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

PhD research project: Exnovating and unlearning capitalism

Exnovating and unlearning capitalism in agri-food systems and organisations: widening sustainability transitions

PhD student: Laura van Oers.

Supervisors: Giuseppe Feola, Ellen Moors, Hens Runhaar.

The socio-technical transition literature assigns a pivotal role to grassroots innovations in transitions towards sustainability. Some of these grassroots innovations propose alternatives to capitalist logics of for example economic growth, profit accumulation and commodification of nature and labour. However, the adoption and diffusion of these grassroots innovations beyond their conception space is difficult as they are likely to encounter resistance from existing regime actors that benefit from ongoing reliance on the prevailing capitalist system. This resistance can be very strong, limiting the possibilities for sustainable alternatives to gather momentum. This thesis therefore assumes processes of deliberate regime unmaking as a pre-condition for innovation. In particular, I aim to understand how the unmaking of capitalist logics enlarges the perspective for sustainability transitions pathways that propose a fundamental change of, rather than incremental adaptation or a new greener chapter within capitalism. Such transitions take shape at different levels, including fundamental changes of institutions and power relations at socio-economic system-level, and of knowledge, values and behaviours at the organisational-level. At both levels, capitalist logics favour particular transition pathways within the prevailing system, constraining the possibilities of realising sustainability.

In this research, unmaking at the system level and organisational level is studied through the concepts of exnovation and unlearning, respectively. The first part of this thesis explores exnovation. The concept of exnovation has recently been introduced to the field of sustainability transitions and thus far focuses on the purposive termination of unsustainable technologies, products or practices in a given sector. Hitherto, the capitalist context in which exnovation takes place is generally taken for granted. This thesis asks whether and how exnovation can be expanded to encompass capitalist institutions and associated power relations that prioritise specific notions of sustainability.

The second part explores unlearning and studies how organisations embedded the capitalist system unlearn capitalist knowledge, values and behaviours. The transitions literature tends to focus on learning and considers unlearning merely a side effect, or a direct consequence of learning. Learning processes are commonly observed in radical niches, while unlearning remains undocumented. This thesis focusses on organisations in grassroots niches and explores processes of unlearning within these organisations. I focus specifically on community-supported agriculture (CSA) organisations in the Netherlands.

The expected contribution of this thesis rests in its widening transition theory beyond the focus on socio-technical change within a given sector, and in the exploration of sustainability transitions that propose and prefigure a fundamental transformation of capitalist logics at both system level and organisational level.


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.

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.