Positive Futures: Working Collaboratively

In UW-Madison’s magazine EdgeEffects, I recently wrote about Al Gore’s climate change documentary sequel, An Inconvenient Sequel: Speaking Truth to Power. In it, I suggested that we who focus heavily on climate change need to listen to those with worldviews different from our own. And that we need to find stories of positive change to engage people in building better futures.

The problem for most of us is that we do not know what these activities look like in practice. What does it mean to listen to other views? How does that get us somewhere? Where can we possibly find stories that really draw us into taking action? Besides, too many of the actions we feel able to take on our own feel small and inconsequential in the face of the great challenges we face.

I wrote a post a while ago about actions we can take individually and as citizens. Yet, even having all of these ideas at my fingertips, I still often felt powerless.

But over the past six months, my mindset has begun to change. Rather than feeling a burden of responsibility to be a “good environmental citizen” on my own, I am finding ways to work with others.

I rarely wrote letters or called congresspeople on my own. It intimidated me, but even more importantly, I felt like tiny toad trying to call out to all the other species in the Chihuahuan Desert. Yeah, a few other toads might hear and understand me, but most of the other toads and other species could not even hear me. So, I croaked to myself and my friends and family.

Now, however, I belong to a group that takes political action. We call and write and hold one another accountable for that work.

What has been most important to me, though, is finding people who want to collaborate to create positive stories.

I have been in academia for a while. And that world, for all its power to analyze, understand, and spread new ideas has a downside when it comes to working for change. It is competitive. It can sometimes be hard to find the people who want to collaborate rather than compete against you. And to find people who want to build something together rather than deconstruct (metaphorically, of course).

So, I have put a toe into other waters without leaving academia. I continue to believe analysis and critique are extremely important endeavors to move us forward. If we do not understand what we are dealing with, we will make far more mis-steps.

Earthships are one example of how positive futures are already being built: recycled & local materials, cooperative construction, nearly all energy produced on-site.

But now I am also working with a group that is talking about how to build the future want to see. We are basing our work on the Transition Towns movement. We are learning about success stories in other parts of the country and other parts of the world.

Importantly, we are focusing first on building community. On getting to know one another and to understand one another’s goals. So, we are in very early stages. But we have begun.

And the key to the change, so our evaluator told us at a recent academic conference, is to just do it. Just begin. There will be experiments that work, and those that do not. But if we sit immobilized, the changes we do not want will wash over us.

So, we are beginning. In seeking out positive stories, and spreading those we hear, we are starting to build our own vision of a positive future here at home.

So, how do we tell positive stories? How do we heal the pains we see in the world? Find someone else who is willing to take action. Slowly build a group. Support one another. Seek out the positive stories. They are there on YouTube, if you don’t know any in your area. And be forgiving. We will all make a lot of mistakes as we try to build something better. But we have to try. And to sustain our own joy in the work, we have to try together.


Okay, you may say, you mentioned positive stories, but what about this listening to other worldviews piece?

I will aim to dig further into that in a future post. I still need to learn more. For now, though, take a look at Megan Roper’s version of how to listen. Ms. Roper left the Westboro Baptist Church, and now works to build empathetic dialogue, including among those with extreme views.




A lot of things are feeling out of control lately. I know I am not alone in this. Weather is chaotic, and people are engaging in wild behavior. My thoughts this morning are a turbulent whirlpool about both.

But first, the weather. Or rather, how people are feeling about the weather.

In a place with ever-present drought over recent years, a place where reservoirs* remain well below historic averages, you would think we would all welcome heavy monsoon rains. But you would be wrong.

Now, I am not denying that there are good reasons for discontent and legitimate fear with the rains in our county. The humidity rises, making even 90F degrees feel unbearable mid-day. Floods can push people from their homes.  Driving can become dangerous or impossible.

But it is not about these real hazards that people complain to me. They want the rain to stop because they are tired of pulling weeds. They cross their fingers against storms because a cloudburst might cancel an outdoor activity. They are tired of having to wash the mud off their cars.

Against these, I can’t help but weigh what this part of the Chihuahuan Desert looks like this year.

Photo Credit: Miguel Vigil/Edge of Forever Photography via Facebook

The mesquite and the creosote bushes are so green. Grasses and herbs are thriving. There is so much insect and amphibian life. Wildlife is thriving. My garden is flourishing. The rains have brought the temperatures down a bit. And, well, my fellow photographers and I love this season of dramatic skies and blooming cactus.

