Pathways to sustainability in a crisis-ridden world

Les voies de la durabilité dans un monde en crise
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Pathways to Sustainability?

Crisis contexts inevitably open the door to "rethinking development". The current crisis involves each pillar of sustainable development, suggesting at least three types of responses - differentiating market relationships from those of society, and emphasizing their potential implications for sustainable development.

Recent global crises related to food, energy and finance, as well as climate change and the scale of precarious employment, suggest that we are in the midst of a broader crisis of sustainability

Peter Utting is deputy director of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), writing in his personal capacity. This paper draws partly on Utting, Razavi and Varghese Buchholz (2012). Research and editorial assistance from Nadine Ruprecht is gratefully acknowledged, as are comments from Shahra Razavi.

. This is apparent in both senses of the term: the (dis)integration or (im)balance of economic, social and environmental dimensions of development, and chronic instability in terms of the long-term reproduction of economic, social and ecological systems. The Rio+20 summit positioned sustainable development as the key challenge for contemporary development strategy. This was symbolized in the call for a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to succeed the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Contexts of crisis inevitably open the doors for "rethinking development". In the wake of the food and financial crises certain features of neoliberalism, notably financialization, came under the spotlight, some new regulations and governance institutions emerged, and old and new social movements mobilized to demand policy change that implied very different configurations of state-market-society relations and development priorities. Similarly, as recognition of climate change has increased, solutions associated with "green economy", environmental regulation and myriad eco-social grassroots alternatives have gained traction.

In practice, different actors and institutions at multiple levels have called for very different responses to both crisis and the sustainability challenge. This paper examines these responses through the lens of three ideal-type representations of different pathways associated with "market liberalism", "embedded liberalism" and "alter-globalization". It identifies key features of each of these approaches and reflects on their implications for sustainable development, understood here in the holistic sense of a development process that is economically developmental, socially inclusive, environmentally sound and rights-based.

A final section reflects on some of the limitations and challenges confronting each of these pathways and the prospects for change in the real world of institutional dynamics, contestation and interest group agency. While the dominant policy and institutional reforms that are currently being proposed and implemented tend to draw on elements associated with both market and embedded liberalism, it is argued that the challenge of sustainability requires far more consideration of the alter-globalization perspective within mainstream knowledge and policy circles. This, in turn, requires that social forces promoting such an agenda cohere, organize, mobilize and build coalitions for change.

Diverse pathways

Global crises not only deeply impact economic growth and people's livelihoods, they also unsettle basic ideas and assumptions about the meaning and drivers of development. In the wake of the global financial crisis a vibrant debate unfolded about "where do we go from here". This debate has been further energized by international efforts to craft a development agenda beyond the (2015) MDGs.

At the time of the financial collapse there was an instant revival of Keynesian ideas, which, in contrast to neoliberalism, elevated the role of the state and countercyclical public expenditure in development strategies. Speculative activities and financialization came under the spotlight as did the ethics of a development model that resulted in growing inequality and perverse levels of wealth for the 1%. Just as "third world" developmental states and northern welfare states eventually emerged as part of the solution to the crisis of the 1930s and geopolitical rearrangements associated with decolonization, the question arose as to whether a different approach to development and global governance might gather momentum. Or less ambitiously, would the type of policy reforms (e.g. greater fiscal "policy space" and more comprehensive social policy), which were introduced in some countries in the wake of the 1997 Asian financial crisis (Kwon, 2005), be replicated?

As Bob Jessop has pointed out, a key question was whether global crises constituted a crisis "in" the system or "of" the system. If interpretations of crisis lean towards a crisis in the system then the solution centres on crisis management via adjustments in mainstream policies and institutions. But if it is a crisis of the system, then a more fundamental restructuring - involving transformations in power relations and in patterns of commodification, growth and consumption - is required (Jessop, 2012).

A schematic representation of different responses is presented in the sections that follow

This approach was inspired by the analysis of Jennifer Clapp and Peter Dauvergne in Paths to a Green World (2011).

