UNMAKING: a research programme on the disruption of capitalism in societal transformation to sustainability


Laura van Oers and Giuseppe Feola present at the 14th International Sustainability Transitions Conference in Utrecht

Laura van Oers and Giuseppe Feola present at the 14th International Sustainability Transitions Conference in Utrecht.

Laura van Oers: Community-supported agriculture as spaces to unlearn capitalism? Evidence from two Dutch cases. The importance of double-loop learning and associated unlearning for sustainability transitions is increasingly recognised (van Mierlo and Beers 2020; van Poeck and Östman 2021; Vetter 2020). For example, van Mierlo and Beers (2020:266) proposed to ‘regard learning as a process that coincides with […] unlearning, which is most relevant in the transition process of actors changing their everyday practices’. However, whereas insightful theorisations of learning processes have been proposed in the transition scholarship, unlearning itself remains a fuzzy concept and a neglected dimension of double-loop learning. Learning in sustainability transitions remain predominantly associated with the emergence of novelty and the acquisition of new knowledge and skills. This is problematic because specific motivations (e.g. ethical and, broadly speaking, ‘political’) and actions associated with unlearning, such as the deliberate stoppage from retrieval and reproduction of knowledge, routines and mental models in discourses and practice, are neglected. Thus, a more dialectic perspective on learning is needed to recognize sustainability transitions as entangled processes of learning and unlearning. Untapped opportunities remain for transition scholars to better articulate and conceptualise unlearning and its relevance to sustainability transitions. This paper combines theorisations of unlearning in organisation, business and management theory (‘organisational unlearning’ e.g. Fiol and O’connor 2007) with postcolonial and feminist approaches to teaching and education (‘pedagogical unlearning’ e.g. Spivak 1996) to provide a richer understanding of unlearning in sustainability transitions. Empirical evidence was obtained through qualitative documentation of the conversion to solidarity payment in two Dutch community-supported agriculture (CSA) farms. CSA iniatives are considered important settings for learning as they offer space to explore ‘real-world’ sustainability problems and test grassroots socio-technical solutions (Kerton and Sinclair 2010). Solidarity payment requires members of the CSA farm to self-decide how much they want, or are able to contribute for their share of the harvest, thereby rethinking market-based payment schemes that propose a single and pre-set price for a product or service. Solidarity payment is predicated on the assumption that tailored membership fees improve the inclusivity of the farm beyond affluent members while simultaneously providing farmers with fair wages (Forbes and Harmon 2008; Paul 2019). The notion of solidarity also implies altered relations between consumers and producers, who do not collaborate at a distance but as members of the same community who redistribute risk and rewards (Brunori et al. 2010). Our results indicate the generative function of unlearning during processes of change as well as the strategic and pedagogical relevance of unlearning for this specific case. Increased awareness of the shortcomings of old payment schemes at the farm encouraged members to reconsider their place in community farming. As they let go of accustomed ideas (‘unlearning’) on producer-consumer relations —such as predefined and uniform prices per share, and began to interrogate their prior thinking regarding the roles and responsibilities of different actors at the farm, the way was paved for embracing solidarity payment (‘learning’). Download the full paper here.


Giuseppe Feola: Sustainability transitions in or beyond capitalism? A reflection on rural and urban alternative economies. This talk discusses the uneasy relation between conceptualization of sustainability transitions and post-growth critiques of capitalism. It reflects specifically on the dominant urban focus of sustainability transition research, and propose that a post-growth approach to urban sustainability would benefit from extending its frame beyond urban contexts and connecting to the rural sphere.


Giuseppe Feola: Schismogenesis and prefiguration in grassroots innovation movements. Accounts of the transformative role of anti-systemic or postcapitalist grassroots innovation movements (Smith et al., 2014) tend to emphasize these movement’s ability to prefigure alternatives – ‘the new in the shell of the old’ – and to unite egalitarian means and ends (Monticelli, 2022). Literature on prefiguration, social innovation and grassroots innovation therefore reproduces an innovation and additive bias (Davidson, 2017) and follows an affirmationist approach (Dekeyser and Jellis, 2021) which foregrounds the ‘construction’ of novel configurations in sustainability transitions, and thereby essentially assumes automatic displacement of extant sociotechnical, socioeconomic and socioecological configurations as a consequence of the addition of socially, technically, or culturally innovative ‘solutions’. While these accounts may include reference to processes of ‘deconstruction’ or ‘unmaking’ (Feola, 2019; Feola et al., 2021), such as resistance, deliberate decline, refusal and discontinuation, they fall short in rendering their potential and function in at least three ways: these accounts (i) propose vague characterization of deconstruction, (ii) lack recognition of generative function of deconstruction, and/or (iii) lack of articulation of construction and deconstruction. In this paper I develop an account of grassroots innovation movements as processes of conscious self-determination by differentiation. I do so by building on, and revisiting the notion of schismogenesis, which was originally developed by anthropologist and system scientist Gregory Bateson (1987) and more recently employed by anthropologists David Graeber and Wengrow in their explanation of the formation of autonomous, egalitarian societies of the past (Graeber, 2013; Graeber and Wengrow, 2018; Wengrow and Graeber, 2018). The notion of schismogenesis identifies cultural differentiation – as a self-conscious political project – as the social force for the genesis of new sociotechnical, socioeconomic and socioecological forms. In other words, grassroots innovation movements, as instances of emerging postcapitalist social formations, generate social change not only through their ability to socially innovate, construct and prefigure alternatives, but through deconstruction, dynamic confrontation with, and refusal of capitalism. Building on a diverse literature such as that on grassroots innovation movements, prefiguration, radical and autonomous geographies, social movements, as well as on the notion of schismogenesis, this paper develops a typology of mechanisms through which processes of unmaking of extant configurations are generative of alternatives. Thus, the paper sheds new light on prefiguration in grassroots innovation movements by reading prefiguration and deconstruction as joint processes that are generative of alternatives.