Pathway politics and the nation state in transitions: Insights from the Royal Geographical Society Conference 2016

Guest contribution by Dr Phil Johnstone (SPRU, University of Sussex)

This year’s Royal Geographical Society conference (theme: Nexus thinking), took place from the 31st of August until the 2nd of September in London. There were a variety of interesting presentations that related to the field of sustainability transitions. One of these focused on ‘Pathway Politics: geographies of power, practice and publics in the making of transitions’ organised by Harriet Bulkeley, Mike Hodson,  Kes McCormick and Johannes Stripple. This was a rich and diverse session based around short 8 minute presentations leaving room for what turned out to be lively and thought provoking discussions, on configurations, contestations, knowledges, techniques and material dimensions of pathway politics.

The politics surrounding Off-grid solar PV development in Kenya

In this session SPRU colleagues were well represented. Rob Byrne presented a paper co-authored with David Ockwell focused on the “The politics of pro-poor socio-technical innovation system building”. This paper was based around the case study of the historical development of the off-grid solar PV market in Kenya. The paper drew on concepts such as “systemic intermediaries”, “cosmopolitan actors”, and “socio-political work” from the transitions literature, to study the often-overlooked forms of politics that play an important role in the development of niche technologies and their associated markets. This was based around re-examining the extensive work undertaken by Rob Byrne on solar PV in Kenya during his PhD research that involved over 100 hours of interviews, to unravel the forms of politics, network building and interventions involved in promoting and developing this technology.

Discontinuation and phase out of coal: dangers of ‘post political’ transitions research?     

A paper by Sabine Hielscher and Phil Johnstone was also given in the same session, entitled “Phasing out coal, sustaining coal communities?”. This looked at the attempted discontinuation of coal in the UK. This reflects upon recent insights on the governance of discontinuation as an important area of research in its own right, rather than a side effect of the innovation process. In order to reduce C02 emissions the phase out of coal is becoming a key priority for policy makers. However the governance process surrounding phase out policies understudied. But a particular issue asides from potential technical difficulties of phasing out coal (due to the UK slashing many renewables policies – the paper refers to it as a possible example of ‘destruction without the creation’) is that in the enthusiastic rhetoric surrounding the phasing out coal, perhaps not enough thought has been given to the effects on communities, jobs, and identities bound to this particular technology. Indeed, was argued that discussions thus far of coal ‘destabilisation’ for example, have been ‘post political’, and have depicted coal phase out ‘from above’ as ‘seen by a state’, as an almost naturalised consequence of industrial dynamics and the climate change issue.

There is not much talk yet of jobs, retraining, and reskilling, or the devastation wrought by past coal discontinuations. The question is, whether some of the social relations that bind communities in spaces of coal in Yorkshire for example, can be sustained while the fossil fuel technology itself is not. Indeed, what Erik Swyngedouw calls the ‘fetishisation of C02’ which ‘trumps’ all other issues is arguably a real danger in sustainability transitions research, where the singular focus on ‘low carbon’ can dampen down issues of long term sustainability surrounding communities and livelihoods. What would a discontinuation policy ‘from below’ look like which actively involves the communities effected rather than scripting them out through a singular focus on C02 emissions? Does the categorical assumptions of the MLP in fact miss crucial relations such as community bonds, identities, trade unions, democratic participation which may in fact be more important to achieving sustainability transitions than any particular technological development?

Is it time to start talking about the nation state again?

The question of discontinuation relates to another paper given by Pete Newell and Phil Johnstone on “states of transition”, as part of a session entitled “Relational geographies of energy and the state”. This identified that due to the increasing need to ‘accelerate transitions’ the arguable failure of market mechanisms to facilitate the required speed of change, problems of incumbency, increased interest in politics within sustainability transitions and so on, the state may be ‘coming back in’, once again. Indeed conversations around ideas like the ‘Entrepreneurial State’ have provoked increasing interest, but thus far dichotomies remain between whether the state is good or bad, whether transition management spaces are less democratic because they are ‘beyond the state’ and therefore not in contact with the spheres of established representative democracy, or in fact the ‘beyond the stateness’ of transition management arenas are in fact more democratic because of the ‘post democratic’ nature of the state apparatus in the first place.

And indeed in a sense, the state has been an ‘assumed’ presence within sustainability transitions research all along. Often past examples of nurtured and protected spaces make brief reference to the military and the crucial role played in innovation, a uniquely protected area in terms of state involvement for what is one of the most basic functions and identifiable features of a state: a monopoly on the use of violence! And when niches are being protected and nurtured, the state is there, somewhere in the background. So, this paper calls for more nuanced understandings of the state not as monolithic assumed actors, but unpacking the state spatially and historically in more relational ways, in order to understand the dynamics that operate in and through the state, and rather than being a static entity the state can be thought in more processual ways. Such understandings may be increasingly necessary because of more calls to promote phase outs and discontinuations of dirty technologies in order to ‘accelerate’ transitions, actions that at the end of the day, rely on a binding decisions made by states.

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