AN ATHEIST'S ARGUMENT - WHY THE TRANSITION MOVEMENT SHOULD BECOME AN EARTH CHURCH

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16 october 2017

Transition Sacred

By Erik Lindberg, originally published by Resilience.org, October 16, 2017

"Unless we struggle with these deeper issues, I do not believe that our concern for ecology will produce significant results. But if these issues are courageously faced, we are led inexorably to ask other pointed questions: What is the purpose of our life in this world? Why are we here? What is the goal of our work and all our efforts? What need does the earth have of us? It is no longer enough, then, simply to state that we should be concerned for future generations. We need to see that what is at stake is our dignity. Leaving an uninhabitable planet for future generations is, first and foremost, up to us. The issue is one which dramatically affects us, for it has to do with the ultimate meaning of our earthly sojourn."
–Pope Francis


I am an atheist. I don’t believe in God or in any supernatural presence. I don’t believe the universe ever tries to tell me things, nor do I think everything (or anything) happens for a planned, but unknown, mystical reason. I am a naturalist and probably a materialist. When we die, I believe, we become compost. Order is not divinely designed but is achieved when energy, sometimes biological energy, temporarily overcomes the power of entropy.

But I would nevertheless like to see the so-called environmental movement become a spiritual or faith[i]-based struggle — or, to invoke the main thrust of my recent essays on the Transition Movement, I think we need to bind ourselves together around spiritual principles in the face of the movement of history in directions, right now, that are putting life at great risk. Given the current mass movement of history I think it unlikely that a counter-movement led by political activists in the familiar sense of the word might outflank the forces of environmental destruction. This does not mean we give up or lose hope, but that we become something like activists but in an unfamiliar sense. At this moment, I am entertaining how we might hold space and principles in the face of a vast global anti-ecological movement, with which, I fear, we cannot keep up. As Pope Francis has put it, we instead need an “ecological conversion.”

More specifically, and closer to my own spiritual home, I think that Transition is poised to become more of spiritual space-holder and that the Transition Movement should consider re-imagining itself as a sort of Earth Church — a place of congregation for people who are fighting to preserve the Earth’s natural systems, striving to maintain non-exploitative relationships with each other and the rest of God’s green Earth, and working to preserve the gentler and compassionate sides of humanity amidst a coming storm of violence and ruthless acquisition; a place where we can seek nourishment, find solace, grieve, revive hope, preserve knowledge, skills, and wisdom, and live and die surrounded by a community of loved ones.

This of course goes against the grain not only of most political activism, but that of what generally passes for environmental activism (what I would refer to as conventional or liberal environmentalism). It does not entirely go against the grain of the Transition Movement. As it has been conceived and evolved, it already sits halfway between liberal environmental activism and the more “church-like” institution I am imagining. I’m merely providing some language with which it might be nudged further in the latter direction.

Salvation


The goal of environmentalism is of course to “save the Earth” or “save Humanity.” These are not bad goals, per se, but in the hands of liberal environmentalists they are misguided in a number of ways. The most critical error is the almost-never-questioned belief that saving humanity or the Earth actually means preserving our high-energy way of life, hopefully without destroying our common home’s current ecological balance in the process. This will be done, we are told, by trading in our coal-powered electrical generation for wind and solar, while swapping-out our internal combustion engines for the electric ones we might plug into our new carbon-free energy system. Add in some Silicon Valley wizardry, and (so the story goes) we can make this all operate at a level of efficiency that will presumably also help us manage forests, stop soil erosion, preserve biodiversity and habitat, while we continue to grow the economy so that free-market democracy (one without any rationing or reinstitution of virtues such as temperance or moderation) can continue on its merry way, offering us a future that looks like the present, only in real-time higher resolution.

I can’t help but wonder whether I should laugh or cry when I hear or read about the so-called people’s climate march or about most[ii] environmental protesters in general — the sort who might follow the increasingly misguided (and misleading) false prophecy of the likes of Bill McKibben, Al Gore, or Leonardo Di Caprio. For at root, they are in effect protesting one form of energy collection and delivery in favor of a different one. It is presented as a great struggle over values and vision, though it is not. If there is faith at stake in the prevailing struggle (and I believe there is) it is a fully shared faith in progress struggling only over esoteric theological details, practical differences between fossil fuels and renewable energy notwithstanding. True each side draws upon differing versions of capitalism and Liberal democracy and some (not entirely unimportant) symbolic and aesthetic differences. And it is also true that many environmentalists love and cherish nature in some way or another and would like to see it preserved. But unquestioned in mainstream environmental movements are the more fundamental values surrounding the quest for mastery and domination over the Earth’s natural systems; the pursuit of comfort, entertainment, and novelty; the securing of safety and convenience in the face of all the ravages of time and, ultimately, death. All we see are slightly differing versions of salvation through conquest and mastery.

