STS - conferences, IST2012

Font Size: 
Exploring the transformative capacity of bottom-up initiatives in the food and energy systems
Anna Schreuer, Sandra Karner

Last modified: 2012-03-20


With rising concerns over sustainability, both the energy system and the food system have come under increasing pressure over the last years, and various efforts have been made aiming at a transformation towards more sustainable systems of provision. However, efforts towards such transformation processes have not only taken the form of top-down regulations and programmes. Also grassroots initiatives have played an important role in the process. In the energy sector grassroots initiatives have supported the diffusion of renewable energy technologies, pioneered technology development and developed new forms of socio-economic organisation, such as energy cooperatives. Similarly, concerns over the effects of a food system largely based on large-scale agro-food enterprises have led to the emergence of several bottom-up initiatives aiming to establish more sustainable modes of food production and consumption.

This paper presents findings from case study research on bottom-up initiatives in the food and energy systems in Austria and explores the ways in which they have challenged existing regimes. Case studies in the food system include a food coop established by young urban people, who buy collectively from organic farms; a farmers’ association cooperating with an organic wholesale trading company, which emerged from a producer-consumer cooperative; and a farmer-business cooperation. Case studies in the energy system include collective citizen ownership of wind power and a ‘green electricity trading platform’.

The paper highlights that the alternatives developed by these initiatives may challenge different dimensions of a regime (e.g. technologies, socio-economic relations, guiding principles; see also Smith 2007) in various ways. Furthermore, by exploring the ways in which alternatives developed by these initiatives have established themselves or diffused into the mainstream, the paper argues that some challenges (alternative technologies and products) have more readily diffused into the regime than others (alternative forms of socio-economic relations).