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Capitalism in sustainability transitions research: Time for a critical turn?



Sustainability transition research (STR) has failed to engage in any significant analyses or critiques 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 relation 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 towards 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.
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Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions
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Original Research Paper
Capitalism in sustainability transitions research: Time for a critical
Giuseppe Feola
Utrecht University, Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, the Netherlands
University of Reading, Department of Geography and Environmental Science, United Kingdom
Sustainability transitions
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.
1. Introduction
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:
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
transition research
‘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,
2010, p.1).
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?
6. Conclusions
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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... As noted by Eckersley (2021, p. 249), states "have a long history of aiding and abetting environmental destruction", indicating a need to figure out the conditions of possibility for states to play an enabling rather than a hindering role. Indeed, recent assessments have been more pessimistic about the actual transformative power of states, rendering somewhat of a paradox: state actors have access to powerful capacities for change but are often unable or unwilling to marshal them, especially when states are closely wedded to (petro)capitalist interests (e.g., Newell and Paterson, 1998;Harvey, 2014;Bailey, 2015;Mol, 2016;Paterson et al., 2016;Johnstone and Newell, 2018;Hausknost and Hammond, 2020;Feola, 2020;Eckersley, 2021). ...
... Taking this dimension seriously ensures against "the state being seen as a 'black box' inside which external demands and support somehow get translated in unknowable ways into specific policies that are then directed outwards" (Jessop, 2016, p. 67). In transitions scholarship, such 'black-boxing' has been perpetuated mainly through taking for granted that the state can be seen unproblematically as a singular, unified, or monolithic actor (e.g., Meadowcroft, 2011;Johnstone and Newell, 2018;Feola, 2020). To be sure, this is not always the result of an oversight on the part of scholars but can instead be a consequence of the scope and focus of many studies. ...
... This is arguably what has been happening over the past several decades regarding the question of a green transition. While the compatibility of capitalism and a liveable planet for future generations has been questioned (e.g., Harvey, 2006;Feola, 2020), the critique has largely been absorbed by the push for green capitalismas seen in the EGDrather than sparking widespread popular support for anti-capitalist revolutions or post-capitalist transformations (see also Gibson-Graham, 2006;Siamanta, 2019). ...
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The important role of the state in societal transitions and transformations towards sustainability has long been acknowledged. Yet, existing theoretical frameworks in the field remain only partially capable of providing the necessary analytical support to study this. In response, this article proposes a relational approach to the role of state power in societal transitions based on the strategic-relational approach to state theory as developed by Bob Jessop. The resulting analytical framework is built around six mutually intertwined dimensions of the state: forms of representation, internal organisation, forms of intervention, social basis, state projects, and hegemonic formation. The article relates each of these to recent issues and research within energy and transitions scholarship and specifies how the framework can be used in empirical studies. Through this approach a sophisticated conception of the state is provided, moving beyond understanding it in purely institutional terms or as a singular, unitary, or monolithic actor.
... Depending on the analyzed object or scientific discipline, the concept of capitalism can be defined and understood in multiple ways. For the sake of simplicity, the following definition bases itself on the summary of Feola (2020). ...
... Capitalism can be understood as a specific systematic structure and organization of socio-economic activity and follows the imperative of capital accumulation, i.e., growth (Feola, 2020). The main characteristics of capitalism are private ownership over the means of production and a dialectical relationship between the owning class and the proletariat. ...
... The previously mentioned classes are bound by their material conditions and share common interests. The owners of the means of production, the bourgeoisie, are free to pursue an accumulation of capital through selling commodities on the market (Feola, 2020;Harvey, 2006). The decision on what commodities are produced is thus made by the said owners based on a profit motive and does not necessarily reflect the needs and wishes of the population (Glassman, 2006;Harvey, 2006;Piketty, 2017). ...
