An End to Transition

Title inspired shamelessly by “The End of Education” by Neil Postman.

It’s not much of a secret — that I was a founder and still a participant in a local Transition Initiative. There’s only one little question that goes along with it: What makes a Transition Initiative successful?

Well, we need to recognize we live in a wildly unsustainable place and then, through time and effort, we must move away from that. Our effort must be rooted deeply in the history of the community, founded in the idea that our towns (or villages) can be returned to the sustainable space they once were with our guidance and vision.

Hold on a minute…

Towns and villages. Is that even going to work here?

It’s not simply a matter of scale. It’s a matter of a completely different paradigm. Before L.A. was a major metropolis, it hosted –nothing­­ like the numbers it has today. It was arguably even a different climate. It –looked­­ nothing like it does today.

So where’s that vision, now, Transition? We can’t go back into the past because it won’t work. And the future, it certainly looks bleak. Like, Mad Max bleak. What’s going on?

To really delve down into the heart of what’s truly happening in Los Angeles (and many other major cities), some fairly big answers need to dredged out first. The biggest answer being to the question “what does it mean to be alive?”

There is an answer, so bear with us a moment.

The Life of Animals

(yes, that includes us)

So here’s how life works, at least for mammals. Let’s say you and your family find yourself without a home territory (for whatever reason). You’ve got to move. For most of history, the experience goes something like this:

You journey out and you find a place. There might be some struggles along the way. There might be some challenges, but, in the end, you make it (otherwise we wouldn’t be talking about you, right?).

The temperatures are tolerable, the food and water is sufficient for you, your family and some friends. That’s the key: the stress is not too much. Too much stress and you get ill, your children get diseased or infirm. Life stops. So, some stress is okay. But, like everything else, it’s tolerable.

You go about modifying this environment so it gives you the most it can for the least effort. That’s actually one of the prerequisites for being a life form – being able to manipulate your environment. After that, it’s a matter of making sure your family and friends are okay (cause you’re not a jerk) and helping smooth out any acute crises. That’s about it. The details of exactly how to do this vary wildly according to time and environment and are the reason why life is always so interesting. Variety is simply the spice of life.

Thanks to that delightful habit of telling stories, humans excel at this sort of lifestyle. They get to pass along to their kids what worked, what didn’t, what caused a big disaster, what really shook things up in a positive way.

Case in point: the Tataviam, the Tongva, the Chumash, and the other tribes who lived in and around here (northern Los Angeles) wildly successfully. Pre-­conflict with the Europeans, they had the place so well in hand, the Europeans thought it was a garden, Eden-­like in appearance. The campfires were so many in the Valley, they looked like stars. And the people were friendly, intelligent, strong and curious with a rich, vast history.

I hope you get the point. Humans are very good at living.

Now, once you’ve got the basics of your specific area down pat, what do you do next? Well, the answer is simple. You play games. Ever seen dogs play­fight? Or a couple of chimpanzees wrestle? Even inter-species (like those birds that love to tease dogs, getting as close as they can without getting caught). Living things enjoy games.

What’s a game, then?

Games are challenges with handicaps, set to replicate some sort of stressful thing you might encounter in your environment. In essence, it’s stressful fun. Are you a good hunter? Well, how good? Can you hit that target at 100 feet? 300? 1000? How about a game of insults? Who gets mad first?

Going back to real world examples, what kind of fun did the tribes value here? Well, there was the typical “work­-as­-play” games (hoop and spear, bow games, rabbit stick games). The next level up were endurance games (like shinny, played on a 2 1⁄2 mile long field). And then, there were gambling games. Yes – they had life so well in hand, they were looking for ways to encourage and quantify how lucky / unlucky a person was in day­-to­-day life.

In a nutshell, ladies and gentlemen, that’s life. You should fairly easily be able to obtain all the elements you need to lead a moderately (at worst) stressful life, you protect the ones you care for, you play games to prep for crises.

Today vs. Reality

Does that sound like the world today? Could you and your friends walk outside the door with – nothing­­ and get all of the things you need to survive within a day? Would people respect you for that?

The answer, I’ll guarantee for most of you (or your friends or your family), is “no.” Why?

Because you are not living.

You are playing a game. This entire society, the one built up over thousands of years, the life of the City dweller is just a game.

