Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Friday, January 25, 2019

The Decline of Transition Towns: Why do Good Ideas Always Flare up and Then Disappear?

If you don't know what the Transition Town Movement is, you can take a look at their page, here. It is an interesting idea to increase the resilience of the civilization network by making each node less dependent on other nodes. 

The figure above shows how the concept of "Transition Towns" flared up in the late 2000s and then slowly declined in terms of Internet searches, as shown by Google Trends. That not everything is well with the Transition Town Movement seem to be confirmed by this page. What happened? Was it a bad idea? It didn't work in practice? Or people just got bored of it?

Sam Allen finds the reason for the decline Transition Towns in the fact that " we hitched our wagon to the peak oil narrative big time." In reality, complex systems always behave in a complex manner and the attempt to find a simple explanation for why things go in a certain way is normally bound to fail. Here, saying that "peak oil didn't come, therefore people stopped being interested in transition towns" is really forcing the system into an oversimplified narrative.

In the studies we are performing on memetics (1), we are discovering that memes are virtual creatures, only marginally correlated to the real world. So, if the Transition Town meme declined, it doesn't mean that the idea is not valid or not useful, it has to do, rather, with the limited lifetime of memes in our society, something probably correlated with the way the human mind works.

In practice, the transition meme behaved as all virtual memes do: it flared up and declined as the result of its internal dynamics. The same thing happened with the peak oil meme, which started to decline years before anyone could say whether it corresponded to reality or not, as I argue in this post. The same trajectory was followed also by other memes, for instance, "The Limits to Growth" study that declined in popularity decades before it could be said whether the concepts it proposed were right or wrong.

Memetics is a fascinating field, unfortunately not much studied today (2). Maybe, in the future, we'll know much more about memes. For the time being, anyway, we have to realize that the persistence of most good ideas in the memesphere is not long enough for these ideas to have an impact in changing things. And so it goes.


(1) h/t Ilaria Perissi and Sara Falsini

(2) Below, the result of a search on "memetics" on the Web of Science. The number of studies in the field is increasing, but the numbers are still minuscule in comparison to those for other fields of science


  1. We still have a flourishing local Transition movement, but the emphasis has changed.

    People are still connected, but have specialized in specific areas. One person has become a leader in California's food movement. Another is a key figure in local Democratic politics. Others have gotten into permaculture.

    Another development is that the *ideas* of Transition have become widespread, for example localism and positive interaction (as vs purely protest).

    A third development is that politics has changed ... from neo-liberalism as far as the eye can see to the possibility of sudden shifts to the left or right. Did you ever think that a Green New Deal would be a viable proposal in the US?

  2. What are people doing instead? I see more local permaculture groups and in the last couple of months Extinction Rebellion groups forming.

  3. Our global predicament is due in large part to emergent processes that are difficult to disentagle using conventionally "rational" means, especially at scale. To our consternation, our proverbial chickens are coming home to roost. As this becomes increasingly clear to not only "activists", but even the most inured among us, we fecklessly grope for "one-stop shopping" solutionism, or what I like to call "fixit-ism". Here's the thing: the sheer accreted complexity of our undertakings over historical time have landed us in such a tarpit of consequences that there is no dial we can adjust, button we can push, or lever we can pull to simply "wish" it all away. The purveyors of "feel-good-ism" refuse to acknowledge this, because it comes under the rubric of "failure" or "capitulation".

    The unrealm of pixellated ephemera is no place to effect the mighty crusade of "changing the world". It has to be done in the realm of blood, sweat and tears. Sorry, but history informs us that it is so.
    As L.C. said so presciently:

    You can add up the parts, but you won't have the sum
    You can strike up the march on your little broken drum...

    1. Very well said, Brian, very well said. I'm remembering words from a refrain in a song by Richard Shindell -- Waiting for the Storm:
      "I've made my preparations. There's nothing more to do. Sit here in this rocking chair, waiting for the storm." Another great line goes "Lately I've been thinking this ain't no way to live. Lately I've been thinking, something's got to give." It's a cool song...if you use Spotify or Pandora check it out. Thanks again for your well articulated comment.

