Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Does the transition movement have the answer?

I'm not sure where I first heard about the transition movement, but it must have been before last May. I find it intriguing because it seems to be catching on fairly fast. The Transition Towns Wiki lists 204 towns that have some "official" participation in the movement. It started in England, but is now gaining popularity here in the US. There's a "mullers' map" listing groups that are considering drawing up some kind of transition plan. Here in the greater New York area, there's an informal organization.

On an Amtrak train this summer, my family and I happened to be sitting next to a young man who had a book sticking out of his bag, the Transition Handbook. I asked him about it, and he let me flip through it. What particularly struck me was a chart adapted from one by Bryn Davidson. Go look at it now. Seriously; I'll wait.

What Davidson's chart says is that there are a bunch of responses to peak oil that essentially defend the status quo or trust to "technology" to save us. There are a bunch of similar responses to global warming. But if you take peak oil and global warming together, every one of those status-quo or technocentric solutions is a no-go. We can't combat peak oil with dirty fuels, because that would release megatons of CO2, and we can't combat climate change with energy-intensive projects because we don't have the energy. In the Transition Handbook, Rob Hopkins gives persuasive arguments against the other "solutions" like nuclear, solar, biofuels and wind, and makes a pretty good case that in the not-too-distant future we'll have to make do with much less energy.

A pretty scary thought, right? But the transition movement is much more positive than you might think, and that's intentional. Hopkins spends a fair amount of time arguing that the gloom-and-doom put forth by environmental advocates has alienated more than it has inspired. He says that the meetings for transition towns have attracted large numbers of enthusiastic people who put hours and hours into projects. There's even a chirpy fashion article about it (offline, but still in the Google Cache, and here's an excerpt.

I was intrigued, and a few days later I bought a copy of the book. It (and the movement) hasn't quite lived up to my expectations. But I think there are a number of insights and ideas that we can borrow from it. I'll get into all that soon.


Alon Levy said...

Bleh. Solar energy costs are going down exponentially, while installed capacity is mushrooming. Nuclear does actually work, contrary to what the environmental movement has been saying - and it's much safer than the coal it displaces. Fertilizers and pesticides are less necessary now due to the spread of GMOs; long-haul flights have passenger volumes so small they're a drop in both the oil and the CO2 buckets. Everything else - cars, heating, short-haul flights, plastics - can be replaced with existing green technology like subways and HSR.

Cap'n Transit said...

I'm not completely convinced about all that, Alon. But I am convinced that cars and short-haul flights will have to be replaced with something more sustainable - and that's why we're here.

Alon Levy said...

Cars can be abolished in modern cities. In Hong Kong, they more or less are: it has half as many vehicles per capita as Manhattan. And distances there are short enough that full electrification of cars is plausible at least in principle.

Pluto Power said...

Hong Kong is not a great example of a city where cars have been abolished. It may have half as many vehicles per capita as Manhattan but you fail to mention that the population density of HK is much much higher. Plus the area is very small. This means that effectively, you get just as many cars packed into the city if not more. When I went there, I noticed traffic jams there are way worse. I also know that there is a no-recycling policy and a love of consumerism. Meaning that people there toss their new cars every few years and buy a new one. I have never seen a car older than 1990 model being driven in HK.

Pluto Power said...

i mean no recycling mind-set...not policy....but it might as well be a policy....if u know what i mean

Pluto Power said...

See wiki on HK air pollution. Very poor quality.