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

PhD research project: Unlearning capitalism in agri-food sustainability transitions

Unlearning capitalism in agri-food sustainability transitions

PhD student: Laura van Oers.

Supervisors: Giuseppe Feola, Ellen Moors, Hens Runhaar.

Capitalist agrifood systems are an important driver of environmental change, ecological disaster and social injustice. A growing body of literature has therefore pointed to the need for sustainability transitions towards post-extractivist, post-growth, post-capitalist and decolonial agrifood systems. These transitions involve processes of unlearning at collective and individual level: to discard and/or relax capitalist practices, and deeply held beliefs and assumptions that dictate how we organise current agrifood systems. This thesis describes and explores i) how capitalist mindsets and routines affect the potential for agrifood systems sustainability transitions and ii) how unlearning of such mindsets and routines unfolds in agri-food initiatives for sustainability transitions. This thesis embraces a qualitative approach and builds on case studies from the Netherlands.
To address the first research aim, this thesis analyses two initatives for agrifood transformation, namely: the phase-out of hen battery cages to foster sustainability in the egg sector; and a participatory guarantee system (PGS) initiative from a consumer buying group to redirect sustainability governance to the local level. Both studies emphasise the need to account for the capitalist political economy in processes of change, and suggest the importance of unlearning neoliberal assumptions, mindsets and subjectivities that justify ongoing (emotional, financial, cultural etc.) attachments to unsustainable and unjust technologies and practices.
Second, this thesis explores the role and relevance of unlearning in learning processes for sustainability transitions. Community-supported agriculture (CSA) initatives, where producers and consumers unite as members of a food community, are increasingly recognised as important spaces to experiment with, and act on post-capitalist behaviours and beliefs. This thesis explored how and to what extent CSAs can be regarded as spaces to learn and unlearn. Specifically, it studies how processes of unlearning unfold when members are confronted with solidarity payment, and may need unlearn ideas about individualism, competitive mindsets, consumption of unnecessary goods, materialism etc. while they embrace collectivity, solidarity and justice as important drivers for agrifood transitions. Finally, this thesis explores how and to what extent unlearning can be facilitated and designed in more formal learning environments. For this purpose, a transdisciplinary project on course design for unlearning in farm succession at vocational education level is initiated and critically reflected upon.

Publications within the PhD project:

van Oers, L., Feola, G., Runhaar, H., Moors, E., 2023. Unlearning in sustainability transitions: Insight from two Dutch community-supported agriculture farmsEnvironmental Innovation and Societal Transitions 46, 100693.

Van Oers, L., Feola, G., Moors, E., Runhaar, H., 2021. The Politics of Deliberate Destabilisation for Sustainability Transitions. Environmental Innovation and Societal Transitions 40, 159-171.


Further publications:    

Guerrero Lara, L., van Oers, L., Smessaert, J., Spanier, J., Raj, G., Feola, G., (in press). Degrowth and Agri-Food Systems: A Research Agenda for the Critical Social SciencesSustainability Science, DOI: 10.1007/s11625-022-01276-y

van Oers, L. 2020. When innovation is not enough. The case for an exnovation
strategy for sustainable food policy
. In: Lanjouw, J. (Ed.) Dino nuggets, pink LEDs, and fed-up farmers. van Gennep Publishing, pp. 115-124.

van Oers, L. 2019. Een duurzaam voedselsysteem vraagt om meer dan innovatie: een pleidooi voor een ‘exnovatiestrategie’ in voedselbeleid. In: Lanjouw, J. (Ed.) Boze boeren, LED-lampen en kipdino’s. Uitgeverij van Gennep, pp. 117-126.