Green Transformations: Whose Politics and which Green?

By Professor Peter Newell, School of Global Studies, University of Sussex

Talk of transformation is back in vogue. This time the call is for a green transformation. Recent and recurrent financial and ecological crises have drawn attention to the ecological, social and economic sustainability of the global economy. This has prompted calls for a new green industrial revolution, transitions to a low carbon economy or for more radical restructuring for de-growth or the pursuit of prosperity without growth. While calls for radical transformations are often made but mostly ignored, this one has captured attention at the highest levels, whether through the launching of the Sustainable Development Goals, heightened mobilization around a ‘make-or-break’ climate agreement for Paris 2015, or renewed calls for a World Environment Organisation at the time of the Rio+20 summit in 2012.

But what would a Green transformation look like and who will bring it into being? Most emphasis is placed on technology and markets: the need for massive public and private investment in new technological revolutions or on greening capitalism through pricing nature. But it is also deeply political. What makes it political and which and whose politics will shape the sorts of transformations that are desirable and possible? These key questions are addressed by a newly published volume on The Politics of Green Transformations which brings together leading thinkers on the politics of sustainability based at the University of Sussex.

Questions surrounding what counts as green, what is to be transformed, who is to do the transforming, and whether transformation, as opposed to more incremental change, is required are all deeply political. For many, the green transformation is like no other we have witnessed so far. While history has witnessed numerous waves of disruptive economic and social change, brought about by technology, war and shifts of cultural values – none has been primarily driven by the goal of rendering the economy and existing model of development more sustainable.

The political nature of the green transformation is heightened because speed of change is seen as essential. There is a sense of urgency that pervades current debates about sustainability amid talk of tipping points, thresholds and planetary boundaries. But although prefacing the word transformations with ‘green’ focuses on the environmental dimensions of change, these almost inevitably raise questions of social as well as environmental justice. In many, perhaps especially developing country contexts, there is unlikely to be any green transformations if questions of social justice – around jobs and access to resources such as land and water for example- are not part of the debate.

The volume challenges conventional assumptions that green transformations can be either solely market or technology-driven. Politics create markets, enforce their rules and deal with questions of access. Likewise, politics determine which technologies are supported and neglected and whose needs take priority. We highlight a key role for green entrepreneurial states – willing to take risks, invest, subsidise and promote technologies that are neglected by the private entrepreneurs that are often assumed to leading innovation. But we also highlight a vital role for movements in driving change, resisting disruption to their livelihoods- increasing justified by ‘green’ goals of protection and conservation- and articulating alternatives. They also play a key role in grassroots innovation and building alternatives from below.

In practice then green transformations- whether state-led, citizen-led, marketized and technocratic – are produced by differing combinations of actors and drivers from ‘above’ and ‘below’. Green transformations must be both ‘top-down’, involving elite alliances between states and business, but also ‘bottom up’, pushed by grassroots innovators and entrepreneurs, and part of wider mobilisations among civil society. Each of these forms, styles and sites of politics combine, and play out in different ways in different places. Which pathways predominate will depend on the context where in China there is a stronger role for the state while marketized and technocratic pathways may be privileged in North America and Europe. They take a different form again in sub-Saharan Africa. But none are protected from the contested politics of who sets the goals of green transformations (whose knowledge counts) and who wins and losses from particular ways of pursuing them. Current debates about the green economy and the transition to a low carbon economy would well to recognise this.

Peter Newell is a co-editor of The Politics of Green Transformations, a new book in the STEPS Centre’s Pathways to Sustainability series

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One comment:

  1. I commend the editors and authors of the manuscript for recognising the importance of political economy and dynamics in the analysis of renewable energy transformations. However, I cant help but think that the phrase “whose politics” seem to frame the discussion about political dynamics in a very superfluous and nebulous way, not really capturing the impact of elites and how the distribution of power affects decisions and the formation and endurance of certain institutions that are meant to drive these transformations. Formal institutions matter in the context of developed countries and these are guided by formal rules and regulations of political and corporate decision-makers and their interrelationships. How they are crafted and proceed in this task are perhaps more pronounced and direct, though other behind-the-scenes negotiations are sometimes more instrumental. The point is that it is driven by various elite coalitions in many cases vis-a-vis social movements or citizens. In developing countries, the institutional situation is very different, driven by patron-client associations in which informal bargaining is paramount impacting more forcefully on decisions and possibility of such tranformation taking effect. I hope this is captured in the book and will certainly consider doing a review. congratulations on the new publication!

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