On the divergence between the Transition and Green Wizards projects

John Michael Greer responds to a critique of his new appropriate technology movement, by Rob Hopkins of the Transition Town movement (see below):

1. Part One: excerpts from Greer:

“Since the Green Wizards project got under way two months ago, I’ve wondered off and on whether it would field any sort of response from the Transition movement. Thus it was not exactly a huge surprise to read Rob Hopkins’ blog post on the subject yesterday. I admit that the tone of his response took me aback, and so did the number of misrepresentations that found their way into it; I have no objection to criticism – quite the contrary, an idea that can’t stand up to honest criticism isn’t worth having in the first place – but it might have been helpful if Hopkins had taken the time to be sure the ideas he was criticizing were ones I’ve actually proposed.

When I sat down to start this week’s post this morning, I considered going through his comments one by one and correcting the misrepresentations, but what would be the point? Those who are minded to take his statements at face value will doubtless do so anyway; those who are interested in checking the facts can find my views detailed at quite some length in the series of posts beginning June 30 of this year. Instead, I think it’s more useful just now to talk about the things Hopkins’ critique got right. Rob Hopkins is a smart guy, and even though he’s garbled a fair number of the details, his post raises useful points regarding some of the core issues I’ve tried to bring up in the Green Wizards posts.

The first of those is that one of the motivations behind the Green Wizards project is a recognition of the limitations of the Transition Towns project. I’ve discussed my concerns about that movement on several occasions on this blog, and don’t see any need to repeat those comments just now. The crucial point, though, is one that Hopkins himself cheerfully admits: that neither he nor anyone else in the movement can be sure that it will accomplish what it’s trying to accomplish.

That’s a bold statement, and one that’s worthy of respect. Still, it has implications I’m not sure Hopkins has followed as far as they deserve. If the difficult future ahead of us can’t be known well enough to tell in advance what strategies will best deal with it, in particular, it seems to me that it’s a serious mistake to put all our eggs in one basket, whether it’s the one labeled “Transition” or any other.

This is the underlying strategy that guides the Green Wizards project. I’ve argued here that the best approach to an unpredictable future is dissensus: that is, the deliberate avoidance of consensus and the encouragement of divergent approaches to the problems we face. The Green Wizards project is one such divergent approach. It tries to address a broad range of possible futures with a flexible set of tools, but there are no guarantees; it’s entirely possible that the project will fail, or that the future will turn out to be so different from my expectations that it could never have succeeded at all.

That last comment could be said just as accurately of the Transition approach, and of course that’s exactly the point. Neither project offers an answer to all the challenges the future might dump on us, and neither one is guaranteed to work. This is why I’ve tried to craft the Green Wizards project to fill in some of the gaps the Transition Town movement fails to address. Does that make the two projects mutually exclusive? Not at all; it could as easily be argued that they’re complementary – though it also needs to be remembered that the two projects taken together don’t cover all the possibilities, either. Other projects will be needed to do that, and if we’re lucky, we’ll get them.

This leads to the second point that Rob Hopkins got absolutely right, which is that the Green Wizard project isn’t a solution to every problem the future has in store for us. I’m not at all sure where Hopkins got the idea that the project is predicated on an imminent fast collapse, which is very nearly the opposite of my views – the most popular of my peak oil books so far isn’t titled The Short Descent, you know – but he’s quite right to say that I consider peak oil, and more generally the impact of fossil fuel and resource depletion on an economy and society that depends on limitless growth, to be the core driving force of the next century or so of social crisis and disintegration.”

Part Two: Original Response from Rob Hopkins of the Transition Town movement


“So, first question, what is a ‘green wizard’? Greer defines green wizards thus, “individuals who are willing to take on the responsibility to learn, practice and thoroughly master a set of unpopular but valuable skills – the skills of the old appropriate technology movement – and share them with their neighbours when the day comes that neighbours are willing to learn”. The idea, as I read it, is that any notion of a co-ordinated response, a la Heinberg’s ‘Powerdown’, a scenario where communities self-organise and work with, or without, their local authorities, to start the rebuilding of that settlement’s resilience, reduce its oil dependency and carbon footprint, is now for the bin, condemned as impractical and unrealistic. Greer appears to have given up any notion that such a thing might be possible, stating “a movement is a great thing if you want to hang out with congenial people and do interesting things together. It’s just not usually a good way to make change happen”.

