“Social-ecological transformation” appears to be an umbrella term that constitutes a new political-epistemic terrain. It is not as prominent as sustainable development was, beginning in the 1990s. And currently, terms such as green economy or Green Deal probably attract more political attention. At the same time, the Agenda 2030 and the UN Sustainable Development Goals are presented under the header “Transforming Our World”. The European Green New Deal from 2019 and the European Recovery Plan from 2021 to cope with the impacts of the Corona pandemic are full of claims “to transform” the European economy and society into a climate-friendly one.
It seems that discussions about transformation have a similar function to those around sustainable development in the 1990s, putting the ecological crisis into a larger context and uniting different fields of thinking and action against business-as-usual strategies. However, compared to the beginning of the era of sustainability concerns, the context has changed dramatically.
Firstly, the complexity of problems, especially the causes and consequences of climate change, and the urgent need to act are broadly acknowledged.
Secondly, interpreting the ecological crisis as suggested in mainstream sustainability debates, as a particular problem and policy field, does not enable us to adequately manage it. “Something” more profound is required. Whereas sustainable development always contained a managerial core, the new perspective needs to consider the complexity and non-linearity of challenges.
Thirdly, the economic and financial crisis, the Corona pandemic and the current crisis of liberal globalisation clarifies that the ecological crisis is one of multiple crises; and that it needs to be dealt with in more comprehensive, i.e. transformative ways.
Fourthly, the term “sustainable development” and its initial embedding in the UNFCCC, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and Agenda 21 emerged in a time prior to the second phase of globalisation and the rise of the “emerging economies” since the 1990s. Any attempt to deal with the severe crisis should refer to global transformations. This changing context seems to render transformation with its radical semantics, more attractive than sustainable development.
Transformation of What, How and by Whom?
Social science contributions to and debates about transformation are increasing at a very fast pace though the concept is used in quite different ways (see, for instance, Brand 2016, Köhler et al. 2019, Eckersley 2020, Scoones 2020). The assumptions about societal dynamics that cause climate change, environmental degradation and other problems and crises vary. This also applies to the very understanding of the problems to be dealt with, processes of political and societal management, the roles of different actors, the role of (different forms of) knowledge, among others. Some contributions focus more on the state, changing values and bottom-up pioneers of change (e.g., WBGU 2011) while others see private enterprises as key players (WBCSD 2010) or put their emphasis on technological change (DESA 2011; see Brand 2016 in more detail).
This refers to a constitutive tension inherent in most usages of the concept. The radical diagnosis of ecological problems and crises is accompanied by an incremental understanding of transformation processes themselves. At first sight, this is surprising because insights into the profound nature of problems and crises should lead to radical solutions, or at least proposals, to deal with the root causes. Instead, the tension between radical diagnosis and rather docile strategies is connected with an obvious – implicit or even explicit – assumption that transformation processes can be better initiated and amplified with and within the current political, economic and cultural institutional system, dominant actors and related rationales.
Transformation as a Strategic Concept
Concepts that use transformation in a more strategic way provide ways of dealing with problems and crises that are assumed to be effective and socially desirable. This applies especially for discourses about a new type of economy (e.g., a green economy, a Green Deal) but also for different understandings of prosperity, a greater and stronger role for the state, and the expansion of local production and consumption patterns. At a general level, a transition from non-sustainable change dynamics to sustainable ones, towards a post-fossil, low-carbon or even carbon-free future is claimed. Most contributions argue for a transformation that is widely accepted, inclusive and legitimate, which should occur through well-informed and transparent decision-making. Processes should be cooperative and not only top-down, a broad range of actors should be involved, and experts should play an important role. The debate about “social-ecological transformation” can be read as an attempt to strengthen existing political, economic and cultural institutions as well as positive examples and possibilities.
A “New Critical Orthodoxy” – Focus on Cooperation
However, the sound analyses of problems and crises are in danger of being superseded by the wish to transform away from unsustainability. I call this application of the transformation concept a “new critical orthodoxy”. Its main characteristics are a radical problem diagnosis, promising far-reaching change, but also involving a rather incremental understanding of the concrete processes and steps of social change in order to cope with the problems. The Greek word orthós means “right” and dóxa means “belief” or “opinion”. In that sense, orthodoxy is characterised as a belief system that is difficult to question.
