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Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions
journal homepage: www.elsevier.com/locate/eist
Original Research Paper
Capitalism in sustainability transitions research: Time for a critical
Utrecht University, Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, the Netherlands
University of Reading, Department of Geography and Environmental Science, United Kingdom
Sustainability transitions in the Global South
Forward-looking sustainability transition
Sustainability transition research (STR) has failed to engage in any signiﬁcant analyses or cri-
tiques of capitalism. This article argues that capitalism is not a ‘landscape’ factor, but rather
permeates the workings of socio-technical systems in ways that must be recognised both for
elaborating rigorous accounts of transition trajectories and for enhancing the capacity of STR to
support future societal sustainability transitions. This argument is developed speciﬁcally in re-
lation to the three challenges of STR: the analysis of the actual sustainability of sustainability
transitions, the application of transition theory to cases in the Global South, and the move to-
wards a forward-looking STR. The article identiﬁes three main implications of this argument with
respect to interdisciplinarity, the validity of current theoretical frameworks, and the practice of
STR. Ultimately, the article invites STR scholars to be more openly reﬂexive not only about
possible theoretical biases, but also regarding their own roles in society.
Sustainability transition research (STR) ‘asks “big picture” questions’ (STRN, 2017, p. 6) on issues surrounding ‘radical and non-
linear societal change’ (Hölscher et al., 2018, p. 1). Surprisingly, however, this ﬁeld has failed to engage with any signiﬁcant analyses
or critiques of capitalism, the dominant organising system of economic, social and natural life in modern societies. Discussions of
capitalism are largely absent in STR; for example, the term appeared only once in the entire programme of the 2018 International
Sustainability Transition conference, and its use was equally rare in two notable reviews of the ﬁeld (Loorbach et al., 2017;Markard
et al., 2012). A search of the same keyword in the 342 articles published in this journal since 2011 generated merely 33 results.
Similarly, the recently updated Sustainability Transitions Research Network (STRN, 2017) research agenda mentions the term ‘ca-
pitalism’ only in the following two instances:
Transitions research is therefore complementary to long-standing sustainability debates at the ‘macro’-level (e.g., changing the
nature of capitalism or nature-society interactions) and the ‘micro’-level (e.g., changing individual choices, attitudes and moti-
vations) (p. 5).
Received 30 July 2018; Received in revised form 21 February 2019; Accepted 22 February 2019
Correspondence to: Utrecht University, Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Princetonlaan 8, 3584, CB, Utrecht, the Netherlands.
E-mail address: email@example.com.
Search conducted on 12 October 2018. STR scholars, of course, have published in a wide range of journals which have traditionally included
Energy Research and Social Science,Research Policy, and Technological Forecasting and Social Change, but also, though less commonly, Environmental
Politics and New Political Economy. This search is presented here as an illustrative example of a trend that is also conﬁrmed by the STRN Research
Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions 35 (2020) 241–250
Available online 28 February 2019
2210-4224/ © 2019 The Author. Published by Elsevier B.V. This is an open access article under the CC BY license
…drawing on comparative political economy frameworks (such as varieties of capitalism) to explain the large variation of
transition pathways and dynamics across countries (STRN, 2017, p. 16).
As a scientiﬁc ﬁeld with roots in innovation, science and technology studies, and evolutionary economics, STR has essentially
taken capitalism for granted. In carving out its space at the ‘meso-level’, STR has generally viewed capitalism at the landscape level in
the much used multi-level perspective (MLP) framework (Geels, 2002). This strategy might help to distinguish STR from other
approaches to studying societal transitions and transformations (Feola, 2015). Indeed, STR has achieved great depth of understanding
of transitions from this perspective, thus complementing the understandings generated by other approaches to studying non-linear
societal change (e.g., Fischer-Kowalski and Rotmans, 2009;Hölscher et al., 2018).
However, I contend that STR omits capitalism at its own peril. Capitalism is more than an additional ‘landscape’ factor, and its
core elements are not neutral givens, but rather deﬁning elements of capitalist socio-technical systems (Kostakis et al., 2016;Wilhite,
2016). Capitalism permeates the workings and logics of socio-technical systems in ways that are critical both in the elaboration of
rigorous accounts of transition trajectories and for the capacity of STR to support future societal sustainability transitions. To take
capitalism as an implicit given in STR implies the impossibility of a serious analytical examination of its economic, political, social
and cultural conditions and dynamics, its diversity, its inﬂuence on sustainability transitions in diﬀerent contexts, and the possibility
that sustainability transitions might involve potentially fundamental changes in the capitalist system. Blindness to capitalism also
risks a return to an idealised image of the capitalist economy, which will constrain, rather than support STR.
