Reflections from the frontline: Does environmental sustainability have a problem with social justice? (Part 1)
By Nick Anim, on 1 April 2021
The question about whether environmental sustainability has a problem with social justice seems rather wrong, right? At first glance, it appears a bit abstract because what it is asking us to do is to interrogate a dialectical relationship between two contested concepts that have no determinate meanings. Upon further thought, the question beckons a somewhat counterintuitive analysis because in many spheres we simply assume to be true, and therefore take for granted, the proposition that environmental sustainability and social justice are not only interconnected but also interdependent in a relationship of mutual reinforcement on the same virtuous circle. Indeed, notions such as sustainable development, environmental justice, climate justice and just sustainabilities, whilst being conceptually distinguishable, all endeavour to promote and/or uphold that assumption. Here at the DPU, our main goal of “planning for socially just and sustainable development in the Global South” also contributes to the omnipotence and omnipresence of that canon.
It has been argued elsewhere that whilst environmental sustainability and social justice share a common organising concern around issues of scarcity, they do very different things with it (cf. Campbell, 2013; Dobson, 1998; Irvine and Ponton, 1988). On the one hand, environmentalism centres on questions of extinction, reducing the consumption of non-renewable resources, increasing the use of renewable resources, and decreasing the aggregate amount of waste generated by industrial and other processes of production. On the other hand, social justice concerns centre around the fair sharing or distribution of benefits and burdens in the socio-political community.
On that basis, having different centres of gravity means their objectives will almost always conflict as environmentalists focus on intergenerational justice, and social justice activists demand intragenerational justice. From that perspective, the differences between them are not merely of ambition, but also of tactics. Any convergence of the two ideologies, then, it has been argued (ibid), should be taken as a temporary marriage of convenience with no conjugal rights, and will thereby produce no empirical evidence to validate claims of their universal compatibility.
Now, although those arguments about the lack of empirical evidence may hold true and excite theoretical discussions and diagnoses in the ivory towers of academe, it is not my intention here to excavate, re-examine and confirm or contest them in this short piece. Rather, what I propose to do is to interrogate that opening question through the reflexive lens of my activism with two prominent environmental movements, Extinction Rebellion (XR), and the Transition Network (TN). Both movements can be understood in terms of adopting a glocal focus in their approach to environmentalism; think globally, act locally. In that regard, their organisational structures are very similar; place-based, decentralised and highly networked.
Where XR and TN differ is in their collective action repertoires and processes. XR pursues a broad spectrum of high-impact performative ‘Capital-A activism’ repertoires of civil disobedience that show a moral outrage against the machinations of predatory capitalism and its inherent contradictions which perpetuate environmental despoliation (see Harvey, 2014). In contrast, the TN model subscribes to Buckminster Fuller’s aphorism that “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” Accordingly, the TN promotes a solutions-based approach which encourages groups to experiment with niche innovations such as local currencies, local energy production, and food initiatives.
It is worth noting here that whilst XR and TN occupy distinct spaces in the ecosystem of contemporary environmental activism, there is some level of cross-pollination of activists between the two movements. Perhaps most importantly for the purpose of this piece, there is considerable consistency in the viewpoints of activists regarding the question of whether environmental sustainability has a problem with social justice. Bringing that question down from the ‘ivory tower of academe’ to the frontline of activism, the kindred question to ask, then, is, do environmentalists have a problem with incorporating social justice claims into their strategic demands?
Drawing from my reflexive diaries of notes taken following conversations with over a hundred activists in both groups, it is clear that there is a significant minority of just under 25% of activists in XR and TN who strongly believe that the clear course of their demands will somehow be muddied by incorporating issues of social justice. That figure increases to just over 32% when the proposed pivot is towards accommodating matters of racial justice. To be clear here, almost all activists sympathised with, and showed enlightened concern for, the cries and demands of social, economic, and racial justice. However, many argued that the introduction of the aforementioned justice concerns might prove too politically divisive and thus threaten the critical ‘mass factor’ necessary to trigger the tipping points for regime change (see, Centola et al., 2018) with regard to the status quo of damaging environmental practices.
Further, as many activists pointed out, there are a plethora of well-established social, justice, economic justice, and racial justice movements already attending to those issues. On that last point about the existence of other movements for various issues of social justice, the inescapable question to ask here at this point, then, is ‘how can environmental movements and movements for social justice build solidarity across differences?’ That is the question I propose to tackle in the next offering of my ‘Reflections from the Frontline’. For now, I will end this short piece by suggesting that the opening question is one that in many ways reflects the state of the union in terms of how humanity is organised on Earth. We find ourselves in the middle of two simultaneous emergencies. On the one hand, we face the twinned climate and ecological breakdown, and on the other hand an emergency of persistent inequalities within and between countries.
Taken together, it becomes clear that humanity is facing something of an identity crisis; a crisis of belonging and othering. As Covid-19 stalks the Earth, threatening to, as viruses so often do, mutate the living daylights out of available vaccines and continue to disrupt everything, we are forced to pause and reflect on how rapidly things can change. In the last twelve months during the pandemic, so many things that we were always told were not possible, suddenly became possible. Amidst speculative visions of dystopian futures predicated on haphazard government responses that demonstrated a mixture of chaotic politics and politicised chaos, measures such as national lockdowns, social distancing and quarantining, fuelled cycles of fear, despair, social isolation and division, and great uncertainty.
Against that backdrop, many place-based movements such as XR and TN have taken a leading role in engaging in mutual support, providing basic needs and solidarity in their community and beyond. What lessons can activists learn from this experience to help the coalescence of environmental movements and movements for social justice in post pandemic activism?
Campbell, S.D., 2013. Sustainable development and social justice: Conflicting urgencies and the search for common ground in urban and regional planning. Michigan Journal of Sustainability, 1.
Centola, D., Becker, J., Brackbill, D. and Baronchelli, A., 2018. Experimental evidence for tipping points in social convention. Science, 360(6393), pp.1116-1119. Accessed via: https://openaccess.city.ac.uk/id/eprint/20031/1/
Dobson, A., 1998. Justice and the environment: Conceptions of environmental sustainability and theories of distributive justice. Clarendon Press.
Harvey, D., 2014. Seventeen contradictions and the end of capitalism. Oxford University Press, USA. Accessed via: https://www.marefa.org/images/3/3f/Harvey14.pdf
Irvine, S. and Ponton, A., 1988. A Green Manifesto: Policies for a Green Future. Vintage.