Skip to 0 minutes and 9 seconds Transformation is usually defined as significant changes in form, structure, meaning making. And that means transformations can happen in different realms or spheres. And when we think about transformation, we think about the possibilities to occur in different spheres. And most of the attention we’re putting on transformation right now happen in what we call the “practical sphere,” which is very much the technical solutions and behavioural changes that can be observed and measured. And these are the things where they’re the goal that we want to have reduced CO2 emissions. We want to have more resilient coastal areas. We want more bicycles. We want– all of these things that we can check them off and say, yes, we’ve achieved this.
Skip to 0 minutes and 56 seconds And the sustainable development goals are very much measured in that practical sphere. And yet that’s also where we’re having a really difficult time. And we’re not moving fast enough, and we’re finding a lot of resistances and things. And so we’d focus then on another sphere that is surrounding this which we call the “political sphere”, which is the very systems and the structures that facilitate or constrain changes in the practical sphere. And these are the rules, the norms, the regulations, the incentives– all of the things that are decided socially by society and by relationships in the system. And these often are held for certain reasons by those in power.
Skip to 1 minute and 39 seconds So in that political sphere, it’s where we often get the conflicts between different groups, between different worldviews, between different interests. And so power sits in this, and you know sometimes just one small change in the political sphere can really make it easy for the practical sphere to make changes if you get the incentives right. We see that, for example, in Norway with electric cars, where a few changes in the political sphere suddenly made electric cars the most desirable mode of transportation. But often then we get stuck in that political sphere and we’ve seen that through the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Negotiations that you have people going against each other and very much little room for agreement.
Skip to 2 minutes and 24 seconds And so we draw attention to a sphere that surrounds that called the “personal sphere.” And by that we mean the individual and shared beliefs, values, and worldviews that are actually influencing the system that we’re seeing and the way that we’re seeing ourselves as humans engaging with that system. So all of the assumptions about the way the world is is really held in that personal sphere, which is really– it’s also shared among, you know, culturally and among groups.
Skip to 2 minutes and 51 seconds And without recognising those and the importance of values, the importance of our own understandings and assumptions about leadership– you know, who leads, who decides– we end up with thinking that, like, this is the way it should be in the political sphere without recognising that a lot of these conflicts we’re talking about are really value conflicts or they’re worldview conflicts. They go much deeper than just interests and power but they are expressed through that. So when we look at the three spheres of the practical, the political, and the personal, we see how they’re all intertwined and working together to actually facilitate change or constrain change.
Skip to 3 minutes and 29 seconds And sometimes the biggest leverage is when people have a new thought in their head and see themselves as leaders or see themselves and why– what they’ve always taken for granted that it has to be this way. I have to drive. I have to fly. I have to do this. And then they start to kind of see a different system, engage with a different system, and see different solutions.
Skip to 4 minutes and 1 second One thing to point out is that sometimes the changes in that practical sphere can actually lead to changes in the political and personal sphere by opening up access to education, access to new ideas, room for dialogue or things. So it’s not to say that it’s only the personal and political spheres that are important, but that they’re constantly working with each other. And often if one person has an innovation, a social innovation that influences that practical sphere, it can reverberate and have impacts on the political and personal sphere. So it’s kind of like how the whole transformation processes evolves over time is within all three spheres of form, structure, and meaning making changing.
Skip to 4 minutes and 52 seconds We’re really good at technical problems, and we really understand what needs to be done and why and how and– but often it’s easier said than done. And if it were just a technical problem, it would have been solved 20 years ago. But really, the hard parts are in the political sphere. They’re in that personal sphere because they’re challenging some really widely and deeply held beliefs and structures in society. And I think we don’t– we underestimate this idea that we, as humans, are changing the global climate system. That’s quite a novel idea and quite a radical– you know, we’re shattering some worldviews there.
Skip to 5 minutes and 34 seconds But we’re also opening this up to that, yes, we actually can influence global systems in a positive way too. So challenging the things that are given to us as non-negotiable is a real part of that. And so in that practical sphere things kind of sit there or they don’t happen until someone gets another idea or is just like, yeah, this doesn’t have to be this way. So challenging the given and then seeing things in a new way is often a way to facilitate it. But also recognising who doesn’t want those changes and how they are actually impeding social change is equally important.
Skip to 6 minutes and 15 seconds I think that the real key to transformative change is first to recognise that it’s not just the technical problem. That it’s also about social dimensions, there’s human dimensions to it. And I think we have to change them one person, one institution, one city, one region at a time and recognise that this actually has effects for other people, other cities, other countries and regions. And that brings us back to the issue of leadership of people recognising that we all actually matter in this when it comes to climate change. That it’s not just about waiting for someone to change the system or somebody to come to an agreement or things.
Skip to 6 minutes and 57 seconds And that it’s more than just our votes and what we consume and things, but it’s really our political agency, our capacity to actually collaborate with others, to work with people who don’t share the same worldview, who don’t see the same problems and the same solutions as us. And you know, when you start to do that, you start– you open up for changes in all of the spheres to happen. And I think that’s where people come in as the solution to climate change through transformations.
Three spheres of transformation
In this video, Karen O’Brien, professor in human geography at University of Oslo, discusses how effective climate change leadership depends on the interplay of the practical, political and personal spheres of transformation.
Transformation is usually defined as significant changes in form, structure and meaning-making, and that means that transformations can happen in different realms or spheres.
While most climate change efforts are currently focused at the practical sphere and involve technical solutions and behaviour changes, the political and personal spheres are just as important:
We are really good at technical problems and we really understand what needs to be done and why and how and everything, but often it’s easier said than done. If it was just a technical problem, it would have been solved 20 years ago. But really, the hard parts are in the political sphere, they’re in the personal sphere because they’re challenging really widely and deeply held beliefs and structures in society.
To act effectively as a climate change leader means being able to collaborate with people who don’t share our world-view, according to O’Brien:
And that brings us back to the issue of leadership, of people recognizing that we all actually matter when it comes to climate change. […] [I]t’s really political agency, our capacity to actually collaborate with others, to work with people who don’t share our world-view and who don’t see the same problems and the same solutions as us. And when you start to do that, you open up for changes in all of the spheres to happen, and I think that’s where people come in as the solution to climate change through transformations.
© Karen O’Brien, CEMUS and Uppsala University