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Stay alive, survive or thrive? Thoughts from the Transformations 2017 conference, Dundee, Scotland

Artwork by Dylan McGarry.

This post originally appeared on the T-learning website.

Stay alive or survive?

“One-point-five-to-stay-alive” or more like “one-point-five-we–might-survive.” This lyrical chant comes from Kumi Naidoo, the former Director of Greenpeace. It is a soundbite from his keynote address at the Transformations 2017 conference in Dundee, Scotland this past month (September), which I was fortunate to attend thanks to the International Social Science Council’s support. The “one point five” refers to the upmost global temperature rise (1.5°C) that we can afford before we experience run-away climate change. You know the scene – pick your Hollywood-computer-generated tidal wave, enveloping a national monument, let’s say the Statue of Liberty, and then moving on to ravaging buildings into rubble. Those scenes that somehow feed our collective sadistic voyeur – our obsession with what Timothy Morton describes as something like “a video of your own funeral.” The use of “apocalypsisms” were scattered all throughout Kumi’s talk. He highlighted the many wicked and doomy gloomy problems that now encircle the globe, the “convergence of crises” as he put it. After we watched our own climatic funeral in his series of slides, his thoughts then quickly jumped to a call for us to see transformation as “creative maladjustment” quoting Martin Luther King’s famous speech that encourages maladjustment to coloniality. In some respects I appreciated Kumi’s perspective, as he was critical of our own comfort, and lack of discomfort in the neo-liberal capitalist system we found ourselves. He called out the “Affluenza” in the room – using an online algorithm he revealed that the majority of the people in the auditorium were living within the comfy 4% richest demographic on the planet. A silent pensive inner reflection washed over the crowd.


Despite his best efforts, I felt uneasy after this keynote, it didn’t inspire me, it didn’t motivate me, in many ways it made me feel bad about myself, and it made me think there was little hope left. How helpful is this “truthful inconvenience” Al Gore-like approach? The chicken-little “pornography of despair”. It was a stark contrast to the powerful heartfelt call Susi Moser made in her keynote, a simple yet resounding call for life. In her intimate and personal account, “not so much a presentation but a meditation… more of a prayer than a speech” she walked us through a recent visit she had made to the Dynamic Earth Science Centre in Edinburgh with her partner Carol. Coming to the word life and all that it embodies was for her a

“realisation that we have to do something much more profound than repair, protect, restore, if we want to ensure a liveable, safe, resilient, or any of these more alluring ways of having a future on this planet… so now let me use the shorthand I am using to capture the goal of transformation that we are facing right now… Life in its most basic and richest sense of the word”

We were transported from one moment to the next, reflecting on human mistakes, yes, but also noting our flourishing, or potential to flourish, not merely survival for survival’s sake. She reminded us of all the major expansions of human history and consciousness, and the delicate, peculiar ways of being and doing within a broader definition of ecology, and our small part within it. Her message was simple, in fact it was a preface to all transformative work, beginning with: “if it is life that we want…then?” and if it is life that we want – this word that holds something more profound that repair, protect or restore – then we need to rethink and unlearn many things. This subtle shift in tone and focus was far more enabling and inspiring, it felt like a wedge keeping something open, and sometimes it felt like the wedge that is used to slowly split a stubborn log. She focused not only on our “survival” of the apocalypse that has already begun, but rather how we (including more than the human world) might thrive and flourish and transform because of it.

Throughout the rest of the conference it felt as though this preface of “if it is life that we want…” wedged open the space in front of any of the questions I was considering. So too the 1.5°C ceiling, present in the back of all of our minds, looming, circling over every session like vultures, and sometimes like those sparrows that fly around concussed Disney characters. The sense of urgency was palpable, considering that we only have around three years to make accelerated transformations across society in a significant way, if we are to avoid rising beyond 1.5°C and the inevitable catastrophes that lie beyond that ceiling.


Three years is not a lot of time, and the need to find ways to accelerate the transformations we need is crucial. There were murmurs and whispers of acceleration here and there, which was encouraging to hear, seeing as we were scheduled to host a practice session entitled “Accelerating Social Change for the 1.5°C Challenge”. The session was convened by the International Social Science Council (ISSC) Transformations to Sustainability programme, and they invited Susi Moser and me to help facilitate the session.

