Life on Earth is threatened. We know the problems and we have all the needed scientific knowledge to stop this disastrous development. Yet, progress is very very slow. Why? The first alarm came fifty years ago with the Report of the Club of Rome and the first UN Conference on Environment and Development. Sure, there has been a lot of skepticism but today a huge majority of governments and people are convinced we should urgently act to save ourselves, our children and grandchildren, all living beings.
A possible solution, this article wants to argue, lies in the necessary link between environmental and social justice. People will not move if they have no perspective of a better world with life in dignity for all. How, then, to promote a just transition, benefiting all eight billion people, guaranteeing justice for all and promoting peace? Environmental and social justice go hand in hand, yes, but how to make this concrete? This is not only linked to the refusal of some to recognize and accept human responsibility for climate change but also to the many dilemmas emerging when trying to propose real solutions.
Thinking of several proposals for ‘just transition(s)’, one easily can get the impression that many of the new concepts that are put forward are nothing more than traditional demands with a label of climate change attached to them. In other words, traditional anti-capitalist demands or trade union demands as well as conservative family and community values are now promoted because of climate change. This may be justified since the changes we need for preserving life on this planet certainly suppose a fundamental transformation of our way of living and working. The question is, do we have a strategy?
From the perspective of social justice, there are good arguments to think that the ecological problématique offers an excellent opportunity to fight inequality and poverty and to promote social protection and public services. Yet, it hardly happens. The author of these lines has been pleading for years to turn the reasoning around and, instead of sharing the burden of ecological transition, to start from social protection and, from there, promote environmental justice.
In this article, I want to give three examples to show the dilemmas emerging with these questions: work, de-/post-growth and extractivism.
In most ‘easy’ discourses on just transition and labour, the main if not the only point on the agenda is to compensate workers who might lose their job when economic activities are re-shuffled – think of the fossil fuel industry or mining – with new jobs in new sectors and sustainable activities. Just transition, however, can be so much more.
If we start from social justice, we could re-consider the unjust current labour market organisation, the unpaid re-productive work, the informal sector, and platform work. We could also think of economic democracy and citizenship, giving workers a voice in their companies.
Much scholarly work has already been done on this topic, but we are very far from any synthesis. As Dario Azzellini points out, there is yet no common definition of what are ‘green jobs’. Is it the same as ILO’s ‘decent work’? If we agree to promote fairer working conditions for all, we necessarily already talk of environmental justice, since it will be about caring for people’s and the planet’s health.
In their Manifesto for Democratizing work, the authors speak mainly of ‘rebalancing power and voice’ among workers, their CEO and capital investors. This should improve the quality of life of all workers and from there it should be easier to convince people to accept changes and contribute to the efforts of improving the environment. Again, this goes way beyond ‘labour markets’ and touches on the transformation of the whole economy. It may be very desirable, but what strategy is available? Capital holders certainly do not want workers to have a voice in their decision-making. Of course, one might think of cooperatives and ‘recuperated factories’ or labour as common, but will they make planes and semiconductors? And how to bridge the gap with current unpaid care work? What role do trade unions have to play? How to ensure that economic and social rights are guaranteed for all?
Today, many workers are afraid of the changes they will be faced with because of the ecological transition. They are afraid of losing their jobs, afraid of robots, and afraid of migrants becoming competitors. Workers are also angry because the institutions that normally protect them, have not done so in the recent past. Political parties and trade unions are criticised. Starting with a strengthening of labour law, unpaid care work and promises of a better balance between jobs and families might be a useful strategy to convince people to look forward to the needed transition to environmental justice. Talking of ‘just transition’ in the sector of work and labour markets goes way beyond these labour markets but starts with improving them so as to make environmental justice feasible.
The many different names for thinking ‘beyond’ growth already indicate the difficulty of giving a single name to a whole series of topics the ‘de-growth movement’ wants to tackle, way beyond environmental justice. Sustainable de-growth, as stated by Dengler and Seebacher, is not the same as across-the-board de-growth and ‘just transition’ is so much more than ‘equitably share the burden of ecological transition’. Instead, it is an inter-disciplinary endeavour to analyse the ‘multidimensional crisis (economic, ecological, of democracy, care, inequality, militarization…) of the current system and sees it as closely linked to the capitalist growth paradigm’. In other words, especially in this sector, the risk is real that pleading for ‘another economic system’ beyond growth, comes down to anti-capitalist thinking, adding some ecology to it. That is why demands for zero growth or de-growth are not always convincing.
In ’green’ thinking, the emphasis is mostly put on ‘being rather than having’, more time sovereignty, and more conviviality. Today, in 2023, it is a fact that many young people do indeed reject the ‘rat race’ of current labour markets and consumption rallies, though the idea of progress does remain valid. Most young people do want stable families and a minimum of comfort in housing and mobility. They rightly want computers and mobile phones. Most of them are convinced that we should all make an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, they will tell you that for many trips you can take a train instead of a plane. They may agree to become vegan and promote short-chain food products. Fine.
However, young people also want a good quality of life with material comfort. As we have witnessed in the past thirty to forty years, the promise of ‘less’ does not convince people. More ‘conviviality’ and more ‘happiness’ can be positive, though it remains very vague and open to biased interpretations. People are not prepared to take a step back in terms of welfare and well-being, certainly not in times of crisis and rising prices for all basic goods. Moreover, large majorities in the South as well as poor and lower middle-class people in the North have never reached a level of consumption that contributes to the ‘overshoot’.
De-growth remains a very negative approach to ecological and social problems. It may be a ‘concrete utopia’, embracing a ‘grand vision of transformation towards a socially just and environmentally sound system’ but it is indeed a ‘pessimistic term for such a vision’. But, ‘the term ‘degrowth’ carries a radical critique in its very name. To our minds, the radicalness inherent in the term ‘degrowth’ is an advantage’, write Dengler and Seebacher.
This is problematic, and again, the approach does not work. Poorer people cannot and wealthier people will not take a step to ‘conviviality’ and ‘happiness’ on a voluntary basis.
People want to hear a short and positive message, a promise of creating a better world for them. This is why it can be more promising to start from social justice and a perspective of a materially and tangible better life. Start with housing: a serious public investment in environmentally-friendly housing can help humans and the planet. Preventive health policies can require the end of some toxic pesticides in agriculture or the use of dangerous chemicals at the workplace. Allowances can be given to start-ups for activities that promote the ecological transition. Public transport can be developed. There are thousands of possibilities to show that not only the man in the street but transnational corporations as well can be reached with well-thought-out social policies.
From there and this positive message, environmental justice is within reach. Does it require less growth? I think it does, but it will be a consequence of social justice measures, it will not be imposed from above because ‘we have to’.
The question of extractivism is most probably the most difficult one because there is a clear contradiction between societal demands and economic needs. The transition towards ‘green’ energy, abandoning fossil fuels, as well as the digitalization of the economy, require huge amounts of minerals that are far from sustainable and which face huge resistance.
In a World Bank study of 2020 it is stated that the mining industry already consumes up to 11 % of global energy use and that 70 % happens in water-stressed regions. A low-carbon future will be very mineral intensive and will have a large material footprint. For 17 minerals that are examined, the total cumulative demand through 2050 will amount to hundreds of millions of Tons. For lithium, cobalt and graphite, demand will rise by up to 500 %.
A study from Acción ecologista confirms this trend and adds that not too much hope can be put in the recycling and reuse of materials. Even in a model of de-growth, the needs for several minerals are larger than the known reserves.
How to solve this contradiction? In this chapter, most of all, it is clear that the economic model will have to change, because in all countries, in North and South, resistance to extraction is very important. Extractivism has huge social and ecological costs. Hydrogen use is not a solution because it requires energy to produce it. Neither is carbon capture because it is very costly with limited potential.
The only answer here is that overall consumption will necessarily have to decline, that very strict rules for ‘clean’ extraction will have to be imposed, and that we might also have to discuss the problem of overpopulation. But again, how to do this in a socially equitable way? It is not feasible to ask people in the South and lower middle-class people in the North to contribute. It can only be done when first improving living conditions for all with carefully thought energy saving measures. Also, it is clear public authorities will have to take some unpopular measures for energy alternatives. And environmental movements will have to drop their demands for stopping extractivism and subsidies for ‘greening’ some industries. We also need more serious studies on what exactly we really need.
Tough choices will have to be made. A ‘just’ transition does not seem to be possible if public authorities do not take responsibility and involve citizens and their organisations in strategic planning. Social justice can never be a consequence of carefully and equitably sharing ecological measures. Instead, it is a pre-condition to make an ecological transition possible and desirable. Demands for ‘less and less’ will never work. A just transition requires political and economic democracy with rights for all and a better world on the horizon.