Geoffrey Pleyers: Social Movements and Our Common Future

Research Committee on Social Movements and Social Classes (RC47) presents:


Social Movements and Our Common Future on a Limited Planet


Geoffrey Pleyers

Contrary to economists or marketing specialists, sociologists are particularly uncomfortable when it comes to thinking about the future (Schulz, 2015a). We know too well the limits of over-determinist perspectives and wishful thinking scenarios. The current ecological crisis obliges us however to consider seriously the debate about possible futures: How will we live together on a finite planet with limited resources?

The first part of this text will briefly present and question some concepts of the future and of social change that are widespread among actors of the global environmentalist movement who take this question very seriously. In the second part, I argue that social movement studies is a particularly insightful field when it comes to possible futures, as it provides us with empirical elements that allow us to grasp dimensions of our possible futures on a limited planet. Therefore, as Markus Schulz (2015b) suggests, it is particularly insightful to articulate the sociology of the future with social movement studies.

The Ecological Challenge and Possible Future Scenarios

The natural science community has made a statement that can no longer be ignored by social scientists: the modern way of life is not sustainable. It alters fundamental geological and chemical cycles (Crutzen, 2002) and generates global warming (IPCC, 2013) at an increasing and unprecedented pace. Moreover, resources fundamental for our ways of life and economic systems will be unavailable in a few decades.

As sociologists, we can neither deny the reality of the impact of human activities on the climate and the environment, nor endorse the idea of a determinist social transition resulting from the environmental crisis. While the finitude of the planet and its resources is a fact, it does not presuppose the way human beings, institutions, and societies will deal with the challenges of living together on a limited planet. This has two reasons. First, as industrial modernity was embodied by various forms of communism and capitalism, the global age as a new social configuration does not presume a particular type of economic and political system. Secondly, the way societies will deal with the constraints of the global age depends on the outcomes of the symbolic and concrete confrontations of perceptions of the world and contrasting ways to face its main challenges. Future scenarios in a world affected by climate change are numerous, as John Urry (2012: chapter 9) shows. The “business as usual in the midst of climate deregulation” scenario is far from excluded. It dominates current policies and habits and is supported by powerful actors, which makes it the most probable option as long as the main resources (and oil in particular) remain relatively easily available.

The “redemption catastrophe” scenario has recently gained impetus. Dozens of intellectuals and thousands of citizens maintain that climate deregulation, the multiplication of natural disasters, and the depletion of natural resources will automatically lead to a “transition” towards more resilient local social organizations (Hopkins, 2009). The belief in the redemption feature of catastrophes has been constantly evoked by progressive thinkers. Some of the major actors and thinkers of the ecology (e.g., Cochet, Dupuy, and Latouche, 2012) even maintain that a catastrophe may be needed to push humanity to adopt the required changes and treat nature with more respect. This direct link between catastrophes or major crises and social change is historically false and politically dangerous. To take recent examples, the magnitude of the 1997–1998 Asian crisis has not impeded an unprecedented expansion of financial speculation in the following years, and the financial crisis that started in 2007 and is considered as the most severe since 1929 has not drastically modified economic policies and regulation of the financial sector. The political impacts of environmental hazards are an even better illustration of this. The multiplication of hurricanes in the US or the heavy pollution smog in Beijing (see Zhang & Barr, 2013) haven’t impeded the governments of the two most polluting countries from carrying on with their energy and industrial policies.

The point is not to deny that a crisis may have an impact on policies or may represent an opportunity for social actors. Nevertheless, no matter how large it is, the crisis itself will not generate social change. The latter depends on the capacity of social actors to highlight the questions spawned by the historic situation and to advance alternative political visions and economic rationality (see Pleyers, 2010: chapter 10). Social actors play a major role in raising public awareness, proposing alternative political and economic rationalities, and pushing towards a concrete implementation of alternative policies and behaviors. Moreover, actors who manage to impose their interpretation of the crisis and foster alternative political and economic rationalities are not always the progressive ones. Canadian activist and journalist Naomi Klein (2008) reminds us that the “Chicago boys” used—and produced—crises to impose neoliberal policies in various countries.

Social Movements as a Heuristic Tool for a Sociology of the Future

While over-determinist perspectives and the “redemption catastrophe” scenario should be challenged, research on and with current social movements offers empirical data for a better understanding of the future of humanity on a limited planet. The heuristic concept of social movements refers to a particular meaning of action when actors challenge major normative orientations of a society and contribute to the transformation of this society (Touraine, 1981). Therefore, by studying the meanings and conflicts raised by social movements, we can understand both the current society and elements of the emerging society these movements contribute to produce. A brilliant illustration was provided by Manuel Castells (1997), who started the second volume of his famous trilogy on the age of information by analyzing two movements that allowed him to understand some of the major transformations and influential actors of the next decade: the Zapatistas in Mexico and the Patriots in the US. The Zapatistas prefigured both the rising impact of indigenous movements in Latin America and the alter-globalization movement. The American Patriots and a grassroots conservative movement became the social constituency of the George W. Bush government and of the Tea Party. In this perspective, an urgent research question is for example “Who are the current actors who contribute to the production of a society able to cope with the challenges of living on a limited planet or, on the opposite side, who resist and build barriers against social, economic, political, and cultural adaptations to the finitude of the planet and its resources?”

