Studying a Climate Community Engagement Success Story

Studying a Climate Community Engagement Success Story

While there thankfully is a growing body of research to help climate practitioners identify and understand the reasons why the public is not very engaged on climate, there hasn’t been nearly as much attention paid to climate engagement success stories. What can drive a community to do something to address climate disruption? It was this reasons-for-success question that Annie Heuscher explored as she got up close and personal with members of a Transition Town group in southern Appalachia.

Heuscher, a Climate Access member who now works as land use program manager for the Community Food & Agriculture Coalition in Missoula, Montana, notes that this is qualitative research she did for her master’s thesis at Iowa State University and that her work on what happened in a specific context isn’t intended to make across-the-board assumptions about happens in all communities. Still, she says, “My hope is that, for people in similar contexts, some of these things may work in their communities as well.”
Heuscher had met with a few other Transition Town communities (she wanted to study people engaged with community-based organizations, which is why she opted for a Transition Town over volunteers at national organizations such as, before settling on Transition Gardiner[1] because it seemed the most successful.
Transition Gardiner is one of almost 500 Transition Towns, a grassroots movement that focuses on developing local resilience and sustainability in the face of climate change, peak oil, and economic instability.  Many Transition Towns begin much like Transition Gardiner (TG) did, focusing on tangible individual solutions such as helping members to identify and utilize low-carbon transit options, grow their own food, and change consumption patterns. TG has opted not to work with government (local of otherwise) due to past frustrations.
There are a few notable characteristics about the TG members Heuscher studied.  All were fifty years and older, two-thirds of whom were retirees and all of whom had relocated to Gardiner from elsewhere. She wanted to know what motivated these folks to get involved with Transition Town instead of succumbing to the “prevalent cognitive dissonance” that allows people to pretend that unpleasant things such as climate change aren’t happening.
She says that the process of empowerment usually doesn’t start with education alone—there almost always is a personally important experience. What she found with this group was that everyone indeed had something—from living through the 1970s oil crisis to a conversation with a grandchild—that motivated them to act.  TG offered them a way to see that personally important experience through a shared lens – and gave them something to do about it.
She also wanted to know how such motivated individuals were able to find each other, because often what happens when people get involved in an overwhelming and controversial issue such as climate disruption is that their family and friends don’t want to talk about it. As one member, Marie, explained, “[New members] would come back in and say, ‘We tried to have this conversation… at a dinner party and… people would simply say it’s too depressing!’ I think it gave people the chance to actually state their fears and griefs.” 
Sue also noted this, saying “There needs to be an opportunity for people to talk about all this stuff… and scream and shout and, you know, do all that response that’s very necessary.”  TG gave people the space to be emotional while providing them with the support to find positive outlets, through gardening or building or biking, to feel like the issue was something they could do something about on their own.
“They had a group of people to vent with and develop positive coping mechanisms,” Heuscher explains.  As Noah mentioned, “The group has provided an important resource… to keep us psychologically engaged and buoyed up and resilient.”
Although no one in the group feels particularly hopeful about the future, they told Heuscher that doing something made them feel better and encouraged them to take further action. She likens this to a sort of a group hug a la AA.  Marie explained this feeling, saying “I don’t know what the future’s gonna be, but I know that I’m much more at peace and much more, um… the words that come to mind are  satisfied and hopeful, but it’s not a Pollyanna kind of hope. It’s the kind of hope that’s grounded in the fact that there are some really wonderful human beings on the face of the planet… To have found some people… has been just one of the greatest gifts the whole Transition movement has given to me… It is huge. It is huge for me.”
The way the group is structured likely contributes to their success, according to Heuscher. She says Transition Gardiner eschews structure and chains of command and is “ultra collaborative.” In contrast, some of the other groups Heuscher had considering studying displayed more of an us-versus-them attitude, while TG viewed everyone as being a valuable contributor and encouraged people to “find their own way” and gain skills.
To Heuscher, her thesis points to the need for more research into the psychology of why people get engaged. “I think it really speaks to the importance of the need for more of a therapeutic/psychological understanding of empowerment: empowerment is never going to happen to all people the same way and it’s always going to be contextual, so instead of trying to rely on an understanding of all people, we need to try to find ways to understand the person we’re dealing with right in the moment,” she says. “That’s something that I think is lacking in the climate movement – we’re still trying to find “the” way to get people on board, but in reality, I believe, it’s going to take a much more personal, individualized, and social approach.”

[1] Names of towns and individuals have been changed to protect anonymity.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user ConspiracyofHappiness