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System Change will not be negotiated

Guest editorial by Nnimmo Bassey, member of the Transformations to Sustainability Steering Committee, on the occasion of the Ecological Challenges Conference in Norway, Oslo (15-18 February 2017) 

Giraffes are notoriously fussy eaters, moving long distances between trees to browse for the most nutritious leaves and shoots. Recent research may shed new light on why: certain trees have developed a direct line of defence against these hungry giants. When giraffes start to eat the leaves of umbrella thorn acacias, the trees release some toxic gases that offend the taste buds of the giraffes, sending a warning signal to neighbouring trees to do the same. The giraffes, wise to this game, move further away, upwind, to find trees that haven’t received the signal.

Multiple studies and observations have shown that species stand better chances of survival when they cooperate, live and work in solidarity. Nature is sending us alarm signals, warning us that we need to change our unjust system of dependency on the exploitation and enslavement of nature and labour. We need to cooperate now more than ever before, to move to a path that would secure the health of the Earth and its inhabitants. The present fossil-based civilization is running out of gas and its terminal point is imminent – whether planned or not. Unlike the giraffes, we cannot move to another feeding ground — we cannot change planets. The necessity of system change is inescapable.

We speak of the gifts of Nature as re-sources. Yes, re-sources, intentionally hyphenated because we are speaking not of commodities, but of the vital need for humans to return to the source, to reconnect to Nature, to think of the source before lifting the chisel, hammer, shovel, drill or rig.

Re-source democracy is a call for the recognition of the rights of Nature, including her right to regenerate and maintain her cycles. It is built on a clear understanding of the uses and intrinsic values of the gifts of Nature. It calls for our understanding of the harmful impacts of human activities to the climate, the planet and all the beings inhabiting her. Re-source democracy demands the interrogation of the meaning of progress and development to help us draw the line between what we can accept or reject in our environment. 

We know that those who benefit most from the unjust, disruptive and unsustainable system will not listen to logical needs for system change. It is time to speak up and let a thousand solutions bloom.

System change will be birthed by a convergence of movements. It will not be a matter of either — or, it will be a matter for all. We have to continually remind ourselves that our lives and realities are formed by a web of relationships, issues and realities, and that we require a diversity of approaches to effectively confront and overcome them — with the diversity of movements coalescing around common organizing principles.

Read more on our blog.

Over €13 million funding available for social science-led research on transformations to sustainability.
The Belmont Forum, NORFACE and the ISSC, as the Transformations to Sustainability funders, have together launched a new funding programme under the banner of “Transformations to Sustainability” (T2S).

This T2S call will contribute to re-structuring the broad field of sustainability research by placing social science and humanities at the heart of interdisciplinary research, in a step-change in scale and scope for research programming on this topic. The programme is structured around three themes; every research project should focus on at least one of these themes:

  • Governance and institutional dimensions of transformations to sustainability
  • Economy and finance of transformations to sustainability
  • Well-being, quality of life, identity, and social and cultural values in relation to transformations to sustainability
The programme also aims to tap into and develop existing knowledge by facilitating new collaborations between countries which are not frequently involved in large-scale international collaborative research efforts, notably low- and middle-income countries.The ISSC is participating in the programme with dedicated funding for research teams in low- and lower-middle-income countries.

Projects funded under the research programme will be led by a Main Applicant from the social sciences or humanities, and project teams will involve researchers in at least three eligible countries. The funding available for this T2S programme over a period of three years has been set at a minimum of €13 million across the international funding partners. 

Key dates
5 April 2017 – Deadline for submission of Outline Proposals
June 2017 – Applicants will be informed about the decision on Outline Proposals
26 September 2017 – Deadline for submission of Full Proposals
April 2018 – Applicants will be informed about the decision on Full Proposals

Only successful Outline Proposals will be considered at Full Proposal stage; Applicants must first complete an Outline Proposal to have a chance of being considered for funding. 