Neither “side,” then, is interested in questioning the values of instrumental reason as the ultimate guide for most life-choices, nor in questioning whether fundamental life-choices might be more than a matter of “style.” No one, here, questions whether one should be allowed to buy and corner as much of the world’s bounty as he or she can. You never hear any murmurs of discontent at climate marches over the fact that Americans make up about 6% of the world’s population but use about a quarter of the Earth’s energy and natural resources. These marchers are the global 1%[iii] and they have every intention of remaining so. They certainly are not there to protest against themselves. Many so-called progressives may say they would never be so selfish and shortsighted as to blow the tops off mountains just so that they can keep their Netflix up and running; but, I suspect, this is mainly because they are so utterly convinced that there is an alternative way to high-energy salvation. Renewable energy, Thoreau would say, provides “an improved means to an unimproved end.”

Liberal environmentalism, then, is not really directed towards “saving humanity” in any of many ways this phrase might be used.[iv] Rather, it is geared towards saving the liberal, capitalist, and consumerist world order; it hopes to preserve our freedom to consume[v] as we currently do. The argument is only how we might best do that. For this reason, the “debate” between the fossil fuel Cornucopians and the wind and solar Cornucopians is about as interesting and relevant as the “less filling/tastes great” mock argument of actors and celebrities pretending to be Miller Lite drinkers a few decades ago. The swilling will continue either way. The contest between environmentalists and their foes is, in other words, hardly a battle over values. It is a pragmatic and instrumental contest over the best way to maintain our current way of life. The debate focusses mainly on our choice of delivery systems[vi] in a world where people believe that love makes a Subaru, as the advertisement preaches.

“The Heart”

This is where the Transition Movement – along with Permaculture and a few other similar belief, value, and action systems — comes in. To put it a bit too glibly, Transition says that since the only way to keep your Netflix up-and-running is, in fact, to blow the tops of mountains, create underground earthquakes and poison our groundwater, or cover every acre of the Earth’s surface with wind turbines and solar panels, then we’d better re-evaluate our values and choose a way of life that allows us to live safely within the Earth’s biological and ecological limits, even if that means we end up living a lot more like Ecuadorian peasants or the Amish than middle-class Americans who manage global complexity from our glimmering offices. If we have to relinquish our Netflix and smart phones, our European vacations and air-conditioned homes, so be it. Humanity has managed just fine without any of these throughout most of its history, a history we are taught to view with dismay and pity according to an educational perspective that is aimed at maintaining the beliefs and practices necessary for industrial progress and expansion.

That’s the glib answer because “choosing” this powered-down way of life is surprisingly complicated and can’t be done overnight. Rather it requires years of discipline and that’s only to power down as an individual or as part of a small and often isolated community. It not only involves the obvious relinquishment of a personal automobile, industrially-produced food, and what normally passes for a code-compliant shelter, it also would require quitting almost any job that pays in regular currency and that isn’t directly involved in low-energy agriculture or natural building. Even our most valued non-profit organizations and think-tanks are the result of a high-surplus economy and may need to consider working themselves out of business if we are actually to achieve a just, sustainable, and egalitarian world order.

But in some ways, the practical aspects are the more simple part, at least for the prosperous (for powering down and going off the grid, after all, usually requires a large up-front cost that most people cannot afford). For not only are our practical life-systems in massive industrial overshoot; our hearts and minds have been trained according to the ways and expectations of a high-energy civilization. Our wants, desires, perceptions, and expectations are unsustainable. Consider only the ways we find entertainment and relax, how we relate to loved-ones and manage simple things like illness or long-distance separation—these are all governed according to social norms that assume we can jump on an airplane at a moment’s notice or rush someone to the emergency room in a matter of minutes, that a 50 mile commute costs only twice as much as a cup of coffee.[vii]

But our inner lives are unsustainable in ways even more profound than that. As Pope Francis has forcefully argued, following social theorists like Theodor Adorno and Alasdair MacIntyre, our epistemology — the way we test claims of truth and value — has been fashioned around the values of what the Pope refers to as a “technocratic society.” Our science, study in the humanities, even “radical” critical theory is ultimately focused on the question of human mastery over nature. As Francis puts it, “It can be said that many problems of today’s world stem from the tendency, at times unconscious, to make the methods and aims of science and technology an epistemological paradigm which shapes the lives of individuals and the workings of society” (107). Arising from this paradigm, he says, is “the cult of unlimited human power,” which “sees everything as irrelevant unless it serves one’s immediate interests (120). Here we see the environment as simply a place where we live and the Earth as something from which we might take, failing to see the interconnection of all things; thus does humanity become fragmented into “masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters,” separate from the ecological word, “unable to set limits on their immediate needs” (11).[viii]

