Saturday, August 8, 2009

Transition towns and evangelical churches, or what do Rick Warren and Rob Hopkins have in common?

If you follow green blogs and tweets, as I do, it's hard to miss the ongoing slanging match between Climate Progress and the Breakthrough Institute. And I'm not, at least in this post, picking a dog in that fight. But I have been reading Breakthrough - the book that birthed the institute - and it seems to me that Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, the book's co-authors, have at least one insight that all of us should pay attention to.

It answers a question I've always had about my own history as an environmentalist: if I do believe in this cause - and I do - why have I seldom contributed to, and never volunteered for, any environmental group? I did once work - for pay - for a couple of environmental groups, but that's another story. (Though perhaps not entirely unconnected to the question at hand.)

It also goes a long way to explain the exponential growth of the Transition Town movement.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger make two related points. First, that for most of its history, the environmental movement has been almost entirely dedicated to stopping things. And second, that about all it has asked from its supporters is their money and their votes. The result, they argue, is that while an enormous number of people say they support environmental causes, when push comes to shove - when they have to put their money or their convenience on the line - their environmental concerns fall by the wayside. (They're not alone in noticing this: a sure way to make green business guru Joel Makower testy is to send him a survey reporting that some huge percentage of Americans buy green, when all the evidence indicates that they don't.)

All this made sense to me, but where they really caught my attention was when they compared the success, or lack thereof, of the environmental movement with the growth of evangelical churches. Unlike environmentalists, they argue, members of evangelical churches will turn themselves inside out to support their church. Why? Because their church is more fun.

Well, I spent quite a lot of time at an evangelical megachurch while I was researching The Word, my book about how people read the Bible, and the Breakthrough guys are right: it's much more engaging, exhilarating, and satisfying to be a member of an evangelical church than it is to be a member of, say, the Sierra Club. It's not just that evangelical church schedules are packed full of meetings, clubs, groups and activities, though they are. It's also that their members are convinced that, through all these activities, they are helping to build a better world. Yes, there are things they want to stop. But there is much more that they want to create.

And suddenly a light went on: that's why the Transition movement is growing so fast. (If you're not familiar with the Transition movement, go here, or here, to find out more. Better still, get ahold of a copy of Rob Hopkins' The Transition Handbook.)

Transition isn't a church, or in any way religious, but but the Transition movement is more like an evangelical church than any other group I've ever come across. Rob Hopkins has grasped what most environmental activists seem to have missed: if people are going to be engaged over the long term, they have got to be building something, not stopping something. And they have got to enjoy themselves.

There are a lot of Transition Towns in the US - and around the world, for that matter - but the one I'm most familiar with, because I've spent some time there, is Totnes, the first in the UK. This summer, according to their July bulletin, you could attend a solstice picnic, go on an edible garden crawl, or go to a meeting about direct action on climate change. There were activities for bikers and photographers, a kids' event at a local estate, a bunch of lectures and movie screenings. And no matter what aspect of our climate crisis grabs you - housing, the economy, jobs, energy, food, health, the arts, politics - they've got a group for you.

The other genius of Transition is that the task of a Transition Town group is not to stop climate change. It is to imagine how their town could not just survive, but thrive, in an oil-constrained and warmer world, and then to do everything they can to make that imagining a reality. But the very process of working towards that goal, of course, also deepens their commitment to doing whatever they can, personally and politically, to address climate change. The two feed, and feed on, each other.

So, though it's hard to think of two people more different in almost every way than Rob Hopkins and Rick Warren...

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Blogger James Samuel said...

I think you have it there in a nutshell. Offer a way of working for a brighter future, with all the reasons for doing so, being well enunciated, and you have an attractive model. Far more attractive than the one fighting against the things we don't want without offering achievable alternatives - or at least not highlighting them.

And so often the fighting against is done by a small group against a well entrenched and financially powerful section of society. That's going to burn out even the most energetic sooner or later.

I choose to put my energy into building the localised future I want to see, and creating examples for others who will follow, when the dinosaurs of our present age start to tumble - as they are beginning to do now.

Yes, it is stunning to see the phenomenal growth of Transition Towns all over the world. Have a look at and know that this has grown from virtually a standing start in October 2007.

August 9, 2009 at 3:40 PM  

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