Why should STR scholars turn their attention to capitalism? Why now? In this article, I argue that as STR emerges as a mature,
recognised, and respected research ﬁeld and community, a consideration of capitalism is particularly relevant to address three critical
research challenges (Loorbach et al., 2017;STRN, 2017;Wieczorek, 2018). First, the debate on capitalism, particularly the re-
lationship between economic growth and sustainability, cannot be ignored in any serious evaluation of the sustainability of sus-
tainability transitions. Second, an explicit consideration of capitalism is essential for applying sustainability transition theories and
frameworks to cases in the Global South, where many of transition frameworks’ implicit theoretical assumptions do not hold, and
where anti- or non-capitalist logics have informed critiques of ‘Western’ sustainability transitions and related frameworks of progress
and development. Third, as STR moves toward an increasingly forward-looking agenda, questioning the supposed inevitability of
capitalism is fundamental to envisioning and exploring a broader and more diverse range of possible transition pathways.
This article is structured as follows. After providing a minimal deﬁnition of capitalism, I identify past engagements of STR,
highlighting the few instances in which capitalism has made it into theories and models of sustainability transitions and reviewing
many more in which it has not. I then develop my main argument—that the study of sustainability transitions cannot be wholly
prescinded from the rigorous analysis and critiques of capitalism—speciﬁcally in relation to the three challenges of STR, namely the
analysis of the actual sustainability of sustainability transitions, the application of transition theory to the Global South, and the move
towards forward-looking STR. I conclude by identifying further implications of this argument for STR with respect to practice and the
validity of current theoretical frameworks. Ultimately, this paper invites STR scholars to be more openly reﬂexive not only about
possible theoretical and analytical biases, but also in considering their roles in a world in which sustainability and other transfor-
mations are urged, envisioned, contested, and resisted by a very large and diverse number of actors and coalitions.
2. Capitalism: a minimal deﬁnition
It is beyond the scope of this article to provide an extensive review of deﬁnitions and critiques of capitalism (for notable analyses
and critiques see references in this section). Rather, my aim here is to provide a minimal deﬁnition of the concept and highlight some
theoretical debates that are particularly relevant for the study of sustainability transitions.
Capitalism is deﬁned in this paper as an historically speciﬁc form of social and economic organisation, which is characterised
economically by the private property of the means of production, the freedom to pursue economic gains through production and the
market, the transformation of labour power into a commodity, the owners’ control of the means of production and the destination of
value generated through production, and the generalisation of production and exchange of commodities (Gallino, 1993).
The most fundamental dynamics of capitalism relate to the imperative of capital accumulation (Harvey, 2006). Strategies for
capital accumulation include the externalization of costs, the lowering of labour costs, and the search for surplus value through the
penetration of capitalist relations (commodiﬁcation) in biophysical and human bodily and emotional life spheres (Harvey, 2006).
Privatization and commodiﬁcation are often accompanied by the enclosure of biophysical and other resources in processes of ac-
cumulation by dispossession, which may entail economic and extra-economic means, including violence (Glassman, 2006). The
process of accumulation is characterized by the concentration of capital and by exclusionary social relations and rising levels of
inequality (Harvey, 2006;Picketty, 2013). Other strategies for capital accumulation are the geographical expansion of the market
economy and the displacement of capital over space and time (Harvey, 2006). Capitalism is ‘constituted’ by space-time arrangements
in which ‘time and space work together in ways particular to the capitalist mode of producing, distributing, selling, consuming and
disposing of commodities’ (Castree, 2009, p.26).
Capitalism also entails a ‘more comprehensive cultural, social and political architecture’ (Gregory, 2000, p. 57; Sheppard, 2015).
In other words, accumulation depends not only on economic structures and strategies, but on extra-economic ones (Jessop, 2007).
Culturally, capitalism permeates and shapes individual and collective identities and relations beyond the economic sphere, and
includes the principles of competition, individualisation, rationalisation, commodiﬁcation of human and non-human beings, and the
imaginary of progress based on endless accumulation (e.g., Gregory, 2000;Parr, 2017;Urry, 2010;Wilhite, 2016). Politically,
capitalism rests on state structures that participate in its reproduction both in periods of stability and crisis. The state in a capitalist
G. Feola Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions 35 (2020) 241–250
system is a ‘strategic ﬁeld’ (Poulantzas, 2002, cited in Brand, 2016:11); it reﬂects and mediates capitalist power relations through
regulation, discourses, and material resources; it often undertakes unproﬁtable activities that capital does not undertake, and it
obtains revenues from taxation thus ultimately depending on continuous economic growth for its stability (Jessop, 2007).
Thus, capitalism is referred to here as a social construction that emerged and became established under historical conditions
(Polanyi, 1944;Meiksins Wood, 2002), but is also diverse and mutates over space and time as it co-exists with non-capitalist forms of
being and doing. With reference to the latter point, two elements particularly need to be emphasised for the purposes of this paper.
First, although I use the term ‘capitalism’ in its singular form for the sake of brevity, this system is not homogeneously present in
space, nor does it exist in any ‘pure’ form. In fact, some scholars have argued that what most Western countries have experienced thus
far is a form of semi-capitalism (e.g., van den Bergh, 2017). More importantly, it has been amply and convincingly demonstrated that
capitalism operates in a range of varieties that retain core elements even as they diﬀer in other respects (e.g., Hall and Soskice, 2001).
