Aberystwyth Transitions Reading Group Blog

Leave a comment



I’ve been thinking a lot about transitions lately, what sparks them, and over what kind of duration they take place… Sometimes a change ushers in transition, like moving to a new place. For a while life is about finding your feet, forming new networks, figuring out how to do things… Then there is might be a period in which things are relatively stable. Yet, both states, the transition period brought on by change, and the relatively stable periods in between can contain the possibility of further transitions, brought about by intention, provoked perhaps by an idea, or inspired by another person, or a film/book/performance/something else.

As an example, over the past 6 months or so, I have been exploring a transitional state towards veganism. This was prompted by a number of discussions and reading about the impact of industrial agriculture on the environment (water pollution, biodiversity loss, soil compaction and erosion…), as well as animal welfare and other reasons. I could perhaps pinpoint the tipping point to meeting a very avid vegan, who was willing and able to engage in patient and respectful discussions about the ethics, pros and cons, different patterns of consumption, and to share information in response to my questions. But to say this was a tipping point is inaccurate on a number of levels. There are have been many points, such as meeting other (perfectly healthy I might add) vegans in the past, living in a pescetarian house in which food is largely vegetarian in any case, and nice vegan food made by friends or had at restaurants. The accumulation of all these things, and the continued availability nice food, nice ingredients, and the time to cook, mean that this is a feasible transition at this stage in my life.

Talking about transitioning to veganism makes it sound as though that is an isolated thing, but it’s actually a part of all kinds of personal transitions. On the environmental front, transitioning out of using disposable items like cups, plastic bags, plastic cutlery and straws is another. In neither case do I feel that I am anywhere near an endpoint where I can feel that I am now doing my level best on these scores. Sometimes a personal transition needs to be supported much more strongly by adjusted ‘choice architectures’ as the Nudge folk would say. I’ve had awkward conversations when buying a coffee at the train station and handing over my thermos mug. On more than one occasion the barista has made the coffee in a disposable cup and poured in into my mug, thereby defeating the purpose of the reusable mug. Even at places with a discount for bringing your own mug, most of the time baristas seem unaware of this and do not apply the discount. This is changing somewhat, a transition in the choice architectures… (The ethics of buying and drinking coffee is another thing, but I haven’t quite gone there yet).

The conclusion of all this is that transitions never happen in isolation, not in terms of the transition itself – which is supported by other personal circumstances, histories, and possibilities – nor in terms of being a personal, individual transition. Transitions take place over time, in a mesh of people (and in the broader structural conditions of economy and politics) and the rich contextual environments that we find ourselves in. Because of this, and in spite of the fact that the Aberystwyth Transitions Group is now dispersed and changed from the form it once had, it seems worth recognising that we are part of a mesh of support, thought, exploration and discovery, that can enable different transitions from the personal to all kinds of other scales…

With that in mind, it seemed a good time to think about resurrecting the Transitions blog, even though the reading group no longer meets. In discussion with Kelvin what we thought would be good is to use this space as an accumulation of things that we are posting elsewhere, on our personal or other project blogs. Interested parties can blog either directly on here, or copy and paste their writing from elsewhere to share, with a link back to where they originally posted it. In this way, we can continue having conversations about the things that matter to us, and support each other through all the transitions we’d like to experience.


1 Comment

Reading about ‘Sacrifice’ – Friday Dec 13th – Venue Changed to Arts Centre

On Friday the 13th (how ominous!) we’ll be meeting in the Aberystwyth Arts Centre (note: NOT at the Glen as previously stated) to talk about ‘Sacrifice’, more specifically a chapter of that title in the fresh-off-the-press edited volume Critical Environmental Politics. A copy of the chapter is available from Kelvin, Sam or myself, so please email us if you would like to read it and come along.

