Stories we need to tell ourselves…. Politics of SusTrans #01.

Life, as Tom Lehrer said, is like a sewer; what you get out of it depends on what you put into it. With that in mind I am going to write two (three? four?) blogposts about a symposium on the politics of sustainability transitions that I’ll be at next Monday.  Two or three before, based on the readings, with reference to interesting bits, references to chase down after the Great Relaxation (June 4th, 5.30pm, since you ask). Perhaps one afterwards about what was said and learnt (Chatham House rule etc etc).  Thus is niche development accelerated.  Or something.

First up is “What about the politics? Sustainable development, transition management, and long term energy transitions” by James Meadowcroft

This is a really good piece, full of clarity and insight.  So naturally I’ll start with my quibbles.

  • I hate the first word of the article “Governance”, since I think it basically smuggles in all the old power/hierarchies that we are theoretically (ho-ho) challenging.
  • To say that transition is “essential if human activities are to be brought back within ecological boundaries” creates the notion of pre-lapsarian balance.  To channel my inner Latour; “We have never been sustainable.”
  • I also think there is work to be done to “unpack the idea” (please, shoot me now) of ‘government intervention’ (p. 327), both the word ‘government’ (shurely “State”?) and “intervention” (because, you know, the Real Economy is there, and states are parasitic.  Note, I don’t think Meadowcroft means or believes this, but the terms matter.  #nitpicking? And he probably deals with this in his 2005 piece – Meadowcroft, J. Environmental political economy, technological transitions and the state. New Political Economy, 10, 479–498.)
< /quibbles>  It’s well strong on the Dutch experience of “transition” “planning”  (The Dutch have been talking a good game since the late 80s, see my blog post about early ’90s CCS rhetoric, carbon taxes and so on.)

It’s strong on the fact that these rhetorics are (seen as) soothing business as usual rituals dominated by ‘regime actors’.  [Transruptive is what we need, but we won’t accept that, won’t do it.  We will comfort and soothe ourselves into early shallow graves.]

Enormously quotable bits

Is it not just as likely that after even half a century of effort there will still be significant dimensions of flux? These systems really are very large, very complex, and very diverse. The more so if we consider not just their local and national, but also their international, ramifications. Indeed, these ‘generic’ systems are themselves composed of subsystems that can qualify as ‘large sociotechnical systems’ in their own right. The ‘energy system’, for example, can be decomposed in a variety of ways, and each of its elements may be undergoing change of various kinds. And of course the big systems are interlinked in various ways (energy to transport and agriculture, for example). Moreover, these sorts of functional subsystems (based on production/consumption activities) are interpenetrated by other types of social subsystems (the legal system or the political system) that are also undergoing change.
(Meadowcroft, 2009:328)

That is to say, it’s a kluge.

Literatures of institutional economics, the sociology of technology, and innovation studies all point to ways in which society can become trapped in sub-optimal outcomes. Incumbent technologies enjoy huge advantages including pre-established infrastructure, relative ease in obtaining finance and insurance, developed networks of suppliers, familiarity to customers, embedded technical standards and training routines, and a tight ‘fit’ with existing regulatory approaches. The close integration of the various components in an established sociotechnical system, as well as mutual adaptation over time with other major subsystems, make innovation that overturns dominant designs difficult. Economic actors associated with established technologies are not enthusiastic about alternatives that would render their competencies obsolete. And since economic strength (investment, income, exports, employment) can be converted into political influence, they can place substantial hurdles in the path of nascent rivals.

The modern fossil fuel economy displays characteristics of a mature sociotechnical domain, with close integration among the components of the hydrocarbon industry (exploration, extraction, transport, combustion, retail); interdependence with support and supply enterprises (finance, insurance, maintenance, equipment manufacture, training, and research); co-evolution with other functional subsystems (chemical industry, electricity distribution, transport, agricultural production); and with broader patterns of human activity and settlement (the design of cities, patterns of international trade). The result is to ‘lock-in’ a fossil fuel-based energy system and to ensure a ‘locking-out’ of ‘alternative carbon saving technologies’ (Unruh 2000, p. 828).
(Meadowcroft, 2009:329)

And the Dutch are talking about this a lot.  And assessments have been done of the talk/action ratio –

Assessments of the impact of these initiatives have been offered by a number of analysts. In a recent article, researchers closely associated with the perspective offer their reflections. Kemp et al. (2007) emphasize the positive impacts of transition management with respect to five problems that beset steering for sustainability: ‘dissent and ambivalence about goals’, ‘dealing with uncertainty’, ‘distributed control’, ‘political myopia’, ‘determination of short-term steps for long-term change’, and the ‘danger of lock-in’.

