The Transition Timeline
for a local, resilient future
Forward by Rob Hopkins
190 pp pbk
Chelsea Green 2009
The follow-up to Rob Hopkins’ seminal The Transition Handbook uses the method of “backcasting” from an envisioned future from which we create a timeline of how the transition to a more local, resilient world unfolded.
The first part goes through four different scenarios presented as “cultural stories” roughly along the same lines as the scenarios we are familiar with from Holmgren’s Future Scenarios, this time under the headings:
-Hitting the Wall
-The Impossible Dream
-The Transition Vision
The transition approach is to look at these possible futures in terms of the cultural stories that we tell ourselves, the idea being that we have the power to make our own cultural stories and thereby empower ouselves to guide the future to a more desirable outcome:
Human Nature is the ability to choose our own path
The second part of the book takes a deeper look at the Transition Vision in the five areas of population and demographics; Food and Water; Electricity and Energy; travel and transport; Health and Medicine.
Each of these sections presents a thorough and well-researched overview of the current situation, ending with a Timeline of how we reached a more desirable situation by 2027.
At the back of the book Chamberlin states that “This book has not attempted to quantify the energy/emissions footprint of each aspect of the Transition Vision, but this represents a critical avenue for further work.”
Unfortunatley, this lack of analysis seriously compromises the usefulness of the book, as the projected scenarios may be widely implausible or purely aspirational.
Many other authors have put work into this already, which could have been drawn from, a recent example being the Mayo Energy Audit, which also uses a scenario format, but successfully puts values and figures on the scenarios.
The population chapter, is to be lauded for highlighting an issue often neglected in the environmental movement; however, the author falls into the same trap that others tend to by visiting the “population or consumption” debate over which is the bigger issues:
…population is not (as some claim) the single most crucial environmental issue. It is clearly has a significant effect as a multiplier, but our chosen way of life and ecological footprint are bigger contributors to climate change, energy resource depletion and the other challenges facing us today and in the near future
this is really a straw dog issue because as Ehrlich (whom he refers to) pointed out in The Population Bomb population and consumption are two sides of the same coin. It is in my opinion quite meaningless to speak about which is the greater issue, like we are dealing with some kind of Top of the Apocalyptic Pops.Ehrlich’s famous formula- which should be on every high-school curriculum- is: I (Impact) = P (population) x A (Affluence) x T (Technology) The issues of consumption and population are quite simply inseparable. If the population increases, there will be less resources to go around, so in theory we can increase the population so long as we reduce per capita consumption- and vice-a-verse.
The difficulty I have with making population/consumption an either/or issue is that it simplifies the challenges we have have as a species; I believe we are disposed by our evolution to increase both our population AND our consumption- see the recent discussion by Nate Hagens on environmental psychology.
It is the interplay between demographics and the natural impulse to increase our standard of living that needs to be explored here.
What would be essential to make this section work would be some kind of analysis of what a reasonable standard of living might be- it is not much use talking vaguely of reducing population without some assessment of what a sustainable level would be, which must be gauged against an acceptable level of consumption (I suggested Cuba, at about half the per capita energy use of Europe as a starting point in the above post.)
The food section gives an excellent analysis of the predicament, importantly drawing our attention to issues such as the huge “water footprint” of our food, particularly in meat and dairy- Fred Pierce in “When the Rivers Run Dry” calculates that the equivalent of 20 Nile rivers move from developing to developed countries each year- a stunning image of the sustainability of our food production at present.
The transport section proposes a lift-Hiker system using GPS and mobile phone technology, similar to that of “the Smart Jitney” proposed by Pat Murphy in Plan C.
I particularly like the notion of “hypermiling” which by 2018 has become a fashionable trend as it becomes socially unacceptable to waste resources.
The Health and Medicine section begins well by highlighting the oil dependency of the NHS, and presents the astonishing fact that while by far the largest cost of treating injuries is road accident related, the NHS itself generates as much as 5% of all UK transport!
Issues such as the challenge new diseases being brought by climate change, the inefficiency of big scale health services, and even euthanasia are mentioned; as well as a comparison with Cuba, which appears to have at least as healthy a population as the UK’s but with far less energy dependence.
But then, in the Timeline section, we read:
What used to be known as ‘alternative’ medicines were embraced, as practices like herbalism, acupuncture, massage and osteopathy became core pillars [my emphases] of public healthcare, with a big investment in teaching these skills leading to a blossoming of independent regulated practitioners in most communities.
Oh nooooo! Quackery! This paragraph is deeply concerning, betraying the New Age and pseudoscientific influences in the transition movement.
What is known as “alternative” medicine is simply medicine for which there is no good evidence of effectiveness; certainly, not all “conventional” medicine is evidence-based either, but new-Agers tend to use this as an excuse for throwing out the need for evidence altogether. Often these therapies are based on dubious or discredited “ancient wisdom” which simply has not been born out by the discoveries of modern science. It is modern medical research and science which has lead to an increase in life expectancy, a decline in infant mortality etc..
Now, certainly the problems with modern medicine are manifold, in particular the over-dependence on oil, horrific levels of waste and a level of corruption amongst Big Pharma. None of this is evidence that alternatives like acupuncture work, while many repeated, verifiable blind trials indicate they do no better than placebo.
All these issues and their many nuances are discussed brilliantly in Ben Goldacre’s book Bad Science and I urge you to read it if you are of an alternative disposition when it comes to health care.
