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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

Modern, capitalist societies engage destructively with the natural environment. Societal transformation to sustainability is urged, but it implies a degree of disruption of capitalist ways of being and doing. Radical grassroots innovations – those that posit a profound cultural, economic, and political transformation of dominant institutions and practices - hold the potential to lead such transformation, but may be constrained by their marginal, local, small-scale character.

The concept of unmaking is originally proposed in this programme to denote multilevel processes to deliberately ‘make space’ (temporally, spatially, materially, and/or symbolically) for radical alternatives that are incompatible with dominant structures. They can vary from open confrontation to ‘exit’ from the dominant system. For example, (1) members of the Transition Towns Movement worldwide undertake so-called ‘inner transition’ (exploration of the self) to liberate themselves from habitual and addictive tendencies, and enable harmonious engagement with people and nature; (2) urban gardeners physically deconstruct spaces to give them new meaning and innovative food producing uses; (3) 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; (4) Fordhall farm in England refused economic growth imperatives, which created the need for innovative ‘popular shareholding’ governance arrangements.

This programme aims to understand to what extent, under what conditions and through what processes radical grassroots innovations unmake modern, capitalist institutions and practices. This research will comparatively analyse radical grassroots innovations in agriculture to: 

  1. identify and categorize mechanisms of unmaking that are involved in radical grassroots innovations; 
  2. explain whether and how unmaking creates space for alternatives from the individual to the social-ecological level; 
  3. understand how 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. 

The posited incompatibility of radical grassroots innovations with modern capitalist societies prefigures a transformation of, rather than within, those societies, and therefore makes radical grassroots innovations a suitable case study for investigating the causal mechanisms of unmaking in societal transformation to sustainability.

This research addresses four important gaps, which correspond to four research questions: 

  1. mechanisms of unmaking: which concepts and theories of unmaking can be usefully integrated, and how, to understand the ways in which radical grassroots innovations unmake elements of capitalist socioecological relations? 
  2. unmaking as pre-condition for transformation: When do radical grassroots innovations actually unmake which elements of capitalism in order to open what transformative spaces? 
  3. interconnected unmaking at different levels: Which interconnected mechanisms of unmaking make space for the emergence of alternative subjectivities, social institutions and nature –both symbolically and materially? 
  4. context and pathways of unmaking: how do different socioecological contexts respond to different attempts to unmaking, and when do system responses hamper transformation? 

This programme focuses on grassroots innovations informed by radical visions of societal transformation, particularly degrowth. It takes local initiatives of radical grassroots innovations in agriculture as case studies, and focuses geographically on the Netherlands, Spain, Italy and Germany. Agri-food systems are an important driver of environmental change, a major area of contention on contrasting visions of sustainability, and primary entry points for civil society’s action. This project investigates two radical grassroots innovations in agriculture that have strongly emerged in Europe in the past decade: permaculture and community supported agriculture. Permaculture provides principles to re-design subjectivities, communities, and nature for permanence, rather than for endless economic growth, which places permaculture theory and practice in contrast with capitalist socioecological relations. Community supported agriculture embraces a range of formal partnerships between farmers and consumers in which the responsibilities, risks, and rewards of farming are shared. Unlike permaculture, community supported agriculture follows no core principles that explicitly aim to system redesign. Common features such as short supply chains, direct relation between consumers and producers, organic food production, and prioritization of food sovereignty over capital accumulation make community supported agriculture an alternative to capitalist agri-food models.

This research explores causality in complex social-ecological systems comparing narratives across selected case studies, and will be directed towards the establishment of generative causal mechanisms of unmaking and trajectories of transformation under specific configurations of system attributes. To do so, it combines Event Structure Analysis and elements of Qualitative Comparative Analysis. 

This research is ground breaking as it (a) approaches societal transformation from the perspective of unmaking of dominant institutions, rather than of the introduction of innovations, (b) mobilizes theories that have so far not been considered, and thereby innovatively integrates theories and levels of analysis, (c) originally employs mixed methods that capture trajectories of change, and enable to generalize causal mechanisms in complex social-ecological systems.

This programme will push the frontier of our understanding of transformation to sustainability. It will generate scientific knowledge that will be relevant across the social sciences and, will offer a theoretical lens –unmaking-, and a process-tracing methodological approach, to stimulate interdisciplinary collaboration. It will be relevant to policy-makers and the civil society as it will illuminate key mechanisms of transformation to sustainability.

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

Giuseppe Feola (Project Lead), Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development, Utrecht University (The Netherlands), and Department of Geography and Environmental Science, University of Reading (United Kingdom).