Lost in Transition

Arif Yusop
5 min readJan 22, 2024


Reclaiming our future in the transition

As we grapple with the challenges of the climate crisis and unfolding converging crises, the conversation around the great (sustainability) transition has become profoundly disorienting. Various governments, businesses and organizations have devised distinctive strategies and programs to progress towards different versions of a sustainable and resilient future. In probing these complex strategies, jumping on the nearest bandwagon is tempting. Yet we were often left questioning our intentions, realigning discussions to ask the same big question: What future are we transitioning to?

Superficial Pragmatism: Techno-utopian Green Transition

Perspectives on sustainability transition span a wide spectrum of ideas and approaches. By examining the extremes, we can make sense of the complex nuances. At one end are the dominant loud voices promoting technological and market-based solutions, envisioning a smooth transition powered by innovation and efficiency gains. When we speak of this vision of transition, the instinct is to look towards global events like the annual UN climate summits for signs of progress. Governments and international organizations put forward elaborate decarbonization frameworks that promise sustainability through technological change and policy tweaks. On the surface, these plans appear comprehensive.

Yet scrutinized through a justice lens, many of these proposals disguise business-as-usual with inflated rhetoric. Despite rhetorical commitments to “net zero”, the underlying economic and geopolitical dynamics remain unchanged. Powerful incumbent interests are left intact, while those least responsible for climate change suffer its gravest impacts.

It’s tempting to cling to these institutional proposals optimistically, overlooking how they leave deep inequities and unsustainable politics undisturbed. But conferences like COP28 exemplified the hollow theatrics and inaction underlying many sustainability initiatives centred on the current neoliberal order. Even well-meaning sustainability plans risk reinforcing past and present harms if they fail to challenge structural political and economic drivers.

Between the extremes, a bit further away from the techno-utopian landscape lie approaches like circular economy models that aim to incrementally modify industrial practices to be more cyclical and less wasteful. Circular principles propose redesigning production systems, business models, and material flows to eliminate waste and mimic natural ecological loops.

At first glance, circular economy concepts seem like a promising sustainability solution. However, critics argue circularity risks being co-opted into business-as-usual without deeper reforms. Cosmetic alterations that make capitalism appear more sustainable could distract the impetus for structural change.

As sustainability researcher Raz Godelnik claims, the end of “sustainability-as-usual” is imminent. Surface-level tweaks to capitalism cannot lead to real ecological integrity and social justice. What’s needed is a transformation of the dominant economic paradigm itself.

Deep Radicals: Systemic Transition
On the other end of the spectrum are advocates for deep, systemic transformation who see our current converging crises as symptoms of fundamental flaws in mainstream modern worldviews and ideologies. From this perspective, the predominant social paradigm based on endless economic growth, hyper-individualism, and human domination over nature is neither ecologically sustainable nor leads to human flourishing.

Proponents of this view believe achieving sustainability requires more than reforms — it necessitates a “Great Ontological Shift” to entirely new(or probably ancient) models of worldview towards human prosperity and wellbeing. Technological advances are just useless tools without fundamental changes in our cultures, institutions, ethics, and ways of living symbiotically with Earth. This entails moving beyond narrow concepts of sustainability to embrace bold visions of regeneration, resilience, and radical reconnection between humanity and the natural world.

Advocates in this camp argue that current crises signal the end of business-as-usual. Safeguarding livable futures demands redesigning systems premised on extraction, exploitation, and maximizing profits as their core objective. It means fostering post-capitalist, commons-centric, indigenous-inspired civilizational paradigms centred on solidarity, care, justice, and living lightly within ecological boundaries. From this vantage point, only such a bold transformation of the human enterprise itself can build thriving, just futures for people and planet.

Alternatives: Beyond Transition

Academic fields like sustainability transitions research and transition design offer richer lenses for understanding system change over time. Transition studies analyze how socio-technical systems historically shift through niche innovations, incumbent regimes and external landscape influences, to inform strategic interventions.

Transition design also recognizes design’s potential role in catalyzing and shaping transitions through participatory visioning and planning processes guided by new frameworks for cosmopolitan ethics. Such approaches explore empowering grassroots actors and envisioning alternative futures.

Going forward, greater coordination between diverse approaches may help link insights while focusing efforts. Shared goals like climate justice and human/ecological well-being could provide guidance, allowing room for localized adaptation. But transformative change ultimately requires courage to reimagine our economic models and confront entrenched interests maintaining the status quo.

Transition requires moving beyond isolated efficiency improvements or technological upgrades. It demands reimagining the purpose of economic activity and our models of development. Are material accumulation and GDP growth still appropriate priorities, or must we embrace post-growth economics organized around human thriving and ecological regeneration?

Further along the spectrum of transformative ideas are alternative perspectives on economics that highlight the flaws of our growth-obsessed systems. Thinkers like Kate Raworth have outlined new frameworks like Doughnut Economics that prioritize human wellbeing and ecological stability rather than GDP growth. This “growth agnostic” approach sees growth not as an end in itself, but merely a means to higher goals of social justice and environmental sustainability when designed thoughtfully. Growth that surpasses ecological limits or fails to meet human needs is rejected.

Degrowth and post-growth schools of thought offer fundamental critiques of the growth imperative ingrained in modern capitalist economies. They argue that infinite material expansion on a finite planet is impossible; we must intentionally contract resource use and energy demands, especially in high-consuming societies. Degrowth advocates call for equitably downscaling production and consumption, through measures like resource caps, progressive taxation, work-time reduction, and new social indicators. This liberates human pursuits from the ceaseless pressures of economic expansion. Post-growth takes a similar approach but emphasizes meeting human needs over growth per se. It envisions post-capitalist economies that provide dignified livelihoods, strengthen communities, foster ecological stewardship, and nurture human development. Degrowth and post-growth perspectives see sacrificing these deeper goals at the altar of GDP growth as irrational and unethical. They offer vital frameworks for sustainability transitions that transcend growth dependence while increasing the quality of life. Rethinking progress is crucial as crises mount; these schools of thought help expand transition imaginations beyond green growth illusions.

These schools of thought help broaden the horizon of what constitutes just and equitable transition. They encourage moving beyond narrow measures like GDP which perversely incentivize growth at all costs. This fixation on infinite expansion is utterly at odds with planetary boundaries.

Alternative economics perspectives allow us to envision post-capitalist systems oriented around provisioning for human and ecological wellbeing within sustainable scale. They take core issues of inequality, alienation, and environmental harm embedded in modern capitalism seriously rather than dismissing them as necessary trade-offs.

The depth and diversity of heterodox economic thinking are crucial for imagining civilizational transitions that transcend growth-addicted paradigms. These ideas open space for creativity in designing economies for thriving, flourishing futures.

The paths ahead require hope in grassroots visioning beyond dominant fossil-fuel geopolitics. By imagining compassionate system change, we can build transitions where no one is sacrificed. But achieving this demands examining whose dominant narratives have been considered mainly in the shared vision, and what narratives have been perpetually secluded. Now, we need to realign our discussions to ask a hopefully better question this time: Whose transition and whose future?



Arif Yusop

Arif Yusop is constantly unlearning & appreciating the entangled underlying structures of problems via design projects and challenges of our degrading planet.