Launching Just Transitions

Launching Just Transitions

Written by Mark Swilling on 2012-02-24 06:36:58
telling the story of the book

The book Just Transitions: Explorations of Sustainability in an Unfair World has finally been successfully launched in Cape Town on 15 February and Stellenbosch on 22 February. The first launch was in the beautiful domed hall of the Centre of the Book in Queen Victoria Street in Cape Town. The second was in the JS Gerricke Library at Stellenbosch University. (Link to report on the Stellenbosch launch:   http://blogs.sun.ac.za/news/2012/02/22/sas-economic-policies-criticised/)  

Continue reading for a copy of Mark Swilling's talk.        

Nearly 200 people attended the Cape Town launch and the respondents to the talks by Mark Swilling and Eve Annecke were Professor Edgar Pieter from UCT's African Centre for Cities and Professor Johan Hattingh from Stellenbosch University's Philosophy Deparment. Many former students were present, plus a group of visiting academics from five African Universities who are part of the TreccAfrica network. The Stellenbosch launch was opened by the Rector, Prof. Russel Botman who said this book is not just about "going more green, but also about being less mean".

Below is the text of Mark Swilling's talk - a truncated version was presented at the Cape Town launch.

Just Transitions: Explorations of Sustainability in an Unfair World
It is no coincidence that we start and end this book with quotes from Ben Okri’s Astonishing the Gods. This remarkable story by a prize winning Nigerian writer is about someone growing up who comes to the conclusion that he must be invisible. The reason he comes to this conclusion is because all the stories he reads in history books and novels, all the images he sees around him, are not about him. The story is then about his journeys to find the other invisibles and their struggles to become visible. If you are an African like I am who floats around the global sustainability networks of meetings and conferences, it is not very hard to come to the same conclusion -  seems to me like I really am invisible. This book is a response to this conundrum. It is about making visible local and African stories within a global panoptic that engages many mainstream economic and ecological orthodoxies. South Africans need to stop telling our story as if it is unique – we need to tell our story as a global story that others can read to better understand themselves.
We want, in particular, to counteract the distinct possibility of an unjust transition to a more ecologically viable and lower carbon world. As many of the world’s largest companies gear up for the next industrial revolution, South Africans redouble their efforts to remain wedded to c.20th technologies and economic systems. If African countries refuse to recognise that their economic take off is taking place when many of the old economic and techno-infrastructural certainties are falling away, the result will be an unjust transition as others take advantage of the transitions underway while others fail to see what is going on.
We commence the book with where we live – the Lynedoch EcoVillage, an experiment in living and learning. It is this 10 year experience that has created the space for exploring the two key values that permeate the entire book – namely living a life of generosity and restoration. These are ancient and classical values – generosity is about living in communities where no-one benefits at the expense of someone else’s welfare, and restoration is about living in ways that restores rather than destroys the web of life.
We suggest in Chapter 1 that the core values of generosity and restoration can only really emerge in their fullest meaning if we make a fundamental break from reductionism. In a chapter that we dedicate to the late Paul Cillers, we argue that complexity thinking opens up for African intellectuals new vistas for creative inquiry and social engagement that avoid the dead-ends of deconstructionism and the certainties of economic positivism.
After describing what is so unsustainable about the current global economic order in Chapter 2, we tackle in Chapter 3 the vexed question of transition. Most of us, as we suggest when we quote Bruno Latour in the concluding chapter, are mezmerized by the “apocalypse in slow motion”. This paralyses use because from this perspective sustainability means nothing more than a vast range of efforts to promote a retarded collapse. Chapter 3 is really the conceptual heart of the book because by developing a new theory of global transition it goes up against this kind of pessimism. We attack this all-pervasive pessimism because it nurtures the popular culture of the chattering classes who have resorted to enjoying the world ironically. We don’t think this equips us to both understand and actively change things for the better. To this extent, we hang onto a sense of progress, but we want to re-invent what it means.
