De-coupling our wagons from the locomotive of global capitalism

There is a clear spectrum of response to the urgency of the environmental and economic challenges that face us.

On the one end is the Deep Green Resistance movement, calling for a complete take-down of industrialized civilization, violently if necessary (and it would be necessary, of course–industrial civilization won’t go down without a fight, unless it’s wiped out by natural disasters).

On the other end are those who believe we will be able to find our way into a sustainable world order via technology, ie, renewable energy sources that will keep the capitalist engines burning bright.

On this spectrum, I would have to locate myself somewhere in the middle.  While I see the necessity of deindustrialization, I don’t really want to live through the violent havoc a strong de-civ movement would cause.

But I know things can’t go on as they have been.  We must shift from an economic model built on endless growth to one that seeks to maintain a steady state, both for human societies and for the natural world (as if there were a separation between these two).

We must also shift from the capitalist system of accumulated wealth for the few based on the commodified labor of the masses, to a system in which people’s labor is more directly connected to their well-being, and wealth is not allowed to concentrate in a few disproportionately powerful, distant hands.

The only movement I’ve found so far that is actively working to accomplish a vision similar to what I’ve sketched out above is the Transition Town movement.  The brainchild of UK visionary activist Rob Hopkins, the movement describes itself as follows:

“The Transition Movement is comprised of vibrant, grassroots community initiatives that seek to build community resilience in the face of such challenges as peak oil, climate change and the economic crisis.

“Transition Initiatives differentiate themselves from other sustainability and “environmental” groups by seeking to mitigate these converging global crises by engaging their communities in home-grown, citizen-led education, action, and multi-stakeholder planning to increase local self reliance and resilience.

“They succeed by regeneratively using their local assets, innovating, networking, collaborating, replicating proven strategies, and respecting the deep patterns of nature and diverse cultures in their place.

“Transition Initiatives work with deliberation and good cheer to create a fulfilling and inspiring local way of life that can withstand the shocks of rapidly shifting global systems.”

What appeals to me about the Transition Town movement as a strategy for change is that it’s locally based and collaborative.  The first step is getting to know your neighbors, finding out what skills you can share, and taking stock of how you can prepare intelligently to cope with whatever environmental and economic shocks may lie ahead in our future.  It doesn’t dictate a one-size-fits-all model, but rather gives communities credit for being smart enough to figure out their own, locally adapted solutions.

As a society, America seems to be in collective denial about the reality of climate change.  We don’t want to hear that if we continue down the path of capitalist growth based on fossil fuels, the planet will heat up past the point where we could expect life as we know it to continue.  We don’t want to put the pieces together, because if we do, we will be forced to face the fact that we need to change. 

If we could accept this fact, we could begin to talk seriously about directions to take to make that change happen.  It would be nice if we could count on our world leaders to step up and face the challenge squarely, in a concerted effort.  But given the reality of global politics, still based on competition and armed power struggles, it seems very unlikely that we can look to the United Nations, or individual national governments, for the kind of decisive leadership we need now.

So we need to turn to each other, on the local level, and begin asking, as the Transition Town movement envisions, what can we do right here, together, to become more resilient?  What resources do we have, right here, that are not dependent on current systems of international or long-distance national trade?  How can we plan together for a sustainable future?

In a way, it’s an effort to de-couple our personal wagons from the locomotive of capitalist growth, which is proving so destructive to everything in its path, and seems to be on the verge of careening out of control.

I’ve been hearing a fair amount of fear expressed about “going backwards.” When people imagine stepping down from the capitalist growth model, they picture having to give up modern conveniences like advanced medical technologies, ready access to electricity, indoor plumbing, etc.

It doesn’t have to be that way.  We have to work on developing new ways of generating those conveniences, that are less destructive to the planet (the technological fix) and also work swiftly to dismantle those features of industrial civilization that are throwing our whole ecological system out of balance (de-industrialization).

