Monday, July 6, 2009

Transition Backlash

"Life in the twentieth century is like a parachute jump: you have to get it right the first time."
— Margaret Mead


We were at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the Mall in Washington last weekend, sitting on a panel talking about energy, climate, the economy and the future. Included were panelists from both sides of the Atlantic and we had the opportunity to speak about Transition Towns, bioregionalism, permaculture, and many other solution-oriented efforts.

One of our talks there is now posted by Culture Change, complete with irreverent illustrations for the unwary. A podcast interview from the Smithsonian Institution with Richard Heinberg and ourselves is also available for download from the C-realm, number 160: Flashing Lights on the Console.

After the meeting, Adam Thorogood, who had done the event organizing for the Centre for Alternative Technology, was approached by a woman from the audience who was very unhappy with much of what was said. Not that we were wrong about our proposed solutions — she was very much on board with us about that — but rather that our hope for the prospect of people actually making the needed changes in the time provided was, in her opinion, overly optimistic.

For several minutes, she regaled Adam with her sorry experiences as a community organizer, and how so many people — a clear majority of USAnians — were tuning out on climate change and other issues and substituting fabricated science, religion, sports, reality TV, or other more pleasurable pursuits. As a culture, we were going back to the 50’s.

She went into graphic detail of confrontations she had had, the anger, the ridicule, the outright denials, and the escapism that predominated US culture; how good friends of hers would go out and buy the biggest gas-guzzler on the car lot, as if by sheer force of will they would reverse climate change and peak oil that way; how people used the real estate bubble bursting to upsize their houses on cheap new federally guaranteed loans, heedless of the energy and maintenance required to support them; how teenagers, suffering doom fatigue, would get up and walk out of any presentation that showed a gloomy future; how people in her church would immediately disengage with her if she brought up any of these unpleasant subjects.

Climate change is the new impolitic. You can’t discuss it with family over dinner and certainly not with your crotchety aunt and uncle.

At the Mother Earth Confronting the Challenge of Climate Change Symposium put on by the National Museum of the American Indian, Inupiat elder Patricia Cochran showed slides of an 8000-year-old village in Alaska giving up 100 meters to the sea every year, its largest buildings being dashed by 50-foot breakers and high winds.

We have to confess we sometimes wonder whether we are not navigating the perfect storm by sailing though it. We have the weather reports, we know what lies ahead, and we can even radio other boats, but we are still sailing forward, straight into the storm.

Margaret Mead famously said "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." We just have to wonder if they can do it when everyone gangs up to defend the status quo.

On the other hand, what route is there, except straight into the maw of it?
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