To be or not to be? It’s really a question about whether we adapt or transform

By David Salt

To my mind, the word ‘transform’ is one of the most over used and abused words in the realm of sustainability scholarship and policy. It’s up there with the terms ‘resilience’ and ‘sustainability’, all of which have been rolled out so many times for so many mixed purposes that they have become panchrestrons (a fancy way of saying ‘buzz word’; a panchreston is an explanation that is used in so many different cases that it becomes almost meaningless).

The word itself seems harmless; ‘transform’ simply means to change into something else. In common parlance, however, it’s rolled out whenever someone wants to emphasise that the change we need has to be BIG! We’re not talking minor refinement or incremental reform here, we’re talking TRANSFORMATION! And this is problematic for several reasons. Consider this example.

Transformative change

In 2019, following the most comprehensive assessment of its kind, IPBES (the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services) announced 1,000,000 species have been identified as threatened with extinction and that the rate of species extinction is accelerating. What do you do in the face of such alarming news? IPBES called for ‘transformative change’; and by that they meant a “fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.”

At the time I was sceptical anyone would listen because while no-one liked seeing biodiversity collapse, no government was going to introduce the wholesale changes being demanded. “The American way of life is not up for negotiation,” said President George Bush (Snr) at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio, in a breathtakingly insular and cynical remark that all national leaders parrot in their own way.

This particular IPBES announcement in 2019 followed on decades of similar assessments saying much the same kind of thing (something I discussed here). Each time one of these biodiversity reports came out they were heralded with catchy, headline-seeking stats (‘a million species on the chopping block’), dire warnings (‘we’re heading for the abyss’) and demands for a new and even more ambitious set of policy targets (‘this time we must respond with BIG change’).

However, the IPBES announcement explicitly called for ‘transformation’ and even listed what that meant: “fundamental, system-wide reorganization across technological, economic and social factors, including paradigms, goals and values.” Now, I actually agree with everything IPBES is saying, but I disagree with the manner in which it was communicated. In some ways it’s pushing hyperbole to a new level, ‘the stakes are existential and the only solution is changing everything’. Predictably, the report got lots of media and disappeared without a trace. And biodiversity collapse continues at an accelerating pace.

What are we actually calling for?

Transformation IS big and very challenging. Be careful invoking it if you haven’t got a pathway for how it might be achieved because simply demanding it to happen can be less than useful.

Why is it so challenging? I think the school of resilience thinking has some useful ideas here. Indeed, the ideas of ‘transformation’ and ‘adaptation’ are central concepts in a resilience framing of the world.

The system you are interested in – be it a farm, a region, a forest or some other ecosystem – has its own identity (emerging from its structure, function and feedbacks). This system can absorb disturbance, self-organise, and still continue to sustain its identity up to a point. Push the system beyond this point, this threshold, and system loses its identity, it becomes something else.

Adaptation is about managing your system so that it holds onto its identity. It’s about stopping it from crossing a threshold or, if it does cross one, moving it back across to restore that identity (engineer a crossing to get back into a desired regime). It might even involve moving thresholds to create a larger ‘safe-operating space’.

Transformation is about creating a new and different system, to create a new way of making a living. An example comes from South Eastern Zimbabwe where, in the 1980s, ranchers transformed their cattle ranches to game hunting and safari parks when the livestock industry proved unviable.

Transformation is hard as the existing system has a lot of inertia and sunk investment. Fossil fuel companies have long resisted the growth of renewable energy; neoliberalism will defend itself to the death as will autocratic dictatorships. Or, if you want to look at a smaller scale, a farm or business or even a golf club, will take a lot of persuading to transform their enterprise into something quite different because their identity is central to their very existence (and each system has made long-term investments in staying as they are).

Transformative capacity

For transformation to occur, resilience thinking says there are three important factors needed. The first is to get beyond denial. The ‘rule of holes’ is to stop digging when you realise you’re trapped in one. If your farm, business, golf club or energy sector is not sustainable in a changing climate-ravaged world then you need to acknowledge it and accept your existing ‘identity’ might have to transform.

However, even if you accept the need for transformation, what are you going to ‘transform’ to? The second factor is the ability to explore options for transformation. A resilient society is one that encourages experimentation in order to explore options.

And, if an experiment works (if, for example, the golf club works better as a multi-function community centre producing food), the third factor needed for transformation is a capacity to upscale the successful experiment so it becomes the norm everywhere.

These three factors add up to transformative capacity, and each presents major challenges for the managers of the system. Which is why calls for transformation are often made but rarely result in anything happening at all; it’s just too difficult.

To be or not to be…

What happens instead is resistance and denial (think of 50 years of climate wars), and token efforts at adaptation (think announcements of the latest techno gadget that will improve efficiency by X%). Because, at the end of the day, no national leader is going to suggest that the identity of their country (or the many electorally important sectors that have traditionally been the strength of that country) should be transformed into something else. What they will say, instead, is that by making the existing system work better (grow faster, be more efficient, etc) we can solve the mounting challenges that confront us (thereby breaking the ‘first rule of holes’).

So, when IPBES called for ‘transformative change’ to meet the challenge of collapsing biodiversity, I say ‘good luck to them’. However, without an honest engagement with what it is they are proposing when they invoke ‘transformation’, a systems approach, I can’t see anything changing (and so far I’m right).

Adapt or transform is a pretty big choice*, it’s as fundamental as the Hamlet’s reflection with ‘to be or not to be’; because it’s all about the essence of the system we care about, its identity.

* Should you adapt or transform? Actually, it’s not a binary choice. On the surface, it may appear there’s a tension between adapting and transforming. But the tension is resolved when you consider the system at multiple scales, because making the system resilient at a regional scale, for example, may require transformational changes at lower scales. Adapting and transforming are actually complementary processes, and adaptability and transformability are complementary attributes of a resilient system.

Banner image: “So, what do you reckon, Yorick. Should we adapt or transform?” (Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet, with Yorick’s skull; photographer: James Lafayette. Image by WikiImages from Pixabay)

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