How Can We Talk About Transformational Change Without Losing Hope?
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In a recent interview on a progressive radio station supported by listeners like me, I am confounded by the news that Peruvians will run out of water in five years. "And it's worse in Bolivia," the guest adds. Does she mean they have only two years left? That's tomorrow. The radio host drops the distressing fact on his listeners based solely on one guest's opinion.
I wake up in the middle of the night with a large chunk of the Andes stuck in my chest, choking at the thought of the Peruvian and Bolivian people dying because we all know humans can't survive more than five days without liquids. If it's true, how come the Peruvian and Bolivian presidents are not calling an emergency meeting at the United Nations to solve the crisis? But is it true? Depending on whom I read or listen to, the dire state of our planet is either overblown or underreported, a disaster waiting to happen or a conspiracy theory. I'm a working woman with a cat and a car I wish I could claim as dependents on my income tax return, and I don't know what to do with all this information. And I don't believe anybody truly cares, except maybe Rob Hopkins.
The father of England's Transition Initiatives, self-described as "the fastest growing community scale initiatives in the world," aimed at reducing carbon emissions, building resilience and strengthening local economies, Rob Hopkins disagrees with environmental tactics that attempt to shock us into action like helpless Pavlov dogs. He wants us to avoid "the extremes of climate change." He believes the Great Turning that has been shifting our identity from mindless consumers of the planet's resources to conscious protectors "offers the potential of an extraordinary renaissance—economic, cultural and spiritual." But Hopkins is also aware of the traumatic effect change has on people who lack coping skills; a crucial fact overlooked in the larger climate change/peak oil debate.
The birth of trauma takes place when harm is coming to us and we realize we are powerless to stop it and neither God nor Superman is going to save us. The combined experience of unbearable helplessness and shattered trust causes our foundation to collapse and leaves us spiritually, emotionally, mentally and sometimes physically and sexually handicapped. The longer the exposure to risk, the more severe the trauma, hence Post Traumatic Stress Disorder's long association with war veterans.
Every time we're subjected to more dramatic predictions of global warming without being given solutions, a seed of helplessness is planted in our souls. Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh urges his followers to avoid ingesting information that is toxic food for our consciousness. In a world where access to global information is just a click away and most news is based on the latest crimes, disasters or scandals, weeding out fear-based information as well as resisting our own questionable attraction to destruction is a tedious and never-ending task.
If "The Head" portion of Rob Hopkins' book, The Transition Handbook: From Oil Dependency to Local Resilience, educates people on the combined effects of climate change and peak oil in our lives, "The Heart" advocates the importance of compassionately leading people into an uncertain future. Influenced by Richard Heinberg's book Powerdown: Options and Actions for a Post-Carbon World, Hopkins uses recent events like the 2000 UK truck drivers' dispute to make his point that without oil the country was "a day away from food rationing and civil unrest." He cites psychologists D.D. Winter and S.M. Kroger who in their book The Psychology of Environmental Problems, warn that "Damaged trust can lead to four neurotic reactions: narcissism, depression, paranoia, and compulsion." Hopkins argues a nation suffering from what he calls "Post Petroleum Stress Disorder" will not be able to cope with uncertainty. Hopkins advocates addiction recovery methods to help wean ourselves off of oil dependency (no wonder his plan has 12 steps), reclaim our well-being and a sense of control over our lives.
In addition, Transition Initiatives uplift participants' spirits with concrete examples of nations that faced life-threatening crisis in short periods of time and were successful in avoiding disaster. A favorite at Transition meetings, the documentary Power of Community demonstrates how Cuba lost its access to oil within a few weeks of the collapse of the USSR and had to shift from industrial farming to local organic gardens in order to feed its people. In the early years, Cubans lost 20 pounds on average due to malnutrition but they received free health care, and the shift to organic farming was ultimately successful. The film underlines that organic gardens added healthy portions of fresh fruit and vegetables to Cubans' diet, a conclusion Rob Hopkins also draws from his second example: England's preparation for World War II.
