Aberystwyth Transitions Reading Group Blog

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On Niches

Our last discussion of the semester centered around an article by Gill Seyfang & Alex Haxeltine on grassroots innovations. Seyfang’s work, along with that of Adrian Smith with whom she has also published papers, interests me in its focus on grassroots activities, and the connection that is made between such initiatives and the possibility of their becoming more widespread. What struck me about reading this particular article however, was the way in which the idea of a niche is used. In the article, the authors state the following:

“Niches are variously defined in the literature, but we find the most constructive use of the term here is as follows: a protected space where suboptimally performing experiments can develop away from regime selection pressures. Niches comprise intermediary organisations and actors, which serve as ‘global carriers’ of best practice, standards, institutionalised learning, and other intermediating resources such as networking and lobbying, which are informed by, and in turn inform, concrete local projects (experiments)” p. 383

I find this definition of niche curious as it is almost the opposite of what we think of as a niche either in ecology terms or in market terms, wherein a niche would appear to represent an existing space that something in particular fits into – whether it be a plant or animal or a product – a kind of need within a system that is fulfilled by the occupier of that niche. In this more colloquial sense, occupying a niche or capturing a niche market occurs precisely because there is such a space. In Seyfang & Haxeltine’s definition however, the niche appears to be produced or at least propped up artificially as it were so that ‘suboptimally performing’ experiments can take place.

The reason I find this definition odd is because with my own work looking at low impact development in the countryside ‘strategic niche management’ as a theory seems to ring some bells. The project I’m looking at is niche, certainly, but perhaps in the more colloquial sense. It is a response to a need or strong desire for something else, it is fulfilling a need for affordable housing, organic food, community, safety, personal growth, and many other things besides. On one hand, the idea of strategic niche management seems to offer a way to analyze the proliferation of such projects. On the other hand, beginning with a definition of ‘suboptimally performing experiment’ tends to suggest that it is not something that could be truly sustainable without aid and intervention.

I’m on the fence about whether this terminology is empowering, by justifying the need for such projects, the niche that they fulfill; or whether the inherent assumptions within these academic interventions suggest that ‘niche’ projects cannot perform at a level that would ensure their survival without being protected. I’m not passing a judgement here on whether any particular niche projects would or wouldn’t be able to survive without the protected space Seyfang talks about, rather what I’m thinking about is that this is possibly the wrong way of looking at it in the first place, a way which is weighted towards economic performance in its assumptions. This is an assumption that is still an enormous part of planning decisions, success, or viability, even on a self-sustaining basis is measured in economic terms.

If we are to see grassroots innovations as a way forward surely it’s important to recognize and emphasize the fact that they are already fulfilling (or attempting to fulfill) existing needs and desires within society, and it’s for this reason that they continue to exist even without being protected and supported, indeed they have often continued to exist in spite of being persecuted and undermined. So if we think of these grassroots innovations or niches as resilient already, the question is a different one. It’s not about protecting suboptimally performing experiments, but about extending the spaces into which grassroots innovations can take hold. You could compare it instead to removing the Japanese Knotweed so that the existing, indigenous flora and fauna can flourish, except the Japanese Knotweed in this case meaning all the systemic restrictions that make grassroots innovations and niche, alternative activities, difficult to accomplish.


2013 (1) Ethics of/in transition

Here’s the suggested programme for the first ‘semester’ of 2013, starting with Paul Cloke’s lecture podcast on Thursday 17th January, 6pm Aberystwyth Arts Centre, Restaurant level at one of the strange shaped 1970s tables…

– Paul Cloke: Postsecular Stirrings? Geographies of hope in amongst neoliberalism http://www.geog.qmul.ac.uk/research/centres/citycentre/events/index.html

– Paul Wapener on sacrifice (draft chapter, permisison pending)

– Simon Springer ‘Why a radical geography must be anarchist’


– Demaria F, Schneider F, Sekulova F, and Martinez-Alier J (forthcoming) What is Degrowth? From an activist slogan to a social movement. Environmental Values.

– And hopefully something on the ethics of population (control) – suggestions?

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Riot Grrrls

I was in Zimbabwe, I guess, and missed the Riot Grrl movement – loved this documentary though, great Christmas listening http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01p9l1l

‘For many young women coming of age in the nineties and beyond, the music of the Riot Grrrl movement was tremendously influential. It had a riotous exuberance, with bands like Bikini Kill, Bratmobile and Huggy Bear encouraging young women to stand up and shout out against a culture that they felt had turned a deaf ear to the voices of young women.’