Read the full call documents and apply
Webinar: opportunities for social science to shape the future
In the past few months, the T-Learning Transformative Knowledge Network (TKN) research teams have started engaging with communities who have an interest in transforming their situations towards sustainability through learning together in co-engaged ways. In Vietnam, T-Learning researchers have scoped potential sites and existing models of t-learning within the Mekong Delta that are tackling urbanisation, climate change, conservation and livelihoods. A report is available to download. In South Africa,T-Learning researchers met earlier this month to reflect on how they were co-defining matters of concern across their networks. They discussed the processes, methods and personal reflexivity required to engage in co-defining matters of concern in diverse t-learning networks. In Colombia, a transition lab focusing on scaling up transformative and experiential learning took place earlier this year in the Indigenous town of Atanques. In Malawi, meetings were held with women farmers in order to explore the value of - and obstacles to - informal learning in maize cultivation, one of their main livelihood strategies that is affected by the regular drying of Lake Chilwa, where the T-Learning case study is being developed. The T-Learning research teams are tracking the emergence and processes of transformative, transgressive learning in times of climate change in these diverse contexts, hoping to learn more about such learning processes as these unfold across the TKN.  

Find out more on the T-Learning TKN.
Environmental Justice and Conflict
"Across the globe, environmental justice struggles over the right way to govern and use natural resources are increasing, and so is the attention being paid to studying and understanding these environmental conflicts. However, there is a pressing need to make more explicit connections between some key bodies of research that are relevant to these struggles."

A report from the recent Conflict Transformation and Environmental Justice Think-Tank held at the University of East Anglia (UEA), UK, is now available to download. The Think Tank brought together UEA researchers, external experts and a number of members of the ACKnowl-EJ TKN to jointly explore how such a transformative research agenda for environmental justice is being, or can be, developed. 

The group identified four key areas of work for potential future collaborations, around Theory, Methods, Education, and Cross-learning for action, and formed sub-groups to take forward each component.

Participants also agreed to seek to maintain cross pollination with other existing initiatives, such as the T-Learning network, and with other partners that were interested in participating but could not make it to the meeting.
Third Transformative Knowledge Workshop
The PATHWAYS TKN has started the year with a number of events run by different partners in the network. 

On 30 & 31 January, the PATHWAYS team at the African Centre for Technology Studies in Kenya ran a workshop entitled 'Enabling Sustainable and Equitable Access to Solar PV Solutions for All' via Mobile-Based Payment Systems.' The event brought together NGOs, government officials, private sector representatives and scholars to discuss and develop concrete steps towards transformations for sustainable energy access in East Africa. 

On 10 & 11 February, the PATHWAYS team at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi held a consultation on the availability of clean water and the problem of waste water in Gurgaon, an area in the Haryana region of the National Capital Region of India. Participation was extremely diverse, bringing together rural and urban residents,  private sector and chambers of commerce, scholars, engineers and town planners, trades unions, NGOs and environmental activists.

The STEPS Centre ran a stall at Seedy Sunday, the UK's oldest and largest community seed swap, linked to their work on 'Transformations to Sustainable Agri-Food Systems in Brighton and Hove'. Adrian Ely gave a talk entitled 'Seed Regulation: Patents and Alternatives', which outlined developments around open source seeds from across Europe and the USA, and drew upon the work that is being carried out by CENIT, the 'Pathways' network partners in Argentina.

The membership of the Steering Committee of the Transformations to Sustainability (T2S) programme has been renewed for the next two years of the programme.

With several members of the original Committee stepping down at the end of 2016, five new members have been appointed by the ISSC Executive Committee for the period 2017 to 2018: John Gaventa, Jackie Olang, Úrsula Oswald Spring, Boshra Salem and Richard Tutwiler. Together with the continuing members of the Committee, they constitute a diverse panel of knowledge-holders on social transformation and sustainability.

The Steering Committee provides scientific guidance on T2S programme management and advises on strategy development. It is also responsible for funding decisions in the programme. 

