What Do We Mean By Transition?

Transition.

A strip mall sits in front of an abandoned rayon factory in Elizabethton, Tenn. Photo by author.

A strip mall sits in front of an abandoned rayon factory in Elizabethton, Tenn. Photo by author.

That word kept coming up again and again during our tour of Central Appalachia and by the end only one thing was clear: there seems to be some confusion, or at least ambiguity, among the fellows and our partners on what exactly is economic transition. An academic definition of transition would be something like "...[a] relatively sharp change from one regime to a contrasting one, where a regime is a dynamic 'state' of  a system with its characteristic stochastic fluctuations and/or cycles."[1] Crystal clear now? No, probably not.

But even in everyday usage, the term itself is fairly vacuous and open to the interpretation of each party according to their own biases. An economic transition, with no further clarification, could mean just about any major shift in the economy of the region. This is why the caveats of 'sustainable' and 'just' are often added. The Appalachian Funder's Network's understanding of economic transition concentrates mainly on five principles: focus on place; foster collaboration for mutual benefit; emphasize local ownership;  systems thinking; and create multiple forms of wealth. Most people would probably have a more ill-defined answer. However, just like Justice Stewart, they know it when they see it.

As for myself, even with the learning tour over, I'm still searching for my own definition of transition. Despite being perhaps the most 'radical' of the fellows (in certain regards), I'm among the most realistic in terms of what I believe can be achieved; and I want that definition to be practical. As the exact definition still seems to be in the air, I currently place real economic transition somewhere between the typical creative destruction in the business cycle and the monumental changes in the mode of production (e.g. the agricultural and industrial revolutions, etc.) which have shaped human civilization. That is, a distinction so broad, it's virtually useless.

Fellows, Civic Life Institute attendees, and I discuss alternative business models over lunch. Photo by Catherine Moore.

Fellows, Civic Life Institute attendees, and I discuss alternative business models over lunch. Photo by Catherine Moore.

Let's narrow it down then. What other principles of transition would I add to those proposed by the Appalachian Funders Network? Here are a few more:

  • "There may be limits to growth, but I am more concerned with the limits of growth."[2] Meaning, while it's important to consider the physical limits on economic growth, it's also crucial to recognize that a full and just community requires things that economic growth alone cannot provide.

  • Neither change, nor tradition, are in themselves inherently desirable.

  • When considering the value of a change, keep in mind all its causes, primarily its final cause: the purpose or goal of an action.

  • Value your assets. Acknowledge your faults, but work from your assets.

  • More is not necessarily more; then again, less is not necessarily more either.

  • All things being similar, choose an appropriate solution over a high-tech one.

  • Plan for resiliency. Optimization is not your primarily goal. The world's too complicated a place for you to be right all the time.

I'm sure I'll add and subtract things from this list as I go throughout the year. In the end, I'm certain (well, as certain as I can ever be) that the long-term structural changes facing Central Appalachia will result in some form of economic transition. This will mirror decisions being made in post-industrial societies world-wide; that much is not debatable.  Whether the transition is just or sustainable is a separate question. It will be up to us. The transition we see will never be the perfect one we want, but if we work hard and are honest with ourselves, it may be the best one we can get.

- Zach Swick

[1] Marten Scheffer. 2009. Critical Transitions in Nature and Society. Princeton: Princeton University Press. pp 357.

[2] James Gustave Speth. 2010. " The Limits of Growth."Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril (Kathleen Dean Moore & Michael P. Nelson, eds.). San Antonia: Trinity University Press. pp. 6.