Futures of sustainability as modernization, transformation, and control: a conceptual framework

Abstract

In the last three decades, sustainability has become a guiding principle for states, organizations, companies, and social movements as well as a general ideal for social change. While sustainability seems to be a rather inevitable path of development, there is no consensus over the goals and visions of the future associated with this concept. Proponents of a “Green Economy,” for instance, regard economic growth as a prerequisite for sustainable development and advocate a modernization of society, which implies moderate adjustments toward a sustainable economy within the current institutional framework. Critics of this ecological modernization approach see the imperative of economic growth as an obstacle for sustainable development and instead support a fundamental transformation of society. A third perspective tries to solve the problems of sustainable development with wide-ranging politics of control, using concepts such as “ecological state of emergency” or enforcing resilience measures for vulnerable populations while creating safe enclaves for a privileged few. These three possible ideal typical trajectories of social change—modernization, transformation, and control—are not fixed yet, but rather represent different and highly contested imaginaries of the future. These imaginaries then structure distinctive practices of sustainability in the fields of politics, the economy, civil society, and science. These practices in turn are interdependent with specific structures, such as material infrastructures or the ecological system of the earth. The proposed conceptional framework uses the theoretical concepts of imaginaries, practices, and structures to study the possible futures of sustainability, specifically modernization, transformation, and control, as well as possible interdependencies between these developments. It focuses on sustainability as a sociological category indicative for understanding socioeconomic change, the emergence of new conflicts, inequalities, hierarchies, and justification patterns that result from including sustainable criteria into different fields, institutions, and value systems. Deciphering futures of sustainability does not aim at providing prognoses or forecasts, but intents to work out an analytical concept that asks how contemporary societies change when they are guided by imaginaries of sustainability.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    For the older historical roots of the concept see Caradonna 2014.

  2. 2.

    This refers to the program of the newly established Humanities Centre for Advanced Studies “Futures of Sustainability: Modernization, Transformation, Control” at Universität Hamburg which is funded by the German Research Foundation and directed by the authors of this article.

  3. 3.

    The concept of the anthropocene is not uncontested because it implicitly downplays the main responsibility of the early industrialized countries for global warming and therefore is criticized to be a normative questionable and apolitical concept, see Swyngedouw and Ernstson (2018).

  4. 4.

    This is the reason why most approaches that speak of “transition” or “transformation” (e.g., the German WBGU) can nevertheless be subsumed under our concept of modernization (cf. Loorbach et al. 2017).

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Funding was provided by Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (Research Unit. DFG-FOR 2769).

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Adloff, F., Neckel, S. Futures of sustainability as modernization, transformation, and control: a conceptual framework. Sustain Sci 14, 1015–1025 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11625-019-00671-2

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Keywords

  • Sustainability
  • Modernization
  • Transformation
  • Control
  • Sociology
  • Futures