. The first involves stabilizing, legitimizing and sustaining market liberalism. It relies on market forces and technology, tweaks existing regulatory and governance institutions, and enhances some aspects of social and environmental protection. The second, embedded liberalism, seeks to craft a 21st century social contract via social protection, redistribution and rights, and a Green New Deal, whilst respecting the basic institutions of modernity and capitalism. The third, alter-globalization, calls for a more fundamental reconfiguration of state-market-society relations seen as conducive to both the social control of markets and emancipation.

Focusing on these pathways is not meant to suggest that others do not exist; these three, however, have gained considerable currency in the discursive arena concerned with issues of contemporary crisis, development and sustainability. Selected features of each of these pathways are discussed below and summed up in Figure 1.

Market liberalism

A remarkable feature of capitalism over several centuries has been its staying power and capacity to re-stabilize following episodes of crisis. From the perspective of sustainability, the contemporary challenge for the market liberal paradigm in contexts of crisis is not only how to re-energize and sustain growth and employment, but how to do so in ways that also address climate change and other environmental limits to growth, as well as threats to social reproduction and legitimacy associated with precarious employment and food insecurity.

To assuage international financial markets and investors, policies involving some combination of cuts in social spending and public sector employment, tax reform and labour market flexibilization were adopted in much of the global North after the financial collapse of 2008. The market liberalism approach leans towards enhanced public sector efficiency and safety nets as the means to limit negative social impacts of both crisis and austerity policies, as well to keep the lid on social discontent.

At a systemic level, a major challenge for elite economic interests relates to finding outlets for surplus capital by creating or expanding markets in developing countries, new industries, commodification and privatization

Speculation and militarization are other means that can be used.

(Harvey, 2010; Ghosh, 2010). Discourse, policies and practice associated with "green growth" (World Bank, 2012b) are crucial in this regard, as are priorities of governments and corporations to secure new sources of energy, food and other raw materials. The market liberalism pathway favours approaches to green economy that are led by private investors and corporations interested in new profit opportunities associated with cleaner energy, payments for environmental services (PES) and the commodification of nature and the global commons. It positions such actors to take advantage of a market for environmental goods and services that is expected to double from around USD 1.3 billion around the time of the financial crisis to USD 2.7 billion by 2020 (UNEP, 2009).

In relation to the food crisis, the market liberal pathway includes the following features. Governments of a number of food insecure countries promote investment in large tracts of land in developing countries (so-called land grabs). Low productivity agriculture is identified as a key cause of food insecurity. It is also a key site for new investment in potentially profitable sectors, given the scope for productivity increases through a "New Green Revolution", which like its predecessor in the 1970s, modernizes agriculture through technology and intensification. The attraction of private investment in agriculture is further reinforced by the projected need for a 70% increase in food production to meet demand in 2050 (World Bank, 2012).

High input agriculture with improved environmental management, greener technology and GMOs are seen as the way forward (Paarlberg, 2010). Large agri-food and other corporations come to see low income populations as a largely untapped "bottom of the pyramid" market (Prahalad, 2005). Small farmers can be integrated in global value chains as both consumers of intermediate products and suppliers of cheap agricultural produce. Having relinquished direct control of land and production of raw materials several decades earlier, agri-food corporations need to (re-)secure raw material supplies through contractual relations that also serve to raise productivity and lock-in producers via measures associated with export orientation, training, input dependency and corporate social responsibility (CSR) (Lucas, 2012). Discourses and practices about CSR, centred on voluntary environmental, social and governance standards, serve both to legitimize corporate expansion and mitigate certain negative externalities associated with business behaviour and global value chains (Utting, 2012).

Concerning energy and climate, the market-liberal pathway favours market- and corporate-led green economy or lower carbon growth within a "lite" regulatory framework. Key features are carbon trading, investments in new energy sources such as bio-fuels, and gradual shifts in the energy mix from conventional fossil fuels and production methods to "cleaner" coal, gas and nuclear. This approach also involves tapping into new sources of "dirty" fuel (deep sea oil, tar sands) but adopting certain CSR practices and accepting a degree of environmental regulation. Managerial and technological solutions associated with eco-efficiency and cleaner technology are key for "relative decoupling" of economy and environment, i.e. to ensure that energy and material inputs decline relative to economic output (Jackson, 2009).