So, yes, some of the reasons I appreciate the rain are also, perhaps, a bit selfish.

But when I hear the complaints, what I hear is people disconnected from their local environment. People who would rather it never rained so that the air would stay dry and weeds would never grow.

I admit, I cannot fathom such an attitude. Moving through the world as if rain is not a giver of life.

I grew up on the high plains, and I crave rain and snow. If dry is your predominant condition, I always thought, it makes you deeply love the rains.

So, I am saddened by people who live in this dry place who express that disconnection from the non-human life around us. And who seem to deny the importance of water to our own needs.

And it resonates somehow with another disconnection I am seeing. People who profess to believe in fairness, respect, freedom, and responsibility and yet decry those who are pushing back against white nationalist groups. White nationalists who would take the freedom of others. Who do not respect people who look different from themselves. Who do not take responsibility for their own deadly actions.

How can you live in the desert and decry the rain? How can you live in an unfair society and decry those who seek greater fairness?

I am feeling sad and discouraged today. But maybe the rains will come back.

And maybe our continued fight for fairness and justice can stem the tide of hate.

But, as Tina Clark reminded me recently, for that to happen we need to be open. We need to ask questions of those with whom we disagree and really listen. We need to state our common ground. We need to gently raise our concerns with people. And we need to know when to step back.

Maybe they will see why we want rain. And why we desire fairness, respect, and justice for all.


*I am referring here to the reservoirs important to southern New Mexico: Elephant Butte and Caballo.

Classifying to Clarify: Transformation Literature

I am continuing to summarize here the reading I am doing for an Oslo Summer School course. In this article, Karen O’Brien and Linda Sygna review the literature that focuses on deliberate climate transformation. They then use a model of three spheres both to analyze how these literatures approach the problem, and to offer ways of thinking about how to move forward effectively with transformation.

Key Ideas

There are four strands of literature that focus explicitly on climate transformation: transformational adaptation, transformations to sustainability, transforming behaviors, and social transformations. They will be more fully addressed below.

The three spheres of transformation posited by O’Brien and Sygna are a straightforward means of clarifying areas in which transformation can happen. They are conceived in three dimensions: the practical sphere lies inside the political sphere, which lies in side the personal sphere.

The practical is the “core” both literally and figuratively. It expressed the focus on technical responses to change, as well as social innovations. It is the sphere where outcomes are measured, and also where the most attention has often been placed.

The political sphere is the next sphere out, and it is defined by the systems and structures that surround the pragmatic changes of the practical sphere. Working within this sphere is to work on identifying problems and developing solutions. Natural resources management is included in this sphere. It is about the political, the economic, the social and the cultural.

The personal sphere is the outermost sphere. Its focus is worldviews and beliefs. It is the outside sphere because it shapes both of the other two spheres. Changes here will likely change the other two spheres, at least when the changes happen across communities rather than for a single individual.

The spheres can be a useful framework, the authors say, for analyzing transformation. It can be used to identify leverage points – points where a change may most effectively be applied. Leverage points are often found where the spheres interact and across spheres. Acknowledgement of the importance of all three spheres is important – the central sphere is needed to enact physical outcomes, the middle for making scaled-up decisions, and the outermost sphere for building up consensus and understanding conflicting values systems.

Transformation literatures

Transformational adaptation literature says that transformation is “often technological or behavioral,” but recognizes the many social barriers that may prevent transformative change.

Transformations to sustainability literature tend to focus on technical issues such as greenhouse gas emissions. The literature highlights the need for fundamentally reworking structural elements of our systems, such as our energy infrastructure. It tends to be based on systems theory and complexity science, and it often brings in ideas from resilience theory. It recognizes cultural barriers, the need for human agency, and our capacity for learning. The literature also underlines the “importance of institutional entrepreneurs.”

Transforming behaviors literature examines individual and cultural elements of climate change, “including the psychological barriers to responding.” Several different fields contribute to this literature, including cognitive psychology, cognitive anthropology, and social psychology. The literature looks at our beliefs, our culture, and our mental strategies in terms of how we deal with climate change. It highlights how we can become agents of change, including building our self-awareness. The literature has sometimes been criticized for not fully acknowledging the role that our existing systems play in preventing us from making the changes that our minds could conceive of.

Social transformations literature analyzes how power relations matter in climate transformation, and how they are addressed. One focus of the literature is the need to analyze the system itself and how it shapes social processes.

