Climate Change and Path Dependency – by Michael R. Redclift

wind farm at sunset with human in sea in foreground

photo credit: Bev Goodwin via Flickr cc

In the introduction to the ‘Handbook On Climate Change And Human Security’, the Editors review the political and economic context of the ‘carbon age’, inferring that market-based and fossil fuel-centred socio-economic systems – by triggering global climate change – are seriously threatening our planet, together with other forms of resource degradation. At the same time human societies and their environments are bound together in sets of complex relationships in which carbon use and dependence form a central dimension. In the following article, Michael Redclift proposes that the concept of human security is the key entry-point for disentangling the entrenched and multi-layered connections between the carbon age and natural and socio-economic systems, and the ambivalent relationship with climate change.

There are alternatives to mainstream policies which emphasise technical or consumerist solutions to underlying structural problems in the global economy and vulnerability to unpredictable change. Framing climate change policy within the context of the understood ‘blind’ commitments of everyday life has the potential to recognise that behavioural practices are the outcome, as well as the cause, of problems in environmental governance. It helps us to address how societies might meet ‘needs’ as well as ‘wants’.  What is required is a critical stance on the ‘path dependency’ that has characterised hydrocarbon societies. Rather than speak loftily of the need to ‘transform’ human behaviour, we could make a start by analysing how current behaviour is tied into patterns and cycles of carbon dependence. There are gains to be made in exploring why and how social and economic structures are unsustainable, and the real costs of naturalising social practices which carry important environmental consequences.

The ‘post-carbon’ dependent world will be one of increasingly mobile materialities, in which sustainability needs to be viewed within an increasingly global context. If societies are to manage the transition out of carbon dependence then the process of ‘de-materialization’ will have to be examined carefully from within the social sciences. We will need to know whether waste matter is being reduced, and ‘throughput’ made more efficient – or whether waste is simply being dispersed to new spatial locations. We will need to grapple with scale, as well as materiality, with spatial relations as well as social relations.

The debate about the shift from carbon dependence has not benefited from much thoughtful social science analysis until very recently. The difficulty in separating material evidence for climate change from its discussion has not only spawned ‘climate deniers’ on the one side, but a fear of democratic accountability and engagement on the other. Perhaps, in the ‘post-political’ world governance needs to be re-thought, to take account of new forms of power, and the political economy of the withdrawal from carbon dependence needs to be analyzed, rather than evangelized.  The weakness of environmental governance needs to receive closer sociological attention.

‘post-carbon’ social science

The prospects for the ‘post carbon’ social sciences are encouraging. The emergence of Green technology as a positional good, a good to which there is differential access, is only one of several indications that climate policy is insufficiently grounded in our knowledge of social structures. The existence of embodied carbon, and its acknowledgement in the discussions (but not the policies) surrounding global trade agreements is another. Climate policy, and the piecemeal attempt to provide incentives for individuals to reduce their own carbon dependency, is rarely linked to wider global experience outside the OECD countries. In what ways does it contribute to the transfer of much needed cleaner technology to the global South? What are the international and distributive consequences within the global South of our attempts at limited decarbonisation in the North?

We might, indeed, dig deeper still. What other forms of human agency, other than those of the ‘informed’ consumer, have been left out of the equation? What are the wider social and cultural implications of placing so much emphasis on trading in a ‘bad’ (pollution) rather than a ‘good’ (such as cleaner technology)?  This is an area in which social learning can provide real insights. What forms of human agency, innovation and collective action lies outside the compass of ‘entrepreneurship’, but help distil community support and engage environmental citizens? Climate scientists are seen as the ‘guardians of the dogma’ on climate change, but there is evidence of low levels of public trust in science, including climate science. What is required, then, to mobilise areas in which there are high levels of public mistrust, such as climate change, while other institutions and practices command more widespread public support, such as community-based credit unions and some of the financial mutuals? New forms of Web communication and networking suggest widespread support for organisations which are embedded locally in communities and which acknowledge, rather than ignore, social and economic inequalities. As in previous historical periods, addressing structural inequalities, international as well as national, might become the engine of new transitions, creating new social solidarities, and means of liberation, from the path dependency associated with our heavy reliance on hydrocarbons.

In recent work I have argued that a meaningful transition to a low-carbon economy is impossible as long as we rely on models of market choice and normative science policy that leave little room for collective and group behaviour and ignore the underlying social commitments that govern our everyday lives.  The dual crises of global financial debt and climate change are reaching a ‘tipping point’ beyond which it will be difficult to move.