Although their evaluation of the Dutch energy transition program is largely positive, they point also to several ways in which ‘transition initiatives differ from the model of transition management’: first, ‘outsiders are barely involved’ and the process has been ‘dominated by regime actors’; second, so far ‘demand-side issues and wider issues of societal embedding have been neglected’; and third scant attention has been paid to ‘strategic issues of integrated system analysis and problem structuring’.
(Meadowcroft, 2009:333-4)


Loorbach makes similar points elsewhere, noting that the exercise did not begin with a ‘fundamental reflection on the sustainability problems’ of the energy system. Instead there was a scenario-based modeling exercise, and the overriding preoccupation has been to encourage business innovation and develop markets in sustainable energy products. Civil society organizations have been ignored, as have consumption (as opposed to supply) issues. Loorbach is rather critical of the Taskforce—noting it is dominated by regime actors (its chairman is the CEO of Shell Netherlands), and that their vision is not an inspiring societal agenda developed through bottom-up consultations, but more of an accelerated business-as-usual model. And Loorbach suggests this raises the question of how to move forward to ‘transitionize’ regular energy policy making (Loorbach 2007). A perspective further removed from the process is offered by Kern and Smith (2008).
(Meadowcroft, 2009:334)

References to chase down for after the Great Relaxation

Backstrand, K. (2003). Civic science for sustainability: Reframing the role of experts, policy maker and citizens in environmental governance. Global Environmental Politics, 3, 24–41.

Howlett, M. (2009). Studying public policy: Policy cycles and policy subsystems (3rd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Howlett, M., & Bennett, C. (1992). The lessons of learning: Reconciling theories of policy learning and policy change. Policy Sciences, 25, 275–294.

Kemp, R., Rotmans, J., & Loorbach, D. (2007). Assessing the Dutch energy transition policy: How does it deal with dilemmas of managing transitions? Journal of Environment Policy and Planning, 9, 315–331.

Loorbach, D. (2007). Transition management: New mode of governance for sustainable development. Utrecht: International Books.

Meadowcroft, J. (2005). Environmental political economy, technological transitions and the state. New Political Economy, 10, 479–498.

Pal, L. (2005). Beyond policy analysis. Scarborough: Thomson/Nelson

Wildavsky, A. (1973). If planning is everything, maybe it’s nothing. Policy Sciences, 4, 137–153.

The second piece a chapter by Hubert Schmitz a recent book on “the Politics of Green Transformations”. I went to the launch of that and wrote an exhaustive and exhausting blog post – “Of Green Transformations, Leondard Cohen and the Elephant.”

The key thing to understand about this “socio-technical transition” [which, for the record, I firmly believe will not happen] is that it is the first to be ‘directed’ and the first that needs to happen on a very short time frame (ideally in the past, if the latest ignored climate scientist warnings are anything to go by).
So Schmitz’s meta-question, above “what, why, how, who and when?” is “how do we up our game?” And I am not sure he really gets his head around it (or that anyone can).  For me (disclaimer: I am odd, depressive), the key question is what have we been doing WRONG these last 25 years? Because all the rhetoric has been there, and yet the emissions climb, the infrastructure gets embedded, the assumptions rust on.  So clearly our scientists or our social movements or our ‘governance’ structures are not fit for purpose.  More moral exhortations and extortations aren’t going to cut it. Or “wouldn’t have cut it”, since the real position is of looking back at past failure and forward to inevitable cataclysm. See, told you I was depressive.

The moment has passed.  Our last shot probably wasn’t Copenhagen (“climate policy” is irrelevant, frankly).  Our last shot was probably the Global Financial Crisis of 2008, at which point it was theoretically (and politically?) possible to imagine at least a Green Keynesian answer.  You can do a thought experiment where a South Korean style global reorientation might have got lots of low-carbon technologies and assumptions going, and how a bunch of people might have started thinking about atmospheric drawdown of carbon dioxide (sadly though, the laws we need to change are not laws of states, or laws of economics; they’re laws of physics).

The moment has passed.  Shakespeare said it well four hundred years ago –

“There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.” Julius Caesar Act 4, scene 3, 218–224

Or, more prosaically;

The arguments that the financial crisis can be turned into an opportunity for green investment have been examined in a recent article by Geels (2013). In ‘The impact of the financial-economic crisis on sustainability transitions’ he concludes that the early crisis years (2008-2010) created a window of opportunity for positive solutions. But since 2011 this window has shrunk and political support for green policies has weakened. In the UK, Germany and other countries, public debate began to concentrate on the cost of shifting to renewable energy. The effect has been to slow down rather than fast-track the green transformations.

Schmitz, 2015

Imma close out with a couple of quotes

“I said good bye to me friend, hung up the phone, sat down and wrote this epitaph: “The good Earth – we could have saved it, but we were too damn cheap and lazy”

Kurt Vonnegut , A Man without a Country


“You already know enough. So do I. It is not knowledge that we lack. What is missing is the courage to understand what we know and to draw conclusions.”

Sven Lindqvist, Exterminate All the Brutes

References to chase down for after the Great Relaxation

Osterhammel, J. (2014) The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ [Holy cow it is 1100 pages long….]

Next post;

What are niches and how do you protect/nurture them?  What works at the firm level (hiring really really smart people, staying out of their way and sliding pizza under the door) is not gonna work at the macro level, now is it?

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