The climate crisis is calling for radical changes in the fields of business, transport, and energy; digitalization is making our living and working environments increasingly fast and complex. Considering these major upheavals, sociologists are convinced that societal change has reached a critical point. We are on the verge of a »great transformation«. But are we ready?
Profound changes are taking place at all levels of society. »We are currently going through a period of political, environmental, and economic upheaval,« states Dr Karina Becker. The sociologist believes these fundamental changes share striking similarities with societal transformation processes, which were described by the social scientist and economic historian Karl Polanyi in the mid-20th century (see box below).
»The concept of transformation is so fitting because we are once again witnessing the emergence of right-wing populist movements throughout Europe. But the most significant parallel is the general crisis in which society currently finds itself«. According to Becker, the situation could also be described as a »pincer crisis«, because it is affecting society from both an economic and ecological perspective. The key question is whether we can decouple social well-being from the growth imperative.
Becker illustrates this with a simple example: Whenever the economy weakens, politicians fall back on measures to increase economic growth. This may generate social stability in the short term, but it also creates a new problem: »Growth ultimately leads to the overuse of resources and the exacerbation of environmental issues,« explains Becker. In return, the economy is pressured into transformations when it comes to political decisions made for the benefit of the environment, such as the urge to shift from combustion engines to e-mobility solutions. The »Post-Growth Societies« research group at the at the University of Jena has now conducted a study on the impact that these demands for transformation have on Thuringian automotive suppliers. Karina Becker and her colleagues have empirically recorded the extent to which small and medium-sized enterprises in the automotive value chain are aware of the issue and can develop new strategies. These companies form an important part of Thuringia’s industry, employing almost 60,000 people.
The study concludes that these companies are limited in their ability to develop their own solutions for a CO2-reduced future. Many corporate stakeholders underestimate the severity of the transformation, while others lack the resources needed to develop an independent strategy and help shape structural change.
Until recently, the region in Thuringia under investigation in the study was characterized by deindustrialization and emigration; large-scale job losses in the automotive industry may lead to a considerable loss of material welfare, an increasing division of society, and a turn to populist views. »This makes the crisis in the automotive value chain representative of socioecological transformation conflicts as a whole,« says Karina Becker. It shows that employment, industrial, and environmental policy objectives have to be considered together. Becker believes responsibility lies with the policy makers: »A regional industrial policy is required within a comprehensive structural framework in order to raise awareness of the issue and point out alternatives«. A step in the right direction would be to introduce a short-time working allowance for workers affected by the transformation process, which has already been demanded by trade unions. She also highlights the need for investments in professional development schemes to open up new employment opportunities.
By Till Bayer
|In »The Great Transformation«, a book written by Karl Polanyi in 1944, the economic historian and social scientist refers to a turning point in history. He believed the liberalization of the economy in the 19th century had brought about serious consequences: As land, work, and money had since been treated as normal commodities, he argued that a destructive dynamic had emerged, provoking socialist and fascist reshuffling attempts and threatening the existence of society. The »great transformation« has now been reclaimed by contemporary sociologists, who use the term to highlight the fact that we are currently going through another critical period of upheaval.|
Interview with Dr Karina Becker: The sociologist investigates topics like corporate fairness and occupational safety. Since 2016, she has been the scientific director of the »Post-Growth Societies« research group.
What has led to the emergence of another »great transformation«?
For a long time, there was a common belief that modern societies are dynamic societies driven by growth; i.e. their stability was dependent on both growing prosperity and economic and technical efficiency. This may have worked well in industrial capitalism, but there has been a break in continuity for some years. The environmental impact of this growth path is becoming increasingly noticeable, and inequality is on the rise—especially within nation states in recent years.
Why do politicians beat around the bush when it comes to real changes with regard to the environment?
Because politicians have to represent and balance various interests. An SUV ban might make ecological sense, but it would be rather difficult to enforce, as it would be perceived as overly paternalistic by large sections of the population. As a result of the structural change imposed by environmental factors, many people are at risk of losing their jobs. Companies in Thuringia are already referring to the situation as a significant turning point. These existential fears have to be taken very seriously in the political arena.
Is our democracy at risk if these fears increase?
The stability of a democratic system can generally be ensured by satisfying social interests. At the moment, however, there is evidence of polarization in society that may pose a threat to our democracy. The research group on »Post-Growth Societies« has examined the relationship between growth and social stability. The example of Greece shows that relative stability can also be achieved without growth. The country was almost completely ruined in the course of European austerity. Despite the lack of growth, however, the political system is proving to be incredibly robust—at least the basic economic institutions are not being seriously called into question. In other words, democratic systems possess strong self-stabilization capacities.
How can we respond to the »great transformation« as a society?
There is no catch-all solution, but rich industrialized nations should play a pioneering role by initiating and developing a social and ecological revolution for sustainability. We can only hope that as many contries as possible will join this strategy sooner or later.
Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future?
I am optimistic when it comes to raising people’s awareness about both sides of the pincer crisis—especially with regard to environmental issues, which have emerged from a niche area and burst into the social mainstream in just a few years. On the other hand, I am quite pessimistic about the growing social divide, as there is no sign of a real solution at the moment. However, I do not think we should just give up and turn our backs on one another. If people stop talking to one another, society will only become more polarized.
Interview: Till Bayer