Thursday, July 30, 2009

Problems in the Transitional Programme

Smokewriting takes informed umbrage at my flip dismissal of Transition Towns in the post below. Certainly it seems to be the case that in this, as in so many elements of the green (semi-)movement there is much that is laudable and good as well as much that is provincial and backward. My major objection to it is as per Marshall Berman's critique of 'small is beautiful', a passage which I've quoted before but is so definitive I'll do so again:

The various advocates of solar, wind and water power, of small and decentralised sources of energy, of 'intermediate technologies', of the 'steady-state economy' are virtually all enemies of large-scale planning, of scientific research, of technological innovation, of complex organisation. And yet, in order for any of their visions or plans to be actually adopted by any substantial number of people, the most radical redistribution of economic and political power would have to take place. And even this - which would mean the dissolution of General Motors, Exxon, Con Edision and all their peers, and the redistribution of all their resources to the people - would be only a prelude to the most extensive and staggeringly complex reorganisation of the whole fabric of everyday life. Now there is nothing bizarre about the anti-growth or soft energy arguments in themselves, and, indeed, they are full of ingenious and imaginative ideas. What is bizarre is that, given the magnitude of the historical tasks before us, they should exhort us, in E.F Schumacher's words, to 'think small'. The paradoxical reality which escapes most of these writers is that in modern society only the most extravagant and systematic 'thinking big' can open up channels for 'thinking small'. Thus the advocates of energy shrinkage, limited growth and decentralisation, instead of damning Faust, should welcome him as their man of the hour'

However in a situation in which the entities through which we could once envisage such a collective, Faustian project - strong trade unions, socialist parties, and the strength of both in the heart of production - are so weak, the idea of small towns declaring their intent to make people think about the things they do not usually think about can't exactly be a bad thing, although it's still redolent to me of (glib comparison alert) the powerless gestural politics of 80s Labour Councils declaring themselves 'nuclear-free cities' (you could just imagine Brezhnev crossing Lambeth and Sheffield off the to-bomb list when the news of that came through). As it is, I'm more excited by the Vestas occupations than the prospect of a carbon-neutral Devon - but both of them share, it would seem, an attempt to start from the local and build outwards into something more powerful - and it's encouraging to see as part of a mission statement lines which imply a transition to something pleasurable rather than a moralistic ordeal: "by shifting our mind-set we can actually recognise the coming post-cheap oil era as an opportunity rather than a threat, and design the future low carbon age to be thriving, resilient and abundant – somewhere much better to live than our current alienated consumer culture based on greed, war and the myth of perpetual growth." I just wish they were coming out of somewhere more significant, somewhere with something to lose, rather than the likes of Totnes or Westcliff irrespective of their undoubted virtues.


Anonymous Mike Beggs said...

Hey Owen, where's that Berman quote from?

12:36 am  
Blogger owen hatherley said...

All that is Solid Melts Into Air, sorry.

12:41 am  
Anonymous Chris said...

"Somewhere with something to lose" - like Bristol, Cardiff, Brixton, Stafford, maybe?

Long time since I read Berman, but I seem to remember being struck by one of the ambiguities about Faustian "development" in his reading concerned the openness of the future. Without a connection to something "unmodern", what stops the future of development for development's sake flipping over into Bomb Culture's future as void, for example?

9:29 am  
Anonymous seán said...

What part of All That is solid is the passage from? It's an excellent quote, and an excellent book; i remember thinking it was one of the most exciting things I'd read in ages when I read it uni a couple of years ago.

11:49 am  
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2:04 am  

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