It’s not the market, stupid: On the importance of non-market exchange in scaling innovations for sustainability transitions

Koen Beumer, H. Maat

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingAbstractAcademic


The obsession with ‘scalability’ is highly visible in the field of sustainability transitions. Driven by a sense of urgency about planetary catastrophe, both sustainability theories and practices are strongly shaped by the requirement for their interventions to be scalable. In this paper, we examine and dissect the main
mechanism for scaling in theories of sustainability transitions: the market. Defined as exchanges mediated by money where prices are established through supply and demand, sustainability theories widely assume that market formation is critical for sustainability innovations to scale. Their recommendations therefore focus largely on promoting commodification and market exchange. We criticize the assumption that markets are central to scaling on two accounts. First, empirically, we use the case of the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) to demonstrate that sustainable innovations can travel widely without relying on market exchange. Drawing on earlier studies and fieldwork in India (Prasad, Beumer & Mohanty 2007; Maat, Venot & Glover 2017), we show that this innovative method of rice cultivation traveled to farmers across India through non-commercial exchanges (and its travels would be obstructed when creating the markets that are envisioned by sustainability theories). Second, theoretically, we criticize the reconfiguration of political and economic power that comes with the reliance on markets. Drawing on work in economic history and anthropology (e.g. Polanyi 1944; Mauss 1950; Graeber 2011), we argue that understanding scaling as being ‘embedded’ in a wider set of institutions for exchange, is empirically more accurate and opens
up the politics of scaling to democratic considerations.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationSociety for Social Studies of Science 2021 Annual Meeting, "Virtual Toronto"
Subtitle of host publicationProgram with abstracts
Publication statusPublished - 8 Oct 2021
Event4S ANNUAL MEETING, 6-9 October 2021 - ONLINE
Duration: 6 Oct 20219 Oct 2021


Conference4S ANNUAL MEETING, 6-9 October 2021
Internet address


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