What will these twenties be: roaring, transformative, just?
We asked DRIFTers Gijs Diercks, Derk Loorbach and Sophie Buchel what kind of 2020s they see ahead of us. They each give a perspective on change, crises, and possibilities, loosely based on three future paths: a roaring twenties, a transition timeframe, and a decade of justice.
1. Gijs Diercks – A (not-so-)roaring twenties
As I continue to work from home, with many countries globally having some kind of lockdown in place, I yearn for a positive perspective. Some are finding it in the anticipation of a new ‘roaring twenties’, with a particular focus on (and a hunger for) letting the good times roll, on hedonism reminiscent of the 1920s.
To me, the idea that we will be soon partying like its 1923 seems attractive, but also a bit naïve. Wouter van Noort had a great piece in the Dutch newspaper NRC in response to Nicholas Christakis’s predictions in Apollo’s Arrow, putting these roaring twenties in a slightly broader perspective:
“In large European cities there were a legendary number of parties full of (illegal) alcohol and drugs, sexual experimentation, and gender (role) fluidity. But they were also years in which many vulnerabilities came to light: social faultlines, the failure of social systems. […] Seen from this perspective, the question is not whether a major post-corona party will soon start, but who is allowed in.”
Add to that the social vulnerability that arises from various sustainability crises, and we are entering an uncertain period. Yes, we might be dancing soon, but it will be on top of a volcano.
At the same time, I’m feeling positive. Last year has been a collective exercise in the power of imagination for radical change. Systemic weaknesses of our societies have been laid bare for all of us to see, but we’ve also seen a lot of resilience and responsiveness to act when needed. And pioneers who have endlessly worked on making transitions happen will feel strengthened that the radical changes they envision are both necessary and possible.
2. Derk Loorbach – The transition years
As I’m entering the third decade of my career on transitions, much has changed, but more has stayed the same.
Just before Christmas in 2000, I met Jan Rotmans and colleagues, and was hired as junior researcher to work on a fresh idea called ‘transition management’. Since then, I’ve continued to live in an unsustainable society pushing planetary boundaries and increasing socio-economic inequalities. This is expected, from a transition perspective: we keep developing ‘path-dependently’ until destabilisation and disruptions create chaos and turbulence leading to uncontrollable systemic change.
The original idea of transition management 1.0 then was to create space (transition arenas and experiments) to explore alternative futures anticipating such disruption. To develop transformative stories, visions and networks. It became part of a new field of sustainability transitions research and together with various PHDs we developed our transition toolbox.
Fast-forward ten years to the 2010s: We’re in the aftermath of the global financial crisis, and the Netherlands is entering the third millennium’s second decade, with PM Rutte at the helm. We’re seeing sweeping social and cultural budget cuts, and the abolishment of VROM (the ministry for housing, spatial planning and the environment).
DRIFT left the faculty and became a BV (private/limited liability company), reinventing itself as a social academic enterprise. This boosted our creativity and productivity: through EU-funded projects we explored the worldwide movements of transformative innovation, organized transition arenas everywhere and saw increasing impact and acceptance for transformative change within ‘regime’ institutions.
We developed transition management 2.0, with the X-curve signaling breakdown combined with a transition governance mix to emphasize the role of policy and governance therein. At the same time, the urgency around climate and biodiversity increased and transformative change went mainstream.
And now we’re entering the 2020s. A surprise pandemic, yes, but we were already anticipating a decade of transformative change. Signs of destabilization were everywhere prior to COVID-19. And as our transition perspective informs us, we need to anticipate a decade of institutional shifts, of collapse and resistance, of turbulent political change and expected surprises that lead to radical breakthroughs. We may hear roaring, but it will be louder than the sound with which diners, drinkers and party-goers respond to the disappearance of virus mitigation restrictions.
For me, this decade won’t be so much a ‘roaring’ but a ‘transition’ twenties. Now our challenge is to ensure that the transitions in the making become truly just and sustainable. I call for transition management 3.0: guided from the top-down and institutionalizing the principles of justice and sustainability to create space for democratic and local solutions for food, energy, housing, mobility and so on.
DRIFT and myself will stay committed to the same mission we’ve had for 20 years: to contribute to sustainability transitions by developing knowledge in practice. But for the next decade, we will do that with more determination and passion than ever. Not only because it is more needed, but also because it is more possible than ever.
3. Sophie Buchel – The decade of justice
2020: what a year to kick off a new decade! We haven’t seen a pandemic of this scale in a century, and, in a world that is more connected than ever, lockdowns across numerous nations are shaking us to the core. Of course, COVID-19 is only the most recent disruption in a series of unfortunate events: the global financial crisis, mass recession, refugee crises, and the large-scale destruction of the Amazon and other key ecosystems – just to name a few. The illusion of endless progress so prominent in the 90s, has been shattered, as Geert Mak explains in his historical analysis of Europe from 1999-2020 in his book Grote Verwachtingen (“Great Expectations”).
As Gijs and Derk said above, even when we have COVID-19 under control, we will still be living through a defining decade for humanity. The climate and ecological crisis is coming to a head, and the only way out is a radical transformation of our global economy and societal systems. This challenge asks for all hands on deck when it comes to decarbonisation and climate adaptation. However, there is another major crisis brewing: inequality.
Through the pandemic, billionaires have seen their wealth grow, while the 99% are losing their loved ones, jobs, houses and businesses. While governments are scrambling to order vaccines, the same countries that are already being hit hardest by climate change cannot financially afford to join this bidding war to secure the health of their people. The systems that currently govern the world are inherently unjust. In their recent Future of Sustainability report, Forum for the Future identifies five key dynamics defining the 2020’s we should all take note of – number four: ‘equitable transitions’.
In recent years we’ve seen a surge of non-violent action to confront injustices: Black Lives Matter, the Umbrella Movement, #MeToo, Extinction Rebellion, the Yellow Vests, Fridays for Future. Ordinary people are standing up for their rights and their futures. Research by Erica Chenoweth of Harvard University on the history of protest shows us that non-violent resistance of only 3.5% of a population guarantees social and political change.
We should not lose sight of each other while we try to save our future on this planet, but use this transformative time to make our societies more equitable and our democracies more inclusive. If we demand it, we can shape a future that is better for everyone. If we leave people behind, current divides will grow into chasms we can no longer bridge. This will have to be the decade of justice.
January 26, 2021