The link between environmentalism and social justice

[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.

26 Comments Posted

  1. It was the Labour Party (all out of good ideas) who, vocally supported by the Green Party (eg), decided that the right thing to do was to regulate your shower.

    I know the actual proposal was more subtle than that, but such details didn’t matter; interfering with the right to shower was seen as “the nanny state to the max” and the current centerist mob had to go to be replaced by the current centerist mob.

    Big LEFTY – thats funny.

  2. Shunda said “what a load of holier than thou bullshit” and “I care … I seriously doubt you do”
    I’m sorry for unintentionally sounding like I was holier than you. I’m SURE that I’m not. And you obviously care more than me too.
    I’m happy for your kids 🙂

  3. @ Soltka

    What I was getting at is what Janine covered succinctly – social justice is essentially by default, a subset of social responsibility.

    The critical point for me is in this sentence:

    “Therefore the key to social responsibility is the just distribution of social and natural resources, both locally and globally.”

    If this is a policy of with an outcome of equality of opportunity / entrenched procedural justice both at an individual and societal level, and getting that balance between individual liberties and social responsibilities right (effectively Rawlsian outcomes), then great.

    If it’s about artificially generating a quality of outcome via arbitrary redistribution (the value of which would naturally be entirely subjective depending on who holds the levers of power) then not so great.

    The Green charter does not say ‘equal’ distribution of resources. It says ‘just’.

    Identifying ‘just’ in the context of the individual and societal outcomes (essentially a sensible cost/benefits trade-off discussion) is the key.

  4. There is some good environmental justice research out there that looks at exactly this issue (Dumping in Dixie by Robert D. Bullard is considered the foundational text for those interested).

    The link between social and environmental justice is clear when you consider the environment as more than just a nice view and a few critters but as the places people live – right down to the moldy state house.

    Social power and where people live is closely linked. One example is if you are a big polluter looking to set up shop you would take the path of least resistance and head for the wrong side of the tracks. An interesting story and example from New Zealand that I think demonstrates the link quite well is this one regarding the building of a Christchurch marae:

    (Hirini Matunga (2000). Urban ecology, tangata whenua and the colonial city)

    “Little Hagley Park was considered the best place and the most appropriate given its original designation as a native reserve. Christchurch City Council originally supported the location, but withdrew its support over councilors concerns that “we are putting down an ancient Maori house in one of our best suburbs”. In the 1980s the Council supported a marae, not in Hagley Park as originally intended but out in the suburbs, on pages Road, adjacent to the former Bromley sewage Ponds. From conception of the original idea to its realisation, the marae had been shifted along with its people ‘out to the margin’ and away from the ‘best suburbs’ (Tau 2000)” pg. 68

    So all in all I see no problem that the Greens take on what may seem like non-environmental issues, rental standards being a particularly good example of a social/economic issue having an environmental aspect if you take a wider lens on to it.

    Having an opinion on broader issues like capital gains taxes and being against privitisation are just plain common sense and for those who think the Greens should just stay out of it, a functioning economy (in a resource constrained world) is central to achieving the Green’s environmental objectives.

    Regardless of that any environmental regulation other than legislation outlawing environmental regulation would equate to interventionism so it is inevitable that people more rightly inclined lump the Greens on the left (even though were in-front).

  5. One link between environmentalism and social justice is that, if you care about either, it shows a degree of empathy. So the caring types, tend to care about both.

    Utter rubbish, what a load of holier than thou bullshit.

    Don’t worry Shunda, one day you won’t feel the need to smack your kids.

    I don’t remember the last time I needed to.

    As for caring, I love my country and the environment that we have stewardship over.In fact, I value it so much that I can’t stand it when ideologues that think they have a monopoly on “caring” use the environment to push their own deluded left wing crap on the rest of us.

    I care enough to be concerned about the truth of these issues, I seriously doubt you do.

  6. Can’t understand why i get three downticks for merely providing a quote from the GP Charter. Greggor had questioned whether he had got the “wrong end of the stick”, and clearly he has. It has always staggered me how people can read the GP Charter while not reading the GP Charter.

  7. One link between environmentalism and social justice is that, if you care about either, it shows a degree of empathy. So the caring types, tend to care about both.
    Don’t worry Shunda, one day you won’t feel the need to smack your kids.

