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Environmental Values

Contents of Volume 18

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Environmental Values

Editorial, Vol.18 No.2

Turning Up the Heat on Climate Change: Are Transition Towns an Answer?

Throughout my lifetime a cultural backdrop has been the warnings issued by various groups about environmental destruction in its many guises: DDT, acid rain, CFCs and so on. Now the reality and imminence of global climate change is being brought to public awareness. Warnings about the destruction of human life as we know it means that environmental issues are even making it to the front pages of daily newspapers!

As I am writing (March 2009) news is coming in about the emergency meeting of 2,500 climate scientists held in Copenhagen who are shifting from reporting the effects and making predictions about climate change to protesting about political inaction. Nicholas Stern, speaking at the meeting, is recalibrating the views he advanced in his influential 2007 report on the economics of climate change to take into account new evidence that indicates his previous worse case scenarios are now looking more like realistic possibilities. Notwithstanding the limited focus on economic values of Stern's initial report (criticised in a previous editorial [Spash, 2007]) this is a grave warning. Explaining why the scientific evidence we have for climate change has not made the political impact it should is a complex business (Gardiner 2006). And this inaction is not unrelated to the everyday personal decisions we all make despite having a good understanding of the evidence and a declared concern for the environment. What is going on, why has this happened, what are the social, political, and psychological structures that make reality so hard to face and change so difficult to achieve? All the papers in this issue of Environmental Values add something to the jigsaw that could provide an answer.

Ahteensuu and Siipi (2009) in their very clear analysis of public consultation processes in Finland reveal the way in which people's responses to concerns in the face of technological developments are filtered out of the consultation and reporting process. In Mathew Cotton's paper (2009) we see a similar process of constraints on deliberation through the tools and techniques employed, which rule out the creative approaches that a properly deliberative process would allow. A better answer to our problems might well be out there fermenting in individual and public feeling, but it will not necessarily find a way through the labyrinth of solution packages that have been constructed with the very same mind sets that have created the problems. In addition to containing a thorough examination of the discursive dilemma in deliberation, Kenneth Shockley's paper (2009) also illustrates, through an example, the power of local and collective accountability in creating healthier deliberative processes and environmentally sounder decisions; sounder decisions, that is, than when the process is dominated by large ideologically driven pressure groups, even when those pressure groups are environmental ones. A similar conclusion was reached by Zwart (2007) in that context is the important factor in reaching 'green' decisions deliberatively. Context has to loom large when one is accountable into the future for one's decisions rather than being the immediate recipient of any benefit.

Through these discussions of consultation and deliberation we get a glimpse into the problematic nature of deciding productive changes and bringing about those changes whilst carrying everyone with the process. An initiative worth exploring that is emerging in the UK as a response to the twin problems of climate change and peak oil is that of Transition Towns or the Transition Initiatives.

The idea of transition towns, simply put, is that of managing the transfer of an oil hungry locale into a post-peak oil sustainable one. However, rather than seeing this process as something that local government or central government should be driving, or even imposing, it is about local communities themselves coming to see what is necessary and working out how they, in their specific situation with their specific skills and resources, can bring this about. Since the Transition Town movement is very much connected to grass roots developments in specific locales it works at a national level in terms of disseminating what's happening in other places, sharing good ideas and sharing specific expertise across each transition town. If this were to turn into some kind of top-down initiative it would undermine itself as the purpose is to build local resilience and help local community groups to shape their own way of making the transition from oil dependency to local resilience. What seems exciting to me about this initiative is that it is not about waiting for the 'they' of politics to do something. The advice from the Transition Town initiative to towns, villages, islands, inner-city boroughs etc is to follow a 12-step process (Hopkins 2008). These steps are all about inclusivity and finding and developing the skills locally to build a resilient community. Another immensely attractive aspect of the initiative is that it couples a preparedness to acknowledge the seriousness of our environmental situation with a refusal to get stuck in doom mongering. Whilst 'scary information' is important it doesn't seem to motivate people to change. Transition towns therefore take the positive route of finding what we can do at a practical level. They also bring about the possibility to reconsider our values and our accustomed ways of living. Impending change gives us the opportunity to stand back and question the things that have somehow become part of Western norms without anyone saying, 'did we actually want this?' What the Transition Initiatives are finding is that when people get together to discuss and to act in the world by creating allotments or rediscovering the skills that older people took for granted, a renewal of community takes place. How we got to where we are and what we have lost is opaque to us until we have cause to re-find it. This seems an even starker version of the conundrum that Antonio Casado Da Rocha (2009) finds in Thoreau's writings: that we only value health when it leaves us. The climate change and peak oil analogue of this moral is that we haven't consciously missed what we were losing in the beguilement of a modern Western lifestyle, but now this lifestyle looks like dissolving into a dust of its own making we get the opportunity to ask whether we wanted it anyway.

The problem of climate change is massive and the public actions of the naysayers now look even more morally indefensible than they did before. If we take on board the new information from the Copenhagen meeting and chilling predictions such as those in James Lovelock's latest book, then the efforts of those to build resilient local communities might look to some like the cliched arrangers of deckchairs on the Titanic. However, if, as Robert Kirkman argues (2007, 2009), our best and worst features - from dignity and compassion to selfish fallibility - are radically contingent rather than teleologically driven or determined, then there is nothing for it but to accept that the future is in our hands. The qualities Kirkman says we need to value and develop such as 'attentiveness, inclusivity, modesty and caution in making decisions' need a forum for their development. From this perspective, getting together to plan how your local community is going to build a future together in a very changed world looks like just such a forum, not to mention one of the best ideas going.

ISIS BROOK

References

Ahteensuu, M. and H. Siipi. 2009. 'A critical assessment of public consultation on GMOs in the European Union'. Environmental Values 18: 129-152.

Casado Da Rocha, A. 2009. 'The value of health in the writings of H.D. Thoreau'. Environmental Values 18: 201-215.

Cotton, M. 2009. 'Evaluating the 'ethical matrix' as a radioactive waste management deliberative decision-support tool'. Environmental Values 18: 153-176.

Gardiner, S.M. 2006. 'A perfect moral storm: climate change, intergenerational ethics, and the problem of moral corruption'. Environmental Values 16: 397-414.

Hopkins, R. 2008. The Transition Handbook. Totnes: Green Books. See also http://www.transitionnetwork.org/Primer/TransitionInitiativesPrimer.pdf

Lovelock, J. 2009. The Vanishing Face of Gaia: A Final Warning. London: Allen Lane.

Kirkman, R. 2007. 'Darwinian humanism: a proposal for environmental philosophy'. Environmental Values 16: 3-21.

Kirkman, R. 2009. 'Darwinian humanism and the End of Nature'. Environmental Values 18: 217-236.

Shockley, K. 2009. 'Environmental policy with integrity: a lesson from the discursive dilemma'. Environmental Values 18: 177-199.

Spash, C. 2007. 'Changing climates, changing values, changing editors: all change'. Environmental Values 16: 143-147.

Zwart, I. 2007 'Local deliberation and the favouring of nature'. Environmental Values 16: 485-512.

Other papers in this volume

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