Second, capitalism is often depicted as a dominant, and all-encompassing system in which the principles of individualisation,
competition, productivism and market mechanisms extend from the economic realm to society at large (i.e., a market society) (Parr,
2017;Polanyi, 1944;Sandel, 2012). In fact, while hegemonic, capitalism co-exists with non-capitalist logics, institutions, and
practices (see Thornton et al., 2012). Logics that are alien from capitalistic norms of individualism, competition, the belief in endless
economic growth, and accumulation, among others, exist ‘here and now’ in the interstices of modern capitalist societies. They
materialise in alternative experiments and trajectories, and in common forms of economic and social organisation such as co-
operatives, alternative ﬁnance- and local exchange networks, and everyday family practices (Chang, 2011;Gibson-Graham, 2006a;
Princen, 2006;Raworth, 2017;Sheppard, 2015;Thornton et al., 2012;Wright, 2010). Indeed, scholars have demonstrated that
capitalism rests on ‘hidden’ (unvalued in economic terms) social reproduction in the household, non-market exchanges, and non-
utilitarian rationality as expressed in social solidarity networks and related manifestations (Gibson-Graham, 2006a).
3. Capitalism in sustainability transitions research
It is important to specify the terms of the dis-engagement of STR with capitalism and its critiques before discussing the im-
plications of such dis-engagement for STR (Section 4).
As suggested by the small number of references to capitalism in the STR literature (Section 1), a large proportion of this ﬁeld has
failed to engage with any speciﬁc analysis or critiques of capitalist conditions and dynamics as they relate to sustainability transi-
tions, e.g., in the energy-, transport-, or agri-food sectors (see Loorbach et al., 2017 and STRN, 2017 for recent reviews of this research
Other studies have considered capitalism more explicitly; however, these have generally considered the phenomenon merely as a
landscape factor in the background of a more focussed analysis of regime dynamics. Studies of the impact of the 2008 ﬁnancial crisis
on sustainability transitions illustrate this approach (Geels, 2013;Loorbach et al., 2016), as do analyses of the destabilisation of socio-
technical regimes, which potentially might address the subversion of capitalism, but rather have focussed on destabilization of
regimes within the system (e.g., Turnheim and Geels, 2012, 2013). Such studies approach capitalism solely as an external factor, and
more remains to be done to improve the understanding of interconnections between economic structures and power relations at the
regime level, which determines the winners and losers in a transition (e.g., Newell and Mulvaney, 2013;Smith and Stirling, 2010).
Capital and capital ﬂows, which are key elements of such winning and losing, are rarely examined in STR (Bruyninckx, 2018).
However, three minoritarian branches of STR have engaged with capitalism more intensively. First, various studies of sustain-
ability transitions have shown that distinct varieties of capitalism inﬂuence transition pathways in diverse ways (see, for instance,
Ćetković and Buzogány, 2016). Coenen et al. (2012), among others, recognised the importance of this research avenue and urged a
more substantial engagement of STR with the varieties of capitalism literature (also see STRN, 2017).
Second, studies of grassroots innovation movements have demonstrated the signiﬁcance of an explicit consideration of capitalism
in helping to understand grassroots-led transitions, which is particularly important in the clariﬁcation of the strategic positioning of
grassroots innovations. These are usually driven by the production of social (rather than economic) value, and characterized by
horizontal (rhizomatic) rather than vertical (scaling-up) processes, which contrasts with the logics of dominant actors (competi-
tiveness, eﬃciency) and the existing institutional arrangements (Smith et al., 2016). In fact, grassroots innovations often struggle for
empowerment and the democratization of sustainability transition, thus enabling the contestations of those arrangements and the
dominance of economic over social and political logics (Smith and Ely, 2015).
Third, studies of long-term transitions have devoted more focus on elements of capitalism and their change over time. Examples
include the historical analysis proposed by Newell (2015) on the politics of green transformations. Along similar lines, Swilling
(2013) highlighted the key role of capitalism’s orientation to ﬁnancial capital (rather than productive capital) in hindering sus-
tainability transitions in Africa through such constraints as determining carbon lock-ins. Sustainability transitions in Africa have also
been studied by other scholars who have explored the role of capitalist structures especially in energy transitions (Baker et al., 2014;
Newell and Phillips, 2016;Power et al., 2016).
In addition, Kranger and Schot (2018) (also see Schot, 2016; Schot and Kranger, 2018): introduced the ‘deep transition’ fra-
mework, which applies a long-wave and multi-regime perspective to explain the ‘emergence, acceleration, stabilization and direc-
tionality of Deep Transitions’, i.e., series ‘of connected and sustained fundamental transformations of a wide range of socio-technical
systems in a similar direction’ (Schot and Kanger, 2018, p.1045). Although this framework focusses on the proxies of industrialisation
and modernisation rather than capitalism, it helps to clarify the conceptualisation of a socio-technical landscape of industrial
modernity along with the selection environment, an inﬂuence on interactions among niches, and the product of ‘surges’ from the
regime. Thus, among other elements, the framework provides more room to consider the longer-term social impacts of transitions on
G. Feola Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions 35 (2020) 241–250
capitalism (Schot, 2016). However, as acknowledged by its proponents, the deep transition framework is still in an early phase of
development and will need further work to fully elucidate the ‘landscape’ and multi-level interactions (Schot and Kanger (2018)).