The Transition Town movement calls this “the great re-skilling” approach.  We need to remember older, more sustainable ways of doing things, while also keeping the best of new technologies and learning how to apply them in smarter, more efficient and ecologically sound ways.

There are over 100 full-fledged Transition Town initiatives in the U.S., and hundreds more worldwide, along with many start-up groups forming all the time.  Although all of us seem to have so much to do, and so little time these days, this is really a movement we need to be focusing on now to prepare for the decade ahead.

Given the lack of effective top-down leadership, should we really be wasting our time worrying about national elections, for example?  Or bothering to go to international conferences on climate change?

Or is the smarter thing to do to begin, quietly and with determination and hopeful good cheer, to make our own preparations for a very different sort of future, in our own transition towns?

Leave a comment


  1. Like that wise Emma said, “if voting made a difference, they’d make it illegal.” Fuggedaboutit.

    Local is where it’s at… transition towns, permaculture, and any other way… the more the merrier.

    But can decoupling be made in any truly meaningful sense of the word? We are enmeshed. Methinks it will take more than that. It has to add up to… a metamorphosis.

    • Jennifer Browdy de Hernandez

       /  December 22, 2011

      I’d like to hear more about how you see this metamorphosis occurring. If we’re in the caterpillar stage now, how do we start cocooning to transform into butterflies?

      • I think the biological metamorphosis process shows hints. It all starts with imaginal cells, clustering, linking, deep down, out of sight, way below the radar.

        Though, I don’t think of this civ as an evolutionary stage, like a caterpillar, then bound to move on, predestined to be a butterfly. I just think that if we want to avoid collapse/extinction, and if we are not particularly looking forward to collapsing to a couple million humans scrabbling for a very primitive living in a degraded biosphere, IF, that is, we want another type of civilization, a civilized civilization (for lack of a better term), then mimicking the process of metamorphosis may well be the pattern to follow.

        (I think of this civ as a cultural cul-de-sac.)

  2. Say, Jennifer, would you be so kind and add a comment widget to the main page? That way we can see if there are any new comments at a glance. Thank you!

  3. Again I agree with this post completely, with the addition, that change will more likely start in “transition villages” or “transition hamlets” (you probably meant that in anyway).

    We seem to be trapped in the network of an economy that is characterized by specialization and labor distribution and we are sedated by mainstream media. Yet despite the dependencies and distractions there are still alternative options and free choices left.

    We can make our individual long term plan to shift our dependencies step by step from the competition based capitalist economy to a local cooperative economy. We will have to make tough decisions that may not be sensible in the short term but will perfectly fit in a long term plan.

    We can join at any time small groups of people who are already on the way or prepare the transition with our longtime circle of friends. The transition will be carried by autonomous cells of variable sizes from a handful of people up to a few hundred.

    Such cells emerge right now all the time and everywhere. They are constituted spontaneously when like minded people meet and decide to actively and cooperatively change their life and prepare for the transition. At a certain point the cells will connect and form a network to become a parallel economy that will hinder and undermine the old economy and siphon off vital resources, especially the most important resource: human ingenuity.

    We are far away from such a scenario but even in this early stage of various autonomous cells it makes sense to exchange ideas and knowledge. It makes sense to develop visions and set goals and lay out detailed roadmaps how to come from here (our present situation) to there (the envisioned state).

    As I write this comment I realize that it expresses exactly the same sentiment that you conveyed in your post, only with a different wording. It doesn’t hurt to repeat ideas and plans packaged differently, more people will understand the message.

    As the direction seems to be clear, we have to work now on the details of the vision and the roadmap.

  4. Matto48, yer right on the money. Er… right on the cow. Er… 😉
    This is beautifully said. And I agree with everything wholeheartedly, except a couple of small points that can make a big difference. If you don’t mind, I’ll just make a little noise their way.

    First, the size of the cells matters. A few people up to a dozen is best. Past that, you can’t really have spontaneous conversations. Beware the Judas Number! If the group grows, hive off and start another cell. This is doing it the organismic way. If you need a few hundred people for something, bring a variety of cells together.