  8. Fair enough in a sense – I was thinking of Northland, not China, when I called the policy of environmental destruction in order to alleviate poverty a lie.

    I agree with the direction of policy to target causes of climate change – in fact, one of the Green tax policies is to tax polluting activities in preference to taxing earned income.

    That said, you still need to look after those least able to look after themselves – for all the above reasons, including alienation.

  9. Janine, Thanks for your response. I have two points.

    First, much of the environmental destruction is going hand-in-hand with alleviating poverty, at least if you believe what the statistical agencies in China and India are telling us. It is not a lie, as you claim.

    Second, in response to your question “What to do about it?” (I presume you are referring to the direction of the titanic in my metaphor). Policy targeted at the direct causes of climate change (e.g. pricing carbon) will be far, far more effective at turning the ship around than income re-distribution policies (capital gains taxes supplanting consumption taxes etc). The “discount rate” thesis is an attempt to convince us otherwise.

  10. I think categorizing S59 as “forcing an ideology shift” is a massive stretch.

    Without wanting to get into relitigation of S59 all over again (as it adds nothing to the point at hand), I supported (and continue to support) the S59 changes, but few here would suggest I’m with “extremist left wing ideology”.

    If the Greens need a lesson, and they probably do, then S59 isn’t it.

    Nope, there was a much simpler issue, pushed by the Green Party (as a coalition partner) that became adopted by the then Labour government, that ended up being far more controversial, and contributed directly to their downfall, and thus why the years 2008 – 2020 will be remembered as the John Key years. Anyone remember what it was?

  11. If the Sue Bradford Section 59 debacle hasn’t taught the Greens anything then nothing will.

    That was a complete waste of political capital and from a member that quickly rejected the party when she didn’t get her own way and couldn’t be the boss (where is that sociopath thread now?).

    That whole issue was about forcing an ideology shift upon NZers that didn’t want it, and indeed was against the findings of leading research.

    It had nothing whatsoever to do with the environment and everything to do with extremist left wing ideology.

    The Greens have taught NZers that they can’t be trusted, it is as simple as that.

    The Greens can move to change this whenever they want.

  12. Ha. No way. We just got Rawls’d.

    Before there were basic liberties there was a social minimum. Admittedly, Rawls was pretty vague on this, which is unfortunate because it links in to lots of other parts of his theory. One thing the idea of the social minimum does is take seriously the argument that, to a starving person, basic liberties like free speech appear frivolous, if not irrelevant. We need to have a sufficient standard of well being. This seems to be parallel to the idea of the discount factor which Holly described above, although I’m not familiar with Tim Flannery’s ideas.
    Then come the principles of justice and the primary goods, including basic liberties, ya de ya.

    If we talk about basic liberties in isolation, that’s fine, but we’re not actually talking about Rawls, just using his jargon. To put this in another way, any argument from legitimacy for basic liberties, and only basic liberties, isn’t gonna come from Rawls.

    On another note, while I think it is important to understand and take seriously the connections between the environment and social justice, I have my concerns. I read this post as a response to criticism that the Green Party should stick to environmental issues, and my concerns are informed by this reading.

    The response seems to be that social justice is essential to environmental sustainability; if the goal is protecting the environment then focusing only on the environment is like trying to conceive a child by masturbating.

    For some issues there is a clear overlap between social justice and the environment. Sometimes there’s not. I don’t see what enabling gay adoption has to do with the environment. If it was somehow pitched on environmental grounds I would find this deeply offensive.

    Green policy doesn’t appear to be limited by the things that overlap. Recognising the connections takes us a long way in understanding what the problem is, and how we can effectively address it, but limiting our focus to things that overlap seems bizarre. Sometimes justice is important on its own terms. But this doesn’t address the concerns that people like Ryan have, and I think it’s important to recognise this.

  13. Holly –

    I may have the wrong end of the stick but I always assumed the Green’s pitch (certainly what I signed up for) was centred on the tenets ‘social responsibly’ as opposed to any direct focus on ‘social justice’.

    There is a danger in ideologically aiming for anything beyond Rawl’s idea of basic liberties with it’s implicit assumption that any government failing to safeguard these liberties is illegitimate.