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Degrowth, as a broad spectrum of proposals and advocacies, is united in the demand that economic activity must undergo a 'right-sizing' to a level that respects socio-ecological boundaries and the minimum social foundations that ensure a dignified and good life for all. From the demand to establishing societies and economies that stay within those boundaries, the question arises of what role the state has and to what extent particular political formats are suited to facilitate that. With the insight that the liberal state is incompatible with degrowth, the search for alternatives references the Kurdish Freedom Movement and the associated political format of Democratic Confederalism. Democratic Confederalism is a political format that calls for the abolition of the state and an inclusion of environmental protection and feminism. This thesis aims to determine whether Democratic Confederalism is a viable political format for degrowth societies. To fulfill the goals, a theory synthesis is used as the methodology to combine two different theories to generate knowledge that goes beyond the two theories on their own. The compatibility is determined by utilizing the Gramscian analysis and understanding of the state. This thesis examines whether Democratic Confederalism edits and handles actors and elements within the integral model sufficiently to allow the implementation of degrowth to measure their compatibility. The results of this thesis show that Democratic Confederalism and degrowth are compatible with each other and, thus, that Democratic Confederalism is a suitable political format for degrowth societies. Because Democratic Confederalism aims at dismantling hierarchical and centralized state structures, the material conditions, as well as actors and structures within the civil and political society, are sufficiently addressed to foster the advocacies that degrowth proposes. Those results further expanded the societal boundaries framework and suggested that Democratic Confederalism should continuously aim to manifest counter-hegemonies to facilitate the transformation and advocate consensus-based decision-making processes in their advocated councils.
... Less, however, has been written about the reconfigurations of knowledge, expertise, technologies, and actors required to assemble and enact them. Rather, the sustainable transitions literature points to systems and policy structures such as the multi-level-perspective (Köhler et al., 2019) as forging pathways to sustainable states but have an underdeveloped conception of agency and power (Feola, 2020;Lawhon & Murphy, 2012). Authors advocate an often contradictory mix of behaviouralist, top-down, and/or technical solutions (Feola, 2020;Hess, 2014;Lawhon & Murphy, 2012), but tend to avoid the question of how transitions might be enacted and take place in practice. ...
... Rather, the sustainable transitions literature points to systems and policy structures such as the multi-level-perspective (Köhler et al., 2019) as forging pathways to sustainable states but have an underdeveloped conception of agency and power (Feola, 2020;Lawhon & Murphy, 2012). Authors advocate an often contradictory mix of behaviouralist, top-down, and/or technical solutions (Feola, 2020;Hess, 2014;Lawhon & Murphy, 2012), but tend to avoid the question of how transitions might be enacted and take place in practice. They miss the micropolitics, tactics, strategic brokerage, chance encounters, investments, experiments, and failures that are the actual stuff of transitioning. ...
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Radically new economic arrangements are needed for just and sustainable transitions to a more environmentally and ecologically resilient world. Yet little progress is being made to imagine the new economy‐environment relations around which resources, actors, and ethics might be configured to enact the novel economic forms needed. This article uses a Social Studies of Economisation and Marketisation (SSEM) approach to examine a suite of differently scaled and structured environmentally focused economic development initiatives in New Zealand. We explore how the initiatives have assembled diverse actors and investment projects into experimental economy‐environment relations. Our account highlights experimentation as a pivotal mode of economisation, and we argue that the initiatives studied by us expose a new experimentation‐led agenda for transitioning to more environmentally and economically just futures. Working with the idea of experimentation in an SSEM framework, we also argue that the diverse initiatives are creating an experimentation infrastructure that provides a more generative platform for novel economy‐environment relations than top–down models of change such as transition pathways. The article opens up a critical politics of environmental economy that focuses attention on emergence, agency, and practice and allows us to reimagine processes of transitioning. This paper brings the Social Studies of Economisation and Marketisation to a suite of diverse environmentally‐focused economic development initiatives in New Zealand. We argue that the initiatives register an experimentation‐led agenda for societal transitioning and that not only is experimentation a pivotal mode of economisation, but it can cohere into an experimentation infrastructure that has a wider collective potentiality, offering us other ways to stimulate processes of transitioning.
