Why I’m doing my ‘Environment & Development’ research in Europe

Several times in the past few weeks, someone has asked me about my dissertation research, and when I start talking about Transition Towns, Barcelona and figuring out my UK sites, I’m met with a puzzled, “you’re not going to Africa?”

In fairness, I had earlier in the year floated several research ideas (and written up a whole proposal!) that would have seen me in East Africa this summer. A brief explanation of my reasons for not pursuing those ideas, and instead going with my current research on Transition Initiatives usually suffices for most interlocutors.

But for some, the puzzlement remains. They wonder, with varying degrees of articulation: But you’re studying environment and development; what are you doing arsing around Europe and the UK? So I thought it prudent to give a few reasons for doing my research in the Global North/First World/Developed countries or whatever you wish to call it.

Development is not just something we do to them, down there. It’s often assumed that the places where development needs to happen are poor countries in Africa, Latin America, and some parts of Asia. But ‘development’ is not a linear process; all societies are in states of flux characterised by continuous change. Thus, Western Europe (and its offshoots) is also ‘developing’ in the sense that new ways of negotiating social relations, allocating resources and organising economic activity are always being introduced, adopted, tweaked and abandoned.

Sustainable development is a much bigger challenge in rich countries. There are some very obvious tensions between environmental conservation and economic development in poor countries: agriculture-led deforestation, poaching around national parks, etc. If such tensions aren’t obvious in rich countries, it’s mostly because we’ve long since passed the breaking point. So while you fret about the felling of the Amazon forest, the plight of African rhinos hunted for their horns, or the shocking pollution of the Ganges, spare a thought for the dearly departed aurochs, the late great forests of Great Britain and the disappearing Colorado River.

The fact is, most rich countries haven’t yet found a sustainable development strategy, either. I’m interested to see if Transition Towns are on to one.



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