Once More On Transition -- Critical Thoughts On A Debate On Goal and Strategy
By Saral Sarkar
20 October, 2014
Some time back I posted an article entitled “Some Thoughts On Resilience and Transition” (13 August 2014). Recently, I read in internet a debate on the same subject consisting of two articles: Ted Trainer (2014) wrote a sympathetic critique of the Transition Town Movement (in the following simply called “Transition”, with capital T). Soon after, Rob Hopkins (2014a), who is the most prominent figure in this movement, responded in defense of Transition. In addition to what I wrote in the above-mentioned blog-post (which I would not repeat), I would like to make some comments on this debate – in the hope of helping clarify some issues. Since Ted and I largely agree on the questions debated, I shall here focus on the response of Hopkins.
If readers of and participants in this discussion want to make some progress in finding the right strategy for the transition to, generally speaking, a better world, then it is necessary first to correct the mistakes in our understanding of the present situation, remove the contradictions in our own positions and, in general, create clarity about the matters being discussed. If we at the end still disagree, then we shall at least know on which points exactly we disagree. That too would be some progress in the discussion.
When two or more persons participate in a strategy discussion, then one logical assumption is that they share a common goal. For it is nonsensical to search for a common strategy for different goals.
It is clear that Hopkins and Trainer are basically pursuing different long-term goals. That is also the reason why they cannot agree on strategy. (That does not however rule out that they would have differences on strategy even if hey pursued a fully common goal.) For Trainer, if a “sustainable and just world is to be achieved”, the rich countries’ “resource [consumption] and ecological impact rates” “must be cut by something like 90%”, a “growth economy” must be scrapped, GDP must be reduced “to a small fraction of present levels”, “market forces” i.e. capitalism, must be stopped from “determining our fate” etc.
These are important points in Trainer’s packet of long-term goals. Hopkins does not say all that is totally nonsense. He even finds most of Trainer’s arguments “entirely reasonable.” “But”, he writes, “there is no way that will happen unless we have the different models in place which are able to provide the things we need: schools, jobs, homes and so on.” Hopkins also writes: “The ambition of Transition … goes … into reimagining local economies, shifting their focus, modeling how it can meet public health ambitions better than the current approach, how it can create better and more meaningful livelihoods, create healthier communities, create safer investments offering a social return.” In olden days, all that used to be called development. Since the mid 1980s they are being called sustainable development. Hopkins now adds, they must be community-led.
The word “unless” may give the impression that Hopkins and Transition may go further after they have achieved these short-term goals and come closure to sharing Trainer’s long-term goals. At one point he even writes something like that: He criticizes Trainer for assuming “that movements like Transition [Trainer also mentions eco-village and permaculture movement] aren’t thinking in terms of deep systems change.” But he disappoints us. For he writes referring to his goals quoted in the previous paragraph, “We’re not there yet, but it’s where we’re headed.” The word “ambition” and the sentence “it’s where we’re headed.” convey an air of final goal, give the impression that Hopkins and Transition do not share Trainer’s long-term goal of scrapping the present-day economy and market forces. They only want to “shift the focus”, make things “better”, ”healthier”, and “safer” than they are today. That is of course much more than community gardens, but it is not clear how they are different from “sustainable development” of the 1980s. Only one thing is clear; they definitely want to overcome economic globalization, make the economy as local as possible.
Hopkins knows “that we live in a world of limits”, he knows about capitalism’s growth imperative. But I have not found any clear statement saying that in rich countries resource consumption must be reduced by 90%. He is thinking of investments and social returns. In an interview he gave to a German magazine Hopkins (2014b) says: “We have started a forum for local entrepreneurship, in which people with ideas for sustainable business can meet with potential investors and promoters.” He says further in the same interview: „But how big must an enterprise really be so that it can earn enough to ensure the livelihood of its employees and at the same time make profits for further local projects? I do not think that for this purpose we must open up export markets in China or set up franchise firms everywhere in the world.“
From all that one gets the impression that Hopkins and Transition, although they want to see many things change, do not want to change the system. But Trainer is striving for system change, a very radical one. He thinks not only capitalism but also industrial society has to be scrapped in order to save the biosphere and create a sustainable and just human society. This perspective is not only pessimistic, but also fearsome, particularly for the European and North American middle class. In the meantime, it is also fearsome for the middle classes of China, India, Brazil etc. No wonder that Ernst Ulrich von Weizsäcker in his transition perspective presented in 1992 wrote:
„To ask Europeans, Americans and Japanese to dress in sackcloth and ashes and renounce prosperity and progress, is a strategy doomed to failure. So, in order to be politically accepted by the public, the new way of running the economy should have the character of a new model of prosperity "(1992, 12).