Webinar on Transformative innovation for a 1.5ºC world
Future Earth’s Transformations Knowledge-Action Network will host its third webinar at 13:00 CET on 3 March, on the topic of 'Transformative innovation for a 1.5ºC world'.

The speakers are Frances Westley (Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation, University of Waterloo, Canada) and Graham Leicester (Director of the International Futures Forum).

The webinar is open to all, and you can register now
Webinar on Transformative innovation for a 1.5ºC world
The ISSC is looking for an Administrative Assistant to provide support to the ISSC Secretariat in its programmes and activities, and particularly the Transformations to Sustainability Programme.

This position is based in Paris, France, and is for a fixed term until 31 December 2017.

Applications must be received by Friday, 3 March 2017.


This month our emerging idea is about solidarity as a dynamic of transformations to sustainability, and is offered by the T-Learning TKN. They say "The work of Gaztambide-Fernandez (2012) has helped us here. He proposes a decolonised pedagogy of solidarity. This is a way of thinking about human encounters premised on the relationship between difference and interdependence and not similarity and self-interest. Expanding the idea, he suggests relationality (i.e. we are made by our relations with others); transitivity (i.e engaging in action that transforms both the actor and the audience); and creativity (i.e. revealing new horizons against which we not only imagine, but also produce new ways of being and acting together). It is helping the T-learning team to think about relational and collective agency among people of diverse interests and backgrounds."

Gaztambide-Fernandez, R. A. (2012). Decolonization and the pedagogy of solidarity. Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education and Society, Volume 1(No.1), 41–67.


Chaves, M., Macintyre, T., Verschoor, G. & Wals, A.E.J. 2017. Towards Transgressive Learning through Ontological Politics: Answering the “Call of the Mountain” in a Colombian Network of Sustainability. Sustainability, 2017, 9,21.

This article explores how encounters between different ontologies can result in transformative and potentially transgressive learning in terms of disrupting stubborn routines, norms and hegemonic powers.

Price, L. & Lotz-Sisitka, H.B. (2016).  Critical realism, environmental learning and social change.  London: Routledge. 

This edited book introduces a decade of mainly southern African critical realist environmental education research and thinking that asks the question: ‘How can we facilitate learning processes that will lead to the flourishing of the Earth’s people and ecosystems in more socially just ways?’ 

Adrian Ely and Anabel Marin, co-leads of the 'Pathways' Transformative Knowledge Network, have outlined some of the details of their approach in a new open access article entitled 'Learning about engaged excellence across a transformative knowledge network'.
IDS Bulletin. Transforming Development Knowledge. Vol. 47, No. 6 (2016) .


Sustainability and Social Science Research Symposium
 17 - 19 May 2017
University of Michigan, USA 
Open for registration

The Fourth Annual Social Science Conference - The Environment and Social Transformation
19 - 21 May 2017
Al Akhawayn University, Morocco
Open for registration

23rd International Sustainable Development Research Society Conference
14 - 16 June 2017
Bogota, Colombia
Early-bird registration closes 31 March 2017

Summer School for early-career researchers
IMPACT: Approaches and Tools for Enhancing the Social and Policy Impact of Your Research
18 – 20 June 2017
Budapest, Hungary
Open for registration

7th International Conference on Sustainability Science (ICSS2017): Global Goals - New Approaches to Knowledge Generation – challenges and solutions from local to global scales
24-26 August 2017
Stockholm, Sweden
Call for sessions closes 28 February

Transformations 2017 - Transformations in Practice
August 30 - September 1 2017
Dundee, UK
Early-bird registration closes 30 April 2017

II Conference of the Programme on Ecosystem Change and Society (PECS-II)
7 – 10 November 2017
Oaxaca City, Mexico
Second call for contributions closes 30 March 2017


Contributions to this newsletter are welcome at
The Transformations to Sustainability Programme is coordinated by the ISSC and funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida).
Copyright © 2017 International Science Council, All rights reserved.

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Opinions, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this newsletter are those of the contributors; the ISSC and its partners in the Transformations to Sustainability Programme accept no liability in this regard.

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