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


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)