Political elites have been evading the causes of climate change through deceptive fixes. Their market-type instruments such as carbon trading aim to incentivise technological innovation which will supposedly decarbonize or replace dominant high-carbon systems. In practice this techno-market framework has perpetuated climate change and social injustices, thus provoking public controversy. Using this opportunity, social movements have counterposed low-carbon, resource-light, socially just alternatives. Such transformative mobilisations can fulfil the popular slogan, ‘System Change Not Climate Change’.
This book develops key critical concepts through case studies such as GM crops, biofuels, waste incineration and Green New Deal agendas.
The slogan ‘System Change Not Climate Change’ has sharpened public debate about the societal changes that are necessary to avoid climate disaster in ways creating an environmentally sustainable, socially just future. The demand for ‘system change’ directs attention at profit-driven, high-carbon production systems which cause climate change, other environmental harms, resource plunder and social injustices, along with policies which perpetuate them. Protest has generated low-carbon, socially just alternatives, but these have often lacked an effective social agency for replacing harmful high-carbon systems. Meanwhile neoliberal techno-market fixes have emphasized market-based incentives for techno-solutions. This policy framework underlies the UN Climate Convention and the European Union, whose false solutions have maintained system continuity, contrary to their environmental pretensions. Such fixes have sometimes provoked public controversy, as an extra opportunity to promote alternatives. This book presents a big picture of their strategies and potential, as steps towards system change.
As a pervasive policy framework in recent decades, techno-market fixes arose from a convergence between ecological modernization and neoliberal environmentalism. Opposing such techno-market fixes as ‘false solutions’, counter-publics have linked citizens’ groups with critical experts, thus generating greater public controversy. This has broadened opportunities for various alternatives which incur lighter resource burdens, enhance socio-economic equity, localize production-consumption circuits and devise technical means for those aims. Such alternatives become more than mere technical-administrative blueprints when multi-actor alliances become counter-publics confronting the dominant agenda; their alternatives often combine eco-localization with grassroots innovation. Rival agendas can be understood as sociotechnical; each agenda expresses a sociotechnical imaginary co-producing a distinctive form of natural resources, technoscientific knowledge and social order. Together these concepts provide a big picture for understanding various techno-market fixes, their controversies and alternative futures.
The EU originally promoted agribiotech (genetically modified [GM] crops) through several neoliberal policy changes extending market relations. This techno-market fix included broader patent rights, market liberalization of agriculture, and research agendas blurring the public and private sectors. In the EU’s dominant narrative, agribiotech would be a crucial eco-efficient means for multiple benefits, for example, for the sector to gain global economic competitiveness, to minimize farmers’ dependence on agrichemicals and thus to protect natural resources. But GM crops were soon denounced for threatening the environment and human health. Mass opposition eventually blocked a European market, opening up opportunities for ‘quality’ alternatives, eventually for promoting agroecological systems. Yet policy support measures have been constrained by the dominant techno-market agenda, subsidizing agri-industrial systems for higher yield and global markets. When climate change became a more salient issue, in 2014–2015 GM crops were relaunched for a ‘climate-smart agriculture’ which supposedly would make agri-industrial systems more resilient, while also becoming eligible for carbon credits. Critics turned this techno-market agenda into a political controversy over ‘corporate-smart greenwash’ and thus an opportunity to promote agroecological alternatives as truly climate-resilient for ‘cooling the planet and feeding the people’.
In 2009 the EU’s Renewable Energy Directive set a statutory mandate for renewable energy in transport fuel, citing the need to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This mandate expanded biofuels from edible feedstock, thus provoking controversy over multiple harms. The obligatory market incentivized land-use changes in the global South, in turn restricting resource access for local food production, while disguising various harms through sustainability criteria. As a key rationale, the EU mandate would help stimulate the EU’s Knowledge-Based Bio-Economy (KBBE): technoscientific progress would bring ‘advanced biofuels’ using only non-edible feedstock. Meanwhile this future promise served to perpetuate conventional biofuels. Even before the Directive’s enactment, critics provoked opposition over several issues, for example, the EU’s resource plunder, significant harms beyond the sustainability criteria, lax standards for vehicle emissions, and a delay in electric vehicles as replacements. Despite such opposition, the mandate continued to permit the most harmful feedstock for at least another decade after the 2009 Directive. This outcome resulted from prioritizing an ‘investment climate’ for the KBBE rather than GHG reductions.
