Steffen's Bright Green Future meets Transition Culture

A post on WorldChanging by Alex Steffen has sparked an active online discussion, including comments on his post, a response by Rob Hopkins on Transition Culture, and comments on Rob’s response.

Steffen’s piece, which was a commentary on the role of the Transition movement, was critical of a perceived focus on “collapse”, as well as a perceived lack of focus on high-tech solutions. Alex went on to outline the characteristics of the sort of movement he believes would be beneficial, a “Bright Green” movement.
In his response, Rob points out that Transition essentially possesses the characteristics Alex recommends, and that it would be wrong to state that Transitioneers welcome “collapse”. Note that neither actually defines “collapse”, but for our purposes, let’s assume that they are both referring to a radical and deeply painful rearranging of civilization as we know it. I think that they would both agree that such a rearrangement would involve much decrease in resource use, likely leading to deprivation for billions of humans.

Here’s why, as a member of a Transition initiative, I think this discussion is important.

At the heart of the issue, in my analysis, is the question of whether the two groups (Alex’s supporters of the “Bright Green” society, and Rob’s folks interested in Transition as defined in the Handbook) can work together. For lack of better words, I will call these two groups Brightgreenists and Transitioneers.

In his post, Steffen argues that Transitioneers not only believe societal collapse is likely, but they readily see a silver lining. I think he is referring to the sometimes expressed expectation that, at the very least, collapse would finally slow down the relentless exploitation of natural resources. In fact, it could help us recover a lost human connection and interdependence. It’s like the patient with a terminal diagnosis, who discovers that amidst the anguish and loss, there is the gift of a more vivid experience of the days that remain.

Steffen characterizes this thinking as “dark green”. The reason, as I understand it, is that using fewer resources can only happen if we produce/consume less, which logically means fewer jobs, fewer services, less “civilization”, and ultimately, deprivation for many.

Steffen worries that as we focus on the silver lining, we lose the chance to do what might be necessary in order to avoid catastrophe. Indeed, if there were technologies that didn’t destroy the planet and its inhabitants, could be deployed in time, and provided us a means to continue “economic growth”, it would be preferable to pursue them vigorously and stop focusing on the other, much more painful scenario.

The problem is that folks work with Transition precisely because catastrophe seems too uncomfortably likely to them. These are the people who have assimilated Einstein’s opinion that you need a new way of thinking to extricate yourself from the predicament caused by the old way of thinking. “Higher” technology just does not seem like a new way of thinking.

In addition, Transition is based not only on Peak Oil and Climate Change, but also on the recognition that we are undergoing Economic Upheaval. The Bright Green solutions, though perhaps addressing PO/CC, are dependent on a functional economy, with functional banks, available credit, and enough free money to build something new before the old is entirely collapsed.

If Transition is right, there will be no such functional economy. Thus, the solutions cannot involve the costly development and deployment of new technology.

Whether collapse necessarily means rampaging hordes of pillaging criminals is also a matter of belief. There are historical examples to argue for and against this view. Transitioneers believe that re-localizing life’s essentials and developing resilient communities make an “orderly” descent more likely. If you were convinced descent is the most plausible scenario, and you thought no one really knows how it could be avoided, wouldn’t you want to prepare for it?

I’m afraid a deep difference in worldview separates those who would otherwise work together to save the planet. Can more technology get us to a “sustainable” place, or will it lead us faster over the precipice? If both are possible, which is more likely? And before you answer that, consider another complication: is that debate already moot?

I welcome additional debate on this issue. This post represents my individual opinion, and as such, is subject to my biases and mis-characterizations. So, whether you agree or disagree, dear reader, speak up!

Newsletter Signup


User login