Entrepreneurial thinker, practical activist and artist Nicky Saunter shares the Hope Tales project she’s working on to find creative ways to make sustainable futures and talk about the role of hope, imagination and story in facing climate change.
1,170 words: estimated reading time = 4.5 minutes approximately
My work with the Rapid Transition Alliance is frequently a strange mix of dreadful fear and awe-inspiring hope. Our field is bang in the middle of climate change and therefore features a daily stream of reports, commentary, data and science on how poorly we tiny humans are doing in curbing our overconsumption and weening ourselves off our drug of choice that is fossil fuels. It is a veritable tsunami that threatens to overwhelm us every day: as wide as it is deep and moving faster every day. It can seem too large to approach with any purpose or clarity. Feelings of panic and hopelessness start to flutter in our bellies — you are probably feeling this already. What is more, climate change is now part of a ‘polycrisis’ — a perfect storm of catastrophic issues, from social division and isolation to pandemics and ecological breakdown.
Grim stuff indeed. But then suddenly in comes a story about yet another person or group who get together — often without much money to start with but a big idea — and do something that is simply brilliant and gives us hope for the future. And I can take a breath again.
Creativity for building change
The significance of this maybe lies less in the actual idea and the ‘fix’ that is being applied to a particular part of this vast issue. Instead, it lies in the inspiring way that single humans continue to work together in the face of impossible odds to cooperate, create and heal — often with surprising success. Despite what pundits would have us think Darwin said about the survival of the fittest and the drive for ruthless competition, we are excellent at cooperating and skillful at creative thinking. We are also capable of fast, practical action. The bit we find hardest is to stop either scaring ourselves witless or putting our fingers in our ears and waiting for all the horrible stuff to go away. How do we open our eyes, follow the science and use our creativity to design and build a new future together on this beautiful planet?
Our Hope Tales project focuses specifically on this feeling; looking at creative ways to make a sustainable future, and talking about the role of hope, imagination and story in facing climate change. Hope Tales is a collaboration between the Rapid Transition Alliance, the Centre for Public and Policy Engagement at the University of Essex and the New Weather Institute, using the power of story to investigate real hope for our future. The Rapid Transition Alliance is known for its research and publications on “evidence-based hope” — stories from the near and distant past that illustrate how real rapid change might be made. But the Hope Tales work has pushed further into the field of creativity, using fiction, poetry and art to stimulate both thought and action on potential new ways of living on Earth.
Air, Land, Water – Hope Tales in place
The concept is simple: to gather a group of people in a specific place for a few hours to share short performances of their work on a given topic. The overarching theme is Hope and each event looks through the lens of a further elemental subject. So far, we have looked at Air in a beautifully appointed vintage cinema in Crystal Palace, considered the Land in earthy Somerset in an old woollen mill, and felt the pull of Water in ancient Colchester as part of the Essex book festival. We have held a pinecone on our palm while telling the story of a tree planted by suffragettes, we have woven local plants into plaits in thanks, we have watched oysters clean river water of our filth, and we have listened to the tale of two plaice swimming the seas of Eastern England. We have met a lot of new people, shared spaces and tea and mince pies with them, laughed and gasped in equal share, wondering at the ideas of others and the beauty of their self-expression.
Once the event is over, the content prepared for this one-off performance is then compiled into a small and beautiful book, called a ‘chapbook’. Chapbooks were small, cheaply produced books widely sold and highly popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. Sold by a ‘chapman’, they were used to publish popular or folk literature, almanacks, children’s stories, folk tales, ballads, political prospectuses, poetry and religious tracts. Our own chapbooks follow this tradition of broad subject matter, bite-sized pieces for easy reading and made to be shared and passed on.
Pandemic learning in action
There is something about the forming and sharing of creative work in an intimate space for a one-off performance that generates excitement, concentrated listening and a keen enjoyment of what others bring. It also reminds us how such interactive and collaborative forms of entertainment are so much more fulfilling to all than the treadmill of consumption we so often ride.
