Which conceptual foundations for environmental policies? An institutional and evolutionary framework of economic change
This paper draws on institutional and evolutionary economics and contributes to an approach to environmental policy which diverges from mainstream prescriptions. The 'socio-technical system' is the core concept: this is a complex made of co-evolving institutions, technologies, markets and actors that fulfils an overall societal need (such as housing, production, mobility, etc.). A systemic and dynamic analysis of those structural changes which are needed to create more sustainable socio-technical systems is provided; actors – and their ability to influence politics and policy – are explicitly taken into consideration. Unsustainable socio-technical systems feature a relevant resistance to change, because they are embedded in the very structure of our society and because of the conservative action of dominant stakeholders; this is why no environmental policy will be effective unless it aims at 'unlocking' our societies from their dominance. But also a constructive side of environmental policy is needed in order to establish new and more sustainable socio-technical systems; consistently, environmental policy is viewed as a combination of actions that can trigger, make viable and align those institutional, technological and economic changes which are needed to reach sustainability. Again, actors (for change) are at the heart of this vision of environmental policy: as subject, because the creation of new and sustainable socio-technical systems is made possible by (coalitions of) actors for change; as object, because environmental policy – to be effective – must actively support the empowerment, legitimation and social networking of such coalitions. A ‘chicken and egg’ problem remains: who comes first? Actors for change advocating policies for sustainability or policies for sustainability supporting actors for change?
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