    2. Why thank-you anonyme! I'll check out that suggestion. Sometimes the arts can give as much or more understanding about our predicament and our place within it than can the sciences. (Though I'm well aware that is a heretical statement under today's dominant belief schema). As I intimated above, my own opinion on "movements" and "campaigns" that are centered upon the pixellated ephemera of the internet is that they are doomed to fail. They rise up as fads or memes and make a lot of noise for a while, and then quickly exhaust the fuel of novelty and are replaced by another movement that does the same thing in turn.

      I don't mean to be cynical or pessimistic or dismissive out of hand, but I think anyone who looks at the accumulated track record of internet-enabled "changemaking" has to concede that there is a pattern. The "100-mile diet" or "voluntary simplicity' or the "tiny-house" movement are but a few of the innumerable "movements" that come easily to mind. What many of them have in common is that they are purveying a dream that keeps "solutions" and "remedies" within a safe, fragmented corral of remedial nibblings that do not address underlying issues and root causes. Often, they simply prey upon people's understandable guilt and see it as an opportunity for selling yet another delusion.

      What we need to do instead of signing up on the dotted lines of some movement is to look inside ourselves and undertake the painful work of frank, honest, and open auditing our own imbibed assumptions that our culture fills us with and examine them in light of the successful precedent of how the non-human world actually works. So, forget artificial leaves to combat climate change, or for that matter the idiotic welter of proffered techno-solutions that are so easy to come by these days.

  4. I wonder if Transition towns are meant to create a more ecological society that will reduce climate change, or if they are getting ready for a serious collapse including energy and transportation collapse. Small, decentralized, local energy production is also advised. Anyway climate change awareness is happening now, so the sample Transition Towns might now be demanded by enthousiastic voters and taked to a bigger scale.

  5. The main problem is that there are very few paths from here (industrial consumer civilization) to there (localized ecotechnic communities).
    Just one of the many reasons why: you cannot fully abandon the money economy (taxes, tools etc). So everything you do will have to produce enough excess to feed the huge upside down pyramid of banks, govts and militaries.
    It's impossible to do that without fossil fuels and all the other trappings of industrial civilization. Back to square one.

    Basically we have to go through a collapse first and then some lucky people in some lucky locations might be able to do more than just eke a living out of polluted soils.

  6. Go look at the Google analytics for gravity and relativity. They look like they too are memes that are dying. We will all soon float off into space./s Or maybe once people understand something they don't have to keep looking it up...naw couldn't be that. Though, transition towns are definitely dead.

  7. After being involved and in fact instigating most transition town, sustainability coalition, localization movements, food webs, human powered propulsion, EVs, Permaculture, Bean & Grain, and directly supporting several local production efforts over the last 15 years including receiving a USDA grant to qualify the economics of localization I have a thought on the question.

    To over simplify as it is a complex situation, all of these proposals are essentially asking people to "spend more on less" in a world that is 100% invested in the opposite. Lets just say that it didn't end well, many people were hurt and ill will was expressed.

    Now I am sure there will be those who will argue with this and can point to specific examples that refute the claim but all you need to do is look at the trend.

    There is currently no perceivable reward to doing the "right thing" in the worlds economies which is why nothing significantly good can be done until we change how money works.

    Conversely we all on the internets love to point out bad behavior and assign it to human nature when all it is is totally Fu#k$d up universal incentives.

  8. I had a conversation with the head of USDA on this subject and he dismissed it as " the historic pathway to poverty".

  9. The whole Transition Town scene seems like another attempt at forcing community which I think rarely works; people need to become genuinely dependent on and have a stake in their neighbor's well-being. It's also so at odds with the larger consumer culture that participants are always reminded that they are having to make do with less and work harder. Without some larger binding agent like religion - think old order Amish - it's quite a hard sell. It's not that I think people shouldn't try to create better ways of living, more that these more austere alternatives aren't likely to catch on until the global industrial civilization starts failing to provide for the masses.

  10. Which countries are likely to have less difficulties during the transition to a world without oil ?



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)