The question of “exactly how politics should be theorised and brought into analysis of sustainability transitions” (Lockwood 2016) has been raised by sustainability transition researchers. This post is a research memo (written as part of my doctoral research) which considers a key question: should those examining politics in sustainability transitions pay more attention to expectations and efforts to influence actors’ expectations?
My thinking on this topic is influenced by Jens Beckert, a German sociologist who argues that his theory of expectations is also a theory of politics (Beckert 2013). He argues that political and economic decisions are, in part, “based on contingent imaginaries of future states” which often become contested. My thinking is also influenced by my research on nanotechnology and exposure to past and contemporary sustainability debates.
Some illustrative examples are provided in the great book Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology by Alexis Madrigal. These examples each help to reveal the significance of expectations for sustainability transition outcomes and the importance of related expectations-focused activities which have become more common. Greater focus on expectations could help with understanding the “political work” some scholars (Raven et al. 2016) argue is central to advancing transitions.
Madrigal outlines the role of projected future energy needs in the initial rise of nuclear power in the United States. Leaving aside debates about whether nuclear power should be considered a green technology, the key point regarding early commercialisation processes is that proponents of nuclear power and other energy analysts convinced politicians and others that America had to address a major future energy problem and that nuclear power was the only viable solution to this problem. In brief the problem was expected future demand growth and whether sufficient energy could be supplied to meet this demand. Madrigal argues this played a key role in the introduction of supportive government policies which contributed to investment in nuclear power. Additionally, he noted that the first generation of nuclear power plants had higher than expected running and decommissioning costs which can in part be explained by strategic withholding of information by the proponents. In both respects the expectations management was arguably a form of political behaviour in the key sense that industry proponents were seeking to influence state action and energy policy.
Similarly some STS scholars have revealed the role of explicitly political and sociotechnical imaginaries in the development and promotion of specific sciences and technologies (link). For example, Jasanoff and Kim argue in their paper ‘Containing the Atom’ that “nuclear power and nationhood have long been imagined together”. The concept of imaginaries has also been used by scholars examining energy policies (more broadly) and second-generation biofuels. A related argument made by Jasanoff and Kim is that “questions of how to power modern social life have always been bound up with political imaginations, tacit or explicit, about the costs and benefits of technological change” (my emphasis added).
Another fascinating chapter in Powering the Dream looks at the competition in the late 19th century between compressed air and long-distance transmission of electric power. Madrigal notes that “to the engineers and entrepreneurs of the time, the rise of electricity as a way of transmitting power was far from assured”. Indeed, some people were frightened by electricity and others viewed related infrastructure (e.g. the poles and wires) as an eyesore. Actors at the time were grappling with uncertainties and unknowns with little reliable data on costs, long-term reliability and safety. Proponents promoted both technologies and alternative visions, with “the great centralization of the American power system” winning the day.
Madrigal’s rich history notes many other examples. An important chapter highlights what he terms the “siren call of the breakthrough”. That is, proponents of new/emerging technologies often make huge claims of making a breakthrough only for disappointment to later emerge. This can be for reasons of needing to attract investment or simply because important practical or implementation challenges are underestimated by the proponents or other enthusiasts. Additionally, Madrigal looks at the history of modern environmentalism, such as the debates of the 1960s and 1970s which often centred on strongly contested expectations (e.g. debates about the limits to growth in the 1970s), and related evolving belief systems.
The example of limits to growth-oriented analysis – such as the Club of Rome funded Limits to Growth study – is an important one which can be seen as being political in another sense. Future-focussed analysis like this is often, in part, motivated by a person’s political beliefs or principles. Whilst those doing such analysis may claim it’s done objectively closer inspection often reveals that it is strongly influenced by subjective beliefs and preferences.
So, efforts to influence and create expectations can be political in a range of ways including seeking to influence state action (especially in-line with interests) and by being politically motivated. Often central to the success of new and potentially sustainable energy innovations is receiving political attention – such as related to the perceived urgency of social problems – and legitimacy. Additionally, via the concept of imaginaries STS scholars have pointed to the ways in which new technologies and states are imagined or reimagined together.
To take an example from my own research, in two cases I’m examining the activities of proponents of alternative transport fuel technologies were often focussed on influencing state action. Many advocates sought to establish liquid fuel security as a major social problem and drew on forward-looking studies when making these claims. Related arguments were made about national governance such as concerning the relative merits of laissez faire governance models or the more interventionist approaches that the advocates were promoting. To succeed the proponents of alternative transport fuels needed to win these debates. These proponents articulated “contingent imaginaries of future states” which subsequently became contested. Their limited success points to the need to further study of such political work and what shapes its effectiveness.
In another case I’m examining there are many future-oriented debates, such as whether electricity demand in Australia is likely to continue to fall and, linked with this, whether regulatory frameworks such as electricity market rules are likely to cause a “death spiral” (with associated increasing use of distributed energy technologies by those who can afford them). Sandiford notes that many in industry and government “continue to operate as though demand growth must inevitably return”, but no one knows for sure. Any proposed shift in regulatory frameworks seeking to avoid a “death spiral” outcome is politically changed given the implications for network businesses. Other actors who see big opportunities in greater demand-side participation are lobbying governments, arguing for changes to market rules and warning about a possible “death spiral”. The views actors express on such future possibilities often appear to have the goal of generating or influencing political attention, often linked to their interests. Here, once again, we see that attempts to influence and manage expectations are often forms of political work that influence innovation trajectories.
These examples discussed above suggest that those examining politics in transitions should pay more attention to expectations and the efforts of actors to influence expectations.
In the context of sustainability transitions this sort of expectations work can be an important strategy for influencing state action. Additionally, related to the centrality of innovation processes to sustainability transitions, we need to be aware that actors can retreat into inactivity under uncertain conditions. Actors must be motivated to take risks (or discount them). This is an interesting and challenging terrain for transition studies because rational expectations may be a barrier to desired major innovations. Social and political processes that contribute to “over-enthusiasm” may be essential for undertaking very risky decisions, also pointing to the social dimensions and politics of expectations.
Finally, as Beckert (2014) notes, we must also recognise that “the contingent nature of expectations makes them open to interest-based politics” (see the history of nuclear power above). Powerful actors may shape expectations in ways that are contrary to needs of those proposing new and emerging innovations. I have also seen this in some cases I’ve researched.