The changes Transition wants to bring about have also been desired and striven for by previous generations of Green and social movement activists since the early 1980s. Their perspective has been called “restructuring industrial society”, “sustainable development”, “sustainable growth”, “green growth”, and “green capitalism”.
So the long-term goals of the two are clearly different, although Trainer supports the Transition movement, whose declared goals and activities he misinterprets to be only immediate ones and hence considers not to be enough. I have the sense that Hopkins and Transition do not want to go any further, because they are afraid of even thinking of radical system change. After all, they in their majority, as Hopkins (2014b) himself has noted, belong to the middle class of Europe and North America, where the movement is very popular. They would have much to lose, much more than the average middle-class African or Indian, if the present system were to be scrapped. That is why, apart from a few honorable exceptions like Trainer, most of their thinkers love to imagine that all problems could be solved through further technological developments like solar and wind energy, carbon capture and sequestering, increasing resource efficiency etc. Hopkins (2014b) finds Germany’s energy transition program “inspiring.” He thinks solar energy, wind energy and local energy combines are making the large energy corporations superfluous. The existing skepticism about renewable energies (shared by Trainer) is apparently unknown to him. Definitely unknown to him are doubts about the viability of solar energy technologies, especially in the bad-weather countries like the UK. It may also be unknown to him that even James Lovelock (father of the Gaia hypothesis) could not be enthusiastic about wind energy and therefore supported nuclear energy.
There is also a qualitative difference between the respective perspectives of Trainer and Hopkins. The local and small-scale economies of Trainer’s grassroots communities would come up in anticipation of and/or as a result of the crisis, possibly collapse, of capitalist industrial economies. They would be planned and administered in an anarchistic socialist way. Hopkins favors bringing assets into community ownership. But for his “vibrant new social enterprises”, he accepts capitalism (investors, profits), albeit one freed from globalization. Although he says he is aware of the growth imperative inherent in capitalism, he (naively) thinks the investors who would invest in local businesses would be satisfied with the meager profits that could be earned by the latter. But anybody with some knowledge of history knows that capitalism began as mainly local, small scale and embedded in society. The monstrous capitalism we see today is the result of capitalism’s inherent growth dynamics. To give one modern-day example, the solar energy industry/movement began with the conception of local, i.e. decentralized, and roof-top solar electricity generation for local consumption. Today we see projects like Desertec (huge solar power plants in the Sahara that would supply 15% of Europe’s total electricity needs) and competition between European and Chinese solar panel producers for larger chunks of the world market.
Finally, Hopkins also writes sentences that confuse the reader. It sometimes seems as if he and Transition are not pursuing any clear goal at all. One of his books is entitled The Power of Just Doing Stuff. In it he quotes a participant in the Transition movement as saying: “I felt …that in… my town … there were people that were in need of changing something, just like me. I thought that was amazing, … I thought ‘this is it, we can do something. We can actually change something’.”. The word “something” makes me think, any good thing is enough for this person. Finally, this person and some other people together started a small community garden in their town. Of course, nobody, not even the staunchest capitalist in town, would have any objection to a small community garden.
At one place, Hopkins writes he wants to “enable people to long for” “the world we need to create”. At another place he uses the phrase “where we need to go”. And he concludes the article with the words “…. leading to the change we all want to see”. The italicized words suggest as if Hopkins has a clear idea of his long-term goals. No, wrong. For he also writes: Transition is “evolving. It remains open to new ideas and to processes that work with people to ask questions and shape then where the process goes, what was termed ‘let it go where it wants to go’ in The Transition Handbook.“ And he caps this uncertainty by writing in the last paragraph “Time will tell”.
Such words suggest he does not know yet where the world needs to go. There is no trace of an effort to objectively and rigorously analyze the present world situation, and, therefore, no trace of trying to draw a logical conclusion as regards the long-term goals of the movement. Hopkins does not even know whether he and Transition want to reform or radically change the system. He writes: “It may be that the future will reveal Transition to have been ‘a reformist project posing no threat to consumer-capitalist society’. We’ll see.” This reminds me of the radical but multi-strand origin of the green movement and Green Party of Germany and the latter’s present role of a pillar of consumer-capitalist society.
This is utter confusion.
Different long-term goals (in the case of Hopkins rather the lack of a clear one) necessarily led Hopkins and Trainer to conceive different strategies. Even in this regard, Hopkins writes contradictory things.
If Transition is only a reform project trying to improve the present consumer-capitalist society, then it is better not to use the term transition, because it connotes, at least in our context, transition to a different socio-economic system that replaces the present one. By whatever name it may be called, also a reform project is a legitimate one, because not all people are convinced that system change is possible, and because many are convinced that the present system can be improved and thus enabled to solve the problems plaguing us. But how does one do it best.
