The notion of transition has taken on a growing importance in recent years in thinking and acting for a more sustainable society. Whether it is ecological, energy, social, solidarity, economic, democratic, digital or managerial, transition is characterized by a profound transformation of systems. A plurality of actors are asserting the concept of transition: research is working to identify its driving forces, institutions wish to draw up guidelines, and civil society is getting involved and spurring it on through innovative experiments.
Moving from one equilibrium regime to another
The general principles of the transition
Transition refers to "a process of transformation in which a system moves from one equilibrium regime to another".1. The transition is therefore not a simple adjustment but a fundamental reconfiguration of the functioning and organization of the system, as in the case of the demographic transition, for example. This structural transformation simultaneously affects the technological, economic, ecological, socio-cultural and institutional sectors, and changes in these sectors are mutually reinforcing.2.
The transition is thus characterized by a gradual and profound change in the long-term models of society. It is a process that is impossible to control completely.3 since it is part of a complex system that escapes rigid planning.
The dynamics of transition
Geels and Loorbach4 have theorized the interactions that drive transitions according to three levels that exert pressure on each other (see diagram).
Levels of transition (Geels, 2002)
At the first level, the niches are the place for radical initiatives and experiments on the fringes of the established system. To become widespread, these innovations must be integrated into the second level, the regimes, i.e. the rules and norms that guide behaviour, ensure the stability of the system but also its inertia. Finally, the evolution of these two levels is subject to a third level, the landscape, i.e. the external environment and underlying trends, such as crisis situations. It is the pressures exerted simultaneously by these three levels that can lead to transitions.
What role for the public authorities?
If systemic transitions cannot be completely controlled, they can be facilitated and guided1. In this respect, institutions have a key role, on the one hand by identifying and encouraging virtuous pioneering initiatives (valorisation, financial or technical support, etc.), on the other hand by encouraging and accompanying the change of scale towards a global movement in society (evolution of legislative and regulatory frameworks, definition of long-term strategic frameworks, inflection of public policies, etc.) and finally by anticipating and apprehending the major future developments in order to regulate their effects and best respond to their challenges.
Ownership of the transition by national and international institutions
The contrasting institutionalization of the concept of ecological transition
Historically, the notion of transition has been closely linked to that of sustainable development. The 1972 Meadows report insists in particular on the need for "the transition from a growth model to a global equilibrium" by highlighting the ecological risks induced by economic and demographic growth. In 1987, the Brundtland report also called for "the transition to sustainable development". However, although the notion of transition is always present, it is the term sustainable development that is at the forefront of the international scene at the Rio Summit in 1992, followed by the term green (and equitable) economy at the Rio+20 Summit in 2012, and which returns with the Sustainable Development Goals adopted in 2015.
In France, the concept of ecological transition and its energy component have recently gained momentum within the Ministry in charge of the environment, as illustrated by the National Council for Ecological Transition created in 2012, the Energy Transition Law for Green Growth promulgated in 2015 and the National Strategy for Ecological Transition to Sustainable Development (2015-2020). This approach has encouraged a refocusing of public action on environmental issues (climate, biodiversity, etc.), while reaffirming the need for coordinated action by all actors in society. Thus, the Energy Transition Act places particular emphasis on the role of citizens and local authorities in changing the energy model (facilitation of participatory investment in local renewable energy projects, financial support for individual housing renovation, Positive Energy Territories for Green Growth scheme, etc.).
Accompanying the ecological transition: an issue of social justice and democracy
To be sustainable and equitable, the ecological transition must be socially just and not result in increased inequality. For example, in the area of employment, the ecological reorientation of the economy implies a profound change in activity sectors and professional skills, both by opening up new markets of the future but also by leading to the disappearance of certain sectors. Faced with this observation, the notion of a just transition, i.e. a "transition towards a green economy whose inevitable costs for employment and for our societies are shared by all", has been adopted.5has been gaining strength on the international scene since the 1990s, under pressure from trade unions and associations. Thus, the just transition is included in the preamble of the Paris Agreement of December 2015. In France, the support of professional transitions, the reduction of fuel poverty and more generally the social acceptability of ecological transition policies remain a key issue for public action.
In order to involve and involve all the actors in society, the ecological transition must be accompanied by a democratic debate in order to become a truly shared objective. In line with the 1998 Aarhus Convention, France is pursuing the democratisation of environmental dialogue not only within the bodies for consultation with representative stakeholders (National Council for Ecological Transition) but also by strengthening the mechanisms for participation and public debate (order of 3 August 2016, participation charter, etc.). Moreover, the advent of digital technologies opens up new prospects for "putting transition trajectories into democracy", as illustrated by the public consultation organised on the law for the recovery of biodiversity, nature and landscapes or the co-construction of the law for a digital Republic.
Experimentation of the transition by civil society and the territories
Transition as a transition to action
Civil society (citizens, associations, businesses, etc.) and territorial actors (local authorities, etc.) are contributing fully to the transition through a wide variety of concrete initiatives in the areas of food (AMAP, shared gardens, permaculture), sharing and production (social and solidarity economy, local currencies, barter, participatory wind energy, "fab-lab"), housing (participatory housing, self-help rehabilitation of energy-intensive housing), reclaiming public space, etc. This constellation of citizen actions, most often at the local level, places daily life at the forefront, in accordance with values of solidarity, inclusion and humanism, sobriety and proximity, social and environmental justice, equitable sharing of power and direct democracy.6. The challenge of the citizen transition is to improve "here and now" the well-being of the community while gaining in autonomy and developing the social bond of proximity.7. These innovations, often experimental in nature, test alternatives adapted to the local context and, in some cases, seek to spread to have a transformative effect.