Stabilizing market liberalism also requires discursive shifts that serve a legitimating function. This may include the rhetoric of protectionism, e.g. "buy American". Translating words into policy, however, is generally more difficult given the way "free trade" has been locked-in legally and ideologically. The discourse related to the greening of business and CSR is also key in the legitimization process. CSR emphasizes the capacity of (big) business to put its house in order through voluntary standards and initiatives. These involve codes of conduct, "sustainability reporting" by companies, and various forms of monitoring and certification. While such an approach is often dismissed as "greenwash", from a systemic perspective this "new ethicalism" (Sum, 2010) can be viewed as a necessary complement to institutional and regulatory reforms that attempted to lock-in economic liberalization and neoliberal orthodoxy through free trade agreements and WTO rules, or through what has been called "new constitutionalism" (Gill, 2003).

Embedded liberalism

A solution to the economic and social crises of the Great Depression and the two World Wars was "embedded liberalism" (Ruggie, 1982), an ideology and project which recognized that markets and economic liberalization need to be shaped by values and institutions that can mitigate market failure, social injustice and inequality. Key features of 20th century embedded liberalism were Keynesianism, state capacity to plan and regulate, neo-corporatist governance arrangements favouring organized business and labour, and the strengthening of the welfare state. In practice, these aspects were more apparent in some of the advanced industrialized countries and benefitted particular social groups, notably formal sector workers.

In today's world, embedded liberalism means addressing three challenges that were not central to mid 20th century embedded liberalism, namely: i) the structural reality of mass "informal" employment and the limited scope for universalizing social policy through the (formal) workplace and labour relations, ii) women's economic and social rights, and iii) the need for an industrial or growth model that does not destroy the environment.

Calls in recent years for a global social contract and a global Green New Deal suggest what contemporary embedded liberalism might look like (Birdsall, 2005; Brown, 2010; UNEP, 2009). In contrast to the rolling back of the state and certain types of regulation under neoliberalism, this approach leans towards enhanced state regulation, new or strengthened institutions of democratic governance and accountability; and comprehensive social (including labour market) and environmental policy. Regulations, policies and institutions of social dialogue attempt to promote "decent work" and counter labour conditions associated with precarious employment outsourcing. Key elements of the embedded liberal pathway are typically found in UN-system publications such as the report of the World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization, "A Fair Globalization", or more recently the statement by a group of well-known development economists, "Be Outraged: There are Alternatives" (Jolly et al., 2012), or the report of the Stiglitz Commission set up by the UN General Assembly in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse. The report of the high level panel on global sustainability, "Resilient People, Resilient Planet" brings together perspectives supportive of green economy or green growth with human rights. It was also laid out clearly by former UK prime minister, Gordon Brown, in "Beyond the Crash" (Brown, 2010).

Two recent developments point to the crafting of a 21st century social contract. First, several of the BRICS countries and some other developing economies, have broadened the scope of social policy and introduced new large-scale social programmes. Second, internationally, there is growing momentum behind the idea of a global social floor whereby all countries would provide a set of basic social benefits including access to essential healthcare and income security for children, the unemployed, elderly and disabled (Deacon, 2012; ILO, 2011b).

Of particular interest from the perspective of coupling inclusiveness or social protection and environmental sustainability, is the new policy arena of "eco-social" policy (UNRISD, 2012; Gough, 2012). Examples include workfare programmes in India that rehabilitate rural and environmental infrastructure, compensation in EU countries for low-income households affected by increases in energy prices, and the new IMF strategy to promote reductions in fuel subsidies in developing countries whilst simultaneously expanding social safety-net schemes, as has occurred, for example, in Indonesia (International Monetary Fund, 2012).

Embedded liberal responses to the food crisis highlight the need to reverse the neglect of agriculture and rural development, which has occurred in national and international policy circles in recent decades, via aid and public investment in infrastructure and skills development. A key goal is to promote food security via increases in agricultural productivity, smallholder economic empowerment and multi-functional agriculture (IFAD, 2010). Regulations and standards associated with land governance or land rights, as well as ethical trade also feature prominently.

