Enough with the Dark Age
Even though climate and social issues are interlinked, policies still address them separately, as if they weren’t born from the same system – the free market system that pursues only one goal: economic growth, accompanied by unbridled corporate interests and the growing power of finance.
In the meantime, the European Union (EU) is concerned about the efficiency of markets and their competitiveness, rather than the problem of growing social inequality. And member states have blindly believed in the redistribution of wealth promised by the “trickle-down” approach.
The EU could also respond to climate collapse by turning to renewable energy sources, energy efficiency and low-carbon modes of transport. The EU must shift away from adapting to climate change by turning it into an opportunity for making profit or looking for new forms of extractivism.
The problem is that these responses fail to touch on the neoliberal foundations of the European economy, forced economic growth and increasing unrest due to rising inequality.
Adapting to climate change
It should be recognised that adapting to climate change is a process of radical transition that should be guided by the principles of social justice. Rather than understanding climate change policies as a distraction from social issues, climate emergency should be perceived for what it is ‒ an increasingly omnipresent reality. Collective players organised in different movements could be the key to ensuring radical social changes that would translate into sustainable transition.
Addressing social inequality
For now, addressing social inequality as a social problem remains firmly in the hands of workers – organising themselves to demand higher wages, full-time employment and better working conditions. When thinking about social policies we keep turning back to the strategies that we’ve been using for decades, but are becoming less and less effective with diminishing chances of success.
In the past, strategies for social policies did come to fruition with workers’ organising, tradition of workers’ cooperatives and paid annual leave (holiday pay). However, when grounded in increasing consumption these same strategies are not critical of the economic policy of forced growth and its negative impact that extends to the environment.
Redistribution of wealth
Better redistribution of wealth as an answer to social inequality will not automatically lead to a reduction in carbon emissions. In other words, if we can all fly on holiday thanks to better distribution of wealth, the results will continue to disappoint.
Climate collapse is an important opportunity for collective reflections on the quality of jobs and life in general. People working in unhealthy and unsafe conditions are often those who live next to highways and other inappropriate, degraded environmental conditions. This transition opens up a new space that revives the debate and can offer, among other things, the quality of work aligned with environmental justice.
Contradictions in environmental justice movements
There are, however, contradictions also within the environmental justice movements themselves. On the one hand they strive to protect people from pollution and speculative investments, and demand solutions for environmental racism. Urban movements in the global north are thus trying to achieve access to well-connected and affordable transport systems, local and affordable food with less meat; they promote cycling and advocate green, affordable housing.
On the other hand, these movements focus on individuals, narrowing the problem on decisions made by a responsible consumer. The responsibility for environmental problems is thus individualised, while the wider picture of power dynamics is pushed aside and simplified, which distorts the reality.
The power of corporations
The key environmental problem is the industry, the power of corporations and the invisible hand of the financial sector, all of them enjoying political support. Support of the same political leaders that advocate for electric cars. Such measures serve to make the middle class happy as the middle-class consumers can now afford to be responsible.
They now have the means to ensure their intellectual comfort with a certain discourse on transition. But, as it has largely remained confined within middle-class circles, this very discourse has made it difficult to strike up a dialogue with the world of work.
As the scope of production is shrinking and production itself is becoming precarious due to robotisation and digitisation, the working hours have to be adjusted as well. Long working hours and poor quality jobs lead to burnout and deteriorating social relations, so shorter working hours combined with more free time seem to offer opportunities both for collaborations in social life and for necessary discussions on democratic governance.
A four-day workweek for the same pay would benefit the environment as well. According to the OECD research from 2013 entitled “Could Working Less Reduce Pressures on the Environment?” the countries with shorter working hours have reduced carbon emissions and also have a lower ecological footprint.
As a result, the countries that produce less than their production capacities, also pollute less. Activities with a lower environmental footprint usually require more time. Households with more free time live more sustainably. Having more time they can take up gardening or spend more time preparing healthy meals. Mobility is another example – if we want to get somewhere fast we use up more carbon, but if we have time we can take the train, or ride a bike for short distances.
These time-consuming lifestyles, such as urban gardening, barter systems and community currencies, are only possible when our working time allows us to practice them. At the same time, transition to a shorter workweek could bring new forms of production and consumption, and allow for the possibility to survive within the planetary boundaries.
Local struggles impact global ideas
There is a growing awareness within the justice arena, both social and environmental, that people who cooperate in local struggles can impact global forces and ideas. In the words of Professor Susan Paulson: “political ecology’s multi-scale analysis of power and politics, together with its awareness of the magnitude of variation in human-environment relations, are vital arms in the struggle to decolonise imaginations confined to business as usual.”