What is meant by the politics of sustainability transitions?

The latest issue of the Journal of Environmental Policy & Planning is a special issue on “The Politics of Transition” (link).

In the introductory essay the special issue editors argue that sustainability transitions “involve politics in the broadest sense of the word”. They cite a broad conceptualisation of politics – proposed by Adrian Leftwich in his book Redefining Politics – which emphasises the roles of cooperation and conflict in the production and reproduction of social life:

“All the activities of co-operation and conflict, within and between societies, whereby the human species goes about organising the use, production and distribution of human, natural and other resources in the production and reproduction of its biological and social life” (Leftwich, 1983/2010, p.11)

The issue editors also note that sustainability transitions research is often critiqued, for example, for having a poor understanding of power and they point to a broader critical literature on the politics of sustainable development. They assert that “it seems that recurring calls for an increased attention to the politics of sustainability transitions have failed to consolidate, remain relatively dispersed and lack in systematic comparison of otherwise rich case studies” (p.557).

The issue is well worth a read.  A useful distinction is made between more macro politics (e.g. in formal democratic processes and “related arenas of formal politics” [p.602]) and the less visible and “overlooked ‘micro-politics’ of transition processes” such as the “politics” that issue contributors argue is evident when “participation procedures take shape” or “when futures are envisioned” (pp.601-2).  The issue argues for “broadening … how we understand ‘the political’” (p.602).

Further issue themes include the sources and agents of power in transition processes, and the “situated nature of transition politics” which the editors argue calls for a “deeper knowledge of the historical and spatial contexts in which transition political processes unfold” (p.580).

Different issue contributors would likely answer the question ‘What is meant by the politics of sustainability transitions?’ quite differently, but there seems to be greater focus on issues of power and conflict, and challenging vested interests (typically viewed as the incumbents), than there is on issues to do with the role of the state, policy processes and political ideology.

Additional potential research foci and directions also seem to me to be warranted:

1/ Following Beckert (2013; 2016), considerations of power and agency could be enhanced by further examining the politics of expectations. Beckert’s (2013) argument that a theory of expectations is also a theory of politics could usefully frame such inquiry. This research could also build on Gaede and Meadowcroft’s (2016) important observation – in their paper in the special issue – that “politics ‘mediate’ the production and discussion of … futures”.

2/ Building on the research of Mariana Mazzucato and many others (E.g. see the book Rethinking Capitalism: Economics and Policy for Sustainable and Inclusive Growth) much more emphasis could be places on the role of the state and economic policy in transition processes. Mazzucato (2014; 2015) argues that an ‘entrepreneurial state’ is generally needed to enable technological transitions. Political perspectives like these could assist with evolving somewhat vague frameworks/heuristics like the multi-level perspective into something more like fully-fledged transition theories.

3/ As argued by Scoones et al (2015) in their book The Politics of Green Transformations there is also a need to critically study the “politics of knowledge” (p.4). Such a politics turns:

“both on what we think we know (consensus and uncertainties) and who knows it (whose knowledge counts). We must ask which scientists or other stakeholders, which forms of expertise, from the official to the informal, which disciplines and regions have the most voice in the construction of knowledge about the predicaments that underpin calls for green transformations” (p.4).

Scoones et al emphasise “dangers … associated with an uncritical embrace of dominant knowledge production for green transformations” (p.4) and caution that ‘ecological imperatives’ can problematically “restrict the contours of legitimate political debate” (p.5). These are important points/cautions. Additional considerations include the ways in which science is often a site of political contestation and the influence of funding structures on knowledge production and use.

4/ Building on the above theme, as well as the diversification of sustainability transition research (as was evident as the recent International Sustainability Transitions conference held in Germany [link, see the conference program]) there is a need to examine the influence of political ideologies and political commitments on transition practices, research, and theory. That is, questions of politics should be asked about those seeking to research and create sustainability transitions.

Such an expanded research agenda could help to more fully clarify and articulate what is meant by ‘the politics of sustainability transitions’, what is currently being done to influence/enable such transitions, and what needs to be done to influence/enable sustainability transitions.


Beckert, J. 2013, ‘Imagined futures: fictional expectations in the economy’, Theory and Society, vol. 42, no. 3, pp. 219-40.

Beckert, J. 2016, Imagined Futures: Fictional Expectations and Capitalist Dynamics, Harvard University Press.

Gaede, J. & Meadowcroft, J. 2016, ‘A Question of Authenticity: Status Quo Bias and the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook’, Journal of Environmental Policy & Planning, vol. 8, no. 5, pp. 608-27.

Mazzucato, M. 2014, The Entrepreneurial State: Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths, Anthem Press, London.

Mazzucato, M. 2015, ‘The Green Entrepreneurial State’, SWPS 2015-28, SPRU Working Paper Series.

Scoones, I., Leach, M. & Newell, P. 2015, The Politics of Green Transformations, Routledge, New York, NY.

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