The Transition Towns model of organizing, as represented in the Transition Handbook, has demonstrated its success in Totnes and other cities in Britain and Ireland. I’m not at all sure that it will be as successful in the United States. To put that a little differently, I would not be surprised if what succeeds in the United States, especially in large metropolitan areas such as Detroit, follows a sufficiently different path that we will have to write our own handbook.

That does not mean I know how the Transition Towns movement will succeed in the United States. What I do know is that, in the United States, we are operating in considerably different circumstances, so the effects of our organizing efforts will be different even if we attempt to do the exact same things as outlined by Hopkins and company.

In Britain, their Empire has been visibly declining at least since WW II. If you want to make a case for decline starting much earlier than that, it is certainly possible to do so. The point is simply that in the United Kingdom, it is much easier for people to accept the fact of decline because decline has been the experience for their whole lifetime or, for the older generation, at least for most of it. Especially since the irreversible decline of their North Sea oil fields caused them to shift from being an oil-exporting nation to an importing nation in 2005, their economy has been undeniably declining.

In the United States, domestic oil production has been declining since the 1970 peak. However, because of military power and the use of the US dollar as the world’s reserve country, the United States has been able been able to increase its energy consumption and keep its empire (lower case because the US empire takes the form of corporate globalization) growing – until just the last few years. In the US, all discussion in political and corporate circles is about how to “revive” the economy, how to get it growing again.

In these circles, the idea that long-term prospects for continued economic growth require a miracle beyond the power of poiticians to deliver is not even considered. Insistence that continued growth is not only possible but necessary permeates the thinking of newscasters and comentators. In actual fact, the amount of energy consumed per capita in the United States peaked at 359 Billion BTUs per person per year in 1978-1979. By 2009, it was down to 309 Billion BTUs per person per year.

What has declining per capita energy meant for the ordinary person? Real wages also peaked in the early 1970s, and are now down to something like 85% of their peak. The percentage is even lower if you use a more honest measure of inflation than official figures from the government. Economic growth, as measured in corporate profits and stock prices, has not meant increased prosperity for ordinary Americans for the last three decades. However, the decline in prosperity has not been steep, steady or shocking until the last few years.

Transition is all about adapting to a declining economy that has less and less energy avialable. Ordinary people in the US are on average less ready to accept the decline than those in the UK. It follows that organizing for Transition will be different in this country. We’re going to need a few years’ experimentation to find out how different.

I’m certainly willing to try out the organizing steps outlined in the Handbook. Creating a steering group, doing awareness raising and networking is a pretty good description of what we’re currently doing in Transition Ferndale. At this point, it is not at all clear this will lead naturally to a “great unleashing.” We will have to see where it leads.

The short story is, what distinguishes the Transition Towns movement from the Sierra Club, the Green Party, 350.org, the Ferndale Environmental Sustainability Commission and many other organizations is expectation of a declining economy. When you expect a declining economy, then it becomes a matter of some urgency to prepare for it, both as individuals and as communities. I believe this expectation is more difficult for ordinary people to accept in the US as compared to the UK.

Art Myatt

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