Resilience, Community Action & Societal Transformation

Katy Fox | Tuesday, 10th October 2017
How grassroots resilience-building initiatives are responding to the world's current problems with sustainability, permaculture and transition.
Author: Dr. Thomas Henfrey, Gesa Maschkowski and Dr. Gil Penha-Lopes
Publisher: Permanent Publications
Publication year: 2017
RRP: £19.95

When we engage in transformative action, such as permaculture or Transition projects, we learn ecologically: by doing, experimenting, documenting and collaborating to constantly refine our practices and our knowledge through feedback as well as feedforward loops. One indicator of progress in this sort of endeavour is the quantity and quality of edge that the project provides. In this regard, this book is very rich. 

It explores the interface between social science based resilience research and various grassroots resilience-building initiatives arising within the last few decades in reaction to sustainability and related challenges and the perceived inadequacy of centralised responses on the part of government and business. Edited by three people who work on the edge between permaculture practice and research, it brings together work of Transition activists and researchers who met up and worked together at the 2014 Resilience conference. 

The section ‘Views from the Ground’ contains analyses of the development, potential and limiting factors of Transition case studies from Spain, Canada and the UK. One particularly compelling insight from this section is how these particular initiatives have addressed the thorny questions common to all grassroots movements. These questions include how to move beyond the socio-cultural-economic privileging of unsustainable lifestyles, how to make economic localization work for poor and marginalised people, and how to break through a sense of local immunity against world problems. Furthermore, the issue of how to make the step from human scale resilience to systemic societal transformation is shown to be essential for all transformative projects to tackle. 

One chapter of the ‘Transition and Resilience’ section in particular caught my attention: it is based on research on the social conditions for effective community action, and focuses on how Transition activists cultivate personal resilience in order to create environments conducive to behaviour change. What makes people engage in grassroots initiatives? According to this study, people need a sense of coherence to stay healthy in their activism. This entails that they understand what is going on, that they perceive the current situation to be manageable (and they put in place good processes to frame their work as successful and meaningful), and that they find joy in the indirectness of the change they may be able to effect. 

The final section broadens out the focus of the book to the findings of resilience research more generally. One chapter shows the entwining of lives in the global north and south and presents a call for solidarity between global north activists for social change and indigenous struggles in Latin America. One critical part of the book – based on an Open Space that was held during the Resilience conference mentioned above – manages to make the common resonance and practical pointers emerge as to which questions really need addressing in the perma-culture and transition movements. So whether you are interested in practical ways forward for transformation or whether you are more of a researcher at heart, you will find this book contains a rich and diverse tapestry of perspectives, contributors and formats. 

Katy Fox is a social anthropologist, community organiser and ecosocial designer passionate about social and cultural change

Useful links

Also by the authors: Permaculture and Climate Change Adaptation

Tomorrow: powerful new transition film features permaculture