Each of these literature strands uses elements from the three spheres, but often puts different weight on different areas. For example, the transforming behaviors literature focuses most on the practical sphere, while the social transformations literature puts more emphasis on the political sphere. Working across the spheres, as described in Key Ideas above, is seen as the best way to ensure that a variety of perspectives and ideas are best addressed.


Climate Transformation in Geography

I am continuing my summaries of readings for the Oslo Summer Course on Climate Adaptation and Transformation. Today’s article is from Progress in Human Geography, and is by the instructor of the course, Karen O’Brien.

Key Ideas

The article reviews both the literature and the concepts of transformation as it has been addressed in the geographic literature.

Transformation is offered here as our “fourth potential response” to climate change beyond mitigation, adaptation, and suffering. Deliberate transformation is framed as a choice to be made, but a potentially revolutionary choice, with its questioning of the status quo. Deliberate transformation would encourage us to question our worldview and values as we choose a way forward – rather than changing only as we are forced to.

Transformation is countered to adaptation. Adaptation is seen as often being more technically oriented that does not necessarily account for the multiple social, political, and economic processes to which we must adjust. For transformative change, O’Brien advocates for using Paolo Freire’s ideas on adult education to help ourselves to notice, reflect, and take action in dialogue with our fellow human beings.

Literature on Transformation

Transformation is conceived in several different ways. Some definitions focus more on physical and structural change, while others focus on change “as a psycho-social process.” Some see it as a necessary piece of innovation, and others fear its challenge to the status quo and potential “contraction of freedom.”

Two distinctions are important here. Transformation may be an unexpected or unintended outmode, or it may be deliberate. It is for deliberate change that O’Brien argues here. She notes that it has also been called ‘directional transformation.’

Resilience literature has been one source of the discussion on transformation. This literature emphasizes that transformation is “often triggered by crises or regime shifts,” which clearly ties more closely to non-deliberate transformation.

Transformation literature in human geography is often part of literature on adaptation. Such adaptation literature also often includes an understanding of the social vulnerabilities embedded in the need to transform.

A wide range of other literatures deal with transformation, and O’Brien mentions a number of them. She emphasizes that transdisciplinary approaches may be better able to deal with the variety of views within these literatures. Some of them are critical realism, integral theory, transformative learning, organizational behavior, and futures studies. O’Brien posits that a transdisciplinary understanding of such fields may be necessary to respond to proposals to geo-engineer the planet.

In moving toward a better understanding of dealing with change, transforming our ways of thinking may be one of the largest needs, O’Brien says. Working together to identify our own blind spots must be part of this, as we become more self-reflective and critically aware.

Transformation in Geography

In 2011, the author notes, most geography research focused on “adapting to changes that are under way or expected,” rather than on transformational change. Little dealt with the move to, “consciously create alternatives.”


Building Civic Solutions to Climate Change and Inequality

Today’s article for the Oslo Summer School course on Climate Adaptation and Transformation is succinct but specific. (I am summarizing the articles I read for the course starting here). The article is a collaboration between “acadavists” (academic activists) on four projects in the UK that are working to create radical civic transitions.

Key Ideas

The article is largely a summary of the work of each group, but one key idea stands out. Building on the concept of “first cut” and “second cut” civics elaborated in Philo et al. in the same issue of ACME, the authors outline the ways in which each of four initiatives straddle the line between first cut and second cut civics.

Briefly, first cut civics is the civics of established or establishment community interaction. This civics does “empower . . . people to feel connected to or associated with something ‘larger’ than themselves”, but tends to be associated most with traditional local, regional, or national institutions. The second cut is that which is more radical, that which is a a counter to conservative, establishment civics, but builds on the same ideas of community and empowerment.

The case studies

Four organizations are summarized and lightly analyzed for their relationship to first and second cut civics. They are the Network of Wellbeing (NOW), the Transition Research Network, the Ecological Land Co-operative, and Transition Homes.

NOW is a charitable organization and focuses on basic needs like, “community, clothing, food, and access to services.” It conducts participatory wellbeing training and develops a network of wellbeing ambassadors as well as online resources. The authors say that NOW bridges establishment and radical civics by bridging gaps between institutional service providers and academics on one hand, and charities and grassroots groups on the other.

The Transition Research Network is a collaboration between “acadavists” who seek to “widen community-led and community-based research.” The network bridges the two forms of civics in that it has strong ties to academic research groups and centers (first cut), but also to more activist forms of academic research (second cut).

