“For ourselves, we delight in the stupendously grand thoughts and germs of thoughts” [of the utopians].
– Fredrick Engels, “Socialism: Utopian And Scientific”

A new movement is afloat. The Transition movement blends aspects of the environment movement and broad grassroots organizing. It combines some 19th century utopian thinking with new technology and daunting data about peak oil and climate change. Portland, Ore., and Oakland, Calif., have officially declared themselves Transition Towns. What’s going on here?

The Transition movement was quite successful with some early efforts in England. Rob Hopkins, the movement’s founder, has written about its basics and these early successes in The Transition Handbook – From oil dependency to local resilience.

Peak oil is not about the last drop of oil. It is when half the reserves have been used up. New oil production is offset by a decline in production. The world peaked in oil discovery in 1965. Sixty of 98 nations have peaked in terms of oil production. They use more oil than they produce. It includes the USA.

Climate change, especially global warming, is well documented. Increased droughts, floods and more violent storms have been one result. Latest data show land surface covered by extreme heat in the summer has risen from less than I percent before 1980 to 13 percent in recent years.

In Alaska, average temperature increases are between 3 to 4 degrees Centigrade. Unstable houses and fracturing roads have been just one result. The resulting permafrost melt is releasing large quantities of methane gas which is, pound for pound, 25 times more powerful in contributing to global warming than carbon dioxide.

Combining peak oil argumentation with climate change data, the Transition movement is making a powerful argument for change. Its integrating of renewable energy and local community organic gardens, with a grassroots, democratic approach, is a step above single-issue approaches tried elsewhere.

However, it is also important to evaluate the Transition movement’s weaknesses from a standpoint of helping it and also learning from it.

If we don’t get involved this way, libertarians, who would bring us back to the 19th century with their magic of a market society that no longer exists, will fill the void. Worse, waiting in the wings are the extreme right-wingers of the Grover Norquist type who feign a propaganda of little or no government while supporting tax cuts for the rich as a solution to the current recession.

Given all this, the Transition movement’s greatest challenges lie in the ideological sphere. The political left can be helpful here.

Accompanying the Transition movement is the subliminal idea that “big” government is not needed to do all this. This includes ignoring a struggle to get state and federal support. This is illusory and is best illustrated by where TM is being tried in the USA.

The island community of Vinalhaven, Maine, has three land wind turbines. They are beginning to stabilize energy prices to consumers. Besides making use of an already existing energy grid, government funding was crucial. The giant GE turbines were built with a $500,000 government grant and a whopping $9 million federal loan at a very low interest rate.

To a certain extent, the Transition movement buys into the argumentation that big is bad. It unfortunately fits the Republican smokescreen that big government is the problem. It is right out of Grover Norquist’s playbook.

This mentality is particularly rife on island communities where separation from the mainland is seen as more than just a few nautical miles of water. It is in such places that “the best government is no government” is heard quite often. In fact, it is island communities that seem to have attracted some with a survivalist approach. Together they often speak of “America” as if the mainland is a separate country.

It is, in plain-speak, so much hokum. The debunking of these myths is made clear in the example of Smith Island, 10 miles off the coast of Crisfield, Md., in Chesapeake Bay. The island community of three tiny towns has a total population of 280.

Smith’s dependency on the mainland goes far beyond food, hardware and mail that must be delivered via boat. The island occupies 2,800 acres according to the Census Bureau. Startling is the fact that just 150 years ago it was 6,100 acres. The U.S. Geological Service estimates over 3,300 acres are now under water. Besides the important climate change implications here, note the dependency on federal agencies just to get accurate information important to the present and future of this tiny island.

There’s more. One town on the island is the beneficiary of a new Army Corps of Engineers bulkhead approaching 0.5 miles long. It is part of a massive infusion of federal funds to prevent shoreline erosion. The island literally owes its existence to successful struggles that generated national government action, including in Chesapeake Bay.

The Transition movement likes to say going small is inevitable. At least in the examples of Vinalhaven and Smith Island, it appears considerable federal support is needed to maintain these small towns.

None of this is to say that the Transition movement should not be supported. It should be vigorously supported. Just as Fredrick Engels tipped his hat to the utopians as he criticized their approach, the people’s movements need to welcome the Transition movement aboard.

Members of the Communist Party USA‘s Climate Change Commission contributed to this article.


Nick Bart
Nick Bart

Nick Bart is an environmental activist in Connecticut.