Transitions beyond Covid-19

Matias Ramirez – 11 April 2020

Those of us initiating this blog work in a milieu of what is broadly described in academic circles as the sustainable transitions community. Personally I have been impressed with the commitment of researchers in this community to use scholarship to help achieve material advances towards sustainability (in so doing challenging academic hierarchy’s stale focus on KPIs). Whilst in no way celebrating the current emergency, the hope will be that there is a realization that, like a pandemic, no walls can protect a country from the impact of climate change. Perhaps, out of the turmoil into which society has been plunged, bold commitments to better embed society around principles of environmental and societal sustainability may emerge. Just like in the immediate post-war, myths that collective institutions for well being could not be built, simply evaporated. Just like then, a new legitimisation of the role of the state could be a critical leverage point to accelerate transitions. Some ideas are appearing. Nicole Badstuber in her Guardian Column[1] argues that government intervention in the airline industry could be a turning point for transport policy and pivot us to lower future air travel – a necessity given the climate emergency. A new meaning for “restructuring of public services” – for long a pseudonym for painful austerity and running services down to the bone – could become a more meaningful commitment to new policy experimentation of services run on democratic and participative principles. Properly funded regional agencies, largely dismantled by austerity in the UK, could be strengthened and help to re-build areas such as health, urban transport systems and food supply that revitalise local suppliers.

And yet, this hardly captures the enormity of what is likely to face us after this pandemic. Transitions studies do not often overlap with economics (probably with good reason given the state of the economics profession today). Nevertheless, like it or not, we live under the regime and oppression of economics. If the economic cycle is defined by a depression, the foundations upon which economic wealth has been stored could come crashing down. Millions already find themselves out of work in the north and the global south, many more could find themselves dying not from the virus but from hunger following Covid-19[2].

What does all this mean for how we think about sustainable transitions? Scholars of transitions refer to “alignment” as the degree to which different dimensions of systems (infrastructure, organisations, meanings) are internally aligned. Thirty years of neo-liberalism has aligned systems to the single pursuit of economic efficiency and profitability with disastrous effects not only for the environment but, as it turns out, our ability to survive. Pharmaceutical companies ignore pandemics and instead invest billions of R&D on face creams and the illnesses of the rich.  The UK finds itself with virtually no production capability for testing equipment and artificial breathing machines. However, neo-liberalism has also tried to normalise alienation, callous exclusion and individualism. Read Arundhati Roy’s brutal account of structural and social inequality of the Indian state and its indifference to suffering[3]. She was referring specifically to the almost biblical exodus of the poor from New Delhi, driven this time not by religious but by class divisions. The scenes are not comparable, but the way workers have been treated after 30 years of neo-liberalism here in the UK reflects similar contempt.

The point here is that the way transitions and re-alignment of systems occurs now will reflect this set of circumstances and in all likelihood will be infected with the rage and anger at the system. I saw something of this in the uprising in Chile against inequality in March 2019. Those thinking about system change should be alive to this.

And yet, academics in my field at least, are rarely comfortable with including struggle, strife and conflict into their analytical thinking. Without demeaning many colleagues and friends, since I first began to work in academia in 2001, I have always been struck by how much the view of many academics, at least in the UK, reflects the outlook of people that live, work and socialize predominantly in campuses, university towns and academic conferences in swanky hotels. The fact that this is a pale reflection of society is not always clear to them. This includes many extremely well intentioned people working for environmental and social justice. This may be changing. It’s not quite immiserating, but the harsh realities of meeting demands for teaching, REF-compliance, looking for funding and then of course weeks of striking, picketing in the cold and losing pay over the last two years has been sobering. In our own area of science and technology policy studies (and I include transitions analysis in this) there are great examples of scholars, such as David Hess, who has made the study of social movements his expertise. Nevertheless, on the whole, the mindset is paved with good intentions but largely unprepared and unwilling to understand the social upheavals and tensions society faces and will increasingly face and social earthquakes this will the produce (how many of our colleagues were completely shocked by the Brexit result, even those working in politics and industrial relations ?). Of course, the design of funding mechanisms and journal editorships doesn’t always make this type of research easy to undertake. Nevertheless, although academia will not change anything on its own and the power of its elbow can be exaggerated, occasionally, we have the ear of other actors with agency and therefore have a a responsibility to use the time we are given to better effect than counting KPIs.

 [1] “Flights are grounded – is this the moment we give up our addiction to flying?” The Guardian April 9th 2020.

[2] “Coronavirus measures could cause global food shortage, UN warns”. The Guardian March 26th 2020.

[3] “The Pandemic is a portal” Financial Times April 3rd 2020. 

2 thoughts on “Transitions beyond Covid-19

  1. Sandra Boni, 26 April.
    Dear Matias, I agree with you that academics should embrace struggle, strife and conflict into their analytical thinking. But i would suggest that this must be done togheter with people that are dealing with these struggles. It includes all the actors, from social movements, to policy makers, practioners and citizen groups. For me this a sort of epistemic justice [1] which is an ethical imperative for a post-covid world, but it is also a crucial ingredient for a more democratic, equitable and sustainable world [2]. In my view the transition community should be more open to recognize this as a fundamental part for a transition to happen, and also experimenting itself with this approach to co-produce knowledge. There is a huge tradition in the Global South that can be specially insightful (see Orlando Fals Borda; Paulo Freire, among others). I have explored this in recent works in Nigeria and Lagos [3] and I found it specially interesting fo academics who, as your colleague Maire Claire Bisbois posted [4] are committed to work for change.

    [1] see Ian James Kidd, José Medina, Gaile Pohlhaus, Jr. (ed) The Routledge Handbook of Epsitemic Justice, 2019.
    [2] @Johan_Schot in https://bit.ly/3cLwTKE
    [3] this a work co-authored with @dvelasco82 available at https://doi.org/10.21248/gjn.12.01.228
    [4] @mcbrisb https://turningpoint2020.wordpress.com/2020/04/22/transitions-working-on-change-or-working-for-change/

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  2. This is a profound and terrible crisis. I see and feel it all around me- our older relatives that are isolated in care homes, our children whose future have become even more uncertain and precarious, my neighbours and friends who fear for their livelihoods. I have also seen increasing questioning whether a return to ‘normal’ is the way forward, an interest in local organisation and participation and a greater openness to more radical thinking. This is fertile grounds for change as we move forward.
    Among the many challenges ahead two stand out: (i) greater clarity about what type of society should replace our existing ‘normal’ and (ii) what are the vehicles for participation. As academics engaged in critical thinking our strength should be the ability to engage in discussions about societal alternatives, however, much of our thinking and practices have been dulled by the institutional transformations of the academic system such as ‘performance management’ and the REF. This new period urgently calls for radical societal change- new landscapes- and this requires us to liberate our thinking from the institutional constraints in order to return to the bold and audacious thinking that the present crisis requires.
    The vehicles for bottom-up social transformation are many and diverse and, in my experience, the only way to gain a deep understanding and appreciation of the richness and complexities of societal change based on democratic participation is through direct participation. This requires allocating time to discussions, debates and activities in what are often ‘messy’ processes of social interaction that do not create indicators of ‘engagement’.
    So, if universities and academics are really to contribute to the radical societal change that is needed, we need to question, challenge and change the very institution that has formed our thinking and practice.

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