The Ecological Land Co-operative aims to support the creative of “low impact developments,” (LIDs) including through supporting the planning permission process that is often difficult and expensive to navigate with alternative forms of construction. They buy land that was or is at risk of being “intensively managed” and offer inexpensively to those who will manage the land “ecologically.” They cross first and second cut civics as they work with local planning boards.

Transition Homes is an outgrowth of Transition Town Totnes, part of the international Transition Initiatives. It develops affordable LID homes for those who are in need of housing. Like the Ecological Land Co-operative, Transition Homes works with local planning departments to make these alternative communities viable.


As mentioned above, all four entities bridge first cut and second cut civics. They all have “high levels of resilience and resourcefulness,” and make changes possible that have often failed without the support of such network-oriented movements. They have radical approaches, but create bridges to traditional institutions.

Changing our brains to change our world

Well, I have to say, the articles we are reading for the Oslo Summer School course on climate adaptation and transformation just keep getting more interesting. From a beginning steeped in what I have thought of as the academic tradition on adaptation and transformation, we have increasingly been moving into articles and book chapters from far different perspectives.

Today’s chapter comes from the business world. Chapter 1 of Immunity to Change. How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization directs our attention to a current mis-match in the world. Systems in the world, and business systems, in particular, are increasingly requiring more advanced levels of thinking than exists among the population who are filling the roles that require such thinking.

Key Ideas

The authors are educational researchers who have focused on adult development. Their central message is that our understanding of adult development has changed over the past thirty years, and that adults are now conceived as having the potential to substantially improve their ways of thinking over time.

Kegan and Lahey conceive of the changes that adults go through as having slopes upward and plateaus, just as children do. The three adult stages that they perceive are the “socialized mind,” the “self-authoring mind,” and the “self-transforming mind.” Research on adult leaders and workers has shown that as adults move forward on the scale toward self-authoring and self-transforming, they become increasingly effective in their work. But still far too few individuals have achieved the self-authoring and self-transforming stages.

The authors argue that our society has become more complex, but adult development is not keeping up. And that we would do well to foster adult development to more effectively find transformative solutions to problems in our society.

Details of the Plateaus in Adult Mental Complexity

Mental complexity and I.Q., the authors points out, are essentially unrelated. A person at any of the three stages could have a very high I.Q.

What is different from stage to stage is the degree to which the thinker can step back and perceive her own mental processes. To initially explain the concept, the authors focus on communication. In the stage of socialized mind, we tend to be formed by the expectations of the environment we are in. We may be good team players and we may share schools of thought with those around us. We may also read too far into messages given to us by leadership, therefore misinterpreting the original intention of the message.

The self-authoring mind focuses on communicating “what I deem others need to hear to best further the agenda or mission of my design.” The self-authoring mind wants to direct the project. It operates with a  filter than may not perceive information that is outside the scope of what is directly sought. It may have a strong focus on the task at hand, but may not necessarily perceive the ways in which the plan for the task may be flawed.

The self-transforming mind has a file, just like the self-authoring mind. But the self-authoring mind may be “wary about any one stance, analysis or agenda.” [emphasis in the original]. People with a self-transforming mind therefore leave room for the agenda to change. They seek information that may help them to enhance or improve the plan. Their filter is important, but they leave room for “‘golden chaff'” to emerge among the otherwise filter-out components – ideas that may be tangential, but useful for change. The self-transforming mind also makes explicitly clear to those it works with that it is seeking such transformative information.

Performance and Mental Complexity

The authors have developed a tool to assess mental complexity. In studies, researchers have now combined that tool with various tools to assess work performance. Some of the latter tools asses abilities to: challenge existing processes, inspire a shared vision, manage conflict, solve problems, delegate, empower, and build relationships. Combining the sets of tools, researchers found that increased mental complexity (i.e. self-authoring minds and self-transforming minds) correlated with better performance.

In two studies in which respondents were “skewed toward middle-class, college-educated professionals,” fifty-eight percent of respondents  had not reached the self-authoring stage. Very few people were classified as self-transforming. (<1%, with 6-7% in the process of moving from self-authoring to self-transforming).

Based on descriptions of what is expected of workers and leaders, the authors suggest that we expect many more people to be in the self-authoring and self-transforming categories. Since they are not, they say, we must foster that change. The next chapter of the book, they say, addresses what they have found in twenty years of research regarding how we can “incubate” and “accelerate” mental complexity.

