Lance Foster (hengruh) wrote,
Lance Foster

Transition Towns and Green Wizardry

I read John Michael Greer's "The Archdruid Report" regularly, and his post today was very interesting, about some differences of opinion and perception between the Transition Towns movement of Rob Hopkins and JMG's Green Wizardry. You can read the original posts at Hopkins' Transition Culture: Why 'Green Wizards Get Us Nowhere New and Greer's The Archdruid Report: Green Wizardry: A Response to Rob Hopkins. After reading both of them, I wrote up a response but it was twice as long as JMG's comment area allowed. So I summarized the comments there, but this was my original response:

Hi JMG I read both your post and that of Rob Hopkins. I just can’t help feeling like you guys are to some extent talking past each other. I think if you guys sat down alone in some pub corner with a couple of Guinesses, you would have it worked out inside an hour or two. He is missing some of your essential points, and he also has some ideas that need to be considered for an improved green wizardy. I am sure you both already know that.

For example, his critique that many of the 1970s solutions need proper evaluation as to results is right on. Some of those first Earthships turned out to have some problems, leaks and such. Maybe someone has already done these longitudinal studies on the alternative technologies of the 1970s, but the results need to be made more available so we can make better choices. Adaptation.

Hopkins’ critique that green wizardy needs to take climate change into account is right too. Not in his sense necessarily of decreasing our carbon footprint. Yes, we have to do what we can as we are all responsible. But I am afraid in the most important ways that ship has sailed, and our Senator Tester, who was in town the other day, said while it is likely an energy bill will pass, the carbon cap/tax is a casualty. Although green wizardy does not focus on climate change, it needs to, because it is about useful adaptation to reality. Agricultural practices will need to change based on alteration of growing season and aridity, as well as water and weather patterns(including lengthy flooding, storms and changes in winds), and thus energy availability. This is a perfect scenario for a green wizard to start testing plant varieties in the garden, and adapting heritage varieties to keep fertility as well as adaptability to local conditions. Solvitur ambulando. Adaptation.

In other ways, Hopkins seems to have missed many of your essential points. Maybe he hasn’t read all your posts to get a more compete picture of where you stand. And we all do read and receive information compatible with our filters.

For one thing, the model of top-down social engineering (which he calls “governance”) never works. It only works, and then only briefly, in dictatorships. It was tried but didn’t even work in Communist countries for very long. Utopian ideals do not meet people where they already are in day-to-day life. And notice the top guy always promotes the “right” answer—which is always the top guy’s answer.

I don’t know if Hopkins has been paying attention to the ugly national mood in the U.S. these days, but top-down solutions are very unpopular with us Yanks just now. I don’t know how things are in Great Britain, but social engineering doesn’t fly in the U.S. even in the best times and these aren’t the best times- trust of government is way down. The cultures of the UK and the US are very different. And even in the US, classes and cultures are very different. What works for urban educated middle class folks in Connecticut is a world away from what will work for inner city or rural or reservation working class.

More people need to understand people, how they self-organize- Not how they “should” do this or that, but how they –do- this or that. We are all products of our culture, our generation, our class. To deny it is hubris, and self-blinding. You need to hit the ball where it lies.

Adaptations need also to reflect the reality of local geographies. All the chatter about electic cars makes me shake my head. Yeah, a real possibility in the Beltway of DC, or Atlanta or the freeways of LA or Honolulu. But electric cars do not work well in places like rural Montana or most of the “flyover country” or the Yukon- distances of hundreds of miles, extreme temperatures, and road conditions of extremely steep grades on unpaved backroads do not lend themselves to electric cars with their limited range and power. And anybody who tries to forceably resettle a rancher into some transition town, well, had better be prepared for some armed resistance.

Nor will mass transit work out here in the American rural west. There just aren’t enough people to make systems pay in most rural places that may have populations of a few dozen people fifty or more miles apart, and up in the hills. I don’t think people from denser parts of the country realize how far between populations and how scattered they are out here. All these new folks who bought up ranchettes during the housing bubble and era of cheap oil (I painted rural propane tanks this summer in Montana, and was amazed at seeing Fed-Ex trucks zipping around way up in the mountains to “cabins” built for half a million), will soon be adjusting to a new reality, and many of them will be moving out. Kunstler’s upstate canals for water power and transport won’t also won’t work in the arid rural west.

