The paradox of time in transitions

Tessa de Geus has concluded her first 100 days as a transitions researcher at DRIFT. Over the last few months, she has used her fresh perspective to ask as many questions as possible about transition studies. In this short series she addresses three questions that stand out. You’re reading blog #3 on the paradox of time in transitions (here your can read Blog #1 on traditions and Blog #2 on stories).
Between starting at DRIFT and touching the 100 day mark, the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services released a report on global collapse of biodiversity, we heard that the 450ppm will be reached sooner than anticipated, resulting in a higher sea level rise as well, and heat records have been shattered across Europe. In a lecture I attended by Marjan Minnesma (co-founder of DRIFT and director at Urgenda), I learned that rather than aiming for the year 2050 or even 2030 as a target for reaching climate neutrality, 2026 should be our target figure in order to keep within a ‘relative’ safe space of capping warming at 1,5 degrees Celsius.
The message is clear: there is no time to waste for climate action. The paradox of the sustainability transition then, is that while there is no time, we need time to transition. According to transition studies, the discipline on which DRIFT was founded, transitions take about one to two generations from start to end. We need collective time, to re-invent democracy and our institutions; as well as personal time, to allow space for creativity, reflection and personal growth.
Personal ‘transition time’
In March, I attended a lecture with DRIFT founder Jan Rotmans, as part of the DRIFT transition management masterclass. According to Rotmans, there are four fundamental building blocks that enable individuals to contribute to a transition: trust, space, a plan, and, of course, time. Not just lineair time, but a different sense of time, coming from Ancient Greek: Kairos. Kairos refers to a qualitative sense of the ‘right time’. It is a certain momentum, for instance for self-discovery.

‘The fundamental transition that underlies other transitions in society, is the paradigm shift from an individual to a collective worldview, in which we acknowledge the inherent interdependence of ecosystems, people and values.’

This statement was echoed by John Grin, one of the other lecturers of the masterclass, as well as by the masterclass participants that I talked to. There was a consensus that in order to act on the agency you have in supporting transitions, people need to create ‘time to be’. Time to find focus, for creative processes and to allow space for envisioning new ways of organising society. Sheltered time, to experience freedom to radically rethink institutions that we (subconsciously) deem unquestionable and sacrosanct. As argued by Indy Johar, head of Dark Matter labs, in this podcast, the fundamental transition that underlies other transitions in society, is the paradigm shift from an individual to a collective worldview, in which we acknowledge the inherent interdependence of ecosystems, people and values.
At the same time, Kairos might help us to move out of ingrained patterns and develop much-needed character traits like courage. As argued on the climate blog The Grist, courage is an essential character trait: “Courage is the resolve to do well without the assurance of a happy ending.” During a lecture by Philomena Essed at the WeMakeThe.City festival, I learned that time is also an important factor for developing ‘dignified leadership’. Dignified leadership is needed to deal with structural oppression in our society. She argues how women, people of color, people with disabilities or people who have a sexual orientation different from heterosexuality do not experience equal access to resources. One might argue how ecosystems, animals and natural resources are oppressed by humans along a similar rationale of self-legitimized domination. In order for us to reflect in what ways we are complicit to repression, or the reproduction of unsustainable processes, time to reflect on your role in society is paramount.
After Jan Rotmans’ lecture, I came across a video of a Chimpanzee swiping through photos on Instagram, and a comment stating how ‘us humans are basically just visually stimulated meat bags’. Indeed, in our current society, focus and attention are scarce commodities that are likely to be hijacked by companies who base their business model of it, as Chris Bailey discussed in his book Hyperfocus. As argued by my former colleague Marcel Oosterwijk in his article ‘Information stress: enemy of head space – insights from an information addict’, many people seem to recognise the addiction to a constant feed of  information, rather than experiencing a freedom to just ‘be’.
Some people, including myself, therefore resort to forms of mindfulness: a concept that uses meditation as a way to find focus and awareness in everyday life. Nevertheless, one of the main premises of mindfulness, namely that thoughts are merely thoughts and not facts, might actually undermine proactive and courageous behaviour in the light of working on transitions, as discussed in the article ‘The mindfulness conspiracy’.

While important, there lies a great risk in making transition too personal rather than emphasizing the need for collective action in untangling institutionalised unsustainability.

While important, there lies a great risk in making transition too personal rather than emphasizing the need for collective action in untangling institutionalised unsustainability. Indeed, the individualisation of responsibility has often times been considered a symptom of neo-liberalist doctrine, as argued by Mark Lukas in the piece ‘Neoliberalism has conned us into fighting climate change as individuals’.
Nevertheless, we individual agency does exist. The 80,000 Hours project is a non-profit that researches the question how people can best use their time to ‘to help solve the world’s most pressing problems’. After all, the private is professional. There is no such thing as having a different persona in your job, next to who you are in your private life: to a degree, you can be held accountable for the systems you reproduce. What part do you play in the speed and direction of the transition we are in? Taking personal time to reflect on your career choices and deciding what to spend your 40 hours (or so) is a key element of individual agency in transitions.
Collective ‘transition time’
While conducting a workshop on social innovation in the energy transition for the project Energy-SHIFTS in April, it was discussed how the urgency of the sustainability transition seems at odds with organizing democratic processes. According to the participants, new democratic tools need to be developed in order to foster qualitative local processes that allow for all citizens to join the discussion. Citizens need to be at the heart of decision-making, from creating a vision to implementing local action.
Related to this, Byrne and Taminau (2015) describe how there is a risk of the energy transition progressing without questioning current power structures. The energy domain might remain a corporate playing field aiming to exploit energy resources – sustainable or not – to their fullest extent. Instead, Byrne and Taminau also see an opportunity to organise energy provision more democratically. Namely, so that collectives of citizens experience ownership and responsibility through decentralised commonly owned energy resources. Instead of organising energy provision through large centralised companies, people would be part of a local democratic process in which they decide on the best way to arrange energy provision, which might incentivize stewardship and sustainable choices. In the PROSEU project, we are currently researching such ‘prosumer’ collectives who generate their own energy.
Notably, workshop participants discussed how the act of taking part in democratic discussions presupposes basic rights and resources. Issues like having trust in your government, feeling invited and comfortable to participate, or having the financial freedom, and time, to take part cannot be overlooked. These are crucial elements that we need to take into account if we want the sustainability transition to be fair and just.
Tradition, stories and time: a jump start at DRIFT
Acknowledging the importance of time for reflection and discussion with a sense of urgency in mind, marking the milestone of my first 100 days as a DRIFT’er proved to be a good occasion to reflect on my initial observations in the field of transition studies. Over the coming time, as I develop as a transitions researcher focussing on the energy transition, I will try to take time to come back to the questions I’ve asked here. If you haven’t already, you can also read the other two blogs in this series: Transition as religion? and Stories of transition: lullabies and S.O.S. signals.
Inevitably, as we move forward in time, new dilemmas and questions on how to transition to a sustainable and socially just society will emerge. If anything, I am convinced that DRIFT can contribute by mirroring the branching points that society encounters, supporting people in finding their focus and role in transitions, and investing our time in uncovering the social processes that make the sustainability transition the most complex question of our age.
Want to know more about transitions studies or the work I do at DRIFT? Write me message, check out my profile, or read about our consultancy, academy and research work.

July 26, 2019