Define a city for a moment. What makes it different than a town or a village? Derrick Jensen (author) came up with a succinct and meaningful definition defining a civilization like this:

I would define a civilization much more precisely, and I believe more usefully, as a culture—that is, a complex of stories, institutions, and artifacts— that both leads to and emerges from the growth of cities (civilization, see civil: from civis, meaning citizen, from Latin civitatis, meaning city-state), with cities being defined—so as to distinguish them from camps, villages, and so on—as people living more or less permanently in one place in densities high enough to require the routine importation of food and other necessities of life.

— Derrick Jensen (Endgame)

The Rules of a Very Nasty Game

Boil it down and it means cities exist in a state that is potentially antagonistic to what it means to live (as spelled out above). They are not antagonistic to another state, though. That of a game. Remember that games are challenges built on artificial conditions? Let’s break this game down:

  • The base condition for the game of City is “Scarcity”: you may not­­ start out with the basic elements of life.
  • To succeed in the game, instead of manipulating your environment, you must spend time and energy to create ‘widgets’.
  • These widgets, which may or may not be actual physical things, can then be used to steal currency from your Boss.
  • This currency is utilized to purchase the basics of life (food, water, shelter, companionship, etc) and/or other widgets.
  • You must be careful because Archons (Greek: those who rule) will come after you to steal your currency during timed events.
  • The Archons can then use your currency for Achievements (like building roads and bridges or starting a war).
  • If you’re talented and/or lucky, you can become a Boss, which means you spend your time using widgets to steal other people’s currency while trying to hold on to your own.
  • If you’re lucky to become an Archon, you have to make enough achievements that the people won’t throw you out of your position.

Fun, yes?No. Not really. It’s a pointless game in this day and age but it lies at the heart of our problem. Remember how it was stated above that Europeans found this place to be a garden? Remember, as well, how the default condition for the game of civilization is “scarcity”?

You are living in the middle of an artificial desert, created by people gaming with your life. You can’t go back to what was before because it’s gone and even if it was around, it wouldn’t sustain even a tenth of the people who are now here.

Some people understand this and that’s why they end up abandoning the fight; they think it’s hopeless. A lot of other people get angry when you start to succeed and they don’t, because, remember, the default is “scarcity”. They can’t conceive of a situation where scarcity is not the start for everyone.

The worst part about it is that this simple condition inures them to the idea of climate change. Scarcity is the default so who cares if –more­­ scarcity is on the way. That just ups the challenge, right?

So here’s where it all falls apart. What is the end of Transition for Los Angeles? By the end, I mean, what is the final goal? What’s the point? We have no towns or villages to return to. We have made this place into a desert, purposefully. We’re still enmeshed in the game of City. What do we do?

The most sensible answer is to move. Leave now to a smaller venue, a town or village where you can Transition anew. Topanga might work (though I doubt it, enmeshed as it is in the City game). Luckily (or unluckily), many of us aren’t sensible. It’s a hell of a challenge, though.

Instead of just a single pronged challenge, we’ve got multiple hard fronts. We have to maintain our position in the game WHILE upending it WHILE creating something new. What will it look like? Where do we start?

What’s next?

Will it be an arcology (like Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City)? Perhaps we’ll name it Todos Santos, inspired by the writings of Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle. Think of the economic opportunities in transforming the San Fernando Valley into a planned version of Edge City. Then Lancaster and Palmdale…

What if we usurped the Game by focusing it on a Zero­forge? A space station created using the remnants of SoCal’s aerospace industry used to make exotic materials, perfect for building habitats out in the ocean to deal with our population and food problems. Picture us pushing towards a Star Trek future, but with Los Angeles instead of San Francisco as its hopeful capitol. Why Star Trek? Because its fiction promised a future –not­­ based on scarcity so it’s a story people want to see happen, even as they struggle within the game. It’s based on another myth—progress­­–and that can be a powerful tool for changing people’s minds.

What if we seeded community in the simplest way possible, blocking off streets for holiday parties businesses and opportunities for discussion? and (especially) for food truck gatherings. Mini­-3rd Street promenades with rampant micro-businesses and opportunities for discussion?

This post may be a deal­ breaker for some, an eye­opener for others but above all, it is hoped that some see it as a challenge, something we humans have excelled at for millennium. Something which can be now faced squarely and just as bravely overcome.

This storyteller has a message for you. Let’s end this game and envision a new one to play.

One comment

  1. Indeed — civilization as a game. It’s rigged, of course. And it seems like it was designed by Gary Gygax to be a killer dungeon.

    Christopher Ryan, author of Sex at Dawn, is writing a new book called Civilized to Death, where he posits (among other things) that civilization acts a lot like a parasite, such as toxoplasmosis — it makes us do things that serve its needs above our own.

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