To do this we invoke in the conclusion Karl Polanyi’s notion of a ‘double movement’ and apply it to the c.21st. Polanyi published his great book in 1946. He wanted to show that Nazism emerged as a response to the destructive consequences of free market capitalism that only celebrated the individual at the expense of society and nature. However, he was also fascinated by the fact that in some countries that avoided the Nazi and communist threats to democracy associations of various kinds within society responded to individualism through many multiple engagements and transactions that resulted in the taming of free market capitalism to build social democracies. He called this the ‘double movement’ – one force reacting on the other to give rise to synthesis. We see something very similar happening today – the accelerated globalisation of a powerful form of free market capitalism has started to reach its social and ecological limits giving rise to a counter-movement of bottom up initiatives that are transforming values, structures of power, knowledge systems and practices. Herein lies the source of our optimism.
We argued in Chapters 3, 5 and 6  that there are four intersecting global transitions underway.
1. The first is what we call the epochal transition – the transition from the industrial to the sustainable socioecological regime. The industrial socioecological regime commenced about 250 years ago with the British industrial revolution. By the start of the c.21st century this vast global industrial system depended for 60% of its energy requirements on fossil fuels. The peak and eventual decline of fossil fuels marks the beginning of the end of this industrial epoch. The transition to a more sustainable socioecological order will depend on the modalities and temporalities of the unfolding transition to renewable energies.
2. The second is what we have called the industrial transition. Since the start of the industrial epoch, there have been five distinct industrial cycles each one associated with a distinct cluster of dominant technologies and each going through the classic S curve of innovation, the crowding in of investments to bring the innovations to market, a crisis caused by over-investments in innovations, followed by state interventions to reorganise the institutions and social cultures of society to absorb the new technological innovations which, in turn, results in a new golden age lasting anything between 20 and 30 years. These S curves usually last 50 or 60 years. We argue that the year 2009 marks the end of the post-WWII long-term development cycle that was, in turn, broken into two – a period of inclusive growth that ended with the stagflation crisis of the early 1970s triggered by the first oil crisis, and the period of globalised free market growth that ended with the crash of 2007/2009. We are now searching for the economic coordinates for the next long-term development cycle. However, our argument is that these will only be found when the dynamics of the epochal transition are recognised. The new global green economy discourse is, in essence, a shallow dimly understood recognition of the merging of these two transitions.
3. The third global transition is the so-called second urbanisation wave. The first took place between 1750 and 1950 and resulted in the urbanisation of around 400 million people mainly in what is now the developed North. The second urbanisation wave will take place between 1950 and 2030 and will result in the urbanisation of nearly 4 billion people, mainly this time in the global South.  The global population is now 50% urbanised, but still the magnitude of what is to come has yet to fully dawn on most people who think about these matters – the next 3 billion people that will land up living on the planet will end up in Asian and African cities, i.e. the places least equipped to handle these mindboggling social explosions but where outdate technologies have not yet been sunk in concrete. The most significant implication, however, is that the challenge of building a more sustainable order will need to be faced in cities. Indeed, those cities that are already gearing themselves up for this transition will end up as the leading cities of the next industrial revolution.  We suggest that the theoretical legacy of Manuel Castells has destroyed our capacity to understand this challenge. His highly influential argument that the  ‘space of flows’ has trumped the ‘space of place’ effectively eliminated the possibility of seeing flows as more than information flows, and localities as more than just spaces for identity politics.  
4. Finally, we address the ecological and physical limits of industrial agriculture, otherwise referred to as High External Input (HEI) agriculture. We argue that it is highly unlikely that HEI agriculture will succeed in feeding the world, not least because it is reproduced by a global food system dominated by a small number of giant conglomerates whose profits depend on a set of global value chains that destroy natural systems on one end and the health of its customers on the other. The agroecological revolution that is taking on many different forms across the world does seem to provide an alternative that depends on restoring rather than destroying natural systems – or, if you like, working with rather than against nature.
