Social justice and environmental sustainability can only be achieved together

"Understanding the links between social justice and environmental sustainability must be at the heart of a new social settlement."

Anna Coote
31 July 2014

Flickr/Bev Goodwin. Some rights reserved.

What do social justice and environmental sustainability have in common? The difficulty of achieving both is rooted in capitalist accumulation. They both call for long-term planning. And neither can be achieved by individuals acting alone, or by markets left to themselves: they both depend on people getting together, pooling resources and acting collectively. 

The New Economics Foundation argues in a new paper out today that social justice and environmental sustainability are not two separate goals, to be tackled by different government departments. They are closely linked and depend on each other.  You can’t have one without the other (as Frank Sinatra said). And you can’t have either of them unless there is concerted action, with small groups, charities, businesses, and public authorities working together - locally, nationally and globally. 

At a national level, states that support a collective ethos not only tend to have stronger traditions of shared welfare and commitment to social justice, but are also better able to deal with the need to mitigate environmental damage and cope with its consequences.

The dominant neoliberal political narrative denigrates collective action, favouring individualism, competition and choice with minimal state interference. But there is a strong base of public opinion – and a wealth of practical examples - on which to build a new narrative that encourages a sense of shared responsibility and purpose, common action to address risks that individuals cannot tackle alone, and mutual support between groups.   

However, widening social and economic inequalities can make this much more difficult. It can encourage people in different income groups to feel they have separate and even incompatible interests. The better-off may imagine they can go on buying their way out of  environmental problems – through their choice of housing, for example, or buying more expensive food, fuel and other increasingly scarce materials. Meanwhile, people who are trying to survive poverty and deprivation may feel they have little or no stake in a society where opportunities are manifestly reserved for others. They may feel that, whatever their views about the natural environment, nothing they do or say can make any difference. Ultimately, neither rich nor poor can escape the worst effects of climate change, but without greater equality there is less chance of building a sufficiently powerful political consensus in time to save the planet.

NEF argues that understanding the links between social justice and environmental sustainability must be at the heart of a new social settlement, to succeed the post-war settlement crafted by William Beveridge and designed to meet the challenges of the 21st century. The settlement must aim to reduce inequalities of income, wealth, power, knowledge, health and opportunity – both within and between generations. It must tackle the underlying causes of inequality – for example by raising the minimum wage to a sustainable living wage; a statutory maximum ratio between high and low pay within organisations; high quality, universal childcare; strengthening workplace collective bargaining; and establishing a green investment bank to generate new jobs in the transition to a sustainable economy.

Without greater equality, there’s little prospect of solidarity between groups or across generations. Without solidarity, there’s unlikely to be any effective collective action. Without collective action, there’s no hope of achieving social justice or environmental sustainability. It’s not enough to look for technical solutions to one-off problems. All these things fit together and need to be combined within an integrated strategy. 


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