CEMUS Diaries - week 44 #2
Former student at CEMUS
Maxim Vlasov is a doctoral student at Umeå School of Business and Economics focusing on grassroots networks as a site of social entrepreneurship and of ecological knowledge production. In particular, he looks into establishment of regenerative agriculture initiatives.
All of us live in our own bubbles. CEMUS was a very important bubble for me, for which I am sincerely grateful. It is not easy to be interested in sustainability; even harder to work with it. During my MSc studies in Environmental Management at SLU, I realized quite early that the spectrum of views regarding social-ecological challenges (and solutions to these challenges) was very broad. And yet, the optimism of business greening and technology occupied much space in books, media or conferences I visited. It was at CEMUS – with its courses, project cafés and corridor chats, that I had an environment that tolerated a more critical discussion. The discussion about unsustainable values in today’s globalized, fast-paced societies, which was simply uncomfortable in many other occasions.
Bubbles are both good and bad for human creativity and innovativeness. On the one hand, bubbles provide us with protective spaces – environment where everything is allowed, where one is not criticized or left out because of thinking differently from the normal. In fact, innovation research identifies alternative values as one source of protection for sustainable innovations . There are many examples of innovations throughout history that have emerged through the efforts of grassroots groups with alternative values including alternative technology, organic agriculture and, currently, Permaculture design and the many solutions practiced by the Transition Town groups. On the other hand, bubbles may stifle creativity by encouraging compliance and groupthink. Surrounded by like-minded people, we do not experience opposition and stop developing. Leaving bubbles, by meeting others and always challenging own assumptions, is therefore important.
In life, we constantly have to make choices. I know that on one of the most challenging times for all sustainability students, CEMUS students included, is the transition from studies to work life. This time is full of existential sufferings. It is popular to call this ”facing the real world”. In this real world, one is expected to compromise and be pragmatic. Otherwise, it would be hard to survive. I know quite many students who ended up working at kinds of jobs, which they would criticize just a year ago. I remember myself just months before finishing my studies – looking for vacancies and making up reasons for these vacancies to fit what I believed in. I may consider myself spoiled being in academia now; it is a bubble in itself where one actually gets paid for flying over the different views and discourses not necessarily needing to adhere to any of them.
Do not get me wrong. I do not mean to put “good” and “bad” labels on activities or people. I simply believe that many of these career and lifestyle choices are often made because we have so little time to stop and reflect. The point is that compromises are not necessarily value-neutral as they are often portrayed. Sometimes, when we give up some of our values to make a decision or reach a deal with others we might be equally much following the values of others. Think of an environmentally aware person who, say, flies to some destination for a work trip. One way to see it is as pragmatic behaviour – this person’s organization, just as much of the world today, relies on such mobility. This is the reality. The other way to see it is simply as accepting the normative truth that things have to be this way – we have to be so mobile, we have to fly. Then it is not about choosing to compromise, but rather about (accepting) having no choice.
It is considered to be a good gesture towards readers to finish with some kind of inspirational quote or call for action. My call would be – always try to live on the edge! Living on the edge means to question what is considered to be normal in today’s society. This can be done both being part of existing organizations, or by creating new ones.
Living on the edge also means to be able to navigate and combine the different views in order to critically learn and develop your own pathway. In nature, edges are boundary spaces where one ecosystem shifts into another. These spaces tend to be characterized by exceptional biological diversity . Nancy Turner and colleagues, a group of human ecology researchers from Canada, mean that a similar effect may happen with cultures. The edges between different systems of knowledge and values held by different groups of people may result in novel solutions.
I could not think of a better way to finish this reflection than to invite you to listen to the song The Edge by an Australian experimental band Formidable Vegetable Sound System. Inspired by sustainability and Permaculture, this band writes music that is intended to inspire and educate about what they see as ecologically viable lifestyles and production methods. At first, I was thinking of some well-articulated quote by some well-known scientist or public figure. But at the end of the day, humor and music are probably the best tools we have to deal with the challenges in our everyday lives.
So to sum up, ”if you’re not living on the edge, then you’re taking up too much space”.
 Smith, A. & Raven, R., 2012. What is protective space? Reconsidering niches in transitions to sustainability. Research Policy, 41(6), pp.1025–1036.  Turner, N.J., Davidson-Hunt, I.J. & O’Flaherty, M., 2003. Living on the edge: Ecological and cultural edges as sources of diversity for social-ecological resilience. Human Ecology, 31(3), pp.439–462.
This is a part of the 25th Anniversary blog series “CEMUS Diaries: Stories from past, present and future”, where we invite present and former staff, students, work group members, associates, and other CEMUS friends to reflect on their time at CEMUS and shed critical light into the future. Read the other CEMUS Diaries entries here.