  14. I didn’t think Holly was saying that the poor have their hands on the steering wheel – we know they do not. However, much of the proposed environmental destruction is allegedly to alleviate poverty by creating ‘wealth’, ie money. Holly is deconstructing that excuse and showing it for what it is, a lie.
    So, we are not arguing about who is able to make the major decisions, but acknowledging that being poor often leads to making bad decisions which exacerbate what has been set in motion. Pointless to blame them for the direction of the ship though.
    What to do about it? That is the tough question – the powerful do not want to change things because they benefit from them. And they make the rules. Challenging that power, in a peaceful way, is the job of the Green party and everyone else who supports a sustainable future.
    So, I guess conversations like this are part of recognising who we are and what our contribution can be. Social responsibility is part of that.

  15. Thanks for your thoughts Holly. I am one of the people who get frustrated with the Greens for spending their political capital on social justice issues rather than environmental issues. Playing around with income distribution is like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, in my opinion.

    I offer this observation against the “discount factor” thesis. It is not the poor, with their high discount factors and disregard for the future, that are steering the Titanic. It is the wealthy (and those growing wealthier) who have their hands on the steering wheel: The big emitters of CO2 are the OECD and the fast-growing BRICS. The discount rate thesis just doesn’t stack up against the empirical evidence, and I remain unconvinced by your argument that by helping the poor we will save the earth.

    All too often human beings let their beliefs influence how they interpret what they see around them. (Why is it that mainly rich people see evidence of “trickle down” economics?) Given your left-leaning world-view, it is a convenient thesis that helping the poor will also save the earth. But it may not be a correct thesis, and it is imperative that we get this right: More carbon will be emitted in the first two decades of this century than in the previous century. Or, to beat the metaphor to death, the iceberg is fast approaching, and we don’t have time to argue about who has their hands on the steering wheel.

  16. Here’s the deal as I see it Holly.

    I think you are on the right track, much of what you say rings true from a philosophical perspective, but there is always a but.

    I think the issue is more complex than you realise in modern developed countries like NZ.

    There is a collective “issue” that you are not addressing and that is the fact that in our country it is often attitude and not underlying inescapable causes of poverty that keep people down.

    The left are as much to blame for this as the right, until you and the rest of the Greens realise this there will never be anything but two sides firing all they have at each other and a big ugly void called “modern society” trapped in the middle.

    Ideology kills, ideology makes people poor, but ideals can cause people to aspire to a better existence.

    The poor in NZ are not as poor as the poor in parts of Africa (or many other places), the poorest in NZ live like kings in comparison.

    The issues that need to be addressed for true “social justice” to occur are not the same.

    Social sustainability is not something that enables poor decision making or an escape from the consequences of poor decisions.

  17. IN the meantime, the government is pushing hard for mineral extraction across large areas of the country without consultation with people or concern for environmental or social effects. Two instances: the people of Kaikoura are petitioning the government not to allow deep sea oil drilling off their coast, because their livelihoods depend on fishing and whale watching. The other night here in Hokianga we had the council presenting its ten-year plan – I asked when we were going to be informed about the minerals our mayor is selling off to Canadian mining companies and if we were going to have a chance to discuss it. We were told that the government is driving it and the only chance to find out what is going on and say anything about it will be at the stage where a consent is applied for for mining. Now, we are not a rich part of the country, but such wealth as we have is not below the ground, but above it, in the bush and the farms, the wahi tapu, the small communities and the pa. It is the government that is not satisfied with the level of money generation from up here – but as we all know, whatever money is made from destroying our natural environment won’t be staying here.
    We can make all the environmental boundaries we like – the very people elected to make those rules on our behalf are the ones who would destroy the environment for monetary gain for corporations.

  18. No need for philosophical complexity.

    Set strong but reasonable environmental boundaries that we must operate within (not “screw it now – assume to fix it sometime in the future” policies). Then let the economy develop within those boundaries in the most efficient manner possible, to ensure we acquire the foundational means to take care of everyone – and well. From here, make sure the economy is egalitarian by properly regulating the labour market to ensure capital competes hard for labour. Easy.

    There is enormous room for serious gains with modern tools and innovation. With this foundation we can easily live well without shooting ourselves or our environment in the foot. It’s not hard.

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