Moving With the Word ‘Transitions’

ClimateCultures editor Mark Goldthorpe shares participants’ reflections from a workshop exploring the word ‘Transitions’ – the final Environmental Keywords discussion from the University of Bristol – and the sense that we need better words to capture our imaginations.


2,100 words: estimated reading time = 8 minutes


Although it was a smaller group that gathered in the St Philips area of Bristol than for the University’s previous two workshops in their Environmental Keywords series, it was as full of experiences and ideas. This final event followed the same format as the others, beginning with a walk around the local area so each person could place their own thoughts on the word ‘Transitions’ in the context of their encounters there and their conversations together while walking. And, as before, this process of exploring ideas through local explorations of place proved fruitful in the discussions that then took place at the workshop.

The tricky thing

One participant reflected on the difficulties in applying a word like ‘transitions’ within the social contexts of environmental issues when compared with the seemingly simpler patterns in the natural world. “Ecological transitions are something which are much easier for me to grasp. I can see seasons progressing and [on the walk] I took images of the flowers and the blossom coming out. I know that species are migrating and then migrating to different parts [e.g. with climate change], but that’s a more gradual transition. For me, transitions become really difficult as soon as humans are involved. Humans are just so complicated.” 

It’s a complexity that often seems to get reduced to quick fixes, to a reliance on technology and its promises to shift us away from a problematic state and towards a desired, improved one. But “it’s not just about these technological solutions. It’s about the really tricky thing. It’s about demand, right? And how much energy we’re using. And you can’t just magic a problem away through net zero, right? Or through electric cars.”

Indeed, one contribution suggested that “to achieve net zero targets, we need to transition to a lower energy-consuming society using about 20% of the fossil fuels we use currently and 50% of the total energy. The hope that we can transition to 100% renewable energy under the current energy demand just doesn’t add up. Also, the net zero scenarios considered by policymakers include technologies that are not ready for deployment and they may never be. So, things like green hydrogen and carbon capture and storage.” 

In fact, of course, transitions — in technologies, economics, business and consumer behaviour — are also what drive our current direction deeper into ecological and climate predicaments. Seemingly small and gradual shifts ramp up our resource use. One person illustrated this, asking “are we missing out on observing some changes that are happening and then waking up and thinking ‘Oh, no. Something changed. And I haven’t noticed that transition process’? … So for example, you know, thirty years ago you would have a weekly bath and now you have a daily shower and we know norms of convenience and hygiene change because of the materials around you, and so on.”

As someone else commented, this failure to grasp the scale of the issue and the nature of the required response can quickly lead to frustration with ‘official’ models of transitions. “When people use the word, it feels like they’re just tinkering around the edges when what we need is something much more fundamental. And the tinkering around the edges of things gets quite irritating. I don’t mean the small-scale, say, small communities who make something work and then how does that scale up? I mean the imposed transitions.”

Transitions - showing broken windows in an abandoned building
Photograph: Workshop participant © 2022

But another participant offered a more nuanced view of how transitions can take shape in the more autonomous cultural sphere, beyond policy and technological supply and demand, for example in how refugee and immigrant families respond to new surroundings and circumstances. “So I think that transition is countries, languages, cultures. I see it firsthand and it’s fascinating to me how and what rules are bent, where tradition is pulling and where, you know, modernity is pulling and just the meshing of culture and language and all that.”

Empathetic transitions

Holding each of these three workshops in different areas of the city has given the series a strong identification with the challenges and the opportunities involved in negotiating social responses to environmental change, and how change often cannot be imposed from above. “So I naively believe that you can’t implement any change if you don’t take the people who live there on board. … I think otherwise it’s like colonialism. You’re coming, you’re plonking your view onto the world on it and you’re thinking that that’s what’s wanted.” Another expanded on this: “The only way to do that is really to spend a huge amount of time talking to people and to find out how people want to use the space, how they depend on that space, how they perceive ownership of that space, and what are they willing to give up to protect that space. And those discussions are usually not happening.” Of course, these conversations are also not simple things to hold open and to engage every voice in.

Transitions - "If you want to know more about moving to Bristol ask a Bristolian."
Ask a Bristolian
Photograph: Workshop participant © 2022

Picking up on the nature of conversations and what they offer — even short explorations such as this series of half-day events — another participant observed, “You can’t just expect transitions or transformations or change to be easy. Like there will be that conflict always. And people have their own priorities and their own interests. So it’s crucial to really understand other people’s worlds, really put yourself in someone else’s shoes. That’s why we like this sort of exercise, you know, because you don’t have to agree with someone else’s interest, but it makes you realise that we could all be more than a single issue person. … That’s why I like these sort of empathetic activities.”

We begin to see here, of course, the links between ideas of ‘Transitions’ with those of ‘Justice’ and even ‘Resilience’ — how these work with or against each other, and that would be a fascinating area of future exploration. One person offered an example from South America, of changes as a nation continues to emerge from a long heritage of dictatorship and how its constitution now “recognises explicitly the different indigenous relations to the ocean. …. So there’s a change here where this has been written into a constitutional framework. Now what that then looks like in terms of how does that become concrete actions, we don’t know. But there’s a high-level political change here.” 

