A New Big Society: social solidarity without growth?

Mitigating climate change is often seen to be at odds with economic growth. This is confirmed by the fact that rapidly developing countries hold the lion’s share of carbon emissions. Kilian Raiser asks: can we achieve social solidarity without growth?

Never before will a topic have had this amount of political and social clout. As our politicians gather, and our societies march, we have never been so bound together, united in our collective need for action. In climate change there is an opportunity for change beyond our energy industries, a precedent for social transformation.

Change the goal

Our economic model of “growth or die” will never provide the levels of economic development we strive for. At current rates achieving $1.25 a day per person will require a century, and is still too little. $5 would be more in line with meeting basic needs, so two centuries, and a GDP per capita of $1,000,000. How many planets will we need to sustain these levels of growth? How many more of us must be exploited to provide the resources and cheap labour needed to fuel our consumption habits, which in turn drive our economy?

©Oxfam International /Creative Commons License

©Oxfam International /Creative Commons License

These absurd numbers are driven by inequality. How much less time would we need to achieve them, if our incomes were capped at say $10,000,000 per year, the rest being used to fund community development, to alleviate poverty, to combat climate change?  Andrew Simms and Naomi Klein have both recently argued that climate change is intrinsically linked to inequality. That over coming one will undoubtedly require the other.

Yet, none of the parties running for office are really debating our policies toward regulating what will undoubtedly become one of the world’s largest markets in the future: renewables. Even the Green Party, by far the most concerned with our energy future, who do advocate a swift phasing out of fossil fuels, only mention the need for a public programme for climate change mitigation and adaptation. How can we ensure that the renewable energy firms that take over from their fossil fuel counterparts will not also exhibit the same profit driven, ruthless tactics of growth? And if we are ready to discuss this why not move on from the energy sector.

Sustainability cannot be obtained with CEOs benefiting whilst jobs are cut. Sustainability will not be achieved if IT conglomerates such as Google gain the same lobbying power of our current fossil fuel and pharmaceuticals industries. Sustainability cannot be achieved if Apple continues its record-breaking profits streak. Our planet will simply not sustain these consumption habits.

Valuing society and each other

We may complain about inequality, but we have institutionalized competition. Our education systems encourage us to compete. We are tested against each other, rather than on the grounds of our own personal ability. We strive for admiration. And our technological progress has only exacerbated our disposition. Now we judge our own progress online, based on fabricated accounts of our happiness. We constantly gaze in the mirror of our smart phone screens hoping to feel better because we have already been there, because we heard it before the world did, because we reached more people, and have collected virtual thumbs up before we ever got a real one.

©Southern Africa /Creative Commons License

©Southern Africa /Creative Commons License

We shun ideas of community. Who now knows their neighbours? Or can walk into their local bar/café and be sure to strike up a conversation? Do you know the name of the person selling you groceries everyday? And yet community will define our response to climate change. Carbon neutrality relies on our communities. Politics is and should be intrinsically linked to the community.

Although we focus most of our attention on the national elections, on who wins and will govern our nation(s) for the next electoral term, we should be equally, if not more, concerned with our local community politics. Support your local MPs as much as you do the PM candidate they might represent. Effect change locally, rather than complain about the inability to do so nationally.

Policy not Personality

Politicians have a pretty low shelf life, but their policies should nonetheless take effect over a longer-term their own times in office. This is why it is important to vote for policies not personalities. If we want to achieve sustainability, we need to vote for the policies that bring us closest to these goals, policies that will continue taking effect long after their initiating personalities have retired.

Politically, climate change is a precedent for radical measures. So let’s cap global income! Not at 100,000 (still reasonably high), not even at $1,000,000 (beyond most of our wildest dreams), but at $25,000,000. The surplus each year could be used to fund global public health schemes, free education, and an open-source pool of knowledge tailored to tackling our most pressing issues.

This one example would probably already be enough to solve most of our political struggles. But in order to govern well, we as a society must first transform to embody the values we want to be governed by.

©James Emery /Creative Commons License

©James Emery /Creative Commons License

Climate change presents us with an opportunity. Let us ensure that our grandchildren do not inherit a world without climate change but a lot more of everything else. Let us start now by voting for policies, not personalities, for the future of our grandchildren, not the face representing us at the next global environmental summit.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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