Reskilling as Mastery of Appropriate Technology

Blog post by Philip Barnes, Transition Town Media, PA

Reskilling (also called skill sharing) is a major component of the Transition Movement’s community development strategy.  Based on the 2014 Transition US survey, the results of which are summarized below, reskilling is an extremely popular undertaking with Transition initiatives.  Nearly every respondent to the survey wrote that their Transition initiative practices reskilling in some manner.  Because it is so important and popular, it might be helpful to take a step back and examine the practice, to answer the who, what, where, why, when, and how of reskilling.

Let’s start with the easy ones.  I am willing to bet that we all pretty much agree why reskilling is important:  because in a carbon constrained and localized world, communities will have to provide for many of their basic needs which means possessing the skills to do so.  Many individuals and communities currently lack those skills, hence the need to build capacity.  And I am confident that we would be nearly unanimous in saying that “everyone” is the answer to who, “now” is the answer to when, and “everywhere” is the answer to where

So how does reskilling occur?  Conceivably, individuals could reskill themselves by watching Youtube videos or reading Instructable articles online.  While useful and practical, the individualized self-taught method is somewhat contrary to the ethos of the Transition Movement which emphasizes community-building.  For Transition, it is preferable to reskill through face-to-face interactions where a talented and knowledgeable individual or group teaches other people what they know.  In this way, reskilling in the Transition Movement is essentially pedagogical.  At the risk of over-generalization, reskilling ideally involves direct interaction between a master and an apprentice, or between an expert and a novice.  But how are Transitioners reskilling in their communities?  According to the responses to the 2014 survey, mostly through workshops that focus on one particular skill, but also big events like reskilling fairs where dozens of skills are taught throughout the day.  The Ann Arbor initiative in Michigan, the Montpelier initiative in Vermont, and the Hay River initiative in Wisconsin organize extensive reskilling fairs every year.  One-on-one tutoring sessions are also used, although they are far less common than workshops and fairs. 

What, exactly, is reskilling?  The answer to this question is not so obvious.  Someone might respond by defining reskilling as the acquisition of those skills that are essential to satisfy basic needs in a localized and carbon-constrained future.  That makes sense, and it is hard to dispute, but the issue with the definition is that it is circular reference.  It defines reskilling in terms of skills.  It also makes it sound like reskilling can stop at some point, that once a community acquires the skills to satisfy many of its basic needs in a localized and carbon-constrained way, then there is no further need to reskill.  Perhaps it is better to think about reskilling as an ongoing and never ending process that evolves as conditions and contexts change.  It is not a onetime affair any more than it is a fixed end state.

If the circular referenced definition is unsatisfactory and incomplete, perhaps we need to take a look at the root word of reskilling – skill – to glean a deeper understanding of what the reskilling process actually entails for the Transition Movement.  From Transition’s perspective, skills are useful because they can be employed locally and productively.  There is certainly an element of means and ends in all of this – the skills are the means to achieve a particular outcome.  Another concept that is frequently associated with means and ends is technology.  We employ technologies and tools to produce something useful, to achieve desired results and outcomes.

The relationship between reskilling and technology is as intuitive as it is etymological.  The word technology is a fusion of the ancient Greek words techne which is frequently translated as skill, and logos which is often translated as a discussion.  So quite literally, techno-logy is a discussion of skills.  I will not claim that the reskilling process and technology are functionally equivalent, but I will argue that they are intimately related.  As I said, this makes intuitive sense because the process of reskilling embodies all of the knowledge, experience, techniques, and methods need to manipulate things to produce something useful and achieve a desired outcome.  Now, it must be acknowledged that there are non-technological skills that are important now and will remain important in the future – conflict resolution and various cultural skills, for example.  But when I looked at the 2014 survey and compiled the list of skills that Transition initiatives are sharing in their communities, the overwhelming majority contains a distinct technological dimension.  What skills are being shared? 

Here is the list:

Canning food, gardening skills of all sorts, demonstrating solar and alternative energy systems, soap making, weaving, bee keeping, animal husbandry, creating a sense of place, maintaining bicycles, making rocket and masonry stoves, creating and using greywater systems, cooking and preparing food, sewing, mending, darning, making cheese, making bread, teaching and employing permaculture principles and techniques, making herbal and natural medicines, practicing meditation, butter churning, seed saving, making homemade cleaning products, practicing vermiculture, preparing for emergencies, rainwater harvesting, building and constructing with natural materials, practicing hugelkultur, sailing, practicing aquaculture, making paper, mushroom growing, knitting, composting, solar cooking, foraging, dehydrating food, trapping gophers, planting and pruning fruit trees, felting wool, making yogurt, making charcoal, fish seining, producing videos, deer hunting, yurt building, scything, carving spoons, home brewing, spinning fiber, practicing shiatsu massage, making furniture, making tools, welding, soldering, purifying water, making fire, making music, storytelling, crowdfunding, making ropes and cords, practicing first aid, preparing and tanning hides, woodworking, knife and tool sharpening, repairing small engines, designing environmentally friendly houses to passive standards, maintaining a chainsaw, making tofu, butchering a chicken, wreath making, smoking meat, building wind-powered water pumps, conducting green funerals, making maple syrup, building electric motorcycles, grafting trees, making sausage, making beeswax candles, tying fishing flies, maintaining horse hooves, and making biodiesel.  Whew!

There is certainly a lot of technologies and technological know-how involved in each of these skills.  A mason jar.  A bicycle.  A spinning wheel.  A rainwater barrel.  A solar oven.  A raised bed.  And there is a distinct characteristic to the types of technologies involved in reskilling.  Specifically, the technologies are mostly of the “Small is Beautiful” type.  They are low-energy appropriate technologies that allow for personal creative expression in the production process.  The technologies are simple yet elegant and effective.  They enable the consumer to double as the empowered producer.  They are a practical response to Ivan Illich’s plea for society to employ “convivial tools” and break through the “radical monopoly” of industrial mass production that many of us currently depend on to satisfy our basic needs. 

With all of this in mind, perhaps it is now possible to offer a partial answer to the question of what reskilling actually is.  The process itself clearly has many dimensions, some of which are purely social, but I would argue that reskilling is first and foremost a community-oriented method to master the simple, practical, and useful appropriate technologies that will be prevalent in a localized and carbon-constrained world.  And based on the 2014 survey, Transition initiatives are doing a tremendous job of sharing these skills with each other and with their communities.

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