Debating sustainability: an eye-opening summer

A blog post by 3S PhD student Sara Skarp reflecting on her trips to several academic conferences this summer.

“Climate change is a lost battle”, human ecologist Alf Hornborg said. The people in the audience at the Degrowth conference seemed shocked, but I suspect that he was echoing secret fears. Is this what we are all thinking, but no one dares say it?

The reality of global environmental change became clear beyond doubt this summer. In many places, it was the hottest season ever recorded. The consequences were felt around the world, not least in my native country Sweden. Fires raged in woodlands from north to south; crops failed; and the damages are estimated to equal many hundreds of millions of euros. Ironically, at the same time, sales increased; people were enraged by the BBQ ban; and some public procurers increased meat purchases in order to support farmers.

A tale of three conferences

This summer, I also attended three sustainability conferences­­­: the International Sustainability Transitions (IST) conference in Manchester, the Sustainable Consumption Research and Action Initiative (SCORAI) conference in Copenhagen, and the International Degrowth conference in Malmö. These conferences have in common that they gather people who simply work with sustainability, in many different shapes and forms. As my own research centres on alternative organisation, community action and waste, I went to these events, hoping to find inspiration and like-minded people.


The idea of writing a comparative piece on these conferences came to me while attending the first one in June. Someone said that there were going to be three big (European) sustainability conferences this summer, but that there was no link between them. I realised that I was going to all of them and that I could potentially be this link, so I tried to stay alert to what people were saying about each conference, tried to get a feeling for trends in these academic (and non-academic) communities, tried to glimpse how people behaved and felt.

Being a first-year PhD student, this was the first time I visited and presented at academic conferences. While being impressed by many of the people I met, I was also taken aback by some of the behaviour I witnessed and how researchers treated each other. The first thing that struck me at all three of these events was the way (white) men dominated speaking and attention time. I had planned on writing at great length on this, as it frustrates me beyond comprehension when this happens. The remedy prescribed (by both men and women) is that “women should just claim more space”. Downplaying this behaviour to a question of mere agency hides the fact that it’s not that simple. I shall, however, not linger on this, but will instead refer you to others who have covered this issue better than me. Another thing I noticed was how some people seemed to have forgotten how to behave towards other fellow humans (read this for example). By the third conference (and many forest fires later), however, there seemed to be more pressing issues than how people behaved.

So what sets these conferences apart? Based on the research and policy implications/relations of each community; the sessions I went to at each conference; keynotes, plenaries and panel discussions; as well as chatting to other attendees, I have tried to categorise and divide these events and their communities. Please keep in mind that, due to space constraints, these accounts are short and reflect my interpretation of each conference. They are not intended to reflect the views of an entire community or group, but rather highlight some of the broader differences that can be made.

The IST conference brought together transitions scholars, whose research generally focuses on the systems of provision – energy, water, food – and how we can understand and bring about change in these specific systems. The theories commonly used tend to promote (directly or indirectly) effectivisation, modernisation and an (over-)reliance on technology and thus they sit seemingly well with current policies (for a deeper and more accurate picture, read this for example).

The sustainable consumption conference brought together research that centres more on individuals, households, citizen/consumer groups etc. (but not exclusively – concepts such as transitions and degrowth are discussed in this community as well). Most of the research presented at this conference did indeed looked beyond simplistic behaviour change theories, and this is radical for policy making, as most mainstream attempts at creating sustainability are usually targeted at changing the behaviours of individual citizens (read more, for example, from SCORAI).

Lastly, the kind of research and thought that I saw at the Degrowth conference seems to more often tackle the big issues around economic/political systems, how we organise society and ask more fundamental questions about what actually is sustainable (read more on the topic here). Despite offering less than the other two conferences in terms of proposing practical strategies for sustainability (for understandable reasons), this conference was by far the most radical – and, for me, the most inspiring. Suggesting degrowth is still, however, political suicide, let alone anything that any policy maker might have a mandate to work with.

