Wednesday, April 13, 2011

And The Award Goes To... An Advocacy Student!

Just got word from Antioch Advocacy student Jamie Capach that the video that she produced about Antioch University New England's Transportation Initiative here was selected as a winner of the "My Energy Plan" video competition sponsored by Clean Air-Cool Planet and the University of New Hampshire. A number of Antioch's Environmental Studies students appear in the video, which was written by ES students Rachel Brett (AUNE Green Guru)and Alyssa Kassner (AUNE Transportation Coordinator).

Check it out:

Friday, April 01, 2011

My Path To Transition Organizing

My becoming a local Transition organizer, on top of my work as a professor of Advocacy for Social Justice and Sustainability, was not at all a surprise to my family, my closest friends, or my colleagues in the Department of Environmental Studies at Antioch University New England. They all saw my new volunteer work as consistent with my previous efforts over the years as both an activist and an activist educator. While the Transition movement often attracts people who have not been social movement activists before, some of us are fairly old hands. I am one of those old hands.

Organizing Activist Study Groups in The 1970s

Back in the mid-1970s, for example, when I was relatively new to grassroots activism, I helped organize a series of weekly study circles for environmental, peace, and social justice activists in Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Our aim was to help each other see beyond the next demonstration, the next hot-button issue, or even the next volunteer shift at the food coop or community garden. Several of us sensed that we needed to go beyond our urgent, but largely unreflective activism. We wanted to create a more thoughtful politics than our heart-felt, but somewhat knee-jerk responses to date. The assembled participants in this series of study circles had decided to work together in order to construct a deeper, more mature analysis, vision, and strategy to guide our activist work in an emerging age of global ecological crisis.

I loved our living room gatherings in Twin Cities. Each week, after a potluck supper, we would settle-in for two and a half hours of reports and discussions based on our readings and our experiences. The learning process was participatory and lively--consciously rooted in the popular education theories of Paulo Freire and Myles Horton. Topics of the study circles included the environmental crisis, ecological limits to growth, North-South relations, US social justice issues, militarism, alternative social and economic visions, Gandhian nonviolence, and other organizing strategies. The curriculum for these "Macro-Analysis Seminars" was developed as a program of activist self-study designed by a Philadelphia group that was part of a national activist network called Movement for a New Society.

Rethinking Economic Growth

Looking back, I see now that we were working together to systematically construct and refine a collective action framework that was similar to the emerging "Transition Model" of today in many, many ways. I especially remember reading and discussing Bill Moyer's groundbreaking 1972 essay, "De-Developing the United States Through Nonviolence." Echoing central themes from Rob Hopkins' The Transition Handbook, Moyer explained how modern industrialized societies would at some point need to make a significant break from the dominant development model of ever-escalating economic growth and ever-expanding energy use and pollution. In light of emerging research, such as the Limits to Growth report put together by a team of MIT scientists, Moyer argued that there is increasing evidence that "there are not enough resources (including minerals, fossil fuels, water), and the environment's pollution-absorption capacity is not great enough" to sustain the dominant pattern of industrial development for too many more decades.

Anticipating the problems of peak oil, climate change, and the unsustainability and injustice of the global economy, which are all highlighted by the Transition movement today, Moyer argued that "complete world development" along the lines of the dominant industrial growth model is impossible. He then concluded that "over-developed" industrial nations like the United States will therefore have to choose between intensifying their war against the poor and the planet, while still risking future decline or collapse, or creatively "de-developing" themselves and finding ways to transition to a more just, resilient, and fulfilling way of life. As he noted in the piece, "In this long-range vision of a more egalitarian world in which the industrialized nations are de-developed, the standards of happiness would be based more on human relationships and individual actualization than quantities of material consumption."

This unconventional perspective challenged all of us active in those long ago study groups. Back then, almost all progressive activists still claimed that we should--and could--grow our way out of imperialism, poverty, and war by forever expanding the economic pie available to all people. Some of us, of course, also added that we should throw in some wealth redistribution policies in order to further enhance both social equality and democracy, but we were still firmly committed to unending economic growth. After exploring Moyer's ecological perspective, however, most of us in the study groups were able to begin moving beyond the dominant pro-growth consensus that held together most conservatives, liberals, and even self-styled radicals at the time.

Working in the "Anti-Nuclear" Movement

Several of us in the Twin Cities, and several others influenced by Moyer's thinking around the country, went on to assist the formation of a regionally-rooted, but nationally-networked alternative energy movement that waged numerous nonviolent direct action campaigns across the country. We set our immediate sights on blocking the construction of 1000 proposed new nuclear reactors in the United States, which we saw as a dangerous and very flawed attempt to maintain the dominant model of business as usual."

This particular "de-development" movement was ultimately successful at capping the number of US nuclear reactors at less than 200. This is a significant victory, even though we wished the final number had been zero. At that particular point in US history, however, and perhaps in part due to the limits of our oppositional organizing model, we were not able to build a strong enough movement to go farther and achieve our long-range vision of a transition to a decentralized, non-nuclear, post-oil economy built on a foundation of extensive energy conservation, an overall reduction in global energy demand, and switching to safe and renewable energy sources produced largely at the local and regional level.