Part of the inspiration for this work came from the global pandemic, during which a flourishing of creative, homemade entertainment was shared and enjoyed worldwide without huge investment or any financial purchases being required. The Rapid Transition Alliance documented this flowering of generosity and creativity in a series of short reports that looked at examples of positive stories. Remember how nature returned and deer wandered through empty shopping malls? How ballerinas unable to dance on stage took to their kitchens and balconies for impromptu performances watched by millions stuck at home? How people of all skill levels took up pencils, paints and brushes, tried sculpture, made their own clothes, sewed and crocheted for each other? How we mended our old stuff, swapped it with others, cooked for those who couldn’t and planted seeds once again?
Hope Tales is taking the pandemic learning and putting it into action with a real focus on place. We try to choose towns that are not big, wealthy or famous for anything in particular. We are showing the diversity of the ordinary and the stories that lie around us in droves, just waiting to be heard and acted on.
The next Hope Tales event is at the fabulous Margate School on 31st October from 6.30-9pm. Join us.
You can explore the work of the Rapid Transition Allianceto share inspiring and varied examples of rapid transition and show what kind of changes are possible, how people can help to shape them, and what conditions can make them happen.
The New Weather Institute is a co-op and a think-tank, created to accelerate the rapid transition to a fair economy that thrives within planetary boundaries. The Centre for Public and Policy Engagement at the University of Essex supports academic communities build partnerships with policymakers and the public so that research and education at the University of Essex can improve people’s lives.
Artist Kim V. Goldsmith shares her work with Regional Futures in NSW, Australia, exploring people’s feelings for rural territories. We need to listen better to each other, ourselves, and more-than-human worlds for more collaborative approaches to the future.
2,600 words: estimated reading time = approximately 10 minutes + option audio pieces
Few of us in the ClimateCultures network would dispute that rural and regional territories across the world are on the frontline of climate change. In the past six years, south-eastern Australia has experienced severe drought (2017- 2019), described by our national weather bureau as “a situation with no clear historical precedent” , followed by the unprecedented bushfires of 2019/20 that burnt 5.5 million hectares or seven percent of New South Wales (NSW) , and just last year, record rainfall events resulted in floods across south-east Queensland and NSW considered to be in our top three historical natural disasters. These are not records to take pride in.
Listening to regional futures in New South Wales
In early 2022, when I was given the opportunity to delve into how people in the regions of NSW feel about the future, it was knowing I’d be working in the heartland of politically conservative Australia , where farming and other primary industries are heavily reliant on fossil fuels. I have lived and worked in this part of Australia for most of my life. Despite the devastating impact of drought, fire and floods on these communities, the majority in rural Australia will unfailingly continue to vote for conservative parties. As happened in May 2022, when the Labor Party returned to power in Canberra but little changed in regional electorates. This pattern of voting behaviour continued to result in a similar outcome in the 2023 NSW State election — where the political battlefront was Western Sydney not Western NSW. The only real change has been more conservative Independent candidates in the race against the parties they were once part of.
In her book, How to Talk About Climate Change in a Way That Makes a Difference, Dr Rebecca Huntley writes: “There is clearly a disconnect between what people say they are worried about and want action on and who, when given the chance, they pick to lead their country.” Huntley references Per Espen Stoknes’ book, What We Think About When We Try Not To Think About Global Warming, where he writes: “For those of us who find ourselves stuck in the moral conundrum of the climate doom story, passive denial offers an easy way out.” One might argue that voting actions are perhaps more active denial, as we’ve seen in regional electorates.
However, Huntley also talks about the constant repetition of climate change facts and figures as a familiar script that can leave us cold or, even worse, bored, creating a collective stupor. What the science tends not to recognise is our messy social realities — the rising cost of living, housing shortages, poor health services, personal safety, and mental health issues. The day-to-day chore of living tends to take priority over environmental concerns.
