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Disposed to Unsustainability? Ecological Modernisation as a Techno-Science Enterprise with Conflicting Normative Orientations

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Abstract

In the 1970s widespread awareness of a 'global environmental crisis' began to emerge in Western societies. Specific staff were employed to deal with environmental problems. While they are supposed to manage the greening of their organisations, committed to sustainable development, research did not study these agents in their own right. By drawing on two ethnographic cases this paper questions whether their dis-positions are likely to help in approaching sustainability. The paper then takes up Bourdieu's concepts of habitus and field, a critical realist account of normativity and ANT's emphasis of heterogeneity to argue that the agents have conflicting norma-tive dispositions.
Disposed to Unsustainability?
Ecological Modernisation as a Techno-Science
Enterprise with Conflicting Normative Orientations
Ingmar Lippert1
Abstract
In the 1970s widespread awareness of a ‘global environmental crisis’ began to emerge
in Western societies. Specific staff were employed to deal with environmental prob-
lems. While they are supposed to manage the greening of their organisations, com-
mitted to sustainable development, research did not study these agents in their own
right. By drawing on two ethnographic cases this paper questions whether their dis-
positions are likely to help in approaching sustainability. The paper then takes up
Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus and field, a critical realist account of normativity and
ANT’s emphasis of heterogeneity to argue that the agents have conflicting norma-
tive dispositions.
Introduction
The moral dimension is unavoidable.
(Sayer 2005, 9)
In the 1970s widespread awareness of a ‘global environmental crisis’ began
to emerge in Western societies. Social movements were forming, ministries
were established and capitalist industry was confronted with a demand to
minimise its emissions. In corporations specific staff were employed to deal
with waste, water and the like. Soon the idea of putting environmental
managers in place – for ensuring compliance with social (especially legal)
demands regarding environmental effects – was developed. Since the
1980s, the mode of greening society and industry has been conceptualised
as ecological modernisation. As part of the latter, environmental manage-
ment uses a variety of social technologies. While agents of ecological
modernisation are supposed to manage the greening of their organisations,
committed to sustainable development, researchers rarely studied these
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agents in their own right (Howard-Grenville 2007, 2–3), but, rather,
focussed on possibilities to turn organisations and the state green, dis-
regarding the individuality and agency of human agents. By drawing on
ethnographic cases of two environmental managers this paper questions
whether their dispositions are likely to help bringing about sustainability
and how we can conceptualise such normative dispositions. To follow
this aim, the paper is primarily concerned with conceptual work: I test
notions to frame agents of ecological modernisation and their agency in
hybrid fields, i.e. ones which are characterised by relations mediated in
materiality and the social.
Towards this end, I will first attend to the discourse of sustainable
development and its relation to ecological modernisation. Based on this, I
will illustrate the work of environmental managers with two brief stories
from the field. I will then turn to conceptions by Bourdieu, the critical
realist Sayer as well as actor-network theory (ANT) to provide the base for
conceptualising heterogeneous normative dispositions. While Bourdieu
is of help in imagining social fields configured for sustaining something,
Sayer’s work helps to conceptualise the normativity of dispositions. ANT,
then, provides an apt perspective to see how normative dispositions are
not only carried by humans but by technologies or other non-humans as
well. We will then illustrate these suggestions with the stories of the
agents of ecological modernisation and conclude with a political problem-
atisation of their dispositions.
Sustainable development and ecological modernisation
The concept ‘sustainable development’ (SD) was taken up by the report
of the World Commission on Environment and Development (Brundtland et al.
1987). Subsequently, it became the hegemonic framing for the aims and
processes towards a socially just, environmentally sound capitalist modern
society especially since the United Nation’s Conference on Environment
and Development (UNCED, ‘Earth Summit’, in Rio de Janeiro, 1992). The
resulting discourse has its roots in both environmentalism and the politics
of development. While environmentalism was very much shaped by its
problematisation of industry and technology (organised through capitalist
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social and economic structures) as causes of environmental destruction,
the aim of modernisation in the development discourse implied modern,
i.e., Western, science and technology as a solution to ‘under-development’.
