Many sustainability activists frequently quote R. Buckminster Fuller, especially his well-known assertion that: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
Frank Geels’ latest paper on low carbon transitions argues that Fuller is wrong and suggests an important change in direction for such research (downloadable here). He argues transition researchers and policy-makers are too focussed on stimulating new green innovations, and need to focus more on actively destabilising existing fossil-fuel based regimes (i.e. fighting the existing reality). He calls for greater attention to how “regime” actors (which are also termed incumbents e.g. incumbent firms) actively resist fundamental change, hindering the progress of low-carbon transitions. Geels suggests “politically-inspired regime destabilization may be necessary to create opportunities for the wider diffusion of renewables, which now face uphill struggles against resistant regimes”.
In theoretical terms, Geels points out that well-known perspectives like the ‘multi-level perspective’ adopt a structuralist approach and – as he states in the paper – insufficiently consider actor-centred perspectives (e.g. the problem of agency). Geels suggest this leads to lazy characterisations of regimes as being “locked-in” and inert rather than conceptualising or examining how existing regime actors actively resist fundamental change and play roles in sustaining such structures over time.
This repeats similar debates within sociology which, during recent decades, have addressed the way that structural accounts underestimate the role of actors in reproducing everyday life and existing social structures.
Geels’ latest paper is entitled ‘Regime Resistance against Low-Carbon Transitions: Introducing Politics and Power into the Multi-Level Perspective’. In it he draws on insights from political economy and economic sociology and provides the following summary: “the basic idea is that policymakers and incumbent firms can be conceptualized as often forming a core alliance at the regime level, oriented towards maintaining the status quo”. And later adds that “the underlying analytical argument is that policymakers and incumbent business actors tend to form close alliances because of mutual dependencies”. Some processes and mechanisms are sketched out for how regime actors “can use power to resist fundamental system change, in the context of climate change and low-carbon transitions”.
Whilst this paper is an interesting and important move towards new theoretical perspectives on low-carbon transitions, there still appears to be some ways to go in developing what could be termed a genuinely sociological perspective. Researchers like David Hess (Vanderbilt University) and Elizabeth Shove (Lancaster University) have to-date led the way in developing such a perspective.
In sociological terms there is need to further develop the discussion about agents and structures. Geels’ paper articulates a view that is similar to field theorists Fligstein & McAdam who, for example, argue that even when stability is achieved (e.g. maintaining over time a socio-technical “regime”) this apparent “stability” is actually in-practice “the result of actors working very hard to reproduce their local social order”. They theorise how actors work to improve their position, introduce change, and defend their privilege, with the core aim of “explaining the underlying structure of, and sources of change and stability in, institutional life in modern society” (Fligstein & McAdam, 2012, p.8).
An important aspect is whether actors conform to and help to sustain a prevailing social order or whether they are purveyors of different, oppositional logics. Sociologists like Fligstein and McAdam point to relationships between incumbent groups and state actors (as Geels also does in his paper) which often develop as, for example, important industries and actors “become more embedded in the broader institutional fabric of society through self-interested ties” – especially for industries like the electricity industry and the energy sector (more broadly). This can, thus, enable incumbents to develop over-time strong allies in the state (Fligstein & McAdam, 2012). They also contend that “the state depends, at a very general level, on its ability to help sustain stability”. This in turn means that, in general, states are highly invested in social stability and may therefore resist wide scale change.
Some sociologists further argue that reproduction of the current order is the “default” option normally preferred by all actors – not just incumbents – and, furthermore, contend that all actors have a serious stake in a present social order. This creates barriers to fundamental change – only some of which are due to the power of incumbents, perhaps less so than transition theorists tend to think… Additionally, human psychology and physiology are important factors (Fligstein & McAdam 2012).
Further analytical and action-oriented implications are emphasised in a sociological research (E.g. in Fligstein & McAdam, 2012) which challenges some of the analysis presented by Geels. For example:
- The need to consider both power/interests and existential issues: outcomes/change should not just be interpreted as “a simple matter of power, interests and the play of instrumental motivations” (Fligstein & McAdam 2012, p.201), as Geels has suggested. Also important is the deeply human need “to fashion meaningful worlds for themselves and others”;
- The capacity for skilled strategic action matters, not just the resources that actors can wield, their social position, and the rules that govern a situation;
- Social factors such as current conditions matter (e.g. whether or not the social situation is fluid) and this external environment shapes what types of strategic action make sense; and
- Cognitive factors also need to be considered. For instance, in the absence of a major exogenous shock culturally “embedded” actors are unlikely to majorly shift their world view, in particular within dominant groups whose interests appear to be well-served by current institutional arrangements. Fligstein and McAdam (2012, p. 96) argue this is because such actors are both “products as well as architects of the worldview and set of understandings they helped to create” which “restricts their ability to conceive of alternative worlds or courses of action”. Reproduction of a regime will also be shaped by such cognitive factors and not just be a function of politics and power.
Geels’ paper on regime resistance is an important move towards a comprehensive agentic view of transition barriers and processes. (Also see this issue of TF&SC on more actor-centred approaches to sustainability transitions). All actors work to defend or improve their position and group interests, including incumbent groups (Fligstein & McAdam, 2012). However, it does seem rather obvious that existing regime actors actively defend themselves and often resist transitions – here in Australia, for example, coal-fired power generators did this quite successfully over the past decade.
A genuinely sociological view would also further theorise about and consider the conditions under which incumbents are more or less able to (mostly) maintain the status quo, along with the social processes through which such outcomes occur. For example, external ‘environmental’ uncertainty is often an important part of this and can provide the leverage that’s required for collective action.
Fligstein, N. & McAdam, D. 2012, A Theory of Fields, Oxford University Press, New York, New York.
Geels, F.W. 2014, ‘Regime Resistance against Low-Carbon Transitions: Introducing Politics and Power into the Multi-Level Perspective’, Theory, Culture & Society, Forthcoming (available online).
Giddens, A., Duneier, M., Applebaum, R.P. & Carr, D. 2009, Introduction to Sociology (8th Edition), W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
On the multi-level perspective as a structural process theory approach see: Geels, F.K. 2004, ‘Understanding system innovations: a critical literature review and a conceptual synthesis’, in B. Elzen, F.K. Geels & K. Green (eds), System Innovation and the Transition to Sustainability, Edward Elgar.