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O.De Schutter, The political manifesto

Olivier De Schutter. On transitions and resources : the political project for Europe.

Part 2. The political manifesto – paving the road.

The EU’s Fifth Project : ”Transitional Governance in the Service of Sustainable Societies [1].

The EU5P baseline is that green growth is far from being the solution. And as such does not seem to live up with the objective of combating social exclusion by promoting research and innovation to modernizing social protection and reforming healthcare systems. It is about discussing how the EU could develop transitional governance tools. It is about collective learning and democratic experimentation.
The paper is constructed on 3 layers :

1- On temporalities for action to reframe EU present time inconsistencies or contradictions.
The short term deals with the financial and economic crisis, seeing austerity as the problem rather than the solution, the whole driven by technocratic considerations and the misshapen political architecture of the Treaty of Maastricht.

The mid-term poses the emergence of considerable social risks (such as skill depletion in aging societies) and the necessity to adapt the European Social States to the new landscape. For example, the critical analysis of the “Social Investment Package 2013” stresses the limits of conditionality and contractualisation of unemployment in the provision of previously granted benefits. And the limits in how it is meant to improve the building of the human capital through social protection and social inclusion. Of note, the appeal signed by 590 lawyers in 2013 calling Brussels to respect and promote fundamental social rights in the frame of political measures aimed at mitigating the EU crisis. [2]

The long term focuses on the building of low-carbon and resource-efficient societies and considers the limits to how much growth can be decoupled from resource use.

2- The ingredients and tools of change Olivier De Schutter is putting forward are paying much attention to the role of indicators, equality, and social innovations.

3- Social innovations take the lion’s share in this work with four well documented propositions :

  • (i) new economic models based on the economics of sharing,
  • (ii) transforming how public administration, market actors, and the 3rd sector understand their relationship to the communities in which they operate,
  • (iii) address entropic and anthropogenic threats by transformative social relations, and
  • (iv) contribute to a new form of participatory democracy.

What makes Olivier De Schutter’s paper so sharp is that it is a political program grounded in a hypothesis, the landmark of a science-based approach to the transition process. Note the copious list of references. The hypothesis : the transition towards sustainable societies will require the introduction of new forms of governance, encouraging social innovations and participatory democracy at all levels, combined with improved multi-level coordination to facilitate local experimentation. But also the need to connect experimentation, the backbone of a democratic experimentalism. We are offered a frame of reframing, so to speak, that has nothing to do with the usual political tinkering that seemed to be so deeply rooted in our societal culture as if there was no alternative. The alternative is transparency and public good-driven decision-making by multi-actors and evidence-based practices.

What is the essence and the matrix of this cultural revolution ? My guess is that it is about a vision on resource-centred transitions. With human resources at the forefront.

The European Commission has acknowledged in 2011 experiencing the dilemma of how to deal with increasing demand and supply of renewable resources and accelerating alteration to life-supporting systems over time. These are problems of equally accessing available resources and over-consumption life habits.

The EU establishment obviously knows that a relative decoupling (i.e. a kind of weak sustainability, based on increasing the resource efficiency / productivity) between growth and resources use is bad for the current economy, reason for which there are no strong enough signals and incentives discouraging consumer behavior that is wasteful or irresponsible. Strong sustainability is needed, which means changing lifestyles and implicitly social norms. Such a cultural shift has three facets :

  • Our conditioned perception and relationship to resources (the haves and property rights, the desired but illusory access to everything for everybody, any time, and everywhere) ;
  • The relatively sudden transformation of citizens into consumers, highlighting how we think about freedom, rights, and duties ;
  • The belief that more growth, implying eve greater pressure on resources, can still constitute the answer to unemployment in the face of the ecological limits we face.

In all cases, societies built on socio-ecosystemic debt and large-scale unemployment are of serious concern in working out the real-life trajectories of societal and ecological transitions. To “consumer activism” we might prefer the disappearance of the word « consumer » from the semantic landscape.

This gets us to another, yet connected critical issue : neo-mercantilism policies and artificially supported, unsustainable competitive economies. Driven by what ? By debt, generated by inequities (consider systemic social, fiscal etc dumping) and power asymmetries affecting people and ecosystems.

So what is the new role of the EU Olivier De Schutter sees as necessary in achieving socio-ecosystemic resilience ? The route takes us to the emergence of new forms of decision-making in the EU thriving on a combination of experimentation at local level (democratic experimentalism), empowerment, diversity, and self-determination and subsidiarity. How ? By exploring a highly renewable and non-exhaustible immaterial resource : collective learning.
This reminds us of Michel Serres : “policy makers ought not tell what the world must be like, but merely providing the means to build it [3]
The transition routes are therefore not going to be highways. Not even paved roads. Make yourself comfortable with “slow transitions”, so to speak.

Ioan Negrutiu - Part 2 - November 2014

Go back to Part 1

Publié ou mis à jour le 12 novembre 2014


[2European Trade Union Institute, 2013 ;

[3Serres M, Temps des crises, 2009, Le pommier.