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This highlights the politics of transformations and the way these play out under combinations of technology-led, market-led, state-led, and citizen-led processes.


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In particular, this review points to the politics of alliance building and collective action for sustainability and development. Transformations cannot be managed or controlled, but must draw on an unruly politics, involving diverse knowledges and multiple actors. This review highlights how politics are articulated through regimes of truth, rule, and accumulation, and how understanding such political processes has implications for institutional and governance responses.

The conclusion reflects on future research priorities and the methodological stance required for an effective response to the political challenges of sustainability and development. In the world committed to 17 sustainable development goals SDGs , and a historic new agreement on climate change was signed. These two events signal a major shift in international commitments to both sustainability and development.

However, behind this seeming consensus lies much disagreement as to what the goals and agreements mean, who should benefit, and where responsibilities lie. The politics of sustainability and development are central. The term sustainability was first used in relation to forest management in Europe in the eighteenth century, but it was only in the late s that the ideas of sustainability and development were connected. Especially since the first United Nations UN conference on environment and development in Rio in , there have been a plethora of definitions, academic commentaries, and policy initiatives 2 , 3.

In this period, sustainability became a boundary term, connecting science and policy and diverse actors with multiple interests 4. Today, we have sustainable economies, resources, businesses, livelihoods, cities, agricultures, and of course development. The boundary work for sustainability—building common understanding, embedded in epistemic communities, with joint commitments—has become a massive undertaking. Such work is represented in major scientific assessment processes such as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, or the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development , as well as international policy processes under the aegis of the UN on climate, desertification, biodiversity, and more.

All of these are hugely political processes, centered on contests over knowledge and who can speak for whom 5 , 6. Around sustainability and development concerns, networks of diverse actors have formed, alliances have been built, institutions and organizations have been constructed, projects have been formulated, and large amounts of money have been spent over the past 30 years. But what does this all mean, and how should we conceive of these much-used buzzwords of our time? How should different actors intervene in what are now universally regarded as major local and global challenges?

How can transformations to sustainability and development be achieved? This review focuses on the politics of these processes, drawing out conceptual issues from a diverse, cross-disciplinary literature. It also focuses on the politics of knowledge—and how issues are framed, definitions are arrived at, and goals are set—as well as the politics of interests—and how positions are asserted, commercial-political interests are deployed, and alliances for or against change are formed. However, debates about sustainability and development and their interconnections are frequently focused on technical-economic dimensions, and politics has often been implicit, if discussed at all.

As the world moves toward implementing the SDGs and realizing the climate agreement—from global to local settings—politics will come to the fore. Having the intellectual tools to address such challenges will be vital. This review, by offering a window into a huge and growing literature, aims at providing an important resource for this urgent challenge. The review is organized as follows. First, I offer a brief overview of sustainability thinking across different traditions and its links to development.

Next, I examine the politics of resources and the influence of the narrative of scarcity on research, policy, and practice. This highlights an array of political issues, which are expanded upon in a discussion of transformations and the way these play out under technology-led, market-led, state-led, and citizen-led processes, as well as their combinations.

America’s Original Identity Politics

The review emphasizes alliance building for sustainability and development. This theme is then continued in a final section on political processes, highlighting regimes of truth, rule, and accumulation as ways of dissecting these. The review concludes with an assessment of implications for politics and action, including a discussion of institutions and governance, as well as a reflection on future research and the methodological stance required for an effective response to the political challenges of sustainability and development.

What have been the intellectual underpinnings of this explosion of sustainability thinking and practice?

John M. Herrick

Ecologists have long been concerned with how ecosystems respond to shocks and stresses, and mathematical ecology blossomed through the s and s, with important work on the stability and resilience properties of both model and real biological systems 7. As with the original use of the term sustainability, these understandings have informed sustainable yield and resource management practices in a range of ecosystems 8. Sustainability—or alternatively resilience 9 —was defined as the ability of a system to bounce back from shocks and stresses—including offtake and harvesting—to return to stable equilibrium states.

These terms were conservative, technical concepts, which focused on a return to a status quo. Such an equilibrium view, premised on assumptions about the balance of nature, has been challenged, however, by both the ecological and social sciences, with a more complex nonequilibrium systems view emerging In addition, with the growth of thinking about sustainable development, a more holistic notion was promoted, where normative, political goals concerning environment, economy, and society were applied. Here, concepts of transformation, transition, and pathway have become important, focusing on progressive directions of change toward normatively defined goals of sustainability and development.