SD managed to unify both discourses into hegemonic politics. In SD the
contradiction between technology as a cause of environmental problems
and solution to ‘under-development’ discursively continues to exist. While
what SD should actually mean in practice remains highly ambiguous, it
became a powerful medium for universalising a specific approach to
environmental problems: technological improvements and scientifically
rationalised efficient organisation are constructed as solutions to both,
environmental destruction and poverty (Dingler 2003; Jacob 1997). A
result of UNCED, Agenda 21, constructs the private sector, i.e. corpora-
tions, as a major actor in bringing about sustainable development:
Business and industry (...) should be full participants in the implementation
and evaluation of activities related to Agenda 21. (...) Through more efficient
production processes, preventive strategies, cleaner production technologies and
procedures throughout the product life cycle, hence minimizing or avoiding
wastes, the policies and operations of business and industry, including trans-
national corporations, can play a major role in reducing impacts on resource use
and the environment. (...) Business and industry (...) should recognize environ-
mental management as among the highest corporate priorities and as a key de-
terminant to sustainable development (United Nations 1992, 30.1–30.2).
Thus, Agenda 21 postulates modernisation of corporations’ relations to the
environment globally (Dingler 2003, 239). This perspective is theorised by
Ecological Modernisation Theory (EMT). Although (and maybe because)
EMT precedes SD they relate well to each other. EMT, developed first by
environmental sociologist and political scientist Joseph Huber and Martin
Jänicke – later spread globally especially by Arthur Mol and Gert Spaar-
garen – suggests that to overcome environmental crises societies need to
engage with nature more techno-scientifically and in ways more mediated
by capitalist economy (Buttel 2000; Huber 2008; Mol & Sonnenfeld
2000). The notion of ecological modernisation (EM) refers to the idea
that a) environmental crises can be solved with more of the hegemonic
practices of relating to nature (rather than less) and b) that practices are
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taking place which bring about this solution. How can we characterise
the practices which are deemed to be typical of EM? EMT suggests that
EM exhibits a shift from end-of-pipe technology towards proactive
approaches. As part of the latter, corporate environmental management
is deemed the major device for greening businesses. Scientific discourse
within EM suggests that the best way of framing corporate environmental
management is to organise its activities within a so-called Environmental
Management System (EMS) (for illustration of this discourse see e.g.
McDonach & Yaneske 2002). An EMS is a procedural type of tool: a cor-
poration defines aims, draws up a programme to bring about these aims,
chooses appropriate tools, implements the measures, evaluates the out-
come and, eventually, informs decision-makers such that they can review
and adapt the aims. The circle starts anew. While the specific content of
activities is not regulated, an EMS clearly defines the steps or a bureaucratic
procedure in order to make the process transparent. Actors within the
process need to make rational decisions and file them in an orderly manner.
Thus ideally, rather than regulating the content, we find that the process
is regulated by restricting the types and forms of decisions.
The procedural character of this instance of EM is linked to another
key aspect of EM: the corporation knows best how to improve its environ-
mental performance. From the point of view of EMT the quality of local
and organisationally specific information allows for better decisions than
the government would be able to take. Furthermore, since improving the
environmental performance is construed as bringing about business ad-
vantages EM is seen as successfully using capitalist dynamics for greening
society and the state. The motto is to achieve ‘win-win solutions’. Thus,
the aim is to develop and use tools which allow both, making profit and
protecting nature. Accordingly, Keil and Desfor (2003, 30) perceive EM
as practices ‘with rather than against “nature’’’. This greatly resembles SD:
development is reconciled with nature and nature is reconciled with
capital. No more of fundamentally questioning capital or industry! (Whilst
such critical approaches were topical in environmentalism pre-1980.) In
corporate discourse environmental management is aligned to SD and
actors are perceived as aiming at best practices through technological
and institutional innovations. How do environmental practices look like
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in practice? Let me turn to sketching two practical settings which sup-
posedly lead to SD, or – at least – to better environmental performance.
Settings for constructing sustainability
In the following I shall briefly describe two practical settings of environ-
mental managers. I encountered them during an ethnographic study of
agents of ecological modernisation that took place in Western Europe
between 2006 and 2008. I reconstructed the settings based on analyses
of my observations as well as informal interviews (regarding the method
cf. Emerson, Fretz, & Shaw 1995; Hassard, McCann, & Morris 2007;
Thomas 1993; Weinstein 2006).
