The Great Transformation must be a socio-cultural one

Yesterday, German sociologist and social psychologist Harald Welzer, who is well known for his books and research on climate change and sustainability, visited Vienna’s new University of Economics and Business to give an interesting “WU Sustainability Controversies” talk on transformation processes.

According to Welzer, we’re facing an extremely paradoxical task: An economic system based on growth created a society based on growth which has seen an unprecedented increase in wealth. Apart from the material gains (wealth, life expectancy), we’re also enjoying freedom, democracy and the rule of law as well as our educational, health and welfare systems.

But this standard of our civilization was achieved by an expansionary economic system which isn’t sustainable. So, the challenge is to sustain this standard of zivilization while extremely reducing our footprint. Here, Welzer presented four interesting ideas:

No one actually knows how a sustainable, modern society looks like.

We only know our current societal model and its expansionary economic model based on growth. Thus, we primarily propose solutions which are also expansionary, as we can see in discussions about our financial system or energy system.

In the latter case, Welzer critizised that sustainability debates only deal with energy/resource efficiency, green growth and other approaches that don’t address the issue how to sustain our society’s immaterial achievements with less input.

The idea of a Great Transformation implies that we’ve reached the end of a certain state.

The thought that we need a Great Transformation (of our society, our economy, etc.) implicitly assumes that the current transformation that was initiated by industrialization is finished so that another transformation can set in. This often stems from the tendency to look at timeframes of 20, 30 or 50 years whereas we need to look at much longer timeframes when talking about transformation processes.

Welzer doubts the assumption that we’re facing the end of a transformation and the beginning of a new one as he sees the current globalization as an even more dynamized phase of the industrialization processes that started 250 years ago.¬†Moreover, it’s typical for such transformation processes to be processes of various speeds (industrialized countries, emerging countries, etc.).

The transformation debate focuses too much on technology.

For Welzer, the energy debate is a prime example for how our transformation debates are too constricted on technological solutions. By labeling energy as “renewable” and suggesting that we only need a technological shift in our energy system, we primarily offer a expansionary solution where we still produce more energy than in the past.

Instead of a technological transformation, we need a socio-cultural one.

But a Great Transformation can only be a socio-cultural transformation, not a technological transformation. We need to recognize that renewable energy means something different in a cultural model that builds on reduction instead of expansion. And we need to discuss strategies how a modern society that was built on expansion can transition to a sustainable system based on reduction.

What next?

It became clear that the journey to a sustainable society and degrowth economy is an unprecedented challenge for humanity (similar and linked to not burning available fossil fuel reserves as mentioned in my previous blogpost). So, it is important that contractionary thinking enters our sustainability debates and personal lives, so that our focus shifts from technological to socio-cultural solutions.

In the following discussion, Welzer reminded us that all fundamental modernization processes that have brought substantial changes always eliminated certain privileges, thereby causing conflict. So, as there are always winners und losers in modernization processes, we also have to talk about distribution and justice.

Moreover, if we want to go ahead and transform our own life first, it is important not only to practice new behaviors but also to pracitice personal resilience given these potential conflicts as well as doubts and criticism by those around us.

Posted on January 15, 2014 in Sustainability

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About the Author

Andreas Lindinger is a Vienna-based business consultant, sustainability expert and urban thinker passionate about livable cities, sustainable transportation, renewable energy and civic engagement. Andreas offers a transdisciplinary business, finance and sustainability background, industry expertise in energy, mobility and environmental consulting and broad international experience gained in Vienna, Vancouver, Berlin and Dublin. Make sure to also check out and to follow @lindinger on Twitter.

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