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‘Trapese and the Political Critique of Transition

We read Rocky Road, the Trapese critique of Transition Towns, as one of the first readings the group ever did. Here’s a synthesis of what Mark Whitehead and I made of it, which I think has a resonance with Seyfang and Haxletine’s starting the transition not with philosophical debate but rather coming together in practical projects:

‘One of the most systematic critiques of the Transition Culture movement has been developed by the Trapese Collective. From a position that is anti-capitalism, antistate and anti-hierarchy, the Trapese Collective invoked concepts of social and climate justice to analyse the Transition Culture movement (Trapese Collective 2008). Trapese ask: “a transition to where, and from what? And what models of organizing can help us along the way?” (2008:4). The central argument of The Rocky Road to a Real Transition is that “only when the rules of the game are changed can carbon dioxide concentrations and all the associated problems be truly tackled . . . it really isn’t possible to decouple economic growth from carbon emissions” (2008:10–11). For the Trapese Collective then, “Real transition” means structural change and not just changes in individual or community behaviour. Trapese contends that in its attempts to be all-inclusive and non-confrontation the Transition Culture movement has been depoliticized, and thus lacks a realistic analysis of power. Distinguishing between environmental improvements “in place” and improvements to (global) environmental systems, Trapese claims no causal relationship between the two typesof change (2008:33). It argues for recognition that there will be both creation and resistance in any “real transition”, and that the Transition Town notion of “the great re-skilling” should include education about the current economic and political system. Trapese argues that the first and most important step for Transition initiatives should be that they are both (politically) ambitious and “clear about where we want to go”.11 Yet, even by Trapese’s own ontology, we argue that this step surely cannot precede people coming together as communities to determine that vision for themselves (for more on the debate between the Transition Culture movement and the Trapese Collective, see Hopkins 2009; Mason 2008; North 2009; Trainer 2009).’

 MASON, K. & WHITEHEAD, M. 2012. Transition Urbanism and the Contested Politics of the Spatial Practice. Antipode, 44, 493-516.

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Next Meeting – 13th December – Gill Seyfang & Alex Haxeltine

Our next meeting will be this Thursday at 6pm in the Arts Centre. The reading we’ll be discussing, linked below, is a product of a research project called grassroots sustainability, more information about which can be found here: http://grassrootsinnovations.org/

Growing grassroots innovations: exploring the role of community-based initiatives in governing sustainable energy transitions, by Gill Seyfang & Alex Haxeltine: http://grassrootsinnovations.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/environ-plann-c-2012-seyfang.pdf

The reading ties in to several of the ideas we’ve discussed lately, such as the role of individual and community actions and whether these are worthwhile or their impact can even be measured compared with the idea that there needs to be much larger scale system-wide transformation. We look forward to another good discussion on Thursday! As always, everyone is welcome so do come along if you are interested.

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‘Whither Urban Studies?’ video from University of Manchester

A video of the talk I mentioned in a recent post has been posted online, and is included along with another talk, Neil Brenner on urban studies on the following blog: ‘Whither Urban Studies?’ video from University of Manchester. It’s all very interesting but I can’t help but think the terminology of ‘urban studies’ and the discipline that surrounds it is somehow holding people back. The project seems to be to try and get things to fit into the discipline rather than to explore the wider scale transformations themselves. In fact the continued focus and ‘fetishisation’ of the urban seems itself to be part of the problem. As academics and policy-makers focus their attentions on how to capture everything under the umbrella of urban terminology, regardless of the variety of terms that come about that try to spread the focus out from ‘the city’, it seems ‘rural’ and all things that could be associated with that are left behind, perpetuating the problem of the urban. I’m not saying we should focus more attention on the rural either, just that I think we could do with moving on from this terminology all together in order to make research more holistic and conscientious of the important connections between spaces and people that are perhaps not best captured by a binary of urban-rural. And while the urban studies people seem to be arguing that everything is now urban, this too doesn’t seem particularly helpful in practical terms, since the language still implies that there might be something non-rural, just that there isn’t. Except that in policy terms there still is, and in people’s popular imaginations there still is. I don’t see how it’s possible to get rid of the myth of urban vs. rural while still keeping the term ‘urban’. If the discipline is to continue, I think it needs renaming. This may seem a trivial point, but I think that academia is responsible for at least in part perpetuating a problem, which is the inability to think of things as connected part of which comes about because we insist on dividing urban and rural.