Tackling material dependency in sustainability transition: rationales and insights from the agriculture sector

Luigi Pellizzoni & Laura Centemeri (2022)

Journal of Environmental Policy and Planning, Online first

Abstract. Human material dependency is hardly questioned as such. However, there are different understandings of humans’ connection with their biophysical milieu. In this paper, we discuss four basic accounts, which differ according to whether dependency and agency are assumed to be strong or weak. Though these accounts, which we label as Cartesian, Kantian, Spinozian and Adornian, are ideal-typical, we argue they express a cognitive path dependency that can be detected in the diverse ways the transition to sustainability is pursued. To show the heuristic value of the typology we focus on agriculture, as a field of major relevance in this regard. The first three rationales, respectively underpinning industrial agriculture, ecosystem services and earth restoration programmes, see material dependency as a problem to which the reply is mastering the world, though such mastery is understood differently. The fourth one, which underpins peasant agroecology, sees dependency as a constitutive – that is, unavoidable and formative – limitation, pointing to a caring, friendly attitude. We argue this outlook is crucial to a sustainability transition, and give a clue to the governance approach that may help support it.

Extract: “The multifunctionality of agriculture implies that judgment about what counts as value is preliminary to any assessment. This resonates with the Economics of Conventions school’s claim that judgments of worth are based on incommensurable metrics, each grounded on own criteria, market competition being just one (Boltanski & Thévenot, 2006). Accordingly, when observing an organized activity (in our case farming), one can notice different ways agents put material dependency into ‘forms’ (Thévenot, 1984), which allows for different types of agency to emerge. This approach brings to the fore a kind of uncertainty that touches not knowledge about reality but the situation as experienced. Acting requires interpreting what does and doesn’t count as relevant, and this depends on the experience lived and pursued. For example, a ‘wetland’ can be regarded as a resource but also as heritage, biodiversity, wilderness, dwelled place, and else, according to what agents value, for which purpose.” (p. 7)

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