Hopkins talks about the old hippie tech somewhat disparagingly as cobbled-together stuff, as with windmills and solar panels. Now I agree the new materials are way, way better and more efficient. But those new materials and manufacturing methods are heavily dependent on cheap, plentiful petroleum (plastics, etc.) and rare earth minerals (batteries). See the problem. The same problem as we saw with ethanol two summers ago, when farmers grew more corn for fuel, which USED oil in the processing and transport, and had the side effect of food shortages (real or perceived—and in speculation trading, perceived shortage is even more critical than real shortage!)

Hopkins’ reliance on the new technologies, just like his utopian communities, is ideal- but he is also already saying cheap materials are over with because cheap oil is over with. There is a disconnect it seems. And with all these high tech solutions, there comes a hefty price tag. Not everybody will be able to afford that, so what are they supposed to do? Eat cake because they don’t have bread? The poor in rural areas will continue to live the best they can, driving their old gas-guzzlers (because they can barely afford gas to get to work, let alone a $40,000 electic car) until the guzzlers die and can’t be fixed anymore.

Ok, and now this might get a little personal, but as I said earlier, we are all products of our generation. JMG and I are roughly the same age. We are old enough to have been a part of the 70s stuff when we were teens. I don’t know when Rob Hopkins was born. Looking at his photo, I doubt he is as old as JMG and me (I’m 50). Some call us tail-end boomers, but speaking for myself, I don’t relate to boomers very well. I’m guessing Rob is somewhere between his mid-30s and early 40s. That’s a totally different generation. I don’t know his upbringing, other than British, or whether his folks were counter-culture. I bet he is well-educated though.

I graduated high school in 1978 and attended the University of Montana in Missoula, Montana’s hippie town (though in those days there were lots of loggers too, before the forest products industry went bust). In the 1970s at the University of Montana, many students took old white t-shirts, rubber bands and RIT dye and made their own tie-dyed shirts. In the winter they took old heavy bicycles and adapted them for off-road use, taking heavy bicycle tires, and putting tacks inside them through the tires points-out, making their own studded tires for ice. They bought used clothing and real Army surplus for hiking: WW2 packs, wool socks and army boots. They made their own granola and went dumpster diving behind grocery stores.

By about 1985, people at UM were buying 40 dollar professionally tie-dye shirts, couple-hundred dollar mountain bikes, high-tech hiking equipment. They felt they were counter-culture too, but it was just a different flavor of the global corporate lifestyle. Many of these younger folks are the same as the older Boomers (best line from Salt Lake City Punk: “oh son, I didn’t sell out…I bought IN”), driving SUVs and Hummers buying and promoting “green” products now), mountain bike extreme racing etc.

What was that change between 1978 and 1985, just a little over 5 years? The inception of Morning in America, and the ideology from Carter warning us the party was over and Reagan saying the party had just begun. THAT was the change.

Our minds and values have been so colonized that we hardly even see it anymore. But I can see it in this Green Wizardy and Transition Town tiff. Hopkins is really saying we must be a part of a labelled movement. We must even conform in our nonconformity. It’s like a kid rejecting their membership in a childhood church to become a Wiccan; and then buying the right brand of black clothing and looking online for a “witch school” or “witch kit” or needing to belong to the “right” Wiccan group. Conformity in nonconformity, and few see the irony.

Greer (if I read you right JMG) in his Green Wizardy is really just saying diversity is in our best interest, diversity of ideas and everything, because that’s the best change for at least some of us to go on, just like in nature. You can’t plan for the unforeseen, so the greater the diversity, the better chance at least some will survive. And ONE of those ways is the Transition Town movement but it is not the ONLY way. Green Wizardy is really just another way to talk about adaptive radiation in culture and technology.

We must get away from the invasive consumerist/corporate mindset that there has to be a product, a label, a name brand- like Transition Towns (TM) or Permaculture (TM) or Green Wizardry (TM) that can be bought as the “right answer.” I hate to see some good people, whether green wizards or transition townies, degenerate into a crosstown high school rivalry, like PC vs Mac, or Chevy vs Ford scenario. This ain’t a goddamn football game.

Ideals are fine, and I would agree with Hopkins that our social systems and ideologies need to be re-tooled as much as technology. Archaeologist Leslie White talked about the interdependence of the three: there is no affecting one without effect on the others. The reality for future cultures (technology-social systems-ideology) needs to account for the Hegelian dialectic: thesis-antithesis-synthesis- you have a goal but you will always end up somewhere different, maybe even better, than that goal. My own belief is that we need to rip the consumer mentality parasite from us, and look more towards adaptive radiation and speciation in nature: Not Utopia, but Solvitur Ambulando.
Tags: collapse, philosophy, politics

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