As an artist, my interest over the past decade has largely been creative interpretations of acoustic and social ecologies — the intersection of human and more-than-human species in often fragile and vulnerable rural and regional territories. When the opportunity to be part of a project called Regional Futures came up through the NSW Regional Arts Network — funded by the State Government — I was keen to develop a series of works that would give a voice to the voiceless in our regional environments, and provide a platform for under-represented individuals in the regions to share their fears, anxieties, hopes and dreams of the future — things we are not often asked about. My project is called Vaticinor (The Augur), a reference to predicting the future by observing natural signs.
Over several months, I spoke with 18 residents of the Central West and the Mid North Coast regions of NSW, in an inland/coastal conversation about how the transition to renewable energy sources might shape net-zero regional futures.
Aged 15 to 70, the storytellers in this montage all believe Regional NSW is a wonderful place to live but their stories and concerns are genuine and their messages urgent.
My home region of the Central West was the first Renewable Energy Zone (REZ) to be declared in Australia because of its potential (and proximity) to contribute energy to the national electricity market through large-scale solar and wind developments. It’s being billed as a power station of the future. The NSW Government is overseeing the development of the zone, including transmission projects, and expects up to A$5 billion in private investment to the region by 2030. The intended network capacity of this zone is three gigawatts, enough to power 1.4 million homes .
What this looks like on the ground is kilometre after kilometre of rolling hills or cleared flat, red soil country covered in black solar panels — shiny sun-seeking faces dominating the landscape; and giant, white wind turbines, blades gracefully arcing against blue skies, spread across thousands of hectares of farmland. Some of these developments sit on farming land while other parcels of land are dedicated to the cause.
Communities within the REZ are torn about the good these massive clean energy developments offer, despite the negotiation and distribution of community fund sweeteners. Some see solar panels and wind turbines as an eyesore — impacting the visual amenity some regions have come to rely on for attracting new residents and tourism; others believe it is poor use of productive agricultural land needed to feed and clothe us into the future.
The regions, particularly those inland, are doing much of the heavy lifting when it comes to energy supply in the form of food and power production. Cities and more densely populated coastal areas are facing critical land and housing shortages, with limited capacity to produce food or power for their growing populations; they will lean more heavily on the regions in years to come .
Investments into renewables is an opportunity for some who have fought to remain viable through droughts, floods and seasons of low productivity; solar or wind hosting arrangements are providing the financial security they need to remain on the land they love.
Karin Stark lives on a farm near Narromine — a particularly conservative rural community in the Central West, where she has driven the conversation around renewable energy in agriculture. With her credentials in environmental science and farming, she’s keen to see rural and regional communities empowered in the transition to renewables, particularly in areas where there’s large-scale development.
“It’s important that agriculture does continue to develop and adapt to different technologies, different weather events, to secure our food supplies. But I think really with energy and food we need to have a more interconnected or integrated way of thinking, so that we can do both in this region.
“There needs to be more focus on the distribution level of allowing farmers and regional communities to produce the energy themselves rather than (rely on) these massive solar and wind farms.”
Some are quietly fearful of what the future holds for rural communities despite the work being done to adapt. Fourth-generation Narromine farmer, Bruce Maynard won the prestigious National Landcare Award in 2022 for his agroecology work and advocacy, believing that broadening the on-farm biodiversity base also means broadening the productive capacity. He firmly believes people are the reason behind doing any of this.
“I do feel somewhat challenged and pessimistic about rural communities in Australia in particular, in that they continue to shrink. I put people first, landscape, and then business third as serving those other two main factors … for any of our efforts out here to be worthwhile, I believe it needs a thriving community.”
Conversations with discomfort and hope
Transitions to new ways of being and thinking don’t come without discomfort and a strong sense of inequity. For those not privileged enough to buy into the renewables revolution or who are simply more concerned about their personal safety and putting food on the table, the conversation about climate change and what that means is still abstract.
Having recently moved to the Central West for a job following tertiary study, 25-year-old Bageshri still has close ties to India.
“There are people I have grown up with that have way more complex issues to deal with, just regarding their safety or the place that they live.