Climate Adaptation as Evolution

I am continuing my summaries of the articles I am reading for my course at the Oslo Summer School. Today I am writing about the introduction to The Climate Connection. Climate Change and Modern Human Evolution.

Key Ideas

Hetherington and Reid rapidly review the earth’s history, with a focus on bi-directional interactions between organisms and climate. A number of the key points in Earth’s climatic history are briefly touched and explained.

The authors spend much of the remainder of the introduction on the evolution of Homo sapiens and its relatives, including its interactions with climate. They describe important moments in climatic history that shaped human evolution, as well as important human impacts on global environment as agriculture and the Industrial Revolution took shape.

Relationship to agriculture in New Mexico

A few important points jumped out at me as relevant to my research on agriculture in New Mexico: 1) Disruption of stable climates tends to open the way for behaviors that were previously “‘too revolutionary.'” 2) As crisis causes changes like migration, it instigates changes in “communication and collaboration” [emphasis in the original], that combine with crisis to generate innovative new ideas. 3) Stable climates and societies “put a premium on intergenerational transmission of knowledge.” Stable conditions discourage novelty. 4) Agriculture created a per capita resource surplus. Such surplus had only been created in the past when climate change caused a major loss of species and left niches more open. The advent of agriculture created a positive feedback, with increases in carrying capacity increasing the population, which in turn increased manipulation of the environment. 5) Building upon the ideas in #2, societies that encourage difference are more likely to be open to revolutionary changes in spite of temporary stability.

I will not elaborate on the ties of these points to my research here since this is a summary, but all are key considerations in thinking about climate adaptation and/or transformation.

Paleoclimatic points of interest

One of the other key points of interest in the introduction is its excellent and succinct review of climate history. I will review here a few of the key moments that I think are often relevant to understanding our current climatic situation.

1) Carbon dioxide levels today are unique in the last 65 million years. Carbon dioxide levels and temperature change hand-in-hand. The last time the carbon dioxide levels were this high was in the Mesozoic era.

2) Volcanic activity first raised the carbon dioxide levels high enough to melt “snowball Earth” and the environments housing its unicellular organisms. Soon, however, plants provided the first major organismal atmospheric changes as they progressively added oxygen to the Earth’s atmosphere. Several major extinction events are now thought to be associated with subsequent volcanic activity, including the event at the end of the Permian period, 250 million years ago.

3) Such volcanic events caused major atmospheric changes that “wreaked havoc” with existing species diversity, often removing previously dominant species from their roles.

4) During the entire span of human dominance (about 10,000 years), carbon dioxide levels were lower than any of the carbon dioxide highs during the entire Quaternary period. That is, until 1850, when carbon dioxide levels started to rise as the Industrial Revolution became more and more widespread. Carbon dioxide levels are now nearly 1.5 times what they were at any period during the last 600,000 years. By 2100, they are predicted to reach levels nearly twice as high as during the highs of the past 600,000 years.

5) The Holocene beginning of agriculture was the first time that any “species consciously and systematically controlled its environment.”

Last thoughts

Most of the remainder of the chapter is encapsulated in the points I pulled out as relevant to my own research, above. A major theme is that emergence theory is one important means of understanding future human behavioral adaptations to climate change. Just as punctuated evolution led to major crisis and major shifts in species compositions, major climate crisis may now lead to our behavioral change. We have learned how to dominate the environment, and must now learn how to use the environment while minimizing damage. Substantial behavioral change by humans, however, will take more than crisis. Innovative adaptation will be built upon communicating and innovating collaboratively.



Analyzing the success of the Transitions Movement

I am continuing my summaries for the short course I am taking through the Oslo Summer School. Like the article by Biagini and coauthors, today’s article takes an empirical approach to assessing our potential for adapting to climate change.

Success and failure of grassroots innovations for addressing climate change: The case of the Transition Movement analyzes a movement active in 41 countries. The Transitions Movement “seeks to deal with climate change, shrinking supplies of fossil fuels . . .and a growing recognition of the downsides of the current economic model.” The article analyzes characteristics of 276 groups and their success based on surveys of group members.

