Tom Henfrey, in conversation with Rob Hopkins, introduces a new publication exploring the edge between Transition and resilience.

“I’m Tom Henfrey.  I consider myself a practitioner and activist within the Transition and Permaculture movements. With a main professional background as a researcher I’ve often made research the main way I contribute to these movements: navigating the boundary between research and practical action in Transition, which I’ve found to be a very fertile one.

On May 2nd you publish, together with your co-authors and co-editors, Resilience, Community Action and Societal Transformation, a collection of articles, essays, papers around Transition, permaculture and resilience. Could you tell us a bit of the story of how this book came about?

It was a fascinating experience because the book was never planned and just seemed to come into being of its own accord.  It started when a few of us involved in the initial setting up of ECOLISE (the European Network of Community Based Sustainability Initiatives, whose members include Transition Network and various national Transition Hubs), including Gesa Maschkowski of the German Transition Hub who became one of the co-editors of the book, decided to celebrate the birth of the network by submitting a session to the Resilience Alliance’s big conference in Montpelier in May 2014. We combined short presentations on different aspects of Transition with an Open Space discussion, in order to take this interactive, participatory immersive approach to building resilience at community level into what was otherwise quite a conventionally structured academic conference.

I had planned to write a short report for Lisbon University, who paid my conference fee and travel costs, but the write-up just took on a life of its own and unfolded into a book. Each of the three presentations at the session became a chapter in the book, the open space write-up became another, we met a few people speaking on related themes elsewhere at the conference, I had one or two other bits of writing lying around that needed a home, and all of a sudden we had a full-length book. When Gil Penha-Lopes and I started working with Permanent Publications on the first ECOLISE book (Permaculture and Climate Change Adaptation, released in October 2015), we suggested putting the two together to make a series, and all of a sudden we had a publication deal. So the whole thing just unfolded quite spontaneously and organically.

Given that, the amazing thing that struck me while reading it all through to prepare the book for publication is how well it all fits together. There’s a meeting point between scientific theory on resilience and practical experience of working to build resilience at community level where the two complement and synergise in really illuminating ways and insights arise that couldn’t come from theory or practice alone. Each of the chapters in the book engages that interface – an edge, in permaculture terms – from a different angle, so we have all these complementary perspectives shedding light on a common theme of what we can learn from bringing together the science and practice of resilience.

And what would you say that the essays that you’ve collected here add to what we already know about Transition, about resilience and about their evolution in the world?

Resilience Theory has always had quite a practical orientation – in its present form it largely came out of dialogue between ecologists and indigenous and other peoples still practicing traditional forms of environmental management. Transition has drawn upon this body of knowledge, through your work and that of others, as has permaculture, so there’s an element of scientific grounding to both. What I think this book does is close the backloop, so to speak, and feed all sorts of insights from the practice of building resilience back into theory, and at the same time show how resilience practice can benefit in various ways from being part of this dialogue.

A big theme was interactions across scales – a hugely important area of resiience theory, in the Panarchy model, but one that’s often overlooked in the emphasis on local action. So in the first section of the book we have three case studies of the development of Transition: in Peterborough Ontario, in Bristol, and the emergence of the national network in Spain. In each of these we can see different aspects of what happens when small-scale, self-organised and emergent action within local groups begins to engage established structures local authorities and the like, who became established back before the growth paradigm began to fall apart and very much reflect that in their nature.

The second section has much more of a focus on subjective and cultural aspects of this – the inner dimensions that resilience theory hasn’t really addressed much, but that are prominent in Transition through its attention to Inner Transition. So there are pieces that examine how Transition changes scientific perspectives on resilience, how the prospect of resilient societies demands major broad-scale shifts in mindsets, and at the micro-level how social change movements are bringing this about by creating physical spaces, and experiences within them, that are consistent with their ethics and values. The last section broadens this out to global perspective, especially by looking at how Transition as a largely Global North, post-industrial movement can meaningfully connect with indigenous and other movements with very different historical trajectories.

All that resonates with what for me was the key issue that came up at the conference itself, an acknowledgement of a politics of resilience that was previously hidden, or at least downplayed. We’ve seen that in the way that much mainstream political discourse has appropriated the concept of resilience in some very conservative ways – the idea that people and communities have to be resilient to the socially and ecologically damaging effects of increasingly predatory forms of capitalism, because that’s the only way to maintain the status quo.

That idea is inconsistent with both the science and practice of resilience, and when you put the two together they provide a very powerful critique and counterargument – that resilience can be built from the bottom up by people mobilising in communities and communities collaborating in mutually supportive ways at all levels, and has intrinsic ethical implications concerning inclusivity, equity and freedom of choice.

I think that is essentially what Transition has been saying all along; the combination with resilience science allows the message to be put across with much more force and rigour, and hopefully inform how practical efforts can better negotiate and transform political barriers. The chapters in the book show how practical experience is creating new understandings of resilience – what it feels like and how to promote it – and how through cumulative learning these are getting more and more sophisticated and nuanced, in ways that can also help refine scientific understandings, and at the same time oblige the science to be candid about its basic values.

So the book is coming out in May?  What are your hopes for it?

Well it’s an interesting time to be releasing a book on resilience, with familiar political ideas and institutions in particular crumbling at such an extraordinary pace. What’s fascinating to me about the current process of collapse is the degree to which it’s manifest as an epistemological crisis, in other words as a challenge to accepted ways of understanding the world. To me that points to a need for processes of collective sense-making on a large scale, and I hope the book can make some sort of contribution to that.

So on the one side we have people in Transition and many other fields of social change who have anticipated this situation for a long time and in the process of taking responsibility for pre-emptive action have taken on quite different perspectives on the world, while on the other we have researchers who recognise the importance of this and are keen to help but for the most part are limited by having to work within institutions that are very much part of the growth era.

I’d like to think that this book is an example of the possibilities for constructive collaboration that arise when the two collaborate, particularly when they do so at the margins of established research cultures where there’s more scope for the creation of what Gesa and her colleagues refer to as salutogenetic – essentially, life-enhancing – social environments. So I’d like to think it can contribute to that conversation, and perhaps inspire other initiatives along similar lines – particularly in the field of resilience, which really lends itself to emergent collaborations based on collective learning.

More concretely, as I mentioned earlier the book is in part an outcome of work that’s been going on over the last few years within ECOLISE, and prior to that within the Transition Research Network. ECOLISE has at its heart something of a paradox – of being a grassroots, member-led network of community-based initiatives whose organisational purpose and mandate includes achieving a policy impact. So there’s a constant tension, usually a creative one but sometimes a bit overwhelming, between the need to operate in ways that reflect the principles and ethics of our members, which are also the basic ingredients of community resilience, and find ways to engage organisations and processes to which these ideas and practices are, institutionally at least, entirely alien.

Incidentally, this is the exact same tension that resilience researchers and advocates of mainstream politics conducive to resilience face from the other side, so to speak. So I’d hope that the issues explored and ideas raised in the book can usefully inform ECOLISE, the Transition, permaculture and ecovillage networks that make up its core membership, and others involved in similarly vital and inspirational work worldwide.

Special pre-order offer

You can pre-order your copy of Resilience, Community Action and Societal Transformation here at a 10% discount, and if you use the code GS-RESILIENCE-13 when you order, Permanent Publications have very generously offered an extra 20% discount!  This brings the price from £19.95 all the way down to £13.96.  Don’t miss out…