“I definitely think people who can make change are people in positions of power, people with money, people with influence. We just need to really look at who we’re voting for, and elect people who actually think about the future.”
Stephen Callaghan moved to Dubbo in Central West NSW about six years ago, to an area of the city he describes as a low socio-economic area. To offset rising power costs, his family used a small inheritance to invest in a solar battery system. It’s something they felt they couldn’t afford not to do.
“I honestly don’t know, looking at our electricity bill, how some of our neighbours are coping.
“I can see a future where it’s not going to be survival of the fittest, but it’s definitely going to be the haves and have-nots, and it’s going to be related around power and energy.”
Net-zero targets by 2050 were described by 16-year-old high school student, Madelyn Leggett as being like a homework assignment. She has a very strong sense of her place in the world and is itching for the day she can exercise her vote.
“People procrastinate and procrastinate, and nothing gets done and then we reach December 2049, and we go ‘Oh! Nothing’s happened!’ We still haven’t changed enough, and there still hasn’t been enough policy or legislation passed to make an effective change or impact on the environment.
“I think the political push for a net zero world is there. And I think it does affect people’s outlook on how we see the future and I think it affects the way that people consider not just consumerism but voting and democracy, and how they consider their political actions.”
As parents of young children and living off-the-grid in a coastal forest on the Mid North Coast, Aliya Aamot and her partner are passionate about guiding their children through a more ‘self-efficient’ way of life.
“These children that grow up in the bush, with parents who are teaching them life skills, this is what the planet needs for the future.
“It’s very important for us, especially kids in cities to know this process of where the food comes from, how it’s been grown… There’s just so much nature will teach the children just by letting the children be in nature.”
Collaborative, more-than-human regional futures
It’s very easy to put humans at the centre of this conversation — we do it all the time. However, there’s a growing awareness that our future hinges on a more collaborative approach, where more-than-human species gain more rights  and a greater voice. This is what has really underpinned my interest in the Regional Futures project and the works I developed through Vaticinor.
I’ve observed the discord at the intersection of the human and more-than-human species across rural and regional territories, yet to be resolved. The multi-track soundscape composition, Humi, I created for the Regional Futures exhibition brings the sounds of the more-than-human together with the built structures and technologies we’ve created for our convenience, including renewables, weaving together a story around this uncertain period of transition between our past and our future. The work is accompanied by a haptic experience, reducing the soundscape to vibrations through 3D-printed hands, reminding us we are one with the sonic world whether we hear it or not.
The signs of what potentially lies ahead have been there for some time now, but as Stoknes suggests, ignoring them may have been a way of dealing with the discomfort. The cocoons we’ve woven around our lives in rural and regional Australia and beyond are unravelling in the face of extreme weather events, or as James Bridle puts it in Ways of Being: Beyond Human Intelligence: “…tiny moments of turbulent activity through which we can barely grasp an unseen, unknowable totality.”
As we come to terms with that totality, the challenge will be creating equity for all in the transition to a fossil-fuel-free world at the same time as developing a more connected and entangled life with those other species we share the planet with — those who remain mostly voiceless. We need to listen better to each other, to ourselves, and to more-than-human worlds. In the meantime, we shall continue to sit with the discomfort of our choices.
The Humi soundscape composition is a story of the discordant interdependence of human and more-than-human species against a backdrop of pressing time. Weaving their way through the composition are sounds of species not often heard by the naked human ear or those given little thought to in our daily busyness — earthworms, bats, fish, individual birds in choruses of birdsong reverberating through remnant forests on the edges or urban development and cleared farmland. Meanwhile, manmade structures click and thrum, boom and hum — solar arrays, wind turbines, dam walls, motorboats, and fossil-fuelled vehicles — designed for our convenience and enjoyment, creating around-the-clock noise within worlds we do not hear or see.
The first Soundcloud audio piece in Kim’s post is a 39-minute montage of 18 storytellers sharing their thoughts about the future, presented for exhibition as part of the ‘Regional Futures’ series of exhibitions in NSW Australia, in a vintage suitcase, upholstered in custom-printed fabric, with postcards of links and invitations to audiences to share their story.