Kemp et al. (2018) proposed another long-wave approach with the socio-economic transformation perspective, albeit admittedly
with a predominant focus on Western countries. The socio-economic perspective examines sustainability transitions in the framework
of longer-term and broader transformations. This conceptual approach
addresses the economy in its diﬀerent forms (proﬁt-based, beneﬁt‑based and hybrid forms) and variants (varieties of capitalism
and sectoral diﬀerences). […] The focus is on the link between the economy and society, with a special focus on the role of
capitalism, the money economy and markets in shaping consumers, consumption decisions, work activities and government
policies. […] It is concerned with market institutions that shape and frame markets and with the political economy of the growth
paradigm and its globalisation. Attention is given to the 'cultures' that institutionalise and drive individuals, organisations and
societies to high levels of material consumption, as well as to cultural change and the motivations and practices of counter-
movements (Kemp et al., 2018, p. 70).
The socio-economic perspective is particularly relevant to the current discussion because it represents an attempt to envision and
explain sustainability transitions in a manner that does not take capitalism for granted, but rather considers the phenomenon ex-
plicitly and is equipped with an interdisciplinary, diverse and heterodox intellectual ‘toolbox’ that includes, among ﬁelds, political
economy, historical sociology, political philosophy, human geography, ecological and institutional economics. Thus, socio-economic
‘brings out the complexities of environmental management in a capitalistic society, but also shows entrance points for action.
Above all, the literature shows the need for systemic change, not only in socio-technical systems, but also in the system of
capitalism and the process of marketization […] together with emancipation and democratisation’ (Kemp et al., 2018, p. 71).
These three branches—sustainability transitions and varieties of capitalism, grassroots innovations movements, and long-wave
transition studies— constitute a relative minority of STR; however, they illustrate some core elements of a fruitful and insightful
engagement of the discipline with capitalism and its critiques: the conceptualisation of capitalism as a social construction (the
outcome of social processes), that changes over (long) time; the recognition of the diversity of capitalism and of its coexistence with
alternative logics in various interstitial or non-market institutions, practices, and spaces; and more broadly, an interdisciplinary
historical and socio-economic perspective as an alternative to socio-technical approaches toward conceptualising societal change. I
revisit these issues in the discussion (Section 5).
4. Capitalism and three challenges in sustainability transitions research
The lack of explicit and theory-informed considerations of capitalism and its critiques is a constraint for STR’s eﬀorts to address
three crucial research challenges: analysing the sustainability of sustainability transitions; applying transition theories to the Global
South; and promoting a more forward-looking research approach (Loorbach et al., 2017;STRN, 2017;Wieczorek, 2018).
4.1. The sustainability of sustainability transitions
STR has signiﬁcantly advanced our understanding of transitions; however, it has not applied the same scrutiny to the sustainability
of sustainability transitions, thus leaving unanswered the question of what transitions are actually sustainable. For example, it is often
assumed that a more energy eﬃcient technology is ‘more sustainable’ than its conventional alternative; however, a greater under-
standing of capitalist logic would reveal that in capitalist systems, as with others geared toward endless accumulation of capital and
economic growth, gains in eﬃciency are likely to be accompanied by rebound eﬀects (e.g., Antal and van den Bergh, 2014;
Gillingham et al., 2016;Sorrell, 2007), and therefore ultimately result in ‘less sustainable’ outcomes, as any eﬃciency gains are spent
by consumers in further consumption and used by companies to invest in further production capacity
. As discussed by Jackson
(2016), eﬃciency in capitalist economic systems drives the continuous cycle of economic growth that is necessary for the system to
avoid economic collapse. The data elucidated by Jackson (2016) demonstrate that such growth oﬀsets any eﬃciency gains, and
furthermore, any decoupling of environmental impact from economic growth will not occur at the pace and magnitude needed to
counter the trends of most sustainability challenges, including climate change (see also Antal and van den Bergh, 2016). Steinberger
and Roberts (2010) found that decoupling is hindered not by technical elements, but rather by economic, political, and cultural
factors, speciﬁcally the imperatives of competitiveness and economic growth. Decoupling would be technically feasible to meet the
needs of a growing population if the economic, political, and cultural pressure for economic growth did not counterbalance the
eﬃciency gains. It is beyond the scope of this article to enter into the debate on growth, degrowth and a-growth (see, for example,
D’Alisa et al., 2014;Kallis, 2011;van den Bergh, 2011,2017). However, it is important to stress that the dynamics of capitalist
economies, particularly the evidence of rebound eﬀects, at the very least call for caution in attributing the label ‘sustainability’ to
A second reason for caution and another blind spot of STR with respect to capitalism concerns the appropriation of nature and
labour through global value chains and across telecoupled systems (Liu et al., 2013;Moore, 2018). Supposedly more sustainable
For a more radical critique of eﬃciency, see Shove (2018).