The chapter discusses how the notion that we should make sacrifices for a greater good, social or environmental, has been looked at by different groups of environmentalists, and the impacts this has upon the message coming from those groups. For some, the idea that we should sacrifice certain levels of material wealth and accumulation in order that we as a society or species take better care of the earth and resources we rely on is one which has had its day. Certain groups of modern environmentalists instead argue that we should simply change how we do things, make buildings more efficient for example, consume different products, rather than giving anything up about our lifestyles. The latter message is appealing to many, while the more ascetic and disciplined approach may be a hard sell to those engaged in the pleasurable consumption and accumulation of wealth and material goods. The ideas in this chapter should provide a great basis for discussion, even if you haven’t read it! Also, have a look at the comment on the last blog post for some context from Dr. Carl Death (the book’s editor).

Do come along to the discussion, even if you haven’t been to any of the previous ones. Look forward to seeing you there!

Leave a comment

Next Meeting plus a talk on Biomimicry in Architecture

Just to confirm, we’ll be meeting at 6pm this Thursday (May 30th) at the Glen on the seafront to discuss the Kilburn Manifesto (Chapter 1) , which is freely downloadable from Soundings: http://www.lwbooks.co.uk/journals/soundings/manifesto.html.

You may also want to have a look at Stuart Hall’s article about the Manifesto: http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/apr/24/kilburn-manifesto-challenge-neoliberal-victory.

Kelvin has already contributed a post about the reading below, so please also read that if you get a chance so we can discuss those views too.

On a separate note, Michael Pawlyn from Exploration Architecture is giving at talk tomorrow night at 7:30pm at Y Tabernacl in Machynlleth on Biomimicry in Architecture

This may be interesting for any Mach people. He spoke in Aberystwyth last night and I found it quite fascinating. Although most of what he talked about seemed very high-tech solutions (which I have my doubts about for reasons that have to do with money and who controls it), certain aspects of the philosophy, such as moving towards zero waste, closed loop systems and taking inspiration from the complexity and symbiotic nature of mature ecosystems are certainly appealing ideas which I would be happy to see become more mainstream somehow, particularly in large building projects. It was a good talk accompanied by creative and engaging powerpoint (so rare these days!) so I’d recommend going if you get a chance.

‘Til Thursday!

1 Comment

Marxism + Anarchism = Love

Last month, a small but inspired group of us met to discuss ‘Why a Radical Geography Must Be Anarchist’ by Simon Springer. Perhaps more so than with any other reading we have done lately, our response to this largely entailed a collective nodding of heads in agreement. Springer very eloquently pinpoints the issues that have led to anarchism being ignored in radical geography, issues such as being conflated with free market capitalism or being associated with chaos. Anarchism entails neither of these things. It retains a strong anti-capitalist stance and at the same time places value on organization, though importantly, not hierarchical organization. Nor can anarchism be reduced to an anti-state ideology. Instead, it is about resisting all forms of domination, and about “actively reinventing the everyday through a desire to create new forms of organization and ‘enacting horizontal networks instead of top-down structures like states, parties, or corporations; networks based on principles of decentralized, non-hierarchical consensus democracy’” (p.7, drawing on Graeber 2002, p. 70).

We discussed examples of how such organization works in practice drawing on experiences, and various issues with this mode of organizing and how they are overcome. It was easy to see that although anarchist modes of organization have their issues, so do hierarchical ones (rather obviously), and this alone is not reason enough to prefer one mode over another.

The Marxist approach, has, as Springer notes, dominated radical geography to the almost total exclusion of other perspectives, barring some headway made by feminist geography (though much to my frustration this continues to be conflated with a concern for women’s rights whereas it is a much deeper critique of approach). The issue with this hegemony of perspective is that it shuts down important possibilities for other types of radical analysis, particularly anarchism, which without a doubt is a valuable and valid radical approach. The lack of acceptance of anarchism as an idea within the academic world is problematic not only for the value and integrity of the academic endeavour but also for its applicability to the realities surrounding us. Springer makes a case for using anarchism as a theory to understand contemporary political movements and positions.