Under conditions of dynamic uncertainty, no single state can be achieved, and an approach to incremental change and adaptive management and learning for sustainability is advocated 11 — Different disciplinary traditions have grappled with these concepts, aiming for conceptually rigorous and operationally useful approaches to sustainable development. Neoclassical economists, for example, have drawn on the idea of natural capital Others pointed to the importance of critical natural capital 15 —which performs irreplaceable environmental functions, such as providing ecosystem services.

Ecological economics meanwhile traced more concrete links with dynamic ecological systems, generating such fields as lifecycle analysis, energy balance analysis, ecological footprint assessment, and alternative national accounting systems, each examining how ecological and economic systems are coconstituted Although offering a more ecologically attuned approach, ecological economics too can resort to mechanistic, closed-loop systems thinking, without sufficient attention to nonequilibrium, complexity dynamics and divergent outcomes Nine boundaries are defined, based on existing biophysical data, and in recent assessments three have been argued to be transgressed, with several more at risk.

This has provided a scientific backdrop for work on natural capital accounting and climate change 24 or biodiversity and ecosystem valuation Since the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, a huge amount of work has been undertaken on the valuation of ecosystems 26 , as a basis for market-led responses see Market-Led Transformations, below.

Figure Locations

These approaches too have been widely critiqued 27 , because they also take too simplistic a view of dynamic ecological systems, due to the problematic assumptions often embedded in simple valuation exercises Others have taken a different approach, arguing that planetary and social boundaries have to be seen together and in more concretely normative terms. The challenge is then to navigate a safe and just space for humanity between highly dynamic biophysical and social boundaries Here the requirement for a basic minimum social floor is identified, suggesting an approach to economic analysis for sustainability that takes basic needs and social justice as central.

This requires negotiating particular pathways for sustainability and development, ones that are not amenable to managerial control, and must emerge through debate and political contest, not through the primacy of economic or biophysical science—although both are of course needed. A longer tradition of integrative sustainability science has looked at natural hazards, focusing on climate change within regional geographies and linking understandings of both natural and social systems 30 , Recent discussions of the resource nexus—connecting food, water, and energy, for example 32 —have attempted to link across sectoral sustainability concerns through integrative analysis, although often without taking politics seriously enough Adopting a more explicitly political perspective, political ecology in its varied forms has long linked resource use with wider political economy analyses 34 — 37 , increasingly with a focus on both the politics of people, place, and the materialities of resources 38 , as well as the politics of knowledge Drawing on wider popular political concerns about the relationships between environment, well-being, and struggles for social justice, political scientists such as Andrew Dobson 40 have delineated political theories that incorporated a green politics perspective.

Here sustainability concerns are put at the center of a normative understanding of social and political change. An integrative approach—starting from a complex systems analysis, but examining in particular how systems are framed, and as such understood in different ways by different people—has emerged under the umbrella of the ESRC STEPS Centre's pathways approach Linking constructivist perspectives from science and technology studies, with material political economy concerns from development studies traditions, the approach emphasizes how alternative pathways to sustainability are constructed in different sociopolitical contexts, examining the distributional and social justice consequences.

The pathways approach draws upon a variety of the literatures already mentioned, but firmly focuses on the politics of direction, distribution, and diversity in choices concerning sustainability and development 42 , and as such links normative concerns with an analytical approach. Therefore, across these large areas of cross-disciplinary literature only briefly reviewed here , we have multiple versions of sustainability: broad and narrow, strong and weak, dark and light green, technical-economic and political, and more.

Some focus solely on environmental change, whereas others take the more inclusive stance of Brundtland, connecting environmental, social, and economic dimensions. Which version of sustainability, and so what direction of transformation, is chosen, is of course down to politics. This makes the politics of knowledge, interests, and wider political economy contexts central to sustainability thinking.

These are themes that are taken up in depth in the subsequent sections. Much of the contemporary sustainability debate—from debates about limits to growth 43 to the more recent discussion of planetary boundaries 20 —has been framed in terms of resource scarcity.

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Relative scarcities in resources between people and places are assumed to drive economic incentives indeed define the discipline of economics and in turn provide the justification for implementing market solutions and the construction of tradable commodities Equally, relative abundance or scarcity results in resources curses 45 , conflict 46 , and potentially war 47 ; although there are many critiques of securitization and environment-conflict discourses e.