The second Soundcloud audio piece is ‘Humi’ (in/on/to the ground), a 15-minute composition of field recordings, transitional tones and chords melding sounds of the Mid North Coast, Manning Valley and Central West of NSW into one story; a story of the discordant interdependence of human and more-than-human species against a backdrop of pressing time.
The sound and text works of Vaticinor will be shown in Sydney from 24th June – 24th September 2023 in Regional Futures: Artists in a Volatile Landscape, at Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, Western Sydney.
Writer Philip Webb Gregg embraces our Environmental Keywords theme on Transitions with an urgent call to abandon our language of endings for one of beginnings, where we embrace the deepest change: a radical transition to more honest stories.
1,720 words: estimated reading time = 6.5 minutes
Alright, I have a confession, and I’m aware this is an uncool thing to say, but I no longer believe in the end of the world. Shocking, I know. Especially coming from me. I’m exactly the kind of person you’d expect would think the apocalypse was just around the corner. After all, I’m a second-generation activist (my mother baked bread at Greenham Common). I’ve done all the usual things; camped at the capital, given out endless leaflets, hurled abuse at the gates of Parliament with the best of them. Moreover, I’m a white, straight(ish) man with long hair, stick-and-poke tattoos on my forearms and a steady yoga practice. Of course I should believe in the imminent end of the world. Except I don’t. Not anymore. I used to. I grew up in an alternative anarchist community on the southernmost tip of Europe. In some ways, it was a happy and unremarkable childhood, but in others I have learned it was quite unique. For instance, we took for granted that the world was ending. It didn’t matter how. Could be nuclear, could be another world war. The point was, I and all my friends — and all our parents — were basically futureless. We made no five-year goals. There was never a whisper of career paths or pension plans, or even what we’d do next week. Instead, we had fun. We used the minimum effort possible to make us as happy as possible for as long as possible, until it all fell inevitably apart. In some ways, this is good for the soul. It has certainly given me an appreciation for the honesty of the present moment –- more on that later. But it also means I grew up in a world and a community that had doom on its lips. The end of the world, as we know it
So believe me when I say I understand what so many of us are going through. Call it apocalypse-anxiety, or climate-anxiety, what it amounts to is fear, dread; the empty, heavy feeling in your stomach when you see the world changing around you. When you read the science, watch the news, walk across the dead grass. I have spent three decades speaking with the language of endings. But it’s only recently that I’ve come to understand that there are other tongues out there. It’s only recently that I’ve come to understand that the end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world . There is a language of beginnings and a language for whatever comes in between.
It is too easy to be seduced into the ‘last days of Rome’ metaphor. That we are Troy before the horse, Atlantis before the flood, Pompeii before the fire; living on a cliff edge with hyper-luxury behind us and the apocalypse ahead. All of this is very poetic and compelling, but ultimately inaccurate and unhelpful.
Because, like it or not, tomorrow is coming. And it will not be the end of the world. It will just be a day, in many ways much like any other. As I write this, I can hear the voices of my family and friends gesturing frantically to their browser screens, their Facebook shares, the dry heat in the stale air. Yes, mass-disaster, societal collapse and global meltdown are already happening. Riots and starvation and power-outage are very likely in many parts of the world very soon. In other parts, they are already underway. And they are awful and inhuman and entirely avoidable. But these are symptoms of drastic (and reversible) change, not the apocalypse. And that knowledge changes everything. The point of all of the above is simply this: believing the end is nigh is a forgivable form of cowardice. It excuses you from the hard work of tomorrow in favour of the pleasure, or the despair, of today. Instead I have a radical proposition worthy of the anarchist roots that bred me. I propose we embrace change, on all fronts and at all costs. Because despite everything I have said, we are in the deepest trouble, and we need the deepest change.