Often, the space between formal, top-down approaches to transition and more local, autonomous change is experienced as a gap, where change fails to take shape or lead to the desired outcomes. “The risk is you end up with the gap in the middle between the small scale community initiatives and the kind of discourse, the well-meaning discourse, from the top.” 

Reaching to transformation

Maybe it’s also where it’s hardest to visualise the difference that can make the difference. As one participant put it:  “So if you look at climate change and transitions, people are talking about energy, people are talking about food, people are talking about cities and with some of those I could imagine transitions, but in some of them it’s so complex that I can’t envisage what a city of the future might look like where we have had a transition. … And I find that is my intellectual challenge. I just can’t imagine. I just lack the creativity to think about how crazy this could be. … Is it that I’m just so embedded in this society where I have found my space, my niche … that I can’t see transitions.” 

Another person offered an almost rueful observation: “I’m just wondering whether transition has become such a gentle word and maybe we need a less gentle word?” And a point that came up more than once was how an early experience of the Covid pandemic was the sense that change was not just inevitable — a dramatic ‘push’ on how we live — but that change is also always possible, and can be turned into something positive; but there is also always the risk of it being lost, of it fading into a return to ‘business as usual’. “It is something which forces us. But we’ve had a global pandemic, that is a pretty big push. And what we’re coming to is back to living the way it was before, with variations — we might not go into the office every day, but ultimately, it is still very much the society it was before. So if that doesn’t push us, what will make us live differently?“

As one person put it, a word like ‘Transitions’ seems to speak of a smooth process and something that’s maybe linear and inevitable: something people must move with. “You’re either going forwards or backwards. It’s either a yes or no, and it doesn’t do justice to that range of different experiences that we end up thinking about in these activities. And I do really worry because there are signs now that some of the arguments about transition, and net zero as it is so often framed, are becoming really polarised.” 

Another contribution emphasises the ‘real world’ nature of change that lies behind a simple word like ‘Transitions’.  “In the whole engagement debate, there is not enough being taught about how conflict arises and how you can’t make everyone happy. And especially for environmental transition, the expectation that there are some standards of living which we cannot continue: how do you have that conversation …. You won’t have a low traffic neighbourhood that will satisfy everyone because it involves some sacrifices. It involves making roads one way from two ways, taking some parking space. The new cycle lane is seen as someone else taking parking space and there are the trade-offs and everything.” 

Transitions - showing a car lane becoming a cycle lane
St Philips Causeway approach
Photograph: Workshop participant © 2022

Ultimately then, the conversation returns us to the adequacy of the words we use. One person summed it up by saying that ‘Transition’ is probably not the right word. “And I feel like that this exercise has really reinforced that, I think, precisely because it is so embedded in the language of the kind of top-down government initiatives. … So I think we need another word. What word would that be? I don’t know. ‘Transformation’? …. Because I think there’s stuff already happening that we can draw on and it captures a bit more of a sense of human agency. It’s actually a bit more hopeful. …. And I think ‘transition’ sounds a bit like ‘transition is happening whether you like it or not’. The word ‘transformation’, for me, means that it sounds like more of an opportunity, a kind of intention.” 

One participant shared with me that they didn’t have strong feelings about the word, as “I don’t use it much in my own work, my own life.” And maybe that is part of the issue, that it has little everyday purchase.

And another contributor offered a further alternative: “So should we be talking about transitions or should we be talking about revolution?” 


Find out more

Do contribute your responses below to be part of the conversation! See the Leave a Reply box underneath the existing comments.

Environmental Keywords is a short interdisciplinary project at the University of Bristol, investigating three keywords — ‘Justice’, ‘Resilience’ and ‘Transitions’ — that are common in the environmental discourses that shape how we think of, talk about and act on the ecological and climate predicaments facing us.

With funding from the Natural Environment Research Council, the project is led by Dr Paul Merchant, Co-Director of the University’s Centre for Environmental Humanities, and involves colleagues from different departments and disciplines, as well as local community groups, ClimateCultures members and other creative practitioners.

The project focused on three workshops in Bristol, facilitated by Anna Haydock-Wilson and complemented by online content here at ClimateCultures:

‘Justice’ — Wednesday 16th February 2022
‘Resilience’ — Wednesday 9th March 2022
‘Transitions’ – Thursday 24th March 2022

Anna has created this short film from the series, with contributions from Paul and the different participants who joined the conversations.

We have four previous posts in the Environmental Keyword series. ‘Justice’: Walking With the Word ‘Justice’ by Mark Goldthorpe and Permeability: On Green Frogs, Imagination & Reparations, a response from writer Brit Griffin. ‘Resilience’: Growing With the Word ‘Resilience’ by Mark Goldthorpe and A Nature More Resilient, a response by psychotherapist Susan HollidayAnd the main Environmental Keywords section has pages with other creative responses to these words from a number of ClimateCultures members. Look out for the ‘Transitions’ page, coming soon!

Mark Goldthorpe
Mark Goldthorpe
An independent researcher, project and events manager, and writer on environmental and climate change issues - investigating, supporting and delivering cultural and creative responses.
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