    The other part is about laying out detailed road maps. Uh. That is the way technocrats do it. It does not work. We must build the road as we travel.

    Thank you for cheering me up this snowy morning!

    • You are right with cell size and in practice larger groups of people will always be fragmented into cliques of about the size that you suggested. Bigger groups demand a hierarchical structure….

      With the term roadmap I meant that people analyze and try to understand a situation and develop strategies to achieve a desired change as well as calculate possible outcomes of certain moves. I didn’t mean that the findings had then to be applied by everybody to the letter. Let me explain my intent with the following three points:

      1. To use your very own allegory/figuration: when you build a road, you first have to know the direction, you also need to have knowledge about statics and material sciences and you have to map the terrain and consider how to bypass hills and how to bridge rivers. You have to come to an agreement with the landowners and if this is all done you finally can start to organize the workers, machines, and building materials.

      2. There are people who try to be completely independent (survivalists) and they prepare for a complete breakdown of civilization. They are hoarding, stockpiling things (that they most times didn’t produce by themselves), but their supplies will run out one day and then they will perish in the wilderness, if civilization indeed ceases to exist.

      As much as I despise the present unjust, exploitative, and unsustainable system I would very much like to preserve useful infrastructure (electric power, communication, public transport, public education, health services, manufacturing of indispensable goods) and seamlessly integrate it into a new system. This is only possible with specialized knowledge.

      3. In the last days I read a few papers and fetched books about logistics. I was astonished how far science has come, a perfect supply chain with optimized material flows would be possible right now, if there would be no competition between transport companies and no rivalries between (and exploitation of) nations.

      In my utopian ideal world the material flows would be of course radically reduced because more goods would be produced and distributed locally and people would seek happiness by other means than by buying things. Yet high-tech items (like computers) would still have to be produced in big numbers in specialized factories.

      There is an optimal production size for every ware depending on the raw material supply chain, the production process and the distribution infrastructure, it can be calculated with computer modeling. This measure of efficiency, not corporate strategies, ideology, or politics, should determine the ratio of local versus regional versus global production.

      To wrap it up with a few final words:

      I don’t want to dampen your spirit and you will be perfectly fine using your inspiration. After all our unconscious (hidden) brain is quit clever (due to the miracle of synaptic processing and pattern recognition). Nevertheless, the intellectual, analytic, scientific approach will be needed as well.

      It will pay off to investigate and analyze, apply the wisdom of the ages as well as scientific knowledge, and present the conclusions, recommendations, and plans to the community.

  5. Mato, why build large groups that will fragment into cliques, when you can start right and build small clusters that act as building blocks? Imitating nature…

    If you build the road the technocratic way, yes, you will first need to know the direction. But the road we are building, we do not know the direction or the goal. There are many opinions and many desires. But going into an unknown future, the whole planning scheme does not work.

    Picture yourself in a dark forest without any paths. You would like to get to some safe space somewhere, and away from the rain, but other than that… You have to find the path step by step. Only one space ahead of you is illuminated by the candle you hold… sometime you take that step, sometimes you find that it leads to a swamp and you must seek another way. Step by step, the problems change, as the land changes. Step by step, you learn more. And you keep going, guided by your heart’s desire, and the gurgling of the creek nearby.

    The planning process is loaded with hubris. That is why so often what the technocrats, architects et al create is so ugly, so dead, so unlivable. This is not the path forward for those of us longing for a whole new world. (It may have its uses in straightforward projects where the goal is clear.) Does this make any sense?

    • As I said before (seemingly not clear enough), I agree with you about group size. We have different views about the necessity of laying out visions and scenarios, scientific research and planning ahead. I understand perfectly where you are coming from and I’m sympathetic to your position. I have to leave it there, maybe we could come to a common conclusion in a chat via skype.

      • Ah good. I don’t have skype, but I am vyera around yahoo if you would be inclined to drop a note. (I am delighted you are one us few “walks with cats” people! 🙂

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