Future Earth and the ISSC’s Transformations to Sustainability programme, along many others, have been supporting several significant research initiatives that focus precisely on helping to accelerate transformations to sustainability, and so capturing these examples of acceleration was our aim. Following the urgency, we all felt it comforting to have a space that allowed us to focus on pulling together what we know about scaling up, diffusing and accelerating the adoption of practices that can help us stay below a 1.5°C temperature increase, and do so in a socially just way. That was the goal, as well as to create a safe space for participants to share, discuss and prioritise interventions or strategies that can help propagate or accelerate the adoption of practices that contribute significantly to a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

As a short but interesting side-note, I thought I must share Susi’s seven categories of acceleration strategies that she has come across in the literature and experience that speak to acceleration (as she stressed in the session, this is not the complete list, but rather the beginning of a list of strategies):

  1. Reframe the problem – as solution to a bigger challenge.
  2. Scaling out – do the same thing in more places. Determine the essence of what you do and learn to apply that in many contexts.
  3. Scaling up – aim at using existing institutions – use policy to make it best practice everywhere; use the market to spread something to a much higher level.
  4. Scaling deep – attempt to create change at the root by changing hearts and minds; slowing down; creating a pervasive influence.
  5. Integrating – applying holistic thinking and practices to produce outcomes.
  6. Learning – rapid feedback systems to course-correct.
  7. Acceleration – when you identify particular barriers in areas, pilot projects on how to remove the barrier – it then becomes an innovation/learning hub – then use the other strategies…
  8. And finally we asked “What else could we add …???”

A compassionate push!

When thinking of acceleration in this context, the first “acceleration” image that came to me was that of my mom teaching me to ride a bicycle as a kid. How I needed a little push – an acceleration – in order to stay up, and how I only found my balance once I was moving faster than I anticipated. Reflecting on this, and thinking how we might advertise the workshop, I began sketching and working with the image of a bicycle and thinking about Susi’s seven strategies. It made sense to see the seven strategies as the spokes of a bicycle wheel. So wherever you started, the wheel turns and in turn you rely on a different spoke, in relation to the others, to hold you up and keep you moving. Over time the image developed further, inspired by Jung’s “monster” in his The Red Book, into a complex mutated creature with multiple legs. I thought of this mercurial figure cycling over the rough terrain of the many-armed crocodile that embodies the wicked problems, the nexus issues or the “convergence of crises” that Kumi Naidoo spoke of, and it is these very challenges that could energize the compassionate and kind push we need to move forward.

Source: Seven strategies are based on: Moser, S. et al. (2017). Rising to the Challenge together: A Review and Critical Assessment of the State of the US Climate Adaptation Field. A Report Prepared for the Kresge Foundation. Troy, MI: The Kresge Foundation. Artwork by Dylan McGarry.

“Inner”, “Personal”, “Subjective”: No longer dirty words

This conference was for me encouraging, mostly because the ambient energy of the gathering was shifting – it was a sense that at the heart of all transformation was the need to look inward, to look at the outer through considering the inner. You know those so-called “imaginal cells”, the ones that rearrange in the body of a caterpillar as it transforms into an iridescent winged monarch. It felt as if there was a communal rearrangement of imaginal cells in those three days, where personal inner reflection and transformation was happening, and being valued as a key contributor or collaborator with logic and science. A fearless, unashamed yet critical gaze into intuitive, subjective objectivity, a feeling, sensing, sensuousness to these massive problems was and is emerging beyond this conference. It felt as if scientists and artists alike could find common ground through this basic yet profound shift to acknowledge and appreciate the power of personal, inner reflexivity and transformation, and that this lay at the heart of all transformation towards regenerative systems.

What happens in the next three years might determine everything, and I really feel after these intense three days in Dundee that what will keep us under the “one-point five” flood-line will be the important distinction between staying alive and ensuring all thrive. It will be a process of detoxing from our addiction to the apocalypse, and refocusing our attention on the living, thriving elements of ourselves and our ecosystems, and it will be the personal and political will needed to accelerate this change, with the same gusto and solidarity we see in accelerated social transformations during times of war, without any of the violence.


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