A quiet shift
It might have escaped your notice, but there’s something growing in Flanders. Ecological and social initiatives are popping up everywhere – sometimes small and not very visible, sometimes large and ambitious. The common denominator is the desire for change to consumerism and to reshape the future into a sustainable one.
Small-scale community and institutional projects could add up to big changes in Flanders
The idea of transition to a more sustainable way of living dates back to the turn of the century. People like the English activist Rob Hopkins began to look for answers to the question of how local communities could ready themselves to combat threats such as climate change and peak oil. An important principle in their thinking is resilience, which refers to the degree to which a system – such as a community – can withstand external influences. And the west doesn’t come out of it well: If there was no fuel for trucks on the roads, for instance, we would run out of food within a few days.
Greet Pipijn is active in Transition Flanders, a group that wants to inspire others to take steps towards transitioning. “Resilience is the starting point,” she says. “With that concept in mind, people can start to work on local and small-scale ideas. Transition is acting; that’s its appeal. People love to contribute to something. Transition is not a clear-cut concept. Setting up initiatives yourself, away from politics – that’s what it is about. And people are ready for it. The public support is there.”
Small-scale, local ... That sounds like the classic environmental movement. Yet there are significant differences, according to Pipijn. “The environmental organisations often paint a very sombre picture. Even though they are right, people are overwhelmed by it. Transition starts from a positive vision of the future, based on the idea that we can do something about it. Maybe something small in the scheme of things, but many small initiatives can lead to a big shift, a movement that’s a lot bigger than you might think. And if it goes wrong, we are least prepared to cope with the shock.”
In the bike kitchen
It’s Thursday evening in Ghent’s Brugsepoort neighbourhood. In the back of a former furniture factory, a handful of people tinker around with bicycles. The workshop is spacious and well equipped, with all kinds of tools, a small bar, a lot of books about cycling and pile of old bikes for spare parts. The Fietskeuken (Bicycle Kitchen) is in full swing.
“Every Thursday, anyone can come here to repair their bicycle,” says Fietskeuken volunteer Sander Vandenberghe. “There is equipment available, and you can ask for advice. Some of us have followed bicycle repair training. The location here suits us perfectly, and, with the money from fundraising parties, we’ve bought some decent equipment.”
It’s an open workshop (pictured) but also more, he stresses. “We organise information evenings about travelling by bike where people can share their experiences. Bringing people together through cycling, that’s pretty much the idea behind the Fietskeuken.”
The Repair Cafe
Meanwhile, on the terrace of De Kroon community centre in the Brussels commune of Sint-Agatha-Berchem, a dozen people wait their turn. Down the hall are several tables where others are working on clothes, furniture and electrical appliances. Bicycle repairs are done outside in the sun. It’s the commune’s first Repair Cafe, and the turnout is high.
“The table with electronics is pretty busy,” laughs Christina Brunnenkamp, one of the organisers. “They are also the hardest stuff to find experienced repairers for.” The idea behind a Repair Cafe is that you bring broken stuff for small repairs. You can do it yourself with the tools available, or you can get some help from volunteers with more experience.
“Repair Cafes are popping up like mushrooms out of the ground,” says Brunnenkamp. “It’s a hype, but I hope it will become more than that. It is a signal, a sign that people want their stuff to last longer than six months. There is a growing preference to repair things rather than replace them. Also, a Repair Cafe does the trick when it comes to social cohesion: It’s a great way to get to know your neighbours.”
The transition of UGent
Many transition initiatives are practical in nature. That seems logical, but it does not necessarily have to be like that. A few weeks ago, the University of Ghent (UGent) presented a transition plan based on the thoughts of 150 staff and students. In addition to practical issues such as mobility, the document proposes transitions in the fields of research and education. It’s a remarkable and daring plan because it goes straight to the heart of questioning what a university is for.
The people behind the study are professor Thomas Block and his colleague Erik Paredis of UGent’s Centre for Sustainable Development. “It is a daring reflection, but the time is ripe,” says Block. “The major challenges of the future, such as climate change and social inequality, are becoming increasingly clear. In addition, internationally high-ranked universities are already working on these themes, so there is pressure from outside to work on transition.”
Research and teaching are at the core of any university. It boils down to the question of what kind of research is conducted and with what kind of vision students graduate. This is the first time that this has been explicitly considered in a Flemish university, and it’s a delicate exercise, says Block. “It touches almost all aspects of academic life. Now, most research is done within tightly defined disciplines and faculties. That’s a historical development, but foreign examples show that it can be different. We aim to break the boundaries between disciplines to create new possibilities. Transition requires that we value research in a different way. Now there is a strong emphasis on prestigious publications.”
Block believes this has to change: “The social importance of research must be taken into account when distributing funding. Co-operation with governments and civil society is too often an exception, and that also reflects how we treat higher education in general. Teaching gets too little weight in a university career, while it has a great social importance.”
What is an exception, he continues, “should become the norm. UGent produces excellent research and educational work. We can do that in the field of sustainability. There is no intent to affect academic freedom or fundamental research, but the university cannot afford to ignore the major issues of our time. It’s a question of relevance.”
Seeds of change
It looks like a plot of land like many others, somewhere on the outskirts of the city, forgotten and fallen into disuse. But this land near Deurne is different. At the front, stands a small caravan, behind it some vegetable beds. And although the weather so far hasn’t quite been co-operative, the first seedlings are finally popping up.
Greet Heylen looks with enthusiasm at the first plants in the garden. Along with others in Transitie Deurne, she took the initiative last year to create a community garden called Samentuin on this piece of land, abandoned many years previously. “Our transition group has existed since 2010, but the garden has given it a new twist. The time was ripe to roll up our sleeves.”
The garden in Deurne differs from traditional allotments: There’s no division into separate plots, rather the whole is a common project. “It was a deliberate choice,” explains Heylen. “Gardening together is not something individuals often consider, but it creates a different dynamic. It encourages people to share both knowledge and material. And it’s just more fun. The neighbourhood had an urgent need for a meeting space like this.”
Like many other transition initiatives, the Samentuin (literally “together garden”) is the work of a group of average citizens. “For a garden, you don’t need a lot of resources,” says Heylen. “Apart from a soil analysis and some compost, we asked for nothing from the municipality. That makes us independent. Not everything should be over-organised, and self-reliance stimulates creativity.”
A community garden, a bicycle repair place ... They look like tiny sparks in the light of the problems of our time and those of tomorrow. But change is brought about by large groups of people altering their ideas, not by great events. The Dutch poet Remco Campert once wrote: “Resistance does not start with big words but with small acts, like a storm with soft rustling in the garden.”
So perhaps a more social and ecological future begins somewhere in a garden on a forgotten piece of land. Time will tell.