Beyond Oil 2021 has been the second conference I attended this year. I was happy that I could attend it online, as I had to travel to my home country for an emergency. This, clearly was another illustration of the advantages of online conferences. Though, I also admit I miss the feel of offline conferences. The conference had a hybrid format and I think this challenge was well handled. On two days researchers presented their work related to the much-needed transition towards a more sustainable society. The program was filled with case studies and conceptual work, the role of individuals, of institutions, of structures was addressed, power, justice and politics as well as innovations were themes of presented work. A great mix, that indicates the complex nature of the challenge humanity is facing.
I presented my ongoing research. Due to the format of the parallel sessions I had to squeeze content in an 8-minute presentation. Admittedly, I liked this format because it left much space for a long panel discussion. The slides of my presentation are below. As you can see, I had to keep it superficial. Nonetheless, I hope it gave an insight into what I am working on. The title of my contribution is a bit wordy: “Behavioral change for a socio-economic transition: linking system with individual behavior in complex systems.” However, I think it nicely summarizes my work. I am looking at a) how individual action or behavior connects with the system in which the individual is embedded and b) how behavior in conjunction with the embeddedness within the system can contribute to a transformation of our socio-economic system.
My presentation started with a quote from Greta Thunberg from one of her recent talks at the youth4climate summit. There she said: “Build back better. Blah, blah, blah. Green economy. Blah blah blah. Net zero by 2050. Blah, blah, blah,”. I started with this quote as I was hoping to catch people’s attention, but more importantly Greta nicely brought to a point a finding of my own research.
Greta’s statement fits to the findings of what composes what I call unfortunate resilience. While I believe that I am the creator of this term, I have not invented the idea of this concept. Within socio-ecological systems theory it is understood that some system may not change, although it would be good if it did change. Olsson, Galaz et al. (2014) write about this concept, stating that others have called it “rigidity trap” or “bad resilience”. The former already indicates that unfortunate resilience is tightly connected to lock-ins. It is the idea that a system can get locked-in in an undesirable state. It is undesirable because in the long run it is not possible to maintain equilibrium and thus instead of slow adaptations, such lock-ins will mount in a system collapse.
To grasp this point one may look at the interconnectedness of systems and subsystems presented in socio-ecological system theory. Walker, Holling et al. (2004) discuss and illustrate aspects of resilience. One of these aspects is called Panarchy which refers to the idea that the state of a system affects the state of all other connected systems. For example, the socio-economic system (lower system) is embedded in the ecological system (higher system). The lower system can create an imbalance on the higher level, which at some point in time will also lead to an imbalance of the lower system. Burning fossil fuels has created an imbalance in nature. Nature’s way of dealing with this is climate change. Climate change in turn affects humans. When the imbalance in the natural sphere has reached a certain magnitude, the systems humans have created and even the very existence of humans are threatened and will collapse at some point. The systems created by humans should adapt or transform based on the information that human actions cause an imbalance in nature.
Without getting too far on the topic of adaptations versus transformation, I want to note that whether an adaptation is sufficient depends on how much something needs to change. If you want to read more about the difference between adaptation and transformation, I am referring you to the work of Folke, Carpenter et al. (2010). Adaptations are rather small changes. The ability to adapt is part of what constitute someone’s or something’s resilience. A transformation is however a large-scale change. Think of the caterpillar and the butterfly (transformation) compared to finches having different beaks (adaptation) depending on the environment they live in.
The concept of unfortunate resilience is connected to the idea of maladaptation. Olsson, Galaz et al. (2014) summarize maladaptation to a system being high in resilience. So high that it reaches a threshold beyond which it is actually no longer able to adapt. Thus, it is a state of excess resilience. It is a point where resilience becomes rigidity. Resilience often has this notion of flexibility (Walker, Holling et al. 2004), though is seems like the state of unfortunate resilience is one in which the sustenance of a status quo creates a rigidity, a lock-in, that at one stage will culminate in collapse.
What constitutes unfortunate resilience, though? I am sure I have overlooked many factors contributing to the unfortunate resilience of the current socio-economic system. I suppose that there need to be many factors to create a strong unfortunate resilience. However, the factors I want to list are 1) buffers, 2) narratives and 3) psychological defense mechanisms.
As I have mentioned during my talk, one important factor that I do not mention is power. Power as a factor constituting unfortunate resilience needs much more attention than I could dedicate it so far in my current research endeavor. Though, I want to highlight that it is relevant to reflect about questions such as who creates narratives and thus supports psychological defense mechanisms? It needs to be acknowledged that the power to create and steer a discourse is key in shaping the track human society got locked in (Biely, Maes et al. 2018).
