Academic journal article Environmental Values

How to Get out of the Multiple Crisis? Contours of a Critical Theory of Social-Ecological Transformation

Academic journal article Environmental Values

How to Get out of the Multiple Crisis? Contours of a Critical Theory of Social-Ecological Transformation

Article excerpt


The concept of transformation has become a buzzword within the last few years. This has to do, first, with the ever broader recognition of the profound character of the environmental crisis, secondly, with increasingly obvious limits to existing forms of (global) environmental governance, thirdly, with the emergence of other dimensions of the crisis since 2008 and, fourthly, with intensified debates about required profound social change, especially of societal nature relations. However, the term transformation itself is contested. It largely depends on theoretical assumptions as well as the plausibility and applicability of the arguments which are made. In this paper, a historical-materialist approach to social-ecological transformation is outlined by referring to a theoretically sophisticated understanding of 'subject(s)' of transformation as well as the 'object(s)' of what is to be transformed. Theoretical concepts like the capitalist mode of production, regulation and hegemony, a critical understanding of the state and governance as well as the term societal nature relations are key. Such a perspective contributes to a more sophisticated understanding of the obstacles and requirements of real-world transformation. Finally, the argument has implications for visions and strategies, i.e., an emancipatory and democratic shaping of social relations and societal nature relations.


Transformation, historical materialism, capitalist mode of production, regulation, hegemony, critical state and governance theory, political ecology, societal nature relations


A few years ago, the prominent Millennium Ecosystem Assessment gave an overview of the most pressing ecological problems. Then, the crucial concept for understanding global environmental change was that of direct and indirect drivers, i.e., 'any natural or human-induced factor that directly or indirectly causes a change in an ecosystem' (MEA, 2005; see also GEO 4, 2007 or TEEB, 2008). Concepts like transformation were not at all used in the diagnosis but rather that of (global) environmental change (Adger and Brown, 2010).

A few years later the world changed drastically and, with it, this interpretation. The concept of transformation is the rising star in social ecological debates. Flagship reports of international institutions and think tanks refer to the concept (WBCSD, 2010; NEF, 2010; DESA, 2011; WBGU, 2011). Research programmes for social sciences are oriented under this header (JPI Climate, 2011; Hackmann and St. Clair, 2012; Driessen et al., 2013). The social scientific debate is vibrant; (1) the debate on economically sustainable degrowth also takes place under the header of transformation. (2)

I argue in this paper that the burgeoning use of the term 'transformation' mainly relates to the increasing acknowledgement that the crisis has multiple characteristics, and there are limits to global environmental governance (Conca et al., 2008; Driessen et al., 2013; Newell, 2012; Brand and Wissen, 2013). There is then an increasing insight that to deal, at least with the ecological dimensions of the multiple crisis, requires profound changes (NEF, 2010). The International Resource Panel of the UN Environmental Programme (UNEP) impressively describes the enormous growth in the use of the resources for construction materials, fossil fuels, biomass, and minerals during the twentieth century (UNEP, 2011). Moreover, the interlinkages between climate change, biodiversity erosion, ocean acidification, changes in land use, and other ecological dimensions are emphasised (Rockstrom et al., 2009). This is accompanied with insights that a problem-specific dealing with the crisis--climate change or biodiversity erosion--is over simplified. Problem-adequate political approaches need to consider complex articulations and the danger of offsetting negative consequences from one field to another (e. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.