Key Ideas

The authors analyzed a variety of factors affected the success of Transitions groups. Success was defined by the group members completing the survey. A main finding was that internal and social factors were often the focus of group members’ assessment of success or failure. In other words, factors like making an impact on community awareness were less the focus of success among the groups surveyed. The Transitions Movement is relatively new, with most groups having existing for less than four years. So, the authors believe the focus on internal factors may reflect the needs of groups in early stages of development.

Of importance to other groups focused on community action: A second major finding was that Transition Initiatives that were successful tended to share characteristics such as: being in villages, rural areas, or towns; having a larger group of founders; having existed for an average of four years; having followed ten of the 12 ‘steps to transition’ advocated by the main Transition organization; having more members that had been trained in Transition or permaculture; having an organization with thematic sub-groups each with their own projects; larger steering groups; more hours invested by the steering groups; to get at least some funds from external sources; and to be well connected to other local actors.


The introduction gives a review of the concept of ‘transitions’ in the literature. One main message from the review is that transitions tend to rely on both non-local networks and “affective attachments” to particular places. The authors introduce here Brown and coauthors’ notion of the importance of place to help shape transitions. The authors later build on that notion to explain why initiatives in less urban areas (but with proximity to other Transition Initiatives) are more likely to succeed, with the assumption that urban areas foster less sense of place and attachment.

The authors further use the literature on transitions to point out that grassroots initiatives may help to shape the innovations that can produce change. They may be less visible and therefore have less support from policy makers than does business, but can incubate social innovation.

Finally, the authors review the literature on grassroots success and failure. Failure often results from inadequate participation, ideological disputes, lack of financial resources, and lack of diversity. They find that there is little research to “systematically quantify the impacts of grassroots innovations.”


The authors describe the Transitions Movement and its ties to permaculture. They then outline the measures of Initiative success used in the study: subjective assessment of success based on a Likert scale, open-ended question on three most important characteristics of a successful group, a measure of the number of members, a measure of group age, and a measure of the group’s progress toward the ’12 steps to transition.’ The authors further considered Initiatives’ resources, organization, and context.

Emailed questionnaires resulted in 276 completed surveys. Data was analyzed in SPSS in three stages to ultimately identify clusters of successful groups and their characteristics.


A majority of initiatives were very or fairly successful. Characteristics of success mentioned most by initiatives responding to the survey included a critical mass of active volunteers and the  “capacity to sustain motivation, enthusiasm and to promote a positive, ambitious approach.” Outreach and internal group management were also considered important, as were vision and leadership. External partnerships were also seen as important.

Although additional detailed results are extensive, the factors the authors found most important through statistical analysis are those described in the “Key Ideas” above, and so I will not repeat them.


The authors here describe two groups of measures of success: social links and external impact. They say that their results confirm the “coexistence of these two broad sets of criteria.”

A few additional details from the discussion are of interest. First, the authors find that a link between global networks and active local groups is important to success. Also, they assert that a four year “incubation period” may be expected for a group to reach a stage of “success.” The global networks matter because of their provision of training and of the “grand narrative of transition,” but local rootedness matters, too, and is stronger if neighboring networks are close by.


The authors conclude that local situated processes are the greatest determinants of group success. Much of this conclusion derives from the fact that many of the urban-based Initiatives were weaker and less successful.

Classifying theories of transformation

I am continuing my summaries of articles for the Oslo Summer School course I am taking in August. Today I am writing about Societal transformation in response to global environmental change: A review of emerging concepts by Giuseppe Feola.

Like the article in my previous post, the paper aims to summarize and classify the existing research. In this case, the focus is on climate transformation rather than adaptation. Transformation is a newer concept in the literature. As such, the article is focused strictly, rather than practice. In comparison, the article on adaptation classified both theory and practice.

Key points

Feola makes a few key distinctions between the concepts found in the adaptation literature. For one, transformation is often used in the literature as a broad metaphor rather than a strictly defined term. Feola argues that there is much to be gained than lost from using a more rigorously defined definition of transformation.

He also differentiates between “descriptive-analytical” and “solutions-oriented” research approaches. Descriptive-analytical research, Feola says, sees transformation as the result of deliberate OR inadvertent processes. Solution-oriented approaches, on the other hand, “assume” that deliberate transformation is possible and paints academics as having a key role in that change.

The second distinction encompasses many of the more detailed differences Feola points to in the literature. These are best addressed in more detail, and I will attack the remainder of the paper in order.


Feola contends at the outset that there is substantial consensus that substantial change “toward sustainability” is needed now. He then points out the contested nature of what constitutes transformation, and whether transformation is “desirable.”

