Not that long ago, I left North America and arrived fresh and starry-eyed in Lund, Sweden, ready to begin my master’s degree in a program entitled Culture, Power and Sustainability. In my second year, I decided to write my thesis about the Transition Town movement, a social movement out of Great Britain born of the need to act as communities (rather than individuals) in the face of peak oil and climate change. It focuses on helping communities transition towards becoming socially and ecologically sustainable post-carbon societies. I had always been intrigued by the idea of Transition so I zeroed in on an initiative in a university town in Eastern Canada where I was stationed for an internship.
With gusto I began to attend Transition gatherings, potlucks, and events. From the very first event, however, I couldn’t help but shake a feeling of discomfort that I wasn’t able to pinpoint for a while. Everyone was welcoming, kind, open, and eager to foster a sense of community. But something was missing. I soon realized that the something was in fact a diversity of voices and community representation.
The majority of “transitioners” were in fact white, middle class, educated folks and I kept feeling that they lived in a kind of bubble in which there were very few people of colour, new immigrants, low-income people, and young people – all of whom were represented considerably in the city in question.
Is Transition shying away from uncomfortable topics?
My realizations during those first weeks lead me to veer in a social justice direction for my thesis. I began to investigate the relationship between the Transition movement and social & environmental justice. Through this work, I interviewed several local justice activists and community leaders involved in food sovereignty, poverty reduction, the feminist anarchist movement, and indigenous & immigrant rights. All of these participants had some kind of ties to the local Transition movement, either through collaborations or personal interest.
Interestingly, all of them expressed a degree of alienation from the Transition movement as well as discomfort in attending Transition events, even though they actually agreed on a lot of the same issues that Transition addresses, such as the need for creating a sense of community, promoting inclusivity, increasing food security, protecting natural heritage etc. Many of these research participants had tried to reach out to the Transition movement in one way or another and were either ignored, gently asked to change their language to make it more ‘positive’, or simply felt so uncomfortable that they eventually stopped attending meetings and events.
They felt that Transition was shying away from uncomfortable topics related to privilege, such as how urban gardening can sometimes get tangled up in the process of gentrification and only be to the benefit of wealthier people, or how “sustainability” can mean something very different to people in affluent vs. low-income neighbourhoods.
Similarly, the transitioners I interviewed were themselves made uncomfortable by the “other forms of activism” that some people in their community engaged in. They saw it as more “radical2 or more related to “anger” and “protest” rather than “positive solutions”. I also found that instead of focusing on addressing specific injustices, transitioners generally subscribed to the narrative that the Transition movement would help create “a more just world for everybody”.
As I progressed in my research, there were moments when I asked myself: so why is this a big deal? Is it even a problem that the transitioners and social & environmental justice activists in my case study do not collaborate to a large extent? These questions lead me to the work of feminist authors such as Giovanna Di Chiro, who advocates for “just sustainability” which entails collaboration between the mainstream sustainability movement (made up largely of white, middle class, educated people) and the environmental justice movement (made up mainly of low income communities and people of colour).
The concept of just sustainability
Those proposing just sustainability argue that if sustainability only includes or is only for the benefit of privileged people, then logically we don’t have any hope of actually achieving it. If, on the other hand, sustainability is about sustaining all humans‘ rights, including the rights to different forms of expression (e.g. anger) and lived experiences; if it is about directly addressing rather than ignoring or avoiding issues faced by – and activisms employed by – marginalized peoples, then maybe there is hope for creating sustainability.
In our masters program we learned how, based on Cartesian dichotomies, Western society loves categorizing and separating everything into neat little labeled boxes, especially if these boxes can be placed opposite each other, for example when we place “positive solutions” opposite “protest activism”. My research found that doing so often blinds us to the way in which many issues and the way we organize around them are in fact deeply connected.
A point that many of my research participants drove home for me was that the same issues to which many of those in the mainstream sustainability movement might attach the slogan “we’re all in it together” disproportionately affect people in marginalized communities. For instance, people in low-income neighbourhoods are at a much higher risk of being affected by variable resource prices, climate unpredictability, and local environmental degradation. This trend is pervasive, on the rise, and can only be addressed at its roots if social movements open up their conversations to include a representative diversity of voices.
