TMG Think Tank for Sustainability
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Transformation: does the term still have value?

TMG think piece series

by Alexander Müller and Jes Weigelt | 2021-11-03

Transformation: does the term still have value?

Transformation is the new buzzword of sustainability debates. It has become so ubiquitous, however, that it risks becoming yet another trite slogan. If transformation means “a thorough or dramatic change” why do so many call for it without acknowledging that it is not an easy goal to achieve?

While we recognise that labels should not be overrated, it is worth reflecting on whether the widespread adoption of the concept of transformation in recent global processes runs the risk of masking the seriousness of the challenges confronting us today. Could the manifold use of the term increase the risk of paying lip service to the structural changes required without confronting the necessary consequences?

The recently concluded UN Food Systems Summit set itself the overarching goal of transforming our failed food systems. Yet it simultaneously precluded references to existing global commitments to achieve the progressive realisation of the right to food. Ongoing negotiations to adopt a post-2020 global biodiversity framework have similarly emphasised the transformative change without systematically analysing why parties failed to achieve the previous Aichi Targets

At the risk of waxing philosophical on policy debates, we would like to argue that it is impossible to achieve true transformations towards sustainability without fundamentally rethinking and changing how we relate with nature. For example, conceptualising nature as Mother Earth leads to a radically different understanding of this relationship. This notion of transformation as changing relations extends to the social and political.

To draw on comparable examples from other spheres of theory, a recent blog by Max Lawson, “Breaking the Class Ceiling,” explores how traditional class analysis can help us understand the deeply worrying trend of growing inequality within countries and globally. Similarly, it is impossible to explain the persistence of wage inequalities and gender-based roles in the workplace without digging into feminist theory to understand how relations between the different sexes are structured.  

These disparate examples do underscore our view that the bulk of transformation narratives will continue to miss the mark because they do not delve into the question of power and how to restructure the relationship between those who have a voice – including for nature – and those who do not.

In October 2021, the Human Rights Council adopted the landmark Resolution 48/13, finally recognising the human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment. This represents a significant milestone towards achieving genuine transformation at different scales. Potential applications are inexhaustible: strengthening the rights of villages threatened by lignite coal mining in Germany; safeguarding indigenous people’s territories around the world; providing green spaces for poor urban residents; or ensuring that communities living on degraded or polluted landscapes are fully integrated in decision making processes and provided with the requisite support to restore such landscapes.

So what is needed to move from words, or even good intentions, to true transformation? In this first e-newsletter, we present a number of collaborative research projects and dialogue processes that have addressed elements of transformation in the aforementioned sense. Together with our partners, the Heinrich Böll Foundation, we are convening the #hungryforchange dialogue series that is exploring various inequalities as a root cause of hunger. how to realign the “power-hunger-poverty” axis that continues to drive global inequality.

In a similar vein, participants at two recent events that we co-organised with the Robert Bosch Stiftung took a deep dive on how to integrate rights within international partnerships that aim to link efforts towards more equitable and sustainable governance of food, land and climate at national and sub-national levels. This blog outlines some of the insights gained from this two-part webinar series.  

Last but not least, together with our partners from the Global Alliance for the Future of Food, we have just published the report, True Value: The Positive Impacts of Food System Transformation, which documents six “Beacons of Hope” from around the world. These case studies demonstrate that it is possible to go beyond business as usual by according equal weight to all four “capitals” – natural, human, social, and produced. Such "True Cost Accounting" approaches thereby offer concrete entry points for avoiding negative social and environmental impacts in the name of producing more food, or achieving more “economic development.”

We continue this exploration of what it means to transform our food systems through a related research project with WWF International. Please stay tuned for updates.

We hope you will enjoy reading this inaugural e-newsletter. We look forward to your thoughts on some of the issues highlighted.

Alexander and Jes

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