Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Bounding the Planetary Future"

Maarten HajerMarcel KokKathrin Ludwig

Maarten Hajer, Marcel Kok, and Kathrin Ludwig

Frames can be more important than questions. That we need something of a “Great Transition” is clear to most of us working in the area of sustainable development. Yet we need to think of using frames that connect different agendas and thus different stakeholders, identify obstacles and hurdles that need to be overcome, and, above all, identify ways forward. That is, of course, what Johan Rockström is trying to achieve: secure world development within a “safe and just operating space” that “reconnects human development with the biosphere.”

The concept of planetary boundaries raises awareness for the need for a transition to a development paradigm within global sustainability targets. It seems to have caught on in highest circles of international diplomacy. Perhaps this can help to mobilize governments to take necessary action, actions they are currently too often not taking. However, we are worried that the planetary boundaries framework implicitly promotes top-down global governance schemes. We have labelled this thinking “cockpit-ism”: the illusion that steering by governments and intergovernmental organizations can address global problems.

Rockström’s paper calls for stronger global governance for meeting planetary boundary requirements to stimulate innovation, adaptation, and market-based solutions at various scales. He refers to the Montreal Protocol as a possible model. Yet, can the Montreal Protocol approach be seen as a blueprint for other environmental problems? The vision of how to achieve the Great Transition is a two-track approach. The fast track is one of a series of global measures to nudge our dangerous development paradigm away from the most immediate risks. As this will not suffice, the longer track to a Great Transition will entail a profound mind shift towards universal values that reconnect world development with a resilient earth.

The deeper—essentially social scientific—question to us is where will this change be coming from? Hence, we want to connect a new way of seeing environmental problems through the PB lens to the search for new constellations of governance.

At the moment, we do not see the countries in the multilateral system being able to initiate the necessary changes towards a Great Transition, nor do we see the “radical incremental” changes to implement the necessary measures. The many international environmental agreements have so far not succeeded at solving the very problems they were designed to address.

In the context of the SDG debate, we have suggested that additional perspectives on sustainable development are needed to mobilize action from different agents of change such as businesses, civil society, citizens, and cities.1 These include, first of all, “the safe and just operating space” to highlight the interconnectedness of social and environmental concerns and address the deep equity concerns inherent to the debate between North and South; secondly, “the energetic society” perspective building on the broader willingness in society to take action; and thirdly, “green competition” to stimulate innovation and new practices in the business community.

These perspectives are neither entirely novel nor entirely separable. Yet, they can help in reorienting the debate and responding to the various motives and logics of change that drive and characterize different agents of change in society.

We suggest a “pragmatic approach” to global environmental governance that embraces the potential of new agents of change and creates enabling conditions in which they can maximize positive impacts, in addition to efforts of governments and the multi-lateral system. Such a system of “overlays” would add capacity and perspective rather than putting all eggs in the basket of multilateral agreements. This could work. In the PBL report Roads from Rio+20, written in the run-up to the Rio+20 conference, we illustrated possible pathways for “food, agriculture and biodiversity” and “energy, climate and air pollution” to stay within a safe and just operating space.2 An international “energetic society” perspective highlights the transformative potential of the multiple initiatives for sustainable development taken by various agents of change within societies around the world to create a Great Transition.3 These actors are articulate and autonomous citizens, civil society initiatives, self-organized farmers, cities, and innovative companies that take action in highly diverse development contexts. Different logics of change are at play: actors may be motivated by a genuine concern for sustainability, or by new opportunities arising from sustainability challenges.

In many countries, governments are retreating from the direct provision of public goods. In a context of limited political will at both the national and international level for far-reaching action in the sustainability domain, the energetic society steps in and provides public services ranging from the creation of more green areas through local energy provision to the provision of knowledge and information, for instance through citizen science. It is this process of broad societal activism that may spur governments into action. At the same time, these agents of change often do not find sufficient support from international and national policies. Governments are still in a learning process of how to most fruitfully facilitate and engage with the energetic society. Such an engagement would require governments to remove regulations that undermine efforts for sustainability and provide an enabling and regulatory framework that supports the actions new agents of change are taking in an energetic society.

1. Maarten Hajer et al., “Beyond Cockpit-ism: Four Insights to Enhance the Transformative Potential of the Sustainable Development Goals,” Sustainability 7, no. 2 (February 2015): 1651-1660,
2. PBL Netherlands Environment Agency, Roads from Rio+20: Pathways to Achieve Global Sustainability Goals by 2050 (The Hague: PBL Netherlands Environment Agency, 2012),
3. Maarten Hajer, The Energetic Society: In Search of a Governance Philosophy for a Clean Economy (The Hague: PBL Netherlands Environment Agency, 2011),

Maarten Hajer
Maarten Hajer is Director-General of PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency, a position he has held since 2008. He is the author of many books, including Authoritative Governance: Policy Making in the Age of Mediatization (2009).

Marcel Kok
Marcel Kok is Environment and Development Programme Leader and Senior Researcher at PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. His research concentrates on mainstreaming biodiversity, bottom-up approaches to global governance, sustainable supply chains, and vulnerability analysis.

Kathrin Ludwig
Kathrin Ludwig is a Junior Policy Researcher in Global Environmental Governance at PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency. Her research interests include global biodiversity governance and innovative governance approaches in the sustainability domain.

Cite as Maarten Hajer, Marcel Kok, and Kathrin Ludwig, contribution to GTI Roundtable "Bounding the Planetary Future," Great Transition Initiative (April 2015),

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