A renewed neo- Malthusian narrative relating populations to resources has thus evolved in recent years 49 , with narratives of scarcity at the core This in turn is facilitated by the financialization and commodification of resources in markets, with new financial instruments being used as different resources gain value 55 , Although the rush for commodities has tailed off, with changes in the global economy, the overall dynamic of global hubs of capital seeking out opportunities for accumulation to satisfy consumption and growth needs remains This is of course not a new phenomenon and indeed is how capitalism has long functioned, most especially in a globalized, liberalized world Transformations to sustainability require transformations of this system, as ecological Marxists and others have long argued 59 , This in turn requires a move beyond the scarcity discourse to a relational, political understanding of resources and sustainability Although not rejecting the material realities of resource limits and the dynamics of the Earth's systems, a hard look at the political relations implied in scarcity debates is urgently needed In this view, scarcity is not a fixed feature related to the amount of a commodity and its price in a global market, but has to be understood politically in relation to historically specific patterns and forces of production, distribution, and consumption.

Resources are always constructed; they are generated through social and political processes and produced by people in different places Resources as assemblages 64 with varying forms of sovereignty 65 are not just things, but are wrapped up in social and political relations Such a political perspective on resource scarcity thus links our understandings of sustainability to wider political-economic dynamics, operating within the global capitalist economy.

It allows us to understand grabs and questions surrounding the resource nexus in this broader political economy context—as part of the current moment of capitalist expansion, rather than a momentary phenomenon associated with a particular crisis This suggests ways of responding.

Rather than focusing on economic instruments, narrow institutional responses, or draconian control measures, including the securitization and militarization of resources 69 , 70 , this perspective highlights the importance of restructuring the relationships between resources, the state, markets, and society. This requires paying attention to how resources are distributed. Scarcity for one person may be abundance for another.

Scarcities are generated not only through absolute limits, but also through unequal access. If scarcities are constitutive of social, political, and economic relationships, addressing environmental and resource questions is centrally about such relational politics 50 , 71 — Class, gender, age, ethnicity, and inherited histories of location in a globalized world all become relevant in understanding scarcity in context. With this, ideas of social justice become the core of the debate, thus recasting our understandings of sustainability and development As a result, we need to be clear about the political consequences of scarcity-driven interventions on the relations within a society, as an intervention to conserve a resource or protect a planetary boundary may have far-reaching distributional and social justice consequences.

As mentioned above, there has been a growing literature looking at sustainability issues in this vein, drawing on the intellectual traditions of political ecology, historical and political geography, social anthropology, and some strands of political science.

This helps us understand scarcities in their social and political contexts, getting away from a simplistic Malthusian relationship. Timothy Mitchell 77 argues that resources and their politics are inevitably constructed in relation to a particular historical moment and its political economy. He argues that in relation to energy sources, the age of oil and coal can only give way to an alternative renewables future if the wider configurations of power—involving states, corporations, and labor unions, but also the associated knowledge, expertise, and infrastructure—are fundamentally refashioned.

What Ben Fine 78 refers to as the minerals-energy complex for South Africa is intensely powerful in many parts of the world, taking on different forms. Its unraveling requires new alliances to form and powerful interests to be challenged. As Lyla Mehta 79 argues in relation to water, the constitution of the resource, the cultural and social values that it imbues, and the sociopolitical processes that govern access all point to a much more nuanced understanding of resource control.

A focus on access, control, property, and rights become central in this view 80 , 81 , requiring processes of negotiation between actors over who gains what and under which institutional and political conditions. Often a simple solution to complex resource management and control problems is evasive, and an institutional bricolage 82 must be constructed. In the same way, debates about land revolve around access and rights in highly differentiated populations, where often tense, sometimes violent, competition over resources occurs.


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Conflicts between external investors, the state, para military groups, and local people in the context of the so-called land rush raise questions of tenure rights, gender access, and wider land administration systems and their political economy. This in turn shifts attention from questions of land availability to the negotiation of access and control, and the need to develop institutions that address this process.

History of Social Welfare

In the push toward a low-carbon economy, there is also another type of politics emerging, which is focused on individual and collective politics of responsible consumption 83 , Politics is enacted through the measurement and monitoring of carbon accounts, footprints, certification and lifecycle assessments, and facilitated changes of diet, travel, and lifestyles 85 — Resource politics thus becomes more individualized, within a new politics of sustainable consumption. As noted above, a central theme of the growing literature on sustainability is the focus on transformation processes.