G. Feola Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions 35 (2020) 241–250
technologies (e.g., biofuels or hybrid transport) rely on such value chains, which often extend spatially to the Global South and
temporally to the colonial and post-colonial history of social and ecological exploitation (Moore, 2017,2018). These issues are hardly
considered in STR despite an increasing interest in the geography of sustainability transitions (for an exception, see Baptista, 2018).
The spatio-temporal reorganisation of capital and the patterns and scales of economic and social activity that also occurs through
such chains in sustainability transitions are of crucial importance (Bridge et al., 2013), as their analysis helps determine whether
environmental problems are only being ‘ﬁxed’ temporarily by re-articulating their spatio-temporal dimension (Castree, 2009;Bryant
et al., 2015), shifted rather than solved (van den Bergh et al., 2015;Yang et al., 2012), or even compounded, such as through the
creation of new vulnerabilities and opportunities for further exploitation (Böhm et al., 2012).
If STR is to take sustainability seriously, this discipline cannot aﬀord to ignore the dynamics through which sustainability
transition and capitalism might or might not become a contradiction in terms (Newell and Paterson, 2010).
4.2. Research on sustainability transitions in the Global South
It is problematic not to recognise capitalist logics as they apply to socio-technical systems; hidden assumptions and idealised
models of the economy might result in analytically weaker accounts of transitions, thus hampering the validity of transition models
and frameworks and the capacity of STR to contribute to future sustainability transitions. This risk is particularly evident in studies of
transitions in the Global South, where it is often apparent that many such assumptions do not hold (Power et al., 2016;Hansen et al.,
2018;Wieczorek, 2018). As noted by Hansen et al. (2018) and Wieczorek (2018), among others, regime instability and diversity is
higher in the Global South than in Western countries, and informal institutions play a more important role than formal structures.
Thus, some implicit assumptions regarding the existence of a common good, the dominance of market mechanisms, and particular
governance arrangements are exposed as ﬂawed (Kenis et al., 2016). I further suggest that informal institutions in the Global South
are often informed by traditional principles and ontologies that are incompatible with capitalist institutions and logics (e.g., Feola,
2017; also see Böhm et al., 2015;Escobar, 2010). This point emphasises the importance of embedding critiques of capitalism’s
homogeneity (Section 2) into critical examinations of regime models and conceptualisations in STR. Such critiques might further
reveal a diversity of decision-making logics (e.g., social trust), value priorities, and power relations (e.g., ethnic group aﬃliations)
that co-exist and at times contrast with logics of competitiveness, utilitarian rationality, and the prioritisation of economic beneﬁt. Of
course, such traditional informal institutions also exist in the North; however, they have been historically sidelined by capitalist
economic and political structures and widespread cultural change through the modernisation and industrialisation of Western
countries (Kanger and Schot, 2018).
Applications of STR to the Global South also reveal a second and more normative critical reason to consider capitalism and its
critiques more explicitly in STR. Scholars in the South have strongly critiqued capitalist development models as sources of depen-
dence and marginalisation, which has resulted in the emergence of alternative development frameworks such as dependency and
structuralist theories, which have informed governmental attempts to implement development in their own terms (Amin, 2012;Kay,
2010). Similarly, if their social (power relations, knowledge, inequality) and environmental conditions and eﬀects are not addressed
(e.g., Broto et al., 2018;McDonald, 2012), then energy transitions in the Global South risk the reproduction of Western ideals of
progress and modernity and might be perceived as a new form of colonisation (Nilsson, 2016). Such reactions to developmentalism in
the Global South cannot be overlooked, as applications of STR in these contexts have been mostly associated with development
Furthermore, non-capitalist visions and practices of a ﬂourishing society have emerged from the Global South to inform political
contestations of otherwise unquestioned socio-technical transitions (Escobar, 2015) and capitalist society-nature relationships
(Brand, 2016). Various civil society movements and governments have rejected the notion of ‘development’ altogether in favour of
alternative visions of living-well (e.g., buen vivir and sumak kawsay in Latin America; Gudynas, 2011; also see Harcourt, 2014;Sachs,
2010); ‘some social movements suggest radical possibilities towards post-liberal, post-developmentalist, and post-capitalist social
forms […] At stake in many cultural-political mobilizations in Latin America […] is the political activation of relational ontologies,
such as those of indigenous peoples and Afro-descendents, which diﬀer from the dualist ontologies of liberal modernity’ (Escobar,
Goals of transitions in the South diﬀer from those in the North even when non-capitalist logics do not play a primary role. The
notion of a ‘just transition’ that combines what Swilling, Musango and Wakeford (2016, p.657) described as ‘wellbeing (income,
education and health) within a sustainable world (decarbonization, resource eﬃciency and ecosystem restoration)’ underscores
varying political economic priorities other than sustainability and justice, which are rarely acknowledged in sustainability transition
frameworks (also see Newell and Mulvaney, 2013). To address this neglect, Swilling et al. (2016) introduced the concept of the socio-
political regime, which aims to facilitate a better understanding of the political dynamics of transitions in the developmental state.
