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David Harnesk (photo Emilio José Bernard)

David Harnesk


David Harnesk (photo Emilio José Bernard)

Sustainability as a Real Utopia – heuristics for emancipatory sustainability research


  • David Harnesk
  • Ellinor Isgren

Summary, in English

The idea of ‘sustainability as a real utopia’ elaborated on here builds on sociologist Erik Olin Wright’s emancipatory social science and is a heuristic for interdisciplinary research on emancipatory alternatives that move society towards achieving sustainability. Starting from the proposition that socially relevant environmental problems are rooted in how social structures and institutions interact with nature through human agency, we argue that our heuristic will enrich sustainability research by providing theoretical and methodological guidelines for a transformative research agenda. We start by elaborating on the foundations of our heuristic. Then, drawing on concrete examples from sustainability research, we elaborate on the three tasks of diagnosing and critiquing environmental problems, elaborating viable alternatives, and proposing a theory of transformation. Finally we discuss, and welcome further dialogue around, two central and interlinked challenges: that of scales, and that of the distinction and relationship between reforms and transformation.


  • LUCSUS (Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies)

Publishing year




Document type

Conference paper: abstract


  • Social Sciences Interdisciplinary


  • sustainable development
  • emancipatory social science
  • sustainability science
  • real utopias

Conference name

The 8th Nordic Geographers Meeting

Conference date

2019-06-16 - 2019-06-19

Conference place

Trondheim, Norway