The example of cities in transition
The international Cities in Transition movement, initiated by Rob Hopkins in the United Kingdom in 20068is one of the most advanced examples. Cities in Transition aim to anticipate the inevitable peak oil crisis by moving from a situation of dependence on fossil fuels to community resilience through concrete solutions implemented at the local level by citizens and local stakeholders.7. This dynamic relies on the certainty of the coming crisis to rethink the entire system.9This is a break with the consumerist model, while empowering the inhabitants to act on their environment in a perspective of environmental democratization.7 (the communities become the force of proposition).
The ecological and solidarity transition, a new project for society?
Sustainable development in the face of its weaknesses
Sustainable development is presented as a necessary and common horizon10 but, at the same time, it is perceived as powerless to reverse and even halt global developments.11. This disillusionment can be explained in particular by the semantic ambiguity of the concept and its definition (sustainable versus sustainable, subjectivity of the balance between environmental, social and economic dimensions, uncertainty as to the needs of future generations, tension between weak and strong sustainability, etc.) and the changing nature of its successive acceptances.12 (see diagram).
Evolution of the acceptance of the concept of sustainable development over time (Jégou, 2007)
While this conceptual vagueness has favoured a very broad appropriation of the term sustainable development, it has facilitated the recovery and marketing diversion, with some claiming it to legitimise existing policies or particular interests.13. More generally, several actors regret the weakening of the initial aspiration for systemic transformation of our societies that the sustainable development project carried with it.14 and which would ultimately result in a perpetuation of the classic economic model, a lack of ecological ambition, insufficient consideration of the social and cultural dimension, etc. In the end, the term sustainable development would only displace the issue of divergent approaches and interests.15 -particularly with regard to growth-, from the stage of general and consensual discourse to the implementation stage where dissent reappears, which would partly explain the difficulties in translating sustainable development principles into concrete achievements.
Opportunities and challenges of the transition
In this context of questioning the concept of sustainable development, the notion of transition emphasizes a rapid passage to action through concrete initiatives and local citizen initiatives. The diversity of the experiments is conceived as a guarantee of resilience and adaptation to local contexts. The ecological and solidarity-based transition would thus make it possible to accelerate the change of system by daring new paths and directly involving citizens.7. Proponents of the term transition claim it to be more operational, more concrete and ultimately more effective than the "soft concept" of sustainable development.
However, the craze for the term "transition" should not obscure the issues and challenges it raises.
Some are similar to those already encountered by sustainable development, notably the effectiveness of the transformation of the economic and societal model as well as conceptual vagueness and abusive recuperation. The implementation of the transition has yet to demonstrate its operationality and the capacity of sectoral innovations to change scale and "make system". Finally, there is the question of integrating this approach into an international framework that is still very much focused on sustainable development.
If the ecological and solidarity-based transition manages to avoid these pitfalls and resolve the unresolved issues of sustainable development, it could then be an opportunity to collectively build a new social contract that is truly equitable and respectful of the environment.
1. Bourg D. & Papaux A. (dir.), Dictionary of Ecological Thought, Article 'Transition', 2015.
2. Tremblay L., Governance of Transitions to Sustainability, 2011.
3. Boutaud A., La transition : l'après développement durable ?, Revue de prospective territoriale M3, n°4, 2013.
4. Geels, F.W., 'Technological transitions as evolutionary reconfiguration processes: A multi-level perspective and a case-study', Research Policy, n°31, 2002. Loorbach, D.,Transition Management: new mode of governance for sustainable development, 2007.
5. International Labour Office, Climate Change and Work: The goal of a "Just Transition", International Journal of Labour Research, 2010, Vol. 2.
6. Canabate A., Éléments de réflexion sur les initiatives de transition en temps de crise : limites et portées des crétivités communautaires, Colloque de Cerisy Quelles transitions écologiques, 2015.
7. Laigle L., De la résilience sociétale à la transition écologique, in Société résiliente, transition écologique et cohésion sociale : études de quelques initiatives de transition en France, Etudes & Documents, 2015.
8. Hopkins R., Energy Descent Pathways: evaluating potential responses to Peak Oil, 2006.
Hopkins R., Handbook on Transition from Oil Dependence to Local Resilience, Ecosociety, 2010.
9. Semal L., Militer à l'ombre des catastrophes : contribution à une théorie politique environnementale au prisme des mobilisations de la décroissance et de la transition, 2012.
10. Rumpala Y., From the goal of sustainable development to the governmentalisation of change, European Policy, 2011/1 No. 33.
11. Jegou A., Les géographes français face au développement durable, L'information géographique n°71, September 2007.
12. Theys J., Le développement durable face à sa crise : un concept menacé, sous-exploité ou dépassé ?, Développement durable et territoires, Vol. 5, n°1, 2014.
13. Godard O., Le développement durable, une chimère, une mystification, Mouvements N°41 septembre-octobre 2005.
14. Zaccai E., 25 years of sustainable development and beyond, PUF, 2011.
15. Rumpala Y., Développement durable : du récit d'un projet commun à une nouvelle forme de futurisme, A contrario, 2010/2.