Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Transition vs. Resilience vs. Public Opinion

I recently came across an interesting report by Alex Haxeltine and Gill Seyfang of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the UK Transitions for the People: Theory and Practice of ‘Transition’ and ‘Resilience’ in the UK’s Transition Movement.

Here is the abstract:
This paper presents an exploratory case study of a new community-led sustainability initiative in the UK called the Transition movement. In recent months Transition movement groups have appeared in a significant number of UK towns with the stated aim of responding to the question: “how can our community respond to the challenges, and opportunities, of Peak Oil and Climate Change?” [Transition Network 2008]. The originators of the initiative have developed a “comprehensive and creative process” aimed at awareness raising, network building, and, eventually, a community-defined and community-led plan for a transition over a 15-20 year timescale. The parallels to the transition management approach being pioneered in the Netherlands and elsewhere are immediate and fascinating, but are they merely superficial? What are the actual differences and similarities between this emerging civil society movement and academic discourse and research on sustainability transitions? The resilience and transition frameworks are briefly presented as two ways of using a systems framing to understand, and inform, the governance of social and technical change in the context of sustainability. Using a combination of survey results, participant observation and documentary sources, we then explore how the terms transition and resilience are being used in the discourse of the Transition movement. The paper then explores the similarities and differences between how the terms are used in the academic literature versus the Transition movement. Finally, the analysis is employed to generate insights about the practical use of the notions of transition and resilience in civil society contexts that involve “lay practitioners”, and how these insights in turn might inform research on transitions and resilience.

Garry Peterson, over at the Resilience Science blog, has pulled out some interesting passages focusing on the differences in the two approaches:
The specific language used is of “rebuilding resilience” – drawing on historical descriptions of towns in the UK around 100 years ago, the handbook argues that resilience has been decreased in recent decades. The narrative describes how localised patterns of production and consumption (and the associated skill sets and community cohesion) were eroded in a relentless shift to ever larger scale industrialized systems of production and consumption, made possible by the use of fossil fuel energy sources. Hopkins argues that there is now a great urgency to the need to rebuild resilience because of imminent disturbances (or shocks) in the form of peak-oil, climate change, and the associated impacts on economic systems and trading patterns (Hopkins, 2008). He links this urgency directly to our current oil dependency: “it is about looking at the Achilles heel of globalization, one from which there is no protection other than resilience: its degree of oil dependency” (Hopkins, 2008).

The framing of the Transition model provided in the handbook does explicitly draw upon the academic literature on resilience in socio-ecological systems (citing a 2006 introductory text by Brian Walker and David Salt for example), but what ideas are being taken from this literature, and to what extent is the resulting framework consistent with the interpretation of resilience quoted in section 2 of this paper? The Transition Handbook (Hopkins, 2008) cites studies of what makes ecosystems resilient, identifying: diversity, modularity and tightness of feedbacks:

These initial resilience indicators rely heavily on equating resilience with the re-localisation of systems of production and consumption. So the Transition Handbook could be said to provide a starting point for talking about resilience in a Transition Town, but it is still a long way from being clear about what is needed in practice. Furthermore the evidence from observation of the local Transition groups (during 2008-2009) is that they are in an equivalent situation of trying to frame multiple actions in terms of the building of resilience but relying heavily on equating resilience with a re-localisation of production-consumption patterns.

Resilience theory highlights the fact that building resilience to a specified disturbance (such as Peak Oil) does not necessarily provide the same resilience to all possible disturbances. Some properties of a Transitioning community, such as strong community networks and diverse skill sets, may help provide resilience to most disturbances, while other properties may be very specific to one disturbance. If one were to take the position that the greatest shocks in the coming years may, in the end, turn out not to be the ones that we expected, then successfully building a specific resilience to an expected threat (such as Peak Oil) may not provide resilience against realized disturbances. So what may be required is to build resilience to specific threats in a way that also builds system properties that help in coping with diverse possible threats – implying, for example, a need for a capacity to innovate.

The current framing of resilience equates resilience with localisation in a rather unquestioning way, as demonstrated by the resilience indicators given in the Transition Handbook. We would argue that increasing any one of these indicators could actually either increase or decrease resilience to a specific disturbance, depending the exact nature of the disturbance and on the exact systemic changes used to enhance the indicator. We also argue that the desirable goal is not to simply increase such indicators as much as possible, but to find the right balance between resilience and other goals, such as quality of life and well being.

In the interest of never letting a good crisis go to waste, it is useful to look at public opinion following the current Gulf oil spill. Big events have been known to have significant and sometimes lasting impacts on public opinion and policy. Double hulled tankers became the rule following the Exxon Valdez accident and, more significantly, North America stopped building nuclear plants following the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island. A recent NY Times/CBS Poll on the Gulf Oil Spill has a number of interesting findings. It is worth plowing through the frequencies yourself, but the one I found most interesting was the disconnect between a) the appetite for dramatic change (58% think US energy policy needs to be fundamentally changed, 31% think it is so out of whack it needs to be completely rebuilt and a tiny 6% think it needs only minor changes)coupled with b) an expectation that fundamental change was unlikely (only 24% thought it very likely that the US would develop an alternative to oil as the major source of energy in the next 25 years) and c) their general unwillingness to pay any costs associated with facilitating the transition (51% opposing a gas tax compared to 45% willing to accept one).

Simply put, its unlikely that the Gulf Spill will have the same sort of transformational impact that, for example, TMI had. The reason? Even with all the attention it has received, only 13% if the public see it as the most important problem. In contrast, 20% identify jobs as the most important problem and another 20% list the economy. All crises are not alike. Had the oil spill occurred at a time when the economy was booming, it is likely that significant policy changes would result. But, in a global economy battered by the collapse of the banking system and worried about the financial viability of a number of European countries, bread and butter issues will trump environmental and energy policy concerns among the bulk of the population.


  1. thanks for this post; it gives me some more direction for investigating Transition. I'd like to offer one critique of Transition that I've been thinking hard about: migration. Ecological crisis, whether floods, droughts, storms, infrastructure collapse, economic collapse, or loss of resources, provokes the migration of populations, whether temporary or long-term. The Transition initiative does not address the necessity of migration, that many thousands of people will have to move to another location to find housing, jobs, a stable climate, affordable energy, health care, or to be with family and friends. Transition assumes that you will always be stable in one place, when in fact many ecological crisis provoke migration to other places. The historical assumption is that "in the old days," people were more stable and never left their hometowns, that they settled and aged in place. I question whether that is historically accurate, either for recent history or the distant past. In fact, I have a Maliseet calendar on my wall, and one of the illustrations shows that the Maliseet people used their canoes to migrate great distances, from camp to camp, as seasons changed, to follow the life-cyles of different fish species, herds, and plant species. They would pack their canoes with their families, shelters, and all their goods to follow different food sources that moved with the seasons to different locations. As much as it is a human tendency to settle, it is also a longstanding human practice to move where the resources are. We are all "out of Africa," but we evolved into diverse ethnic groups and cultures as we moved about the planet to obtain resources in every possible ecosystem. The greatest single social phenomenon that will emerge from all these various ecological crisis is mass migration on a global scale. Millions of people will move, and will move huge distances. As a practical matter, while we build local resilience, we must also maintain larger social networks, facilitated by advanced communications technology, that will allow us to maintain social supports in distant places, should we ever need them.

  2. RE: migration
    I'll be posting about a recent report looking at the connection between migration and climate change in a couple days.