Today I attended an interesting discussion about the 2018 International Sustainability Transitions (IST) conference (via the Australian Sustainability Transitions Research Alliance [ASTRA]) at which conference attendees shared their thoughts and reflections on the conference. Running through multiple thoughts and observations seemed to be dissatisfaction with current theory and practice in relation to present sustainability issues and related challenges.
For example, one attendee pointed to tensions between historical research findings on the time it takes for a major “transition” to occur (often many decades) and the urgency of current sustainability transitions. Underlying such reflections seems to be the idea that the core role of sustainability transition scholars is figuring out ways of speeding up transition processes which – if they’re successful – would also falsify many historically-based claims about transitions.
Furthermore, it sounded like, for many folk, the field’s purpose should be a single external function (not a range of purposes): accelerating sustainability transitions. Indeed, the theme of the 2019 IST conference will be “Accelerating sustainability transitions: Building visions, unlocking pathways, navigating conflicts” (link)! The extent to which university-based scholars can actually achieve such a purpose is a related issue, and one I suppose any social change-oriented field must grapple with and reflect on.
This is an interesting purpose and it’s similar to work of my colleagues at the Monash Sustainable Development Institute and one of the underlying aims of the research project that funds my post-doc.
But I also have broader scholarly (or intellectual) interests as discussed in a previous post on knowledge practices (link). An illustrative example is my growing interest in sources of conflict and contention about sustainability transitions and related interests in diverse relevant fields ranging from moral psychology through to the history and philosophy of science (HPS). We need to better understand the understanding the underlying causes of conflict and contention and related causal mechanisms. The resulting knowledge from such research could be useful for those seeking to accelerate transitions or it may have different benefits (e.g. enhanced understanding, informing societal reflection, etc).
From a knowledge practices perspective I also worry about the influence of strong ideological commitments on strongly normative sustainability transition research. Though such commitments can be a positive motivator of research, I’ve also witnessed how political knowledge production can be. Furthermore, my strong sense is that eclecticism is typically a far better way forward for both research and practice than defining problems and solutions according to a single doctrine or underpinning belief system (e.g. Marxism etc). I’d hate to see the sustainability transitions field become a narrow “ideological enclave”, and partly for that reason I support maintaining diversity within the field (for some relevant epistemological and psychological arguments also see this paper).
I also think there’s much still to be learned from more impartial studying of transition processes, rather than being actively involved in their potential creation. For instance, related to the so-called “practice turn” in the social sciences, this could involve detailed investigations of what actors actually do in sustainability transitions, and how and why they came to do those things. It would be a shame if such research fell by the wayside in the increasing focus on interventions and active involvement.
More broadly, for the field to ultimately succeed and grow it may need multiple purposes and associated “systems of practice” (Chang 2017) to create ‘space’ for a range of scholars, only some of which will be normatively committed to contributing to a specific sustainability transition. Moreover, there are strong epistemic grounds for intellectual pluralism. It will be interesting to see how this plays out at the 2019 IST conference and beyond.