Study of Societal Sustainability Transition Discourses

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* Article: One transition, many transitions? A corpus-based study of societal sustainability transition discourses in four civil society’s proposals. By Giuseppe Feola & Sylvia Jaworska. Sustainability Science volume 14, pages1643–1656(2019


"This paper examines sustainability transition discourses in the proposals developed by four organizations: Great Transition (proposed by the Great Transition Initiative), Great Transition (New Economics Foundation), Commons Transition (Commons Transition Network) and Transition (Transition Towns Network)."


"When the civil society makes ‘transition’ its label, it cannot be assumed that different civil society actors share compatible varieties of localist or radical transformationists discourses. This study has comparatively analyzed the discourses in four civil society sustainability transition proposals using a corpus-based methodology. We found that the proposals are similar as they identify the economy as an object and an entry point for transition, frame the economy as embedded in the socio–ecological system, ascribe agency to grassroots movements for transitions from the bottom–up. We also found crucial differences among the discourses regarding the role of the State, the degree of reform or radical innovation, the degree of imaginative character of the sustainability vision, the degree of opposition to capitalism. We suggest that insights on how the civil society employs notions of transition with respect to the themes of politics, emotions and place can help advance theorizations and practices of societal sustainability transitions led by the civil society." (


On Commons Transition

"Commons transition (CT) (Commons Transition 2015) “implies developing policies that create common value and facilitate open, participatory input across society, prioritizing the needs of those people and environments affected by policy decisions over market or bureaucratic considerations”. The aim of CT is to realize an egalitarian, just, and environmentally stable society by basing society on the commons. The commons represent a mode of societal organization that evolve away from the competitive market State and centrally planned systems. CT has acquired a global orientation although it originally emerged from the ‘Free/Libre Open Knowledge’ project funded by the Ecuadorian Government to inform a strategy for a ‘social knowledge economy’ in line with alternative visions of prosperity such as Buen Vivir. Central to CT is the re-conception and re-alignment both of traditional commons and cooperative thinking and practice, into new institutional forms that prefigure a new political economy of cooperative commonwealth. This in turn is based on a simultaneous transition of civil society, the market, and the organization and role of the State."

Three characteristics appear to distinguish CT from the three other discourses. First, CT proposes a critique of capitalist modes of production, and more than other discourses it frames sustainability transition as a move away from such economic model and its more recent articulation such as netarchical capitalism (capitalism, capital, capitalist, economy, production, productive). In fact, CT explicitly identifies a sustainable mode of economic and social organization through the creation of an open knowledge economy that is defined by a radical shift from capitalism:

“The essence of capitalism is infinite growth, making money with money and increasing capital. An infinite growth system cannot infinitely perdure with limited resources in a limited physical environment. Today’s global system combines a vision of pseudo-abundance, the mistaken vision that nature can provide endless inputs and is an infinite dump, with pseudo-scarcity, the artificial creation of scarcities in the fields of intellectual, cultural and scientific exchange, through exaggerated and ever increasing intellectual property rights, which hamper innovation and free cooperation.”

A second distinctive element of CT is the focus on the commons (commons-based, common, commons, commoner) (see Footnote 3), and on the mode of action of cooperation (coop, cooperation, cooperativism, cooperative, cooperative) underpinned by civic sense and public ownership (civic, social, distribute, open):

“In this model, peer production is matched to both a new market and state model, create a mature civic and peer-based economic, social and political model, where the value is redistributed to the value creators. These changes have been carried forward in the political sphere by an emerging commons movement, which espouses the value system of peer production and the commons, driven by the knowledge workers and their allies.”

Third, while CT puts less emphasis on environmental sustainability and environmental issues, a core theme of CT is knowledge as a global common (knowledge, service). In this respect, a strong focus is on the actual creation of an open social and knowledge economy where the civil society plays not the role of consumer, but of civic peer- or co-producer:

“The ideal vision of an open-commons based knowledge economy is one in which the ‘peer producers’ or commoners […] not only co-create the common pools from which all society can benefit, but also create their own livelihoods through ethical enterprise and thereby insure not only their own social reproduction but also that the surplus value stays within the commons-cooperative sphere.”

Similarities and differences of transition discourses

"We found that the proposals are similar in mainly three ways, namely they (1) identify the economy as an object and an entry point for transition, (2) frame the economy as embedded in the socio–ecological system, and (3) ascribe agency to the civil society for transitions from the bottom-up. Thus, there is a shared general understanding of social–ecological configurations (points (1) and (2)) and of possible forces for sustainability transitions (point (3)). These three points constitute a common discursive space for the four civil society organizations, and possibly for others not considered in this study. These findings are in line with earlier studies (Longhurst et al. 2016; Luederitz et al. 2017), which have found similar critiques of the economic model in other civil society discourses, which address various core elements of capitalist and neoclassical economics including, utilitarianism, individualism, the separation of economy, society and nature, the belief in the possibility of endless economic growth, materialistic understanding of progress and prosperity, and ‘free markets’ (Table 2). More in general, notions such as those of biophysical limits, fairness in resource allocation, market flaws, and steady-state economics, which feature in the discourses, indicate that the sustainability transition proposals have intellectual roots in a long lineage of environmental and heterodox economic thought. This intellectual basis can offer opportunities for common goals and unity in pursuing transition to sustainability among the civil society organizations considered in this study and many others.

Nevertheless, it is crucial not to underplay equally insightful differences among the proposals.

This study identified specific distinctive elements that constitute potential points of difference among the four discourses (Sect. 3.2). We suggest that those differences can be related to two factors. First, some differences ensue from different analysis of the present socio–ecological configurations. For instance, some of the most relevant differences identified are those that concern the role of the State, the degree of reform or radical innovation, the degree of imaginative character of the sustainability vision, the explicit opposition to capitalism and to its core tenets such as endless economic growth and free markets (Sect. 3.2). By and large, these findings reflect typical differences in environmental discourses as discussed for example by Dryzek (2013), Audet (2016), and Stevenson (2015)."