Hopkins first makes an attempt at explaining “why we [including the green Left] are so catastrophically losing the struggle to save the climate.” He stresses one of several factors: It is “the trap that some on the green Left have fallen into for 40years”. He elaborates: “It is a mindset that seeks differences rather than common ground.” We talk to everyone, but not to each other. And “there is little mindfulness about how the way in which we communicate our message comes across to people beyond the bubble.”
I beg to differ. Nobody on the Left or the green Left seeks differences. The differences are real, they simply exist, and are often based on different material interests. Yet, in my decades of experience in India and Germany, more often than not, I have seen various progressive groups in the list of George Lakoff (whom Hopkins quotes) building alliances, united fronts etc. for particular struggles (e.g. in the peace movement, environmental protection movement etc.) One glaring example of failure to do so was when in the early 1930s Communists and Social Democrats failed to build an alliance against the Nazis, which indeed resulted in a catastrophe.
As regards the second point, Hopkins criticizes Trainer for using “language” (i.e. the way in which he communicates his message) that is unsuitable for the purpose. He writes, Trainer communicates in a “language” that is “guaranteed to exclude most of the community”, “guaranteed to turn off 98% of the population.” Trainer certainly does not want to exclude anybody. But it is true that at present most people in the world are not listening to him and to people like him.
However, to make the matter clear, it is not actually Trainer’s “language” that is turning off the 98%. All his addressees understand English, and the words Trainer uses are very clear. He is also not inciting people to stage a coup or an armed uprising. It is actually the contents of his writings, not the way he communicates his message, that are the problem. For the 98% in Europe and North America, unfortunately, it is still inconceivable that they must reduce their resource consumption by 90% and abolish capitalism, that has brought them so much prosperity, in order to protect the environment and adjust to the rapid exhaustion of resources.
But what do you do then? Do you then change your goals, give up your conviction? Do you then hide inconvenient facts, say only nice things, against your conviction, in order to be loved by the majority? Or do you strain to be noncommittal and say vague things that cannot put anybody off? In that case, you are a typical politician in the worst sense of the term, and not a political activist. Even a genuine reform project needs committed activists who tell the truth and are not afraid of displeasing voters. Such activists tell people frankly what changes they think are necessary in order to improve the present system. Hopkins finds Trainer’s arguments “entirely reasonable”; yet he chastises him for presenting them frankly.
But here I also differ with Trainer a bit. In his critique of Transition, Trainer, surprisingly for me, wrote: “Sudden or noisy calls for more radical goals would harm these movements.” How? Does Trainer think that the time is not ripe yet? Or that the masses are not intelligent or mature enough? I think it is high time that all citizens of the world are fully informed about the dire situation humanity and the earth are in today. And I think all people are intelligent and mature enough to understand the basic truths of this situation. We only need to present them to the people. The goals he calls “more radical” are actually absolute necessities. True, many activists with whom you must form alliances would say this or that goal is not realistic because the rulers, or even the masses, would by no means accept the corresponding demands. In that case you can still continue cooperation with the alliance partners on the basis of a list of immediate minimum demands (which Hopkins calls seeking common grounds), while carrying on your no-holds-barred educative work outside the alliance. This quoted view of Trainer even bewilders Hopkins, who writes: “Trainer’s is a bewildering perspective. On the one hand he argues that ‘sudden or noisy calls for more radical goals would harm these movements’ and on the other he argues that the path Transition is on ‘will lead only to a grossly and increasingly unsustainable and unjust consumer society, containing a lot of community gardens etc.”
Hopkins writes: “… whatever gets us to where we need to go will need to think bigger, reimagine the language it uses, and seek to build common ground [with the 98%] rather than talking itself into a corner while everyone else is looking in a different direction.” As I (also Trainer) have shown, Hopkins has no clear idea as to where we need to go in the long run in order to make the world resilient to the serious crises that are ongoing and impending. He therefore adopts what may be called a weathercock strategy in order not to talk himself into a corner. But in the times we are living in, it is necessary to tell the truth, however unpleasant it may be to the 98%. It is necessary, if need be, to talk oneself into a corner rather than joining the 98% on their common ground. It is the minority’s duty to honestly criticize the 98% majority, even if the personal price to be paid for that may be high. It is the minority’s duty to lead the majority to the unpleasant truth and to the unpleasant solutions to our problems and crises rather than enjoy the pleasant warmth of being a member of the majority. In practical life, for just living, we are compelled to make many compromises. Let us not make compromises even in our thinking and expressing our thoughts. Fortunately, today, people like Trainer are no longer as isolated as Hopkins imagines. People are not little children from whom you must hide inconvenient facts. There was recently a De-growth Conference in Leipzig, in which 3000 people took part. In 2011, a congress entitled “Beyond Growth” took place in Berlin.