Discourse and policy associated with green economy focuses on dematerialization, subsidy reform, and the need for significant investment, training and employment generation in "cleaner" and green sectors and industries. Social dimensions of green economy are also addressed including decent work, social policy to compensate losers in the transition to lower carbon economies, and stakeholder participation in consultative processes


Major gatherings of civil society in recent years, in events like the World Social Forum and the People's Summit at Rio+20 in 2012, bring into sharp relief a third scenario of change, which we can call "alter-globalization". This suggests that dealing with current and recurring economic, food and climate crises requires not only rolling back neoliberal policies, strengthening state regulatory capacity and democratizing global governance, but also a more fundamental restructuring of market and power relations which are seen as central to social and environmental injustice.

Within the field of critical scholarship and advocacy considerable attention is focusing on the need to transform capitalist relations and institutions (Bello, 2005; Cavanagh and Mander, 2004); how to reassert social control over finance, production and distribution and consumption (Harvey, 2010); deep transformation of growth and consumption patterns (Jackson, 2009); and emancipation from forms of domination associated with gender and ethnicity (Fraser, 2012). But the alter-globalization pathway goes beyond changing material and political aspects by calling for fundamental shifts in values. The structure of the outcome report of the Thematic Social Forum, "Another Future is Possible", prepared for the 2012 People's Summit in Rio de Janeiro, is telling in this regard. Before addressing the question of economic transformation (Part 2) and political transformation (Part 3), it begins with the discussion of how sustainability demands new "ethical, philosophical and cultural foundations". These relate, for example, to the imperative of equity, care, stewardship, diversity, solidarity, non-violence, and recognizing the symbiosis of human life and nature (Thematic Social Forum, 2012).

Sharing some commonalities with the embedded liberal approach, the alter-globalization route to sustainability lies in the creation of a people-centred economy. Here employment is generated through a fundamental retrofitting of economies, finance serves production and communities, international taxation (such as the Tobin Tax) serves to control speculative activity and mobilizes new sources of finance for sustainable development, international financial institutions are democratized, and corporations are held accountable or, indeed, "dismantled"

The term refers to the campaign, "Dismantling Corporate Power", launched at the People's Summit in Rio de Janeiro in June 2012.


But the concern broadens from the question of how to re-embed liberalism through social protection and regulatory reforms to the need to transform capitalism through deeper structural, cultural and political change. The challenge lies not simply with institutional adjustments but in deep changes in production and consumption patterns. A new growth model centred on low carbon economic activities and dematerialized services, community-based social enterprises, and the provision of public goods is key (Jackson, 2009).

Deep changes in power relations are required both to curb the power of elites (not least corporations) to influence politics (Reich, 2010; Marques and Utting, 2010), and to provide far greater scope for the effective participation of citizens and disadvantaged social groups. While both the market and embedded liberal pathways acknowledge, to varying degrees, the importance of "participation", this is often reduced to notions of stakeholder consultation, or in the case of embedded liberalism, to social dialogue involving organized business and labour, as well as NGOs. Under the alter-globalization approach, participation conforms more to the definition coined by UNRISD in the late 1970s, namely, the organized efforts of the disadvantaged to gain control over resources and regulatory institutions that affect their lives (UNRISD, 2003). Social agency centred on grassroots collective organization and social movements is key for meaningful participation.

The term "food sovereignty", which has been popularized by Via Campesina, can be used to sum up the alter-globalization approach to dealing with the food crisis and food strategy. Here attention focuses on securing the land rights of the disadvantaged; enhancing the scope for redistributive agrarian reform; and the importance of local knowledge, production and trade. It also upholds principles of fair trade and agro-ecology, and the need not only for smallholder economic empowerment but also political empowerment through collective organization and mobilization. The alter-globalization perspective seeks alternatives to food systems that are controlled by agri-food corporations and structured by "free trade" agreements that prioritize corporate/investor/intellectual property rights and facilitate cheap food imports from Northern countries where agriculture is heavily subsidized.