Perhaps the most intriguing outcome of this discussion for me was that it allowed me to more fully embrace David Harvey’s marxism-inspired ideas! such as those we discussed earlier in relation to the talk on Rebel Cities. This outcome perhaps seems antithetical to what Simon Springer intended, but I actually think it is not. The conclusion I came to was that my issues with the Marxist critique have not been about the structural conditions and capitalist system which runs on credit and disempowers the citizen. These aspects of the critique I accept whole-heartedly. My issue with the Marxist analysis has been the determination to group people into categories of bourgeoisie and proletariat, an oversimplification of both identity and politics, and a disempowering and totalitarian act in itself. By demanding uniformity and allegiance to the cause, Marxist excludes the diversity of possible interpretations as well as the diversity of potential counteractions and insurrections. An anarchist perspective makes space for these multiple approaches and through doing so provides I think, a more realistic possibility of response, one that does not involve lumping everyone into large undifferentiated categories which are personally unsatisfactory, limiting and disempowering. Whereas the Marxist solution to the problems of capitalism and neoliberalism does seem to represent, as Springer claims, the replacement of one totalitarian system with another, anarchism very deliberately eschews this idea in favour of a more complex set of relations, and smaller and slower solutions. Frustrating perhaps for those eager for revolution, but in my mind, a much more (to use that awful word) sustainable approach in the long-run.

Having said all this, my conclusion would be that in spite of this quite heavy-handed critique of Marxist perspectives within geography, the critique is not actually of these perspectives but of their hegemony and domination over the discourse to the exclusion of other ideas, namely anarchism. Although I found Springer’s critique very effective, it did not at all make me want to throw the Marxist approach out. Indeed, it strengthened the Marxist critique in my mind as a necessary component of understanding the structural and systemic conditions that lead to the problems and crises of capitalism, a necessary understanding with then for me strengthens the value of the anarchist ideas and approaches as possible ways of responding to these problems. In my mind then, Marxism and Anarchism emerge as highly complementary bedfellows: One providing a valuable basis for understanding the powerful forces that shape society, and the other providing intellectual and practical solutions to responding to hegemony and domination of all kinds.

1 Comment

Reading Group tonight: Simon Springer on why a radical geographer must be anarchist

We’re looking forward to discussing this reading this evening. Everyone welcome as usual, even if you have never been along before. We’ll be meeting in the Arts Centre at 6pm. The reading can be downloaded from the link below: 

Simon Springer ‘Why a radical geography must be anarchist’: http://www.academia.edu/2254767/Why_a_radical_geography_must_be_anarchist


Wales an Environmental Leader?

Shameless plug… I’m also involved in organizing this event. It’s open to the public so hope some of you can come. It has resonances with the Sustainability Transitions series and should be interesting for many. Details here:

Wales Environmental Leadership Conference



Next Meeting – 17th Jan – Paul Cloke on Post-Secularism

Our next meeting will be on Jan 17th, quietest spot in the Arts Centre as usual, and we’ll be discussing the following talk by Paul Cloke entitled: ‘Postsecular Stirrings? Geographies of hope in amongst neoliberalism’, available as vodcast or podcast from the link below:


Just to try and quickly translate this into everyday language, it’s basically about how faith-motivated (religious) charitable organizations represent a challenge or at least an alternative to the dominant system of ‘neoliberalism’ (which assumes that freedom of the market is the best way to meet all human needs). I haven’t listened to this all yet but I look forward to hearing why it’s faith-based charities in particular that are seen to be doing this as opposed to all charities. In any case it should give us plenty of food for thought about the role of religion and faith (and might be the most positive thing you’ve heard about religion in a long time).

Film Nights:

Also of note, several of us are planning to see the film Chasing Ice on the 16th. The film is about a photographer’s effort to capture evidence of planetary changes through filming changes in landscapes of glacial ice.


And on the 22nd, a film about the Lammas eco-village in Pembrokeshire, Living in the Future: Lammas will be screening at the Arts Centre followed by a live Q&A session with Jane Davidson, former Welsh Assembly Minister for Environment, Sustainability and Housing.


Leave a comment

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.

Leave a comment

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.

Leave a comment

‘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.