Gattopardian Transitions: Misleading Narratives in Port City Futures

Paul van de Laar

schematic of relations within a port
Solutions to Explore the Energy Transition of Port City Cultures (TU Delft Design for Values)

Port, maritime, and technological path dependencies have shaped priorities on future economic developments and scenarios for transitions (Carse & Lewis 2017). Therefore, we should be critical when port authorities and their stakeholders claim to be taking the lead in major (ecological, environmental, and economic) transitions in port city regions. The Rotterdam Port Authorities are a case in point. They market a sustainable, green future of their resilient delta. Technological innovations (carbon capture and storage, bio-based and hydrogen economies) and strategies on circular economies are mediatized in such a way that these words become “empty signifiers” (Brown 2016). Their narratives imply pairing economic growth scenarios to industrial greening operations. Future port scenarios are written to ensure that we continue business as usual. Harry Geerlings, emeritus professor at Erasmus University Rotterdam, stressed in his valedictory lecture in February 2023, why this optimism should be distrusted. The past thirty years, Rotterdam’s port businesses were not able to mobilize forces in changing their business model, despite the glossy PowerPoints and smart communication strategies (Benjamin 2023). Rotterdam’s port business has relied on fossil fuels to maximize shareholder values and strategies. In this new blog post, urban historian Paul van de Laar puts forward the following proposition: port narratives of transitions are misleading. Ensuing the ideas put forward by ‘Gattopardo economics’ (Palley 2013), Paul advocates calling them ‘Gattopardian transitions’, a series of strategic measures to keep processes the same. Why should PortCityFutures need to address these misleading narratives?

Gattopardian Transitions
A gattopardo is a Sicilian ocelot, a small leopard, and also the name of the eponymous Italian novel Il Gattopardo (1958), written by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa. Even people who have not read the novel are familiar with it, because of the epic film directed by Luchino Visconti (1963). Il Gattopardo is famous for its much-quoted line: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”. The Italian aristocracy married into the new urban elite for money to remain in power after the Italian revolution in the 1860s. Gattopardian transitions then take into consideration the necessities of structural change, but real transformations are masqueraded by major stakeholders who strive to keep underlying systems and structures intact (Palley 2013). For instance, global corporations, political institutions, or even national policies, all incorporate ideas of criticism, without fundamentally changing their core businesses. It looks different, but what matters most to stakeholders remains the same.

Without a fundamental change in the underlying system, transition narratives are misleading. In the case of port cities, the maritime sector is embedded in globalized maritime transportation and efficiency standards. Following Carse and Lewis’s (2017) reference to ‘hydrocracies’ as state bureaucracies in control of water management, I would call the networks of shipping firms, maritime industries, port authorities, government and academic institutions, NGOs etc. ‘portocracies’, which effectively block regime shifts in port economics and maritime growth scenarios that would lead to abrupt and persistent changes in port city relations. Gattopardian transitions are thus no real transitions, because of path dependent dynamics that limit the probability of change, unless these are challenged by exogenous shocks, disruptions or daring politicians.

Regime Shifts
Regime shifts are not easy to forecast, and we need the patina of time to conceptualize them as disruptive changes afterwards. However, existing port and green scenarios rather showcase gattopardian transitions. McKinsey predicted in 2017 uninterrupted growth in container shipping for the next 50 years, notwithstanding climate challenges and possible geopolitical disruptions (Monios & Wilmsmeier 2020). For example, on 31 March 2023, the CEOs of the Rotterdam Port Authority and APM terminals announced the expansion of their terminal, which is much needed to handle the expected increase in container volumes (Mihajic 2023). The terminal is CO2-neutral, stressing the underlying message of presumed sustainability. We believe in a green future, but critical global maritime studies show that expected growth volumes are simply incompatible with the ambitions to reduce emissions. Scholars on port transitions need to acknowledge the fact that new technologies will not be enough to lead the way to a sustainable green port (Becker et al. 2018). Solutions that are now proposed and backed by portocracies - ranging from LNG, efficiency operations, low- and zero-carbon ship technology as promoted by the International Maritime Organization (IMO), smart vessels, and port design - undermine the objectives of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the 2015 Paris Agreement. Monios and Wimlsmeier claim “demand reduction becomes necessary, but this option has not been taken up by maritime economists or policymakers” (2020, p. 859). Reducing the volume of transport is the only solution. To break away from our addiction to fossil fuels necessitates such a shift. UNCTAD calculated that over 30% of our maritime transport is still petroleum-related (2018).

