Temporality and the ontological challenge of just transitions

Arturo Escobar, The Times of a Just Transition
Project status

The scale of the current “polycrisis” is unprecedented in human history, thus calling for unprecedented “civilizational transitions.” In Latin America, there is growing agreement that at the root of the crisis there lies a particular mode of existence and understanding reality, or ontology, namely, the modern dualistic worldview with its attendant notion of the human as “naturally” secular, liberal, competitive, individualistic, and separated from nature.  New modes of being, doing, and knowing are seen as necessary, based on the ineluctable interdependence of everything that exists (Escobar, Osterweil and Sharma under review; Ulloa 2021).

I will focus on the ontological dimension of Just Transitions, with particular attention to their temporality and spatiality and their implications for justice issues.  I will examine Just Transitions as assemblages of multiple times, spatialities, and ontologies.  I would pursue this goal through my participation in an ongoing action-research project focused on transitions for the Cauca River valley region in Colombia –a region ravaged by 100 years of a sugar cane monoculture, extensive cattle ranching, and elitist agroindustrial development. I would focus on the following issues:

  1. The ontological and epistemic dimension of the transitions: our project takes place in a region where indigenous, Black, peasant, and mestizo rural and urban communities co-exist, with partially converging but also diverging notions of life, time, space, person, community, justice, the nonhuman, and so forth. What are the implications of these multiple ways of seeing life and constructing worlds for the design of transitions? What would a pluriversal account of “justices” (socioeconomic, ecological, reparative, epistemic, ontological) look like from the perspective of transitions?
  2. Pluriversality and the scale and temporality of just transitions: The pluriversality of the transitions requires pluralizing modernist views of time as linear and cumulative, creating room for Non-Western notions of time and space. Is it possible to “pluriversalize” the temporlity of Just Transitions? How can one bring the time ontologies that co-exist in a given region to the attention of all actors, including policy-makers?
  3. The ontology of slow and degrowth movements in urban areas: Movements that question speed and accumulation --such as degrowth, slow movements, transition towns, commoning, and cities of proximity--, have inevitable ontological, temporary and spatial implications.  To “slow down” means going against the grain of a civilizational project maintained by vast amounts of energy (carbon modernity), and by a cultural fixation on growth, speed, time, and calculation. What would happen if cities were to adopt a lower energy and post-carbon form, changing significantly the urban experience of space and time? To what extent is it possible to re-communalize, re-localize, and re-earth the modern city, to design and build “cities of proximity” instead of “cities of distance” (Manzini 2022)? These questions would be explored from the perspective of the city of Cali (2.8 million) in the Cauca Valley region.

Theoretically, I’d purport to explore the relation between pluriversal studies, political ontology (e.g., de la Cadena and Blaser, eds. 2018; Escobar 2020), decolonial theory, cultural studies of design, and theories of self-organization and emergence, in terms of their contributions to just transitions, temporality, and the multiple justices.  This includes the fields of transition design (Kossoff and Irwin 2021), ontological design (e.g., Fry 2020; Escobar 2018, 2019), regenerative design (Wahl 2016), and designs from the South (Gutierrez 2020).


de la Cadena, Marisol, and Mario Blaser, eds. A World of Many Worlds. Durham: Duke University Press, 2018.

Escobar, Arturo. Pluriversal Politics: The Real and the Possible. Durham: Duke University Press, 2020.

Escobar, Arturo. “Habitability and Design: Radical interdependence and the re-earthing of cities.” Geoforum 101 (May 2019): 218–21.

Escobar, Arturo. Designs for the Pluriverse: Radical Interdependence, Autonomy, and the Making of Worlds. Durham: Duke University Press, 2018.

Escobar, Arturo, Michal Osterweil, and Kriti Sharma. Designing Relationally: Making and Restor(y)ing Life. London: Bloomsbury Press (under review).

Fry, Tony. Defuturing: A New Design Philosophy. London: Bloomsbury, 2020.

Gutiérrez, Alfredo. “When Design Goes South.” In Design in Crisis, edited by Tony Fry and Adam Nocek. London: Routledge, 2020.

Kossoff, Gideon, and Terry Irwin. “Transition Design as a Strategy for Addressing Urban Wicked Problems.” In Cities Without Capitalism, edited by Hossein Sadri and Senem Zeybekoglu. London: Routledge, 2021.

Manzini, Ezio. Livable Proximity: Ideas for the City that Cares. Milano: Egea, 2022.

Ulloa, Astrid. 2021. “Transformaciones radicales socioambientales frente a la destrucción renovada y verde, La Guajira, Colombia”. Revista de Geografía Norte Grande, 80: 13-34.

Wahl, Daniel Christian. Designing Regenerative Cultures. Axminster: Triarchy Press, 2016.

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