Transition and Community

Submitted by Chris Mills on November 13, 2012 - 8:25am


We’re facing some pretty serious challenges, as a society and as a species, that will be come increasingly manifest over the next couple of decades, and how we respond to those challenges are going to do no less than determine the future of the human race. The climate is changing rapidly, and its impacts on the global food system are still largely unknown, but aren’t likely to be good. Our global economy runs on cheap energy, and cheap energy is disappearing, along with many other non-renewable resources we’ve come to depend on. When energy is abundant and cheap, the economy grows, when it’s scarce and expensive, the economy grinds to a halt like a car stuck in mud. And the cheap stuff is disappearing rapidly. This is all going to put increasing economic pressure on our society in the coming years. We can expect some pretty deep recessions, followed by partial recoveries, followed by more recessions, in a kind of saw-tooth descent graph.

Bill McKibben, David Suzuki and others have said that the planet that we, as a species, grew up on doesn’t exist any more, and the planet we have inherited and will be passing on to the next generation is a significantly more unpredictable, and more hostile place. The extreme weather we’ve seen over the past five years or so, according to McKibben, is only the beginning. Storms will intensify, droughts and floods will become more severe, eco-systems will destabilize and collapse as the local climate alters to the point where indigenous flora and fauna can no longer survive, and no other species are around that can fill their ecological niches.

Chris Martenson says that the next twenty years will be very different from the previous twenty, as the ecological systems of our planet change to accommodate this new reality, as peak oil and other resource depletion issues become more critical, and the resultant economic pressures of mounting debt, faltering recovery and stalled growth penetrate deeper.

I could go on, but it’s not necessary. The point is, we are at a pivotal point in our history. These challenges are daunting, indeed unprecedented, and the outcome is far from certain. Our actions over the next few years will be decisive.


Four Prevailing Stories of our Time:

There are four stories (well, there are more, but let’s limit ourselves to these four for now) we tell ourselves, in trying to make sense of we are and where we are going as a society.

The first story is that of Business As Usual. This is the story that is perpetuated in media, in newspapers, magazines, TV, film and so on. That whatever challenges we face can be remedied by the application of the same problem solving processes we’ve always used, and society and the economy will continue to thrive and grow.

The second story, also popular in mainstream media for those who no longer believe that status quo is a possibility, is that of the “Techno-Future”. Yes, we are facing enormous social, environmental and economic pressures, but there is a belief that, as has happened in the past, new technologies will come along to solve these problems, ultimately leading to a Star Trek-like future of limitless energy and growth.

The third story, also gaining in alternative media attention is that of Collapse. That the environmental and economic systems will unravel, triggering a cascading collapse throughout society, leading to a kind of post-apocalyptic scenario that Transition movement co-founder Rob Hopkins calls “Mad Max without the good bits.”

However, there is a fourth story, one that gets relatively little media attention, which we in the Transition movement think of as Earth Stewardship: a society that respects and lives within the biological limits of the planet, one where we understand and accept that we simply cannot continue to grow, cannot continue to consume without restraint, cannot sustain our current levels of inequity and greed.

So what are our options? How do we embody the story we want to write?


Albert Einstein said that problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them. This is a lesson we’re going to have to learn quickly, because so far whatever irresolute actions we have taken to address these problems have been entirely directed toward perpetuating the very systems that created the problems in the first place (Business as Usual). That’s not going to work. The economic, environmental and resource constraints we’re facing make it impossible.

So, what else is there?

On an individual level, one option that seems to be gaining in popularity is to participate in the resurgence of the “survivalist” paradigm. America is very much a cult of hyper-individualism, and that’s no accident. Over the past half-century or so there has been a kind of coordinated effort to dismantle the cohesion of the extended communities by which we as a species grew up, and promote America as the home of the “rugged individual”—as popularized and validated in everything from television to film to advertisement. (The “good reason” for that—or at least, “good” if you happen to be a multinational corporation—is that if the comforts and strengths of community have been stripped away, people are more likely to seek support, solace and comfort in consumerism, as opposed to one’s friends, family, neighbours and community.)

The manly American doesn’t ask for help, doesn’t ask for sympathy or support, doesn’t ask for directions. When faced with a challenge, it is seen as admirable to button up, tighten your manly jaw, and triumph over the problem single-handed. It’s what the “strong, silent type” would do. Naturally, when surrounded by a collapsing civilization, it is thus a natural, “ruggedly individualistic” response to escape to the woods, build fortifications, and protect home, property and family (in that order) against all external threats by oneself.

Also, as Dr. Stephen Quilley points out, the United States still has thousands of square miles of untracked wilderness that it’s possible to escape to. Most other countries don’t have that luxury. Canada does have far more wilderness than the United States, but much of it is distinctly inhospitable, often featuring either muskeg swamp to the horizon, or a severely unpleasant climate, or both.

It’s likely no accident that the Transition movement, which embodies the spirit of collaboration, community and cooperation, started in Great Britain, an island that is almost entirely inhabited, and those relatively small areas still uninhabited are often even more inhospitable to human presence than Canada’s. And of course many cities in Great Britain survived the blitz during World War II largely because of what Pat Murphy calls the “power of community”.

Finally, the United States is one of the few countries on the globe that has never (the highly-selective attacks of 9/11 notwithstanding) experienced a direct threat due to war or attack. Many other countries have not been so lucky. In particular, countries in Western Europe and the British Isles have endured the massive devastation inflicted by two world wars, and have learned through direct, hard-won experience the value of community, and of banding together in time of crisis.

God knows I hope we are not headed toward a large-scale collapse due to peak oil, or climate change, or economic collapse, or all three, but nevertheless it is certainly one of several plausible scenarios. So, here’s a question: should such a collapse occur, who’s more likely to make it to long-term survival? The survivalist, hiding in the woods in his fortified bunker with an arsenal of weapons and a mountain of freeze-dried foods, or a community that bands together for mutual support and comfort, sharing of workload, distribution of essential tasks, and engaging in a large-scale collaboration on redesigning and rebuilding the local infrastructure with the goal of providing for their mutual and collective needs in the immediate and longer-term future?

I don’t have a definitive answer, but I’m putting my bet on the community.