The analysis of social movements provides us with two main ways to grasp elements of possible futures with empirical data: social agency on one side, prefigurative action and actors’ subjectivity on the other. Like many current movements, the movement for climate justice and ecological transition seeks to transform our society following two ways to become actors, two political cultures and conceptions of social change (Pleyers, 2010).

Social Agency

On one side, social movements are conducted by actors who contribute to produce tomorrow’s society (Touraine, 1981). Activists and intellectuals intend to transform the world and the worldview based on a critical analysis of contemporary society and on rational alternative proposals made on behalf of the public interest. Other committed researchers and activists tackle the critical pillars of the dominant economy, as the imperative of economic growth. To do so, activists act at three levels. (1) They carefully examine and criticize current policies and dominant discourse. (2) They propose concrete alternative measures such as new environmental standards or renewable energy policies. (3) They develop and promote different visions of the world and of its main challenges. By demystifying what is presented as the only worldview and demonstrating the existence of alternatives, they contribute to open new possible horizons.

The climate justice movement is however not the only actor seeking to shape our future. The way societies and humanity will address environmental and climate challenges will depend on the result of the confrontations between actors that defend different interests and promote different visions of the world. We have to analyze both progressive and conservative actors, as well as the actors and mechanisms that foster the apathy in most individual and collective actors. The analyses of conservative actors who seek to maintain the modernization status quo and from “movements from above” would require much more attention from empirical sociologists.

Prefigurative Actions

Actors of progressive social movements do not only protest and struggle against the dominant social forces. They also seek to embody elements of an alternative society it in their action. Gandhi did not only oppose British colonization, he also asked his fellow activists to “be the change you want to see in the world.” Prefigurative activism and the quest for more consistency between one’s values and one’s practices has become a central dimension of activism in many movements (Epstein, 1991; Melucci, 1996, Pleyers, 2010). Indigenous communities, small farmers, critical consumers, and “transition towns” have all contributed to renew the environmentalist movement by implementing alternative practices at the local scale and in their daily life. These actors have focused most of their energy in building “spaces of experience” where alternative practices are experimented with and implemented. These concrete actions are closely connected to other visions of the world and concepts of what a “good life” means. For instance, a range of ecological actors, from indigenous people in Latin America to critical consumers in Western countries, struggle against the advertising and consumer society and seek to redefine the criteria for a “good life,” in which social ties are more important than material goods. In this perspective, world visions are both the source and the outcomes of social movements. The study of these actors’ actions and subjectivity thus provides us with empirical data about life and subjectivity in the global age. For instance, we may analyze the impact of acute awareness of global interdependency and of the constraints of a limited planet on an individual’s subjectivity and her sense of responsibility. At the same time, these local actors also face challenges when it comes to extending these alternatives beyond small local groups, which also requires extensive studies.

Glimpses of Possible Futures

As Alberto Melucci (1996: 28) framed it, social movements “show glimpses of possible futures, and are, in some respects, the vehicles of realization of these very futures.” Social movements aim at questioning the core values of our society, transforming cultures and ways of life, experimenting with alternative practices, and promoting alternative worldviews, and thus open new horizons.

To analyze social movements that promote worldviews, behaviors, and policies more compatible with the reality and constraints of the global age provides us with empirical data for grasping some features of possible futures on a limited planet and of the consequences of resource scarcity on life, democracy, society, and subjectivities. This perspective closely connects the sociology of social movements to general sociology, as proposed by Alain Touraine. It fosters a renewed approach able to combine empirical fieldwork and major social questions.



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Geoffrey Pleyers is sociology professor at the University of Louvain, Belgium, and President of the International Sociological Association’s (ISA) Research Committee on Social Movements and Social Classes (RC47). He is an associated researcher at the College d’Etudes Mondiales in Paris and has been teaching as a visiting professor in various universities, including the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, the University of Chile and the National University of Colombia. He is the author of Alter-Globalization: Becoming Actors in the Global Age (Cambridge, Polity, 2010) and the editor of the Open Movements: For a Global and Public Sociology of Social Movements (


Banner Image: On Sunday, 21 September 2014, over 300,000 people were estimated to have participated in the People’s Climate March (PCM) in New York City, with many other marches taking place around the world. (Photo by the editor, 2014).

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