As already mentioned, 2009 was the turning point – it was the first year since WWII that the global economy actually shrank. We are now searching for the coordinates of the next long-term development cycle.  While we concede that this next long-term development cycle could be as unsustainable as the previous one from an ecological perspective, we do suggest that there are some unique conditions now that may well ensure that the next long-term development cycle happens because sustainable resource management has become a central tenet of global economic governance. The most significant is the end of a century of declining resource prices. Since about 2002 resource prices – including food prices – have been steadily climbing. During all previous 5 industrial cycles, the first 25 years of economic growth corresponded with the decline in real resource prices due to either technological change or geographic access to new resource pools (colonialism, structural adjustment, etc). We now face the challenge of global growth when resource prices are rising. There is not a decade since the start of the c.20th that we have witnessed the kind of consistently rising resource prices that we have seen since 2002. This brute material reality – with peak cheap oil as its most direct manifestation - is what will tie the search for solutions to the economic crisis to the search for ecological solutions. In practice, much will depend on how we reconfigure our cities and food sytems.
To make all this happen we need to rebuild our theories of the state. Chapter 4 does just this by arguing that we need a new synthesis of development economics and ecological economics. For development economics, inappropriately structured and managed institutions are the barriers to future development. For ecological economics it is limits to natural resources that are the barriers to future development. To reinvent the theory of the developmental state, we need to merge these two theoretical frameworks in order to make it clear that it is institutional change that opens up the space for innovation, and that innovation must be about the new sociotechnical systems and processes that a future sustainable economic order will require. What this means is that unlike the developmental states of the late c.20th which tended to focus on investments in a heavy industrial base and urban infrastructure to catalyse the transition from agricultural to industrial economies (modernisation), the developmental states of the c.21st must focus on the construction of spaces for innovation that allow vast inter-disciplinary networks of co-producers to work within the ICT environments created by the information revolution. In other words, their historical mission is no longer to drive the construction of industrial bases, but rather to invest in knowledge infrastructures and networks.
The last four chapters of the book drill down into case studies that exemplify the main arguments.
1. Chapter 7 tells the story of Sudan – this is a country that has been at war with itself for nearly 50 years, and in each case the underlying driver of conflict has been competition for resources. Now it is about oil, but it has in the past been about land and water. Sudan is used as a warning to the world – a kind of global canary in the coal mine. Any attempt to resolve the industrial crisis by ignoring the need for an epochal transition to a more sustainable socioecological regime will accelerate the number of resource wars. 2 billion people live in failed states, many of these crippled by resource wars.
2. Chapter 8 looks at the South African economy. We argue that South Africa’s developmental goals and its democratic institutions are threatened by our failure to break away from our dependence on the mineral-energy complex. We show that with respect to water, soils, biodiversity, waste sinks and mineral reserves were are hitting limits that are undermining our capacity to grow in more job-creating and equitable ways. Unfortunately, the 2012 State of the Nation address by President Zuma has reinforced our worst fears – references to infrastructure investments to make it more efficient to ship our raw materials to the BRIC countries at prices that will require state subsidies plus references to cheaper energy prices are not good news if you want to prepare South Africa for the next industrial revolution. Our analysis suggests that resource nationalism is a good idea, and that higher rather than lower energy prices will put in place the incentives for investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy that we need.
3. Chapter 9 examines Cape Town. As one of our fastest growing cities, it is coming up against the natural limits to further growth across the board – water, landfill space, energy, biodiversity, fisheries, polluted rivers, etc. Interestingly, though, this has catalysed a wide range of initiatives to explore more sustainable alternatives. The constructive partnerships between government and Universities is key to making this possible. But by focussing on what this will mean for energy, waste, water and sanitation infrastructures we show what it will take to unpack and reconfigure a city to make it more sustainable.
4. Finally, we look at the Lynedoch Ecovillage – this was an experiment in applied knowledge, mistakes and learning that provided us with a tangible sense of the practical realities of bringing about prefigurative change that both anticipates the future and triggers the learning needed to prepare for the future.

We end with a conclusion that celebrated Bruno Latour’s call to arouse the passions for change. We connect this to Okri’s incantations to astonish. The end result, we hope, is a book for those who share these passions for change but remain frustrated by the noise and calamities of an apocalypse in slow motion. If you want to believe that sustainability is more than retarded collapse, we think this book will provide you with a way of seeing and thinking that will pave the way for practical engagements for change. If by now you don’t share these passions for change or you prefer retarded collapse, then either you are too blind to see what is going on or you have’nt read the book.