By Thomas Macintyre PhD Candidate , T-Learning

At the turn of the month from August to September, I had the privilege to partake in the Transformations conference, held in the historic city of Dundee, Scotland. As an early career researcher in the international T-Learning network, I am immensely interested in the forms and conditions for transformative learning that are needed in the myriad paths towards more sustainable futures.

In this piece I want to reflect briefly on the nature of change and my own fears for the future. These thoughts grew out of the morning session on the first day, when Ioan Fazey, co-organizer of the event, asked us to write down three words that represented barriers to personal transformation that we wanted to leave behind during this conference.

The words on my paper read as follows:

Transgressive learning


Yes, I know – melancholic and unproductive. The idea that it is too late to save the planet. With so much important work to be done, the last thing we need is doomful resignation. But it’s important to express how we feel, and I think the above is a fear carried by many people who are aware of the monumental disruptions taking place on our planet, and who connect the acceleration of these events with the limits of the resilience of humankind and the limits of the planet itself. I challenged myself to address these fears during the conference.

This challenge began with a good start, listening to the following ‘meditation’ by presenter Susi Moser, an expert on climate change. Through her storied talk called ‘If it is life we want’, Moser made the simple yet profound point that nothing new is created without changing the old. And whether we meet the highly challenging 1.5 or 2°C limit for warming or not, there will be huge changes in store for us. If we somehow collectively manage to change our relationship to Mother Earth, to live within the one-planet limit, it will mean painful leaps away from an individualized consumerist lifestyle. If we do nothing, social unrest and environmental collapse will drive us into self-induced extinction. This made me think that sitting back in resignation will not mean sitting back for long – times of accelerating change are upon us.

Throughout the various keynote presentations, speed talks and conversations on transformation practices over the following days, I found myself rebounding between the disempowering practice of indeed ‘sitting around’ – listening and talking about change – and the increasing realization that there are extremely intelligent and inspired people working towards action-based change. A strong focus of the conference was on mindfulness – of being consciously aware of the present – as well as the role of deliberate transformation in changing our own personal beliefs and values towards more sustainable outcomes. There was an excellent workshop on accelerating social change, in which various real-world examples of initiatives managing to scale up transformations were presented and discussed in light of the need for rapid take-up of sustainable initiatives. But I still wondered – is it too little, too late?

Someone who made me challenge whether I was asking the right question or not was keynote speaker Kumi Naidoo, a South African activist who is currently director of the African Civil Society Initiative. In an honest and heartfelt talk on his own experiences of change, Naidoo stated that it can be useful to ‘budget for disappointment’, but that we have a moral obligation to use all our energy and inspiration to change the world, regardless of whether it may be too late or not. Through his stories we heard the costs of such a moral obligation, once again highlighting the pain of making change. But running through his narrative were glimmers of hope where actions can lead to changes in the status quo.

Ultimately our pieces of paper from the first morning were incorporated into a paper and clay ‘cosmic egg’ sculpture, constructed by participants during the conference and ceremonially ignited in the beautiful Scottish countryside. Although I felt a slight sense of irony at seeing my words go up in flames (in a globally warming world), the act symbolized the need to address our fears and learn how to live with them productively. A wise person once said that ‘acceptance is the art of letting go’ and I feel that through the inspiring, grounded presentations and great conversations at the Transformations conference, I have learnt a little more of this ‘art’ by which to navigate my fears and hopes for the future.