Common Ground for Occupiers and Transitioners

Transition Voice

“The Transition Towns movement teaches us that peak oil and climate change are a threat to democracy and economic justice all by themselves,” writes a blogger for the Organic Consumers Association. “No amount of democratic reforms or economic regulations will save us, if we don’t also transition from fossil fuels to more resilient, lower carbon systems.”

Yet, the post continues, the Occupy movement reminds Transitioners that we can’t adequately address peak oil and climate change without democracy and fairness in the economy. Their blogger then goes on to recognize that Occupiers have picked up on their own some of the open ways of the Transition movement: decision-making by consensus and making cooperative action plans to increase community resilience.

Rob and the mob

But not all Transitioners agree that Occupy is a good angle for local groups devoted to making their communities more resilient.

“I personally resonate with the Occupy Wall Street action––a lot,” said one participant in a discussion about Occupy on the Transition US listserv in early October. “But I  see my choice to support that action as one I would make as an individual, possibly with others, and not one done in the context of activity within my local Transition initiative. I don’t see the Transition response as so much protesting against something, but rather, in creating alternative solutions. As Rob Hopkins says, Transition is more of a party than a protest march.”

Speaking of Transition movement founder Rob Hopkins, last week he paid a visit to Occupy London Stock Exchange. At first, Rob was disappointed with what he saw there.

Instead of the well behaved protesters focused on economic inequity that he’d expected, he found an uneven group (including some clearly drunk and mentally ill people) representing a grab bag of lefty and fringe causes: “There were 9/11 conspiracy theorists, the Zeitgeist movement, Socialist Worker, all manner of single issue groups as well as just some very angry people with a lot of chips on their shoulders.”

But on spending more time at the occupation and having a chance to talk to occupiers about Transition issues, he became a fan:

However, as the day passed, it all started to make sense.  What Occupy is doing that matters so much is that it is holding a space.  It is holding a space where the discussions can take place on their own terms about what is broken and what needs fixing.  It is underpinned by a realisation that this is a crucial time of change where everything is on the table, where business-as-usual is no longer an option.  It isn’t making demands because that would put the power in the hands of the people in power to decide whether or not to respond to them.  It is holding the space for the conversations, and is doing so on its own terms.  I admire that.

I got yer economic growth right here

Meanwhile, back in New York, the Post Carbon Institute sent filmmaker Ben Zolno to check out Occupy Wall Street and talk about the ecological limits to economic growth and hand out a hundred copies of Richard Heinberg’s new book The End of Growth.

Zolno talked to Occupiers and heard valid complaints about making the current system more equitable — putting more Goldman Sachs executives in jail, for example — but little about the fundamental problems of that system. For Zolno, a lack of ecological awareness may be Occupy’s Achilles heel:

The real story is that our economic system requires infinite inputs, on a planet with finite resources. It’s just not physically possible to continue this way. Sooner rather than later we’re going to run out of the resources that maintain our growth.

Thus, most “solutions” of equity and accountability will actually make things worse–by increasing participation, increasing growth, speeding up the train’s path toward ultimate destruction of the planet we depend on to further our quantity and quality of life.

I certainly see Zolno’s point. But at this point, I’m less concerned about Occupiers getting right the connection between the economy and energy than in the vitality of the conversation they’ve started.

For thirty years, big corporations have worked hard to turn the citizens of the world’s industrialized countries into mere consumers. The Occupy movement seems to be like a big open-air school to turn us all back from consumers into citizens with permission to think for ourselves and the tools to see why we ever stopped doing it in the first place.

A de-programming that profound will take time. Meantime, as we face peak oil and other limits to economic growth, we will need to firmly establish the principles of equity and democracy, so that the energy descent and economic contraction will be fair rather than fascistic.