The EU’s waste-management policy has been implemented through UK techno-market frameworks shaping waste-energy trajectories. To reduce disposal of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) via landfill, local authorities have outsourced responsibility through competitive bidding for waste-conversion plants, mainly incinerators, which were meant to save GHG emissions. These plants provoked much controversy over local environmental nuisance, as well as waste generation ‘to feed the beast’. As a techno-innovation, Advanced Thermal Treatments (ATTs) were meant to avoid those problems, better recover or reuse waste, and thus save greenhouse gas emissions. Yet the market-based framework perpetuated the previous problems; it also incentivized conversion processes which were closer to mere disposal, mainly as feedstock for distant energy production. Opponents have denounced all incineration for wasting resources, worsening the climate problem, imposing environmental injustices and perpetuating the linear economy. They counterposed a circular economy that that would redesign production systems to reduce or reuse waste and to address fuel poverty. This provides a future vision for local alternatives and alliances promoting them.
In recent years, Green New Deal (GND) agendas have gained significant support for a transition to an environmentally sustainable, low-carbon, socially fairer economy. In the 2019 US and UK versions, endorsed by some public-sector trade unions, the GND sought to achieve a net-zero carbon by 2030, localize production-consumption circuits and reduce resource burdens. Proponents envisaged greater socio-economic equity by mean such as expanding public goods and workers’ cooperatives. When these agendas sought endorsement by major political parties, however, trade unions in fossil fuel sectors sought a commitment to Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) as a condition for supporting a GND, thus perpetuating fossil fuels. Such promises illustrate the general appeal of technofixes to soften societal conflicts around a potentially disruptive decarbonization process. By contrast, going beyond climate fixes, the labour movement has been promoting GND local campaigns for a socially just, low-carbon economy. Its agendas for retrofitting houses illustrate a cooperative eco-localization perspective, in conflict with the neoliberal techno-market fix of competitive tendering that constrains insulation standards and improvements.
Techno-market fixes carry beneficent promises to decarbonize economies in ways avoiding societal disruption and conflict. But the problem runs more deeply: they justify institutional change along neoliberal anti-democratic lines, supposedly in order to realize the techno-optimistic promises. Often a mobilized counter-public has stimulated public controversy and promoted alternative solutions. Exemplifying eco-localization, some local agendas would incur lighter resource burdens, enhance socio-economic equity, involve grassroots innovation, localize production-consumption circuits, assign political responsibility and devise appropriate sociotechnical means. Such transformative mobilizations undermine climate fixes and go beyond them. More effective strategies can emerge from Participatory Action Research, whereby researchers and practitioners jointly define the problems that warrant research. In the case studies here, knowledge exchange with political activists helped to sharpen action-research questions for a systemic perspective on false solutions versus alternatives. As many cases here illustrate, technical designs and standards always facilitate one social order rather than other, thus warranting political struggle. This big picture can help to identify and facilitate an effective social agency for transformative mobilizations, as steps towards system change.
This chapter focuses on agri-environmental projects (those concerned with the environment but carried out in agricultural contexts) that involve controversial issues, such as the introduction and development of genetically modified crops; the potential power of large biotechnology companies; and the increased use of biofuels, water, and intensification of agriculture. It discusses the use and value of mapping techniques in these highly contested environmental research contexts. The processes and mapping techniques were chosen for specific purposes, according to the needs of the different projects, the context and type of participants involved, and their strategic aims. They also represent the development of the authors’ approaches to engaging with people and demonstrate the way that the approach has changed over time as they have sought ways to enable participants to engage in the research process more fully.