The first setting involves an environmental co-ordinator of an organ-
isation in the education sector with about 12,000 clients. The organisation
runs a night club as a social service. The co-ordinator, Mr. Berger, had the
task of setting up a recycling system for glass waste. He therefore got in touch
with a number of recycling companies and he learned that the amount
of the night club’s glass waste did not make collecting and recycling the
waste worthwhile for the company. In this situation Mr. Berger decided to
go for the option of increasing the amount of glass waste to such an extent
that recycling became financially feasible for the recycling company.
With this in mind he constructed a recycling network including other
clubs in town.
The second setting had been shaped by an environmental manager
of a site of a multinational corporation in the electrical equipment industry.
The multinational employed about 400,000 workers – at the site we
found about 1,300 workers. For improving both the extent of environ-
mental management as well as workers’ identification with the corpora-
tion the environmental manager, Mr. Kunz, drew up a specific programme
within the corporate suggestion scheme. This programme focused on
mobilising workers’ knowledge on improving sustainability in terms of
environment, health and energy. In the course of the programme a number
of suggestions were accepted, others declined and a few also had to be
further scrutinised. Suggestions included e.g. implementing devices for
reducing water usage or electricity consumption. Some workers put for-
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ward the idea of installing solar panels. Mr. Kunz, as the expert in place,
declined this suggestion on the grounds of having solar panels already in use
at the site.
A first form of critique involves recognising that the network con-
structed by Mr. Berger was based on producing enough glass waste. If the
amount of waste decreases the network has to balance the decrease by
increasing the production of waste at other sources. Regarding the sug-
gestion scheme of the second case we easily find that Mr. Kunz did not
seem to bother about the meanings of the workers’ solar panel suggestion
but rather constructed his action as deciding straightforward without dis-
cussion. Mr. Kunz was able to effect these decisions because of his higher
position in the organisational hierarchy. These structural critiques, how-
ever, are of little help in attending to the agency of the actors involved.
Therefore, in the following we will attend to Bourdieu’s account of habitus,
which stresses the inert character of social dynamics regarding change.
Habitus, normative dispositions and heterogeneity
This section serves to introduce the theoretical background for my further
discussion. Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus and field are suitable to con-
ceptualise agentiality. Drawing on critical realism on the one hand, and
an ANT-inspired take on heterogeneity on the other, this section aims to
widen an orthodox Bourdieusian conception.
Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus and field
Bourdieu uses the concepts of habitus and field to overcome the dichotomy
of structure and agency. While agency is normally considered to be
located within the human actor, structure is to be found between and
above humans. Thus, agency is ascribed to the human actor (such as in
the Rational Actor Paradigm) and structure is understood as the relations
in a given society (as in Marxist thought). In contrast to these conceptions
Bourdieu (1989, 14–18) suggests that actors occupy positions within
social fields. At such a social position actors develop a habitus which
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predisposes them to acting and thinking in a way which reproduces their
position. This explains the tendency for social inertia. How can we imagine
this in detail?
The total social field is objectively given. Social scientists, however,
can only construct fields by choosing dimensions which describe a field.
Within a field some positions are higher while others are regarded as
lower – depending on their access to whatever is at stake within the
field. Thus, diverse forms of capital exist. Bourdieu constructs capital as
the (social) material which people struggle for to enact effects within the
field. The habitus of actors predisposes them to struggle for more of the
capital which is relevant in the field. For this purpose, they develop a
habitus which provides them with ‘a system of schemes of practices and
a system of perception and appreciation of practices’ (Bourdieu 1989,
19). These systems, generally, fit to the position one occupies. Thus, he
says, actors develop a ‘feel for the game’ (Bourdieu 1988), i.e. a feel for
what practices are rational at the position. At the same time the habitus
includes schemes for generating perceptions and thought: what is think-
able depends on the habitus, thus on one’s position (Bourdieu 2001, 126).
In other words, actors learn how the world is and take it for granted.
Believing in the field, i.e. that struggling for the stake is meaningful,
can be described as illusio. Through knowing and believing about the
world – from the position one occupies one is disposed to reproduce
one’s positions and relations to others. This disposition is based on the
rationality of actors: we perceive the world in a way that fits to what we
know about it and therefore the scheme of perception is reproduced.