However, as noted by Wieczorek (2018), STR most often assumes that—usually technical, rather than social—innovations ori-
ginate in the North and are diﬀused in the South in diﬀerent degrees and forms and with varying success. In other words, most STR
related to the Global South has relied on convergence or catch-up theories. Consequently, as Swilling (2013) warned, ‘only certain
futures are being imagined with […] options largely ignored’ (p. 96). In contrast, considerations of capitalism in STR would expose
the global economic interconnections, capital ﬂows and telecoupling that in fact may imply the impossibility to study or promote
sustainability transitions in the South that are not inherently linked to the North (and vice versa) as various studies of energy
transitions and clean development suggest (e.g. Swilling, 2013;Bryant et al., 2015).
Therefore, to avoid merely being another form of disguised colonisation, STR needs to recognise its overlaps with capitalist
development interventions and understand the extent and forms through which development is contested and resisted in favour of
G. Feola Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions 35 (2020) 241–250
variably radical and institutional attempts to envision and practice alternative notions of or alternatives to ‘development’.
4.3. Forward-looking research on sustainability transitions
STR has largely developed by studying past and present transitions in the Global North (STRN, 2017), which inevitably has
resulted in a ‘landscaping’ of capitalism in the multi-level perspective. As remarked by Swilling (2013, p.96), ‘to make sense of the
global crisis and a possible transition, many re-interpret the past as a set of successive long-term development cycles that could repeat
in future’. I maintain that this strategy is inadequate to envision and support societal transitions at the pace and magnitude needed to
face the current ‘polycrisis of unsustainability’ (Böhm et al., 2015, p.6). To study potential future sustainability transitions inherently
calls for engaging with the future and futuring techniques (Hajer and Versteeg, 2018;Vervoort and Gupta, 2018), and for examining
the role of sociotechnical imaginaries and imagined capitalist futures in shaping current and possible future transition pathways
(Beckert, 2016;Jasanoﬀ and Kim, 2015). Thus, forward-looking STR is in need to broaden the spectrum of possible conceivable
futures, which may be the key to making sense of future historical changes.
It has become increasingly evident that modern capitalist societies engage in destructive modes of interaction with the natural
environment, which are not simply a remediable side eﬀect but rather a characterising trait of these societies (Jackson, 2016;Urry,
2010;Wilhite, 2016). For this reason, a number of scholars and activists have argued that the possibility of pursuing transitions to
meet global sustainability targets necessarily rests on challenging and reforming capitalist institutions and deeply held beliefs such as
the ‘invisible hand’, or the necessity of endless economic growth (e.g., Anderson, 2018;Brand, 2016;Järvensivu et al., 2018;Koch,
2012;Newell, 2011;Storm, 2009;Wilhite, 2016). Furthermore, since the 2008 ﬁnancial crisis, the debate on the conditions and
potential of post-growth and post-capitalist economies has expanded beyond the circles of activists and critical theorists to reach a
range of academic, mass media and institutional fora (Blauwhof, 2012;García-Olivares and Solé, 2015;Frase, 2016;The Guardian,
2018;Healy et al., 2018;Mason, 2016;Streek, 2014), including the European Union and the United Nations (Järvensivu et al.,
It is also important to acknowledge that the term ‘transition’, if not ‘transition theory’, is already being appropriated widely, as
social movements in both the Global North and South use this label not only to question the sustainability of single technologies or
socio-technical domains, but also to critique the entire modern capitalist project, and therefore advocate and preﬁgure post-capitalist
transitions (Escobar, 2015;Feola and Jaworska, 2019;Harcourt, 2014).
Although the nature and outcomes of sustainability transitions are inherently emergent and unpredictable, to engage explicitly
with capitalism and its critiques helps to conceptualise this system as a social construction that is diverse, co-exists with alternative
logics (Section 3), and changes over time. Capitalism is constantly in ﬂux and—at least latently—in a state of change, evolution or
transformation. Not considering the question of capitalism, and assuming that this system will persist as it is, means to be doing the
ideological work of making capitalism seem natural and bound to persist forever. In contrast, naming and imagining other (i.e., non-
capitalist) futures is an essential step toward opening up the debate to a more diverse range of possible conceivable futures, including
those that entail the change of, rather than merely within a capitalist system (Castree et al., 2010;Chatterton, 2016;Gibson-Graham,
5. Implications for future sustainability transitions research
The above discussion represents an invitation to STR scholars to engage with and critique capitalism, which are present partly
within (Section 3) and largely outside (Section 2) this scientiﬁc ﬁeld. This has implications that extend beyond the three research
challenges, for such an action questions the validity of current theoretical frameworks as well as STR practice.
As elucidated in Section 2, the STR approaches that have most explicitly engaged with capitalism and its critiques are those that
‘zoom out’ to take a long-wave temporal and spatial perspective to investigate transitions across diﬀerent sectors and countries at
diﬀerent historical periods (Kemp et al., 2018;Schot and Kanger, 2018). Such ‘zooming out’ facilitates an historical perspective that
exposes the dynamism of capitalism as the outcome of social processes rather than a given contextual factor. Furthermore, some of
these approaches encompass and illustrate attempts to re-embed economy and technology within our conceptualisation of society and
accordingly re-elaborate typologies and core concepts such as those of regime, landscape, and actors (e.g., Kemp et al., 2018, more so
than Schot and Kanger, 2018).