Much of the food sovereignty agenda, notably specific features such as agro-ecology, low-input agriculture and local trade, also relates directly to the challenge of dealing with climate change and the energy crisis. The Quechuan concept known as Buen Vivir or Living Well (Fatheuer, 2011), which emphasizes the rights of Mother Earth and living in harmony with nature and diverse cultures, is one descriptor for the alter-globalization approach to the climate challenge.

Elements of the alter-globalization pathway include not only relative but also absolute decoupling, voluntary simplicity which connotes the need to challenge consumerism and profoundly transform consumption patterns, and public environmental regulation and law, both national and international. This includes, for example, non- or "neo-extractivism" (Eduardo Gudynas, cited in Fatheuer (2011)) where governments are compensated for leaving oil in the ground (as proposed by the Ecuadorean government), and nationalize extractive activities, using revenues, inter alia, for social programmes, as in Bolivia.

Some proponents of the alter-globalization pathway pin their hopes on the long-term possibility that a cohesive coalition capable of challenging a capitalist class will emerge. This would involve social movements, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), trade unions, grassroots organizations and left-leaning political parties (Bello, 2005; Harvey, 2010). In the shorter term, some also look to populist alternatives of the type being pursued within the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), as well as the scaling-up and ongoing proliferation of myriad social and solidarity economy initiatives centred co-operation and collective organization of workers, producers and communities.

Wither sustainable development?

In the midst of economic turmoil and the severe social consequences of recent crises lies the optimism that contexts of crisis will lead to progressive change associated with sustainable development. Often compared to the 1929 economic crisis (United Nations, 2009), which led to a more pro-active management of the economy by the state and the extension of various social policies embodied in the New Deal, many commentators argued that the financial crisis could create the political space for a structural transformation needed for the challenges in the social, economic and environmental sphere (NEF, 2008). Indeed, one argument is that crises are conducive to policy change when they enable societies to enact measures that would be impossible to enact in less distortionary circumstances (Hirschman, cited in Drazen and Grilli (1993)). New social movements like Occupy Wall Street and the indigados of Spain and Greece, as well as global rural movements like Via Campesina or Ekta Parishad in India suggest that social pressures for change are mounting.

Tensions and blind spots

Each of the different pathways outlined above raises questions vis-à-vis the challenge of sustainability. This is apparent both in terms of the relationship between economic, social, environmental and emancipatory dimensions of development, and normative aspects associated with well-being and rights (of people and the planet) and intra- and inter-generational equity. Each pathway is characterized by certain biases, blind spots or the so-called elephant in the room syndrome.

While many social groups today are seriously affected by vulnerability and insecurity, a fundamental challenge of sustainability relates to living conditions of future generations. Unless issues of debt, inequality and decoupling are addressed head on, it is our children's children and subsequent generations that will suffer most.

The market liberalism pathway to sustainability tends to adopt a narrow, if not contradictory, approach to such issues. Attention to the debt issue centres to a large extent on austerity policies involving cuts in certain social spending. Concerns for inequality relate to equality of opportunity (not equality of outcomes), which are addressed primarily through education and active labour market policies. Decoupling involves only relative (not absolute) decoupling, largely through technological and managerial innovations associated with eco-efficiency.

The policy response to the financial crash, particularly in the United States, was designed essentially by persons closely associated with financial institutions and whose world views corresponded closely with the market liberal paradigm. Government policy may have prevented a general financial meltdown, but mainstream policy discourse narrowed the effective scope of public debate to a limited set of policy options and diverted attention from questions of institutional design, as well as from deeper causes that reproduce crisis-tendencies (Jessop, 2012).

The market liberal approach is economically and technologically deterministic. By de-emphasizing the key role of institutions and politics in shaping development processes and outcomes it leaves open key questions about state and societal capacity to engineer transition, the distributional consequences of change processes for different income or social groups, and ongoing contradictions that will arise in contexts financialization, market de-regulation and public sector retrenchment. In the context of financial crisis, capital must seek to take advantage of surplus labour through policies and practices associated with the flexibilization of labour markets. This may facilitate hiring but also firing and more precarious forms of employment (Standing, 2011). Furthermore, it can transfer risks and costs downstream towards suppliers and producers in global value chains.

