My work in this area addresses the general problem of how to achieve a transition in large sociotechnical systems (e.g., buildings, transportation, electricity, food) to more sustainable levels. I am particularly interested in the factors that lead to advances or stasis in such transitions, such as the opening and closing of the political opportunity structure for green-energy transition policies. I also examine the implications of policy failure and the relationship between the sustainability and adaptation transitions.
I have written a three-volume series that begins with the problem of the slow pace of the transition in the U.S. of socio-technical systems (electrictiy, transportation, buildings, agriculture, urban design, etc.) to more sustainable levels. The three volumes examine different types of social movements and their capacity to open the political opportunity structure.
2007 I published the first volume:Alternative Pathways in Science and Industry: Activism, Innovation, and the Environment in an Era of Globalization (MIT Press). One of the central arguments of the book is that social movements play a generative role in scientific and technological change, rather than merely a role of opposing some new forms of technology or demanding access to others. However, I also explored the limitations of social movements and the tendency for the movements for sustainability and/or justice in the United States to achieve partial victories. The book introduced the concept of the "incorporation and transformation" of organizations and alternative designs into existing industries and socio-technical regimes, and it drew attention to the role of industrial opposition movements and technology- and product-oriented movements. The book won the Robert K. Merton award from the American Sociological Association.
In 2009 I published Localist Movements in a Global Economy: Sustainability, Justice, and Urban Development in the United States (MIT Press). The book examines American movements for increased local ownership, including "buy local" organizations, community gardens, reuse centers, and community media. I look especially for the points of intersection with sustainability and justice goals. See the separate web page on Localism and Sustainability.
The third volume, Good Green Jobs in a Global Economy: Making and Keeping New Industries in the United States, examines the politics of green energy policy reform in the United States. The social movement focus here is on "green transition coalitions," or the coalitions of labor, environmental, urban poverty, and clean-energy businesses. This book builds on the NSF-funded 2010 research project (see below) by taking a more theoretical look at the significance of green industrial policy in the U.S. There is both a methodological and theoretical argument. Methodologically, I argue first that there is a need for a sociological approach to sustainability transitions (see the next section) that focuses on political ideology, coalitions, and scalar dynamics. The book tracks the fortunes of green industrial policy at the state and local government level and also at the federal government level during the Obama administration. Theoretically, the overarching thesis is historical: the politics of the green transition in the United States are now deeply interwoven with the relative decline of the United States in the global economy and the rise of newly industrializing countries. As a result, developmentalist ideology, which had been prominent in the country throughout the nineteenth century, is re-emerging. Developmentalism involves a reinvigorated industrial policy and a more defensive position with respect to trade. This argument ties in with my general work on political ideology (see the page on political ideology).
Green Industrial Policy
I am currently developing several articles on political factors that affect the progress of green-energy policies.
2013 "Industrial Fields and Countervailing Power: The Transformation of Distributed Solar Energy in the United States." This paper was given at the Conference on Grassroots Innovation, University of Sussex, and it has been accepted for publication in Global Environmental Change for a special issue on "grassroots innovation." It tracks the marginalization of local ownership in the development of distributed solar energy in the U.S. The paper engages transition theory by developing the thesis of countervailing power in sustainability transitions. Prepublication version here
2012 "Green Energy Laws and Republican Legislators in the United States." By Jonathan Coley and David Hess. Energy Policy 48 (1): 576-583. This a a companion piece to the book that goes into more detail for some of the issues in the last chapter. It uses a 6000-variable database on state legislature votes for renewable electricity standards and property-assessed clean energy laws to assess the factors that affect Republican votes and the potential for bipartisanship. Final prepublication draft here.
Adaptation, Sustainability, and Transitions
This group of studies has engaged in a conversation with research on the transition of industries and socio-technical systems (such as the electricity or transportation system) to more sustainable configurations. As such, I am engaging transition theory mainly by studying the problem of the slow pace of transitions. In some of the papers I argue that the slow pace is bringing about a pattern of interacting transitions, with societies forced increasingly to engage in an adaptation transition alongside a sustainability transition. In the essay in the volume edited by Maurie Cohen, which was selected from papers presented at a SCORAI workshop, I develop this argument. Second, in my book Good Green Jobs in a Global Economy and in some of the papers, I also argue for the need to focus on the political contestation of sustainability policies and the role of green transition coalitions, established industry coalitions, and countervailing industrial power.
2013. “Transitions in Energy Systems: The Mitigation-Adaptation Relationship.” Forthcoming in Science as Culture, special issue on energy futures..
2013 “Sustainable Consumption, Energy, and Failed Transitions: The Problem of Adaptation.” In Maurie Cohen, Halina Brown, and Philip Vergragt (ed.), Innovations in Sustainable Consumption: New Economics, Socio-Technical Transitions, and Social Practices. Edward Elgar. Paper here.
2010. "Sustainable Consumption and the Problem of Resilience." Sustainability: Science, Practice, Policy. 6(2): 1-12. Open source, available at the journal web site. Link here.
The project, a report on state and local government policies in the United States, was developed during the summer of 2010 in an NSF-funded summer training seminar, at the height of the federal government's initiatives on green jobs policies. The project involved over 50 interviews with representatives of state and local programs and advocacy organizations to describe the state of green jobs and green economic development, and it served as the starting point for the line of research described on this page. The policy analysis was used principally at the state and local government level. I am also happy to say that several of the PhD students who worked on the project are now completing dissertations related to green jobs and sustainability issues as well. It also led to a presentation at NYSERDA and request for a a report (below)..
Building Clean-Energy Industries and Green Jobs (6MB; best viewed if downloaded)
Some programs may give a virus message due to the size of the file. You may want to open the text-based version
Building Clean-Energy Industries and Green Jobs text version (3MB) or the Executive Summary (4MB)
Report by states and cities (quick entry if you are interested in just one state or city)
The research report is independent of political affiliations, parties, and nongovernmental advocacy organizations. Research was supported by the National Science Foundation’s Program on Science and Technology Studies for the grant “The Greening of Economic Development” (SES-0947429). Some of the other research publications were partially based on the research project, and acknowledgements are given where applicable in the publications. The grant enabled a summer training seminar led by David Hess (then a professor of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), with support from coinvestigator Abby Kinchy (then an assistant professor of Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute). Eight doctoral students in the social sciences who focus on science, technology, and environmental studies were selected for participation in the seminar based on a national competition. The training seminar enabled coursework and hands-on experience for the graduate students based on interviews and documentary research for sections of this report. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this report are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation or of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.