Two paths one goal

How to break path dependency? That is my starting point. Path dependency refers to the idea that past decisions determine or at least influence present and future options and decisions. An example; the educational path you chose has an effect on the jobs you will be qualified for. A change might be possible, but there will be costs related. The earlier you change the lower these costs will be. If you figure out at the beginning of your educational path that it is not the right thing for you, costs are still relatively low. If you figure it out shortly before you graduate, costs are substantially higher. If you are working on a job for years and figure out you want to change to a completely different field, you may have to deal with a substantially lower income when starting fresh. There are many examples of path dependencies.

In my research I do not apply the notion of path dependency to a specific technology or a specific policy, but rather to the socio-economic system as a whole. The argument is that the current socio-economic system which is based on the paradigm of unlimited growth is unsustainable. No matter which technologies are invented, as long as they are embedded into the current socio-economic system, they will not deliver the wished outcome, sustainability. Thus, we need to shift from the current socio-economic system to a new distinct socio-economic system. Though, how can we do this and why has it not happened already? To answer these questions I am following two research routs.

System level

I suggest in order to understand how we can transition from one socio-economic system to another one, we have to understand why this transition is not taking place. I frame this the unfortunate resilience of the current socio-economic system. I want to understand why the socio-economic system is not transitioning by taking an upside-down perspective on resilience. I am searching for factors, mechanisms and structures constitute the resilience of the current system. Hopefully, by identifying these factors, mechanisms and structures I will gain insights on how they can be overcome.

An aiding tool to understand transition is the development of a new sustainability transition concept. This concept includes insights from resilience theory, path dependency theory, systems thinking, socio-technical transition as well as socio-ecological transition theory. While the concept does display the greater system level, I am combining it with the individual level. This is as the structures that create our socio-economic system are connected to human behavior. Reoccurring behavior forms institutions and institutions form behavior. Both sides are intertwined, and the solution will have to deal with both.

Individual level

The transition envisaged has not happened so far, thus it can only be studied in theory. However, there are individual cases of transitions. Research indicates that citizens in the developed world will have to cut their footprint by 90% in order to achieve the climate targets. If that does not call for drastic changes, I do not know what does. Taking drastic changes is scary, yet there are people who voluntary make these changes. I am referring here to people who do not use a private car, who live a zero waste or zero plastic lifestyle, who have a vegan diet, live minimalistic and who refuse to fly. For sure some of these changes are more drastic than others. Though, that depends on the respective situation. My preferred example is the car. In some regions not going by private car is easy and almost the norm. In other regions not having a car is not an option. If people managed to undergo such drastic changes in their personal life it might be possible to upscale it. By studying how such changes came about and what barriers people had to deal with we may find out how others could do the same. On the other side of the spectrum are those, which is the majority of the population, who did not undergo a drastic change. On this side, it is interesting to know what perceptions bout such drastic lifestyle changes are, which ones would be most favorable and what would increase the likelihood of giving it a try?

At the end, both research routs will hopefully be combined to provide insights on how we can overcome path dependencies and facilitate a transition towards sustainability.

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