Reflections from Tuesday theme plenary session “Where are transformations currently happening, and how can we study them through a resilience lens?”

Just getting out of bed, I couldn’t get a better wake-up call than Karen O’Brien’s. Engaging directly in the conversation that Katrina Brown started on putting the social into the ecological, she adds ‘Paradox’ to the equation of 6 P’s, as a question of whether you can deliberately induce transformation or not. Can individual action be collective action, can what you do matter for the bigger picture when it comes to transforming towards sustainability?

Karen O’Brien, from the University of Oslo, Norway, immediately puts in the middle of reality. Thinking of current polarizing political landscape, we can all agree how change is happening and how it is causing much uncertainty and anxiety. Change makes us uncomfortable, a caterpillar turning into a butterfly is actually quite a gruesome process. At the same time, there are also positive transformations. People all around the world are choosing to change rather than their fate being decided for them.

So, change is happening, but how should we think about transformation as sustainability scientists? There is a big realization that we are often missing when thinking about social-ecological problems. Karen puts it as follows: we often study the practical sphere, where change is managed and where we can see results. However, we forget larger structures such as the political sphere, where power, conflicts and social movements are formed. This is also how we often get stuck because we have very different visions on how we should proceed. We can’t see climate change as a technical problem where we just need to tweak the practical for example. Instead, we need to acknowledge there are multiple interrelated problems, we don’t just need to change because of climate change. All sorts of social questions like poverty and equity need to be combined at the same time.

One even larger sphere is that of the personal, the beliefs, values, worldviews and paradigms that everyone has but prioritize differently. This sphere is incredibly fluid, but so important for system change. When natural sciences took off in the Enlightenment period, humans believed we could take a step back from a problem to look at it objectively and start to see potential solutions. There is a danger that while doing this we don’t see that we still have our personal lenses on, that we are taking on different perspectives. This can result in mono-solutions, seeing what we believe rather than believing what we see.

O’Brien echoes the words of Carl Folke to pinpoint what exactly this means for science; “in order to reconnect to the biosphere, you need to take a perspective on your perspective, so that you become a self-aware part of the system. When you recognize you are a part of the biosphere just like anyone else, that is when you can start seeing a pathway for change.”

So how does change really happen? If I make a change, how does that make the big difference? Karen O’Brien reads my mind: The practical, the political and the personal sphere all have leverage points that can be engaged, and we need to take them all together. Following the Enlivenment paradigm, we are all part of a web where we are radiating ideas. Collective and individual are connected, so the more you exert political agency, the more you influence. The Seeds of the Good Anthropocene Database is full of evidence that people want change. We should stop seeing problems as technical problems. We tend to find evidence to support our beliefs and seldom challenge the underlying assumptions. We believe how we see the world rather than seeing how others see the world.

So the Paradox is this: transformation takes time and transformation does not take time, because the tipping point for transformation could be a lot closer than we think…

Your Resilience2017 correspondent:

Elke Markey is a former Master’s student from the Stockholm Resilience Centre, where she earned a degree in Social-Ecological Resilience for Sustainable Development. Her roots lie in political science and in Belgium, where she gained another Master’s degree in Comparative and International Politics from KU Leuven University. To complete these endeavours, she packed her backpack for field work on forest governance in the Amazon region as well as on food systems in South Africa.


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