An honest change
Some of this change may involve stepping forward, into what feels like an abyss. Some of it will likely feel like a step back into the past — the way things were in the ‘good ol’ days’. Most of it, I hope, will be more of a step sideways. Neither demonising the future, nor glorifying the past, but simply being more present, honest now. Why do I use the word ‘honest’? Because I think that’s at the root of the change we need. Imagine, for a moment, that you were alive a thousand, or two thousand years ago. I think it is unlikely that you cared about ‘the planet’. Almost certainly you cared about the weather. And the soil. And, in some form, the wild. Most likely you spent your days hacking away at it, fencing it, herding it, milking it, eating it, and your nights hoping it wouldn’t eat you or your loved ones.
Give or take, that’s been the case for all of human existence. Throughout our entire collective evolutionary journey, we have not had to worry about overwhelming or choking our ecosystem in the way we do now (this is one of the reasons it is so goddamn hard to get your head around the idea of the Anthropocene). But there is another staggering change that goes hand in hand with that transition. That of honesty. Truthiness. Verisimilitude. Call it what you like, we’ve lost it.
Sometime in the last few millennia, I believe we have learned to lie to ourselves about nature, and the nature of ourselves. Perhaps it happened the moment we overstepped our place in the food chain; began looking at the natural world as a thing separate, and beneath us. Maybe it started with the invention of fiction — that most essential and deadly of human tools — and the creation of the written word. Who knows?
All I know is that these days I see it everywhere. And the reason that these times — our times — feel like the ‘end-times’ is because they are the apex of this dishonesty.
For me this is the core of the crisis we face, and the hinge on which our change must turn. I do not point to technology or colonialism or capitalism, though those are certainly factors, I point instead to the myths we tell ourselves. The stories, if you like, that we have built our lives upon; our cities, our skyscrapers. Stories of eternal progress, of the singularity and the isolation of the individual. We have grown so accustomed to deception we no longer see the bullshit we swim through every day. These things take us away from what we are, and have become the cause, either directly or indirectly, of the climate and ecological crisis we are facing today.
Because really, that’s all that nature is: an honest thing. Nature is not flowers, rivers and butterflies. Sure, those things are an aspect of the natural world, but so are carnivores, rotting flesh and landslides. My point is the natural world is not a pretty or easy thing — most of it is uncomfortable, harsh and dangerous. The very opposite of our lives now. But it doesn’t lie to you. It cannot; it simply is.
And really, so are we. When we strip away all the lies we clothe ourselves with, we are still the same scrabbling figures we were two thousand years ago, except that now the weather and the soil and the wild are all going missing and we’re left wondering what on earth is next.
Well, truthfully, I have no idea. But that’s what we’re here to find out.
If the gift of my upbringing taught me anything, it’s how to call bullshit on a world that just wants you to shut up and buy stuff. I think we need to stop being passive members of a society that’s actively slipping into chaos. We must make an effort to step away from the language of disasters and step instead toward the language of new beginnings.
I think we need to speak, and speak honestly, and tell new stories, honest stories; not just to each other, but to ourselves. And yes, in some non-hippy way, to the world as well.
Find out more
 The phrase Philip uses, “the end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world”, is an adapted quote from The Dark Mountain Manifesto (2009), written by Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine: “The end of the world as we know it is not the end of the world full stop. Together, we will find the hope beyond hope, the paths which lead to the unknown world ahead of us.” For its founders, the manifesto “marked a first attempt to put into words the ideas and feelings which led to Dark Mountain. Think of it as a flag raised so that we can find one another. A point of departure, rather than a party line. An invitation to a larger conversation that continues to take us down unexpected paths.”
Philip is an editor for the Dark Mountain Project, working on several of its volumes — including the forthcoming Issue 22: ARK, which is published this October.
Philip’s previous ClimateCultures posts include Rewilding – Slantways: an original poem exploring rewilding as a sideways step into a stranger world, resisting simplifications of ‘progress’ and the gains and losses of our current model, even as we seek to change it.
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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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
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?”
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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-Wilsonand 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.