... A Scopus search reveals that less than 17% of articles on the CE are from social science and humanities (of a total of 4,901 articles on the CE: 2,316 are in environmental sciences, 1,753 are in engineering, 1,191 are in energy sciences, and only 804 are in social sciences or humanities) 19 . By overlooking social considerations, CE research is proposing a technological path to sustainability that many have criticized for being overly optimistic regarding the speed of technological transitions and the capacity of society to integrate disruptive innovations, which challenge vested interests (Bihouix, 2014;Feola, 2019a;Fressoz and Bonneuil, 2016;Jackson, 2016;). ...
... The second typological axis was developed from challenge 1 on capitalism, economic growth and decoupling (column (f ) in Table 2.1). Recent research has found that this could be the most crucial element to transition discourses, as it deals with the ability, or inability, of the current socio-economic system to prevent ecological collapse by decoupling economic growth from environmental degradation (eco-economic decoupling) 22 (Feola, 2019a;Fergnani, 2019;Giampietro, 2019;Hickel and Kallis, 2019;Parrique et al., 2019). The second typological differentiation thus distinguishes whether discourses are optimist or sceptical about the capacity of technology and innovation to overcome the major ecological challenges of the Anthropocene before an irreversible socio-ecological collapse occurs. ...
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The Circular Economy (CE) has recently become a popular concept in sustainability discourses for both the public and private sectors. The proponents of this idea often espouse many social, economic, and environmental benefits from the application of CE practices. Given current socio-ecological challenges to overcome resource scarcity, climate change, and biodiversity loss, all while reducing global poverty and inequality, the CE could provide key solutions and opportunities for a transition to a sustainable, fair, and resilient future. However, the CE faces many limitations to deliver on those expectations. The CE is very much a contested concept in the sustainability discourse, with many actors proposing different visions of a circular future based on their particular socio-economic interests. Moreover, the economic, social, political, and environmental implications of different circular discourses and policies remain poorly researched and understood. This thesis addresses this research gap by answering the following question: what are the main societal discourses and policies on the CE, how can they be critically analysed, compared, and understood, and what are their sustainability implications? To answer this question, this thesis uses an interdisciplinary mixed-method approach including critical literature review, content analysis, text-mining, and Q-method survey. The case studies are European Union CE policies, Dutch CE policies for plastics and tyres as well as the CE action plans of Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Glasgow. Results demonstrate the existence of a plurality of circularity discourses through history, which can be divided based on two main criteria. First, whether they are sceptical or optimist regarding the possibility of eco-economic decoupling, and second, whether they are holistic by including social justice concerns or have a segmented focus on resource efficiency alone. This leads to 4 core discourse types: Reformist Circular Society (optimist and holistic), Technocentric Circular Economy (optimist and segmented), Transformational Circular Society (sceptical and holistic), and Fortress Circular Economy (sceptical and segmented). Results from the selected case studies conclude that, although the CE discursive landscape is quite diverse, current policies focus on technical solutions and business innovations which do not address the manyfold social and political implications of a circular future. A technocentric CE approach is thus prevalent in the policies of the EU, the Dutch Government, and the city of Copenhagen. Results also find that the cities of Amsterdam and Glasgow have a more holistic approach to CE by acknowledging many social justice considerations. Yet the policies of these two cities remain limited in both their redistributive nature and their transformative potential. Moreover, results demonstrate that all the above case studies follow a growth-optimist approach, seeking to improve economic competitiveness and innovation to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation. However, this approach has key scientific limitations, as research has shown that absolute eco-economic decoupling is neither happening nor likely to happen on a relevant scale to prevent climate change and biodiversity collapse. This thesis’s research has also found that academics and social movements from the Global North and South alike have developed a wide range of alternatives to the growth-centric approach to circularity, such as steady state economics, degrowth, voluntary simplicity, ecological swaraj, economy for the common good, permacircular economy, doughnut economics, buen vivir, and ubuntu. All these alternative discourses can be grouped under the umbrella concept of a circular society. Circular society discourses are united in their objective to create a democratic, fair and sustainable socio-ecological system, which works in harmony with the natural cycles of the biosphere to improve human and planetary wellbeing for current and future generations. More pluralism and inclusiveness of these alternative approaches in the debate surrounding circularity could help co-design and implement sustainable circularity policies, which subordinate economic growth to planetary boundaries, resource limits, and social imperatives. This is key to ensure the political legitimacy, social relevance and scientific validity of the circularity policies that are implemented to create a fair, sustainable, and democratic circular society. Keywords: Circular economy; circular society; policy analysis; discourse analysis; sustainability; environmental governance; pluriverse; degrowth.
