The Problem With Transformative Change

A desire for radical transformation is deeply embedded environmental thought. But it serves no one.

The Problem With Transformative Change
Rhys Asplundh

“Transformative change” is poised to become this decade’s “sustainability.” According to Google Ngram, the term has slowly grown in usage since about 1980, taking off and being more often applied to environmental issues only since 2010. Bill McKibben warned in Rolling Stone in 2012 that the “transformative change” necessary to safeguard the climate would require making fossil fuel companies “Public Enemy Number One.” And the term now shows up in Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports.

Mentions of transformative change have followed the same upward trend in the scientific literature. A Web of Science search finds that the number of papers mentioning transformative change has roughly doubled every three years since 2001, culminating in 95 articles in 2022 alone, with climate change, sustainability and forestry being the leading topics in those articles.

Uses of transformative change in the environmental science literature reflect the phrase’s origin as a social justice term of art, drawing upon the same narrative for describing problems and their solutions. In this telling, the urgency of planetary crises and the ostensible paucity of progress requires the simultaneous targeting of multiple social systems for drastic, far-reaching transformation. A 2019 article in the journal Science justifies the need for transformative change in light of the “unparalleled appropriation of nature…causing the fabric of life on which humanity depends to fray and unravel.” The called-for solutions are multifaceted, requiring not only that people “embrace diverse visions of a good life” and societies “reduce inequalities” but also that consumption is reduced and environmental technology promoted. Solving the planet’s woes means “a fundamental, systemwide reorganization across technological, economic, and social factors, making sustainability the norm rather than altruistic exception.”

It is hard to quarrel with seeing the resolution of environmental problems as complex and multidimensional. But, far from breaking environmental transformation into more comprehensible or manageable pieces, the framing of transformative change likens solving environmental problems to a hopelessly Herculean task. The term divides us, misleads us about the nature of political change, and ultimately stands in the way of environmental progress.

The consequences of comprehensiveness

Although it is correct to see the answers to chronic, global environmental problems as multidimensional, transformative change is less about seeing solutions as multifaceted and more about them needing to be comprehensive. While that might seem to be a trivial semantic distinction, the consequences are anything but. Seeing a problem as multidimensional suggests that we might pursue a variety of alternative strategies. A decreasing supply of fresh water in a warming West might be addressed by some combination of demand reduction incentives, desalination, water recycling, retirement of agricultural land, etc. On the other hand, comprehensiveness portrays an already thorny problem as insoluble until still other wickedly complex social issues are simultaneously rectified.

Transformative change binds progress in climate change or biodiversity to broad sweeping alterations of societies and economies in line with the longstanding desiderata of left-wing environmental activists. The recent values assessment of the Intergovernmental Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services calls for a decentering of market values. On its face, that call is obvious and trivial. Any kind of environmental protection implies some degree of valuing nature for aesthetic, cultural, or other reasons. But the report is as much about why people might value protecting nature as urging policy makers to mobilize “broad values that are consistent with living in harmony with nature” to achieve a “fundamental, systemwide reorganization” of society, including people’s goals and values. Solving the claimed crisis in biodiversity requires reversing economic inequality as well as fostering and tying national policy to alternative, ecocentric and non-economic understandings of well-being, such as via “degrowth.” Transformative change is invariably a term to make broad and radical alterations to policy, societies, and people’s personal lives seem both urgent and unavoidable.

Comprehensiveness has also become the focal point of environmental social movements. Greta Thunberg’s call for “systemwide transformation” – including not just overthrowing capitalism but also ending racism – is reflected in citizens movements, like Fridays for Future and Extinction Rebellion. They were originally envisioned as big tent movements. In the words of one German participant that I talked to, “even Grandma should be able to show up and pick up a sign.” But in response to criticism, and tracking the evolution of previous movements, like Occupy Wall Street, advocating for positive policy movement on climate change became viewed as inseparable from gender pronouns, veganism, police brutality, colonialism, and other hot-button issues. Newcomers weren’t just asked to agitate for decarbonization but also demonstrate their fealty to a whole catalog of political demands.

German writer and sociologist Sven Hillenkamp argues that this shift to environmental comprehensiveness will lead to the failure of these movements. Potential members may be made to feel like outsiders by the demand to repent, to see their cis-white-colonial privilege as responsible for climate change. Activists act less like the people’s advocates and more like arrogant schoolmarms, who see their role as educating other citizens regarding how they ought to speak and identify and what they should eat, read, and watch. Fridays for Future in Hanover, Germany, disinvited a musician for the sin of being white and sporting dreadlocks. Core environmental messages are muddled in polarizing calls for complete social, economic, and political upheaval. The result, according to Hillenkamp, is a situation where many citizens end up being less afraid of climate change than of the self-appointed saviors of the planet.

Should we want revolution?

But transformative change isn’t just self-stultifying political rhetoric, it is also bad policy. Part of the issue is that we have few positive examples of it. A keynote speaker at last year’s World Biodiversity Forum spent 45 minutes chiding scientists for not doing more to advance transformative change, for failing to challenge vested interests and power to put justice and equity at the forefront of their efforts. But when pressed in the Q&A, they acknowledged that transformative change, or revolution, is often violent and unproductive.

