Sustainability Science

, Volume 12, Issue 3, pp 393–407 | Cite as

Many pathways toward sustainability: not conflict but co-learning between transition narratives

  • Christopher LuederitzEmail author
  • David J. Abson
  • René Audet
  • Daniel J. Lang
Original Article
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Concepts, Methodology, and Knowledge Management for Sustainability Science


Sustainability transitions aim to comprehensively address key challenges of today’s societies through harmonizing ecological integrity and social viability. During the last decades, increasing attention has focused on the conceptual development and identification of trajectories that navigate societies toward sustainability. While a broad agreement exists with regard to the need for mainstreaming sustainability into the core of decision-making and everyday practices, different transition pathway narratives are advocated to foster urgently needed structural and societal changes. In this article, we describe four archetypes of present transition narratives, examining the system properties (from underpinning intent to mechanistic parameters) that each narrative seeks to transform. We review the articulated critiques of, and provide exemplary case studies for, each narrative. The four transition narratives are (1) the green economy, (2) low-carbon transformation, (3) ecotopian solutions and (4) transition movements. Based on our analysis, we argue that despite the assumption that these narratives represent competing pathways, there is considerable complementarity between them regarding where in a given system they seek to intervene. An integrative approach could potentially help bridge these intervention types and connect fragmented actors at multiple levels and across multiple phases of transition processes. Effectively mainstreaming sustainability will ultimately require sustainability scientists to navigate between, and learn from, multiple transition narratives.


Sustainability transformation Narrative analysis Meta-narratives Leverage points Sustainability science Sustainability mainstreaming 



We would like to thank the reviewer and the editor Masaru Yarime for their helpful suggestions on an earlier version of this article. Many thanks to James Patterson and Stefan Partelow for discussing and commenting on the article.


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© Springer Japan 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.SPROUT Lab, Geography and Environmental Management, Faculty of EnvironmentUniversity of WaterlooWaterlooCanada
  2. 2.Center for Global Sustainability and Cultural TransformationLeuphana University LueneburgLüneburgGermany
  3. 3.Faculty of SustainabilityLeuphana UniversityLüneburgGermany
  4. 4.Département de Stratégie, Responsabilité sociale et environnementale, École des sciences de la gestionUniversité du Québec à MontréalMontréalCanada
  5. 5.Institute of Ethics and Transdisciplinary Sustainability Research, Faculty of SustainabilityLeuphana University LueneburgLueneburgGermany

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