Category Archives: Identities

Transitions and the Everyday

Robyn Dowling (Macquarie University) reports…

In one sense it is difficult to see sustainability transitions emerging from the everyday practices of urban and suburban life. Built into the patterns and practices of daily life – of living in housing, of maintaining familial and social networks, of earning a living – is intensive use of fossil fuels. High household energy consumption, reliance on the private motor vehicle, and avid consumption of household ‘stuff’ are, in the main, normalized and, importantly, connected to valorized urban identities – of home ownership, of parenting, of providers, of workers, to name a few. But is this always and everywhere the case? Is it possible that everyday practices and identities cement unsustainable resource use yet, simultaneously, have embedded within them transitions to less resource-intensive futures?

One suggestion is that perhaps we need to think about everyday practice in a more open way. In much of my recent research I have been concerned with the means through which socio-material arrangements – the energy intensive suburban household – are held together. But in thinking through these socio-material assemblages I have also become alert to their nascent seeds of obsolescence, or more realistically cracks in their walls. I am indebted theoretically here to Gibson-Graham’s[i] decentring of capitalism and the notion of the universalized, disciplined, subject of capitalism. Simplifying greatly, for Gibson-Graham, capitalism is not universal but multiple; not omnipotent, but fractured. For me, Gibson-Graham’s work is inspirational in helping suggest that new identities, new ways of identifying with and identifying carbon-different alternatives are nascent in the present. In other words, identities in transition are already in existence; the practices of the resource-dependent suburban household may contain traces of sustainable practice worth recognizing and building upon.


[i] J.K. Gibson-Graham. 2006. The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

The Footpaths project: facilitating low carbon lifestyles

At the Identities in Transition seminar held at the University of Leicester in October 2011, Emily Hodgkinson from Transition Leicester and Jill Fisher from the Institute of Energy and Sustainable Development at De Montfort University presented findings from an ongoing evaluation of the Footpaths carbon reduction project run by Transitions Leicester.

Their presentation can be downloaded here: Leicester Footpaths project

Becoming green in Ecotopia

This post summarises the work Jon Anderson from the School of City and Regional Planning at Cardiff University presented at the Identities in Transition seminar in October 2011

The individual has been cast as both the source of and solution to many contemporary environmental problems. Although some individuals may display concern for the environment, actions are undertaken within a societal context that is often ambivalent to environmental issues. To ‘become green’, therefore, individuals have to negotiate a range of trade-offs between their environmental aspirations and the realities of life in a developed, consumer-based society. This paper draws on extensive field work at one site at which individuals have explicitly sought to manage these trade-offs – the Centre for Alternative Technology, Wales, UK.

It argues that two distinct strategies are adopted to manage the tensions involved in becoming green:

  • a ‘strategy of segregation’ – where professional practices are separated from personal actions to establish balance, if not consistency, in everyday life; and
  • a ‘strategy of alignment’ – where (unsuccessful) attempts are made to unify personal and professional practices in line with environmental ideals.

This paper outlines how the inability of these strategies to fully reconcile the tensions involved in becoming green has led to a ‘politics of pragmatism’ within environmental practice. It argues that this politics offers a way forward for contemporary environmentalism, both within ‘ecotopian’ spaces such as the Centre for Alternative Technology, but also in more mainstream spaces where the majority live their lives.

Jon’s paper can be downloaded here: becoming green in ecotopia

Comments on seminar ‘Identities and Transition’

I would like to share with you some thoughts about the seminar of three weeks ago. I believe we missed an important part of the topic we set out to discuss. It would be great if you could share your thoughts on this, and maybe even point to relevant literature.

 As a newcomer, both to the scientific community and the study sustainable transitions, I may have overlooked some parts of the seminar and the material that was discussed. I hope you can point this out if necessary.

