without any regulations on emissions being required. Gas is more plentiful and cleaner than oil.

According the Ridley, the gas revolution could be simply huge:

Of course, the activists are against shale gas as well,(if you include fossil fuels and large-scale hydro, they are against upwards of 95% of all the energy sources available on the planet) leading to the regrettable conclusion that one of the biggest threats to human well-being over the coming decades is environmentalism.

Kenrick Chin
16 Oct 4:33am

I can tear apart every statement John Bell makes but what’s the point?

16 Oct 9:57am

@Kenrick Chin how about tearing apart ONE of them?

16 Oct 11:47am

A more balanced view of the tar sands pipeline showing arguments for and against:
Better for the US to be more reliant on Canadian tar sands than on middle eastern oil? If the pipeline isn’t built for the US the oil will be shipped across the Pacific and US military action around the Gulf States will probably continue. Which would environmentalists prefer?

Bart Anderson
16 Oct 11:17pm

Graham, your beliefs seem to have changed so much that they are 90% at odds with what most of what Transition is about. I think you would be happier in other groups. At a certain point, it does neither you nor Transition any good to continue discussing in this way.

16 Oct 11:33pm

Hi Bart
when new evidence arises then I change my beliefs. It is a sign of an open and inquiring mind. What, sir, do you do?
Do I take it that you think Transition would be better served by a dogmatic and blinkered approach?
Do you feel you are speaking for the whole of the Transition movement by ignoring the issues I have raised?
Unless you can prove otherwise, what I have said are not my “beliefs”; they are the facts.
PS what IS Transition about? Because it has seemed to me for some time that it is about an ideological position vis-a-vis the morality of living in industrial societies, while claiming to be a response to peak oil and climate change.

So what would be interesting to hear from you is, do you think we should cut fossil fuel use because we have no choice as it is running out? or we should oppose fossil fuel use because of AGW? or we should oppose fossil fuel use because it is morally wrong? And why is so much of the climate alarmist camp anti-nuclear?

I think it would be good for Transition to clarify these issues.

16 Oct 11:45pm

PS I should say that, when I was a peak oil doomer, in the days when I was regularly published on Energy Bulletin- before you dropped me apparently because of my take on GE crops- I strongly believed peak oil was a blessing because it would mean industrial society could not continue. Bring on the Collapse! was my general view, we can all go back to the land and live simpler and more fulfilling lives. Noone corrected me on this view because everyone shared it pretty much.
So that is why, when new technology comes along like shale gas, all the doomers campaign against it- we want peak oil to mean peak energy, what a downer if there is some way out! Peak oil is more often than not seen, not as a terrible event that will cause immeasurable hardship and suffering, but a penance for our wicked consumerism and our sins against Gaia.

Bart Anderson
17 Oct 1:11am

Hello Graham,
Several times I’ve been in the situation in which I think you find yourself: very much at odds with the group. One has a choice at this point, to keep banging one’s head against the wall or to move on.

There are always going to be differences in a group, but at a certain point the differences are too great for meaningful and productive communication.

It doesn’t matter whether one is right or not. And it is not easy, because it means change. But from my experience, it is important to leave cleanly and graciously, rather than to have the situation deteriorate into bad feelings. It is better for one’s happiness and peace of mind.

There are other groups out there with which one can be productive – green libertarian maybe?

It is not just you, of course. All of us may find ourselves in the same position.

Sometimes the greatest act of courage is to be able to walk away and start anew.

Bart Anderson
17 Oct 2:07am

To respond quickly, Graham.

I think I agree with what I know of your takes on population and doomerism.

There are many reasons to look for alternatives to our current reliance on economic growth. One can point to peak oil, climate change, species extinctions, or the growing polarization of the population into rich and poor.

I tend to pay attention to the scientists, environmentalists and political analysts. I may agree with the feelings of moralistic writers, but that is not how I come to my conclusions.

Similarly with the technologies you mention, like GMOs, nuclear and fracking. There are ample scientific and political reasons to oppose these.

