A critique of local resilience movements

Andrew Dobson and David Hayes have an interesting article in Open Democracy, entitled: A politics of crisis: low-energy cosmopolitanism.

It starts by warning that the current crisis is not necessarily a boon to the left, which is fair enough.

It then goes on with a critique of localism, which I believe is misguided. Though there is indeed a form of localism that is inward-looking (this is pretty much what John Robb has been describing in his Global Guerilla blog as a return to ‘primary loyalties’), this is definitely not the case with the kinds of progessive localism that they are describing. Movements like the Transition Towns are local in their desire for physical resilience, but are at the same time globally networked and have a cosmopolitan outlook.

They stand for a sustainable relocalization of the physical economy, together with a globalization of intellectual productive cooperation around open design and tinkering communities.

(In my favourite historical analogy: combining local domain economy with the international culture and territorial interconnection of the Catholic Church …)

So, after their critique of left optimism, comes the following passage that includes their critique. Judge for yourself, and thanks for any comments.

Andrew Dobson and David Hayes:

Such caution about anticipating shoots of progressive recovery is often met by arguments that emphasise the energy and vitality of grassroots campaigns. It is true that local movements can often sustain an impressive standard of commitment even during a downturn. But there is also a problem in their political underpinning – in that activity aimed at coping with increasing levels of insecurity is ambivalent in its character and intentions.

The “transition towns” movement in England, which encourages local experiments in environmentally sustainable living and develoment, is a prominent example. This movement is to all appearances right where it should be: making climate change and “peak oil” the linked starting-point for its analysis of possible political futures. The central focus of the “transition” talk is about resilience in the face of increasing vulnerability, and its implications – including reskilling to cope with insecure supply-chains of goods and provisions as oil becomes scarcer, transport becomes more expensive, and the life made possible by oil recedes into the past.

This approach could in principle be empowering for local communities as they take their futures into their hands and do things that governments are unwilling or unable to do. The transition economy can invent new currencies, experiment with new methods of producing and consuming, and develop new ways of engaging and mobilising people in a community.

But where will the politics of resilience lead? It should be recalled that the progressive, inclusive politics of the past two centuries has been accompanied by a fossil-fuelled energy binge. As society powers down, what will become of the outward-looking social and political advances that have accompanied the age of energy excess? The transition-towns movement – and similar initiatives that are motivated by ideals of self-sufficiency, eco-community, and simplicity – seek to manage the shift from oil dependency to post-oil security. It is less clear that they offer anything to say about the equally difficult and equally necessary challenge of combining localism with cosmopolitanism.

When their security comes under threat and when a familiar order begins to break down, people generally look to their own before they look to others. A number of recent post-apocalypse novels has painted a bleak picture of life after environmental catastrophe has wreaked its havoc (Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army, Maggie Gee’s The Ice People, and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road among them). A politics of fear shadows this fiction, the signal (which imaginative artists are so often among the first to perceive) of a wider quality in the collective emotional temperature.

In an overheating world where already hard-pressed citizens are faced with new and prolonged economic difficulties, the avoidance of harm to self and family and “tribe” can come to supersede the preventing of harm to others. The scrabble for scraps can leave little room for cosmopolitan sentiment.

An echo of such warnings is evident in the comment of Will Hutton – one of the most acute analysts of the financial crisis – who speaks of the dangers of “fragmentation”, where in times of hardship the temptation to blame (and the encouragement to blame) people or groups regarded as “other” increases. Hutton goes on to argue that “stories about why we should fragment are even more poisonous than the fragmentation itself”.

The limitation of a politics of resilience is that it can so easily become defensive, reactive, insular (a characterisation that fits much of what remains of the political left as a whole). The whole point of the transition movement is to manage a move beyond – rather than merely respond to circumstances that have got out of control. This managed approach to change could in principle permit a soft, cosmopolitan landing in a world that is (in ways unimaginably different from the 1930s) globalised, connected, and plural. But to do so will require creating structures that can mediate between local initiatives, and a larger politics that can articulate these links. In the absence of such structures and politics, the sound of the wagons circling could drown out cosmopolitan sentiment.”

3 Comments A critique of local resilience movements

  1. AvatarAle Fernandez


    I’m a webmaster for Transition Bristol in, well, Bristol, and it’s good to see more critique of TB. So far this has come from the Climate Camp um, camp, where ecological initiatives have been much more extreme, and have been going on for much longer, with more of a thrust towards self organisation and direct action against capitalism.