Already there is evidence that some behavioural responses to the environmental and financial crisis are taking forms that are not easily accommodated to the prevailing approaches to environmental policy favoured by most governments. They lie in challenges to conventional food systems, alternative recycling and re-use activities, small scale attempts to provide sustainable renewable energy at the level of communities as well as individual households, and the brave efforts of enthusiasts to hold back ecological damage. Much of this activity is ‘informal’ in a new sense, too:  it is often funded within the ‘formal’ market economy but depends heavily on Web-based organisation and group and community loyalties without formal institutional ties. These partial, but evolving, challenges to conventional thinking and behaviour are often only weakly connected to each other, since they cover a number of apparently isolated social fields. What they do reveal are fissures in the fabric of governance and the management of nature, and a need felt by some third sector organisations to transcend anxiety over the environment. They reveal ways in which conventional path dependency is shifting, allowing new kinds of social organisation and governance to emerge, often in unexpected places, building new forms of social and ecological resilience. Can alliances be built from these small innovative ‘alternatives’? Can a ‘brighter narrative’ be developed for the future?

In the recent past, extreme traumas such as those experienced during and after World War II have transformed many of the taken-for-granted assumptions that characterise modern industrial societies. Major shifts in behaviour, such as rationing, women’s employment and dramatic changes in resource and energy use, have come about as path dependency has been transformed by events on the world stage. Societies and economies have been mobilised for different purposes. Although historically conjunctural, such experiences might help inform us today.  The challenges of the ‘new’ conflicts associated with climate change today are much greater of course, and carry fewer political imperatives. The ‘tipping point’ is no longer the prospect of military occupation by an enemy but ‘retreat’ in the face of a self-induced problem: anthropogenic climate change.  In exploring the possibilities of transition to a post-carbon future we might begin by examining the ‘pieces’ – fragmented, virtual and local – with which such a narrative might be constructed. They need to be constructed from people’s lives and the resilience of their households and communities, rather than simply from their performance in consumer markets that are often transitory and unstable. A positive reading of human security in the face of climate change may elude this generation, but we need to examine solidarities and social commitments in the next generation, drawing on the perspectives of sociology and anthropology, perspectives which have offered criticism of path dependency, and might offer a more promising account of oppositional political and social positions.

Michael Redclift is Emeritus Professor of International Environmental Policy in the Department of Geography, at King’s College, University of London. He has been at King’s since 1999. His research interests include sustainable development, global environmental change, environmental security and the modern food system. Between 1973 and 1997 he was at Imperial College at Wye, ultimately as Professor of Environmental Sociology. In 1987 his groundbreaking book Sustainable Development: exploring the contradictions was published by Routledge. He was the first Director of the Global Environmental Change programme of the ESRC (the largest research program in the United Kingdom at the time) between 1990 and 1995, and has coordinated research grants for the European Commission (FP IV and V), and for the TERM programme of the European Science Foundation. He has also held grants from the ESRC/AHRC (2003-2005) and, between 2007 and 2010 undertook research for a study (with Mark Pelling and David Manuel) of climate change, coastal urbanisation and human security in the Mexican Caribbean funded by the ESRC. In 2006 he was the first recipient of the ‘Frederick Buttel Award’, from the International Sociological Association (RC 24) for his ‘outstanding contribution to Environmental Sociology’. He has evaluated research programmes for the Norwegian Research Council, the UK RCs and for research communities in the Netherlands (NRP, SENSE), the European Commission (SMILE) and UK Government (DEFRA). He was a National Trustee of Friends of the Earth UK (2008-2010).

Recent (post 2004) books include:  Editor, Sustainability: Critical Concepts, (four volumes) Routledge 2005; Chewing Gum: the fortunes of taste, (2004, Taylor and Francis, New York), Frontiers: histories of civil societies and nature (MIT Press 2006); (with Graham Woodgate ) The International handbook of Environmental Sociology, Edward Elgar 2010, and (with Michael Goodman and David Goodman) eds. Consuming Space: placing consumption in perspective, (Ashgate 2010). Climate Change and Human Security, for which he is the principal author was published by Edward Elgar in July 2011, and  (with David Manuel Navarrete and Mark Pelling) Climate Change and the Crisis of Capitalism (Routledge 2012). Michael is currently working on austerity and sufficiency in relation to past and future economic and environmental crises.

The Handbook on Climate Change and Human Security, edited by Michael R. Redclift and Marco Grasso, has recently been published.

Also available as an eBook for subscribing libraries on elgaronline




, , , , , , , ,


Subscribe to our RSS feed and social profiles to receive updates.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: