Why does environmental promise always fall short in practice? A new answer to the social question can bridge the gap.
Climate justice has soared to the top of the policy agenda. Climate action has not. The Green New Deal is the flagship policy priority of the incoming European Commission. At their summit in mid-October, European Union government leaders stated their ambition to address urgently ‘the existential threat posed by climate change’—and then decided to postpone dealing with it for another two months, which entails missing important deadlines.
The combination of pledges for bold action and conspicuous failure to act has become a trademark of environmental policy. In July last year, the European Parliament issued a laudable resolution to ‘make ratification and implementation of the Paris Agreement a condition for future trade agreements’. Seven months later, amid threats by the United States to slap tariffs on European car imports, the parliament overruled climate concerns to press ahead with US talks.
There is a very good reason why action on environmental justice keeps failing. Every idea is only as strong as the social forces behind it. A powerful capital-labour alliance blocks the environmental-justice agenda, even as there is an unprecedented public awareness of the urgent need for dramatic changes in the way we produce and consume. The growth-and-redistribution agenda on which progressive forces now rely to fight for social justice is also the platform through which the capital-labour alliance blocks climate action. This agenda has become part of the problem it purports to solve and therefore needs to be replaced.
Object of nostalgia
The capital-labour alliance against the environment was forged under the postwar welfare state, itself erected on an agreement between the political left and right on a growth-and-redistribution policy deal. The Keynesian economic formula of stimulating demand to grow the pie and then distribute it relied on intensified production and consumption. This effectively ensured the prosperity of the first two postwar decades, and nurtured an idea of social justice as an entitlement to be ‘middle class’ and affluent. Relative equality in prosperity was celebrated as the success of the social-justice agenda and became an object of nostalgia in our times of ‘austerity politics’.
But the foundation of that success—increased production and consumption—eventually wrecked the environment. As a response, green political parties and movements began mobilising in the early 1970s. Being, however, single-issue parties, they were relegated to the margins of the political landscape. Labelled as ‘lifestyle concerns’, environmental challenges tended to be trumped by the allegedly more tangible ‘bread-and-butter’ issues, such as cost of living, employment and economic growth.
As western societies were growing more affluent, however, material concerns were expected gradually to give way to ‘post-material’ values, such as identity recognition and environmentalism—as one authoritative theory held. This was born out by the surge of ‘progressive neoliberalism’ in the late 20th century: centre-left and centre-right political elites embraced ‘free markets’ for the sake of increasing competitiveness in the global economy; they also endorsed the new-left agenda of care for the environment and cultural liberalism (gender equity, multiculturalism and LGTB rights). Thus, the unprecedented wealth of the 1990s underpinned the mainstreaming of the green agenda into the policy platforms of the political centre.
Recently, in the wake of the 2008 economic meltdown and the social discontent it fuelled, the neoliberal policy consensus has begun to break down, and the old left-right divide is re-emerging. While the left has resumed the discourse of fighting inequality, the right has restated its ambition to increase prosperity by fostering enterpreneurship and maintaining competitiveness. This, however, is not a simple return to the growth-and-redistribution consensus of the good old welfare state, because environmental justice can no longer be tapered to second-order importance.
Over the past decade, the status of the environmental agenda has altered significantly. Thanks to widely-publicised scientific research on climate change and the youth protests inspired by Greta Thunberg, protection of the environment has been reframed as a first-order, bread-and-butter concern: climate change is no longer a lifestyle issue, but a life issue.
The policy package that has come to be known as the Green New Deal, which has the ambition simultaneously to address climate change and poverty, expresses this novel equality between the ‘old’ social concerns and the ‘new’ environmental commitments. And yet, even as green policy can no longer be dismissed as the whim of the affluent, the two sets of concerns remain in tension. As one gilet jaune protester famously put it, ‘the government worries about the end of the world; we worry about the end of the month’.
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To resolve the tension between valid economic concerns with cost of living and the need for costly policy action to counter climate change, the Green New Deal must offer a vision of social justice other than the growth-and-redistribution formula so deleterious to the natural environment. Such a vision would require a fresh analysis of the social concerns of our time and the appropriate political response.
The neoliberal consensus had a rather peculiar impact on the affluent societies of the global north. In their commitments to ensuring competitiveness in a globalised economy, governments across the left-right political spectrum embarked on policies which deregulated labour markets, privatised public assets and cut back social provision and public services. This created not simply a precarious class but a precarious multitude.
Economic insecurity has thus come to afflict not only the low-skilled, poorly-educated, precariously-employed and under-paid working classes in exposed industries—the so-called ‘losers of globalisation’. It is increasingly affecting also highly-skilled, well-educated and solidly-remunerated professionals. Even though this group values leisure time highly, as a result of economic anxiety such individuals work longer and more intensively than they normally would. This entails work-related stress and poor work-life balance—grievances increasingly reported by the professional classes we so envy.
Thus, under the pressures of economic uncertainty, labour-market insiders do not take advantage of possibilities to work less (an option they would otherwise endorse), while labour-market outsiders face chronic under- and unemployment. The phenomenon that undergirds such diverse, often seemingly incompatible grievances, is economic insecurity, which is perpetually generated by the pressures of the competitive pursuit of profit. These pressures have intensified in the age of neoliberal capitalism. This insecurity, more so than inequality, is the social question of our time.
This creates an opportunity to reframe the social-justice agenda in such a way as to make it compatible with the environmental-justice agenda. It entails abandoning the growth-and-redistribution formula in favour of fighting economic insecurity. Obtaining economic stability is not a matter of increasing purchasing power and consumption, of entitlement to being middle class and increasingly affluent. In a radical paradigm shift, it is about securing stable livelihoods for all.
This formula would forge a broad societal alliance of strange bedfellows, whose fate is negatively affected by those very economic pressures which are also destroying the environment. On this basis the precarious multitude can support the Green New Deal. For every idea is only as strong as the social forces behind it.
This article is based on a talk by the author on 14 October at the European Greens/EFA study days in London
Albena Azmanova is associate professor in political and social thought at the University of Kent’s Brussels School of International Studies. Her most recent book is Capitalism on Edge: How Fighting Precarity can Achieve Radical Change without Crisis or Utopia (Columbia University Press, 2020).