Elsewhere in his article, Hopkins has written things in the posture of a skilful leader, although he is only following the majority. He writes for example: “But this is only going to work if we find the skilful means to take people along with us, indeed, the skilful means to enable people to long for the world we need to create, because the very possibilities it presents make their hearts sing”. I am all for skilful means of doing things. I am all for able people taking the leadership in any project. But the leaders must know clearly – on the basis of an objective, free-of-illusions analysis of the present situation – where the journey should go. However, I am doubtful about “enabl[ing] people to long for the world we need to create.” They will not long for it, when they have heard the truth. But they can be convinced that it is a matter of necessity. The possibilities this world will offer will not exactly make the hearts of the global middle class sing. But it will be a just world, for the poor of today and also for the other species that share the earth with us. And that will somehow make us happy, though not jubilant.
It is right, as Hopkins expresses it, that “banging on at people about the need to ‘revolution’ and peppering sentences with ‘radical’ and so on have clearly failed to bring about the change needed. It doesn’t work. It’s a busted flush. It has failed in nearly everything it has tried to achieve.” But these have been some of the old Left’s methods, not its strategy of bringing about a socialist society. Of course the strategy too has failed, but it is irrelevant to say this here. For neither Trainer nor other kinds of Left (for example, eco-socialists) are today proposing to follow the old strategy (class struggle, proletarian revolution etc.) of the old Left for attaining the old goal of realizing the old model of a socialist society. Why the old Left failed to attain its goal has been analyzed by various people including many leftists (for my analysis see Sarkar 1999). The old theory of change is not valid any more. New theories and strategies have been proposed by many including Trainer (for my theory and strategy of change, see ibid and Sarkar 2013).
Hopkins says he (with Transition) is taking a different route, a more skilful one. He is welcome to try it. As of today, we may safely say that no ideal path has yet been found that guarantees success in our efforts to achieve our respective goals. We can also safely say that whatever path we take, it would be full of difficulties and pain. For to forgo the comforts and luxuries resulting from economic growth would undoubtedly be painful for people who have till now enjoyed them. Sometimes people imagine it to be easy to withdraw our support for the system (Hopkins) or to simply walk out of it (Trainer). But actually it is the most difficult thing. For over the centuries we have increasingly become dependent on it. It is also not easy for activists to design whole settlements of a new kind (Trainer) or to take collective control of our town (Trainer).
However, it has been seen in the history of mankind that we humans are also capable of being inspired by ideals and values. If Transition can, through its skilful methods, inspire people for ist goals – which, of course, are not enough, but nevertheless deserve our support – if it can instill confidence (a can-do feeling) in ordinary people, then we “radicals” may also hope that our superior ideals and values will one day gain support, at least acceptance, among the broad masses, although they will not exactly “riot” for it. There are one thousand reasons to be pessimistic. But we are not dead yet. So let us go on trying.
Saral Sarkar was born in 1936 in West Bengal, India. After graduating from the University of Calcutta, he studied German language and literature for 5 years in India and Germany. From 1966 to 1981, Sarkar taught German at the Max Mueller Bhavan (Goethe Institute), Hyderabad, India. Sarkar is living in Germany since 1982. He is the author of 5 political books(see list in Wikipedia/German) that have appeared in English, German, Chinese, Japanese and (in internet for free downloading) French and Spanish. Sarkar has also published many articles and essays in several journals in India, USA, Germany, UK, Holland, China, Spain. He also writes regularly in two blogs of his own (see Wikipedia/German).
Hopkins, Rob & Katrin Lange (2014b) “Wir wollen das Wirtschaftssystem verändern” (interview), in Evident (magazine: a supplement in Süddeutsche Zeitung), No. 1/2014.
Hopkins, Rob (2014a): “Responding to Ted Trainer: there's a lot more to Transition than community gardens”:
Sarkar, Saral (1999) Eco-Socialism or Eco-Capitalism? – A Critical Analysis of Humanity’s Fundamental Choices. London: Zed Books.
Sarkar, Saral (2013) Correspondence with Kamran Nayeri:
Trainer, Ted (2014) “Transition Townspeople, We Need To Think About Transition: Just Doing Stuff Is Far From Enough!”:
Weizsäcker, Ernst Ulrich von (1992) Erdpolitik. Ökologische Realpolitik an der Schwelle zum Jahrhundert der Umwelt. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft.
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