The too strategic usage of the transformation concept does not pay sufficient attention to the structural obstacles to far-reaching transformation processes. At the macro-level, these include the ongoing expansion of the production and consumption of unsustainable commodities, a focus on economic growth at almost any cost, fierce world market competition, the development model of resource extractivism in Latin America – even in its “green” version - and elsewhere, and “brown” industrialisation in China, as well as austerity politics in Europe.
Moreover, the current critical orthodoxy does not question dominant rationales and institutions but relies on a liberal understanding of societies and a strong degree of trust in innovation and existing institutions to solve problems: “States” and “markets” are assumed as given, without problematising the bureaucratic logic of the state and the capitalist logic of the market.
A Question of Power
The new orthodoxy presupposes that good arguments and learning processes will provide all relevant actors with adequate insights into the required transformation, power- and interest-driven processes are not at stake. And it shows little understanding of the conflict-driven character of modern societies. In fact, conflicts are related to social structures and the positions actors hold within them. They result from the interests of actors who want to maintain domination and power – e.g., mining companies, the coal industry or agro-industrial firms with their interests in large-scale monocultures – and provoke resistance.
Policymakers – and behind them governments or states – are assumed to be interested in handling collective problems, and hence in creating general welfare. However, beyond the claim for adequate governance mechanisms that should promote sustainable politics – or a greening of the market or more involvement of civil society organisations – it should be discussed in what sense these governance structures and processes are part of the problem.
Without doubt, the strength of the transformation debate lies in the emphasis on incremental changes and their assumed potential to lead to far-reaching transformations. However, the necessary and empirically observable incremental changes need to be linked to the structural (including institutional) political, economic and cultural conditions – and related power relations – under which they take place. Without this, any transformation process remains within the narrow and insufficient corridor of the ecological modernisation of capitalism.
A selective greening of the economy is already taking place, especially in the area of energy production. But given the constraints outlined here, it is probable that transformative strategies like those of a green economy will be realised in a selective manner in some branches and some regions. A further valorisation of nature would be a significant constituent of crisis management and likewise of a new emerging capitalist formation, for the very reason that it is located at the interface of various crisis phenomena.
A concept of transformation that is mainly oriented at strategic questions at the cost of realistic analyses runs the danger – unintentionally – of preparing the epistemic-political terrain for a greening of capitalism that might safeguard acceptable living conditions in some regions and for some parts of humanity (cf. Brand and Wissen 2021). However, the far-reaching social-ecological transformations that shape political, economic and cultural structures and institutions over time and that come out of a radical problem and crisis diagnosis are likely to be missed.
Ulrich Brand is a Professor of International Politics at the University of Vienna. He is a member of the Permanent Working Group "Alternatives to Development" and of the advisory board of Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik. He collaborates with the Research Group on Post-Growth Societies at the University of Jena.
Brand, Ulrich. 2016. How to get out of the multiple crisis? Towards a critical theory of social-ecological transformation. In: Environmental Values 25(5), 503-525.
Brand, Ulrich/Wissen, Markus (2021): The Imperial Mode of Living. Everyday Life and the Ecological Crisis of Capitalism. London: Verso.
Eckersley, Robyn. 2020. „Greening states and societies: from transitions to great transformations“. Environmental Politics: 1–21.
DESA (United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs). 2011. The great green technological transformation. World economic and social survey 2011. New York: DESA.
Köhler, Jonathan et al. 2019. „An agenda for sustainability transitions research: State of the art and future directions“. Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions 31: 1–32.
Scoones, Ian et al. 2020. „Transformations to sustainability: combining structural, systemic and enabling approaches“. Current Opinion in Environmental Sustainability 42: 65–75.
UNECE (United Nations Economic Commission for Europe), UNDP (United Nations Development Programme). 2010. From transition to transformation. Sustainable and inclusive development in Europe and Central Asia. New York and Geneva: United Nations.
WBCSD (World Business Council on Sustainable Development). 2010. Vision 2050. A new agenda for business. Geneva: WBCSD.
WBGU (Wissenschaftlicher Beirat der Bundesregierung Globale Umweltveränderungen). 2011. World in transition. A social contract for sustainability. Berlin: WBGU.
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