Climate change and the pursuit of sustainable futures: are we using the best strategies and approaches (and what are they? Do we know?)

This is a huge topic, and one that I plan to return to often on this blog. This post has been prompted by my recent reading of the book The Dynamics of Sustainable Innovation Journeys (Geels et al., 2011) and attendance at the 2013 Sustainable Living Festival.

The editors of this book describe three strategies which are argued to currently be most common and suggest an alternative approach, which they believe addresses the short-comings of current strategies. The three main current strategies are:

  • Neoliberal strategies aimed at ‘getting prices right’ (market focussed): These strategies are centred on the belief that “environmental problems lead to scarcity, which translates into higher prices, which will trigger changes in the behaviour of consumers (demand for ‘sustainable’ products) and firms (investments to develop these products)”. Thus, what’s essential is ensuring prices reflect resource availability/scarcity, and removing flawed incentives. Such strategies may also address market failures that can often occur for collective goods, which requires governments to introduce measures that internalise external costs (e.g. taxes, tradeable emission permits).
  • Ecological modernisation strategies focused on new clean technologies, and redesigning related processes (technology focussed): These strategies introduce a ‘supply-side’ perspective. According to Geels et al. adherents rejects end-of-pipe solutions, and often shift attention to industrial production processes which need to be redesigned. Examples are process-integrated solutions, reuse and recycling, eco-efficiency, dematerialisation, closing of material loops (as in industrial ecology).
  • ‘Deep ecology’ and related eco-centrist approaches which are focussed on ‘green values’ (which often are behavioural change focussed): The proponents of these approaches argue that environmental problems are fundamentally related to the values of modernity. These values should therefore be rejected and replaced with ‘deep green’ life styles and greater localism. Some less radical versions also exist, which may for example propose new community-based initiatives (e.g. community-owned renewable energy projects)

I frequently see arguments for, and examples of, these strategies. For example, Gernot Wagner, environmental economist at Environmental Defense Fund, argues in his book ‘Will the Planet Notice?’ for far greater use of neoliberal strategies that ‘get prices right’ and for his fellow environmentalists to embrace this. He further asserts that “getting people excited about making individual environmental sacrifices is doomed to fail”. A friend of mine who runs the Melbourne NGO Urban Reforestation argues for and practices the third strategy.

The central framing argument of the book is that these strategies have major limitations when seeking to tackle problems for which incremental changes are likely to be ineffective, such as climate change, loss of biodiversity, deforestation, and depletion of fish stocks. For example, neoliberal strategies are only effective and efficient under certain conditions (e.g. rational agents, full information, perfect markets) and actors are argued to struggle to make rational calculations under uncertainty, making power struggles, search processes, learning and negotiations much more prominent; the authors also argue the “radical overtones and (sometimes) technophobia” of deep ecology/eco-centrist strategies may “restrict it to a niche activity”. The “transformation of (fossil-fuel based) energy system into more sustainable directions” is the central focus of the book, for which scale, urgency, and innovation diffusion issues are also highlighted.

The alternative approach focussed on is a fourth position, socio-technical transitions, which “addresses changes at a more concrete sectoral or systems level” and responds to the fact that “environmental problems requires shifts to new transport systems, energy systems, food systems, etc”. They argue that: a “socio-technical approach focuses on multiple actors and social groups, not only firms or consumers/markets”; “such transitions not only entail new technologies, but also changes in markets, user practices, policy and cultural discourses, and governing institutions”; and comment that “this fourth position thus aims to overcome the narrow focus of the previous approaches on either markets, technology or behavioural change”.

Examples practices that adopt this position include strategic niche management, and transition management. Broader theoretical perspectives are also advanced such as theories of technological innovation systems, and by examining the role of cultural discourses in innovation.

I tend to agree with their assessment of current strategies and view that better socio-technical approaches which avoids the search for simple policy recipes or ‘silver bullets’ (as they argue) are needed. However, the proposed shifts are very demanding, only partially formulated (in my view), and are often very different to traditional environmental policy and activism and therefore may be resisted by many activists and others.

What approaches and strategies were most prominent the 2013 Sustainable Living Festival?

When walking around the festival I saw dozens of talks and stalls on some aspects of behavior change or desired values shift. This is unsurprising! I also saw sessions focussed on economics, such as regarding fossil fuel subsidies which currently incentivise greater consumption rather than allowing prices that might trigger behaviour change (neoliberal strategies). However, there is a concern that spikes in prices would likely have political repercussions – understandable given the public angst and anger regarding any rise in fuel prices – which is seen to lead to inertia. I also saw some examples of the second strategy too – lots of new technologies offering ways to be more efficient, for dematerialisation, and/or for closing loops.

However, the festival was dominated by ‘deep ecology’ and related eco-centrist approaches.

At the festival I didn’t see many examples of, or evidence of, the fourth position. If this position is urgently needed then it appears unlikely that is will be provided by the speakers and stall holders at the festival (and the broader ‘types’ they’re representative of).

Strategies and cultural discourses

A final reflection/observation is that there are some similarities between the response framework in The Dynamics of Sustainable Innovation Journeys and John Dryzek’s model of environmental discourses. The ‘deep ecology’/eco-centric approaches seem consistent with the ‘green radicalism’ discourse (and perhaps also the survivalist ‘limits’ discourse). The ‘neoliberalist strategies’ express the economic rationalist discourse (one of the ‘problem-solving’ discourses). The ecological modernisation strategies are part of the ‘sustainability’ discourses described by Dryzek (one of them is ‘ecological modernisation’ in Dryzek’s framework).

An interesting question is what discourse is the socio-technical approach (focussed on ‘transitions’/systems innovation) most aligned with, and/or best express? I’m not sure. The strong focus on technological change perhaps suggests ‘Promethean’ aspects; however, these scholars and others that are developing this approach do recognise resource constraints, and certainly also recognise environmental limits of various kinds. Perhaps it fits most neatly in the ‘sustainability’ discourses – given the political economy of industrial society is not rejected, as well as the clear focus on sustainable development and related systems perspectives which commonly underpin it. These scholars further seek to incorporate cultural perspectives. It may be an approach that helps to make the ‘sustainable development’ discourse more coherent and effective.

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