    This was presented in a recent Anarchist conference in Bristol and in a report by the Trapese Collective, which was then blogged about in turn by our glorious leader, Rob Hopkins. (bow please, in His presence) (ok that’s a joke!!)


    From what I read of Arnold J Toynbee’s studies of civilisation collapse (very basic stuff – it’s probably much more complex than this) – when civilisations collapse, there is always a tendency towards decentralisation, and that in turn leads to parochial, inward looking tendencies, distrust of outsiders and rivalry between different groups.

    As a webmaster then, as an information technologist then, I feel it’s my duty to encourage links between transition groups in different areas, and with other kinds of sustainability/descent organisations (in Bristol I can name about 4 of them), through use of telecommunications. I know it has many faults and the IT industry at this point is not very green at all, but it’s what I can do, and by getting involved I can help people realise that decentralisation is not a holy grail but just another structure with it’s own pros and cons.

    It’s important to get critiques though. TT is an experiment, we don’t know if it will work or if we’re on time, and we are learning and making mistakes as we go along, so these critiques are crucial to that. We need links and input from outsiders to ecological movements as well as insiders. As TT moves beyond england’s villages and towns, we are seeing it grow and adapt, and it’s an important time to inform it.


  2. AvatarSandi Brockway

    It is important to remember that the Industrial Revolution had 2 stages. The first one, about 250 years ago in UK, centralized industry with slums entrapping the poor – it was mostly steam and furnace powered. Petroleum had no significant use until after 1870 and the development of the internal combustion engine for locomotives. During this time the phone and electricity started to enter people’s homes. The second Industrial Revolution, 120-130 years later, was enhanced due to electrification, communications and the internal combustion engine, which then led to personal vehicles and highways that led to a form of decentralization called the suburbs – where the middle class fled to the cleaner more idyllic countryside, for the most part – but still had to be connected to local grids. It also contributed to greater migrations and transience. But before vehicles, the steam engine train had conquered our West.

    Nonetheless, large royal cities of the ancient world attracted millions with enticements and promises, while draining their farmlands and farmers. It was not a petroleum economy. It was though highly centralized through a power hierarchy, generally a King as the godhead, where the greed factor eventually would disenfranchise many or create/inspire wars.

    It is not hard too understand that if we move into a new era of greater decentralized energy, that the need and desire to alter the urban and rural geography might reverse. These new forms of self reliance and off grid technologies as well could make it possible to live comfortably in areas that have never been inhabited – yet stay very much connected with the world and reduce alienation or disenfranchisement. Yet, what is stopping us from non petrol trains taking us where we want to go.

    The history of socialism and anarchism has never had a tradition in environmentalism ever. In the US it was up upper class Republican woman who was your typical environmentalist, outside of your well financed intellectual naturalists, some who were known as the American Transcendentalists. Throughout US history, it is Republicans who were responsible for the biggest environmental initiatives in history. Even Silent Spring was written by a Republican. Nixon signed the Wildlife Protection Act, and Teddy Roosevelt is responsible for National Parks. So what happened?

    Labor and the common man were not interested in the luxury known as the preservation and conservation of nature, his concern was higher wages and better working conditions. The pollution his work might cause was of little interest to him. This clash can still be seen, for instance, in northern California between lumber jacks and environmentalists. This is a bridge Judi Bari, a former IWW organizer, sought to build. So, when, where and how did the environmental movement become equated with Socialism and the Left? Of course, we understand as environmentalists that we too have anti-corporate sentiments, but for different reasons.

    We still need progressive informed leadership because primitive tribalism, the tendency to shoot first and ask questions later, is going to be with us for awhile. Look what happened after the USSR dissolved. Children’s toys and video games feed this proclivity, and ensures its survival. Perhaps we will see a time where real wisdom, knowledge and learning will be cherish and respected, and ignorance and brutality reviled, but we are not there yet, and the lest suited people seem to be having most of the children. There are so many important issues for humans to organize around – yet, so little motivation at this time to solve them. Please, if there any sign of the scale tipping, wake me up! Because I am so tired of pushing this cart uphill.

  3. Pingback: 21st Century Spirituality · Hyperstream of 2008-10-31

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