Again and again we successfully apply our categories and thereby they
become durable and are perceived as objective, as in examples of symbolic
dichotomies, e.g. male / female or black / white (Bourdieu & Wacquant
2006, 166–169). Hence, Bourdieu constructs:
[T]he habitus (…) is the principle of a form of knowledge that does not require
consciousness, of an intentionality without intention, of a practical mastery of the
regularities of the world that allows one to anticipate its future without having
to pose it as such (1988, 783–784).
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Nevertheless, social change is possible. Habitus can be transformed
– through exercising, changing our conditions (Bourdieu 2001, 220–231)
as well as reflexivity: by learning and reflecting the habitus changes.
Thus, it is an open and historical product at the same time. ‘It is durable
but not eternal!’ (Bourdieu & Wacquant 1992, 133). Our habitus is con-
tingent. Reflexivity, even if it is very unlikely and difficult to develop,
allows us to distance ourselves from parts of our dispositions and habitus
(Bourdieu & Wacquant 2006, 170–171). Habitus is most constraining
when the actor is not acting consciously. Enlightening reflexivity can
thus help to change how one is influenced by dispositions.
While Bourdieu mentions reflexivity and intentional change, it cannot
be regarded as his emphasis. Critical realism, however, focuses on the latter.
A critical realist account of normative dispositions
Sayer (2005) critically and sympathetically aims at elaborating
Bourdieu’s thought with respect to ethics and morality. While Bourdieu
did not focus on ethical dispositions (ibid., 22) and resistance emerges as
an anomaly from his works, Sayer suggests, actually, ‘nonconformity and
resistance are not unusual’ (ibid., 3–4) and that such moral stances can be
linked to positions in field. This claim implies that normative dispositions
must be somehow at work. How can we conceptualise this with Sayer?
First of all, Sayer emphasises that habitus is not necessarily coherent;
dispositions can be in conflict (ibid., 26). He suggests that actors deal
with such situations reflexively. If reflexivity is possible, then they are
aware that they cannot totally control their situation. Thus, people can
‘strive to change their own habitus [using learning and practising] aimed
at the embodiment of new dispositions’ (ibid., 30). Yet, why should actors
strive for change? The reason lies in the bodily actor having ‘aversions to
and inclinations towards particular conditions [... even] before [the
body] gets habituated to a position within the social field, indeed these are
a necessary condition of the efficacy of socialisation’ (ibid., 31).
The idea that aversions and inclinations are more material than
merely social constructs can be traced back at least to Hegel (Sayers 1976).
Here we find: a ‘force must operate on something, it must meet with
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some resistance, in the form of an opposing force’ (ibid., 12). Without a
structure a thing cannot be shaped. Thus, the formation of habitus in-
trinsically requires resistance (Sayer 2005). Then, discourses influence
people but do not determine them. Consequently, actors have some agency
which they may use in ‘actively [discriminating] between the good and
the bad’ (ibid., 34), rather than just applying the disposed classifications.
Sayer finds this for example in everyday life when meeting workers who
struggle for better educational opportunities for their children. Thus,
people can commit to people, rationales, practices even against their
own self-interest:
Actors also tend to invest emotionally in certain things not merely for the rewards
but because they come to see them as valuable in themselves, sometimes regard-
less of any benefit to themselves’ (ibid., 40).
Finally, then, with Sayer we find both: a) that actors have normative dis-
positions, i.e. ‘habitus includes ethical dispositions, which when activated,
produce moral emotions’ (ibid., 42) and become embodied; and b) that
these dispositions can change – consciously and unconsciously. No wonder
then that they can conflict with each other. To make the picture even
fuller, let us now turn to a constructivist take on materiality. The dis-
cussion of heterogeneity connects well with Sayer’s account because a key
aspect of the constructivist take, sketched below, is the assumption that
resistance can be characteristic of materials.
