Conclusions: Alienation, reclamation and a radical vision

David Manuel-Navarrete, Mark Pelling, Michael Redclift

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


This book has explored responses to the combined challenge of capitalism’s recurring economic crises and contemporary global environmental change from reformist and radical perspectives. The reformist approach is predominant and seeks to keep responses to crises within the bounds of established economic and social relations, with fundamental systems rules not challenged. Radical alternatives see transformation in the structure of governance regimes and forms of agency as necessary components in moving towards a more resilient and sustainable future. The richer world’s responses to climate change and the financial crisis of 2008 have been dominated by reformist discourses in which the hegemony of the current capitalist mode of production provides the core narrative to resilience, and shapes the basis upon which crisis and vulnerability is understood, interpreted and acted upon. Under the reformist worldview the main changes required are technological and administrative, and therefore appear as a matter of efficiency, bureaucratic reorganization and policy-making. This has led policy attention to look towards the accelerated adoption of green technologies and innovation in insurance and engineering solutions to meet the challenge of environmental change, while coping with economic fluctuation or business cycles through either reducing public social spending (to bail out banks) or perhaps, following the insights of Keynesian analysis, expanding public investment in times of market contraction. In fact the combined financial and environmental crisis was consistently presented by mainstream media and governments as a win-win opportunity to stimulate the economy through investment which would simultaneously transform the energy grid with renewables. This win-win strategy required sustained stimulus packages, which in retrospect only some countries, notably the USA and China, were willing or in a position to provide. In most of Europe, where public spending has been severely cut, the financial crisis has restricted investment in and adoption of renewables, and shifted the attention of politicians and the media away from environmental priorities. At the time of writing, the latest turn in energy policy demonstrates well the unpredictability of policy pathways. The devastating East Japan earthquake, tsunami and associated radiation leak from the Fukushima reactor in 2011 have had global repercussions, and in Europe this is exemplified by Germany’s withdrawal from new nuclear investment and increased support for renewables: not an insignificant act for the World’s fifth largest economy (World Bank, 2011). Elsewhere, China in particular demonstrates the complexity of energy economics, being both an impressive global-scale investor in renewables and a major net global carbon polluter. Projects such as the Three Gorges dam, which was rejected for funding by the World Bank, and has displaced over one million people, arguably signifies both the scale of China’s ambition to respond to the climate change challenge and establish domestic energy security, and the catastrophic impacts such driven responses can have for local populations and ecologies. Emerging trends in the marketization of national food and resource security policy through the buying of long-term land and resource rights hints at new ways in which the balance of security between richer and poorer countries will unfold. In 2011, for example, Bangladesh began a process of acquiring the leases for large areas of African land as part of this flood-prone country’s national strategy for food security. Over 600, 000 hectares are reported being under discussion (Reuters, 2011). This is an adaptive response with implications for both countries, and builds on a practice of national resource security through control of production spearheaded by Africa, Latin America and elsewhere by China. Given the dynamism of global economic and associated political relations outlined above, it is perhaps understandable for politicians and citizens alike to search for a degree of stability and to equate this with security. The view that both economic fluctuations and environmental degradation can be kept under reasonably sustainable, or at least manageable limits without radically changing the prevalent institutional order has consequently become popular and captured the articulation of policy under the name of resilience (Brown, Chapter 3, this volume). But is institutional reform sufficient? If not, under which conditions is a radical approach more likely to take place? Returning to Chapter1, Handmer and Dovers (1996) warn us that established political and socio-economic systems are hard to shift; path-dependency embodied in institutions as well as physical infrastructure and assumptions about the way life should be are considerable challenges to be faced by any agenda that seeks more than a ‘tinkering at the margins’. Yet, the scale of threat associated with the combined economic and ecological expressions of crisis point to such deep-rooted concerns with the dominant mode of capitalism. Accordingly, we argue that the task of social science is now more than ever to look beyond the prevalent rules and imagine what an alternative, low-carbon, high-equity and low-risk future might look like - and how we might get there. We need critical theories of transformational social change that go beyond hopes for a technological solution and liberal democracy policy. A grand transformation is required on a par with humanity’s movement from hunter-gather to sedentary agriculture, the enlightenment or the industrial revolution. Taking on the scale of the challenge, and following Marx’s insights on the transition from feudalism to capitalism, David Harvey (2009) advances a ‘co-revolutionary theory’. This proposal was noted in Chapter 1 and we turn to it again here as a starting point for a radical transformational view. Harvey’s co-revolutionary theory proposes studying the dialectical unfolding of relations between seven moments of social change: (1) technological and organizational forms of production, exchange, and consumption; (2) relations to nature; (3) social relations between people; (4) mental conceptions of the world, embracing knowledges and cultural understandings and beliefs; (5) labour processes and production of specific goods, geographies, services, or affects; (6) institutional, legal and governmental arrangements, and (7) the conduct of daily life that underpins social reproduction. Each one of these moments is internally dynamic and internally marked by tensions and contradictions, but all of them are codependent and co-evolve in relation to each other. In the case of political ecology, Harvey’s approach can be linked to the Common Pool Resource theories and the Diagnostic Approach proposed by political scientist (and Nobel Laureate in Economics) Elinor Ostrom (2007, 2008) that explained the emergence of capitalist production from communal forms of resource exploitation. Ostrom drew on game theory while Harvey writes a grand theory in political economy. Social sciences can contribute with theories and straightforward methodologies to understand social change praxis, including its informal, personal and human dimensions. In particular, we argue that research should pay further attention to the role of human agency and the processes of alienation from ourselves, society and nature. Complexity theory shows that ‘agents’ in chemical, biological and management systems self-organize by following simple interaction rules from which complex patterns emerge (as outlined in Chapter 1). Human agents are heterogeneous (not like the Homo Oeconomicus) and enjoy much higher degrees of freedom to choose, and create, rules of interaction than the agents from biophysical systems. However, these crucial moments of choice in which emancipated or alienated individuals and collectivities seize, or not, opportunities for change seem crucial for the study of grand social transitions. This chapter synthesizes key points made throughout the book and organizes these against existing proposals for reform and more radical responses that begin to point to how people in rich and poorer societies might approach the grand transformation that must lie not too far ahead.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationClimate Change and the Crisis of Capitalism
Subtitle of host publicationA Chance to Reclaim, Self, Society and Nature
PublisherTaylor and Francis
Number of pages10
ISBN (Electronic)9781136507687
ISBN (Print)9780415676946
StatePublished - Jan 1 2012
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences
  • General Earth and Planetary Sciences


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