The buffers I included so far are of economic and technological nature. Buffers do not address the root cause of a problem and have the effect that they reduce the perceived urgency of a problem. For example, a flood insurance may reduce a house owner’s perceived urgency of doing something against climate change, when the damage a flood has created is covered by an insurance. Farmers in countries where governments support them in case of natural catastrophes destroying their harvest may feel less urgency than farmers who do not get such financial support. Another example that is more indirect, are carbon offsets. I may not perceive the urgent need to quit flying, if I can monetarily compensate for the emissions I have created. The thought having planted some trees somewhere in the world with one click may make it much easier to enjoy a flight with good conscious. Technological buffers are those that maintain or increase human’s wellbeing or comfort despite deteriorating environmental conditions. I come from a country where air conditions were not common. With summers getting hotter more and more people install air conditions. This allows people to better bare high temperatures in summer, but it also reduces the perceived urgency to do something about the root cause of the problem.
The second factor, narratives, refers to the blah, blah. In a sense they also reduce the perceived urgency to tackle the problem and they neither address the root cause of the problem. All the green growth, green economy, green, tech, sustainable growth, inclusive growth, net zero, negative emissions, build back better talk fits to the weak sustainability blah blah which is based on technology myopia and a trust in market mechanisms (Biely, Maes et al. 2018). It deserves a blog post on its own, but narratives are the reason why despite working on a technology University, I am not a fan of the socio-technical transition theory. I promise I will write about this soon.
Before I turn to psychological defense mechanisms, I want to expand a bit on the connectedness of factors. Factors that constitute unfortunate resilience do not stand alone but build a mesh that connects factors with each other on societal as well as on individual level. The narrative that green tech and thus the green economy will save us is backed up by people experiencing how technology buffers the negative effects of e.g. climate change. Technology seems to have an answer to all the problems and the narrative of green economy tells us that we will be able to afford these technologies and that by creating a green economy we do not have to give up anything. Narratives are told on a societal level. We want to create a green, inclusive economy. A narrative proliferated by policy makers, businesses, private as well as public international conglomerates and institutions. Individuals are not living in a vacuum but are interconnected with their environment. And thus, individuals affect and are affected by society.
Psychological defense mechanisms are the last factor I want to mention. I love to refer to the infographic made by Mathew Adams (Adams 2017) because it illustrates the complexity of the matter. It shows at a glance that we are fighting against many defense mechanisms when we want to change our own behavior. The infographic provides little examples which show that these are (at least partially) based on general narratives. I also want to refer to the recent book of Weintrobe (2021) who connects denial (a defense mechanism) with trust in human ingenuity (I wrote about the book here). I suppose how and which narratives and buffers (and maybe other factors) fuel psychological defense mechanisms is a research project on its own. Though, it seems that those who have made the connection argue to replace the faulty narratives with others that are more realistic (see eg. Weintrobe, 2021).
Replacing an unrealistic with a more realistic narrative may help humans to invest energy in real solutions. Let me first go back to the unfortunate resilience, where I established that this is a state of rigidity. Adaptation is locked-in actions that do not really solve the problem. If humanity wants to omit a collapse energy needs to be invested into restoring flexibility. Thus, we need to free our mind and come up with innovative ways to handle the challenges humanity is facing. It seems that such innovation would call for transformation, rather than for adaptation. We would have to think about innovations in how we organize our economy, as well as our political system. Though, in order to free the mind we first may need to grief old narratives (O’Connor and Woodard 2021).
So far so good. Though, who is going to start this process of grieving old narratives? To answer this, one may want to consult the old but ongoing debate between structuralists and individualists. While I think both schools provide some insight, I think they need to be combined. The structure does not exist, without its parts, and parts do not exist in isolation. Given the fact that this blog post is anyway already way too long, I will just refer to the potential usefulness of practice theory to understand how individuals and structure are connected.
Much more needs to be stated, but I will stop here with the promise to write about the insights I got so far about transition processes.
Adams, M. (2017). Climate change, sustainability & psychosocial defence mechanisms: infographic.
Biely, K., D. Maes and S. Van Passel (2018). “The idea of weak sustainability is illegitimate.” Environment, Development and Sustainability 20(1): 223-232.
Biely, K., D. Maes and S. Van Passel (2018). “Market Power Extended: From Foucault to Meadows.” Sustainability 10(8): 2843.
Folke, C., S. R. Carpenter, B. Walker, M. Scheffer, T. Chapin and J. Rockström (2010). “Resilience Thinking: Integrating Resilience, Adaptability and Transformability.” Ecology and Society 15(4).
O’Connor, J. and W. Woodard (2021). “Editorial: The climate crisis, clinical work and the work of mourning.” Ata: Journal of Psychotherapy Aotearoa New Zealand 25(1): 7-9.
Olsson, P., V. Galaz and W. J. Boonstra (2014). “Sustainability transformations: a resilience perspective.” Ecology and Society 19(4).
Walker, B., C. S. Holling, S. R. Carpenter and A. Kinzig (2004). “Resilience, adaptability and transformability in social–ecological systems.” Ecology and Society 9(2).
Weintrobe, S. (2021). Psychological Roots of the Climate Crisis: Neoliberal Exceptionalism and the Culture of Uncare. New York, London, Bloomsbury Academic.