The "Victory Garden Syndrome" vs. The "Challenger Syndrome"

Submitted by Chris Mills on February 2, 2013 - 3:41pm


Back a year or so ago, someone at the Transition Network office in Totnes (Naresh? Ben? Rob? I can't remember) published a thoughtful essay in which he compared today’s Transition movement to the relatively small portion of the British population in the late 1930’s that actually thought war with Germany would happen in the not-too-distant future. It seems that back then, most folks, following Neville Chamberlain’s lead, thought Hitler was basically a nice guy, just a little misunderstood.

But about 5% of the Brits did think war was coming, and were actively making preparations, building backyard and neighbourhood gardens to grow food locally (which, once they became more widespread, were known as “victory gardens”), sandbagging walls and dikes, digging shelters and so forth. When war did come, these seemingly small preparations actually made a huge difference, simply because they existed, and acted as a kind of “pathfinder movement” for the other 95% who were suddenly scrambling to respond to this new and frightening and unexpected situation. The simple fact that a war-preparation infrastructure existed at all gave people hope. So, that 5% who were preparing actually made a significant difference to Britain’s ability to respond to the war.

And the author of this essay believes that perhaps the transition movement may fulfill a similar role when peak oil and climate change start to have an increasingly serious impact on our communities. The existence of even a small alternative, local, non-oil-based infrastructure could be all the push we need to transform our communities in earnest, once the need to do so becomes glaringly apparent.

Which is pretty cool!

 On the other hand, there’s also what I tend to think of as the “Challenger Syndrome”.


You remember the space shuttle Challenger, right? It exploded about a minute and a half into its flight on January 26, 1986. The cause of the disaster was traced to the O-rings which form a seal between the three separate segments of the solid-rocket booster engines. These O-rings, being made of rubber, were susceptible to temperature variances at launch. The colder the ambient temperature, the harder the rubber. On the morning of January 26, temperatures on the launch pad were hovering around the freezing mark, and the rubber in the O-rings stiffened to the point that it could not form an effective seal. In flight, hot gases from the burning solid fuel spewed through one of the ineffective seals, heating up the external liquid fuel tank (full of liquid hydrogen and oxygen), which eventually blew up, instantly transforming the Challenger into a hurtling cloud of debris.

That morning, the shuttle command launch team held a “go/no-go” decision meeting, as usual, to decide whether or not to proceed; but there is enormous pressure on NASA to launch on schedule, since it costs millions of dollars to keep a vehicle on the pad even for one extra day. So as it turns out, the only person on the team to actively oppose launching, on the grounds of a potential O-ring failure, was a Morton-Thoikol engineer named Roger Boisjoly (Morton-Thoikol manufactured the shuttle SRBs).

Interestingly, Boisjoly was the first person to be fired from his position following the Challenger disaster inquest, despite the fact that his was the one and only actual voice of reason in the pre-launch discussion, and that, if his opinion were heeded, the shuttle probably wouldn’t have blown up (an eventuality which provoked a huge WTF? response amongst a lot of folks who were following the post hoc developments.) So, it rather seems that, should your name be somehow linked to a subsequent disaster, the context of that connection apparently isn’t terribly important. What is important is that your name and the unfortunate event are somehow coupled, and later, if the hunt is on for a scapegoat, that coupling puts you squarely in the crosshairs.

I sometimes have this nasty waking dream in which a bunch of people gather outside my house carrying pitchforks and torches.  One of them points at me... “Hey! They warned us about peak oil and climate change!!” he yells, “Get ‘em!”


I dunno. Perhaps that’s crazy. Perhaps both perspectives are crazy. Who knows what’s gonna happen? Personally, I’ve seen both syndromes at work, many times.

But then again... (Okay yeah, I've ripped off this OLG slogan before in a different blog post, but I think it bears repeating)—“You can’t win if you don’t play.”

Ah, what the hell. Angry mobs with pitchforks and torches be damned. Me, I think I’m gonna play a while longer.

Victory Garden

Hi Chris,

As per usual- thanks for your insights! I actually read the part about victory gardens aloud to my husband, who was sitting close by as I read. So fascinating! The Challenger Syndrome, while absolutely real, frustrates me (as I'm sure it does with others, too). I don't quite know what to do with that scenario...

With the Victory Gardens, I feel like I connect with what is taking place. Though their main motive for creating these gardens and other structures was the impending war- these things are inherently good and could have been initiated "just because" (okay, not the sand-bagging and digging ditches- that seems a little more extreme). But, the idea of creating a garden or some sort of green, common space can have such positive outcomes- never mind preparing folks for impending doom/chaotic times. The benefits are the building of social capitol, which we can celebrate when times are good, and rely on when they are desperate.

Do you have any other suggestions, in addition to community gardens, of ways we can join together to prepare for an unknown future- but, in a way that provides inherent/immediate benefits?

Victory Garden

Ooohh Rachel, that is SO true... Why MUST we wait until there is the possibility of chaos ahead before we launch into something that is so beneficial in and of itself, regardless of circumstance? It reminds me of this cartoon I saw once of a bunch of politicians at a conference, obviously discussing global warming. On the screen at the front are bullet points like "sustainability", "energy independence", "green jobs", "healthy children"... and there's some guy in the audience standing up and saying, "Hey, what if global warming is a hoax and we create a better world for nothing?"

It would be hilarious if it weren't so damn true.

I know I promised a blog about the Transition movement and Transition Guelph, and how it is working toward building a... well heck, let's think big: building a better world. I also promised Derek that I'd do a blog soon on our Resilience Community Festival that's coming up in March. Perhaps that will answer some of your questions.

I do think what the Transition movement is doing IS working to create a better world now, not just in the future (and not for nothing! :) ) by strengthening and enriching our communities (regardless of whether global warming is a hoax... and we all know it isn't...)


Hi Chris,

Ha! What a great image that comic conveys--- so, ironic, yet so true.

Looking forward to hearing more about Transition Guelph and the Resilience Community Festival... sounds great!

Until then- keep seeking :)