 First of all I would like to say that I enjoyed the seminar. I came to England hoping to learn something about the role of identity within transitions towards a more sustainable future. But I came back to Amsterdam with a far more diverse set of insights, ranging from consensual decision making to different conceptions of activism. However, on my way back I couldn’t  help but feel that we missed an important part of the story. To be precise, we didn’t really address the second research question of the seminar outline: “How identities might change and be reconfigured through the process of transition to a sustainable, low carbon future?” Although most of the presentations and discussions focused on the link between social context and identity in sustainable transitions, very few focused on the dynamics behind this relation: how do identities change? How do identities get reconfigured?

 In this light, two very interesting categories of processes deserve more attention: 1. the influence of social context on the transformation of identity (why and how do some circumstances lead to individual or collective transformation/reconfiguration of identity?) and 2.  the influence of identity transformation on the sustainable transition itself: in what way do different identities affect the transition differently?

 I have to admit that this point is not devoid of some self-interest: such a focus fits closely to my own research. This is of course why I hoped the seminar would have dealt with this issue more specifically. In my research I aim to investigate the role of inter-stakeholder conflict in sustainable transitions. My (very preliminary) hypothesis is that conflict (and some kind of conflict resolution) is an important motor of change (in sustainable transitions) as it can put a severe strain on the identity of the stakeholders involved, resulting in some form of collective learning and corresponding transformation of individual or collective identity. Hence, my research fits within both of the categories described above: how does conflict relate to the transformation of identity, and how does this subsequently influence the transition trajectory?

 These thoughts of course depend on some specific definition of identity, social context and conflict. It is not my intention to delve into this matter here. I hope that you understand what I’m trying to say, even without such minimal academic rigour. What do you think about this? Maybe some of you have interesting articles covering these issues? Perhaps some of you disagree? Or maybe you have something to add?

[Post by Misha Velthuis]

Contemplative activism

This blog entry is by Shumaisa Khan, who will be speaking at the second seminar in this series, at the University of Leicester, on 14 October 2011.

Wisdom in Nature (WIN) is a contemplative activism group grounded in Islamic principles.   What does contemplative mean in the context of an activist group?   Contemplative activism, as we practice it, means that as far as is possible we give space for reflection before we act – for example, we start our meetings with a short period of silence.  This practice helps draw out inner wisdom that influences the extent to which we can wisely and sustainably engage in activism ‘out there’.   A contemplative approach also draws on and cultivates wholeness – the idea that various domains are interconnected – social issues, the economy, and the environment; the inner and the outer; and the means and the ends.    With regard to the last point, we emphasize that the means is just as important as the end and actually serves as a goal in itself.

The implications of a process orientated approach can also be seen in terms of funding.    From party politics to published scientific literature, sources of funding are recognized as having an influence over values and outcomes.  While WIN depends on donations, we focus on individuals and have managed to work without financial support from corporations or government.  Such an approach also facilitates the cultivation of cooperative relationships with other groups and the use of existing assets and resources. Our emphasis on process is also reflected in the means through which we make decisions.  We have found that creating the space and investing time into decision-making that draws out consensus enables greater ownership over decisions by those involved and contributes to a deeper democratic process.   Such an approach can also be seen in movements developing across the world – democracy movements in North Africa, the real democracy movement in Spain, Occupy Wall Street (and other occupy movements) in the US, and Climate Camp here in Britain.

The aspects of contemplative activism that I have mentioned above are not necessarily confined to faith-based activism (and not all faith-based groups apply contemplative approaches); secular groups also use such approaches.  But contemplative activism does have a tradition and basis in Islam that has been neglected, and that we are trying to revive.  We articulate our approach through a framework consisting of four strands, each of which involves a turning away from destructive patterns and a turning toward ways that nurture our world and its diverse communities.  These are: earth and community; deep democracy; whole economics; and climate justice – all of which are underpinned by a contemplative dimension within the framework of Islam.   Our activities include educational workshops and training, participation in demonstrations, and practicals on the land.  More information can be found at Wisdom in Nature’s website.

©Shumaisa Khan