Transition for Whom? a Socio-Political Class Analysis of the Sustainability Transition Literature

Friday, 20 July 2018: 09:00
Oral Presentation
Pradip SWARNAKAR, ABV-Indian Institute of Information Technology and Management, India
Stephen ZAVESTOSKI, University of San Francisco, California, USA
The global environmental crisis has forced policymakers to consider alternative paths to achieve the goals of human development amidst the resource-constraints and climate instabilities imposed by human disruption of earth systems. Whereas “sustainable development” aims to make the current path sustainable, the notion of a “sustainability transition” focuses on shifting a system from a dominant regime to an entirely new regime. Sustainability transitions theory and research tends to focus on socio-technical changes resulting from top-down, managed transition strategies. To address the possibility of transitions being shaped by ‘bottom-up’ processes, some scholars have highlighted sustainability experiments occurring in niches or pointed to grassroots innovations as sources of bottom-up pressure. Neither approach adequately addresses how social inequality, social structure and power relations influence the beneficiaries of top-down strategies or limit the possibilities of bottom-up transformation. Our paper therefore applies a socio-political class analysis in asking the following questions: Who benefits from top-down sustainability transitions approaches? To what extent are equity concerns integrated into end goals? Can grassroots bottom-up innovations, which presumably benefit citizens living at the boom of the pyramid, actually result in the system transformation required of a sustainability transition? To examine these questions, we critically analyze existing sustainability transitions case studies from developed and developing countries (Sengers et al., 2016, Wieczorek, 2017). We find that in Northern countries, although the incumbent regimes support transitions to low-carbon economies, they often use institutional power to resist system transformations that might produce more equitable outcomes. In the case of developing countries, the strategic niche management perspective identifies the importance of networks between developed society actors and initiatives aimed at sustainability transitions in developing societies. But these beneficial network relations address neither power inequalities nor the equity dimensions of sustainability transitions.