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In fear of flying tomatoes - Attending the 14th IST conference

Updated: Sep 6, 2023

Finally, I made it. I submitted abstracts to the International Sustainability Transitions (IST) conference before and the abstracts were accepted. However, because of the pandemic, I could not attend the previous conferences. In the last years, I have more and more emersed in the transition studies universe. And this year I had the chance to attend two transition study conferences, the Transformations Conference and the IST Conference. While both conferences were about transitions/transformations, they were different. Not only because they took place at different locations or because they had different themes. They were different because they represent two different schools of thought within the field of transition studies. Thus, although the field of transition studies is rather new, it is divided. That is not by accident I would argue. In fact, the division within transition studies has been the topic of my presentation.


I was hesitant to submit the full conference paper and to present at IST 23 because I knew that what I had to say might not be taken well. I expected tomatoes, or whatever scientists throw when they do not like what they hear. Or people leaving the room. Or people booing me. I was very nervous. I thought, why am I doing this to myself? I thought about not attending. In the end, my usual thought made me go: “In the worst case, it is 15 minutes of shame.”


The conference theme was “responsibility and reflexivity in transitions.” And the opening talk was full of rhetoric calling for the self-reflection. The call for self-reflection aimed to help the community position itself and reflect on future research trajectories. The community is the STRN, the Sustainability Transition Research Network. While that might sound inclusive, they focus on socio-technical transition. This is how STRN frames the world. The world is understood as a socio-technical system (see quote below from the STRN webpage).

Sustainability Transitions
Sustainability transitions are major shifts in established industries, socio-technical systems, and societies toward more sustainable modes of production and consumption.

During the opening talk I started to relax a bit more, because I thought, if they are calling for self-reflection, after all, my talk would deliver just that. Though, I have experienced in the past that people are calling for things, they are not ready for. Like claiming to strive to become a leader in transition studies but then only wanting to add a spin to what is already there. Thus, when you then deliver what they originally aspired to, they reject it. So, are they only calling for self-reflection, or are they also ready for it? Are they even open to it?


So, I was still nervous. Have I mentioned that the inventor of the transition concept that I was about to criticize would potentially be in my session? If someone could give good counter-arguments then it would be the inventor of the concept. Would I know enough to respond to the feedback? Am I prepared enough? Would it end in me being embarrassed, wanting to disappear from the earth?


Luckily, my talk was scheduled for the first session after the opening ceremony. Otherwise, the suspense would have killed me. The early session provided some light at the end of the tunnel (of nervousness). My talk was the first one in the session, that was also a relief as well.


I delivered my talk. Looking in the audience, there were people shaking their heads and there were people nodding. Puh! The talk was over. No tomatoes. Good. First some silence. Then some questions and comments. Mostly agreeable ones. That was a surprise. One person did not agree with what I had to say. I survived.


After the session, I was approached by one person telling me about the struggle to publish things that go against the mainstream or are not in line with the journal’s conviction. I heard similar things throughout the conference. In one session it was stated that one had to be careful about not using the concept as this would reduce chances of being published.


Are they ready for this self-reflection?


I understand it, I have to say. You build something, and then you protect it. You position yourself. Like in a market. You have your product, and you have to sell it and build alliances. These concepts are the foundation of income streams. They provide research lines. They provide a basis for teaching courses (which also provide income). Of course, you protect the hand that feeds you.


So what was this presentation about? I wrote a conference paper that explains things in detail. It is a conference paper, thus the quality is not the best… It needs more work, but if you fancy you can read it here.


I studied International Development. There we learned about the concept of development, or rather the concepts. There is not just one concept of development, there are many. Thus, there is a discourse about what development means. And there is a discourse about the making of these concepts. This is about power dynamics, such as Western people deciding what development means and trying to shape the whole world according to this conception. I referred to Rostow’s (1959) Stages of Economic Growth. While that might seem outdated, the ideas that were born at this time are still alive. Following these ideas, development means moving from traditional, rural, agricultural societies to modern, industrialized, urban ones. This change process thus needs technology (as modernization usually has some tech component). But technology is not only needed for modernization. We also need it to create what I have called the virtuous cycle of development (see Figure 1).


Figure 1: The virtuous cycle of development


We live in a world in which it is assumed that to increase and maintain welfare and prosperity we need a growing economy. On a micro-economic scale, that means that we need profits to constantly increase. Thus, one needs to constantly reduce costs. Costs can be reduced through increasing efficiencies (amongst others). Technologies can help us to increase efficiencies. Thus, technologies are key in keeping the virtuous cycle of development going.


I have to emphasize, I am not arguing that we should do away with technology and go back to the Stone Age. But there are downsides to the virtuous cycle, such as pollution. Keeping the economy growing means that we need to consume more and that translates to pollution. Sure, we can come up with better technologies that reduce the relative amount of pollution created with every unit of consumption. The idea of reducing pollution with every unit of consumption is called decoupling. In the image below (Figure 2) it means shrinking the red part relative to the increase of the black part. There is absolute and relative decoupling. Absolute means the rate of pollution is negative compared to the previous year (downward sloping curve), while the economy keeps growing (upward sloping curve). Since we are overshooting planetary boundaries and since Earth Overshoot Day is not at the end of the year, but much earlier we need absolute, not relative decoupling. Relative decoupling is not sustainable. However, absolute decoupling to the magnitude needed seems out of reach (Haberl et al., 2020). Hence if technology cannot render absolute decoupling possible, we need to think about other aspects of the virtuous cycle. We need to think about economic growth. Thus, we need to rethink development. We need to rethink the socio-economic systems we have created.



Figure 2: The virtuous cycle of development?


