Despite claims and the acceptance of the necessity of trans-local and decisive action on socio-ecological challenges (at the level of civil society, for instance, recently by Fridays For Future) many of the sustainability interventions currently emphasized in different strands of academic environmental politics and the movement literature tend to be highly local and experimental. In contrast to former emphases on the central role of markets, governments, governance or mass movements, academics turn to urban bottom-up initiatives, including, inter alia, local food production and distribution networks, repair cafés, sharing platforms, eco-villages and transition towns (e.g., Schlosberg und Coles 2015; Kallis & March 2014; Muraca 2013; Seyfang & Smith 2007). Detected as promising actors, local experiments are commonly perceived as interventions that challenge and already transform the unsustainable status quo. They are conceptualized as “real“or “concrete utopia”, as “pioneers of change”, or as “grassroots innovations”. Their focus on the everyday and their hands-on, experimental character tend to be framed as a promising way of developing and testing practical solutions and/or as anticipations of a radically different future.
Although often presented as novel and innovative, the focus on the local and the experimental has been central to nature conservation and environmentalism since its very beginning. In this paper, conceptual in nature, we seek to make sense of the current emphasis on the local and experimental. Are local experimental interventions promising alternatives to market-only solutions that do not work, governments and governance that do not act (sufficiently) or social movements that have to little momentum to effect a tack of change? In this paper, we map common academic narratives on socio-ecological change and engage with them critically. We argue that the widespread strategic use of the term of transformation in contrast to an analytical term, the accompanied solutionism and the distance from wider social analyses run the risk of blocking a deeper understanding of the recalcitrance of unsustainability. Charging local experiments normatively, as is currently often the case, may not bring as any closer to a socio-ecological transformation. Such charging may, in fact, be counter-productive. It runs the risk of blinding us to other societal functions local experiments may fulfil, beyond the ones commonly attributed to them in the literature; to the heterogeneity and self-conceptions of local experiments; and to the societal conditions for their emergence, including the hopes attached to them.