International Sustainable Development Research Conference

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Just Transitions Discussed

The 19th International Sustainable Development Conference, which took place at Spier on 1-3 July, was co-hosted by Stellenbosch University and the Sustainability Institute. The overriding theme was Just Transitions – the title of the book co-authored by Mark Swilling and Eve Annecke. Jay du Plessis, a student studying sustainable development at Stellenbosch University, wrote up his impressions.

(For papers presented at the Conference by researchers associated with the SI click HERE.)


Theme A:  Crisis, complexity, global change & transitions with critical analysis of science of sustainability, academia, ethics and leadership.  (Sub-themes:  A1 – Academia, Education & Sustainability Science; and A2- Justice, Ethics, Deep Ecology & Spirituality).
Theme B:  Rethinking development in terms of greening the developmental state, new forms of urbanism in the context of ecology, social development and food security.  (Sub-themes:  B3 – Social dynamics, behaviour, psychology & sustainability; and B4 – Conservation, Preservation, Ecology & Restoration).
Theme C:  Better governance, institutions and economic structures to support sustainable development & design. (Sub-themes:  C5 – Economics, Business, Design & Innovation for Sustainability; and C6 – Globalisation, Policy, Institutions & Governance).
Theme D:  Achieving rapid transitions for sustainable living, decoupling production and consumption from resource limits, ecological constraints and pioneering innovative, liveable and sustainable contexts. (Sub-themes:  D7 – Resources, Land-use & Decoupling; and D8 – Transitions to Sustainability).
There were also three side events:  the Stellenbosch Innovation District (SID) conference, the launch of the SID system and a Roundtable discussion on the Global Research Forum on Sustainable Consumption and Production.


The sub-themes above were divided further into sessions of about 4 speakers each, and unfortunately the schedule was designed in such a way that you could only attend about 1 in 3 or 4 sessions, so you ended up missing most of them.  I attended sessions in the following sub-themes:

*  C5 on Monday:  This contained a good presentation of Lauren Rosenberg’s paper  – the other presentations had a much narrower focus in terms of sustainability;

*  D7 on Monday:   An agriculture-focused session lead by Raymond Auerbach, which contained a fascinating talk by a Russian lady, N. Mamonova,  about the agricultural situation in Russia, corruption and the problems of small farmers, as well as a very good talk by a Stellenbosch phd student on “What have we learned from 30 years of urban agriculture research?” in which he basically assessed the literature on urban agriculture over this period and the various themes/positions he could identify;
*  C5 on Tuesday:  A sustainable consumption-focused session, which contained an interesting presentation by Ian Black where he looked at the gap between sustainable intentions and sustainable behaviour, using mothers and their buying choices in the UK.  There was also a talk by a US phd student on alternative fuel vehicles in the USA, but she simply focused on alternatives to oil (natural gas, biofuels, electricity, hydrogen, etc.) and readily called these “green”, without addressing their own negatives, so it had holes in it with regards to sustainability.  But this session ended off with a fascinating talk by C Thomas, also from the UK, on “how retail organisations can succeed in a resource-limited and carbon constrained world”, where he used the airport retail industry as an example.  It was interesting to learn how carbon intensive this industry is and the intricacies of why this is, but also how much potential there is for cuts – there was one example of an airport in the UK cutting their carbon by about 50% or more, simply by changing the design of their retail area and the shops themselves.
*  C6 on Tuesday:  Tom and I missed the first speaker because we had to shuttle some people into town, but I caught the 2nd speaker, J. Verbitsky, finishing off on her talk about Antarctica becoming a contested space and the relevance to the Global South.  It sounded very interesting and I would like to read this paper (once I have free time again!)  There was also an interesting talk from a German student about the sustainability politics in Germany – the gist of it was that even though Germany appears to be so pro-sustainability on the surface, he found many politicians who had a negative or non-caring attitude towards it behind the scenes, so he questioned their intentions.

I then went to the Roundtable discussion on sustainable consumption on Tuesday afternoon.  The presenters were Philip Vergragt from Boston, US and Ndivhuho Raphulu from SA.  Pieter van Heynigen lead the discussion.  Both speakers were very good, but the best part was when Frank Geels asked a very challenging question to Vergragt, regarding how realistic his theories are in applying it to real-life socio-technical systems, if I remember correctly, which resulted in a heated discussion between Geels and  Black, with Joachim Spangenberg (one of the co-authors of Planetary Boundaries) joining in – but just as it got nice an hot, Pieter stopped it and changed the subject!  I think he thought it got too heated, but it was one of the best moments of the conference.  The conference needed more discussions/debates like this in my opinion.
*  C6 on Wednesday:  We had a couple Swedish speakers who did rather narrowly focussed studies that I did not find very useful or realistic (such as Sweden wanting to reduce their CO2 emissions from agriculture to 0% by 2050 – but they are not even including fertilizers, etc. in their calculations).  But Gerald Steiner spoke as well, which is the reason I went to this session, and he gave a brilliant talk on “large-scale collaborative problem solving using the example of phosphorus as a global case (GlobalTraPs): A transdisciplinary case”.  I can’t find my notes on this, but I will definitely continue to follow his work after this conference.


