Some problems with the Transition Towns approach

It's always much better to present positive solutions than to only present critiques of others' positive projects. It certainly always attracts much more praise. And yet a "positive" project may be unsound and thereby tragically divert time and energy and attention away from sounder proposals.
Arguably, "poking holes" in what others are trying to do can be just as much a valid and useful contribution as the projects that are being challenged thereby.

In recent months I have noticed some interesting thoughts from the Transition movement founder Rob Hopkins, seeing possible problems with his original concept. Not clear whether he has been learning from actual experience of turning ideas into actions, or whether he has been moved by my own challenging words. But either way it is commendable to encounter someone who can move his viewpoints rather than stick to entrenched assumptions as so many do.

The TTers have (had) some mistaken assumptions about how the energy decrease is likely to proceed. And what effects it will have. Indeed Rob Hopkins himself recently discussed his concerns about whether his Energy Descent Action Plans would avoid being overtaken by events proceeding much faster than they envisaged (in an interview with Richard Heinberg on the web).

There are a number of serious faults in the ideas of the TT movement. In an ideal world a reasonable person would embrace their commitment to a principle of inclusiveness, aspiring to involve all residents of an area in the transition process. But, with much regret, it has to be said that, however much we would prefer otherwise, such inclusiveness is not going to happen. Indeed in my own involvement with a TT steering group, the very first thing raised was this theme of inclusiveness, with the accompanying interpretation that it would mean that BNP members (or their views) were not to be permitted in the movement. So already the concept was proving logically in contradiction of itself.

Please note however that this does not mean that the energyark project wishes to seek to exclude certain groups, or be racist or classist or so on.

Merely surviving in the coming decades is going to be challenging. Dramatically interesting choices can be expected to lie ahead, very much like those that faced the whalers shipwrecked in mid-Pacific who only survived by eating their companions. There are, very tragically, quite a number of people who are simply not going to be able to cope with the future, most particularly in terms of psychological adaption. Such persons will be found in all races, classes and religions, but the problem is the same--that it will be impossible for a struggling community to cope itself while supporting such unfortunates in the manner that a flourishing wealthy advanced civilisational system has been able to recently.

Mind you, the above does not contradict the truth that future communities are going to need and want many different sorts of people. We will want great artists and entertainers as well as those who can show us the boring details of how to get food, or help us with that donkey work (though preferably not as slaves). We will not want to be too judgemental about who is worthy or not. Even I myself am mentally disabled but would hope some merit might be found for considering me useful enough to compensate! Doomed unsuitable individuals will largely deselect themselves by failing to recognise there is a need to get into our sort of project in the first place.

And certainly we want something broader than a community of only intellectuals or latte activists.

Particularly misguided is the TTers' notion of "unleashing the collective genius of the community". It is true that in any group of "ordinary" people there will arise some useful ideas. And there will be some good judgement too. But it is also the case that well-judged innovations and solutions of key difficult problems tend to come only from a very special minority of people, the label for which is the only correct usage of the scientific term "genius". History is full of the great follies that can be achieved by the group-thinking of whole communities, and the word "genius" is not appropriate in their description. If our ancestors had relied on the "collective genius of the community", we would all be still chewing raw bones in caves amid the rats.

It is at times of transformation such as the present that the contribution of real geniuses becomes particularly life-critical for finding well-judged novel solutions to novel challenges. (More on this in the 1987 article linked here which is now very relevant to the present/future).

Re-Localisation or Relocation?

Another major difference of my ideas from the Transition Towns movement is as follows.

The TTers envisage that they will stay in the same "communities" (i.e. towns, cities, villages) that they are already in, and transform them into viably resilient communnities. This might just about be a credible objective in a small remote village of perhaps 100 to 300 clued-up people. (Not that there are many such villages now that the UK countryside has become largely the commuter dormitory of city execs and the like. (Well, what a surprise that the Chief Exec of Birmingham Airport had his home in a quiet country lane of Sambourne village rather than somewhere within easy listening distance of the jet engines!))

But the chances of such a transformation usefully succeeding in a town or city would be remote. There would not be a sufficient level of community cohesion and personal feeling of making a necessary difference. There would be too high a level of strangerness, a word I coined in my 1998 article about excessive mobility urbna.htm.

Instead, the way forward has to be relocation: to select locations reasonably remote from existing oversized (and somewhat doomed) population agglomerations, and to set up coherent communities of positive people within those remote localities.

