Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Eco Transitions

Christian Arnsperger started a new blog this April called Eco-Transitions: The Next Step Economy. Also check out our IPS discussion on the blog. Here's an excerpt from the 2nd post of 4/16/11 called “Why transition? A first look at concepts”:

"The transition model tries, in a sense, to steer a middle way between revolution and collapse. Transition can be compared to getting an airplane to fall from the sky in a fully controlled fashion -- an accomplishment known nowadays as "landing," utterly baffling and yet totally trivialized. The jet airplane neither falls abruptly from the sky, nor does it remain in flight while mutating into a completely different machine. Transition is intentional, just like revolution. It involves deliberating, tracing out possible scenarios, and then making decisions as to which one we think we can pursue. Transition also has a collapse-like flavor, in the sense that it consists in readjusting many crucial parameters of the incumbent system -- and that readjustment will usually have a "downward" feel to it. Some things need to be done without, in the short and medium run, and sometimes also forever more, but this can be turned into subsequent opportunities for a positive outcome -- namely, a safe landing after a downward-sloping path...

The originality of the transition model is that we deliberately choose not only the speed and deceleration of our landing maneuvers, but we also deliberately select the landing track on which we intend to touch down. In fact, Rob Hopkins, the initiator of the Transition Towns movement, regularly speaks of "energy descent." It's a fair enough expression, since there is no getting around the fact that reduction and rescheduling, as well as even a modicum of selective "de-growth" (I will touch on this in later posts), are indeed part of the transition model. The thing is, all these have to be intentional, hence deliberate and deliberated between the actors concerned. And they do not imply a directive on a predetermined set of "acceptable" ways of life; these are supposed to emerge creatively along the process of (a) touching down safely and (b) exploring the track one has landed on.

Transition links up very closely to the idea of conscious evolution: While the collapse model is often predicated on an ecological notion of "succession" -- that is, the idea that systems break down, go through a series of endogenous mutations, and reach a new equilibrium down the line (see Greer's discussion in chapter 2 of The Ecotechnic Future) -- the transition model relies on deliberate institution- and culture-building. It is, therefore, an intrinsically political model and it requires its politics to be spelled out precisely by those who are doing the institution-building, i.e., the whole democratic collectivity in the most desirable cases. So there is a point in common with the revolutionary model, although the similarity stops here: A transition is not a revolution because, basically, it does not follow an exhaustive ex ante blueprint. In fact, this is where the transition model hooks up with aspects of the collapse model, in the sense of relying on a rather organic and bottom-up conception of overall change. If I were not afraid of being misunderstood, I would surmise that a transition combines "deliberate collapse" and "decentralized revolution." Maybe this speaks to your sensibility, but if it does not, just don't follow the thread of that metaphor further... (Better metaphors for this distinctive middle path may come to my mind in later posts. Suggestions are welcome.)

What I see as particularly interesting in the transition model is that it allows us to think at two levels at the same time:
  • the level of what I will call framework conditions for change, i.e., the general features our institutions should have so that we can encourage change in the right direction
  • the level of the life choices for individuals and communities which given framework conditions make possible, and which are the substance of change
Framework conditions (such as, for instance, new modes of political government, a new financial structure, new legal frameworks for enterprise, or a new income-redistribution scheme) come about through a political process and are, therefore, deliberate and deliberated. Life choices (such as, for instance, voluntary simplicity, devoting one's research to the physics of renewable energies, changing one's mode of consumption, insulating one's house, or investing one's money in an ethical fund) are also deliberate but should not, if at all possible, be "forced choices." We all know situations where we think we are choosing freely but are, in fact, faced with a choice set containing only one possibility. If this is what the framework conditions end up doing -- i.e. if, for instance, the new incentives, rules, and regulations amount to an ecological dictatorship -- then we are no longer in a transition but in a revolution. The transition model relies crucially on citizens being given both the resources and the time to reflect and act, and this involves necessarily the possibility not to act immediately and in a rush. Life choices can be very difficult to make, and honoring the conflicting demands of our lives may mean that we might not want to become part of the "first wave" of pioneers who move quickly. The transition model can and should accommodate such situations; the revolutionary model is unable to (and history has, alas, shown abundantly how revolutionary factions treat the reluctant and recalcitrant).

