To spark outrage for change

© Illustration by Fritz hikingartist.com

Nina Vogel, nina.vogel@slu.se, a postdoctoral researcher at the research platform FUSE (Future Urban Sustainable Environments), at SLU Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, shares some reflections on critical disputes within sustainability transitions.

I was invited to write a critical blog post based on my experiences within my research in sustainability transitions. Thus, I was wondering about this critical stance in my experiences as a PhD student and as a person in academia. I guess, for me a critical attitude is and was a red thread if not origin and motivation doing research (in sustainability transitions). Though how do we form a critical opinion or perspective?

An initial irritation might be a precondition, as the title pinpoints; I was, for example, irritated about unsustainable tendencies in growth-led planning, business as usual and green rhetorics. That irritation, paired with curiosity for a deeper understanding of barriers and opportunities for ‘genuine’ sustainability transitions, was a fruitful starting point for a critical dispute. To illustrate my point, I will introduce my PhD research and touch upon my recent article on hypocritical sustainability transitions.

In my PhD thesis, I dealt with the challenging and contemporary topic of sustainable mobility transitions. Beyond this, I was interested in the fundamental discussion regarding radical societal change and the challenges such change faces; a discussion that in my view should comprise the structures and practices we are building and reproducing every day. Changing fundamental structures of our life is basically the objective of transformative change. Transitions force us to think of systemic change and to go beyond thinking about product innovation, to engage with futures that are yet to come. Thus, research on this topic deals with conditions beyond the empirically observable and is confronted with a high level of uncertainties.

Personally speaking, wicked problems always fascinated me and still do. Sustainable mobility futures are one of these, and so is the overall theme of sustainability transitions. Moreover, the gap between vision and actual practice, the ambivalences we face in planning for sustainable futures, the hypocrisy in green growth agendas, to name a few.

The pool of theories I borrowed from comprised (roughly speaking) transition studies, futures studies, and planning; which could offer perspectives for a complex systemic view on challenges, normative anticipative engagement with long-term change and critical take on governing practices. On a meta-theoretical level critical realism and critical pragmatism offered some relevant insights for deeper understanding and initiating processes of change. More explicitly: A structure-agency nexus inspired by critical realism provided me with a) an ontological positioning in transition studies, b) theoretical critique in given transition conceptions and c) helped revealing dilemmas and dependencies in practice.

In one of my recent articles, I got involved with the notion of hypocrisy, which was rooted in my experiences with barriers towards more sustainable futures, and in my willingness to scrutinize vague and populist sustainability visions. The article describes how sustainability goals play out in practice and delineates how cities are caught between the competing goals of growth and sustainability. The notion of hypocritical transitions, then, sheds light on an implementation gap between sustainability knowledge and practice and offered me an analytical perspective on inconsistencies of green growth in practice.

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© Illustration By Frits hikingartist.com
As an analytical concept, the notion of hypocritical transitions helped to reveal various aspects obscured by the rhetoric of green growth. First, that ‘two birds with one stone’ approaches allow conflicting policy response to cope with external pressure, though often unfold as myopic growth management. Second, that a positive guiding function – in the form of ‘eco-talk’ or aspirational talk similar to visioning or utopias – might be developed in some cases, but only when not impeding the attainment of the goal in the long run. Third, that a critically-provocative perspective constitutes a pro-active force for reflecting on the quality of change taking place. Essentially, I argue that hypocrisy should be avoided: it creates ineffective measures, postpones necessary actions and can lead to increased political doubt in public decision making and planning.

In my opinion, researchers should critically challenge vague goal formulations in sustainability transitions in order to strengthen the role of planning and improve guidance for ‘transition in the making’. Moreover, we all should reflect upon our roles and hypocrisies in our engagement with research applications, independent knowledge production, conference travel, personal consumption patterns, and lifestyles, etc.

I remember my supervisor said once: Be bold! which was basically related to some sharper formulations. I like to remind his advice as an overall call to clarify my thoughts and arguments. Certainly, this is part of an on-going process. As my own advice I say: Be bold and dare to be critical!

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