Tilting at Windmills Part 1: A metamodernist odyssey through Spain at a time of climate and other eco-social crises.

A summertime blog by Hilary Bradbury 

We left Ireland, late one Friday night in mid June, en route first to Barcelona by ferry and electric vehicle. The ferry docked on Sunday morning in the port of Bilboa.  The call to my voyage was the invitation to give a keynote lecture on transformative action methodology at the 21st AIDIPE Congress of Educators in Barcelona. From there we would drive to a week of workshopping at the U. Trento in Northern Italy. 

Dr. Miren Larrea, friend and collaborator, met us off the ferry. We walked in the welcome sunshine, always a joy given the rainy, cool spring in Ireland.  I have fond memories of Bilboa having come here to celebrate completing my PhD on change and transformation toward sustainable development when the museum first opened. It was then I learned that Basque food  – “pinxos” with Rioja! – may be the best in the world. This time, Miren, a Basque action researcher who works with policy makers, filled in the larger context by explaining the regeneration of Bilboa and pointing to its pinnacle symbol, the Frank Gehry designed Guggenheim museum, famous for announcing that a “frogleap” had just occurred in the City. Bilboa had successfully leapt from being a previous heavy industry regional city to today’s global destination. It was a leap – in curving steel form – that signaled a next era of professional services economy. What’s next, I wonder, for the ecological era upon us now?

After a café con leche it was onward to Barcelona in our EV. We expected to drive the 600KM/400 miles in the afternoon as we had a hotel reservation at the Congress hotel.  We were wildly optimistic bordering on naive. Finding an EV charger, to be precise, finding an EV charger and figuring out how to pay for the charge involved a deep dive into areas of complexity that combine technology, banking, mobile phones, government regulations and Elon Musk. It became a learning journey. 

While the number of EV chargers is not so bad, each region has its own system for paying for EV charging. And Spain is a federation of 17 autonomous regions leaving the organization feeling somewhere between anarchic and chaotic. Different cities employ multiple apps, each requiring an authorized connection between Irish and Spanish banks to sign up and compete a charge.  That’s when you’re lucky. Only sometimes is the charger available and/or actually operable as advertised.  In a McKinsey and Co. poll just released: 40% of EV owners won’t buy another one. I began to see why.

My partner and I quickly fell into the realization that charging at hotels would be the easiest, if not the cheapest, way to go.  Second best is using the Tesla supercharging system, leaving the EU Ionity system a distant third, followed by myriad apps which usually failed to validate a credit card from outside Spain. 

Sometimes we got lucky. Charging at a hotel simply involved paying a reasonable fee and sitting in the bar before driving on. Unlucky meant having to purchase a hotel room because the charger was only available to overnight guests.  You can guess how desperate we were that at one stage that we went ahead with a room purchase. My fave hotel was  IBIS which offered full charge for just a parking fee!  And in calmer jindsight I can see that we might otherwise have missed the lovely town of Logroño, capital of the Rioja region, had we not been forced to stay overnight.

From a personal perspective this journey was anxiety provoking, stressful and expensive.  I now add ‘range anxiety’ to my list of neuroses. I am also grateful for a daily meditation and yoga practice that allowed me navigate the inner journey. I reminded myself that in a previous era crossing so much territory involved a life and death requirement to find water for horses and humans in a parched landscape.  I thought of Don Quixote who famously titled at windmills.   

From a relational perspective I saw and experienced less superficially what it means to be connected up in a grid of banks and their international banking rules, to electricity grids, to governance bodies at national and international levels, alongside a spread of technology, in which the power and reach of the Tesla charging network beats anything the EU has produced for its citizens. More intimately, though also relational, I saw my journey with my partner as something that also needed my care-full attention.  Without care, we’d easily fall into lobbing accusations at one another about how ill prepared we’d each been for this adventure (true but not helpful). 

From an impersonal perspective I experienced a world seeking to transition from the polluting Industrial modernity to a more ecological metamodern (post-postmodern) era. 

I call the ecological transition needed metamodernist, using Vermeulen’s term from architecture and inspired by Hanzi Freinacht. Metamodernist, at its most elemental, seeks to integrate the best of Modernity which sought progress through science and objectivity, with the critical voice of postmodernism that uncovered intersubjective power and the reality that we negotiate from positions of sometimes vastly different power, but instead of simply deconstructing all claims, subjective awareness is called upon in constructivist and pragmatic moves. In my book I worked out the implications of this integration as a developmentalist approach to action research for transformations  (Bradbury, 2022).

A quote attributable to Don Quixote popped up in the beautiful but daunting landscape across Spain with its huge dry valleys (like something from the movie Dune), in which we saw electric windmills: “Look always forward – there are no birds this year in last year’s nest.” We looked forward to arriving in Barcelona and communicated with our Italian colleagues about the unexpected difficulty in proceeding.

All of us are also invited to look forward, if with trepidation, to the future that calls us to see connections and be courageous in forging a path into a more ecological way of living. This future demands way more than sitting back while politicians “fix” things for us.  Politicians cannot, will not. I look instead to fellow educators in all our guises.

I feel my simultaneous gratitude and disappointment that Billionaire Elon Musk is really the first one to offer a robust global charging infrastructure. Originally for Tesla drivers, this Tesla network is opening to universal charging that solves many of the dilemmas I describe.  Tourist hint: if you’re thinking of making a trip like this, download the Tesla app. It’s easy to use and guarantees coverage throughout Europe. Still, I wonder why the great engineers and minds within the EU can’t offer something equally good for its citizens. And I wonder about how much more educators are called to pitch in at this time.

Educators can scaffold ourselves and our students into a future that integrates impersonal objective facts about the climate and other crises, with interpersonal awareness of the difficulty that arises in making contact between different systems, not denying or ignoring the personal requirements to stay resilient in the face of stress. This complexity requires an integrationist orientation  – developmentalist in bringing our subjectivity to the bigger impersonal flows around us – as we navigate forward. 

Can we find a middle path between what some predict is the social collapse that is coming and a techno-optimist path that will be satiated only (it seems to me) by desecrating natural systems in further pursuit of human-centric aims unsuited to ecological demands. The path of transformative action methodology is one that makes an ecological epistemology into a methodology. I am hopeful that we are the ones we have been waiting for.




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