Sjoerd Bakker has been a senior researcher at FreedomLab since 2018, engaged particularly with the topics of technology, society and sustainability. His book From Luxury to Necessity, written at the thinktank, considers what past innovation dynamics can tell us about the changes we are currently witnessing. Now, he is glancing into the future, researching how the Second Deep Transition will impact society and the economy. In this interview, team members Victória Ferreira and Joep Schot ask Sjoerd about Deep Transitions, how we got into our current predicament and the path towards sustainability.
Victória: Let's start from the beginning: what is a Deep Transition and why is it relevant to us?
Sjoerd: A Deep Transition is a combination of changes in multiple systems, such as energy, food and mobility, that are all going in the overall same direction. It is a long-term process that completely transforms how societies work. The society we live in now is a product of the First Deep Transition, which started with the industrial revolution in the late 19th century. Its consequences were the increased levels of wealth and welfare in the Global North, but also climate change, global ecological degradation and rising social inequality.
It comes as no surprise then that the severity of the current social and ecological crises calls for another Deep Transition to fix these structural problems. This process should address all major systems and create the basis for a fundamentally sustainable and just future. Note that we're talking here about systems, not organizations or industries. In the case of mobility, for example, it goes beyond car manufacturers; including urban planning, public transport, taxation, etcetera. In many ways, the Second Deep Transition is trying to right the wrongs of the first one, combating climate change, ecological degradation and social inequality. The first shift led to a societal one-track mind on output maximization in terms of GDP growth, creating an economy which is linear and reliant on economies of scale. As a consequence, we must deal with the ramifications of this model: an uninhabitable planet caused by overconsumption and a disregard for the inherent scarcity of resources.
"In many ways, the Second Deep Transition is trying to right the wrongs of the first one, combating climate change, ecological degradation and social inequality."
Joep: Having arrived at this critical juncture, where do we go from here? What will the Second Deep Transition look like?
Sjoerd: This is not about doing things slightly differently: we need a new set of what we call metarules, the guiding principles that prescribe how we live, consume, produce, etcetera. These rules address the fundamental ways in which we think about society and go about our relationships with ourselves and the world around us. For example, taxation is now mostly based on labor, but we would probably be better off with taxes based on resource use and environmental and societal impact. Likewise, changes in the mobility system should not merely address the shift from combustion to electric engines. It must also include stepping away from a paradigm dominated by cars and private ownership to a system based on multiple modalities and shared vehicles.
The seven changes in metarules for the Second Deep Transition that we are elaborating in our Deep Transition Framework are the following:
Victória: What's the role innovation has to play in Deep Transitions?
Sjoerd: Transitions are all about innovation, but not just technological innovation. Social and institutional innovations are at least as important as all of these together shape new ways of living. The First Deep Transition, for example, introduced electricity, trains and automobiles into our world, changing our everyday practices and beliefs accordingly.
Therefore, I am very interested in understanding why we end up with the technologies we end up with; what technological innovations gain a firm foothold in society and what other innovations do we reject? However, this does not mean that technology determines our future; it is still up to us to decide what we do with these technologies and how we shape our societies.
Indeed, to me it feels as if we are currently at a junction between, on the one hand, a terrible world plagued by various ecological, social and geopolitical crises, and, on the other hand, an almost utopian world in which we decide to organize our societies and economies in a much more sustainable and just manner. Of course, technology plays a role in this, but it really is only one part of the story.
"To me it feels as if we are currently at a junction between, on the one hand, a terrible world plagued by various ecological, social and geopolitical crises, and, on the other hand, an almost utopian world in which we decide to organize our societies and economies in a much more sustainable and just manner."
Joep: So for you, what exactly are we striving toward? What is the grand goal?
Sjoerd: Deep sustainability! Having practices and systems in place that could continue forever without harming ourselves or the planet. This means that individuals as well as public and private decision-makers need to rethink their primary objectives. Instead of thinking in terms of private wealth and consumption as our ultimate life goals, we should consider how we can make our lives structurally better and thus focus on our collective well-being. I know this is an ambitious goal, maybe even naïve, but I actually enjoy the challenge of developing a more sustainable lifestyle. Personally speaking, it has been an additional source of meaning and purpose to my life.