Such relocation projects will be fairly impossible to succeed in, but the alternative re-localisation projects of the TTers would be infinitely more impossible. For evidence of this you only have to consider the case of Rob Hopkins's flagship Totnes TT. This should have so many advantages over other TT projects:

  • a relatively small settlement of only 8000;
  • one selected by the founder rather than just happening to be there;
  • relatively rich and leisured and educated population, with time and resources to spare unlike so many elsewhere;
  • warmest easiest climate in the uk;
  • good agricultural countryside location.

And yet on checking out the first ten links from a google search of totnes it is clear that Totnes has been hardly touched by the transition concept and has a huge way to go if it is ever to have enough resilience.

This has been only a brief initial selection of problems with the TT concept, to which I could certainly add more if I had a bit more time and energy. Perhaps at some future date.

There are already some relocation projects in (possible) progress. For instance there's one relocation destination in Portugal and another in a nice part of Mexico. I'd be surprised if there aren't more, not being publicised.


  1. I'd agree with that. Relocation is a great idea and I don't know why more people aren't doing it. Nice little resilient community and you're set. In a 'Survivors' (original series, I'm sure you've seen it) style scenario, I agree that it seems likely that Totnes would be hit very hard and lots would probably go wrong far more quickly and far more terribly than anyone imagined. But at least it would have the seeds of resilience in it.

    With the community knowing each other that little bit more, cooperating that little bit more, they would be more acquainted and prepared to deal with the situations they would face.

    You have to start somewhere, and if you're trying to start a cultural meme it will not spread in isolation. It has to be near others to be taken up and to spread.

    The 'ark' approach will save you from a coming storm, but teaching others how to build rafts and boats and how to fish, or at the very least how to swim, will save many more people and resources.

  2. Why more people aren't relocating? It needs money and time, and indentifying a place where one is not going to be unwelcome. Planning regs make life difficult in much of the uk. Two existing international relocation projects I know of are more-or-less based on the presumption that you will buy some propety in the area, which means you are going to end up with a peculiarly skewed community of only owning classes.

    Arks, rafts, how to fish. By the word Ark I was thinking of like Noah's Ark, which not merely survives drowning but also conserves all the requirements for continued life thereafter, in the form of those pairs of animals. Our own arks would need to include the skills of providing food (such as fishing) to be much good. Meanwhile there could also be value in "rafts" too as makeshift first bases from which to later join the community of a sustainable "ark".

  3. take a look:

    Could Cities Be Safer Than Suburbs? (March 11, 2009)

  4. Alan--Thanks for that reference. Rather than replying to it here I'll create a new post by way of commentary on it.

  5. Robin, your movement seems to be defined only by it's declaration that "Transition Towns" is wrong. When are you going to start writing clearly, positively and readably (succinctly?!) about the solutions "Energy Ark" proposes? It's easy to tear down what other people are doing, but until you've created something yourself (beyond a website) is there really any reason to listen to you?

  6. Anonymous, I appreciate that perception. I strongly agree with the concept of providing solutions rather than just bashing non-solutions. The Energy Ark principles were summed up in the post here titled "What's an Energy Ark?". The post "Getting people onboard" indicates some more of the positive plan.

    But what you have to understand is that some things cannot work by website, where any number of people, including some very unfriendly ones, can look at what we are doing, without us even knowing they are. Would you put all your personal affairs on an open website? An essential principle of an Energy Ark is that selfish, uncooperative, sabotageing people do not know where we are or quite what we're doing. That isn't paranoia, it's the same sanity being applied by the zillions of others who prefer their affairs aren't conducted in a global goldfish bowl!

    I also stated that I myself am ill (lifelong chronic disabled) and hence impoverished and have to concentrate on my own health and wealth for the meantime. But you're still welcome to get in contact offline with me non-anon to discuss (and do things) further. Cheers.

  7. Reply to Anon (continued)....
    More about this 'paranoid' approach, an analogy (sadly based on unwilled actual experience). Move your home to a city, put up a big sign saying "Friendly new community centre here", and leave your doors open all day and night. Very soon you will have one or more people in your home/"community" who are quite enthusiastic to beat you to a pulp and take all your money and other useful things. Your life will soon be in desperate chaos.

    If there were a public EnergyArk, or a celebrated "successful" transition 'community' (fat chance!), an analogous disastrous outcome would happen in one or other way.