Abstract

Over the last two decades researchers have come to understand much about the global challenges confronting human society (e.g. climate change; biodiversity loss; water, energy and food insecurity; poverty and widening social inequality). However, the extent to which research and policy efforts are succeeding in steering human societies towards more sustainable and just futures is unclear. Attention is increasingly turning towards better understanding how to navigate processes of social and institutional transformation to bring about more desirable trajectories of change in various sectors of human society. A major knowledge gap concerns understanding how transformations towards sustainability are conceptualised, understood and analysed. Limited existing scholarship on this topic is fragmented, sometimes overly deterministic, and weak in its capacity to critically analyse transformation processes which are inherently political and contested. This paper aims to advance understanding of transformations towards sustainability, recognising it as both a normative and an analytical concept.

We firstly review existing concepts of transformation in global environmental change literature, and the role of governance in relation to it. We then propose a framework for understanding and critically analysing transformations towards sustainability based on the existing ‘Earth System Governance’ framework (Biermann et al., 2009). We then outline a research agenda, and argue that transdisciplinary research approaches and a key role for early career researchers are vital for pursuing this agenda. Finally, we argue that critical reflexivity among global environmental change scholars, both individually and collectively, will be important for developing innovative research on transformations towards sustainability to meaningfully contribute to policy and action over time.

This paper arose from initial discussions in a workshop for early career researchers held at the 2014 Earth System Governance conference in Norwich, UK. A related article drawing on this working paper has been published in Environmental Innovations and Societal Transitions.

The Working Paper is available here (pdf).

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