Policy responses to the financial crisis included massive liquidity injections into the financial system and direct support to major financial institutions (United Nations, 2009). Much of the criticism of the bailout of the banks has been that it restored "Wall Street" and executive pay but not enterprise and employment on "Main Street". While there were signs of global economic recovery in 2009 and 2010, the world has experienced a "jobless recovery" (ILO, 2011). In 2011 the number of workers in vulnerable employment

The ILO defines vulnerable employment as the sum of own-account workers and unpaid family workers.

was estimated at 1.52 billion. Nearly 30% of all workers (more than 900 million) were living with their families below the $2 a day poverty line, up 55 million in relation to pre-crisis trends (ILO, 2012).

Within the market liberal frame, macro-economic and structural fundamentals that underpin unsustainable development are not seriously interrogated. The key to social development fundamentally lies in reactivating employment through growth, voluntary corporate social responsibility, social protection (safety-nets for the most needy), education and training. Often sidelined are redistributive policy and public policy associated with care and social reproduction that provides women with greater freedom of choice and is important for social cohesion (Fraser, 2012). Also marginalized are various forms of mandatory regulation that can minimize tensions between market-led development and social well-being. The environmental pillar is addressed through greener technology, eco-efficiency, environmental management and better pricing signals, whilst largely ignoring the structural, institutional and political underpinnings of environmental decline and climate change. The market liberalism pathway may address the economic power of monopolies through competition policy and anti-trust regulation (The Economist, 2012) but downplays the scale of the climate change challenge (and the need for decoupling), as well as the issue of skewed power relations and political influence of organized business interests.

Embedded liberalism emphasizes the need for stronger institutions to reshape development processes. The debt issue is addressed through such means as progressive taxation, public sector efficiencies and regulations on the reserve requirements of banks. It is more proactive in relation to inequality through certain redistributive policies and also emphasizes the need for relative decoupling of environmental impacts and growth. In contrast to market-liberalism, it extends the focus of social policy beyond social protection to redistributive policies and eco-social policy, food security and green jobs. But like market liberalism, it places great store on the growth-employment-consumer demand nexus. The notion of a 21st century social contract is directly concerned with issues of social protection and redistributive justice but within the frame of fairly conventional patterns of growth and consumption (Birdsall, 2005).

Embedded liberal environmentalism couples technological solutions and "getting the prices right" with stricter environmental protection and regulation. It leaves open, however, questions about the scope for absolute decoupling, i.e. the need for emissions or resource impacts of economic activity to decline in absolute terms. Whilst emphasizing the role of accountability, stakeholder or social dialogue, and global governance, it tends to downplay the need to significantly transform power relations both among social groups and North and South. Whilst strong on the need to correct certain social and environmental injustices associated with market liberalization, embedded liberalism can play down or ignore various forms of domination associated with gender (patriarchy) and ethnicity, and the corresponding need for "emancipation" (Fraser, 2012).

Within the alter-globalization camp one finds more emphasis on issues of decoupling, inequality and emancipation. In relation to the debt problem, considerable attention is focused on such aspects as reduced government spending on defence and corporate subsidies, controls on money creation and lending by banks, as well as debt forgiveness for low income countries. As argued below, however, other aspects have been neglected. Alter-globalization sees conventional growth patterns and consumerism as central to the problem of unsustainable development, requiring either décroissance (degrowth) or highly differentiated growth patterns for developed and developing countries, as well as voluntary simplicity in relation to consumption patterns. The social and environmental pillars of sustainable development are addressed not only through comprehensive social policy (related to social assistance, services, care, training and redistribution) but also proactive community and local development, social and solidarity economy organizations and enterprises, and food sovereignty.