He points out that transformation has many overlaps with other concepts, including resilience, adaptation, and sustainable development. He further highlights the risk of allowing the term to remain too vague, in that it may be less analytically useful.

Methods and Concepts of Transformation

To assess transformation’s definitions in the literature, Feola searched through 706 articles on transformation and climate/environmental change. From 138 articles selected for their specific focus on the concept, he determined how transformation could be classified according to Sztompka‘s system: 1) system model, 2) form and temporal range, 3) “seat of causality and social consciousness”and  4) outcome. About fifty percent of the reviewed articles, Feola notes, did not have a “clear conceptual basis” for transformation.

Analysis of Concepts of Transformation

Feola identified eight emerging concepts of transformation to classify according to Sztompka’s system. Each is based on a somewhat different scholarly tradition. The eight concepts are: Deliberate Transformation (O’Brien 2012), Progressive Transformation (Pelling 2011), Regime Shift (Walker/Folke), Societal Transition (Grin and Schot 2010), Social practice (Shove et al. 2012), Transformational Adaptation  (Kates et al. 2012), Transformational Adaptation 2 (Park et al. 2012), and Socioecological Transition (Fischer-Kowalski and Haberl 2007).

Regarding the system model, key commonalities in the concepts included 1) all concepts included structural change of the systems in question and 2) system models are “complex, dynamic, and multi-level.” The concepts differed in the degree to which they acknowledge the individual level/scale of change.

In form and temporal range, the concepts shared the idea that systems in transformation are “complex, adaptive entities.” Some of the concepts laid out specific stages of change, but all acknowledge that change could be abrupt and stages would not necessarily proceed smoothly. Concepts varied in their temporal range, with some defining it strictly as long-term (Socioecological Transition) or within specific decadal time spans (Societal Transition), and others leaving time much more open-ended.

Seat of causality and social consciousness: Feola notes that all of the concepts see transformation as occurring via a “combination of endogenous and exogenous processes.” Yet some of the concepts see transformation resulting from emergent processes (Social Practice and Socioecological Transition) and the others emphasize the deliberate nature of transformation.

Finally, in terms of outcome, the concepts agree that transformation is “a process of structural change.” They differ, however, in the degree to which they see a sustainable outcome as central to the definition of transformation. This is where Feola starts to determine on the outlines of the two categories outlined above in the key ideas. He begins by defining the concepts as falling under “descriptive” or “prescriptive” ideas of transformation. Prescriptive concepts – like Deliberate Transformation, Progressive Transformation, and Transformational Adaptation II – specify desirable directions of change, as toward change that decreases social inequality.

Example: Peasants in the Colombian Andes

Feola draws on the example of agricultural societies in the Colombian Andes to outline some of the differences between transformation as a broad metaphor versus transformation as clearly defined in the concepts he analyzed (above).

Pushes toward agricultural modernization and inclinations toward inclusive community development, he points out, can both be seen as falling under the metaphor of transformation. If we want to define the kinds of transformations we want, he says, perhaps according to what we see as having been most beneficial so far, we must use a specific definition of transformation that is not plastic or vague.

Concepts of Transformation and Research Approaches

As mentioned in the key ideas, Feola now differentiates between solution-oriented and descriptive-analytical research approaches to transformation. They share many similarities, but Feola sees the latter as intended to inform policy makers, and the former placing academics as key players in transformation. Solution-oriented approaches, he notes, are also more comfortable with prescriptions for action.


Here Feola again emphasizes the importance of conceptual rigor for clarifying discourse among researchers while still allowing a place for “values and power relationships.” He then points out ways in which there is value to looser definitions used in solution-oriented perspectives. They allow, for example, for the meanings understood by different social actors.

More vague conceptualizations, however, can hinder transdisciplinary understanding, he says. Moreover, more vague conceptions may be more easily co-opted by powerful actors, just as “sustainable development” and “sustainable agriculture” have been co-opted in recent years.

Despite calling for more rigorous definitions, Feola does not wish to advocate for any particular definition. He believes that categorizing the conceptions, rather than advocating for one, is more fruitful. Different conceptions are useful for informing different research paradigms. As funding becomes tied to one set of conceptions (e.g. the solutions-oriented), he fears there may be more limits in the conceptions of transformation used.


Feola concludes by emphasizing the importance of definitions, rather than allowing any social change to fall under the category of transformation. Such categorizations, he alleges, will provide more fruitful dialogue among future researchers.