Anticipating food and petrol rationing, a massive plan to grow food locally was set in motion as early as 1936. At that time, says Hopkins, "Two-thirds of Britain's food was imported and much of the nation's productive land was under pasture." "People sometimes remark that during the war, allotments and back gardens 'only' produced 10 percent of the national diet," he adds, "but the important point is that the 10 percent it produced was the 10 percent that kept the nation healthy. While agriculture grew the carbohydrates and fats, it was the back gardens that produced most of the fresh fruit and vegetables."
"One of the successes of rationing was that it rebalanced inequalities in diet," Hopkins concludes. "While the wealthy saw their diet restrained, for the poor, particularly in industrial centers, diet improved significantly from the pre-war years."
Building resilience is another crucial aspect of Transition Initiatives. If sustainability has become the backbone of all things environmental, Hopkins insists that resilience-building is its foundation. "Cutting emissions without resilience-building," Hopkins affirms, "is ultimately futile." In 1990, years before he became a teacher of permaculture, when he was an artist spending time in the small Pakistani village of Hunza, Hopkins was deeply moved by its people's total self-sufficiency in terms of access to water and food, and their 100 percent recycling of waste. "If [at that time] Hunza were to be cut off from the world and the global economy's highway of trucks packed with goods, it would have managed fine. The people were resilient too, happy, healthy and with a strong sense of community."
Hopkins also tells the story of his own town of Totnes in the County of Devon, Great Britain, where up until the early 1980s vibrant urban gardens met the local needs of the community before they were turned into parking lots.
Hopkins is aware that in a globalized economy, there is plenty of resistance to local initiatives. "We had a very clear example of this in Totnes when we asked the Regional Development Agency if they would fund our Local Food Directory: we were told that they couldn't, because under the rules of the WTO, they are unable to fund anything that promotes the idea that local produce is in any way superior to internationally sourced produce."
Hopkins believes solutions should come from within the community. Transition Initiatives invite participants to listen to, engage and teach each other skills that have been lost but are needed for energy-efficient living. Workshops teach, among other crafts, adobe building, canning, rag rug making, drystone walling, bread baking, building earth ovens and chicken keeping.
I'm not sure how I feel about putting my bonnet on and bringing thrifty back, but actively making beats passively watching other people's actions on your TV, computer or phone any time. It gets even more radical.
After conducting their Community Oil Vulnerability Audit, Transition members in Totnes, guided by Hopkins, drafted an Energy Descent Action Plan, a modern-day Declaration of Independence. The first EDAP was concocted by Hopkins in Kinsale, Ireland, in 2005. The Gourmet Capital of Ireland, "90% of the food consumed within Kinsale comes from outside the area," he writes. The plan looks at Kinsale's current state of oil dependency, then fleshes out in intricate detail an optimum vision of what Kinsale should be in 20 years and outlines the practical steps to achieve it. Flash forward to 2021 and "all landscaping in the town comprises of edible plants, fruit trees line the streets, all parks and greens have become food forests. Lawns are a thing of the past." Kinsale has its own currency and is in a position to independently fund local community services and initiatives, has car-sharing clubs and ride-sharing bulletin boards, alternative and conventional medicine for all and from underachieving and bored, youth has become "empowered, skilled and focused."
The importance of visioning is also reinforced in local fictitious newspapers of the future. In one issue dated March 27, 2009, Totnes residents imagine a world where trendsetters David and Victoria Beckham, now in their 50s, move into a new house that sets "the new fashion for small, compact and well-designed space to a new level." Victoria Beckham, whose latest passion is growing heirloom garden varieties, raves about her diminutive and natural mansion: "We've got solar panels, a masonry stove thing for heating, a really cool composting toilet and a fridge which works without electricity, just by drawing cool air through the ground." Hopkins treats the past with the same reverence by collecting stories from elders about life before cheap oil.
