Aberystwyth Transitions Reading Group Blog


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A life-history of the reading group

Pluralising Transition

In 2008, the rise of the Transition Towns movement sparked an Aberystwyth initiative (Mason and Whitehead, 2012). One of the working groups was a reading group, initially to discuss Transition movement literature. Initially, the group met out-of-hours in a local organic restaurant, the Treehouse, which functioned as a ‘green space’ (c.f. Horton, 2006). In 2009 our first ‘out-reading’ was a critique of the politics of the Transition movement, (Trapese Collective, 2008). Thence, the group began more radical reading, memorably Holloway’s Twelve Theses on Changing the World without taking Power. In 2010 and 2011, members of the group participated in occupations and teach-ins by students opposing hikes in tuition fees. By late 2011, however, the group was flagging with a scant handful of regulars. Inspired by Exeter Anarchist Reading Group, we called a meeting of all the local activists we could think of, resulting in an injection of some new life. ‘Marketing’ ourselves via university channels attracted academic staff, Masters and PhD students. One member set up a blog which extended our practices into writing and interaction with authors whose work we read (https://abertransitionreadinggroup.wordpress.com/). Arguably, the group became academic-heavy/activist-lite, though any distinction is vexed (c.f. Askins, 2013). To signal the extension of our focus beyond energy transition to any form of change, we added ‘s’ to Transition in the group’s name. For me, this signified a shift from the totalising ideology of the Transition movement to a more pluralistic approach to community politics and knowledge.

It would be too lengthy to list everything we have read, but a poll of regulars reveals some favourites. We sustained an engagement with Albert’s Parecon, largely ignored by academia. Unsurprisingly given the group’s preponderance of human geographers, David Harvey and Andy Merrifield have proved popular, while Simon Springer’s Why a radical geography must be anarchist (2014) was a favourite. The Kilburn Manifesto (2013) stimulated an exchange with one author, Stuart Hall, now sadly deceased. We have read about the degrowth, makers, Low Impact Development, and climate justice movements, but oddly not Occupy. Listening to pod-casts and watching films, we do not confine ourselves to written texts. Future activities mooted include reading fiction, discussing music, art and poetry, attending performances and exhibitions, and inviting speakers.

In 2014 the reading group is the only collective legacy of Aberystwyth’s Transition initiative. Evening meetings are in cafe-bars outside the university. Group identity remains defined by municipal transition: we are concerned with social change, our own lives, the place where we live and its relations with a wider world. As with other local activisms, our radical ambition is constrained by a lack of critical mass in a small rural town with a conservative university, neither offering significant resistance to processes of neoliberal globalisation. As a new year looms, the group seems to be entering a new phase, coalescing around more conventional academic format and content.


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Next reading group

Hi all

We were scheduled to meet tomorrow (26th) at 1pm – but it seems that next Wednesday is a better date for most people – so we will meet then, 2nd Dec 12 – in the Arts Centre, focusing on Chapter 3 & 4  of Everyday Environmentalism

See you then


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Everyday Environmentalism: Take 1

Thanks to all who participated today – we had a diverse group from Geography, Politics and English Literature all adding a lot to the discussions. I won’t attempt to synthesise the whole conversation, but will flag up some key debates and persisting tensions:

Despite the intention of the book to rethink the everyday and reposition this as a terrain for transformatory action, there was still some concern and debate about the meaning of ‘the everyday’ and whether there is a danger that this will lead us to focus on acts of green consumerism, recycling and so forth…

Clearly Loftus’ is encouraging us to think deeper and more profoundly about what is involved in the everyday. He pushes us to re-engage with our sensuous experience and bodily metabolisms, and how these are co-evolving with the world around us as a socio-ecological assemblage. We are part of a differentiate unity he suggests. And whilst we were largely very positive about the potential of getting away from a conception of ‘nature out there’ and separate from humans, some questions remained.

Perhaps most fundamentally, can we – as humans – ever envisage (let alone participate in) a politics that is not intrinsically human? We can attempt to look beyond the human, to empathise or maybe just sympathise with diverse actants. We can engage through the encounters and moments that Donna Haraway, Sarah Whatmore and Jane Bennett all draw attention to – but we are still cognisant as humans. Yet we are always already more than human, we just think in purified terms of ourselves as human. Difficult.