I went on to point out that the criticism of the current development path is not new, but emerged soon after the Stages of Economic Growth was published. That was on the one hand as the environmental consequences of modernization became more apparent and the Golden Age came to an end. On the other hand, it also seemed that social problems could not be solved through the suggested development path. The disparities between the Global North and the Global South did not close. When we look around, we see that they still have not closed and that we are still struggling with environmental problems. These problems are bigger than ever before. Despite this evidence, the growth-centered, technocentric development path has remained dominant.


Another way to keep the virtuous cycle alive is by reducing labor costs. That can be achieved through outsourcing and producing goods in countries with lower labor costs. Labor costs in the Global South are not only lower compared to the Global North because of different purchasing power. It is also because in many countries labor rights and minimum salaries are a distant dream. To buy cheap clothes we need to get them produced in sweatshops. To get cheap tech we need the minerals to be mined by people who more or less work with their bare hands and without protective clothing. Keeping the virtuous cycle alive depends on the exploitation of people and the planet.


In 2015 the Millennium Development Goals were followed up by the Sustainable Development Goals. That meant that following a goal was no longer reserved for the Global South. Now also developed countries ought to follow goals. And as I cynically noted during my presentation: “Because developed countries are already developed and can't develop further, we needed a new term.” The transition/transformation discourse was born. Thus, transition studies is a continuation of development studies. And with this continuation, it is only logical that we find the same division. There are those who think that economic growth and technology will solve the problems, and there are those who think that we need to create a new economic system. I argue that socio-technical transition theory belongs to the former. Thus, it contributes to the perpetuation of the old (I would say, outdated) development narrative. Now you know why I feared flying tomatoes.


I am not naïve, I know that changing economic systems means fighting power structures. Thus, it is not a simple endeavor. It will require a revolution. But it is fascinating to observe that we have selected changing natural laws as our sphere of influence. All social systems, such as the economic system, are man-made. We have total freedom to make them whatever we want them to be. We cannot say the same about thermodynamics. Yet, our quest to reach absolute decoupling means exactly that, changing natural laws.


I ended the talk by referring to paradigm changes in academia and the insights provided by Thomas Kuhn (2012). The discourse about development (transition) is at least 63 years old. Evidence is mounting that the growth-centered, technocentric development path is not delivering. Yet, we follow this outdated development narrative. In his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn explains why paradigm changes within academia are difficult despite mounting evidence. Maybe I am oversimplifying this, but it is difficult because scientists, after all, are humans. We fall prey to information and confirmation biases. We fall prey to our ego that wants to maintain a powerful position, the position of the researcher or research institution that leads the field. We want to protect the hand that feeds us. And as we know from structuration theory, we then recreate what we want to believe and see. We favor research that supports a certain perspective, we teach students one perspective, we go to conferences that support our view, and become a member of societies that align with our beliefs. etc.


I was asked what a key factor in forming alternative views might be. I am not entirely sure, but I think one key factor is institutionalization. And I think it is a logical step. If you do not get heard within a field, you create your own. This is what Kuhn indicates, in his book as well. The institutionalization of new ideas is a sign of a potential paradigm change in the future. This is why there are two conferences about transitions. This is why there is environmental and ecological economics. This is why degrowth researchers founded their own journal.


I have argued that transition studies is divided. Though, I would also argue that many are not even aware of this division. Several people at the conference stated that they have not yet grasped the whole field. Transition studies is interdisciplinary in nature. Thus, many researchers come from some other discipline. In their work, they have to or want to take a transition perspective. Then one starts to search for literature, concepts, and theories that one can use to explain transition processes related to one’s core field of interest. Hence, I would argue that many researchers are not necessarily reviewing all transition theories, but might go with the one that repeatedly pops up. As I show in my conference paper, due to the dominance of socio-technical transition theory and the way authors present this theory, many scientists might have the impression that socio-technical transition theory is THE transition theory. An example is the quote above, taken from the STRN webpage. There are books such as Transitions to Sustainable Development: New Directions in the Study of Long Term Transformative Change (Grin, Rotmans, & Schot, 2010), that do not even mention the exitance of other theories. Though, there are other theories. The Transformations Conference I attended a month earlier illustrated that. There are some papers that outline different transition theories. However, I have the impression that despite transition studies being anything but united, many do not know that there is not just one theory. That of course contributes to maintaining the dominant position of socio-technical transition theory. The more people are using it, the more people might think it is THE accepted theory.


One might think that an academic discourse is irrelevant to what happens in societies. However, that is not the case. Through the frames we apply, we only develop certain solutions. That means that other solutions remain under-explored. It means that when policymakers reach out to scientists, we provide solutions that fit this one frame. Thus, by continuing to frame the world as socio-technical system that can be transformed through technologies, we keep on neglecting alternatives. As stated, socio-economic systems (as well as socio-technical systems) are man-made. We do not need to keep the current system that is based on the exploitation of people and the planet.





References:

Grin, J., Rotmans, J., & Schot, J. (2010). Transitions to Sustainable Development: New Directions in the Study of Long Term Transformative Change. London, UNITED KINGDOM: Taylor & Francis Group.

Haberl, H., Wiedenhofer, D., Virág, D., Kalt, G., Plank, B., Brockway, P., . . . Creutzig, F. (2020). A systematic review of the evidence on decoupling of GDP, resource use and GHG emissions, part II: synthesizing the insights. Environmental Research Letters, 15(6), 065003. doi:10.1088/1748-9326/ab842a

Kuhn, T. S. (2012). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions: 50th Anniversary Edition (4th edition ed.). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Rostow, W. W. (1959). The Stages of Economic-Growth. Economic History Review, 12(1), 1-16. doi:10.2307/2591077


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