... These theories certainly have limitations for the type of fundamental socioecological transformation that is of interest to degrowth researchers. For example, they have usually lacked a consideration of capitalism (Feola 2020;Newell 2020), have been predominantly developed and applied to Western countries and are of limited or uncertain applicability to non-Western societies (Hansen et al. 2018). They have also often given scarce consideration to normative and ontological pluralism, which has contributed to the rigidity of de-politicised techno-centric responses to global environmental change and undermined the transformative co-production of political economies, cultures, societies and biophysical relations (Pelling 2011;Stirling 2011;Nightingale et al. 2020). ...
... Nevertheless, the most critical theories within this field, namely those building on political economy, critical social sciences and humanities (e.g. Scoones 2016; Hansen et al. 2018;Feola 2020) can be useful for degrowth research on agri-food systems. One example is the recent effort to theorise processes of deconstruction of capitalist modernity for the construction of post-capitalist realities in transformations to sustainability (Feola 2019;Feola et al. 2021). ...
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Degrowth has become a recognised paradigm for identifying and critiquing systemic unsustainability rooted in the capitalist, growth-compelled economy. Increasingly, degrowth is discussed in relation to specific economic sectors such as the agri-food system. This paper builds on the foundational work of Gerber (2020) and Nelson and Edwards (2021). While both publications take a rather specific analytical or disciplinary focus—the former specifically connects critical agrarian studies and degrowth, the latter explores the contributions of the recent volume ‘Food for degrowth’—this paper takes stock of the emerging body of literature on degrowth and agri-food systems more broadly. It proposes research avenues that deepen, expand and diversify degrowth research on agri-food systems in four areas: (i) degrowth conceptualisations; (ii) theorisation of transformations towards sustainability; (iii) the political economy of degrowth agri-food systems; and (iv) rurality and degrowth. Together, these avenues devote due attention to a variety of agents (ranging from translocal networks to non-humans), spaces (e.g. the rural), theories (e.g. sustainability transitions and transformations towards sustainability) and policies (of the agricultural sector and beyond) that thus far have received limited attention within the degrowth literature. The critical social science perspective on degrowth agri-food systems, which is advanced in this paper, illuminates that the present unsustainability and injustice of hegemonic agri-food systems are not merely a problem of that sector alone, but rather are ingrained in the social imaginaries of how economies and societies should work as well as in the political–economic structures that uphold and reproduce these imaginaries.
... The results of this study make several calls for further research as well as highlight questions of relevance in the practical sphere of agrifood policies. First, we argue that in order to navigate the developments arising after the Globalisation regime, we need alternative visions about the elements of the regime, specifying the 'sustainability' of the sustainability transition sought for (Feola, 2020;Jensen, 2012;Meadowcroft, 2011), as well as delineating the pathways needed to attain such visions. Throughout the history of the Finnish agrifood system, both population growth and economic growth have led to reaching the limits of the system's carrying capacity. ...