Both Transition and green wizardry are based on the ideas that peak oil, and peak various other things too, will lead to a future of economic contraction and declining net energy availability, where the communities that are most successful are those that have most successfully strengthened and refocused their local economies in advance. Both (as I understand it) believe in the need for stronger local food networks, more back garden production, more local ownership of key utilities such as energy generation, and for a rediscovery of local building materials, seasonal foods and so on. Greer’s latest post, The Care and Feeding of Time Machines, is a fascinating distillation of useful tips and ideas around season extending, which will be of great interest and use to many involved in Transition. Much of the information being unearthed and rediscovered by the green wizards will be very useful for those involved practically in building resilience at a local level, and it is a very valuable and fascinating project. I do, however, have a few concerns about green wizardry.”

Do ‘Green Wizards’ build community resilience?

:This is the ultimate question for me. Would having green wizards in my community make it more resilient? I don’t think so. When talking about resilience, I mean the ability of my community to withstand shock from the outside, to not unravel at the first sign of difficulty, and to be able to reinvent itself, using the shock as an opportunity to reimagine and remake itself in a way more appropriate to a world of energy descent. For me, resilience refers to more than the ability to not fall apart when catastrophe strikes, rather resilience is a desirable state in itself, something to strive for because, if done properly, it stands a higher chance of meeting our needs in uncertain times than business-as-usual does.

My first point here is that there are already plenty of green wizards in my community, people with a range of skills. Transition’s working assumption has always been that we need a ‘Great Reskilling’, that we have become collectively vastly useless. However, the research I just completed that looked at Totnes found that actually people are far more skilled than we might give them credit for. The survey I conducted showed that 66% of people stated that they were ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ at food growing, and other methods such as focus groups confirmed this, that a lot more people are gardening than one might imagine. They learn not from government programmes, but largely from friends and neighbours, from people, like green wizards, who are just living it and doing it. The idea that we can build resilience by brushing up on canning techniques and swapping knitting techniques, while not wishing to dismiss the importance of those skills, is rather missing the point.

What green wizardry is definitely not, though, by any stretch of the imagination, is a response to climate change. Becoming a walking appropriate technology library is not going to do anything to reduce your community’s carbon emissions. Climate change doesn’t work like peak oil. It isn’t something that builds to one moment of collapse, a point where circumstances determine that suddenly people see that you were right all along. The need presented by climate change is to reduce emissions today, and to cut them as hard and as deep as possible. Our 1970s ‘how-to’ library has nothing to say in terms of measuring carbon, nor how to most effectively reduce it, producing nothing like Chris Goodall’s ‘How to Live a Low Carbon Life’.

Green wizardry also falls short because it fails to acknowledge that a transition on the scale it is presumably designed as a reponse to will be anything more than purely a challenge of an absence of practical know-how. Communities faced with the realities of energy descent, whether rapid onset, stepped descent or rapid unravelling will be faced with much more than simply a need for windmill designs and guides to making good compost. It is not purely an outer process, indeed the practical solutions side of it is the easier side. Ensuring clear communication, dealing with conflict, supporting people through the grief of the future not turning out in the way they had spent their lives so far imagining it would, is equally important. Are the green wizards also dusting off 1970’s self help manuals?”

1 Comment On the divergence between the Transition and Green Wizards projects

  1. Avatarkatie

    as an active member of a transition town group, i have to give hopkins points for the much more difficult task of herding cats.

    however, greer is correct that many group initiatives undertaken since the 1960’s and ongoing, have had a feel-good, congeniality aspect that does not lead to change or resilience, but rather drains available energy into a circular entropic busyness.

    i think transition towns are *timely* and that is the prime criteria for any action.

    what i think is a possible foundational lack is the emphasis as a sort of doctrine, on “energy descent.”

    it isn’t i think, in the end about megawatts or gallons gas per capita. the problem is deeper and more subtle as a inexorable manifestation of human drive to growth and expansion. and “littling” ourselves, while necessary, does not give us a worthy or sustainable cultural purpose, nor explain our right relationship to the planet.

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.