Feminist authors already have terms such as “the politics of connectivity” (Valentine 2008), “connected knowing”(Maiguashca 2005), “strategic coalitions” (Mohanty 2003) and “coalition politics” (Di Chiro 2008) to describe ways in which activist and research groups that perceive issues differently can begin to approach these issues in ways that are meaningful for all involved.
A facilitated „opening up“
Based on these concepts, in my thesis discussion I proposed a facilitated “opening up” of the local Transition movement to move towards deep and empathetic collaborative projects with local justice activists currently working outside of the Transition Movement. I found that facilitators trained in anti-oppression work are key to making such delicate processes flow and stay on track.
One issue I found quite interesting was something that in my thesis I termed “privilege fragility” (based off of Robin Diangelo’s (2011) term ‘white fragility’); this refers to a phenomenon that occurs when people who hold more privilege are suddenly made to feel vulnerable, defensive, guilty, or helpless when confronted with the tensions this privilege produces between themselves and other less privileged community members.
As a white, educated, middle class researcher in my 20’s, I certainly bumped up against my fair share of “privilege fragility” as I completed my thesis. I considered stopping the research because it was getting too personal and I began questioning my own involvement in the Transition Movement and certain other projects.
At the same time, however, I felt empowered with knowledge and critical thinking and decided to dive into discomfort rather than avoid it. I found this to be a very rewarding experience and I would recommend similar explorations to any other person who is interested in social justice and who may be privileged along intersections of race, gender, sexuality, education or other categories.
Giving priority to issues affecting marginalized groups
Most of all, through my research about the Transition Movement, I found that both “privilege fragility” and disconnects between social movements addressing similar issues can be worked through and resurface as empowerment through forming partnerships which educate and support. These partnerships need to build upon the idea that only if issues affecting marginalized groups, in terms of climate change and environmental degradation, are given priority can sustainability be a truly viable proposal.
Further, having done the Degrowth summer school in Barcelona in its first incarnation in 2014, I often thought back to what I had learned during this time as I wrote the thesis. I felt that some of the tenets of Degrowth, such as avoiding reductionist proposals for sustainability, fostering diverse narratives of Degrowth, as well as becoming directly engaged with the issue of social justice and “social sustainability” (eg. Schnieder et al. 2010) are very useful elements to consider. The more I researched, the more I was convinced of this need for cross pollination across social movements and activisms working on issues relating to sustainability.
I would argue in summary that more collaborative research and practical work must be done across movements in order to achieve “just sustainability” (or just: sustainability). Inspiration, material, and facilitation of knowledge flow can be drawn from Transition, Degrowth, Feminist and other literatures and knowledge banks.
DiAngelo, Robin. 2011. “White fragility.” The International Journal of Critical Pedagogy 3, no. 3.
Di Chiro, Giovanna. 2008. “Living environmentalisms: coalition politics, social reproduction, and environmental justice.” Environmental Politics 17, no. 2: 276-298.
Di Chiro, Giovanna. 2013. Connecting sustainability and environmental justice. Swarthmore College: News and Events. Accessed May 17th 2016. http://www.swarthmore.edu/news-events/giovanna-di-chiro-connecting-sustainability-and-environmental-justice.
Maiguashca, Bice. 2005. “Theorizing knowledge from women’s political practices.” International Feminist Journal Of Politics 7, no. 2: 207-232.
Mohanty, Chandra Talpade. 2003. Feminism without borders: decolonizing theory, practicing solidarity. n.p.: Durham : Duke Univ. Press, 2003, 2003.
Schneider, François, Giorgos Kallis, and Joan Martinez-Alier. 2010. “Crisis or opportunity? Economic degrowth for social equity and ecological sustainability. Introduction to this special issue.” Journal of cleaner production 18, no. 6: 511-518.
Valentine, Gill. 2008. “Living with difference: reflections on geographies of encounter.” Progress In Human Geography 32, no. 3: 323-337.