Outlook: politics, emotions, and place in sustainability transition discourses

"To conclude, we propose reflections on three themes that emerge in varied forms in the discourses analyzed in this study, namely politics, emotions and place, and suggest how these can help advance theorizations of societal transitions beyond the traditional focus of specific socio-technical systems (Chatterton 2016).

Firstly, it was surprising to find that the four proposals considered in this study represent largely a- or post-political discourse. Potentially contentious issues such as the role of citizens in the political and economic systems, commoning of natural and social resources, fair allocation of resources, inequality, economic restructuring (including relocalization), and State reform are addressed more in terms of policies or practices, than of political confrontation. The language of political struggle against, e.g., hegemonic power structures, or vested interests, does not feature prominently in the four discourses. This is consistent with an ontology, uncovered in these discourses, of change as emergent (through generative practices, or essentially within the existing institutional setting) (Table 3), rather than driven by counter-power struggles.

This relative absence of the political sets these proposals aside from other, more politically oppositional proposals and discourses, such as Degrowth, and the environmental justice movement that, however, do not employ the notion of transition (Martinez-Alier 2012; D’Alisa et al. 2013; Asara et al. 2015; Kenis 2016). In the context of increasing calls for a politicization of sustainability in those movements, (D’Alisa et al. 2013; Asara et al. 2015), and of growing attention in the transition literature for issues of power and politics (e.g., Avelino et al. 2016; Ehnert et al. 2018), it remains unclear what the limitations of essentially a-political discourses may be. For instance, these discourses may open opportunities to build coalitions with other actors (Feola 2014), but preclude coalition with other (more politicized) movements.

Furthermore, the ‘politicization’ of discourse can expose some of the structural political barriers to transition, which may be otherwise obscured by a predominance of an economic discourse. It can also help contrast the economization of sustainability through the adoption of discursive approaches that go beyond the dominant economic paradigms which inform destructive development models (Escobar 2011). To transition to a different and sustainable world inevitably means to challenge the status quo in very substantive ways (Chatterton 2016). While this challenge will be resisted by vested interests, a political discourse can acknowledge those interests and support their destabilization (Bosman et al. 2014; Roberts 2017). Thus, we suggest that the outcomes of different political or a-political strategies, as well as potential gaps between political discourses and practices in grassroots-led sustainability transitions are important areas for future research.

Secondly, this study reveals differences between one discourse involving (TT) and those not involving (GTI, GT, CT) emotions (Sect. 3.2). Emotions have been typically absent from transition theories (Loorbach et al. 2017). Yet some scholars have argued that transitions, especially transitions to post-capitalist worlds, are personal as well as social processes. As such they involve emotions, subjectivity and the exploration of other ways to be human in connection with ecological systems (Brown et al. 2012; Chatterton and Pickerill 2010). Emotions also help to make sense of interconnected changes at different levels (from the individual to the societal) and to deal with the inherent uncertainty of transitioning to one owns future whose features are unknown as they are still in becoming (Chatterton and Pickerill 2010). Thus, discourses that involve emotions do not only respond to the need to motivate or inspire people to take action for sustainability transitions, but acknowledge the intimately personal dimension of transition. Discourses that involve emotions can support processes of meaning-making—to explore what transition means personally (Russi 2015). Furthermore, by enabling emotional engagement, these discourses can open up spaces for alternative epistemologies that are not based on the modern traits of rationalization and utilitarianism that have informed the mechanistic exploitation of nature (Escobar 2011; Princen 2012). Therefore, emotions are, similarly to politics, a different lens through which to approach and make sense of sustainability transitions. Discourses that enable emotional engagement with transition can inform diversified engagements with change and complement, enrich, and mitigate the predominance of economic, albeit heterodox, discourses of transition. Thus, while emotions have been typically absent from transition theories, this is a promising are for further theorizations of sustainability transitions.

Finally, this study has shown that different discourses involve partly different notions of place and scale (global/local). Sustainability transitions are geographical processes (Nicolosi and Feola 2016; Truffer et al. 2015). “Transition does not work without (local) places because those places offer the milieu—and the affective attachments—through which generic senses of responsibility, resilience, and relatedness may be most easily imagined and held together.” (Brown et al. 2012, p 1620). Thus, it is important to ask whether different transition discourses can be emplaced (Brown et al. 2012), i.e., what transition means in particular places. This may be particularly relevant when societal transition across cultures and places, is pursued. Emplacement is fundamental for accessing resources (both symbolic and material), and build alliances and proximity (geographical–local- or else) (Nicolosi and Feola 2016). But, as shown in this study, the potential for discourse to be emplaced is not simply a function of it being developed in relation to a local ‘here’ or in attachment to a specific (local) place. Instead, emplacement of discourse can be facilitated by a language of social dynamics and forms of social organization and connection (e.g., CT and TT), and emotions (TT). The intersection of forms of place attachment in sustainability transition is, therefore, a third area that appears to be promising for future transition studies.

Thus, politics, emotions, and place are three aspects on which the discourses analyzed in these studies differed, but which, in the light of current efforts to explore fertile discourses intersections, appear to be promising, if problematic. These three aspects have only marginally and/or recently been addressed in sustainability transition research and we suggest that more effort should be made in this direction. Through the lenses of politics, emotions and place future analysis and debates may further reveal political barriers, subjectivities and epistemologies of sustainability transitions, as well as modes of emotional and geographical engagement of the civil society in sustainability transitions. These are important aspects not only for the practice, but for the theorization of societal sustainability transitions led by the civil society."