At this point I'm fantasizing about moving to Totnes, a town of 9,000 people, to follow such a compassionate leader. The reality is that I'm firmly rooted in the city of Los Angeles, home to 3.6 million. There are currently four groups listed on the Transition L.A. Web site. In a recent meeting set up in conjunction with the 350 International Day of Climate Action, 10 participants and I are asked to mimic an activity we did that morning. The facilitator holds a pitcher full of water representing the amount of oil available while each of us holds an empty cup. Someone confesses eating rice. Where is your rice from? Thailand! We are asked how much oil we think our activity required and the precious liquid is poured into our cups. I think I'm safe when I share about petting my cat but then I find out that cat litter is evil. We haven't gone through half the participants when we realize we are already running out of oil.
The facilitator follows with a talk on the importance of not praising people for their high fuel consumption. "For example," she says, "if a friend tells you they are flying to Paris for Christmas, don't say "Oh, that's terrific!"
NO!!!!???? Unfortunately for her I'm from Paris. I can't fathom the day when I won't smile and cheer someone for spending Christmas in the City of Lights. The facilitator is the daughter of pilgrims with no accent and a name her fellow descendants of pilgrims can pronounce. She doesn't know that a trip overseas is not just a tourist affair, it could be about visiting the ailing grandma who raised you, and she forgets that 30 percent of Angelenos are foreign-born and that's for the documented. While I'm visiting my relatives in Paris, I grumble to myself, my car is not releasing more carbon dioxide in the most ozone-polluted city in America and I'm building resilience as I walk the never-ending corridors of Paris subway stations.
It's one thing to stroll to the market instead of driving when, like me, you enjoy life as a pedestrian; it's another to skip a trip to visit your loved ones. That's when I use my Joker card and seriously question why individuals should be the only ones making sacrifices when, according to California author and activist Derrick Jensen, the greatest polluters are Big Agriculture and Industry.
In California, where residents are mandated to conserve water, Jensen argues that individuals only consume 10 percent while Big Ag gulps down the other 90 percent. Jensen also pointedly argues that the Al Gore vehicle An Inconvenient Truth did a great job at laying out the problems we face only to make citizens fully responsible for the damage instead of looking at corporations and asking them to change their habits. “I'm not saying we shouldn't live simply," Jensen adds in a provocative essay published by Orion magazine (and aptly titled "Forget Shorter Showers"), "I live reasonably simply myself, but I don't pretend that not buying much (or not driving much, or not having kids) is a powerful political act, or that it's deeply revolutionary. It's not. Personal change doesn't equal social change."
The Trapese Collective, a Popular Education Collective aimed at inspiring and promoting action for changing our world, published a pamphlet challenging Transition Initiatives for its lack of confrontation with government. Rob Hopkins posted a review of the pamphlet on TransitionCulture.org, praising the Collective for raising important questions while challenging them for writing a criticism without first reading his Handbook.
Hopkins explains that "Transition is determinedly inclusive and non-blaming, arguing that a successful transition through peak oil and climate change will by necessity be about a bringing together of individuals and organizations, rather than a continued fracturing and antagonizing." Hopkins adds that "Just because one's responses to global problems are focused on the local scale, doesn't mean they are not based on an understanding of the need for global change, rather they are based on a belief that that is one of the levels that we need to be working at."
Other criticisms are the high fees charged at a recent Transition conference and protectionism if the Transition Movement fails to take the north/south equation into consideration. The Transition Handbook, however, addresses this issue. A video posted on the Transition Culture blog shows Vandana Shiva, on a European tour to promote her book Soil Not Oil, answering a question from a Transition participant on how the north can help the south: "The Transition movement can't grow your spices, your coffee, your cotton," Shiva remarks, but if the north reduces its consumption of "long distance flights of vegetables," i.e. if we grow our own produce ecologically, we are making sure families in the south can reclaim their land and feed themselves.