Those were the only small-room sessions I could attend, but then there were also speakers in the main room, and they were the best speakers in my opinion.  The ones who stood out for me and received the best response were the following:

*  Frank Geels:  He spoke about systems innovation and socio-technical transitions, their characteristics, what causes them, etc. but made the point that this time we do not have the time to wait for this process to happen naturally; we need to find ways to speed up the process.

He referred to “Planetary Boundaries and Sustainable Development” by Rockstrom and Sachs (2013), and said that he thinks it is a good framework, but that they need to look at sociological implications/aspects, such as socio-technical aspects, social interactions, etc. and not just macro and micro levels – they must look at systems as well.  He also referred to UNEP’s “Green Economy”.  He stated that gas is getting so cheap as a result of shale gas that it might stall renewable energy development in its tracks.  He also showed graphs that show there has been a decline in public attention to climate change and that industry is busy fighting back.  He called for a need for research to focus more on transitions in concrete systems and to work with people on the ground and look at socio-political aspects.  He specifically highlights research into “radical” policy change.

I found his perspective one of the most refreshing and no-nonsense at the conference – he was by far the most provocative and always asked difficult questions.  I also got to speak to him a few times and I ended up emailing him some of Paul Cilliers and Edgar Morin’s work, who he did not know of.

*  Gerald Steiner:  He spoke about innovation systems as facilitators of Just Transitions, asking the question “why and how can innovation contribute to just and sustainable development?”  Key for him is the focus on how to bring different actors of society together.  He used “peak phosphorus” as a case study.  He made the point that end-products drive transitions – the combustion engine drove petro-chemical energy; the lightbulb drove the expansion of electricity – so we must also think in terms of end-products and entrepreneurs(hip). He was an excellent speaker and one of the few delegates who really seemed to have a firm grasp on systems-thinking.  He was also very approachable and friendly and spoke to all of us students, and even exchanged contact details to help us in our work.

Then on Tuesday Edgar Pieterse stole the show.  Because he teaches us we all know his work, so I don’t need to explain anything.  But I will say that this was the only time where everyone in the room stopped what they were doing and listened.  It was the best talk of the week for us and I believe for most people – not only because he is such a great speaker, but also because he came from an angle that nobody else came from and brought another dimension to the conference.  He ended up going more than 5 minutes over time… but nobody cared.

*  Arne Geschke:  He was the second best in my opinion.  Unfortunately I can’t find my notes on him, but he presented his work on “Direct vs. Embodied Energy”.  Him and Edgar had a bet about whose presentation would be the most depressing, and I think Arne edged it!  He spoke about the concept of embodied energy and the difficulties in tracking embodied energy in products – for example, if you get to the truck delivering an element that goes into a product, you then have to look not only at the emissions of the truck, but what the truck itself is made of and how much emissions went into that, etc.  One of his key conclusions was that for us to become sustainable we would have to use about 85% less fossil energy – or as he put it, “go back to the stone ages”.  I can’t remember the details now, but his work was definitely some of the most fascinating at the conference.

*  And we ended on Wednesday with a Skype talk by Gunter Pauli, who basically spoke about closing loops and getting the most out of what we have – with the stand-out quote probably being “we cannot expect the Earth to produce more; WE have to do MORE with what the Earth is producing”.  He gave many examples, including the local guys who are making a protein feed from maggots as an alternative to fish meal, but the most fascinating was making infinitely recycable paper out of fine mining dust, which is already being done in China I believe.

(From my notes:)  “If you are small and not applying the economies of scale model, then you cannot compete.”  “Our basic needs (Water, Energy, Food, Housing, Health) must be provided as locally as possible.”  “We can make our research easier to implement into policy by setting it in the real world, practical terms, so it can be easily understood in a practical sense.”  He mentioned the shale gas bubble and how shale gas is likely to be a short-lived solution.  “Most of what constitutes a good life are immaterial things.”  “We must get away from buzz-words such as ‘capacity-building’, etc. and make clear what we actually MEAN – what does it mean?  How is it achieved in the real world?”  “We need to make distinctions between basic needs and preferences.”  “Resilience – fine, but against what?  For whom? etc.”


There was a very good vibe at the conference, which was helped by the good weather we had.   There were lively conversations and debates every tea and lunch break, but in the actual sessions debates were lacking – except when Frank Geels was in the room!  There seemed to be a strong contingent of the sustainable consumption crowd, but otherwise there seemed to be quite a broad representation.  Even though there were systems-related sub-themes, and Geels and Steiner came with a systems-perspective, the lack of systems-thinking in the other research that was presented surprised me.  Overall the conference made me realise how good our education at the Sustainability Institute is, because even though we did not know a lot about anything specifically, we always knew something about whatever was spoken about, and we were able to identify and question holes in much of the research – especially with the narrow approaches, where one element, such as peak oil, was not considered and could change everything.