The transition model figures prominently in one of our decade's most influential books, Tim Jackson's Prosperity Without Growth, which originally (in its report version) had as its subtitle: "The Transition to a Sustainable Economy." Although I do not agree with all the proposals set out by Jackson, and I believe he is leaving out some crucial areas of reform (more on this in later posts), I do believe his book is a definite landmark because he is one of the first economists of this new century to have put on the table the twin issue of framework conditions and life choices, attempting to link them together into a coherent whole through a macroeconomic framework that can allow for microeconomic changes. (He draws part of his inspiration in that area from a somewhat less well-known book, Peter A. Victor's Managing Without Growth.) One of the key questions that needs to be asked as we reflect, and act towards, a transition is: What framework conditions are we going to deliberately create so that the forced economic growth that is currently built into our economic system releases its stranglehold? This implies a deep modification of certain key framework conditions (most notably, credit and money as well as income redistribution) but it does not imply a preordained set of ways of life to be forced on citizens in the name of "sustainability" or whatever other slogan we might cherish. The transition model rests on a fundamental trust in human nature: If framework conditions change in the right way, there will be an emergence of the "right" or "sustainably feasible" ways of life. People are not homo economicus: They are caught in a system and they willingly go along with it, but if macro-conditions change many are prepared to investigate alternatives. It's just a question of unleashing that "natural" inquisitiveness of citizens, which the current economic conditions and constraints tend to stifle (except for a small minority of pioneers). Of course, this fundamental trust is open to discussion, and I sense that adepts of the collapse model harbor much less trust in human reason. But this will be one of the key issues to be discussed on this blog.

In the next posts, I would like to gradually unravel the key aspects of what I see as a credible model for a transition towards a more ecologically and socially viable economy. I call it the "Next-Step Economy" simply to emphasize that although I believe we do have to make deep changes in our institutions -- and hence create some radically new framework conditions -- these changes cannot imply that everyone's lives will be overhauled completely and brutally. If Rob Hopkins's Transition Town movement is any indication, this concern is shared by many of those who are busy reflecting on feasible and desirable pathways out of the current quagmire. (See Hopkins's remarkable Transition Handbook.) Life choices there will have to be, but the transition model carries the hope that they can be effected in a reasonably gradual and progressive way. This hinges, of course, on there still being enough time to avert the dangerous cumulative processes which the collapse thinkers are rightly emphasizing. I am not minimizing the relevance of collapse scenarios. But perhaps, as suggested by my colleague Jean-Pierre Dupuy (see his remarkable book, in French: Pour un catastrophisme éclairé: Quand l'impossible est certain, which can be translated as Enlightened Catastrophism: When the Impossible Is Certain), we can use the threat of virtually certain and inevitable collapse scenarios to act in such a way as to avert that threat. Just maybe. But we can never be definite about it. And that, too, is part of the somewhat tragic ethos of the transition model. It's also part of what makes that model so fascinating for those of us who seek a democratic, reasoned, but also critical and emotionally engaged, pathway out of today's blind alleys."

1 comment:

  1. He is reiterating some of the ideas I've been promoting for some time, like in the global capitalism, Rifkin and progressive economics threads.

    A few quick comments on Arnsperger’s opening salvo above. He notes the two-pronged enaction of visioning new frames of political economics as well as individual choices toward that vision. I’m in agreement with both per my prior posts and particularly agree that we need to envision the new “next-step economy” to guide us into the future rather than just trying to upgrade the existing capitalistic system a la kennilingus.

    I do however question this premise: “The transition model relies crucially on citizens being given both the resources and the time to reflect and act.” How many citizens, working under capitalist task-masters (myself included) have the resources and time for such reflection and action? I make the time mostly because I’m have a celibate monk lifestyle, but most others have not only the full-time (over-time) job I have but families or lovers to engage what little free time they have left after the daily grind. Where can they possibly find the time and energy to get politically involved? And without this involvement his democratic economic polity cannot get off the ground. And of course this is exactly the agenda of the capital owners, to keep us working so many hours so that we cannot empower ourselves in this way.

    I also question this: “The transition model rests on a fundamental trust in human nature: If framework conditions change in the right way, there will be an emergence of the ‘right’ or ‘sustainably feasible’ ways of life.” This is based on the above commoner having the time and energy to get involved from the bottom up to input into this new framework. He argues that it must come from this base and I agree. However per above if they don’t have said time and energy this undercuts the trust in us organically creating the necessary pressure for system change. I do not trust the capitalists to allow for this to happen, and I do not trust us laborers to get motivated to act when we’re already too busy and tired just surviving.

    So given the above I don’t agree that it will just happen organically but rather indeed does need some top-down imposition of legislation, like more sustainable environmental and labor laws imposed on business. Which of course requires enough people to get involved in voting and putting pressure on legislators, and round we go in the vicious cycle of ignorance and apathy capitalism have consciously created. While I’m all for transition steps it seems we also need a bit more of the radical revolution in this formula. He does acknowledge that “I believe we do have to make deep changes in our institutions -- and hence create some radically new framework conditions” in a gradual and progressive way, but such changes cannot be too fast or too radical. He also recognized that “this hinges, of course, on there still being enough time to avert the dangerous cumulative processes which the collapse thinkers are rightly emphasizing.” This might be another luxury we cannot afford, that we really have the time to take our time with such changes. We’ll see as I read further into the blog.


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