If you are uncomfortable with the moralistic, anti-industrial tone of some people in the Transition movement, then I’d like to invite you to the scientific analyses featured at Energy Bulletin and at scientific and academic sites.

I’ve also been influenced by the eco-socialist writings of people like John Bellamy Foster of Monthly Review.

As an editor, I don’t make judgments based on whether an article agrees with my opinions. I look for pieces that are fresh, important and/or readable.

17 Oct 7:39am

Graham. I feel that we have done these issues to death, and that little is to be gained by your wading into Transition Culture again because you’ve read another new book you want to share with everyone. Why not just review it, and then we can read your review if we choose to?

If you are looking for people who are going to debate your newly found stance that climate change is nonsense, peak oil is a con, that those engaged in Transition are “increasingly Luddite and stuck in the retro-romantic past”, and that we are all opposed to the idea of technology on principle, then this really isn’t the forum.

Readers are invited to view my most recent ‘dialogue’ with Graham ( to get a sense of his debating style, to get a sense of the frustrating experience that it represents. In my experience, debating these issues with him is hugely time-consuming, deeply-infuriating, and yields no illumination for anyone.

While you are welcome, Graham, to continue this discussion here with anyone who has the energy to do so, personally I won’t be engaging with it, and if the quality of the discussion reaches the ungraceful and insulting level often seen at Zone 5, I will reserve my editor’s perogative to draw the discussion to a close.

17 Oct 7:45am

Thanks Bart,
“Similarly with the technologies you mention, like GMOs, nuclear and fracking. There are ample scientific and political reasons to oppose these.”

The general convention I believe is to discuss these issues, perhaps by exchanging links etc, and allowing a free flow of ideas and debate; you seem to adopt a paternalistic stance in which you feel you have already decided on everyone else’s behalf where the Truth lies.

You are clearly stating that politics and science are intertwined. The difficulty is, ideology actually has no place in science- they need to be kept quite separate. Thus, if we were to accept a very general statement like “economic growth can be damaging to the environment” as being scientifically accurate, (it can also be good for the environment- wealth allows more enviro protection) this does not tell us what if anything we should do about it, or whether it is a bad thing per se. This applies especially to climate change which has become extraordinarily politicized- the “science” pressed into service of an anti-technology ideology.

Thus, while there is scientific evidence that humans are contributing to warming, how serious this is, and especially, what, if anything we should do about it, are political issues. Climate change is being used as a means to a specific political end. You seem to be at least partly acknowledging this, but see nothing wrong there.

In the same way, your statement about there being “scientific” reasons to oppose GE, nuclear and frakking is surely false. Just as every main scientific academy in the world has made a statement to the effect that AGW is a real and present danger which should be acted on by decarbonisation, so they have all endorsed GE as safe and beneficial. The idea of opposing nuclear when France for example runs 60% of their domestic electricity from nuclear is just bizarre- unless the claims about the dangers of AGW are over-blown. But what about the dangers of Peak Oil, leading to the lights going out and general collapse? Is this preferable? What is lacking here is a cost-benefit analysis. Same with frakking: Issues of safety will always arise but are essentially engineering problems. Technology improves over time.

Surely there many other intelligent Transitioners out there who can also put two and two together and are scratching their heads reading McKibben say at $80/barrel tar sands are profitable: what then of peak oil?

And there are of course certainly climate activists who support nuclear. Do they not get a voice?

Are you not admitting Bart that Peak Oil is just a scare tactic to persuade people to adopt your political preference? There certainly is no scientific consensus on PO the way we are told there is on AGW. The IPCC, that bastion of scientific objectivity, assumes economic growth and fossil fuel availability for the next hundred years; there is no PO scenario considered. So how do you square that circle?

As for your odd suggestion that I should just walk away, is this not a clear statement that, “we do not want free and open discussion here; only one point of view permitted. Go away.”