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CONTEXT The escalating sustainability problems of the current agrifood regime call for a radical, systemic transformation. Such a transformation implies a move into a new stability domain, defined by a new set of systemic attractors. These transformations can be conceptualised as regime shifts. OBJECTIVE In this study, we explored the history of the Finnish agrifood system in order to learn from the past transformations of the system and to inform the current attempts to steer its development in a more sustainable direction. METHODS We conducted a qualitative analysis on literature discussing the history of the Finnish agrifood system by utilising the concept of the adaptive cycle, which captures the cyclicity of the evolution of social-ecological systems. RESULTS AND CONCLUSIONS We identified six regimes from the 14th century onwards: Expansion (1334–1721), Progressive (1722–1868), Cattle (1869–1918), Premodern (1919–1944), Modernisation (1945–1994) and Globalisation (1995–). During each regime, the evolution of the system organised around specific attractors which initially opened up new possibilities for the actors, but over time, the very same attractors became the main source of vulnerability in the system. Along with the system's maturation, path-dependency created rigidity, escalating sustainability problems and decreasing room for manoeuvre for the system's actors, concomitantly decreasing the system's resilience. When an external shock related to climatic conditions, economic turbulence or wars coincided with such a rigidity, the system collapsed, the consequences of which span from food shortages to large-scale, deadly famines. The collapse of the old regime opened up the window of opportunity for a regime shift. The most profound regime shifts were related to changes in the system's metabolism and trade orientation. SIGNIFICANCE While the conservation phase of the adaptive cycle increases systemic vulnerabilities, it also offers an opportunity for systemic transformation. Allowing the adaptive cycle to play out on smaller scales—such as at the level of farm systems—helps to avoid collapse on the scale of the whole food system. The current agrifood regime in Finland indicates strong path-dependency and rigidity, manifesting a conservation phase, to be followed by release and reorganisation. This observation calls, first, for considering the resilience of the current system to anticipate a crisis and, second, for outlining alternative visions for the sustainable future of the agrifood system.
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This dissertation explores the transition from conventional agriculture to agroecology in Nicaragua using a socio-technical systems lens. The objectives of the thesis are i) to document Nicaragua's agroecological transition, specifically the involved processes, institutions, and stakeholders and their interactions; and ii) to explore how interactions between processes, institutions, and stakeholders produce and shape the agroecological transition, and which factors enable or limit the development of the agroecological transition. Quantitative and qualitative data was gathered in Nicaragua in 2014 and 2016-2018, using a variety of methods (e.g. semi-structured interviews; participant observation; a closed-question survey; farm visits and walks; participation at local and national agroecology fairs, workshops, and conferences; review of grey and scientific literature and government documents). The overarching conceptual framework of the thesis is based in the multi-level perspective on sustainability transitions, and frames the transition to agroecology as the formation of a new agroecological niche within the conventional agricultural regime. Each of the empirical chapters investigates how the agroecological transition is unfolding at a different location in the framework: at the micro-level of individual farmers; at the micro-meso level of individuals and organizations working in support of the agroecological niche; and at the niche-regime border, where the micro-meso levels interact with the macro level. The synthesis chapter identifies overarching themes that emerge when the empirical chapters' findings are brought together, and discusses these in light of the agroecology and sustainability transition literatures. From the cross-cutting analysis, main issues are identified that have implications for agroecological policy and practice. Recommendations are given for how these issues may be addressed by different stakeholder groups (national governments, civil society, private sector).
This chapter focuses specifically on the role of universities as climate leaders, a role that many have suggested universities are well placed to adopt. However, tensions exist as many universities have become increasingly neoliberalised in their ideology and actions. By exploring three areas of university action – teaching, buildings, and air travel – the chapter explores the neoliberal nature of higher education and suggests it acts as an impediment to climate action. Further, the chapter suggests that the climate emergency is critical and represents an urgent need for action: the civic university agenda is not yet tackling this. Universities could provide more radical space for debate, experimentation and new practices for addressing the climate emergency and living well in the ‘Anthropocene’.
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Urbanization processes are accompanied by growing global challenges for food systems. Urban actors are increasingly striving to address these challenges through a focus on sustainable diets. However, transforming food systems towards more sustainable diets is challenging and it is unclear what the local scope of action might be. Co-production of knowledge between science and non-science is particularly useful for analysing context-specific solutions and promise to result in more robust socio-economic, political and technical solutions. Thus, this paper aims to integrate different types and sources of knowledge to understand urban food systems transformation towards a more sustainable diet in Vienna; and, second, to analyse and reflect on the difficulties and ways forward to integrate diverse actors’ perspectives, multiple methods and epistemologies. We created different future scenarios that illustrate the synergies and trade-offs of various bundles of measures and the interactions among single dimensions of sustainable diets. These scenarios show that there is plenty of scope for local action, but co-ordination across diverse groups, interests, and types of knowledge is necessary to overcome lock-ins.
