Overline: Transformation
Headline: Goals Alone Will Not Suffice: Negotiating Pathways Towards Sustainability

Not abstract goals but the paths we take towards their implementation will determine whether we are able to forge a sustainable society in this century. Policymakers will need to negotiate with key societal actors on the concrete steps if this transformation is to succeed. Political institutions must embrace public participation as a means to develop actionable solutions in cooperation with citizens, argue RIFS researchers Jörg Radtke and Ortwin Renn in the new anthology "Umkämpfte Zukunft. Zum Verhältnis von Nachhaltigkeit, Demokratie und Konflikt“.

The regional conference of the Citizens' Assembly for Democracy in Munich: Participation processes are increasingly playing a more prominent role
The regional conference of the Citizens' Assembly for Democracy in Munich: Participation processes are increasingly playing a more prominent role. Mehr Demokratie e.V./ CC BY-SA 2.0

The duo offer a wide-ranging and critical overview of the current state and future outlook for sustainability policy. They first identify three interconnected challenges for the transformation towards sustainability: problems relating to structural and material adaptation, the need for greater citizen participation within tight timeframes, and a lack of consensus on the urgency of fundamental change. They then examine sustainability in its societal context, using four analytical categories.

The most common sustainability narratives, they argue, have become polarized between two extremes:

  • One narrative prioritises behavioural change, such as banning domestic flights, compulsory recycling schemes, and various programmes to promote the sustainable use of goods.
  • According to the other narrative, technological innovations – from smart technologies to climate engineering – are the right way to mitigate climate change.

"Competing narratives are not harmful per se, but they can have a paralyzing effect if they convey disagreement or a heightened degree of uncertainty (“The facts are yet to be established”)," Renn and Radtke write. Actors in the energy transition have not done enough to establish a shared narrative that centres on climate protection.

Controversy also surrounds the question of which political instruments are best suited to advancing the necessary transformations. Financial aspects tend to play a central role in this debate. But the far-reaching transformations that the energy transition will entail call for public buy-in on a scale that neither markets nor top-down policies can deliver, the researchers argue. Instead, it must "grow from within social discourse." The true extent of the damage caused by climate change impacts is not yet sufficiently understood in society, politics or the private sector.

According to Radtke and Renn, intensive cooperation with central actors and innovative forms of participation such as citizens' assembles have become increasingly important in recent years. However, in the public mind these participation processes are often viewed as an “unconducted orchestra”. And yet, a more concerted approach is not a realistic option due to the sheer complexity of the transformation towards sustainability. It is possible, however, to use negotiation processes, round tables and citizens' assemblies to forge connections, identify overlaps, develop recommendations and initiate processes of mediation and standardization.

For this to happen, policymakers and stakeholders would need to focus more on the process dimension – in other words, the negotiation of measures. Ultimately, it is not abstract goals but the paths that we choose to pursue them that will determine the success and define the shape of a sustainable society in this century.

Radtke, J., Renn, O.: Quo Vadis Deutschland? Stand und Perspektiven der Nachhaltigkeitspolitik. In: J. Ziller. E. Drewing und J. Janik (Eds.): Umkämpfte Zukunft. Zum Verhältnis von Nachhaltigkeit, Demokratie und Konflikt. Bielefeld (Transkript 2022), pp. 33-62