Someone asked my son when he was about three years old, ‘What is your father’s job?’ He said, ‘Sibseba’, which in Amharic means ‘meetings’. This was because every time my son used to ask me where I was going, I used to tell him to sibseba. At the time, I was coordinating the Ethiopian civil society preparation for the Rio + 10 Earth Summit held in South Africa in 2002. I laughed at it then, but now, 15 years later, I globe-trot from one meeting to another. Some of us are caught up in this cycle and there seems to be no way out of it. Anyway, this year so far, I have participated in nine international meetings. I was active in all of them, either as part of the organising group or as a presenter. One thread connected all of them: transformation.

I feel that a need to fundamentally change the way we live is at last being widely recognised, except for those people who are stuck, either through their own free will or through the system, and those who benefit from maintaining the status quo. I think that many of us are caught up in a paradox, where we deeply understand the kind of transformation that is needed but are part of perpetuating the system that we hate so much. The meetings I attended this year all had at their core transformation to sustainability but came to it from various angles.

Many came to it from the transformation of agriculture and food systems to sustainability. Others talked about the role of learning to achieve transformation, and yet others looked at it from the angle of soil carbon sequestration to reduce the impact of climate change. One meeting, in Kigali, was on the global initiative, The World in 2050, where the discussion was held on pathways to transformation beyond Sustainable Development Goals. A conference in Scotland had the agenda ‘Transformations in 2017’. A meeting among learning and education professionals in Sweden even went beyond the word ‘transformation’ and discussed transformative and transgressive learning for sustainability.

Here are some of the learnings.

  • The importance of democratic space: I am sure you all agree with me that we cannot talk of transformation without participation. We know that in Africa the space for civil society and civic engagement is narrowing by the day, while the continent is going from crisis to crisis. The doors of our government offices are wider open to rich corporations, philanthro-capitalist and Northern development agents than they are to the citizens. How can we create space in the political arena to help shape our transformation?
  • Urbanisation: There is a growing recognition for the need to manage the transformation of urban areas. Anyone who has seen the astronomical growth of urban areas in Africa and the impact that this is having on the urban social and environmental ecosystems can attest that things are not going very well. Urban areas need transformation in how they are governed if there is going to be a better future for their inhabitants. This is much more apparent in Africa, where urban planning is at its lowest. Even if a plan exists, it usually fails due to a lack of capacity in implementation and shoddy business and political interests. And it is not only that more and more people are living in urban areas; urban dwellers determine both the politics and the production of food in rural areas.
  • Food systems: Calls for the transformation of food systems are becoming increasingly louder. A large body of research shows how industrial food production is affecting health and nutrition, harming the environment, eroding cultural values, and affecting the rights of food producers. Country after country in Africa is following failed food systems, which is deeply worrying. All statistical data shows that our health, the environment and the rights of all involved in it will improve if we fix our food systems.
  • Growing collaboration between social and natural scientists: Natural scientists are at last respecting the knowledge and perspective that social scientists bring to the discussion on transformation, and this is quite evident in all of the meetings. Role of art: It was pleasing to the soul to see how, in almost all the meetings, art was given a space to inspire and visualise transformation. Various types of artists were invited to open people’s hearts and minds and to show them the possibility of transformation to sustainability. In one show, a young woman came on stage carrying a lot of fruit and wine, and wearing a white shirt. Without talking, she ate and drank greedily, staining her white shirt. The message was clear: the act of soiling the shirt represented the behavior of human beings on earth.
  • Importance of learning for transforming: This was emphasised time and again. We need to examine what we are doing in order to achieve a deeper level of transformation, at both personal and system levels. I think this is where theories and practices in education have been making an impact. At nearly every meeting, Einstein’s famous statement was repeated: ‘insanity is to do the same thing again and again and expect a different result’.
  • Co-development of knowledge: Transformation cannot happen with knowledge that comes from one source, was the message. Better understanding comes from a confluence of multiple perspectives. As such, there was a wide recognition that we need to incorporate knowledge of indigenous and local communities in our planning for transformation to sustainability, in order to include a historical, temporal, and spatial understanding.
  • Reconfiguring the mind: There was a shared understanding that a large-scale mind shift at a higher level is needed, for transformation to happen. There has to be a massive NO to what we are doing and a collective YES to sustainability. An example was provided: smoking used to be common in many places but science and political decisions have changed this, even though industry fought hard to retain the status quo.
  • Creativity and humanity: There was a lot of talk about self-transformation. Almost everyone asked, ‘How can we talk about transforming the world while we are deeply entrenched in values and beliefs that seek to bring temporary comfort?’ There were a lot of suggestions on self-transformation. For example, one presenter in Dundee, Scotland, suggested daily mindfulness meditation to help us be conscious of what we are buying and how we are behaving.
  • The nine planetary boundaries as a powerful framework: The planetary boundaries are becoming a huge force in creating a growing consensus around economic and social development in the context of the biosphere; going beyond sustainable development (with its equal emphasis on economic, social and environmental goals) to a form of development where the economy is managed to serve the society, and the economy and society flourish within the limits of the biosphere. This is quite radical in a world where economic development is the only driving force and a cause of much social destruction.
  • Complexity: In all the meetings, there was a growing realisation that we live in a complex and unpredictable world. There are multiple causes and effects and we need to consult interdisciplinary studies and use multiple approaches to bring about a solution. Although reductionism – an attempt to explain complex processes through physical and chemical processes – can be good in creating machines, it has many limitations in explaining complex social and natural phenomena. Progress cannot be measured through numbers. It is not possible to measure the success of a project by the amount of money that somebody gets or by the number of seedlings planted. Complexity assumes that we need to use all available information from as many sources as possible to reach a conclusion if our purpose is to foster resilience.
  • Stewardship: This is one of the most exciting angles of resilience thinking. The basic premise is that people have cultural and spiritual relationships with their environments, not just economic ones, and this can be fundamental to the protection of the biosphere. Sacred natural sites are a good example. People stop cutting trees and polluting water, even though not doing so may be economically beneficial because they have other relationships with these resources. We should also show stewardship by transforming degraded environments into better ecosystems and recuperating lost seeds and knowledge.

Let me leave you with an inspiring story from my visit to a Swedish farm at a place called Hånsta Östergärde, located in Vattholma, 20 km north of Uppsala and approximately 85 km north of Stockholm. The farmers, Ylva and Kjell Sjelin, have 170 ha of arable land, 10 ha grazing land and 100 ha of forest. When I visited the first time, the farmers were complaining about how the Swedish system favored big agribusiness and how organic farmers were struggling. I visited them more recently, and the story was quite different.

They said that the Swedish government has started subsidising organic farmers much more than industrial agriculture and banks prefer giving loans to organic farmers than to others. This change has come partly through the demand by consumers for healthy and nutritious food produced in an environmentally sustainable way. I think this positive story may be an indication that the direction – in Sweden at least – is towards sustainability.

Million Belay is the coordinator of the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa (AFSA) and a researcher on food systems transformation at the Stockholm Resilience Centre.