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The phenomenon of climate change requires a rethinking of existing socio-geographical arrangements. This paper argues that the transition to ‘post-fossil urbanization’ is hampered by the lack of positive imaginations of alternative possible urban futures and post-fossil city life. It asks the question why it is so difficult to conceive of new possible urban worlds, and tries to answer it by using the established concept of ‘imaginary’ and introducing the concept of ‘technique of futuring’. The salience of the imaginary of the modern city is used as an example. The paper points at the International Society for Organization (ISO) and ‘living labs’ as contemporary techniques of futuring, organizing urban futures. It then aims to recoup one’s capacity to imagine alternative possible worlds and explores the role that academics can play in this endeavour.
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When the civil society makes ‘transition’ its label, it cannot be assumed that different civil society actors share compatible varieties of localist or radical transformationists discourses. This study has comparatively analysed the discourses in four civil society sustainability transition proposals using a corpus-based methodology. We found that the proposals are similar as they (i) identify the economy as an object and an entry point for transition, (ii) frame the economy as embedded in the socio-ecological system, (iii) ascribe agency to grassroots movements for transitions from the bottom-up. We also found crucial differences among the discourses regarding the role of the State, the degree of reform or radical innovation, the degree of imaginative character of the sustainability vision, the degree of opposition to capitalism. We suggest that insights on how the civil society employs notions of transition with respect to the themes of politics, emotions and place can help advance theorizations and practices of societal sustainability transitions led by the civil society.
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The contemporary world is confronted by a double challenge: environmental degradation and social inequality. This challenge is linked to the dynamics of the First Deep Transition (Schot, 2016): the creation and expansion of a wide range of socio-technical systems in a similar direction over the past 250 years. Extending the theoretical framework of Schot and Kanger (2018) this paper proposes that the First Deep Transitions has been built up through successive Great Surges of Development (Perez, 2002), leading to the emergence of a macro-level selection environment called industrial modernity. This has also resulted in the formation of a portfolio of directionality, characterized by dominant and durable directions, occasional discontinuous shifts as well as continuous variety of alternatives sustained in niches or single systems. This historically-informed view on the co-evolution of single socio-technical systems, complexes of systems and industrial modernity has distinctive implications for policy-making targeted at resolving the current challenges.
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This paper advances the debate on energy justice by opening up a dialogue with postcolonial critiques of development. There is an imperative to develop energy justice theory fit to address the complex demands of a global energy transitions in poorer countries of the Global South. Delivering transformative change in contexts where energy systems are underdeveloped requires assessing energy justice principles from multiple situated perspectives, adjusted to the conditions that shape the possibilities for action. However, current theorizations of energy justice tend to build upon universalist notions of justice within a western tradition of thought which may not be entirely appropriate to deliver policy in postcolonial contexts. This paper offers a situated, particularistic analysis of energy transitions in Mozambique - a country which faces massive energy access challenges - to open a dialogue between theories of energy justice and postcolonial critiques. The paper focuses on three aspects of the energy transition occurring in Mozambique: the logics and impacts of off-grid innovation, the situated transformations occurring in the electricity network, and how transitions in energy fuels shape household experiences of energy access. The conclusion proposes two recommendations as key agendas for future research. The first is a methodological need for research methods to examine energy justice challenges from within specific, situated understandings of energy delivery. The second entails a call for emancipatory notions of energy justice that integrate concepts such as energy sovereignty at their core to emphasise the dimension of self-determination as a complementary aspect of energy justice.
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This article is available via subscription (sorry folks!) at: There is a growing recognition that economic business-as-usual cannot continue and an increasing interest in better ways of organising economies, politics and society. Yet already there are businesses and manufacturers around the world that are implementing post-capitalist ideals into their business models, to great success. Capitalism and Post-Capitalism are not mutually exclusive, they exist as a continuum, able to be influenced at the most grassroots level. Post-Capitalism need not be apocalyptic, it is already a part of our everyday.