The ‘social’ and heterogeneous networks
It is a basic point in Science and Technology Studies that technologies
are shaped by heterogeneous factors, i.e. not merely by science but also
by things, decisions and contexts (Bijker & Law 1992). It is also a com-
mon notion that a technology is stable if the heterogeneous relations ‘of
which it forms a part (...) are themselves stabilised’ (ibid., 10). What
does this usage of the trope heterogeneity mean? Law (1992, 2) has tried
to capture the significance of it:
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(…) the metaphor of heterogeneous network (...) lies at the heart of actor-net-
work theory [ANT], and is a way of suggesting that society, organisations, agents
and machines are all effects generated in patterned networks of diverse (not simply
human) materials.
Thus, ANT construes humans to be part of networks and the elements of
these networks generate each other. Accordingly Law emphasises rela-
tionality: a network is shaped by its relations, rather than by any sub-
stance. If one looks at an element with an ANT focus one zooms in and can
construe it as an effect of an underlying network. This is why Strathern
(1996, 523) points us to the fractal logic within the element: networks can
be traced into depth without limits. In that respect, Law (2007) elaborates,
ANT can also be seen as an empirical translation of the study of rhizomes
– as conceptualised by Deleuze and Guattari (1987). A rhizome can con-
sist of all kinds of elements and has no centre but spreads in all dimen-
sions. To exemplify heterogeneity: to communicate my ideas to you I use
a network consisting of articles and books, my computer, significantly
many cups of tea and all kinds of actors including IAS-STS and the
publisher of this book.
Nevertheless, the non-existing elements construed by ANT, which
are merely sets of relations that may be regarded as resources as long as
one does not zoom into them, can resist. They may not support the net-
work one studies and can then be called dissidents (Callon 1999). Thus, we
can conceptualise resistance as well as heterogeneous all kinds of dis-
sidents may exist: people, organisations, texts, stones, gates, nation-state
borders. Heterogeneous resistances can be conceptualised as reasons for
the existence of local order for Law (2007, 6) there is ‘no larger over-
all order’. Outside of the network materiality may differ very much.
If social order is continuously reproduced and reconfigured in a
multiplicity of human and non-human materials then, for following an
aim such as sustainable development, we need to enquire how elements
of orderings can be normative.
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Conceptualising heterogeneous normative dispositions
Above I have described activities by two environmental managers and
their implications. I then turned to Bourdieu, Sayer and an ANT per-
spective on heterogeneity with the aim of elaborating a critique of both,
constructing the glass recycling network as well as using the suggestion
scheme. How can we conceptualise the agency of the agents of ecological
modernisation in these cases? Let me focus on the normativity of some
of the agents’ dispositions.
We can construe both agents as acting within fields or networks,
consisting of a variety of materials. Although Bourdieu stresses human
agents within fields, the notion of habitus can easily be extended to
technology (Sterne 2003). Bourdieu’s concept of field is characterised
by its emphasis on relationality: agents inhabit positions within fields,
but we can only describe them relative to other positions, rather than
absolutely. The ANT take is comparable to this: networks are character-
ised by the relations among the actants. Both also emphasise that a field
or a network is a social construction by an academicwhich can merely
try to be just to observed realities. The critical realist critique of
Bourdieu, i.e. that agents have normative dispositions – that agents are
disposed to both moral emotions as well as morally loaded action, can
be related to ANT as well: in both ANT and Sayer’s work, agents emerge
as resisting and, thus, as possibly intentionally reproducing (dis)order.
Through these linkages we can shed light on heterogeneous normative dis-
positions.
When Mr. Berger constructs a recycling network which is configured
such that other actants have an incentive to produce enough glass waste
(the constructed norm), rather than less (an alternative norm), he can do so
only by inscribing the norm materially. We find heterogeneous materials
and relations which carry the norm of producing enough waste: the relation
between the producers of glass waste, the relation between the ‘local
glass waste production network’ and the recycling corporation, the con-
tract and other forms of texts (communication between agents), and
very importantly – the glass bottles themselves. The latter elements are
accumulated in the night club and they show up, take space and need to
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be got rid of. They seemingly ask for a recycling network, rather than
asking for not-having-been-brought-to-the-night-club-in-the-first-place.
