The Transition Initiative as chicken soup for the environmentalist’s soul?
As silly as that might sound, the Transition movement might just be the thing weary environmentalists need to pull us out of a decade-long funk—a decade of Hummers and the rapid erosion of environmental protections under the Bush administration. Assuming you’re not all hope-n-changed out after the initial euphoria of the November elections, it’s a pretty good time to be an optimist. The House just passed a historic, if imperfect, climate bill. We have a President who respects climate science and honestly wants to address climate change and energy issues. And we have a grassroots / netroots that’s more involved in these issues than ever before—so much so that they’re not waiting around for top-down change. They’re re-localizing, re-skilling, and community-building.
A WHILE AGO, I heard an American scientist address an audience in Oxford, England, about his work on the climate crisis. He was precise, unemotional, rigorous, and impersonal: all strengths of a scientist.
The next day, talking informally to a small group, he pulled out of his wallet a much-loved photo of his thirteen-year-old son. He spoke as carefully as he had before, but this time his voice was sad, worried, and fatherly. His son, he said, had become so frightened about climate change that he was debilitated, depressed, and disturbed. Some might have suggested therapy, Prozac, or baseball for the child. But in this group one voice said gently, “What about the Transition Initiative?”
If the Transition Initiative were a person, you’d say he or she was charismatic, wise, practical, positive, resourceful, and very, very popular. Starting with the town of Totnes in Devon, England, in September 2006, the movement has spread like wildfire across the U.K. (delightfully wriggling its way into The Archers, Britain’s longest-running and most popular radio soap opera), and on to the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan. The core purpose of the Transition Initiative is to address, at the community level, the twin issues of climate change and peak oil—the declining availability of “ancient sunlight,” as fossil fuels have been called. The initiative is set up to enable towns or neighborhoods to plan for, and move toward, a post-oil and low-carbon future: what Rob Hopkins, founder of the Transition Initiative, has termed “the great transition of our time, away from fossil fuels.”
Part of the genius of the movement rests in its acute and kind psychology. It acknowledges the emotional effect of these issues, from that thirteen-year-old’s sense of fear and despair, to common feelings of anger, impotence, and denial, and it uses insights from the psychology of addiction to address some reasons why it is hard for people to detoxify themselves from an addiction to (or dependence on) oil. It acknowledges that healthy psychological functioning depends on a belief that one’s needs will be met in the future; for an entire generation, that belief is now corroded by anxiety over climate change.
Many people feel that individual action on climate change is too trivial to be effective but that they are unable to influence anything at a national, governmental level. They find themselves paralyzed between the apparent futility of the small-scale and impotence in the large-scale. The Transition Initiative works right in the middle, at the scale of the community, where actions are significant, visible, and effective. “What it takes is a scale at which one can feel a degree of control over the processes of life, at which individuals become neighbors and lovers instead of just acquaintances and ciphers. . . participants and protagonists instead of just voters and taxpayers. That scale is the human scale,” wrote author and secessionist Kirkpatrick Sale in his 1980 book, Human Scale.
How big am I? As an individual, five foot two and whistling. At a government level, I find I’ve shrunk, smaller than the X on my ballot paper. But at a community level, I can breathe in five river-sources and breathe out three miles of green valleys.
We speak of economies of scale, and I would suggest that there are also moralities of scale. At the individual scale, morality is capricious: people can be heroes or mass murderers, but the individual is usually constrained by inner conscience and always constrained by size. While a nation-state can at best offer a meager welfare system, at worst—as the history of nations in the twentieth century showed so brutally—morality need not be constrained by any conscience, and through its enormity a state can engineer a genocide. At the community level, though, morality is complex: certainly communities can be jealous and spiteful and less given to heroism than an individual, yet a community’s power to harm is far less than that of a state, simply because of its size. Further, because there are more niche reasons for people to identify with their community, and simply because there is a greater per-capita responsibility, a community is more susceptible to a sense of shame. Community morality involves a sense of fellow-feeling, is attuned to the common good, far steadier than individual morality, far kinder than the State: its moral range reaches neither heaven nor hell but is grounded, well-rooted in the level of Earth.