Monday, October 12, 2009

Transitioning back to the land

As I've written recently, the Transition movement has some promise, but so far it hasn't delivered much. Others have had more pointed criticisms.

A group called the Trapese Public Education Collective observed (PDF) that the Transition movement specifically avoids taking controversial stances on anything other than the necessity of transition. As an example, they point to a Transition group's refusal to participate in protests against the installation of a gas pipeline in County Mayo, Ireland. They ask, "How can we talk about climate change and peak oil and not deal with politics or side with communities struggling against the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure?" They take it further into a critique of capitalism, but I find most valuable the point that the Transition movement avoids examining a lot of the more systemic problems in industrial society.

Others take issue with the "local self-reliance" principle that is central to the Transition movement. They point out that if only a few towns become self-sufficient, then those towns could become islands of sustainability in a sea of chaos. They would then be at risk of being taken over by those who had wasted their resources, or else have to become fortresses. The town-by-town scale is too small for our interconnected world, they argue, and more cooperation needs to be in place.

My biggest problem with what I've read is the contempt for cities that positively drips from the pages of The Transition Handbook. The original Energy Descent Plan was written for Kinsale, Ireland (population 2,257), and the most popular Transition Towns are Totnes, Devon (population 8,000) and Lewes, East Sussex (population 16,222). On Page 37, Rob Hopkins admits that New York has "one of the lowest per capita CO2 emissions of any large western city," but then goes on to dismiss it - and city living in general - in a single paragraph, based on the 2003 blackout, as having "little or no resilience to declining oil supplies (a concept explored in depth in Chapter 3)."

I was eager to read in Chapter 3 a detailed discussion of how cities lacked this resilience, but there was nothing more of it, just an explanation of why resilience is important and how to cultivate it in your small town. This cavalier dismissal of half the world's population, more than anything else, led me to the conclusion that while the Transition movement brings some interesting perspectives, ultimately it cannot be taken seriously as a whole.

By the time I had gotten to Page 37 I had already read a lot that was uncomfortably familiar. You see, I'm a product of the Back to the Land movement. I grew up with organic brown rice purchasing coops and people living out of old school buses. Most of those people are very nice and well-meaning, but they were just clueless about what it takes to have a real society. Sure, you can have a commune out in the woods, but if you want to "tread lightly on the land," you need support from - guess where? that big bad ol' city you thought you left behind. And how many innocent deer and dogs - to say nothing of innocent children on bikes or not-so-innocent teenagers driving stoned - need to die against the front grille of your Subaru Wagon before you realize that motorized country life has nothing to do with living in harmony with nature?

After four years of college in a city with a decent transportation system, I had no desire to go "back to the land." I went back to the city, where my child can have a decent social life that doesn't require me to buy gasoline. A place where when I'm old I can walk down to the park or the bakery instead of being stuck in the middle of nowhere.

A town - especially a big town like Lewes - has the ability to support a car-free lifestyle if the majority of residents do their shopping downtown and patronize the transit system. But if they continue to drive out to the more convenient shopping at the mall, the town will never be sustainable.

More generally, getting everyone out of the cities and into self-sufficient towns of a few thousand people is a Herculean task, to say the least. Ignoring the challenge of making cities resilient seems like a sure-fire way to set up your town as a fortress in the future.

I'll talk a bit more about what Hopkins has to say about cities in a future post. In the meantime, take the Transition movement - and any movement that envisions the entire planet's population living in the woods - with a grain of salt.


BruceMcF said...

To elaborate on the point you make, as analysed by AEJ Johnston in Organization of Space in Developing Nations and Jane Jacobs in Cities and the Wealth of Nations, not only is the urban market key to a making efficiency gains in agrarian economies, but it is a key source of the technological development that material and energy efficiency gains relies upon.

It is important that all local communities make progress in terms of their sustainability, resiliance and material efficiency, not just rural towns and their immediate hinterlands.

psystenance said...

I think there's value in trying to make fairly self-sufficient regions instead of towns. Regions should have well-delineated urban areas that do production, commerce, and so on, and that are dense enough for transit to work. The surrounding countryside should be supplying as much of the food and energy of the region as reasonably possible.

Of course, a huge metropolis would have a hard time with this, but it could still go some of the way there.

Alon Levy said...

In the US at least, there's also an elitist element of hatred of urban diversity. For example, read Stanley Fish's paean to Andes, New York, a town of 1,356. He calls it a diverse community, based on one cafe frequented by city intellectuals; the town is 97% white. Fish also talks about the town's close-knit structure by raving about its NIMBY resistance to wind power and about its forcing a homeowner to paint his house white; this ties to Jacobs' point about how towns based on communal ties breed a social structure that makes it impossible to live together with people who are different. If a 97% white town is diverse, then what is un-diverse?

The part about locally grown food is just another part of this rural anti-diversity mentality. Most energy that goes into food goes into growing it, not transporting it; the same is true of CO2 emissions. The transition people do not call for taxing red meat, whose per-calorie emissions are about three times those of chicken and fruit and vegetables, and seven times those of cereals.

BruceMcF said...

And, yes, the Slow Food movement is grossly misunderstood (oftimes by some of its supporters) if thought of in terms of 'transport=waste'. Living on food grown within a bioregion could be a valuable contribution to food diversity across multiple regions and efforts toward bioregional food self-sufficiency could be a valuable check on unsustainable farming if it acts as a check on the "out of sight, out of mind" attitude that lets factory farming get away with its worst excesses, as well as reducing the scale of operation that gives factory farms the financial weight to win permission for egregious abuses.

But those who translate it into "miles traveled equals transport emissions" have lost the plot.

Alon Levy said...

Bruce, inequality can easily make anything out of sight and out of mind, regardless of distance. To Greenwich Village residents, East New York is out of sight and out of mind. The rural hinterland where New York's farmers' markets get their food from is just as out of sight, even though it's clearly within the same bioregion.

Beyond that, most environmental problems associated with US food production today are regulatory rather than bioregional. The EU has corporate agriculture, which is even more subsidized than in the US, and which has long transportation networks centered on trucking. But it has no food recalls, E. coli outbreaks, corn monocultures, or fuel crops - the governments there just monitor food quality better, and make sure to subsidize everything and not just corn.

Cap'n Transit said...

Thank you all three for your enlightening comments on the sustainable food question. Clearly it's nowhere near as simple as a lot of the locavores make it out to be.

saosebastiao said...

Great post.

Pluto Power said...

Someone said: "Most energy that goes into food goes into growing it, not transporting it"

Sorry but, exactly what energy would this be?? Apart from human labor of course. Most "back to the landers" encourage small scale farming that doesn't require huge heated greenhouses. They also make their own compost using chicken/rabbit/goat manure to fertilize the plants. Thats about all.

Its the large commercial farms that use a ton of energy for greenhouse heating, timers, transporting pesticides etc.