It was part of Rob Hopkins’ original genius to include deep focus on the “head, hands, and heart” and it is this attention to the inner life that makes the Transition Movement so significant. It has faced the broad challenges of powering-down and living in a truly sustainable way, attending to multiple aspects of that challenge. Transition understands that we need to create alternatives to fractional reserve currencies while finding new ways of making a living. It understands that we need to change our habitation and settlements and has linked itself to, and further inspired, a growing co-housing and Tiny House movement, as well as the natural building techniques that have long been a part of permaculture. Food, of course, is Transition’s “gateway drug,” and the Transition Movement has not only been the source of countless community gardens and startup permaculture homesteads, it might count among its allies revolutionary farmers like Joel Salatin, Sharon Astyk, Will Allen, Nathan Larson, and Chris Smaje, along with writer and locavore Barbara Kingsolver.

But in its great imaginings, Transition reaches even further yet, beyond even the instrumental logic and sense of entitlement that defines our civilization, into the deep crevices of our inner lives, where we find the dreams and fantasies with which we design the lives we think might be happy and rewarding. It has at the same time attended to the wounds and the scarred hearts caused by a culture based on exploitation and competition. When, as its subtitle declares, The Transition Handbook imagines a path from “oil dependency to local resilience” it understands that wants and desires form an important base for all cultures and cultural change and that true powered-down local resilience will require a reweaving of our inner lives. I am merely suggesting that we draw from the deep well of religion and faith as we attempt our revolution in expectations and the reconstruction of our desires. Why do I as an atheist grope in that direction? In part because the philosophical discourse of the Enlightenment and modernity has taken a vow of poverty only when it comes to the sort of equipment for living we now painfully need. In everything else it can only imagine expanding the human realm of mastery and destruction of limits.

The main model that the Transition Handbook engages for “the heart” is a model of addiction recovery combined with positive visioning of a better, more peaceful, and less-stressful future, though its intimate connection with Permaculture means that Transition literature and practice were at least implicitly founded on the recognition of ecological interconnection and the notion of a paradigm change regarding human interconnection with the rest of the biosphere.

For its part, the model of addiction recovery was a useful starting place, drawing on something familiar to American and European secular societies, but applying it to the basic practices and addictions of industrial society. The notion that we are addicted to oil and must look inward and reckon with ourselves is a huge improvement over most environmental protesting that imagines that global warming is caused by someone else and that we would be on our way to a clean, green recovery if only we could get the wrong people out of office and make room for renewable energy market-driven solutions. As Barbara Kingsolver has written in an essay aptly titled “Reconstructing our Desires,” “The honorable choice I see is to power-down; stop taking airplane jaunts, repair old things, get out the clothespins, grow food, walk. And face the truth, that I am party to something so enormously destructive I can hardly know its edges. The conquering of any addiction begins with these words: I am the guilty party.”

Transition has evolved nicely beyond this crucial starting place of taking a moral inventory, soon spreading its tendrils into a rich soil of the healing arts to which the sorrow-filled and remorseful must then turn. Its focus on group decision-making has engaged practices of Sociocracy and compassionate, non-violent communication, as well as mindfulness and meditation. Combined with the realization that we need to create new forms of entertainment, Transitioners have learned the healing power of song and dance. Perhaps because it looks to indigenous wisdom when attempting to find models of long-term sustainability, Transition has come to appreciate the power of ritual and ceremony as a necessary part of the communal bonds that will draw us out of our competitive individualism.

In place of the snarky signs, chants, and raised fists — and of course the focus on one’s opponents — that characterize so much environmental activism, Transition sets its gaze on building new things; additionally, if you show up at a Transition meeting, you’ll often experience some sort of communal ritual or symbolic act of togetherness. I have to admit that at first I was not fully comfortable with the hand-holding, moments of silence, or song that accompanied our meetings at Transition Milwaukee. But after I overcame my initial discomfort, I began to see these as integral to the sort of inner-change that will be a part of any successful transition from our radical individualism, through our imbrication in this enormously destructive life, to a more communal culture that focuses on the common good and the primacy of the community. Unlike forced rituals of my past (church, high school pep-rallies, the national anthem) these represented a force and desire for change to which I was irresistibly drawn. Such rituals, also present in other similar organizations such as the Arthur Morgan Foundation for Community Solutions and its yearly conference, are central to the attempt to build a new sort of culture based on the recognition of our global interconnection. This, I am suggesting, is the most important first task that we must engage. The same goes for some of the exercises in trust-building or imagining our ancestors and descendants that one might happen upon in this neck of the woods.