A second tension that we grappled with was whether we really felt that Marxist traditions could be combined with post-humanist and post-Latourian approaches. I recalled Noel Castree’s 2003 article in Antipode, on whether there was a false anti-thesis between Marxism and ANT, as a useful reference point in this debate. Many people, however, found that the weight of Marxist tradition prioritising the human, and the driving force of human labour specifically, were hard to break free from.

Ultimately, we see that Marxist insights do have something profound to say about the structure and experience of living in a capitalist world. We do want to hold on to that. Loftus opens that up, giving it new potential by pushing us to look beyond the accepted (and he argues erroneous) focus upon the human in Marx’s writing. Here he is supported by others such as Morgan Robertson and Joel Wainwright who have also sought to develop a much more socio-natural understanding of the metabolisms involved in capitalist re-production. But we will have to wait as the book unfolds to see whether we are fully convinced by this conception.

However, I did find it refreshing to have first and second nature revised, and to clear up confusions which still seem to persist around whether first nature is equated with a pristine pre-capitalist nature, or whether nature has always been intrinsically socialised (which I always understood as second nature – but then if first nature never existed why have it as a category?) So for me, the re-reading of Neil Smith emphasising the distinction between first nature, which relates to use value, and second nature encompasses both use and exchange value was illuminating.

Other questions we raised related to whether environmental politics could ever escape from romanticised notions of nature, be these of wilderness or indeed ‘back to the land’ and peasant movements. Here we were directed to Timothy Morton’s Ecology without Nature as further food for thought. I would be interested to consider whether such romanticised notions can ever be seen as progressive given the emotional pull they can have.

A final thing to throw in, which will be explored further in subsequent chapters, was the focus upon the potential of creative and artistic practice as a means to recover our sensuous experience and realisation of the often overlooked relations that constitute our worlds. This links nicely to the Hydro-Citizenship project that Kat is involved in in UWE and with colleagues here in Aber’. Many other art-science collaborations also came to mind demonstrating this as a key field of productive engagement which I hope we will talk more about!

Join us for more…

Next Reading Group: Chapters 3-4 November 26th 1pm Arts Centre


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Everyday Environmentalism

I had a thought about reading Alex Loftus’ ‘Everyday Environmentalism’  this term… one/two chapters at a time (rather than attempting to discuss the whole book in one sitting!). They are nicely structured around different theoretical approaches and connect with his research on water politics in South Africa – but there are clear potential links to a range of projects we might want to consider.

I am a big fan as I find he presents theory in a digestable way – I also think the focus on ‘the everyday’ and a social justice centred approach to environmentalism is critical for contemporary issues making his writing relevant to a whole range of struggles.

Let me know if this takes your fancy


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The future of public transport in Cardigan Bay

Local Institute for Welsh Affairs even on 9th June in Aberystwyth Arts Centre from 7 to 8.30 pm. We could attend this and link it to a reading on sustainable transport – from the bicycle to the bus and Google’s automatic car…

Which reminds me, we really need a meeting to reconstitute the group, recruit some fresh faces and decide where we’re going at least in the short-medium term… We have that proposal from Peace News to discuss too – reading an issue and having a conversation with the editors… Anyone feel like proposing a date? How about getting it together for Friday 27th June? We could all do some active recruiting


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Meeting Cancelled and…

Apparently there is a talk by George Monbiot at the Uni tomorrow at 7pm that I didn’t know about… I don’t think many people can make the reading group anyway, so I think we’ll cancel the meeting. Maybe we can negotiate a date soon to meet to respond to the chapter on ‘beyond the public university’ and to discuss the future of the group and, if we want to continue, set some dates and proposes some readings for over the summer.

Interestingly, maybe, Peace News has suggested that readers groups UK-wide read and discuss an issue of the newspaper, respond to it, and the editors will feedback online… Our group could act as the focus for that exercise in Aberystwyth and maybe recruit a couple of Peace News readers in the process. I seems like a good opportunity to network and appropriate reading matter, particularly this year.