From Kairos Moment to the Transition Town Movement
David R. Weiss – November 7, 2019
The Gospel in Transition #47 – Subscribe at www.davidrweiss.com
In February 1979 scientists from fifty nations gathered in Geneva for the First World Climate Conference, sponsored by the UN’s World Meteorological Organization. On Tuesday (11/05/2019), and in commemoration of the 40th anniversary of that conference, the journal BioScience published a piece titled, “Warning of a Climate Emergency.”
The statement’s opening paragraph begins, “Scientists have a moral obligation to clearly warn humanity of any catastrophic threat” and concludes, “we declare clearly and unequivocally that planet Earth is facing a climate emergency.” Drafted by five lead authors with 31 contributing reviewers, it proceeds to do just that, announcing that we—that is, all of us—are at risk of “untold suffering.” It sums up the situation using a couple dozen graphs that track key data from 1979 to present. Arranged in two groupings, the graphs show (a) an escalating pace of “excessive consumption” by humanity’s wealthier members (that’s really middle-class Americans and better—and those with comparable lifestyles across the globe); and (b) the “climatic response” to that pace of consumption. It’s not pretty.
The authors note that despite forty years of increasing scientific knowledge and ongoing climate negotiations, governments, business, and societies as a whole have “generally conducted business as usual and have largely failed to address this predicament.” Which is a big problem, because they join the IPCC in telling us that only “major transformations in the ways our global society functions and interacts with natural ecosystems” will lead to a “just transition to a sustainable and equitable future.” Succinctly, “To secure a sustainable future, we must change how we live.” Now.
And now means NOW: “The climate crisis has arrived and is accelerating faster than most scientists expected. It is more severe than anticipated, threatening natural ecosystems and the fate of humanity.” Then you can download a file listing the more than 11,000 scientist signatories representing a wide range of specialties from 153 countries around the world. In a scientific community where independent—and competing—views are prized, the depth of consensus on this strong statement is remarkable. To an alarming degree.
Voices like theirs represent a veritable cloud of witnesses and confirm that this is truly a kairos moment (See GIT #46)—overfull with both peril and promise and awaiting a clear response from a faithful church. I believe as the church awakens, not simply to the call of care for creation but also to this alarm of climate crisis, that it should avail itself of wisdom and insight from the Transition Town Movement. This movement offers a response that fashions promise in the midst of peril, prioritizes the potential in local communities, and resonates in some profound ways with the Christian tradition.
Over the next several essays, as I close out my first year of weekly blogging, I’ll explore the Transition Town Movement more carefully and explain why I regard it as an especially crucial and creative conversation partner for people of faith as we take our place among others in responding to climate crisis by becoming communities of solidarity and resistance, imagination and resilience.
Rob Hopkins co-founded the first Transition Town in Totnes, England in 2006, but the roots of Transition go back several years earlier. In the mid-90’s Hopkins first studied and then began teaching permaculture design. That experience became one of the building blocks of Transition. Permaculture itself (which I explore a bit more in GIT #26-28) was born in the oil crisis of the 1970’s and began as an effort to liberate food production from its heavy reliance on fossil fuels. Originally conceived as “permanent agriculture,” it’s a method of agricultural design focused on learning from and working with Earth’s natural proclivities to grow food in dense, diverse “food forests.” It eventually broadened to an overall philosophical approach to living in (relative) harmony with the planet on multiple levels, still rooted in food production, but encompassing all facets of human life and culture.
On a practical level, permaculture is a scientific approach that looks to Earth’s history as a storehouse of accumulated wisdom (even if you “only” use trial-and-error, over eons trial-and-error can teach you a lot!) and a model of resilience. And although permaculture grew out of passionate engagement with, careful observation of, and deep respect for Earth’s natural systems (and not in response to any sacred text), as I explain in GIT #26, it represents a viewpoint profoundly at home in a faith tradition that affirms Wisdom as an active principal in creation.
Hopkins was teaching permaculture courses where he encountered the idea of “peak oil” in 2004. Beginning in the late 1950’s peak oil made waves by predicting the near-term “peak” of global oil production—the point at which we had extracted half of all the oil that was technologically and economically accessible across the globe. After hitting “peak,” oil production would (slowly but irreversibly) decline … forever, while the price of oil would (perhaps less slowly but just as irreversibly) rise … forever. For an entire civilization built on fossil fuel, peak oil is a huge threat. It declares—in unmistakable terms—that an end to our growth is on the doorstop. We won’t run out of oil when we hit peak, but the cost of all the remaining oil will begin to move beyond the reach of all but the wealthy. It’s like knowing an impending super-charged hurricane will hit—and soon, even if you can’t predict its exact path. In the circles where it held (holds) currency, peak oil marked the entry into an era we were (are) utterly unprepared to navigate. It’s a recipe for conflict and chaos.
Various dates have been projected for peak oil by analyzing known oil reserves, production, and demand, etc. Some of the earliest projections put peak oil in the 2000’s. Obviously that didn’t happen, primarily “thanks” to new technology that enabled us to access more oil—but in much more ecologically costly ways, like tars sands oil and fracking. Currently, the projected date for peak oil ranges from the 2020’s to the 2040’s. But peak oil is out there. Just waiting to turn life as we take it for granted entirely upside down.
Hopkins had already been teaching permaculture design for four years in Kinsdale, Ireland (a small community of about 2300) when he learned about peak oil and realized the threat it posed. He immediately saw the value of his permaculture training in responding to peak oil—as well as to the looming reality of climate change. The Transition Town Movement was born in that ferment.
We’re still mid-story, but I should wrap things up and resume the tale next time. Just to remind you, there is MUCH more going on here than a simple account of the birth of an interesting social change movement. Peak oil and climate crisis are ultimately stories about human alienation from the natural world—what we in the church might call our fractured, sin-twisted relationship with creation. And permaculture hearkens back to the voice of God’s Wisdom, which still daily declares the goodness of creation. And, as I will argue in the weeks ahead, Transition Towns offer a glimpse of communities animated by a renewed vision of life abundant and determined to seek the good the world around them. That’s gospel. As churches we should be sitting up and paying attention.
PS: I’ve set up a Patreon site to help fund my work in this area. I hope you’ll invest in my thinking and writing. You can learn more about how to support me here: www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith
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The Gospel in Transition by David R. Weiss is a year of reflections on facing our climate crisis, finding hope, and the alchemy of Christian community. My weekly essays consider climate change, Transition, and faith—using biblical images, liturgical seasons, science, and theology, as conversation partners. Writing in a voice a bit too restless to call “devotional,” I aim to be insightfully evocative and usefully provocative. I’d be delighted to have you join me on this journey. In fact, I hope you’ll subscribe (go to the top right sidebar!) Thanks for reading and see you next week! Contact me at: drw59mn(at)gmail.com.
 www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/nov/05/climate-crisis-11000-scientists-warn-of-untold-suffering; find the full statement here: https://academic.oup.com/bioscience/advance-article/doi/10.1093/biosci/biz088/5610806.
 The phrase “communities of solidarity and resistance” echoes the thought of Sharon Welch in Communities of Resistance and Solidarity: A Feminist Theology of Liberation (Orbis Books, 1985; reprinted, Wipf and Stock, 2017). “Resilience” is the cardinal virtue of Transition, naming the capacity of local systems or communities to bounce back from destabilizing events by cultivating the ability to think on their feet, adapt on the fly, anticipate impending shocks, and even seize such moments as opportunities for growth. www.transitionnetwork.org/news-and-blog/building-resilience
 The background here is from Rob Hopkins, The Transition Handbook: From oil dependency to local resilience (White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008).