Context | Aim of the transformation: Switzerland in the Donut by 2050 | Reducing material and energy flows: sobriety


The unsustainability of our societies’ current functioning is widely documented. Similarly, the objectives to be achieved to address this situation are well known, at least in broad terms. They are based on the current state of scientific knowledge, which has reached sufficient consensus to be included in many statements of political intent. The aim is to prevent human activities from causing disruptions to the natural environment that exceed some critical thresholds, beyond which the stability and proper functioning of the various (eco)systems that make up the "earth system" can no longer be guaranteed. In addition to this environmental objective, embodied by the model of the planetary boundaries (Röckstrom et al. 2009), there is a need to ensure the basic needs and well-being of all, from a social justice perspective. In a report published in 2019, the UN stressed the need for "an urgent and intentional transformation of socioenvironmental-economic systems, differentiated across countries but also adding up to the desired regional and global outcomes, to ensure human well-being, societal health and limited environmental impact" to achieve the sustainable development goals (ONU, 2019, p. xxi).

Current knowledge shows that because of, on the one hand,  the scale of the reduction needed in environmental impacts to achieve this objective, and on the other hand, the significant inequalities in the distribution of well-being, the societal changes to be pursued will have to be significant and even radical, in the etymological sense of the term. This calls for looking beyond mere treatment of the symptoms (environmental and social issues), by identifying their underlying causes and devising  alternatives. To this end, we need to gain a better understanding of the processes and dynamics at work, which influence, structure or condition our collective progress along the path to ecological and social transformation.

The "Sustainability Transformation Research Initiative" (STRIVE), a research programme launched in 2024 by the University of Lausanne (UNIL), aims to study this fundamental and systemic issue. Drawing on contributions from a wide range of disciplines, mainly from the humanities and social sciences, it aims to provide coordinated, cross-disciplinary answers to questions such as:

  • How do we transform a society?
  • What are the social, economic and political constraints, obstacles and blocking factors that slow down or prevent transformation? And how can they be overcome?
  • What leverages and instruments, in a broad sense, can facilitate or accelerate it?
  • How can we gain a better understanding of the various options available and shed light on the many societal choices that must inevitably be discussed if we are to complete the journey towards a sustainable and fair socio-economic system?
  • What lessons can be learned from existing knowledge, and how can it be mobilised to facilitate change?
  • What role can or should the various spheres of action (civil society, private enterprises, public sector) play in this transformation? And what role can and should research play in this?

The Swiss Academy of Sciences (SCNAT) believes that the creation of broad, integrated and transdisciplinary research programmes in the field of sustainability research is a priority. Its report entitled "Lighthouse Programmes in Sustainability Research and Innovation" (Wuelser, Edwards, 2023) specifies four essential elements to characterise such programmes: (i) embracing the complexity of sustainability issues (which implies aligning research with policy objectives and adopting a systems approach), (ii) ensuring the societal relevance of research (which implies understanding the needs and contexts on the field, taking account of the unexpected and building transformative networks), (iii) striving to produce knowledge that is likely to generate an impact and concrete transformative courses of action, and finally (iv) ensuring framework conditions enabling collaboration and the co-production of knowledge and its dissemination. STRIVE is designed to respond to these different elements.


Aim of the transformation: Switzerland in the Donut by 2050

As indicated in the contextual elements, the research programme intends to focus essentially on the processes and dynamics of transformation, rather than on a precise or quantified examination of the normative definition of what a sustainable socio-economic system means. It chooses a given normative framework to allow the construction, in broad terms, of a common vision of the goals targeted by the transformation process, as well as to allow the various researchers involved to conduct research that is coherent and coordinated with the other STRIVE projects or sub-projects. The most important thing is to be clear about what we're aiming for and how much change is needed.

Donut_EN.pngThe STRIVE programme is based on the Donut model created by Kate Raworth, economist at the University of Oxford. This normative framework aims to rethink the dominant socio-economic system so that its impacts stay within a safe and just operating space. To remain within this safe space, the impact of socio-economic activities should stay below an ecological ceiling set by planetary boundaries, which are thresholds of disturbance to natural processes that must not be crossed to ensure the stability of the Earth system (Steffen et al. 2015; Rockström et al. 2009). To remain within a just space, we need to ensure that a social foundation is respected, comprising the basic needs and minimum determinants of well-being that should enable everyone to lead a dignified life. The parameters of the social foundation are not, however, conceived as a definitive list, and certain parameters may vary depending on the regions of the world, cultures and scales considered. The planetary boundaries and the social foundation define the safe and just doughnut-shaped zone within which human activities should be circumscribed (Figure 1) (Raworth 2017).

Existing research on transitions stresses the need to explicitly include the diversity of contexts in which transitions occur, to avoid 'one-world views', which tend to neglect local points of view in favour of 'developmental' trajectories inspired by Western/Northern experiences. Diversity could be the key factor to a more sustainable transition and to new territorial paths (Sustainability Transitions Network, Newsletter no. 45, September 2022). One way of taking this requirement into account is to anchor the scope of STRIVE's projects and sub-projects in a well-defined territorial context. Given UNIL's institutional ties to its home territory, the context chosen is that of Switzerland. As for the time frame adopted, it covers the transformation of our socio-economic system towards a sustainable system by 2050.

The research will essentially look at the processes and dynamics that could take Switzerland from its current situation to a Switzerland whose impact in 2050 lies within the 'safe and just' space delimited by the Doughnut. From this perspective, respecting planetary boundaries means reducing the direct and indirect impacts of the whole country's consumption ("footprint" approach). This approach allows the impact of the Swiss socio-economic system abroad to be taken into account.  However, such a perspective does not rule out Switzerland's commitment at international level to encourage the pursuit of a similar objective in other territories.

Reducing material and energy flows: sobriety

To get an idea of the scale of the decrease needed to achieve the goal of a Switzerland respecting planetary boundaries, we can refer to a recent study commissioned by the federal government: "Starting from planetary boundaries, we recommend a 74% reduction in the biodiversity footprint and a 48% reduction in the eutrophication footprint (...). Given the country's existing targets (Long-Term Climate Strategy 2050 and Sustainable Development Strategy 2030), we recommend at least an 89% reduction in the greenhouse gas footprint by 2040. In terms of total environmental impact, we estimate the need for a 67% reduction, based on Switzerland's environmental targets and legal limit values" (EBP/OFEV, 2022, p. 7). Only focusing on material and energy efficiency strategies and occasional improvements is insufficient to achieve these targets. In 2013, a study estimated that "simple measures" aimed at optimising the use of resources, even extremely drastic ones, could at best lead to a 40% reduction (cf. Kissling-Näf et al. 2013, p. IV).

It appears that achieving these objectives will require an absolute reduction in the material and energy flows, which implies the implementation of sobriety strategies. Achieving these objectives will hence require a fundamental and coordinated transformation of the Swiss society and its various sectors (housing, mobility, food, energy, economy, etc.), fully justifying the use of the notion of transformation.

Therefore, the imperative of a rapid decrease in material and energy flows must guide the way in which the processes and dynamics of change will be studied within the STRIVE programme. For instance, here are a few cross-cutting questions that could be addressed by the STRIVE project: What are the obstacles making sobriety policies so difficult to implement, and how can they be overcome? How could we make the necessary decrease in energy and material flows towards a sustainable society, politically and socially acceptable, even desirable? How could we rethink and communicate the links between material and energy consumption, and well-being? How could the current economic paradigm, or the Swiss legal framework, be modified to serve the objectives of a more sober society? What are the characteristics of contemporary capitalism, favourable or unfavourable, to the various dimensions of the transformation?