“There is something wrong”

After attending these conferences while simultaneously witnessing climate change ravage my home country, something became abundantly clear: no one is doing enough. I thought I already knew this, but it became apparent to me that that “no one” includes myself and my fellow academics. What we do know is that climate change is the most urgent environmental threat; that our world, simply put, is big with many people; and that there are forces operating beyond our immediate control.  So why do sustainability proponents, including smart cookies with PhD’s in various sustainability related subjects, even suggest weak and soft behaviour change measures, ecological modernisation, technology-fetishized ‘solutions’, geoengineering or green growth? Do we really think that this is enough? That we have the time? Let me throw in a non-rhetorical question: what do you, dear reader, believe it takes to save humanity and other beings from the pain and suffering that climate change (and various other environmental issues) will inevitably lead to? I don’t think that people, especially not academics and practitioners, ask themselves this seriously enough. Why?

I would like to propose that the reason why we have difficulty thinking further, is that widely accepted and powerful ideas and imperatives (such as economic growth and employment, etc.) are too ingrained in us. Alf Hornborg said: “Everyone can feel that there is something wrong, whatever we choose to call it – capitalism, neoliberalism, the market, money, modernity, globalisation, patriarchy” (yes, this was at the degrowth conference). But I think we have to keep in mind that a lot of people either (incorrectly) attribute this ‘wrong’ to something else (say, immigration or too much state involvement, for example) or they are – to quote Alf again (can you tell I’m a fan?) – “like fish and blind to the very water they swim in”. One of capitalism’s greatest achievements – like any hegemonic idea – is to make itself seem natural and indispensable, and so ingrained in people’s imaginaries that it seems like there is no alternative.


I see this TINA (there is no alternative) logic operating everywhere, even in these supposedly radical sustainability communities. By disregarding economic/political forces/structures, much of transitions research implicitly assumes that there is no alternative – we just need to change our unsustainable systems of provision and things will be fine. In the sustainable consumption community – which is, to be honest, so diverse that it is difficult to make generalisations – there are certainly many alternatives proposed, but few that actually are about large system changes. I believe, however, that the presence of radical alternatives – even if they are, for example, about lifestyles – and the inclusion of citizens and communities are two important factors for understanding and bringing about change – both of which are present in this community. Lastly, even in the degrowth community the TINA logic seems to pervade. While I don’t want to blame any individuals, the fact that many statements about what we need to do were met with “But how do we actually do that?”, “Would that even work?”, “That has never worked before”, “That sounds good in theory, BUT…”, shows that this is very much the case.

What does it take?

These three conferences were very different to each other, but can learn greatly from one another. Even though I might make it sound like all that these research communities have are flaws and limitations, I do believe that they bring important insights and thoughts to the table. The transitions community explores the complexity and interrelatedness of our institutions, functions and systems – we need sustainable versions of these. The sustainable consumption community emphasises the essential role of civil society, citizens and communities. The degrowth community wants us to dig deeper and question the rules, norms and structures that guide everything from international to individual relations, even how we should fundamentally organise society.

But. Attending these conferences gave me a new outlook on sustainability research and the kind of questions we forget or are unable to ask, but which must be at the very core of our research: What does it take? Are the solutions and measures that we suggest enough? How far do we have to go from the current system to stop climate change and build a prospering, safe and fair world? Going there also made it very evident that even in these quite large, pioneering forums, few dare to really look for alternatives – and those who do get too easily shot down.

If you want to disagree with Alf about climate change being a lost battle, then you must ask yourself what it really takes to win that battle. It can be an uncomfortable question, because once you know the answer – will you be able to ignore it?

While I do tend towards structure and seeing the bigger picture – and away from agency and individual focus – I only have advice for the latter. To win this battle, I believe it takes bravery – bravery to act, to question and to refuse. To act directly, to question the effect of our ideas, and to refuse to participate in practices – and research – that will ultimately be toothless in the battle for a sustainable world.