By 1980, Moyer and co-author Pamela Haines wrote a new piece stressing that the "anti-nuke" movement would be wise to reframe itself as a more positive, safe energy movement and "actively advocate alternatives as well." As Moyer and Haines put it in this new piece, we need to be "calling for a shift from the traditional hard energy path of massive centralized generating plants using nonrenewable fuels to a new soft energy path of flexible decentralized generation based on a diversity of mostly renewable energy sources." Why? They argued:

It is not enough to add [the fossil fuels industry] to nuclear power as another system that must be fought. We need a vision of what we want America's energy future to look like, so that we can develop a strategy for the citizens' movement to get from here to there. Without a vision, we don't know where we are going, we get frustrated and stuck in protest, and don't have a basis for deciding what to do next. It is also important to have some ideas of what the transition period looks like so we can have benchmarks for recognizing our victories along the way.

Back to the Future With the Transition Movement

Now, close to 30 years later, this unfinished agenda has been strongly lifted up by the international Transition movement. We can see these visionary themes in the Transition movement's call for efforts to foster community resilience, promote energy descent planning, and move forward on the redevelopment of sound local economies that are just and sustainable. Such a constructive, community-driven program for a more relocalized and resilient world was certainly raised for our consideration in Moyer's writings, but he left it largely undeveloped in light of his more urgent priority of challenging nuclear power plant construction through local nonviolent civil disobedience campaigns. With the Transition movement, this neglected element of Moyer's and Haines' thinking is now being put front and center again.

Not surprisingly, this new movement excites me. In all my work as an activist and activist educator since the 1980s, I have been puzzling over, and experimenting with, how to move toward the long-range, sustainability vision that was first brought to my attention by Bill Moyer and people like Pamela Haines. After all these years, one of my core conclusions is that it is no longer sufficient to put all our hopes into a mass revival of using the grassroots social action tools of electoral campaigning, voting responsibly, lobbying our elected officials, or even putting real "street heat" on corporate or government officials by participating in nonviolent protests and direct action campaigns.

Please do not get me wrong. I still believe that all of these forms of civic engagement are very important and still needed--and should be engaged in by active citizens everywhere. Yet, like most Transition organizers, I have also come to believe that something else--something very important--needs to be added into the mix of our activism and placed much closer to the center of our work. That something is a global movement of local grassroots organizing aimed at creating relocalized, resilient, and sustainable economies and communities through positive, practical, citizen-led projects and alternative institutions.

Today, between the cracks of my fulltime teaching gig, I'm trying to do my own small part of nurturing the growing transition movement right here in Keene, New Hampshire. It also makes for great service learning projects for my students.

For more information on our local community work, check out The Keene Transition Movement Community Website and Blog.

Is The Transition Movement A Yuppie Diversion?

I am feeling a little like "Dear Abi." Yesterday, I got an email addressed to me and several other Transition movement organizers around the country. It was in response to the Transition US March e-newsletter. I'm not sure which article upset this reader, but he wrote me and several others the following note:

IS TransitionUS JUST A SORT OF YUPPIE SUBSTITUTE FOR TAKING SERIOUS POLITICAL ACTION ON, SAY, THE YANKEE G.E. NUKE PLANT IN VERNON, VTAND THE 100+ such plants that are scattered across our country? In a few words, are you simply DIVERTING US, with cutsie-pie, from doing serious and adult things?

Below is a slightly revised version of my response:

Dear Friend,

I'm not really clear if you are just stating a conclusion, or if you are actually curious about the question you have raised. Anyway, I've tried to take your question seriously and answer it at some length below. I look forward to hearing back from you at your earliest convenience.

A Bit About Who I Am

Besides running an activist training program at Antioch University New England, and being a long time activist before that, I am a founding member of the Transition Keene Task Force--a group of eight friends and neighbors who got inspired by reading Rob Hopkins' The Transition Handbook together. We are the 56th Transition initiative in the US and the first in New Hampshire.

The Transition Movement's Analysis

Like many people, I was originally attracted to the Transition movement for a variety of interrelated reasons. One motivation for many Transition activists is the movement's unflinching analysis that our local communities, our nations, and the larger global community are increasingly facing a severe threat from the "perfect storm" of climate change, peak oil, and an increasingly dysfunctional global economy. Business as usual is just not working or creating a sustainable, just, or fulfilling world.

As Hopkins' notes, "It is no longer just a case of whether we should be questioning the forces of economic globalization because they are unjust, inequitable or a rapacious destroyer of environments and cultures." Added to these concerns, we now have to add the likelihood that the impacts of global climate change and the end of the Age of Cheap Oil will send serious shockwaves through our industrial civilization--shocks that will almost inevitably change the way we live, work, and play in the future. This troubling view of our future is becoming increasingly convincing to a growing number of people. As Paul Hawken notes in his book Blessed Unrest, "If you look at the science that describes what is happening on earth today and aren't pessimistic, you don't have the correct data." My guess is that you likely agree pretty much with the Transition movement's analysis. If so, we already have a lot of common ground.

