Accelerating Sustainability: Why Political Economy Matters

  • Published 30/09/15

IDS Evidence Report 152
by Ian Scoones and Hubert Schmitz

Accelerating sustainability is a challenge that defines our era and is a central theme of Institute of Development Studies research. This paper brings together what we can learn from development studies and from sustainability studies to understand this challenge and move forward. Our starting point is that sustainability is a problem of success resulting from the reduction of poverty and increasing prosperity of ever more people. Understanding where, how and why such rises in living standard occurred was a central concern of IDS in its first 50 years. We argue that this development era of IDS needs to give way to a sustainability era for the next 50 years in which accelerating sustainability is the central concern.

This paper spells out what this means in six steps: 1. It brings together what development studies contributes to understanding the conditions for accelerating sustainability. 2. It identifies four narratives on sustainability transformations: technology-led, market-led, state-led and citizen-led. Based on these overviews, which draw together a wide range of literature, the paper then focuses on three questions. 3. Is purposeful acceleration of sustainability transformations possible? 4. Who drives the transformations – and who holds them back? 5. Do environmental sustainability and social justice reinforce each other? If so, under what political conditions? The final section concludes that there is no motorway into the green future and that multiple politically negotiated pathways exist. It proposes an agenda for research and action that is centred on: 6. A political economy approach that is historically informed and comparative; unpacks the public, private and civic sectors; addresses explicitly dynamics and timescales; and respects context specificity – a key lesson from development studies.

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