Revolutionary politics tend to get nasty because of the high stakes of social upheaval. The actual or potential costs of change tend to fanaticize the people involved, who take up hardened and polarized positions. Polarization increased during the pandemic for the simple reason that people’s lives were upended. Job losses, school closures, social distancing from loved ones, and submitting to frequent testing, mask mandates, or even obligatory vaccination were radical changes to people’s everyday lives, while advocates maintained that all these changes were undeniably necessary to avert certain catastrophe. Especially given the failure of governments and public health officials to maintain public trust, it is no surprise the opposition was fierce, sometimes violent.

The high stakes and urgency of environmental problems seem to demand similarly radical, all-encompassing action. Yet most of our recent environmental policy successes, like the Inflation Reduction Act, have instead been arguably less-than-totally coherent and fairly mundane compromises. Permitting reform may seem boring and hardly revolutionary, but its impact on renewable energy could be immense. But like most policies, it requires that we accept the reality of having to make uncomfortable tradeoffs, namely reducing carbon emissions at the cost of allowing development in desert and offshore habitats. In contrast to visions of transformative change, actual progress typically entails accepting non-ideal situations in the short term.

Transformative change is additionally problematic for the simple fact that we have little concrete experience with the proposed post-revolutionary world, much less with the path to getting there. In places where radical populists have succeeded in gaining power, their well-meaning efforts to reform the economy have too often resulted in a worsening of poverty. Achieving a more just and equal society is usually more difficult than developing a comprehensive vision of one. Realizing a world that “lives in harmony” with nature will likely be no different.

What calls for transformative change forget is that reality is immensely complex and no scientific analysis or policy map can be complete enough to guide us. Our ability to understand and enact change is nowhere near as comprehensive as our capacity to dream up radically transformed worlds. In a now classic paper, political scientist Charles Lindblom argued that the best we can hope for is “muddling through,” to enact successive, limited policy trials that enable us to actually understand the real-life impacts of political change.

Bringing others with us

Accepting the realities of incremental political change requires considerable humility. We may find out that our most desired political pathways are infeasible or bring undesirable unintended consequences. One example is that federal laws requiring environmental impact statements actually keep us using dirtier energy sources. Incremental change is especially discomforting for many environmentalists, for we may muddle toward an end state that is better but nonetheless fails to be comprehensive enough. Technological solutions irk advocates of degrowth, because they suggest that a more stable climate might be possible without the radical social changes the latter desire. That we might reduce environmental harm without fully rejecting a consumerist lifestyle, strikes them as a missed opportunity. Likewise, achieving some of our carbon goals without rectifying the ill effects of colonialism, racism, etc., can feel like failure.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t strive to make progress against environmental problems through a variety of strategies, including by working to reduce inequities. But packaging diverse, often disparate, means and ends into comprehensive plans for systemwide upheaval is not how social transformation actually happens. It occurs by getting others to see that change is beneficial and to trust those who advocate for it.

I am personally an advocate of a form of degrowth. Denser cities provide people with higher standards of mobility with a lower material footprint and less autocentric consumerism. But other people don’t necessarily share my vision of the life well lived. And, in any case, getting there means disrupting a whole lot of urban status quo, requiring potentially uncomfortable changes from developers, city planners, and car drivers. I could long for the day when citizens recognize that mass transit is better for the planet and themselves. But, realistically speaking, my sermons about the joys of urbanism probably come off as the overwrought belittling of American car culture by a professional-managerial class blowhard. And turning my vision of a mostly car-free country into a seemingly unavoidable requirement to cope with climate change would be a surefire way to get Americans to distrust it. The ostensibly disproportionate reaction to “15 minute cities” is just a taste of what could come next.

No assembling of scientific facts, predictions, and models will make the need for transformative change into an undeniable truth. Rather, alterations to the status quo are invariably a matter of good old-fashioned politics, namely coalition building. And the best way to bring more skeptical citizens on board is for them to have actual experience with the changes being proposed.

A recent paper in the journal Transport Policy found that previously unwelcome transportation policies, like congestion pricing and road-use fees, often become more popular after they are implemented. Citizens end up appreciating reduced traffic and more available parking more than they think they will. The take-home lesson is not that bureaucrats and politicians shouldn’t listen to public opposition. Rather, such outcomes show us that policy trials don’t just help us know if changing laws and regulations is effective but could also help overcome citizens’ wariness of change. Rather than emphasize the radical nature of a new policy, one lowers the stakes by making it reversible and less far-reaching. Most important, the public has a chance to have a taste of what change will be like, which is really the only way to potentially convert them into constituents for future changes.

But yearning for comprehensiveness, for radical transformation, is deeply embedded environmental thought. Aldo Leopold once wrote, “Nothing can be done without creating a new kind of people.”

The belief that environmental salvation arrives only through radical transformation undermines the whole project. By making membership more exclusive than it needs to be, by blowing up policy proposals to daunting scales and levels of complexity, and by failing to think about how to cultivate trust in political change, insisting on the necessity of rapid transformative change only ensures that environmentalism makes little headway and that relatively few people consider themselves environmentalists. Perhaps we might one day realize Leopold’s “new kind of people” within dramatically transformed societies, but we’ll only get there by taking small steps, not giant leaps.