By Kate Massarella, Wageningen University (Netherlands)
Since the Brundtland report was published over 30 years ago, sustainable development has held its place as the goal for many concerned with both environmental protection and economic development. This powerful idea that we can eliminate global poverty while preserving the natural world has captured and held the collective imagination, mobilised policy and funds, and been used as the rationale for countless environment and development interventions.
However, increasing concern around global environmental and social crises, including climate change, biodiversity loss and rising inequality, are creating apocalyptic imaginaries of the future of our planet. And it seems that a collective, if not necessarily conscious, decision is being made: that sustainable development is no longer enough. We need more. We need transformation. For example, the 2019 Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services complied by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) identifies an ‘unprecedented’ and ‘dangerous’ decline of nature. And the solution? Transformative changes that challenge the status quo.
Transformation as radical systemic change
It is this focus on challenging the status quo that, for some, is central to the idea of transformation: if something transforms, it changes radically and fundamentally. As social justice scholar and activist Nancy Fraser explains, transformative change can and must be separated from affirmative action, which dominates current environment and development discourse and practice. Affirmative action addresses specific issues and tackles them by, for example, making changes to policy or introducing a new technology or mechanism to tackle an issue, but never addresses the underlying causes. Transformation, on the other hand, requires a questioning (and alteration) of the existing systems, processes and dominant discourses that are driving the problems and causing harmful and unjust outcomes.
A growing number of social and environmental movements, particularly those concerned with social and environmental justice, are demanding a move beyond affirmative action towards transformation of the global political-economic systems that perpetuate environmental destruction and social inequality. The Fridays for Future movement, spearheaded by 16-year old activist Greta Thunberg, grew out of a belief that governments around the world are not doing enough to tackle climate change, and demands radical, systemic change to halt the climate crisis.
As part of the wider worldwide global justice movement, the non-profit organisation War on Want rejects the imposition of poverty interventions, champions social and workers’ movements, and tackles the underlying drivers of poverty and inequality. The Forest People’s Programme advocates a transformation in conservation models that are rights-based and challenge the use of protected areas. Convivial Conservation aligns with these movements and with a desire for true transformation by challenging the global economic system that drives environmental destruction, rather than emphasising affirmative action within this existing system.
Transformation as non-linear process
Within social science exploration, differing and competing explanations of how transformation happens can be found. Researchers at the STEPS centre in Sussex suggest that these explanations can be organised into three groups, or sets of approaches: structural, systemic and enabling. Structural approaches focus on radical and revolutionary power shifts in society that bring about deep transformation. Systemic approaches focus on understanding social-ecological and socio-technical systems so that specific elements can be targeted via interventions, policy changes and technological innovation.
Finally, enabling approaches focus on collective, bottom-up action that is grounded in social justice and activism and encourages citizen mobilisation. Although these three approaches can be differentiated, scholars argue that in reality, deep transformation happens as a result of a combination of approaches. If, as Ulrich Brand argues, sustainable development assumes a need for managerial solutions, transformation requires that we embrace, and learn to work with, complexity, messiness and non-linear change.
Transformation as an empty signifier?
As this discussion shows, transformation has emerged as a popular new term that signifies deep and radical change. It is rooted in activism and politics. It requires us to challenge the status quo and embrace complexity and messiness. However, actual use of the term transformation does not always reflect these radical sentiments. For example, within social science exploration of systemic approaches to transformations to sustainability an ‘assumption that transformation processes can be better initiated and amplified within the current political, economic and cultural institutional system, dominant actors and related rationales’ can be identified. In some cases the emphasis is on incremental change, often focusing only on individual consumption and behaviour change and not addressing the underlying causes of climate change and biodiversity loss. In other cases it is asserted that transformation can be brought about by ‘rethinking of economic, environmental and social policies and the way they relate to each other’ without questioning the system, politics and power dynamics of the system from which the policies emerge.
In response to global biodiversity crises, a number of radical ideas have been put forward and are gaining momentum. However, critics have challenged the ability of such ideas to bring about truly transformational change. For example, the Nature Needs Half movement advocates a ‘transformation of human society’. This, they argue, requires that half of the earth be put aside for conservation via a significant increase in protected areas. However, it is argued that this approach merely extends the existing conservation paradigm that is designed around protected areas, ignores the underlying global forces that drive biodiversity loss, and could result in significant injustices through the further marginalisation of poor, forest-dwelling and indigenous communities.
It seems, therefore, that transformation risks becoming an empty signifier, whose ‘meaning is temporarily fixed, and continuously contested and rearticulated’. It may lose its emphasis on the radical, on social justice, on grassroots movements, and on challenging deep-rooted structural and systemic dynamics; instead becoming an ineffectual buzzword that allows business as usual to continue. And yet transformation in its truest sense is needed – to address global ecological and social crises and bring about fundamental, socially just change.
As researchers and activists we must work together to maintain the radical potential of transformation, to better understand how transformation happens, and to use research to support and enable the truly transformative change that needs to be achieved for life on our planet to flourish.