Into the space cleared by these rituals and ceremonies new kind of narrative can develop. Modern, liberal or progressive culture, including its activist sub-cultures, relies on narratives with a couple of distinct aspects. First, of course, is that of progress and technological mastery, according to which humanity might be “rescued” from so many aspects (like limits and death) that have been a common and inescapable part of being human for most of our species’ history. Equally present is a conflictual and adversarial approach to activism, which aims at victory over those who stand in the way of progress. The Transition model and the community spaces it creates, in contrast, open the doors for the sort of narrative whereby we accept responsibility and move forward with recognition of our collective errors. In addition to new narratives, this sort of space welcomes feelings of grief, as we mourn the perhaps permanent loss of so much of our planet’s grace and beauty. And emerging from these moments of sorrow and reckoning might be renewed joy and hope, the strength and forbearance that come from a cleansed spirit. In progressive culture we talk about “baptism by fire” that goes along with the progressive desire to do battle with conservative forces. Perhaps we need more peaceful and cleansing rituals instead of these warlike ones. As Americans using almost a quarter of the world’s natural resources, we, after all, are the guilty party. It is here that we must perhaps begin our path away from total ecological depravity.

Instead of imagining that the rest of the world ought to pursue our freedoms, our drive for efficiency, our liberation from physical toil, then, the “touchy-feely” side of Transition welcomes a sort of humility towards, and a more authentic solidarity with, those who have suffered at the hands of our imperial advantages. Perhaps we might begin to wash the feet of those generally considered “less advanced” or “backwards,” but who may actually live in a more sustainable fashion. Confronted by the fact that some two billion women wash their families’ clothes by hand, the progressive imagines that everyone ought to have a solar powered washing machine, a recipe for increased global overshoot, the alleged solar power notwithstanding. Proponent and exemplar of Radical Simplicity, Jim Merkel, had a far better solution. He too washed his clothes by hand for five years in an act of radical solidarity and principled living, an act not of practical value as much as one of faith and spirituality. Unlike Barack Obama, we will apologize for our way of life, an apology that requires the sort of rituals and symbolism that many Transition gatherings have begun to create.
Blinded on the Road to Totnes

As I argued in “Deconstructing Transition,” the original Transition narrative and the models and suggestions that the Handbook provided for local initiatives was at least implicitly premised on a fast-moving crisis and a subsequent moment of cultural awakening. The mixture (and meaning) of “head, hands, and heart,” and their manifest proportions, that was presented in The Handbook was also built around this same sort of fast-moving crisis. At least in its idealized state it was supposed to work like this: As industrial society reached the “moment” of peak oil and as its consequences became more widely recognized, the growing and energetic network of Transition initiatives would be there, in place, with knowledge and explanations for what was happening, some concrete and, by implication, not unsubstantial manifestations of local resilience that might be scaled up, and a growing sense of community that was at once earnest, welcoming, and joyful. It would become increasingly clear to larger numbers of people that Transitioners had it all figured out and were also having quite a bit of fun, to boot.

None of this happened as hoped, at least not yet. Transition continues to have some brilliantly productive moments, but has failed to reach a critical mass. And instead of a moment of cultural awakening we got fracking, a refugee crisis, and an economic recovery that, however false and unsustainable, appeased the upper 20% of knowledge makers and cultural elites who might have provided the leading edge of a broader Transition movement. In response we got the Paris Accords, and then the American withdrawal; we got Brexit, Trump, and a new nationalist movement, even as the global economy stumbles ahead and extreme weather wracks the globe.

Almost all communities have remained as oil dependent and as unresilient as ever, as have almost all citizens. Even committed Transitioners remain by and large enmeshed in the planet destroying global economy. This is not to ignore the way many brave and imaginative people have created things of true beauty for themselves and their community in the name of transitioning. Transition and other related movements and organizations have spawned hundreds, if not more, community gardens, and in these gardens we find not only fresh and healthy food, but a new relationship and attitude towards food, natural processes, one’s immediate neighbors, and the industrial economy. Milwaukee’s Victory Garden Initiative’s ann


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