The need for a paradigm shift: challenges for achieving social justice in a resource-limited world | by Anabella Rosemberg

by Jun 9, 2012All Articles

At the Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, it appeared that a global consensus had been reached that there was an inevitable connection between social justice, environmental protection and economic security. Sustainability was the watchword and there seemed to be a high level of political commitment to that goal. However today, almost twenty years later, very little progress seems to have been made.
The limits of our current economic system have been revealed by the continuing evidence of climate change driven by human activity; income inequalities have grown; much of the developing world continues to struggle and the global recession has revealed the fragility of finance-driven capitalism. Perhaps the banking crisis has created a further opportunity to make a reality of sustainability by rethinking the fundamentals of our economic system.
The two central concepts here are green growth and the green economy. Both have emerged in recent times as a potential route out of the crisis. Nonetheless, they are hardly new and draw upon an older assessment of the capacity of the economic system to capture the environmental impacts of production and consumption. Expressed more technically, this represents no more that an effort to ‘internalise the externalities’.
This theory has several advantages. A greener economy is a better alternative than business-as-usual growth. It can revitalise the economy in periods of economic decline through the mobilisation of new investment, job creation in emerging sectors or innovation processes. Green growth can also encourage investment in environmental innovations. Ecological modernists believe that resource efficiency can drive cheaper production and economic growth through reduced natural resource consumption
Despite the widespread agreement on the ecological modernisation agenda, that approach is not entirely unproblematic. How, for example, can the integrity of policies be guaranteed? It is fairly easy to envisage a situation in which more renewable energy is available but an increase in energy consumption means that the environmental benefits of renewables are blunted by a continuing rise in the use of fossil fuels. In principle, the energy mix may be more sustainable, but overall energy consumption most certainly is not.
Although there is no clear alternative to the growth paradigm, a number of ideas – of which ‘just transition’ is one – have arisen in recent years with a long-term vision and a similar aim: achieving wealth and an equitable share of natural resources through other means. These ideas include the concept of ‘prosperity without growth’ and ‘greenhouse development rights’.
Although there is a general consensus around the idea that social justice cannot be achieved without environmental protection, the means by which a ‘win–win’ approach could become reality are still unclear. How can environmentally-friendly policies become supportive of the livelihoods of workers and communities which make a living out of the degradation of the environment? How can we deal with the impacts of the transformation of our economies? Those issues are at the origins of the ‘Just Transition’ framework, developed by the trade union movement as a tool for ensuring that ambitious environmental actions integrate social and societal needs.
Just Transition refers to the need for long-term sustainable investments which could create decent jobs and transform those in traditional sectors; pro-active training and skills development policies, social dialogue with unions, employers and other stakeholders, research and early assessment of social and employment impacts of environmental policies, the development of social protection schemes and the need to develop local economic diversification plans.
How could a ‘Just Transition’ framework contribute to a paradigm shift? First, it would eliminate the apparent contradiction between the protection of livelihoods and the protection of the environment. Second, it has the advantage of highlighting the importance of anticipating and planning industrial and development policies and allowing for a reflection in the mid and long run. Ultimately, as a ‘transitional tool’, it makes the shift towards a different economic model possible.
Several groups in society acknowledge the need for a paradigm shift if we are to achieve social and environmental goals. Nonetheless, this thinking is still divided into ‘silos’.
If some opportunities for jobs and growth emerge from the ecological modernisation theory, it is important to consider what will be and who will pay for the consequences of the growth paradigm for our societies and our natural resources. New ideas linking both dimensions are emerging, but are still incomplete.
Although the trade union movement has advanced significantly in its understanding and actions on environmental issues, proposals such as those included in the concept of Just Transition have still not reached consensus outside the labour movement. Environmental degradation and the current economic crisis have opened a critical space for trade unions to raise their voice and offer a more comprehensive alternative framework.
There is a need to scale up our efforts in this exercise, as the consequences of the current economic model are already generating irreversible changes in the natural resource base of our planet, which in turn weaken even further the prospects of achieving decent work and sustainability.
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