Actually I remember now the first article I submitted to EB that was rejected was an atheist rebuttal to a review of a book on God by Karen Armstrong which you had promoted: maybe you think there are “good scientific and political” reasons to promote God, Bart?

As (self-appointed?) gate-keeper to all things Transition, you are actually trying to shut down debate both here and on EB.

My article on GE was fresh, important and readable -but you rejected it for ideological reasons. Too bad.

17 Oct 8:10pm

Rob- thanks for posting the link to the discussion on my blog, very helpful.
Readers will notice that I refer on that post to your page “Why Transition Culture?” in which you had stated:

“‘As one man said during a group discussion at the end of a screening of The End of Suburbia that I organised in Clonakilty, “we’ve just seen that the end of the Oil Age will bring about the collapse of industrial society … bring it on!”.’

When I referred to this you you complained that:

“Having pointed out that you have evolved and moved on in your thinking, you then drag up, rather unfairly, a quote from what must have been the very early days of Transition Culture (“society will collapse catastrophically and very soon”) to suggest that that is still my stance.”

So this means that you – and possibly Transition- have changed your aims. So what I am wondering is, have you made this clear to your membership? Why the subterfuge? If Transition has moved away from that position, this is very significant I would have thought. There may even be early supporters still involved from those days who dont realise this is not the organisation they joined!

I notice that page is now being revised- could this be in part because of my questioning of it? (I’m not the only one to do so)- in which case, why such a negative attitude towards my own change of viewpoint?

Maybe Transition has moved to a more moderate position over the past few years and no longer advocates the wholesale destruction of modern society, instead preferring a (after Holmgren) “Green- Tech Stability” kind of approach.

Another thing that interests me about seeing McKibben here is, what has he got to do with Transition? I thought Transition was “more of a party than a protest march”- yet McKibben is all about the protest march. “Say no to xyz”. If Transition has to be engaged with this kind of activism, has it not failed in its own terms, ie failed to draw enough support for its supposedly superior and happier low-energy lifestyle?

It seems to me likely that Transition, and your own views, have also undergone some quite radical changes over the past few years, and it would be great to see an honest post by you discussing this.

Also, I remember seeing before the summer that you were taking Ridley’s “The Rational Optimist” with you- since this was one of the main influences in my own change of direction, would love to read a review and hear what you thought of it.
Cheers, Graham

Kenrick Chin
18 Oct 4:31am

Graham’s arguments are just as bad as John Bell’s. These fellows are just looking for an audience and someone to argue with. Why are we putting up with their rant? Let them take it some place else.

18 Oct 7:20am

Hi Kenrick
I am not looking for someone to argue with, nor for an audience; I am genuinely interested in Peak Oil/climate change and ran my own PO doomer/permaculture blog for over 5 years; also gave many public talks on the need to transition and power-down, and wrote a chapter for a booklet by Colin Campbell.

For years I believed that Peak Oil was imminent and would guarantee the collapse of modern society and I, along with Rob and many others, thought “Yippee! Bring it on…” Transition Towns were spawned from this and the belief in a “scientific consensus” in catastrophic climate change meaning we have to “break our addiction to oil”.

But now Rob also seems to have changed his views, and in this post we have a leading activist telling us that Peak Oil is a myth- there is as much oil in the tar sands as in Saudi Arabia.
I would have thought, a much bigger story than the pipeline protest would be: “Peak Oil is Dead!”
Would love to hear your views on this. Thanks, Graham.

PS although Rob runs a tight ship here and is ready to ban me at the slightest provocation, he is currently welcoming me here, which is to his credit I think.

18 Oct 7:52am

I would hardly say “at the slightest provocation” Graham. Your approach here is becoming increasingly troll-like, and you appear to be doing little to engage people in your conversation and appearing to deliberately misunderstand things that Bill stated quite clearly in his interview (as well as things that I have said in the past). If the tone here continues to be troll-like, I reserve the right to draw this conclusion to a halt, or to stop moderating your comments. Thanks for your straighforward analysis Kenrick of where this conversation is increasingly being taken.

