A dialogue with Lorna Salzman - part II

A bit of backstory here:  In the May 3 issue of The Nation magazine, Lorna Salzman ran a full-page advertisement critiquing Bill McKibben and 350.org for not telling us HOW to reduce CO2 concentrations to 350ppm.  (read the letter here)  I wrote a reply, "How to get to 350ppm," in which I pointed out that McKibben and 350, like Al Gore, are all in the business of awareness-raising, and that it is other organizations -- namely Transition Initiatives -- which are shouldering the burden of How To.  Below is Ms. Salzman's second piece, "A Critique of the Transition Initiative/Network," posted with her permission. My reply is here.

A Critique of the Transition Initiative/Network

   Like me, most of you probably never heard of The Transition Initiative or Transition Network or Transition Towns, founded in the UK by Rob Hopkins, a permaculture advocate and decentralist. The TI has indisputably important aims: guiding communities through the soon-to-end fossil fuel era into an era of self-reliant sustainability in which the means of survival devolve onto small communities.

   There is no question that some kind of transition will take place. But what it will look like, and whether it will be peaceful, democratic and equitable or chaotic, coercive and authoritarian is not yet known.

   One could argue, however, that this will depend on what we do now, or do not do. We could easily overlook or consciously avoid certain hard choices and sacrifices today so as to prevent undue hardship, especially to the poor, but end up having to make harder choices in the future, none of which will be attractive and all of which will involve even more hardship, especially since delay will mean compounding the problems in the future as well as raising the costs.

   The problem is that few communities if any have the economic or political power and means to make the choices that need to be made. For the most part, the choices offered them are limited to those which their government or corporations or financiers allow them; in many instances these outside forces deliberately withhold the means to make alternative choices. In other words, the tool of democratic decision-making is not available to them,  much less the financing.

   To be blunt, politics is what stands in the way., whether domination by lobbies and special interests, faulty legislation weakened by those special interests, elected officials looking only to their re-election and at the least cost, institutional lethargy and paralysis, demagoguery, ill-considered foreign and national security policy, and fear of radical constituencies that either resist government intrusion or demand more of it than is suitable for a democracy.

   Avoiding  a discussion of these pernicious forces and how they block sane environmental and energy choices does not make them disappear. All it does is free up public discussion space for less important, even trivial, concerns that are easily amenable to resolution and which will pacify enough people for the time being.

   The Transition Initiative/Network has admirable goals of creating and sustaining communities, both socially and in practical terms. Its optimism and idealism are  undoubtedly a welcome relief from the dire predictions of the scientific and environmental communities about the imminence of irreversible climate change and depletion of energy resources.  There is no doubt that it will do much to sooth the fearful and provide them with positive attractive goals that empower them within that community. Whatever is laid down now will without question contribute in some measure to the future well-being of that community.

   But elsewhere, in congress, corporate boardrooms, Wall St. and the headquarters of institutions like the IMF and World Bank, policies and funding decisions are being made whose outcomes move far faster than communities can keep up, much less resist.

   Whether it is the onslaught of carbon trading lining the pockets of traders and brokers, the resuscitation of the nuclear power industry, the overwhelming problem of overpopulation, especially in Africa, that is outstripping resource, food, water and Nature's services, the overharvesting of the ocean fisheries, and the unrelieved emphasis by all countries on continued economic growth regardless of its negative externalities and its stimulation of global warming, the fact is that the time frame for small community transition to sustainability is long, and the time frame for the full impact of global warming, biodiversity loss, and overpopulation is short. Very short.

   In this light, the apolitical character of the TI/TN becomes puzzling, vexing, and in the end highly dubious. It is not clear that TI need be apolitical, that it must perforce put aside the messiness and unpalatability of politics in  favor of an undiluted focus on communities.  Why could communities not multi-task? Why could they not set aside time or committees to confront their elected officials and the grossly inadequate legislation being forced down their throats? Why could they not themselves formulate legislation,alongside their plans for local agriculture, public transportation,  small-scale renewable energy, and so forth? What is preventing them from participating in the rest of civil society, from confronting the short-sighted policies and legislation that is not only ineffective but which puts huge obstacles in their way?

   I don't have the answer but I suspect that, like other similar ventures, there is a resistance to hard intellectual work as opposed to physical work, to adversarial situations that might require them to be critical of people and politicians, and to actions that might bring upon them the enmity of the powerful mass media and some in their community  who might be personally offended or handicapped by drastic changes in national and state policies and laws.

   This may be a left-over from the 1960s, when peace and social justice activists convinced themselves that they all agreed on everything, and that those who dissented were just trouble-makers and not true to the cause, whatever that was.  My recollection of many green meetings was the circle of love at the end, when everyone joined hands and muttered Om or something  like it, repenting any animosity (or dissent from received wisdom) that may have reared its ugly head during the meeting.

   In any case, TI and other networks like it, such as the Vermont secession movement, are making a huge mistake in shying away from politics and in pretending that disastrous legislation in congress is either remediable or irrelevant. Now more than ever we need the imperative conjunction of the social, philosophical, ethical, scientific and political, in a movement that is cognizant of the magnitude and imminence of the global ecological crisis, willing to confront those forces that are responsible for them (including the overconsuming consumer society), willing to countenance the hard choices that need to be made, but above all cognizant of the fact that the changes needed to head off global chaos and allow the transition to sustainable communities must come not only from individual efforts within communities but must be demanded of - no, FORCED on - our elected officials, and that this requires a political movement in which transition communities must play a role.

--Lorna Salzman

Lorna Salzman is a long-time environmental and Green Party activist (biography).  In 2002, she was the Green Party candidate for a New York seat in the US House of Representatives. In 2004 she sought the US Green Party's nomination for president.


The full dialogue:

  1. "An Open Letter and Appeal to Bill McKibben and 350.org" by Lorna Salzman, published in The Nation, May 3, 2010
  2. "How to get to 350ppm" by Joanne Poyourow
  3. Lorna Salzman's Comments on "How to get to 350ppm"
  4. Critique of the Transition Initiative/Network by Lorna Salzman
  5. Joanne's reply: "A Dialogue With Lorna Salzman, Part III"

Newsletter Signup


User login