Holly Walker

The link between environmentalism and social justice

by Holly Walker

[With advance apologies for a long and philosophical post.]

When I get a spare moment to do big picture thinking (which is not often enough these days), I often find myself reflecting on the links between the environment, the economy, and social justice.

Broadly speaking, these are the Green Party’s three major priorities: protecting our precious natural environment, putting our economy on a sustainable footing, and reducing social and economic inequalities. Before the election, we used the examples of jobs, rivers, and kids, to illustrate these priorities.

Greens are about joined up, holistic thinking, which means finding the links between these priorities, and articulating why all three are equally important. Sometimes people express the view that the Greens should be a party that focuses solely on the environment, and we respond that a narrow approach like that fails to recognise that the environment, the economy, and social justice are intrinsically linked. To address one we have to address them all.

In recent years, I think people have come to understand much better why the environment and the economy are linked. Sometimes you hear the expression “the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment”. The National Government still seems hell-bent on a “drill it, mine it, sell it” economic strategy, but lots of other New Zealanders realise that our long-term economic wellbeing rests on protecting and enhancing our clean, green reputation.

Similarly, I think the links between how we structure our economy, and fairness, are pretty well-known. We know that there are ways to structure our tax system – for example, a comprehensive capital gains tax, and a more progressive income tax scale – that can reduce income inequality, and policies like where the minimum wage is set can have a huge impact on fairness and quality of life.

What’s less well understood, I think, is the direct link between social justice and the environment, which can seem less obvious. As someone who came to the Greens with a primary interest in social justice, but a no less passionate commitment to environmental protection, I’ve spent some time thinking about why the two are linked, and had a number of productive and interesting conversations about this with friends both in and outside the Greens.

So I was pleased to see today that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has been thinking about this too. In an address delivered on his behalf to the first Global Human Development Forum in Istanbul yesterday, Mr Ban’s message was that social injustice and environmental risks need to be tackled together:

“Sustainable development recognizes that our economic, social and environmental objectives are not competing goals that must be traded off against each other, but are interconnected objectives that are most effectively pursued together in a holistic manner,” Mr. Ban added in his message. “We need an outcome from Rio+20 that reflect this understanding and that relates to the concerns of all.”

Hearing Tim Flannery as part of Writers and Readers Week recently really helped me to put this stuff together in my mind. Flannery contends that the greatest challenge facing humanity – that threatens our very survival as a species – is global climate change and environmental destruction. We won’t have a planet left to live on if we don’t put our collective heads together and start finding and enacting some global solutions.

But we’re hardly in a position to do this when a huge proportion of the global population is living in abject poverty and misery every day. In some of the conversations I’ve had with people about putting environmentalism and social justice together, they say that it seems like a bit of a luxury to be worrying about conservation when there are kids going without food every day, and in a sense they are right.

Flannery talks about this using an idea called the “discount factor”. He explains it well in this radio interview:

Every species has a discount factor. Birds have been shown to have a discount factor. What it means at its most toxic is that you’ll make decisions about the immediate future, which may be beneficial or high risk, but which will have a very deleterious impact in the longer term.

A classic example of the discount factor that sociologists have been discussing, I talk about it in the book, is angry young men. You know, you go and do something unbelievably stupid like hold up a bank with a gun. So there’s a prospect of immediate return, incredibly high risk, but also the chances of those kids being alive and out of jail 20 years from the time they do that are very, very small. So they’re trading their future for the immediate.

Even young men in a bar who, over some trivial insult, will get up and stab someone – unbelievably counterproductive, but done for the same reason. It turns out that people who have nothing to lose are those who have the steepest discount factor. So they’re the ones who are willing to trade-off future benefit at the steepest rate, for some immediate gain, often because they’ve just got to survive day-to-day.

If significant proportions of the population are  living hand to mouth, with steep discount factors, unable to contemplate the long-term best interests of their own families, let alone the planet, then we don’t have a hope of enacting collective, global solutions to halt climate change and environmental destruction. If we can’t do that, then we put our own survival as humans at risk, and probably condemn future generations to lives of misery and pain that could have been prevented.

So we have to be in the business of reducing inequalities, ending child poverty, and promoting a fair society. To do this, we need sustainable, progressive economic policies that preserve the environment and work for everyone. And when we have those, we might just save the planet and ourselves.