The Word for 2023: Transition
How Activists have Transformed their Strategy into a Political Buzzword
Ideas are limited by the language we speak, our reality shaped by our vocabulary and our values guided by the narrative behind our conversations. So the big words that emerge every year in our lexicon define what has been important for the year. The big word for 2023, for those involved in environmental health risk debates, has got to be: “transition”.
When the COP28 Climate Conference in Dubai concluded with their stocktake document, they did not call for a phase out of fossil fuels. This naïve ambition, indicative of excessively high expectations from climate activists, was never going to happen. Instead COP28 called for a “transition away from fossil fuels”.
And this fits the nature of recent environmental discourse. We have been speaking of an energy transition, food system transition, automotive power train transition, a circular waste transition, an economic degrowth transition… But what does the word “transition” mean?
One Word, Multiple Interpretations
For actors in the fossil fuel lobby, “transition” is what they have been doing for decades (since Shell and BP “embraced” the Kyoto objectives), and expect to continue for the coming 25 years. But for climate activists, a transition away from fossil fuels is even stronger than a phase out. How can both sides of the climate debate welcome the use of this ambiguous term?
For activists transition is a euphemism for revolution. It is the acknowledgement that where we are at the present moment, is not where we should be and that we need to change, as soon as possible (ie, now). For those in industry, a transition is a managed evolution that may not require radical change or even nudging. Transition is a normal part of development and can be applied following innovations in markets and supply chains (which industry continuously does). Fuel efficiency, less input, lower waste in new models are example of transitions.
Regarding fossil fuels, industry sees the transition in terms of reducing coal power generation over the next decade as other energy systems become more economically viable and can meet demands. … And maybe, in about 50 years, with the hydrogen economy, natural gas will not be as widely needed. Activists interpret the “transition from fossil fuels” as no new investments as of now, immediate divestments of gas and oil projects and a massive shift to renewable energy sources. For them, the transition must be done by 2030.
In short, innovators and researchers interpret the word “transition” as a continuous process of improvement while (climate, energy, chemical, food) activists see it as a shock event that must be implemented as soon as possible
But how do our leaders interpret the word of the year?
Progress = Transition
Almost every political issue is now facing the demand for a transition. Before this vocabulary shift, our leaders talked about development, continuous improvement, innovation, progress, better regulation … These are all terms to make the world a better place. Now their policies are tied to leading transitions marked with a definite article: THE energy transition, THE food system transition, THE automotive transition, THE policy transition... There is only one way to progress.
Behind the scenes we see the push for these urgent transitions engineered by activist communities driven by their desire for fundamental change (revolution). Our governments are essentially leading from behind, trying to keep up with a small group of loud NGOs who claim to speak for the population (although consumers are paying a heavy price). Some examples:
Demands for an energy transition imply the present mix of a wide variety of power sources, including nuclear and hydro electric dams, is not right. It is too corporate, too capital-intensive (ie, too industry-based), too polluting and emitting too much CO2. The transition, these activists insist, must be toward nature-based, small-scale, local renewables (wind, solar and for some, biomass). When industry groups mention energy transition involving the development of hydrogen and carbon capture, the room goes silent.
The worst case study is the German transition out of nuclear toward renewables. It was rushed by the activists, who had confused aspiration with evidence, and merely resulted in a transition toward two more decades of increased coal-based energy.
Demands for the food system transition is based on a belief that the present industrial agricultural process, the food production chain and the distribution channels are not right. CO2 emissions, pesticide residues, soil depletion, water pollution, junk food and waste products demand that our food system undergo a radical transition back to nature: agroecology, small-scale, non-intensive farming, vegan diets and alternative protein sources. The transition ideologues here, though, have no respect for reality. Without intensive farming on productive land, more meadows and forests will need to be plowed under for their alternatives to meet the dietary needs of a growing population. Organic farming practices yield far less and create more wastage.
Sri Lanka was rushed into this food system transition and their economy collapsed, government fell and malnutrition rapidly increased (in less than a year). Still the European Commission is being pushed to implement similar ideals, with their heavily restrictive Farm2Fork food policy strategies, within the next five years.
Perhaps the most frightening transition is the call by left-wing activists for a policy transition away from regulators and toward citizen assemblies and a participatory approach to governing. They have worked tirelessly to destroy trust in policymakers, and from that they argue that since they can’t be trusted, we need to hand over important decision-making to the people, with citizen scientists advising citizen panels. Of course what these campaigners mean is their citizens taking control of their issues.
France tried a citizens’ convention to advise on climate measures. After long debates, the urbanites advised to ban large vehicles, shut down suburban shopping centers and reduce vaccines. The European Union tried the Conference on the Future of Europe - an expensive exercise that ran citizen panels across the EU from 2021-22. It was deemed a colossal failure taken over by extremists with little opportunity for citizens to have their say.
There’s no going back
Transitions (according to the activist interpretation) imply there is no going back to the “bad” old ways. Once we adopt their far more correct agroecological farming practices, we will recycle the metal from their discarded sprayers. Once we decommission a nuclear power plant, we need to level the cooling towers in an act of victorious defiance.
But what if their transition is wrong? What if the policymakers are pushed too hard by ambitious green lobbyists and forsake their responsibility to the greater population? What if food prices go up too fast or access to food decreases? What if the lights go out and the energy bills go up? What if electric cars create greater environmental concerns?
Activists have, cleverly, built their transitions into some actionable crisis threatening the future existence of humanity (an Armageddon Complex). We need to transition, immediately, to survive:
catastrophic climate change,
biodiversity collapse and mass extinction,
… pick your poison (literally). They have turned these crises into a moral imperative for policymakers to implement their transition policy strategy as a stand for social justice, sustainability and long-term human well-being.
Rather than continuously developing and moving humanity toward a better world, they argue that the inevitable short-term sacrifices from the failures of a rapid transition are necessary and, in fact, noble. These activists have set the narrative where the courageous leader is the one who pushes the transition forward despite the pain it will inevitably cause (as we transition, ultimately, to a degrowth economy). The urgency is, of course, tied to the NGOs’ funding arrangements (they receive donations to get results on a short campaign cycle).
There is no going back so consumers and those less fortunate will need to suffer in silence. Just stay at home, buy more candles, warmer sweaters and nutritional supplements and then appreciate how wonderfully sustainable you are.
So the word of 2023 is “transition”. … One more reason why this year can’t end soon enough.