However, one of the risks of such zooming out is restrictive conceptualisations of capitalism as a landscape factor. In fact,
capitalism’s manifestations in the inner logics of socio-technical systems challenge the validity of current theoretical frameworks. For
example, capitalism is reﬂected in market institutions, in consumerist cultures that institutionalise and drive individuals and orga-
nisations to high levels of material consumption (Kemp et al., 2018;Wilhite, 2016), as well as in the principles of competition and
individualisation that permeate not only the economy, but also extend to other spheres of social life (Parr, 2017;Wilhite, 2016).
Therefore, an important research objective for future work in STR is how to renew the existing theoretical frameworks in a
manner that includes considerations of capitalism and thus avoids the idealised economic models that result from overlooking
critiques of this system (e.g., Chang, 2011;Gibson-Graham, 2006a;Raworth, 2017;Sandel, 2012). For example, Wieczorek (2018)
The Post-Growth 2018 Conference was a multi-stakeholder gathering organised by ten members of the European Parliament representing ﬁve
political groups. It was held at the International Trade Union House in Brussels, Belgium, on 18-19 September 2018 (https://www.postgrowth2018.
G. Feola Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions 35 (2020) 241–250
maintained that ‘transferring the approaches to analyse other milieus requires care and reﬂexivity and raises new research questions
for both contexts’, i.e., the South and the North (p. 213, emphasis added). Hansen et al. (2018) argued that STR scholars need to
‘generate greater awareness of how western-based perspectives inﬂuence the manner in which we study and understand how
transitions toward sustainability unfold in developing countries’, and promoted the ‘need to engage in discussion at a more funda-
mental level about the basic ontological assumptions of the theoretical frameworks in the transitions literature with regard to
application in a developing country context’ (Hansen et al., 2018, p.202). Swilling et al. (2016) introduced the concept of socio-
political regimes to account for some of the issues discussed in this paper, and similarly, Kemp et al. (2018) suggested that capitalism
‘shapes the choices of national governments’ such that government ‘is best viewed as an institutional actor (or, even better, as an
actor-based sub-system, i.e., a policy regime)’ (p. 92).
Admittedly, these approaches remain in the nascent stages of development. However, the contemplation of capitalism explicitly at
the ‘meso’ level helps to explain the conditions for the reproduction of existing capitalist socio-technical regimes and the possibilities
for, and barriers to their transition to sustainable conﬁgurations. Therefore, to further our thinking on the role of capitalism in
sustainability transitions, and without ambition of exhaustion of a surely very rich area of enquiry, I suggest here three sets of
research questions for future STR.
First, concerning the geography of sustainability transitions, it is important to explain how the capitalist tendency to geographical
expansion, including the creation of global markets, capital ﬂows and global interconnections, binds transition in one place (e.g. a
city, a region) to those in other places. Similarly, with reference to the uneven geographical development of capitalism, when does
the attempt of capital to spatio-temporally ‘ﬁx’ environmental crises result in their displacement, rather than the mitigation or
eradication of environmental impacts? How do local, regional and global ﬂows of capital inﬂuence which innovation happens, where,
and who pays for, and beneﬁts from any associate displacement of environmental impact?
Second, questions can be asked concerning the role of political actors in sustainability transitions. If it is recognized that the state
is a social relation to be understood as a reﬂection of capitalist power relations, which depends on the reproduction of capitalist
accumulation, why does the state privilege particular strategies, alliances, forms of actions (e.g. market-based instruments) and
discourses of transition (e.g., mild ecological modernization)? Similarly, it is important to ask whether rising levels of inequality in
capitalism inﬂuence social cohesion and the ability of the less aﬄuent to participate, and their willingness to lend political support for
sustainability transitions that may be perceived as elitist projects. Can exploitative and exclusionary social relations be reconciled
with the deliberative, often implicitly consensus-based models of sustainability transitions? On the other hand, the appreciation that
capitalism co-exists with other social logics invites to ask whether and how the spaces of alterity within capitalism (e.g. autonomous
spaces, or ‘commoning’ experiments) can inform and support which types of radical sustainability transitions.
Third, the contemplation of capitalism in STR can further the practice and increase the potential of STR as a forward-looking
science. ‘Futuring’ and ‘visioning’ exercises are exposed as ‘enormously power-driven process[es]’ (Brand, 2016:16), in which the
unequally distributed capacities to invest resources in scenario-building are likely to inﬂuence whose interest and visions of a de-
sirable future are represented. Furthermore, a solid understanding of capitalist logics and dynamics in socio-technical regimes is
essential to broaden the range of envisioned possible futures. In models of sustainability transitions, including those related to
ambitious climate targets, it is important to ask which political and economic structures need to be modeled, and which model
assumptions need to be exposed, challenged and reconsidered to explore radical trajectories of sustainability transitions? Why are
visions of sustainability transition usually predicated to depend on increasing eﬃciency gains, rather than suﬃciency (e.g., voluntary
reduction and/or containment in material consumption), on market mechanisms rather than political action, and on dis-incentives for
individual economic decision-makers (e.g., consumers, companies), rather than collective and civil decision-making processes?
