Understanding our responses to environmental change

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Transformation: Smoke and Mirrors or Muck and Magic?

Transformation is everywhere, it seems, in sustainability debates. Transformation is a double-edged sword – clearly global environmental change will transform our world and the lives of future generations. And to avoid the worst possible outcomes, we must transform our current use of resources and distribution of wealth and power. Transformation is messy and complex, and it happens in unruly ways across scales; indeed resilience and transformation may interact and work together or against each other – transformation at certain scales is necessary for resilience at others. But how do we recognise and characterise transformation – what does it mean in different contexts and how does it happen?

Two of my recent publications and a presentation address these critical questions.

The Dark Side of Transformation is a new paper led by Jessica Blythe at Waterloo University in Canada with a wonderful set of international co-authors, which discusses some of the latent risks associated with the ‘transformative turn’ in sustainability debates. We review general framings of transformation as rhetoric, practice and analysis, and also note a shift from descriptive to prescriptive emphasis on transformation discussions. We outline five latent risks which we refer to as ‘the dark side of transformation’

  • Transformation discourse risks shifting the burden of response onto vulnerable people
  • Transformation discourse may be used to justify Business-as-Usual
  • Transformation discourse pays insufficient attention to social differentiation
  • Transformation discourse can exclude the possibility of non-transformation or resistance
  • Insufficient treatment of power and politics threatens the legitimacy of the transformation discourse.

The paper is published in Antipode and available here

Full citation is Blythe, J., Silver, J., Evans, L., Armitage, D., Bennett, N.J., Moore, M.L., Morrison, T.H. and Brown, K., 2018. The Dark Side of Transformation: Latent Risks in Contemporary Sustainability Discourse. Antipode50(5), pp.1206-1223.


Muck and Magic: A resilience lens on organic conversions as transformation empirically interrogates transformation as a process that happens across scales. We use a resilience lens to analyze transformation as a component of UK farmers’ conversions of farmland from conventional to organic status. Transformation is identified as profound shifts in farmer understanding and management of soil fertility. The analysis finds that these transformations involve interplay between changes and scalar processes across political, practical, and personal spheres of transformation. Changes in the political sphere contradictorily drive, enable, and constrain transformation across political, practical, and personal spheres. We conclude that the empirical resilience analysis of transformation across spheres of a social-ecological system generates insights into the critical processes and changes necessary for society to pursue sustainable futures.

The citation is James, T.  & Brown K., 2018.  Muck and Magic: A Resilience Lens on Organic Conversions as Transformation, Society & Natural Resources, DOI:

10.1080/08941920.2018.1506069 link here 

Earth Futures’ Symposium at Wageningen University in the Netherlands on 19th October explored the possible and plausible futures for humankind – how desirable, and how unequal are they likely to be. At the Earth Futures Symposium a great set of people came together to debate this, with fantastic sessions on Interrogating the Anthropocene; Inequality; Biosphere-Technosphere; and Research Directions. The presentations were fantastic and the debate really challenging and wide-ranging – there was a terrific range of disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives – deep history, economic history, narratives and debates about the Anthropocene and what it means for understanding human-nature relations, played out in latest IPCC findings, ideas about conservation, action on inequality, and the politics of climate change, security, and pragmatism versus imagination. We also participated in creative practice and listened to some wonderful music. I talked about the potential dangers of the current transformation agenda – presenting findings from these recent papers – and our need to engage critically and meaningfully in the political, cultural and multi-faceted and rapidly shifting risk landscapes to move our research agenda forward.

You can see talks and summaries of the days presentations and discussions here

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