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Industrial society has not only led to high levels of wealth and welfare in the Western world, but also to increasing global ecological degradation and social inequality. The socio-technical systems that underlay contemporary societies have substantially contributed to these outcomes. This paper proposes that these socio-technical systems are an expression of a limited number of meta-rules that, for the past 250 years, have driven innovation and hence system evolution in a particular direction, thereby constituting the First Deep Transition. Meeting the cumulative social and ecological consequences of the overall direction of the First Deep Transition would require a radical change, not only in socio-technical systems but also in the meta-rules driving their evolution – the Second Deep Transition. This paper develops a new theoretical framework that aims to explain the emergence, acceleration, stabilization and directionality of Deep Transitions. It does so through the synthesis of two literatures that have attempted to explain large-scale and long-term socio-technical change: the Multi-level Perspective (MLP) on socio-technical transitions, and Techno-economic Paradigm (TEP) framework.
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An increasing number of studies have analysed the scope for, and the barriers to, transitions toward sustainability in the context of developing countries building on analytical perspectives from the sustainability transitions literature. This paper introduces a special issue on sustainability transitions in developing countries, which takes stock of this emerging field of research and presents new empirical research that contributes to further advancement of our understanding of the conditions in which sustainability transitions are likely to take place in developing countries and what is involved in these transformative processes. This introductory paper presents the five papers contained in the special issue. The first paper comprises a review of the existing literature on the subject, and the other four papers present new empirical research. The key findings of the papers are discussed in relation to previous research in the field specifically related to four crosscutting themes: (i) global-local linkages and external dependencies; (ii) stability and non-stability of regimes; (iii) undemocratic and non-egalitarian nature of regimes; and (iv) nurturing the development of niches versus the execution of individual projects. The introductory paper concludes by presenting a research agenda, which aims to provide promising avenues for future research on sustainability transitions in developing countries.
Facing the intertwined environmental, social and economic crisis requires us to seriously consider alternatives to the current capitalist system, including the emerging concept of degrowth. Existing understandings of degrowth have focused on characterizing the shape, the key elements and the proposals for a degrowth society. However, its dynamic and evolving nature as an alternative vision of the future, and the dynamics of a transition toward degrowth are inadequately considered. This paper seeks to address this conceptual gap through a reconceptualisation of degrowth as a radical niche innovation to the capitalist-growth regime. By extending the multi-level perspective framework to the capitalist-growth system, we undertake a critical reconsideration of the multi-level perspective, exposing key assumptions of this framework grounded in capitalist economic theory. Through this, we propose a Pluriversal potential pathway for change. To consider this further, a bibliometric analysis is used to measure and visualize research activity in degrowth as a proxy for the processes of development of the degrowth niche. Then, we return to the multi-level perspective to consider two potential pathways for change involving the degrowth niche and the capitalist-growth regime. Finally, we point to areas for further research that build on this new conceptualisation of a degrowth transition.
The Paris Agreement's aspirational 1.5 degree temperature target has given further impetus to efforts to imagine (and seek to govern) transformative and uncertain climate futures. This brings to the fore multiple challenges in the search for anticipatory governance and the role herein for climate foresight. Foresight entails processes to envision challenging futures and question limiting assumptions about what futures are possible, but these processes also impact upon present-day politics. While foresight-related activities are proliferating in sustainability research and planning, critical social science scrutiny of such processes remains minimal. Two key gaps in understanding are: (a) the link between foresight, planning and policy change; and (b) the very prospects of relying on foresight in the present to steer largely unknowable futures. In addressing these gaps, we review the field of climate foresight research here, situating it within a broader interdisciplinary body of literature relating to anticipation and anticipatory governance. In doing so, we identify a conceptual lens through which to analyze the political implications of foresight processes, and apply it to the case of two ongoing foresight initiatives. We conclude with noting the urgent need for further research on the role of foresight within anticipatory climate governance in a post-Paris era.
‘Transition’ and ‘transformation’ have become buzzwords in political and scientific discourses. They signal the need for large-scale changes to achieve a sustainable society. We compare how they are applied and interpreted in scientific literatures to explore whether they are distinct concepts and provide complementary insights. Transition and transformation are not mutually exclusive; they provide nuanced perspectives on how to describe, interpret and support desirable radical and non-linear societal change. Their differences may partially result from their etymological origins, but they largely stem from the different research communities concerned with either transition or transformation. Our review shows how the respective approaches and perspectives on understanding and interpreting system change can enrich each other.