Classifying adaptation in theory and practice

I am continuing to summarize articles I am reading on climate adaptation in preparation for a course at the Oslo Summer School in Comparative Social Science Studies.

This second article is shorter than the first I wrote about. “A typology of adaptation actions. A global look at climate adaptation actions financed through the Global Environment Facility,”is also currently freely available, so I will add a bit less detail than with the summary of the Adger et al. article.

Brief View

The article reviews the literature on typologies of adaptation. The authors contend that most of the work on types of adaptation has been largely or entirely theoretical. So, they reviewed the work done under the Global Environment Facility and created a “grounded” typology of 92 of the projects financed. They reviewed documents and conducted surveys and interviews with some of those involved in the projects. They found that the theoretical typologies often did good work of describing types of actual adaptation actions.

Introduction and literature review

The introduction gives a broad review of why adaptation practices are necessary and how adaptation definitions vary.

The authors then dig into an extensive review of the adaptation typologies that already exist in the climate adaptation literature. Some are completely theoretical, while others have been linked to specific systems, but none, the authors say, have looked empirically at the broad sweep of adaptation projects at a global level.

They note that typologies tend to focus on five main areas: “timing relative to stimulus . . . intent (autonomous, planned), spatial scope . . . form (technological, behavioral, financial, institutional), and degree of necessary change.” The remainder of the review is essentially an extensive list of typologies from different works.

Of interest to me were the two on agricultural systems. Smit and Skinner take on agricultural adaptations in Canada and classify them by, “technological development, government programs and insurance, farm production practices, and farm financial management.” Ayers and Huq were not focused exclusively on typologies, but classified agricultural adaptations by “institutional policies, public/private arrangements . . . and livelihood-based approaches.”


Next the authors review financing for adaptation activities. They note that the first formal donor commitment of funds for adaptation in developing countries was under the Marrakech Accords in 2001. The processes of determining eligibility of funds and of creating accountability for donor-financed projects helped to drive more explicit thinking about which types of on-the-ground adaptation projects should be emphasized.


The authors looked at projects funded through the Global Environment Facility for 70 countries. They reviewed documents, and focused on “CEO Endorsement Requests” for close analysis because they reflected the state of the project and contained high quantities and qualities of data. The authors then followed up with surveys of project leads, and interviews with a select group of them.

Reviewed documents were coded and analyzed to develop a “grounded” typology of climate adaptations.


The authors identified ten types of adaptation, and analyzed which were the most frequent, as well as which specific activities within the types were most frequent.

The main finding is that what can probably be classified as earlier-stage adaptation activities were the most common. So, the “capacity building” and “management and planning” types of activity were the most common.


The authors point out that the “early ideas and concepts” emerging from theoretical typologies largely seem to be supported by their empirical analysis. They further assert that the finding that capacity building is one of the major types of activity supported by the GEF is in line with suggestion of authors like Ayers and Huq that capacity building is one of the key needs of developing countries as they respond to climate change.

The discussion contains some specific insights from the study’s informants. One point made was that projects do need to be informed by science, but, even more important, must be created with willing and informed communities as central players. Also, adaptation actions that were actually chosen by practitioners were in direct response to demonstrated vulnerabilities found in projects’ planning stages. The authors conclude that a theoretically-informed approach to vulnerability and adaptation can help to identify real vulnerabilities.

Further research possible includes an analysis of costs of certain types of practices, and an assessment of which projects require co-financing rather than just direct GEF financing. Further, “projects with ‘soft’ measures,” i.e. projects related to policy and capacity building, were the most common in these early stages of GEF financing, more research is needed on financing needed for what initially appear to be the more expensive elements of adaptation, such as large-scale engineering projects. The authors feel that assessment of such projects could be assisted by effective typologies.

Finally, it is likely, the authors state, that the preponderance of certain types of adaptation activities probably reflects the fact that many adaptation projects are in their relatively early stages.


The authors point out that the typology for GEF projects will require updating over time, as well as continued and detailed analysis of costs. Further research is also needed to compare how costs compare at the planning versus the implementation stage.

One key shift suggested is for researchers who have been working mostly in theory to begin working with “local adaptation laboratories” to ensure that theoretical and empirical or applied work inform one another. The example of “the Learning Route” is given as one model. Both practitioners and academic scholars would produce more effective work if they collaborate across the empirical and theoretical divides.