A fascinating new piece of research on Transition has just been published, entitled Transitioning towards Sustainability: What are we waiting for?. It is the work of Keigo Arai, Kristopher Le Ray Armstrong and Fernanda Pia of the Blekinge Institute of Technology, Karlskrona in Sweden. The Masters thesis explores Transition in Ungersheim, a fascinating village in the Alsace in France which is home to a remarkable experiment in Transition. You can download it via the link above, but in the meantime, here is the paper’s conclusion. Our thanks to the authors.
This thesis began with an introduction to the sustainability challenge, a global complex challenge that is defined by the erratic and turbulent interaction between human society and the biosphere. Due to flaws in the basic design and mode of operation of society, the biosphere is being systematically degraded which is constraining people’s ability to lead prosperous lives and making human society more vulnerable to unforeseen shocks. Before unsustainable practices lead to catastrophe, humanity at large must learn to fundamentally alter its relationship to the planet we all inhabit. Nothing short of unprecedented change is urgently required. That said, given the sustainability challenge is complex in nature, the solutions are unclear, uncertainty is high, and there is no obvious path forward. It is crucial then to discover and assess the potential of sustainable modes of operation for human society.
One such mode comes from the Transition Movement. Inspired by two elements of the sustainability challenge, climate change and peak oil, the Transition Movement emerged as a grassroots environmental and social movement focused on a positive, solutions-focused vision of a post-fossil fuel world. Since the first Transition Initiative in 2006, the movement has spread around the world and gained attention within academic spheres as a potential community-level solution to the sustainability challenge. As suggested by Escobar (2016), the Transition Movement is one of the most concrete proposals for a transition to a sustainable society that truly embodies a radical transformation. However, little evaluative work has actually been conducted to assess Transition Initiatives regarding the effectiveness of their impacts in transitioning towards sustainability.
This study identified the research gap that further evaluative research is required to measure and assess the sustainability impacts of Transition Initiatives. Forrest and Wiek (2014) ask the simple question regarding community Transition Initiatives, “Are they actually increasing the sustainability of the community, and if so, to what is change attributable?” (Forrest and Wiek, 2014, 69). This question offers the starting point of this research. Hence, the purpose of this paper was to conduct an analytical-evaluative case study of a single Transition Initiative to measure and evaluate success. The case study that was selected is Ungersheim, a village in the Alsace region of France.
The research demonstrated that the Transition in Ungersheim is supporting progress towards sustainability, as defined by the FSSD. By conducting actions and activities that are focused on participation and collaboration, most of the social sustainability principles are improved within Ungersheim. In other words, the community increases health, influence, competence, and impartiality for those residents involved in the Transition. The findings of the study are insubstantial to assess alignments to the social sustainability principle of meaning making. Ecological sustainability is also improved through concrete Transition actions, primarily focused on agriculture, energy production, and ecosystem restoration and conservation. It must also be noted that there are limitations to sustainability in Ungersheim, however those limitations are not directly attributed to the Transition. This research does not capture the entire sustainability picture within the village of Ungersheim. As mentioned within the Research Methods chapter, the researchers understand that there are violations and structural obstacles to aligning with the definition of sustainability provided by the FSSD that are not within the scope of this research which focused on the Transition in Ungersheim.
Within the Transition Movement, including the efforts in Ungersheim, community participation has been identified as an overarching determinant to success. Within the Transition in Ungersheim, there are critical factors that have improved participation, increased awareness, and led to greater exposure outside of the village. Those critical factors are: using the Transition concept as a vision, creating a story of the 21 actions for the 21st century, using publicity as a communication tool, participatory democracy as a decision-making tool, top-down and bottom-up collaboration, demonstrating successful actions, and gaining access to resources for actions. From these critical factors, three suggested strategic guidelines emerged: telling a story through the Transition, multi-scalar collaboration, and being the example. It is recommended that the strategic guidelines are used for longitudinal research across case studies rather than taken as generalized guidelines that apply to all contexts. Knowledge synthesis from many evaluative case studies may allow for meta-studies which can identify patterns and generalizations across transition initiatives, beginning to build theory and evidence-informed guidance for community transition practitioners and policy makers.
Overall, the Transition in Ungersheim is a dynamic effort between the municipality and a core group of citizens. While participation remains a limiting factor within the village, there are nonetheless plenty of visible and concrete actions that bring sustainability improvements. Therefore, Ungersheim is a case study of a Transition Initiative that is taking steps towards sustainability as defined by the FSSD.