Although there has been a growing consensus on the end points of sustainability, combining environmental, social, and economic goals—now parsed in terms of circular, low-carbon, or green economies 88 , 89 —there has been less discussion of how to get there and of the social, cultural, institutional, and political challenges that arise This is a theme continued in the final section.

Before this, the review focuses on understanding the contexts for transformation and the politics that arise.

Drawing on other typologies e. The narrative that silver-bullet technological solutions are the solution to the world's problems is a familiar one and is part of the modernist imaginary of development. As a response to the limits to growth arguments of the s, techno-optimists argued that science, technology, and innovation would release us from environmental limits A version of this view can be found in recent contributions, most notably An Ecomodernist Manifesto 94 , sometimes linked to grandiose geo-engineering solutions to global climate change.

Such views have been widely criticized for their naivety about the promises of new technologies and the potentially draconian politics implied 95 ; although, as with discussions about the Anthropocene 96 , 97 , there has been some encouragement for critical social science to engage with the debate By contrast, an alternative technology-focused narrative emphasizes small-scale, appropriate technology and a more bottom-up, grassroots approach to innovation 99 , echoing earlier appropriate, intermediate, or socially useful technology movements.

Here the challenge is to develop the capabilities—among technology suppliers, brokers, credit providers, servicers, and repairers—for a move to an off-grid rural electricity supply Groups supporting this type of technology-led transformation are likely to be more socially embedded and located in communities or workplaces, and the process ends up with an array of technological solutions.

Today, initiatives such as the Transition Towns movement in the United Kingdom are examples in which low-carbon technologies are integrated with architecture and design in restructuring urban environments for sustainability Alternative lifestyles and livelihoods are promoted, marking an alternative social and technological vision that is rooted in different production-consumption relations with alternative economic values and a new politics. Wider grassroots networks can also mobilize alternative technologies for sustainable transformations, such as in India with the Honey Bee Network or the All India People's Science Movement, or in Latin America around movements for social technologies A key argument of such movements is that for technology to be transformative and sustainable, the process of technology generation must be accountable and democratized.

In historical analyses of such sustainability transitions , multiple factors always combine. Some conceive of such processes as occurring across multiple levels simultaneously, with innovations occurring in niches, transforming regimes, and being conditioned by landscapes see also Transitions management attempts to provide guidance on how to facilitate such changes deliberately , although experiences in European settings have shown how changing power structures and relations is essential, alongside sociotechnical design Innovation for sustainability transformations thus must take into account politics, shielding, nurturing, and empowering local-level niches that might challenge wider incumbent regimes as part of a political process , However, as with any transformation, the wider conditions of democratic politics for successful, radical innovation and sustainability transformations are key see below.

Market-led solutions aim to get the prices right, resulting in incentives to conserve, protect, and assure sustainability As discussed above, environmental economics aimed to create policies that internalized the externalities or generated green accounts that incorporated the costs of environmental damage into national or company accounting 26 , Markets for offsets of carbon, biodiversity, habitats, even species have been created , , and payments for ecosystem services schemes have been generated see above. Carbon trading systems, for example, must make carbon equivalent—commensurable within market systems—and thus link trees fixing carbon in one part of the world with offsets of carbon emissions in another , This creates a particular type of politics, one that links locations through markets in ways that make conventional institutional regimes difficult to operate.

New rules for offsetting, trading, and resource control must in turn be envisaged — As noted, such commoditization of nature has resulted in various forms of dispossession, resulting in wider questions about market environmentalism as a route to sustainable development 54 , , New market relations, badged as the green economy 89 , 90 , may in turn reinforce existing extractive, exploitative neoliberal capitalist relations , and fail to deliver sustainability.

Some wonder whether the green economy is not just a replication of the existing neoliberal economy, without challenging the power relations that created the crises of sustainability in the first place As many countries move to establish a green economy, galvanizing private investment for at least notionally sustainable solutions, we must ask how this will be realized on the ground, in diverse contexts, and who will be the winners and the losers.

According to many commentators, sustainability and development are classic public goods challenges and are not amenable to simple market solutions. Long-run, cross-border collective action problems often require states to intervene, sometimes as part of a transnational response , However, states have different histories, capacities, and politics in relation to the environment State-led transformations therefore take many forms. An ecological modernization approach sees a strong role for the state , pushing forward market and technology-led transformations through directed financing and support for innovation.