Transition, adaptation, metamorphosis: framing climate change and regional response

This is the third and final in a series of posts by AUSCCER’s Chris Gibson on climate change and regions, building on papers presented in recent weeks at the 4th International Conference on Sustainability Transitions at ETH Zurich, the annual Institute of Australian Geographers conference at the University of Western Australia, and the 2013 National Climate Change Adaptation (NCCARF) conference in Sydney.

In this final post in my series of post-conference debriefs, I wish to explore further what conceptions of transformation might be required to respond to climate change, and what kinds of perceptions of time are involved.

In this I duly acknowledge on-going conversations with my AUSCCER colleagues and especially Lesley Head, who has written extensively on the topic. In her 2010 PiHG essay Lesley reminded us that ‘adaptation’ was a core concept of twentieth-century cultural ecology, applied in much earlier frames in the context of cultural evolution, ‘traditional’ societies and environmental determinism to describe a combination of general flexibility within new environments, and ‘specific reconfigurations of genetic material’. The term ‘adaptation’ now finds itself reinvented in the context of climate change in ways that retain some of that term’s baggage and limitations. As Lesley warns, ‘there is a risk of discredited dualisms becoming re-embedded in patterns of thinking and proposed solutions to problems’.

I was reminded of this at both the Zurich International Sustainability Transitions conference, and the most recent NCCARF climate adaptation conference in Sydney. Present at both conferences were two distinct and seemingly disconnected communities of scholarship and policy discussion, although each shared an imperative to do something urgently about climate change. At both conferences there were distinct languages and framings – the former around transition, the latter around adaptation. Those framings were more than mere heuristic device; they iteratively shaped the sense of a field of study or action, and moulded a sense of what was deemed possible.

The Zurich conference was my first introduction to the inter-disciplinary field of transition studies, which has largely grown in a continental European context, where it is dominated by science and technology studies, policy studies, and engineers interested in low-carbon technology transfer. That community unapologetically focuses on rapid change and traces with precision the causalities of change, actors, institutions, and strategies. A discipline-like language has quickly developed within transition studies around the process of converting new technologies or initiatives into mainstream practices – with phrases like ‘experiments’, ‘niches’, ‘multilevel analysis’, and even that chestnut geographical phrase ‘landscape’ (employed not to infer a specific biophysical and/or cultural landscape, but rather an ‘existing state of affairs’ into which new niches or experiments are introduced). Within the transition studies community there is a refreshing epistemological eclecticism (everything from management to political economy to actor-network theory), as well as a palpable sense of urgency.

Nevertheless, within transition studies is a temptation to be pragmatic over nuanced, to favour linear conceptions of time rather than complex, non-linear or contradictory models, and to resist theoretical complexity in favour of the urgency of substantive change.

This would sit uncomfortably for those concerned with critical thinking and theory, with for instance relationality, or assemblage theory. The world is not nearly so causally predictable or linear. Moreover, as Elizabeth Shove and Gordon Walker have elsewhere argued in their critique of transition management, in whose vision are we transitioning? Who gets to steer the vision, and who gets to dissent?  Mechanisms of participation and community consultation about new climate transition initiatives are never ‘neutral’. Although, to give credit where due, these kinds of theoretical and political critiques were also part of the conversation in Zurich, forming an engaging and well-attended critical transition studies sub-theme throughout the conference.

A street in Zurich. Credit: Chris Gibson.

However, my strongest reaction to transition studies discussions in Zurich was to worry about that field’s underlying ontology of the human/nature binary: assuming people and nature as discrete entities; or understanding societies as ‘a type of self-regulating, self-organizing living system isomorphic with nature itself’, as Lesley Head put it. Discussions of biophysical processes, ecosystem change, biodiversity conservation or disaster response were strangely rare at the Zurich conference. Sustainability transition in that context is a mostly human concern centred on energy technologies, infrastructure and governmental reform; manifest in an emergent and discrete transition management industry in which companies employ transition specialists and innovation managers, seeking to turn ‘niche’ technologies and governing practices into mainstream technologies and policies.

Among other things, such a framing misses opportunities to intersect with the particularities of ecological and geological processes, the power of individual climatic events to throw things into disarray, and how disruptive, eventful biophysical forces catalyse new kinds of collective human response. This latter kind of thinking is to be found largely elsewhere instead, in the work of geographers such as Nigel Clark, and here within AUSCCER in Justin Westgate’s PhD project.

Meanwhile, back in Australia, at the NCCARF conference the emphasis was, as expected, on adaptation rather than transition – bringing with it another framing and associated language shaping a field of study, moulding a different sense of what is deemed possible. Notwithstanding the voluminous excellent work on climate change that NCCARF has been able to generate over its years since its funding commenced, the risk is of continued friction with mitigation, as well as emphasizing a singular climate change process manifest in a set of external risks and biophysical processes, independent of other dependent factors and variables. This is at odds with thinking in new ecology, and in more-than-human geography that the ‘stimuli to which we are adapting are complex assemblages comprising more-than-climate’, to once again quote Lesley. As with transition studies, adaptation studies frequently imagines time as linear, rather than contingent or contradictory, and the professionalisation of adaptation as a new form of ‘management’ similarly risks over-estimating human control.

But what are we to do? On the one hand, institutional investment is necessary in making change happen, whether it’s framed around transition or adaptation, and it is entirely sensible that climate change response becomes a new field of expertise. Much of this expertise will be concentrated regionally too, and find its expression in new clusters of transition and adaptation activity within cities and regions.

But there are also risks associated with locking in professional practice around our collective responses to climate change: such as forsaking surprise, downplaying the agency of catastrophic nature, as well as shutting out vernacular forms of transition and adaptation in favour of circumscribed programs and professionals.

The temperature reading from this author’s car on the hottest ever recorded day in Sydney – 18 January 2013. It shows 47 degrees celsius outside the car, which was parked in the shade. Credit: Chris Gibson.

Bronwen Morgan from UNSW expanded eloquently on this point at another recent climate change event in Sydney (a workshop on urban responses organised by Pauline McGuirk, Harriet Bulkeley and Robyn Dowling). Bronwen’s argument was that social activism, vernacular practices and informal arrangements will prove vital to an urban response to climate change, but will invariably confront legal and political economic issues, the more they become institutionalised. Legal constructs can perversely mutate grass-roots political initiatives into yet another means of profit accumulation (for instance, by codifying intellectual property), can introduce new kinds of regulatory burdens, and ultimately, can curtail their original transformative intent.

Likewise, will the consolidation of the role of adaptation or transition experts in translating thinking and implementing it regionally, in turn further limit the scope of what is deemed preferable or what is possible?

Lesley Head wrote recently that we need to move beyond gentle themes of continuing growth and well-being, to stop pretending that the necessary changes will come without pain. It may be then that we need to diversify our terminology, metaphors and framings as well. Transition, adaptation, transformation – to which we might add grieving, coping, upheaval, metamorphosis, and presumably many more new words to provoke other kinds of response.

You can follow Professor Chris Gibson on Twitter @profcgibson. Chris’ first post in this series was Climate change and regions. And his second was Back to the future: Climate change and regional inheritances. Find out more about Professor Chris Gibson.

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