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Agency


Somehow I became a lecturer of a course. I was thrown into the ice-cold water. As I explained to a friend, the students and I, we all survived, but we all swallowed some water.


But I do not want to reflect on my teaching experience now. I want to reflect on one specific aspect that was part of the taught content, and which has been a theme that has accompanied me for quite a while now.


Agency.


I tried to have some moments during the lectures where students could actively reflect on the content. So, I posed questions. Like, who has the power to change?

What I could clearly see was the distinction between those who feel empowered and those who feel disempowered. Hence those who think they have agency and those who think that they have no agency. According to Westley et al. (2013), “[…] research on resilience indicates that individuals have a key role to play in bringing about transformations for sustainability.“


Agency refers to the ability to act or to choose an action from several options. For sure, action is needed to create a sustainable society. Thus, it can be stated that it is critical that people feel agency. Without agency, people will take no action.


To some extent, agency was part of my PhD thesis about market power and sustainability. Even if I did not treat this question explicitly, one question that continuously popped up was, who is the party that has the power and the responsibility to act? Ironically, this question was turned up-side-down when I did my postdoc at TU Delft, where I was looking at individual behavior. Now the individual was at the center of attention.


I think to an extent, we need to be realistic about the sphere of influence of individuals as well as of big companies or policymakers. On the other hand, only asking whose responsibility it is, keeps us stuck in a blame-game-like situation. And maybe most importantly, it strips us of our power to act.


I think it was during my PhD, when I attended a seminar about leadership (I believe), and there was one part that got stuck in my head. People can take on two potions in life, one of victimhood and one of leadership. Leadership is connected to responsibility. One takes on the responsibility for failure, for example. But it is also the position of power. If one takes over the responsibility for failure, one also has the power to do it better next time. It is the position of continuous (self)development. The position of victimhood, on the other hand, is disempowered but comfortable. One does not have to take over responsibilities and can blame others. As comfortable as that might seem, it also takes away one’s power to change. One gets stuck and becomes an object to life circumstances.


I think these two positions, victimhood and leadership, relate to not seeing one’s agency versus seeing one’s agency.


There is always going to be someone stronger, who might be able to dictate things. But I truly belief that in most situations, one still has a choice. Even if that means in the first place to get out of the situation of oppression, which surely can be a fight for many generations.


The sustainability transition means that we make different choices. Indeed, often our choices are limited. I can either limit myself because of the hurdles in my life and don’t take action, or I search for the things I can do.


I am in the course of analyzing insights from a project meeting, and it is very interesting to observe that the two different positions are also present in the documents I am screening. There are those who state that one cannot do much without the power of big corporations or political institutions. The others are very practical and focus on what one can do, even if it is small.


I do research on sustainability transitions, and to me, a transition is inherently connected to a change of the mind. I follow Donella Meadow’s (1999) leverage points perspective. The most potent leverage point is the paradigm, which can be translated to mindsets (Davelaar, 2021). Then the question is, can one change the system through small actions? I have no answer to this. But I think doing something is better than being stuck in some sort of paralysis of helplessness.


There is nothing more invigorating than understanding that one has power. I understand that these times must be frightening. Climate change anxiety has become a thing. It was also a topic in one of the lectures I gave. Without wanting to invalidate the fear of young people, I had to refer to the experience of my brother.


I had my crisis as an adolescent as well. It was around 9/11. Maybe my crisis was similar to what the young people experience these days in terms of climate change. My brother stated that there was nothing to fear. Compared to what he experienced during the cold war, where you never knew if someone would push the wrong button, the global situation is not as unsettling. Granted, the situation in Ukraine reawakens memories. However, what I want to say is that it seems that each generation has its crisis. Each generation has a (global) thing that makes one feel helpless.


I had to fight my lack of agency. The lack of agency leads to depression. At least, that was the case for me. Maybe some people can adopt a hedonistic mindset to life, but I could not. I did not know what to do. I did not know why life would make sense at all. Studying history and political science at the same time in high school, I saw that humans shift problems in time and space but do not really solve them. It seemed like humanity was stuck in its ways.


I was standing in front of this big problem, not knowing how to solve it. How to change the world? I guess this is what many young people feel these days. How to stop climate change. That is a big problem one person cannot solve. But that one person cannot solve it, does not mean that one cannot act.


In this state of existential crisis, my dear father told me he would understand me very much, but that I have to stop wanting to change the world, because I cannot. He stated I should instead focus on the things I can control at least to some extent. He thus, made me aware of my sphere of influence. He also made me aware of the beauty of small things, like a smile and unconditional kindness.


If we look at our sphere of influence, we have to realize that this is limited to oneself. If you have ever tried to save a person you love but were unsuccessful, you understand. You cannot force people to change. It is hard enough to change oneself. And this is where power and responsibility, and agency come into play. We leave the blame-game-like situation, take our power back and act. These actions do not need to change the world, but they need to be in line with one’s own convictions and values. Thus, we also need to explore our convictions and values. We need to develop the strength to act according to our convictions, even if they are not in line with the norm. That would now nicely connect to innovation, but I will stop here.


It might sound strange, and I might be very wrong, but I think if we all focused more on ourselves, on how one can become a good person, on how one can mentally evolve, we would no longer need sustainability transition scientists.



Photo credit: Maria Magdalena Biely



References:

Davelaar, D. (2021). Transformation for sustainability: a deep leverage points approach. Sustainability Science, 16(3), 727-747. doi:10.1007/s11625-020-00872-0

Meadows, D. (1999). Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. Hartland. Retrieved from https://donellameadows.org/wp-content/userfiles/Leverage_Points.pdf

Westley, F. R., Tjornbo, O., Schultz, L., Olsson, P., Folke, C., Crona, B., & Bodin, Ö. (2013). A Theory of Transformative Agency in Linked Social-Ecological Systems. Ecology and Society, 18(3). doi:10.5751/ES-05072-180327


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