The fact is, some remedies work, some don’t; some herbs work, some dont; there is absolutely no way of knowing for sure without large scale clinical trials of the sort the medical establishment does routinely, and which the alternative sector has apparently no knowledge nor interest in.
The curious thing here is that the whole basis of the Transition Movement is based on the verifiable science of Climate Change and Peak Oil; but when it comes to quack medicine, the evidence offered is as useless as that offered by climate change deniers- personal anecdotes along the “it worked for me” kind and pseudoscience.
Transition founder Rob Hopkins provides some startling examples of this on recent comments to Zone5.
In the discussion after this post for example, he comments:
“I have had a great deal of acupuncture in my life, I think it is extraordinary. Had some on a painful back the other week, worked a treat. Acupuncture is based on many centuries of the observation of subtle phenomena.”
Many will say the same or similar, but anecdotes do not constitute evidence; if they did we would have to accept that global warming is not happening on the basis of it being rather cool today for the time of year. I’m only slightly exaggerating – climate change deniers do routinely use the same kind of reasoning to dismiss the science of anthropogenic climate change; and even more so, they point out the failings of Big Science in general terms as a way of discrediting evidence- it is corrupt, in the pockets of the government and corporations etc. “therefore we can dismiss the evidence.”
Even more worrying, Rob goes on to say:
“None of my children have ever been vaccinated, nor have they ever had any antibiotics. They are strong and healthy (touch wood).”
The irresponsibility and naivete of this statement is shocking- the reason his kids have not got measles is likely to be either just luck, or because everyone else’s kids have been vaccinated. (Unvaccinated children may also put at risk certain categories of children who cannot safely be vaccinated for medical reasons, or who may be more susceptible in the event of catching measles.)
Let’s be clear here: the evidence for the safety and effectiveness of the MMR vaccine is just as clear as the evidence for man-made climate change; the kind of thinking that refutes one is pretty much the same as that which is used to discredit the other. By throwing in “alternative medicine” in such an uncritical way Chamberlin panders to the reactionary and retarded element of the New Age meme which believes mainstream medicine is all a con designed to make money and poison us, and alternatives can be uncritically accepted as “safe, holistic alternatives”.
In fact, they are expensive lifestyle products which can in no way replace modern medicine other than as being different forms of TLC- Tender Loving Care. Nothing wrong with that, but they need to be seen as such and drop the false claims of being able to cure specific diseases.
And God help us if they are to become a “core pillar” of public healthcare.
Partly as a result of the kind of delusional thinking expressed by Rob in the above comment, the UK is now facing the worst measles epidemic in decades. It is about time the Transition Movement took a stand on this and put out good information on the subject.
Not only that, but by promoting alternative medicine in this way, Chamberlin is actually undermining his arguments for understanding climate change and Peak Oil. This is all the more ironic since the book covers the need for evidence on these two issues very thoroughly, plenty of graphs and stats and quotes such as that of Daniel Moynihan who said “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts” – a thought that proponents of alternative therapies would do well to meditate on for some time.
The Cuban example is really useful but although their state health service has embraced complimentary therapies including Homeopathy, there is little indication that this has become anything like a core pillar, the success of the Cuban situation being more likely a result of following evidence-based medicine to a high standard, putting in sufficient resources, and focussing on community care and prevention.
Energy Descent Planning
Rob Hopkins writes the next section, Timelines and Energy Descent Plans which is an account of community planning tools and “visioning” processes for changing the communities’ cultural story to the more agreeable Transtion Vision.
An EDAP (Energy Descent Action Plan) is, he says “as much as anything, a new story for the community…
We often stress in Transition that we need to create visions of a post-carbon world so enticing, so compelling and attractive that people leap out of bed in the morning determined to dedicate their lives to its implementation. An EDAP is an embodiment of this.
“Determined to dedicate their lives” does sound a bit cultish and scary to me, and not a little evangelical; however, this chapter concerns itself only with the visioning processes, again with barely a mention of the need to actually count and quantify energy demand and supply; I understand that the movement is working on a more detailed follow-up to the Timeline on how to write an Energy Descent Plan, but it is a little disappointing that after two publications and several years, Transition has not even produced a few pages on basic energy literacy or how to do a simple domestic energy audit, all of which would make this book much more useful.
Rob writes as if this is all that is involved in writing an EDAP, while these visioning processes, useful and inspirational as they are, surely do not provide the meat of a true EDAP, which would start with an audit, and then assess local available resources and then assess how best to use them.
The last section of the book gives more detailed explanation of Peak Oil and then Climate Change; the Peak Oil section is fine, but adds little to existing literature; but the Climate Change section I found really excellent, surprisingly learning plenty of new things, for example about how different measures of greenhouse gas concentrations are used in public discourse which are little understood and distort the picture.
In conclusion, the Transition Timeline has plenty of useful information and some great ideas, but fails to really move the work of transition on in a way we might expect at this stage; and, perhaps inevitably, tends to paint a rather rosy picture of how the transition will play out. Personally, I would hope to see a more realistic view, which includes more on emergency planning and a future which may not be able to deliver the kind of smart technology envisioned for some of the areas explored.
(Andy Wilson of the Sustainability Institute has suggested to me that Peak Car use has probably already passed, while the Timeline puts it as not happening until 2016- a very pessimistic (sic) view!)
Predictably(!), I am highly critical- and will continue to be- of the New Age influence in the Health section,which will feed the suspicion in some quarters that transition is adopting some cultish attributes, and insist on the promotion of evidence-based medicine; and I feel, the lack of detailed energy auditing just means that the Transition Vision will tend to move further away from the observed reality.