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We Can’t Have Social Justice Without Environmental Sustainability

Photo credit: Camil Tulcan

The interests of people and the planet are bound together and depend on each other. Yet social and environmental policies are too often stuck in separate silos, as though it barely matters how deeply they affect each other. Proposals for reforming the welfare state seldom nod at the limits of ecological resources, with just a handful of honourable exceptions. Current policies to reduce carbon emissions, such as they are, are shaped by the pursuit of economic growth, far more than human well-being.

NEF is looking for ways to build a new social settlement that can face the challenges of the 21st century. This means planning for social justice and environmental sustainability as part of an integrated system, not as two separate goals.

It’s important to understand how they are linked and how to create virtuous circles of policy and practice that bring mutually reinforcing benefits. So that what’s good for society is good for the environment – and vice versa.

As we argue in our new working paper, widening inequalities and accelerating damage to the natural environment are rooted together in the workings of the capitalist economy. The economy couldn’t function without social and natural resources. Yet, in the relentless drive to accumulate, it treats them as though they are infinitely exploitable. Of course they are not. The result is cumulative harm to society and environment.

Promoting social justice and environmental sustainability calls for collective action through the state, locally and nationally, and through transnational institutions. Neither goal, separately or together, can be served by market mechanisms or social action alone. We need to pool resources, recognise shared interests, and act together so that everyone has an equal chance in life, not just those with the deepest pockets and sharpest elbows.

Both require long-term planning. In the words of the Brundtland Report, the aim is to meet ‘the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.’ That means taking steps to prevent poverty and disadvantage from accumulating over time, as well as safeguarding natural resources for the future. Another working paper in this series sets out a theory of human need, distinguishing basic needs (which are universal across time and place), from wants and preferences (which are infinitely variable). Understanding what people need in absolute terms provides a moral framework for pursuing social and environmental goals globally and across generations.

Each goal depends on the other for fulfilment. On the positive side, a healthy natural environment is good for human well-being, while a socially just society is better able to safeguard natural resources and cope with the various consequences of climate change. On the negative side, the poor suffer first and most from weather extremes, food shortages and flood damage, while social inequalities drive up aspirations for resource-intensive consumption. Meanwhile, the institutions of the welfare state, including hospitals, schools and town halls have a big ecological footprint: they have significant power to influence the environmental agenda.

What does all this imply for policy and practice? The paper argues that a new social settlement cannot depend on continuing economic growth. Instead, we must look to the resources of what NEF calls the ‘core economy’ – all the uncommodified human and social resources that make the world go round, and without which the formal economy would grind to a halt. We must make sure that these are valued and supported by pooling resources and acting together through a democratic state. Co-production should become the standard way of getting things done. Investment and action must be shifted upstream to prevent harm, not wasted on coping with avoidable social and environmental problems. And public services must lead by example by reducing their own ecological footprint and helping their workforce and the people they serve to behave more sustainably. To underpin all this, we must take a systemic approach to tackling inequalities and foster solidarity - feelings of sympathy and shared responsibility - between groups and across generations.

There’s a strong case for promoting specific policies that promote social justice and environmental sustainability at the same time. Examples include promoting active travel and access to green spaces; more sustainable local food production, retrofitting homes to make them more efficient, and supporting collaborative community-based initiatives such as food co-ops (as distinct from food banks) and centres for repairing broken goods. These are not new ideas, but they need to be lifted out of the margins into the mainstream of politics and action.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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