Plans for regime shifts that are no longer trapped in portocratic, gattopardian transitions need to be addressed. New governance arrangements are therefore needed as well, but then government institutions need to be decoupled from a market system that prioritizes a price system, allowing polluting firms to buy credit to continue their business and benefit stakeholders that already have a place at the lobby table. New technologies are embraced, as they are framed in narratives of sustainable futures. We know that this leads to negative outcomes. The Dutch discussion on nitrogen emissions, which is steered and controlled by the multinational farmer lobby is a case in point. Stephan Hauser’s research, however, shows that the ‘Seven Sisters’, the big oil firms, have spent substantially more lobby money in preventing the implementation of climate and environmentally friendly legal systems than spending budgets on renewable energies (2022, p. 124). The uncertainties of the future are strategically used for gattopardian transitions: to continue business as usual, using greenwashing to mislead the general public on the real impact and environmental and climate-related conditions. 

Challenges for PortCityFutures
PortCityFutures could take the lead in shifting these narratives and addressing the variegated and interdisciplinary aspects of transitions. Until now, the debates are too often steered by port economists, geographers, or gurus like Jeremy Rifkin, whose Third Industrial Revolution is now entering the fourth stage, in which globalization is replaced by continentalization because of digital economies and the Internet of Things. 3D printers will reduce transport necessities. However, the post-Covid economy does not signal these trends, and they are all still part of the same gattopardian transitions. Transition studies have become a booming interdisciplinary field. Almost all disciplines are involved, but one is missing, however: history, notwithstanding the fact that scholars of futurism use historical examples - often in a rather anecdotal way - to address their audiences. Many texts use the concept of path dependence to illustrate why decisions of the past may prevent structural changes. Loorbach and Geerlings identified new pathways, but they all boil down to the fact that “the existing path-dependent development allows very little space for radical innovations” (2017, p. 377). The neoliberal port economy of globalization was based on ‘strategic coupling’, but now we need new government models to influence decoupling strategies, to decouple portocratic arrangements and explore new pathways. Why? Because of uncertain futures and the trap of net zero emissions (Dyke, Watson & Knorr 2021). Such an agenda, however, needs a public push, and here I see a role for PortCityFutures.


This blog has been written in the context of discussions in the LDE PortCityFutures research community. It reflects the evolving thoughts of the authors and expresses the discussions between researchers on the socio-economic, spatial and cultural questions surrounding port city relationships. This blog was peer-reviewed by members of the PortCityFutures community, and edited by the PortCityFutures editorial team: Carola Hein, Vincent Baptist, Ekaterina Plekhanova and Foteini Tsigoni.

Becker, A., Ng, A. K. Y., McEvoy, D. & Mullett, J. (2018). “Implications of Climate Change for Shipping: Ports and Supply Chains,” Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Climate Change 9(2).

Benjamin, J. (2023). “Vergroent de Rotterdamse haven wel echt? ‘Winst maakt blind’,” NRC, 23 March 2023.

Brown, T. (2016). “Sustainability as Empty Signifier: Its Rise, Fall, and Radical Potential,” Antipode 48(1): 115-33.

Carse, A., & Lewis, J. A. (2017). “Toward a Political Ecology of Infrastructure Standards: Or, How to Think about Ships, Waterways, Sediment, and Communities together,” Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 49(1): 9–28.

Dyke, J. G., Watson, R. & Knorr, W. (2021). “Why Net Zero Policies Do More Harm than Good,” in: Böhm, S. & Sullivan, S. (eds), Negotiating Climate Change in Crisis, 39-53. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers. See also:

Hauser, S. (2022). The Oil is Dying? Long Live its “Heritage”! The Refining of Legal Systems and Port-Cities’ Planning. PhD Dissertation TU Delft.

Loorbach, D. & Geerlings, H. (2017). “Ports in Transition,” In: Geerlings, H., Kuipers, B. & Zuidwijk, R. (eds), Ports and Networks: Strategies, Operations and Perspectives, 364-79. London: Routledge.

Mihajic, M. (2023). “Port of Rotterdam Authority and APM Terminals sign agreement for over EUR 1 billion expansion of Maasvlakte II container terminal,” APM Terminals, 31 March 2023.

Monios, J. & Wilmsmeier, G. (2020). “Deep Adaptation to Climate Change in the Maritime Transport Sector: A New Paradigm for Maritime Economics?” Maritime Policy & Management 47(7): 853-72.

Palley, T. I. (2013). “Gattopardo Economics: The Crisis and the Mainstream Response of Change that Keeps Things the Same,” European Journal of Economics and Economic Policies: Intervention 10(2): 193-206.

UNCTAD (2018).  Review of Maritime Transport. Geneva: UNCTAD