Bart Anderson
18 Oct 2:29pm

Thank you Rob and Kenrick.

In my experience, it’s better for both parties to cut things off cleanly. These situations never get any better.

After stating one’s position clearly, it is pointless to argue or reason any further. The best thing is to move on.

18 Oct 8:58pm

@Bart: that seems a depressingly negative point of view, although I appreciate that may be your experience. Bare in mind that these forum discussions may be read by others who may indeed be influenced one way or the other- the silent bystanders may not necessarily be so entrenched in their views as the protagonists.

@Rob- “you appear to be doing little to engage people in your conversation…”
What to make of this? Clearly it is the other way around! I have made some relevant points and asked pertinent questions with quotations from your post, and links to other posts on the same topics with other opinions;
you have stated that you will not engage yourself anyway; Bart and Kenrick are essentially just saying “stfu and go away”. Not much to engage with there! Bart has tried a little and I have responded, to no avail; but he seems to be implicitly accepting- at least to some degree- that PO and AGW are indeed a means to an end; and, most interestingly of all, he is explicitly conflating science and politics, as if to admit, “if there isn’t a scientific reason, then we can surely find a political one!” -well, that’s for sure.

(Just to re-visit a point about McKibben I made earlier: in the debate with Bryce I linked to above, McKibben calls for action on climate change because of recent increase in extreme weather events. This is a good example of politics masquerading as science. Laframboise’ new book on the IPCC has a really good section on this particular issue, the book itself is essential reading:

“…appearing to deliberately misunderstand things that Bill stated quite clearly in his interview”

I may well be misunderstanding Bill, so please do put me right, but certainly not deliberately. That is why I came on this forum- to see if others also noticed the significance of what he said, or to hear other opinions. But I havn’t heard any other opinions, they havn’t been offered.

McKibben is NOT saying “Thank God for Peak oil otherwise we’d all fry!”
He IS saying: PO wont help us because of substitution, so we need a protest movement; and I think that is very interesting and relevant.

What is missing in all these discussions- the elephant in the room as it were- is that, if PO really means Peak Energy/Peak Everything then life will become much, much harder than anyone cares to contemplate; while if McKibben is right, no-one is going to voluntarily create a PO scenario for themselves because we all benefit so hugely from using energy (and, of course, we will be able to mitigate many or most climate change effects if we have enough energy)- and there is nothing wrong with that! To blame it all on the “fossil fuel industry” seems frankly silly: we all want cheap energy(and btw India and China do not appear to suffer so much from the western energy-guilt hypochondria prevalent here).

Bart’s position is especially interesting: again, I may be misunderstanding him, and I dont want to do that (or anyone else)- that is why I am here: to discuss and avoid misunderstandings. However, he appears to be explicitly saying:

“Do not debate. Keep a closed shop. Only go where you will find folks who share your views. Don’t challenge anyone else, nor respond to any challenges- this is just hitting a brick wall.”

And that seems very sad, and if that is the majority view of readers of TC, and of the transition Town Movement, (and I really dont believe it is) then it will quickly atrophy and cease to be of any relevance at all, and I for one think that would be a shame.

Bill got at least one thing right: ‘Mother Church of Transition’ may be more prescient than he realizes!

Anyway, thanks for posting a very interesting interview Rob.

19 Oct 12:02am

Gavin Schmidt is worth a read here: on the relative dangers of gas frakking for climate (relevant to comments by Rob on my “Open Letter” which he linked to above);

and here he is on linking extreme weather events to AGW (or even GW):
“There is no theory or result that indicates that climate change increases extremes in general.”

NB Schmidt is of course a bona fide member of “The Hockey Team” so would be seen to be clearly in the camp of “the enemy” from any skeptics’ point of view.

19 Oct 12:40am

OK Graham, thanks. I’m going to draw this thread to a close now. Thanks to everyone for participating in it. If anyone has the energy and/or the inclination to engage Graham in these conversations, you can visit him over at Thanks all…