The Transition Movement's Vision

The greatest appeal of the Transition movement to me, however, is probably its palpable sense of historic opportunity and its vision of a more resilient, just, and fulfilling way of life at the end of the Age of Cheap Oil. A core tenet of the movement is that a "future with less oil could be better than the present," but only if we "engage in designing this transition with sufficient creativity and imagination." The movement's visionary approach is based on finding creative and effective ways for communities to unleash positive, solutions-oriented, grassroots citizens' initiatives to (1) significantly lower community energy use; (2) convert to more local, safe, and renewable energy sources; (3) foster a more localized, green-collar economy that can meet the basic needs of all its citizens; and (4) strengthen the very heart and soul of local community life in ways that offer deeper connection and life satisfaction than mass consumer culture.

This vision appeals to many people when they hear about it. As Hopkins explains in his book, "I have delivered this message many times, in talks, courses and blog posts, and have yet to encounter anyone who thinks that stronger local economies, increased local democracy, strengthened local food culture and more local energy production are a bad idea." While Hopkins is likely exaggerating about the universally positive response he receives in order to make a point here, it is still a good point. The Transition movement's vision does seem to appeal to an increasing number of people in my town, including people in several different places across the conventional political spectrum.

While the Transition movement's politics of relocalization can be viewed as radical because it seeks to foster a transition towards sustainability, social justice, community well-being, and participatory democracy, such visions also matter to principled conservatives. Indeed, as Transition fellow-traveler Pat Murphy notes, modernist "values of novelty, comfort, convenience, ease, fashion, indulgence, luxury and competition along with other indolent values associated with declining empires must give way to different values such as cooperation, temperance, prudence, moderation, conviviality, and charity." Anyway, you might even be in rough agreement with the transition vision. If so, we have even more common ground between us.

The Transition Movement's Strategy

A third thing that draws in many of the movement's participants, including me, is that the Transition organizing model promotes an innovative and inspiring strategy for change--and at a local scale that many people see as the most workable for themselves. Most Transition movement leaders and many participants are wise enough to know that concerned citizens will ultimately need to encourage the development of creative international treaties, and more daring national, state, and local public policies that promote a large-scale transition towards economic relocalization and energy descent. Yet, the movement also believes that the levers for this kind of change are not immediately available to grassroots activists. As Richard Hienberg states in his foreword to Hopkins' book, "On the whole, national governments are slow to understand and act on this imperative, as there are too many interests vested in maintaining the status quo."

While not at all discounting the vital role of elections, lobbying, and the conventional issue campaigning--or even the nonviolent direct action approach of somewhat more militant groups--the strategic emphasis promoted by Transition movement leaders and participants is on organizing local, community-based, self-help projects and alternative institutions that are fun, energizing, relevant, and are likely to engage many new people as active citizens.

Adding The Transition Strategy To The Activist Mix

This strategic approach might be what you are most worried about--because you may see it as a distraction from the kind of issue campaigning and protest efforts you think are most needed now. Is that true? If so, I would ask you to remember one thing and to consider another.

First, please remember that many Transition activists do actively engage in elections, lobbying, issue campaigns, and some--like myself--even engage in and support nonviolent direct action. We are not diverted. We are just adding another tool to our activist tool box by doing Transition organizing.

Second, I encourage you to consider the Transition movement's main strategic orientation--which is essentially what Gandhi called the "constructive program"--as a supplement rather than a distraction or a diversion from other types of activism. I personally think that any successful movement for fundamental social change will require a local-level constructive program of education and action like that focused on by Transition initiatives, as well as elections, lobbying, issue campaigning, opposition to certain types of development and technologies, and nonviolent direct action. Different movements, organizations, and networks might focus on one or two of these types of tactics and not others for various reasons, but all of these approaches to change are likely needed. If we can agree on that, then we have tons of common ground--we are just focusing our primary strategic energies in different needed areas. Might you possibly agree with this?


Now the future may prove the Transition movement wrong about the wisdom of its strategic approach, but I think it is safe to say that we didn't arrive at this perspective from an immature, cutsie-pie, yuppie perspective. I would thus encourage you to see us as potential allies in the wider movement for positive social change, and perhaps even refrain from calling us names. Still, with that observation on the tone of your email aside, I do think your basic question is a good one and I've done my best to answer you fully and thoughtfully.

In closing, I just want to say thank you for all of your activist work and your efforts to contribute to the transition to safe and renewable energy sources and greater energy conservation. I certainly see you as an ally in this effort and hope you come to see me and my compatriots in the Transition movement as potential allies as well.


Nic Marks on the "Happy Planet Index"

I have long been a fan of the New Economics Foundation in England because I think they are doing some of the most creative thinking about how we might organize and conduct our political and economic lives in order to promote sustainability, social justice, personal fulfillment, and the common good. They also take into account the realities we will likely confront in the face of the end of the Age of Cheap and Abundant Oil. Here is a recent talk by Nic Marks, one of the founders of NEF, on their tool called "The Happy Planet Index." In it, Nic also talks about the importance of thinking in visionary terms and not just scaring people with worse case scenarios. I thought many sustainability activists might be interested in watching the talk. It is just 17 minutes long.