Accelerating sustainability: Why political economy matters.

Hubert Schmitz and Ian Scoones


The decline in poverty and gains in living standards since the 1960s presents today’s most pressing development challenge: a greater demand for resources. This paper brings together what the world can learn from development studies and from sustainability studies to understand how to accelerate sustainability in order to meet this demand. It argues that the development era of the past 50 years must give way to an era where sustainability and development are woven together. The paper concludes that there are multiple routes into a green future and proposes a dynamic  political economy approach to future research and action.

The paper specifically seeks to answer three key questions: is it possible to accelerate transformations to sustainability in a purposeful way? Who drives sustainability transformations or holds them back? Do sustainability transformations and social justice reinforce each other?

Key findings

  • There is no single formula for purposefully attaining sustainability, it involves multiple changes and innovation is often a central aspect.  China and Vietnam are recent examples where this is the case: both had temporary institutions, transitional arrangements and did not follow models from elsewhere. They also had multiple interconnected changes, sometimes with unintended consequences. This requires new institutional arrangements and new types of sustainability professionals who can spot opportunities, navigate uncertainties and complexities, and bridge and broker between groups.
  • Transformative alliances become key when there are actors within government, civil society and business who are seeking to block or slow down sustainability transformations. Some actors support sustainability transformations through investment, providing expertise, and lobbying, but with the primary motive of securing energy, and their jobs and assets tied to fossil fuels. Alliances are essential for understanding advances and setbacks in sustainability transformations, however not all players to support renewables for the same reason. Effective cooperation and collective action for sustainability may be heightened if a range of motivations are brought into the picture.
  • Political conditions make it possible to combine environmental sustainability with social justice – whether top down or bottom up. There is  a trade-off within the triple movement of local struggles over environmental justice, wider debates about the direction of policy and how inequality and environmental issues are dealt with in national contexts, and global negotiations about both historical responsibilities and future guardianship of the planet. Difference and diversity must always be central and so distributional questions around addressing inequalities and assuring social justice.

While the principles for moving forward are clear, policy design needs testing and requires a political economy approach.  The paper highlights this new thinking requires new types of ‘sustainability professionals’ who can spot opportunities, navigate uncertainties and complexities, and bridge and broker between groups. A focus on turning points and how different actors facilitate or limit these moments is important, as is context-specificity. Similarly,  new thinking on the role of crises is also necessary to open up debate about alternative pathways and to challenge incumbent power and interests. Crises should be seen as opportunity spaces that actors can use to advance particular initiatives. Alliances are vehicles for change providing they incorporate a diverse range of interests working towards a common goal.


Schmitz, H., & Scoones, I. (2015). Accelerating sustainability: Why political economy matters. Evidence Report No. 152.