The Great Turning cannot be a Great Reversal. We can't stop buying rice from Thailand without asking ourselves how it will affect the Thai people. And in Los Angeles, we cannot be told recycling is good for the planet and not be informed that recycling centers are located in economically deprived neighborhoods where they pollute and cause serious health hazards. Those who can afford to patronize organic food stores and congratulate themselves on buying fruit and vegetables grown locally cannot ignore the people next door who shop for canned goods and vegetables saturated with pesticides at the 99 Cents store.
Recently, I was offered to share a plot in a community garden in West Los Angeles. A city girl, I had never seen food grow. My elation was tempered by the sight of too much produce wilting away, another unfortunate display of Westerners' habit to take all precious resources for granted, on top of being another missed opportunity to share with others at this time of rising food prices and high unemployment in the sunshine state.
On Ecolocalizer, a blogger shares a Bay Area success story in which an ethnically diverse community of adults and youth turned a miserable looking junkyard into an urban garden. There is power in showing youth that they can grow life; that they don't have to depend on supermarkets that offer waxed apples because marketing people insist consumers are attracted by "shiny" stuff, and sell red fruit that looks but doesn't taste like tomatoes, especially in neighborhoods where people can't afford the locally grown high-priced organic produce and where farmers' markets and health food stores are nonexistent. There is power in reclaiming our independence when it comes to the most basic needs when they affect our own health, while the health care debate goes on without our input.
Jensen contends that capitalism has redefined us "from citizens to consumers. By accepting this redefinition," he says, "we reduce our potential forms of resistance to consuming and not consuming. Citizens have a much wider range of available resistance tactics, including voting, not voting, running for office, pamphleting, boycotting, organizing, lobbying, protesting, and, when a government becomes destructive of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, we have the right to alter or abolish it."
Hopkins' inclusive approach takes after the non-violent action movement and Buddhist teachings. To the Dalai Lama, "even a glass of water depends on a vast nexus of individuals" and we should never forget that we depend on strangers' "unintended" kindness for everything from the roads we travel on to the buildings we live in to the food on our table. Hopkins' awareness that shocking people into action can cause damage to our ability to cope with a changing future, his attention to individuals' well-being and his commitment to make us self-reliant and in charge of our destiny has hit a nerve.
Transition Initiatives have sprouted all over the United Kingdom with healthy numbers in Australia, the U.S., New Zealand, Canada and parts of Europe. It's too early to tell if they will be able to sustain their promise of self-reliance and fulfill their commitment to inclusiveness when it comes to the most vulnerable and disenfranchised in the northern and southern parts of the world, where immediate needs are much more urgent and real than the uncertain future he describes.
"I do not know the exact date of peak oil, and again, nobody does," confesses Hopkins. "Similarly, I don't know when we will exceed the 200C climate threshold, and what will happen if we do." But Hopkins believes the time has come to prepare for a future where "we move our idea of capital from what we have in the bank to the resources around us." "It takes a lot of cheap energy to maintain the levels of social inequality we see today," he adds, "the levels of obesity, the record levels of indebtedness, the high levels of car use and alienating urban landscapes." A future free of consumerism is our new chance at happiness.
At the Los Angeles Transition meeting, six slightly deflated earth balls are drooping on a table. The facilitator throws them at us, the consumers of six times more resources than the earth possesses. Hopkins urges us to take responsibility for our actions. As the Dalai Lama suggests, we need to see the chain of events and people involved in each and every one of our purchases. We need to look at the consequences of overconsumption, overpopulation, the finite nature of some of the resources we most depend upon and the consequences of climate change. Declaring our independence when it comes to our basic needs is a powerful vision that Hopkins is challenging us to implement by organizing at the local level, but we must also act on Jensen's righteous claim that the responsibility and the inevitable sacrifices should be distributed equally among the culprits. And that will involve confrontation of government and corporations by a sound and resilient people acting not out of panic, but out of their conviction in their inalienable rights.