Mine with large construction crane
The current socio-ecological transformation is causing and exacerbating socio-political conflicts. | Photo: Jandira Sonnendeck, Unsplash

Socio-ecological Transformation Conflicts: A Central Field of Conflict and Research in the 21st Century

Conflicts over climate and energy policy, security and geopolitical dimensions of global decarbonisation, or human and environmental rights violations in global value chains: The current socio-ecological transformation is causing new and exacerbating existing socio-political conflicts that will characterise the 21st century. The new working group on socio-ecological transformation conflicts, which introduces some of its fields of research in this blog series, brings together existing expertise on these conflicts at PRIF.

This blog post marks the start of a new blog series on socio-ecological transformation conflicts initiated by the PRIF working group of the same name. The “socio-ecological transformation” that is currently taking place – which can be fundamentally defined as a far-reaching “worldwide remodelling of economy and society towards sustainability” (WBGU) – is accompanied by a multitude of social conflicts. In addition to overcoming the global climate crisis, “ecological sustainability” also aims to tackle biodiversity loss and pollution problems. We understand the term “sustainability transformation” to be explicitly normative, namely that this transformation is desirable because it is necessary.

We also consciously combine social and ecological perspectives in our work. This is based on the realisation that in the context of the “Anthropocene”, the social and the ecological are mutually constitutive. Both levels are indispensable for an analysis of transformation conflicts. This insight also seems to be crystallising in the research landscape on socio-ecological transformation and its conflicts, even if there may be different focuses on the ecological problem pressure and the social conflicts resulting from it depending on the different fields of research.

In any case, the social relevance of analysing socio-ecological transformation conflicts should be uncontroversial in academic discourse: The recent “polycrisis” emphasises that these conflicts are likely to gain further significance and intensify in the 21st century. In the spirit of Karl Polanyi’s “Great Transformation”, it can be assumed that not only the socio-ecological transformation, but also the conflicts surrounding this transformation will be of decisive importance for social coexistence in the 21st century. These conflicts can and should therefore be at the centre of conflict research on socio-ecological transformation.

What Are Socio-ecological Transformation Conflicts?

So, what exactly are socio-ecological transformation conflicts? At first glance, we include conflicts as diverse as those over climate and energy policy, security and geopolitical dimensions of global decarbonisation, climate protests and democratic regression in urban areas, or conflicts over human rights and environmental standards in global value chains.

These are conflicts that take place on very different political fields and levels – local, national, regional, global and planetary – but which are similar in their fundamental problems. This link between the global and local levels of conflict is illustrated, for example, by the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine with its destruction of local ecosystems and the resulting distribution conflicts in global supply chains (for example in the area of food) as well as in German energy policy. This example of multiple interlinked lines of conflict emphasises the difficulty of predicting socio-ecological transformation conflicts as well as the importance of further research into them.

This raises classic questions of peace and conflict research, such as power structures and hierarchies (e.g. between actors in the Global North/South), violent and peaceful conflict resolution, political, economic, and social inequality, diplomacy, NGOs and social movements, or the role of law and international institutions.

It is important to note that, in addition to the conflicts over distribution, values and goals in the course of socio-ecological transformations, mere transformations of existing conflicts and productive or positive conflict structures are also possible. The conversion of fossil economic structures, for example, offers emancipatory potential in many respects in order to realise just and sustainable forms of society and economy (in the context of “just transitions”, among others). Social protests as well as national and international regulations are the expression and result of these conflicts. At the same time, however, these regulations also remain the subject of further conflicts, as the debates surrounding the implementation of the Social Development Goals (SDGs) or the German Supply Chain Due Diligence Act (SCDDA) illustrate. Existing or emerging norms and institutions are repeatedly contested and politicised, as recently demonstrated by the German blockade of the EU Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive (CSDDD) at the last minute and after a successful trilogue.

From a crisis-prevention perspective, it also seems useful to examine socio-ecological conflict potentials through interdisciplinary dialogues with colleagues from the natural sciences. Without this scientific expertise, potential conflicts that can arise from non-linear ecological dynamics only come into view when they have already manifested themselves as social conflicts. A current example of this is the finding from polar research that critical glacier systems in the West Antarctic are already collapsing under current emission pathways and could irreversibly lead to significant global sea level rise. In the context of this man-made environmental change, academic circles are increasingly discussing the idea of glacial geoengineering, i.e. the attempt to stabilise glacier systems through artificial infrastructures.

At the same time, analysing the potential for conflict arising from these scientific findings requires expertise from peace and conflict research in order to be able to analyse the processes of possible adaptation measures to Anthropocene conditions and their socio-political negotiation. After all, conflicts are virtually unavoidable here: who, for example, is weighing up whether to damage Antarctic ecosystems through geoengineering infrastructure in order to protect coastal cities from rising sea levels? Which interests are prioritised in the area of conflict between sustainability and social compatibility? Who bears what costs, who benefits and to what extent? How are the associated political, social, economic, and ecological trade-offs and decisions justified and criticised? And (how) can these socio-ecological transformation conflicts be dealt with constructively?

Socio-ecological Transformation Conflicts as a Field of Research at PRIF

These and other questions are at the centre of the new working group on socio-ecological transformation conflicts at PRIF. The working group bundles existing and planned research and expertise on this topic at the institute and brings different strands into dialogue with each other. It sees itself as a contribution to the planned establishment of a cross-cutting research area “environment and conflict” in the PRIF research programme. The disciplinary, thematic, and methodological orientation of the working group is deliberately broad and offers political, sociological, and ethnographic perspectives and thus pluralistic approaches to an increasingly important field of conflict. The working group also plans to cooperate with public, political, and other scientific actors, such as the Institute for Social-Ecological Research (ISOE) in Frankfurt am Main.

This diversity of research in the working group is also emphasised in this blog series: in the next blog post of the series, Lillie Hafner and Hendrik Simon comment on the relationship between social and ecological rights in the German Supply Chain Act, while Patrick Flamm and Stefan Kroll will deal with environmental (in)security in the context of the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine. Other planned topics in the blog series will include climate protests and constitutional law, the Social Development Goals, energy policy, and transformation conflicts in urban areas.

Hendrik Simon

Hendrik Simon

Hendrik Simon ist wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am PRIF im Programmbereich „Transnationale Politik“. Er forscht zu Normen in der internationalen Politik und der Rolle des Völkerrechts. // Hendrik Simon is a Researcher at PRIF's research department “Transnational Politics”. He researches norms in international politics and the role of international law.
Patrick Flamm

Patrick Flamm

Dr. Patrick Flamm ist wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am PRIF im Programmbereich „Internationale Sicherheit“. Seine Forschung konzentriert sich auf das Verhältnis zwischen Umwelt, Frieden und Sicherheit im „Anthropozän“ sowie auf polare Geopolitik. // Dr Patrick Flamm is a Senior Researcher at PRIF in the research department “International Security”. His research focuses on the relationship between the environment, peace and security in the “Anthropocene” as well as on polar geopolitics.

Hendrik Simon

Hendrik Simon ist wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am PRIF im Programmbereich „Transnationale Politik“. Er forscht zu Normen in der internationalen Politik und der Rolle des Völkerrechts. // Hendrik Simon is a Researcher at PRIF's research department “Transnational Politics”. He researches norms in international politics and the role of international law.

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