Mr. Kunz’s use of the suggestion scheme structure enacts spreading
this kind of network. We find another instance of a social field in which
workers are related to various experts in a way which emphasises the knowl-
edge hierarchy: the environmental expert within the network is disposed
to know rightly about matters affecting the environment or improving its
conditions. At the same time, the field’s structure reproduces positions of
lay people. Within the Western cultural context both, lay as well as expert
knowledge, carry a normative load. Thus, the network disposes actors
normatively: actors’ ‘feel for the game’, which is in this case the suggestion
scheme, rightly suggests that experts have better access to knowledge, a
feel which is linked to emotions: the expert ought not be questioned and
if he is, he ‘has to’ defend his position, rather than questioning his own
stance. The materiality of this network, including humans, documents
which regulate the suggestion scheme, databases, forms, posters and
meetings, enable the flow and spreading of this normativity.
Conclusion: Sustainable networks
for and against dispositions of unsustainability?
In this article I introduced both, a) key ideas of sustainable development
carried within ecological modernisation practices such as environmental
management as well as b) a move to link the theoretical approaches of
Bourdieu, the critical realist Sayer and an ANT take on heterogeneity. I
illustrated how I link the theoretical approaches through telling stories
of practices of environmental managers. Here I presented the trope of
heterogeneous normative disposition in order to emphasise that actors
are disposed to perceptions and ways of practically dealing with realities
(habitus), that these dispositions can be normative and that these dispo-
sitions can be materialised in a variety of elements. This helps us to better
conceptualise e.g. a text, which is disposed to lead to specific normative
effects. Of course, a text may also show resistance. In the stories told,
however the managers created networks with positions at which actants
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were disposed to enacting normative effects, such as producing enough
glass waste (rather than minimising it) and reproducing social hierarchies
between the expert and lay people rendering a fruitful discussion about
meanings of the suggestion to install a solar panel unlikely.
The final task, then, is to consider how sustainable the normative
dispositions in the networks of the environmental managers were. First, let
us recall that the very positions of the environmental manager in society
– as construed by corporate environmental reports, governments and
ecological modernisation theory are ones of generating sustainability.
The sustainable development discourse co-constructs these managers as
sustainable. However, the activities described above are part of networks
which produce unsustainability: Christoph (1996) considers waste minimi-
sation as central to ecological modernisation; Jacob (1997) emphasises
that activities which ought to lead towards sustainable development
need to deal with the political and normative load of meanings attributed
within the discourse. Thus, we find that the managers are disposed to
both, sustainability and unsustainability. For studies which aim at co-
producing sustainability this implies: we need to study in more detail
how actants, both humans and non-humans, enact sustainability as well
as unsustainability. Whether we are actually approaching sustainability
is highly contested. We thus need to enrich a simple mode of critique
which points out that we need social change for some form of ‘true’
sustainability (Carvalho 2001) with a more complex mode: What is
actually sustained and how? Pepper (1998) and Blühdorn and Welsh
(2007) point investigations towards how capitalism is sustained, i.e.
unsustainability is reproduced. Further research should attend to these
issues. For an emancipatory STS take on sustainability it might be of
special interest to investigate how heterogeneous resistances can be created
in order to construct (dis)orders which spread alternatives to capitalisms
and hierarchical networks leading to domination. With this in mind, let
me conclude with the question: How can we enact sustainable networks
against unsustainability?
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Note
1Academic knowledge is not produced by individuals but in networks and communities. I am
grateful to Anup Sam Ninan for comments on an early draft and the final version
of this article.
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... On a more critical note, the emphasis is on the 'touristification' of local cultural assets and heritage, which implicitly imposes market preferences and growth logic on sustainable development processes. As such, the program inscribes itself into the hegemonic discourse of sustainable development and reproduces modernist institutional structures underpinning capitalist modes of tourism production (Lippert, 2010), rather than striving for deeper social transformations. ...
... However, the bottom-up, participatory development perspective in Alamos seems to remain rhetorical intention, which reverberates similar observations from other scholars (Lippert, 2010;Scheyvens, 2011) criticizing the hegemonic, one-size-fits-all models for community-based sustainable development. The previous mayor was involved in enduring corruption scandals, as he repeatedly favored certain producers and social strata in the community. ...
... 5The notion of agents of ecological modernisation refers to those who are supposed or assumed to put into practice the politics of ecological modernisation (Lippert 2010a;Lippert 2010b). A book is planned to provide a detailed report about the results of this study. ...
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