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Societal transformation to sustainability through the unmaking of capitalism?

This is a programme that consists of two separate, but parallel projects funded by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) through a Vidi Research Grant, and by the European Research Council (ERC) through a Starting Grant, respectively. 

The research programme's website can be found here.


Popular abstract

Radical civil society initiatives may hold the potential to transform society toward sustainability. This project will use a novel interdisciplinary theory and an innovative combination of methods to explain whether, when and how radical civil society initiatives unmake environmentally disruptive institutions and practices that are deeply ingrained in capitalist societies.   


Short project description

This project uses a novel interdisciplinary theory and an innovative combination of methods to explain whether, when and how grassroots initiatives unmake environmentally disruptive institutions and practices that are deeply ingrained in capitalist societies. 

Motivation

Modern capitalist societies engage in destructive modes of interaction with the natural environment. The notion of sustainable development was proposed in the 1990s as an attempt to resolve such tension, but improvement has been limited. Destructive interaction with the natural environment is now recognized not simply as a remediable side effect of modern capitalist societies, but instead as one of their characterizing traits. The need for a societal transformation to sustainability is increasingly accepted. However, the question of how a societal transformation to sustainability can actually come about is still open. Grassroots initiatives may hold the potential to transform society toward sustainability, but their capacity to generate such transformation is unclear.

Primary research question

To what extent, under what conditions and through what processes grassroots initiatives unmake modern, capitalist institutions and practices?

What is ‘unmaking’?

The concept of unmaking, which was  originally proposed in this programme, denotes multilevel processes to deliberately ‘make space’ for alternatives that are incompatible with capitalist socioecological configurations. They can vary from open confrontation to ‘exit’ from the dominant system. 

For example, members of the global Transition Towns Movement undertake a so-called ‘inner transition’ to liberate themselves from habitual and addictive tendencies, and enable harmonious engagement with people and nature. Urban gardeners physically deconstruct spaces to give them new meaning and innovative food producing uses. The ecovillage of Lammas lobbied the Welsh Government to reject standard land use classifications and change planning legislation, which permitted access to land for self-built ecohousing. Fordhall farm in England refused economic growth imperatives, which created the need for innovative ‘popular shareholding’ governance arrangements

Expected results

This research comparatively studies grassroots initiatives in agriculture to

1. identify and categorize mechanisms of unmaking that are involved in radical grassroots initiatives
2. explain whether and how unmaking creates space for alternatives from the individual to the social-ecological level
3. understand mechanisms of unmaking at different levels interplay 
4. explain why unmaking may result in different outcomes in the face of different types of capitalism
5. develop a theory of unmaking in societal transformation to sustainability.

Case studies and methods

UNMAKING focuses on whether and how capitalism is already being unmade by two types of grassroots innovation informed by visions of societal transformation and holding the potential to lead such transformation: permaculture and community supported agriculture. 

A sample of permaculture and community supported agriculture initiatives will be studied over five years in Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, and Spain. The research explores causality in complex social-ecological systems comparing narratives across selected case studies. To do so, it combines Event Structure Analysis and Qualitative Comparative Analysis. 


Duration and funding
2018-2023, NWO Vidi Grant.
2019-2024, ERC Starting Grant.