The politics of green transformations is increasingly a key theme in sustainability-related research and books. Recently published examples include The Politics of Green Transformation (edited by Scoones et al., 2015), The Politics of Sustainability: Philosophical Perspectives (edited by Birnbacher & Thorseth, 2015), The Politics of “Big Brand Sustainability” (Dauvergne & Lister, 2014), Frank Geels’ recent paper on “regime resistance”, along with Flor Avelino’s earlier work on power in the context of sustainability research. Previously, during 2007-10, a number of social scientists argued that the political and power dimensions of sustainability-related change, such as sociotechnical transitions, are neglected.
This is an important move. However, a key aspect missing from all such work is what Turnheim et al (2015) term the “prospective disposition” of much sustainability-related knowledge production and analysis, such as the analysis of ‘transition pathways’ focussed on by Turnheim et al.
This “prospective disposition” is, for example, evident in:
- The knowledge practices that are used which are often forward-looking (e.g. modelling practices);
- The frequent use of findings from forward-looking studies and other claims made about the near or far future (e.g. when advocates or activists make a case for change);
- The use of science which is often treated as a predictive ‘oracle’ which can guide or even determine policy choices (see the linear model which is criticised by STS scholars); and
- The broader anticipatory perspectives and discourses that often shape actors’ engagement with sustainability problems, such as the expectations around future resource constraints/challenges, or the expectations of some scholars and activists about overshoot and “global collapse”, and/or beliefs that capitalism has entered terminal decline (or will in the near-future).
However, strangely, this prospective disposition is rarely critically analysed or seriously engaged with. Little research examines the use of such knowledge practices, the social character of such practices, and their eventual impacts/effects (e.g. the use of techno-economic modelling study results by governments and activists). Little research also critically examines how forward-looking studies are conducted and the related politics of anticipatory knowledge. Too little research seriously examines the underling political perspectives and objectives which often shape sustainability-related knowledge production.
One slight exception is The Politics of Green Transformation (edited by Scoones et al 2015). The editors call for greater attention to “the politics around knowledge production” (p. 4). They write:
Whilst drawing attention to the sometimes problematic ways in which knowledge gets produced might play into the hands of sceptics and distract from the hard politics that must address the political-economic structures that are leading us towards planetary disaster, there are dangers too associated with an uncritical embrace of dominant knowledge production for green transformations (p. 4)
Perhaps one reason that the politics of knowledge production get too little critical attention is that such perspectives – in my experience – are often criticised or seen as been having a “conservative” agenda, thereby acting as a disincentive for such analysis. The shame of this is that all knowledge claims and practices need to be critically scrutinised, even those you feel ideologically-aligned with.
A further issue is that a number of challenges that actors grapple with – such as uncertainty (Beckert 1996), indeterminacy (Williams 2006), and political dilemmas centred on contending technological pathways (Stirling 2007) – can be intensified by a prospective disposition.
Still, at the same time, a prospective disposition is often essential – given the many future-oriented aspects of sustainability – and can be useful, such as by helping to illuminate policy options, influencing which issues are seen as salient by decision-makers, or helping to stimulate action (e.g. by creating a sense of uncertainty). A key question is whether such benefits are realised in practice and why? I think these benefits are rarely realised in practice – at the very least far less than expected or desired.
This is something I’m starting to drill further into in my PhD research. A recurring theme is the politics around the production and use of knowledge, which I’ve previously written about on this blog.
Linked with this one reason why there is a large gap between rhetoric and action on-the-ground – or as Carlotta Perez puts it “why there is so much talk about green transformations and so little action” – is that the prospective disposition of much sustainability-related knowledge production, and the tensions and major challenges frequently faced in this, are not adequately engaged with.
I’m tempted to also go one big step further. The prospective disposition and politics noted above also raise further questions about whether there is such a thing as sustainability science (and what the scope of such a science is). Perhaps – as Ha-Joon Chang (the Cambridge University-based economist) argues about economics – at its core sustainability is a political argument and not a science.
Beckert, J. 1996, ‘What is sociological about economic sociology? Uncertainty and the embeddedness of economic action’, Theory and Society, vol. 25, no. 6, pp. 803-40.
Scoones, I., Leach, M. & Newell, P. 2015, The Politics of Green Transformations, Routledge, New York, NY.
Stirling, A. 2007, ‘Deliberate futures: Precaution and progress in social choice of sustainable technology’, Sustainable Development, vol. 15, no. 5, pp. 286–95.
Turnheim, B., Berkhout, F., Geels, F., Hof, A., McMeekin, A., Nykvist, B. & Vuuren, D.v. 2015, ‘Evaluating sustainability transitions pathways: Bridging analytical approaches to address governance challenges’, Global Environmental Change, vol. 35, November, pp. 239-53.
Williams, R. 2006, ‘Compressed Foresight and Narrative Bias: Pitfalls in Assessing High Technology Futures’, Science as Culture, vol. 15, no. 4, pp. 327-48.