While proponents of the alter-globalization pathway tackle crucial structural issues they often ignore others that have bedevilled radical transitions (populist or socialist). These include, lack of understanding of, or capacity to anticipate, the economic, social and political consequences of disarticulating complex market systems, not only in terms of the reaction of market forces, investors, savers and consumers, but also the multiple functions of market actors and institutions that are crowded out. The fiscal issue is often downplayed. This relates to the ways and means of financing change, whether the mechanisms in place are sustainable over the long-term, and impacts in terms of debt and inflation. So too is the political question relating to the fact that leaders and parties associated with sub-altern groups need to become "hegemonic" in the Gramscian sense. This refers to the capacity to govern on the basis of consensus, rather than coercion, building broad-based coalitions and accommodating diverse interests and demands, including those of the middle class and business sectors. The political question also concerns the co-optation of social movements and civil society leaders, and the ongoing neglect of certain rights of women and indigenous peoples or injustices within communitarian society. Issues related to state capacity and legitimacy, which is crucial for transition, may receive short shrift, including problems of middle class brain drain, the competency of the civil service, and the transparency and accountability of public institutions.

The interplay of ideas, actors and institutions

Ideal-type representations correspond more to the discourse or rationalizations that different actors espouse as their preferred approach to crisis and "sustainability" than to real world policy and practice. As various literatures and writers have emphasized, reality consists of hybrids and diverse, heterodox, institutional arrangements. Complex institutional dynamics and ongoing changes in political economy mean that standardized prescriptions tend to exist more on paper than in practice.

Real world policy and institutional change associated with sustainable development will be shaped by the interplay of such factors as institutional path dependence; contestation and other societal responses to market pressures and failures; changes in political opportunity structures and state capacity; and the scope for institutional learning or "learning by doing". Indeed, as Ben Fine points out (2012), each area of policy (for example, health, education, trade, etc.) is likely to be shaped by different social, political and institutional dynamics, and each may follow a different trajectory in terms of social or distributive outcomes.

Beyond the dynamics of specific policy areas is the constant and evolving tension between, on the one hand, "capitalist logic" centred on profit maximization, commodification, "creative destruction", coercive competition, concentration, growth and consumerism, and, on the other hand, societal responses that aim to mitigate negative social and environmental effects associated with these relations through some form of social regulation (Polanyi, 2001; Streeck, 2008; Harvey 2010). And beyond the tensions and struggles associated with commodification and decommodification are other struggles for emancipation (Fraser, 2012).

Eclecticism and hybrids, rather than anything approaching ideal-type futures or "utopias designed by committees" (Wolfe, 1996), are more likely outcomes. Spaces for progressive change may open in one area, only to close in another. For example, small farmers participating in fair trade producer groups, which promote agro-ecology, producer empowerment, and community development, simultaneously integrate global value chains dominated by transnational corporations. Such relations involve terms, standards and priorities that can deviate substantially from those associated with fair trade.

As Elinor Ostrom and others have observed, it is often a complex mix of "polycentric" institutional arrangements (state, private, community) operating at different scales (local, national, regional, global) that provide the complementarities and synergies that facilitate regulation, efficiency and governance (Ostrom, 2009; Brett, 2009).

Diverse and often contradictory approaches may also exist at the macro level. Some welfare state regimes that typified the 20th century European embedded liberalism now conform more to a "flexicurity" model, which retains basic social services but flexibilizes labour markets and rolls back, to some extent, progressive taxation. Some governments that form part of ALBA, which promotes an alternative development model through south-south co-operation and solidarity, are simultaneously locked into free trade agreements with their ideological adversaries such as the USA.

But ideas and discourse do matter. They frame and influence public and policy debate and can influence priorities. And they shape common sense understandings about the meaning of development, ways forward, what are legitimate issues for concern and what should remain off-limits (Ocampo, 2006).

The recent Rio+20 process and Summits (both the official and the People's Summit) intended to re-energize the political momentum for action to craft a more sustainable future. All three world views and perspectives outlined above were well represented (Utting, 2012). The official Summit outcome document, The Future We Want (like that of the Durban climate conference), is a hybrid of principles, proposals and initiatives associated primarily with the market liberal and embedded liberal approaches. This outcome was perhaps to be expected in the context of ongoing economic crisis, the proliferation of geopolitical power, the influence of corporations and market forces on agenda setting and policy making, and the fragmentation of civil society voices in the build-up to Rio.

Pathways to Sustainability?

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