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Soul food

I was very happy when I got the news that I was accepted to participate in the Future Earth autumn school on: Sustainability science framings and practices in Europe: How do we leverage transformative research?

I did quite a bit of research to understand the different streams within transition research. It might seem that there is agreement pertaining to transition theories, frameworks, or concepts. That is as there are some dominant transition concepts. However, the field is split and not everyone frames the world as socio-technical. As a transition researcher who does not follow the mainstream idea, you are naturally mostly surrounded by those who follow the mainstream. Thus, connecting with like-minded people can be difficult. Thus, all I expected from the autumn school was to meet like-minded people. I was also hoping to touch base with concepts that I resonate with.

Spoiler alert: Attending the Future Earth autumn school felt like coming home.

The mountains alone, made me feel at home. Even if I stem from the flat part of Austria, the mountains give me a homie feeling. When I arrived, it was already dark outside. Hence, I was very much looking forward to waking up, opening the curtains, and seeing the majestic Alps. I was not disappointed by the view!

The program of the autumn school was packed. Though the program offered a good mix of lectures, discussions, workshops, and other interactions. The interdisciplinary character of the autumn school was emphasized right from the start by one presentation highlighting the role of storytelling in transition studies. This first talk was followed by a talk about the biophysical limits of planet Earth. This multi-faceted view on transitions remained strong throughout the whole week. I very much resonated with the presentations, and I enjoyed the open discussions following thereafter.

I also felt a little starstruck. I knew it from the program that he would be there. But seeing Joan Martinez Alier live was another thing. He is one of THE founding fathers of Ecological Economics (though we had discussions about the legitimacy of using such labels). I loved the passion he embodied, the fire in his eyes, the cheeky smile. And then there is his wealth of knowledge and experience. He presented parts of his recent book (Land, Water, Air and Freedom), which will be available later this year.

But not only the presence of Joan made me feel at home. We had several presentations expanding on aspects of social metabolism. During my studies in Vienna, I took quite some courses at the Institute of Social Ecology. Thus, what was presented was not entirely new to me. However, since finishing my master's I have hardly been in touch with researchers that use a socio-ecological lens. My soul was craving for this reconnection. I am most of the time surrounded by researchers who rely on technological innovation and continuous economic growth as THE answers to the problems of modern societies. So, after some time, one feels alone. The importance of connecting with like-minded people was mentioned a couple of times during our closing session. I guess, we will all feed on the experience of connectivity that nourished us during these days.

Another special experience was the Forum Theatre. This play functioned as a mirror and showed us the dynamics within a group of collaborating scientists. We were all struck by how much we all identified with the roles and/or dynamics the actors portrayed. Although we were all from different Universities, we could all recognize the script. It signals, that certain problematic dynamics are EU-wide issues that need to be tackled. It was about eco-anxiety and the question of whether an individual can do enough through research, or if having another job would be more influential, or if one should engage in other activities (e.g., activism). It was about the importance of a peer group. It was about the tension between rigor and slow-moving processes in science versus the urge to share and interact with stakeholders in a fast-paced manner. It was about people following their own agendas and not listening to each other. It is about researchers in different career stages and how their needs clash. I think this clash of interest was discussed quite a bit during the autumn school. Who should be the change agent? The PhD, the postdoc, the tenured professor? It was discussed that this role should be with those who have a stable position rather than with those who are constantly on the job hunt. We also discussed changing academic institutions as a form of transition work. Here too the role of those who are tenured might be more vital. I can only speak for myself as a postdoc. Why invest time in changing an institution, when you will only be there for about 2 years. Thus, we discussed the inertia of change within academic institutions, as those with the power to change things might not necessarily be most active.

Next to this Forum Theatre, we had several workshops focusing on interdisciplinarity (collaborating with researchers from other disciplines), transdisciplinarity (collaborating with stakeholders), activism, social metabolism, and developing transition pathways. For some of these workshops, we were split into thematic groups (food systems, forestry, and urban systems). These groups and subgroups were made up of researchers from different disciplines, which allowed us to work on the interdisciplinarity theme. The first task within the groups was to agree on a research question. Thus, interdisciplinary teams had to find a consensus. This was not difficult. Though, I would argue that this does not necessarily reflect reality. I think, what made collaboration easy was the common mindset. The second workshop was about co-creating pathways. First, we had to identify transition narratives. These were then randomly assigned to the subgroups who had to further elaborate on them. The group I was part of had to discuss eco-modernism for agri-food transition. We were not happy about this assignment, as none of us identified with this narrative. However, in the end, it was a good exercise because it allowed us to change perspective and find arguments why one would want to support such a narrative. Building an understanding of the other side can help to build bridges. The workshop on activism allowed us to reflect on the roles of researchers in, for example, protest movements. This is currently a hot topic and the space to reflect on different standpoints is urgently needed.

Aside from refreshing knowledge and learning many new things, we also had some free time. Three different field trips were offered. I took part in the tour around the village and the visit to a fort. I should have come better prepared, as I learned that much history connects this specific place to Austrian history.

I have stated earlier that we created a sense of community during these days. I will take this with me.

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