Which model assumptions rather reﬂect the modeler’s implicit idealized understanding of a capitalist economy (Section 2), than the
reality of a dominant but not homogeneous nor all-encompassing, evolving and varied capitalist system?
Even a quick glance at the bibliography of this article emphasises the criticality of interdisciplinarity in moving STR forward
towards an explicit engagement with analyses and critiques of capitalism. STR should join forces with other disciplines to broaden its
understanding of the pathways toward radical non-linear societal changes beyond capitalism. Encouragingly, scholars from so-
ciology, human geography and ecological economics have already engaged in STR to inform conceptualisations of capitalism and
post-capitalism (Chatterton, 2016;Lawhon and Murphy, 2011;Shove, 2010;Vandeventer et al., 2019). These types of inter-
disciplinary conversations are very promising, but the STR community has made much less appreciable movement toward those
communities and disciplines. In the past, STR has fruitfully integrated insights from political economy (e.g., Newell and Paterson,
2010;Swilling, 2013) and geography (e.g., Coenen et al., 2012;Truﬀer et al., 2015) and additional bridges remain to be built
concerning the analysis and critique of capitalism in sustainability transitions. For example, as discussed above (Sections 4.1 and 4.2),
environmental and ecological economics have much to oﬀer in examining the actual sustainability of sustainability transitions, and
development studies scholarship is essential for scholars involved in STR in the global south. Moreover, insights from the debate on
positionality (e.g., Rose, 1997), as well as research on—and with—activists in human geography (e.g., Chatterton et al., 2010), and
transdisciplinarity in sustainability science (e.g., Lang et al., 2012) could help negotiate the multiple roles possible for researchers in
analysing sustainability transitions (Wittmayer and Schäpke, 2014).
It is necessary to recognise that STR scholars are not only researchers, but also change actors in society, regardless of whether the
form of engagement with other societal actors is conventional or transdisciplinary. In an historical context in which sustainability
transitions are inevitably never politically neutral, how should STR scholars position themselves with respect to contested capitalist
ideals of progress and development, and to what extent should these be implied in their transition models? How does awareness of
capitalism inﬂuence not only where, but also with whom and for what purposes STR scholars conduct research? Perhaps most
importantly, what steps should be taken to ensure that future generations of STR scholars are literate in a range of relevant disciplines
G. Feola Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions 35 (2020) 241–250
and engage in more self-critical research approaches?
In this paper I have organised my reﬂections on STR and capitalism by focussing speciﬁcally on three research challenges that
have been recently identiﬁed as critical for STR: the analysis of the sustainability of sustainability transitions; the application of
transition theory to the Global South; and the move towards a more forward-looking STR. There is no presumption that these three
challenges of STR exhaust the possible intersections of capitalism, sustainability transitions, and STR; in fact, future research might
further explore these and other theoretical and methodological overlaps. However, the implications of my reﬂection extend beyond
those three challenges to encompass STR theories and practice, and they essentially articulate and invite an engagement in a more
reﬂexive and critical STR. I have not advocated that STR should take any pro- or anti-capitalist stance. Rather, I have proposed that
STR should acknowledge evidence and experiences from other disciplines and equip itself with the analytical and intellectual tools to
address the inﬂuence of capitalism on sustainability transitions, and vice versa. In doing so, STR needs to be more openly reﬂexive not
only about possible theoretical biases, such as those that manifest themselves when transition frameworks are applied in non-Western
contexts, but also with regard to its role in society within a world in which sustainability and other transformations are urged,
envisioned, contested, and resisted by a very large and diverse range of actors and coalitions.
The study of sustainability transitions cannot be wholly prescinded from the rigorous analysis and critiques of capitalism. To take
capitalism as an implicit given in STR precludes a serious analytical examination of its diversity, its economic, political, social and
cultural conditions and dynamics, its inﬂuence on sustainability transitions in diﬀerent contexts, and the possibility that sustain-
ability transitions may involve a fundamental change of the capitalist system, rather than within it. Blindness to capitalism risks a
return to an idealised image of the world economy that constrains, rather than supports the analysis of the sustainability of sus-
tainability transitions, the application of STR to the Global South, and the move towards a forward-looking STR. Capitalism should be
explicitly considered and critically questioned. This is not a normative endeavour; indeed, it represents the opposite of such, as it is
rather the presumption of neutrality toward capitalism that reﬂects a normative and uncritical, if implicit, assumption of its uni-
formity, dominance, and future persistence.
I give thanks to Marko Hekkert, Ellen Moors, Richard Lane and Koen Frenken for their constructive comments on an earlier
version of this manuscript. I presented some ideas discussed in this paper in a research seminar at the Innovation Studies Group of the
Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development at Utrecht University, and received very useful feedback on that occasion. This
research was partly ﬁnanced by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientiﬁc Research (NWO) through the research project number
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