Environmental Justice, Tony Benn and knitting

Karen Bell

Karen Bell

by Karen Bell, author of Achieving environmental justice: A cross-national analysis, publishing on 28 April.

After spending 30 years of my life engaged in research and activism (mainly activism) on environmental issues, it is a huge relief to find that now virtually everyone seems to know, think and care about the topic.  For years I, and similarly minded others, had to cope with, what Tony Benn describes as the path to progress, whereby ‘First they ignore you, then they say you’re mad, then dangerous’ before ‘…there’s a pause and then you can’t find anyone who disagrees with you’. Now almost everyone recognises that we face numerous environmental crises and solutions are being proposed from a vast range of concerned bodies, from oil companies (e.g. BP ‘alternative’ energy), to weapons manufacturers (e.g. Nammo lead-free ‘green’ bullets) to God (e.g. the Green Bible).

Of course, environmental problems are getting harder to ignore, especially following the wave of political and media attention that ensued when the floods hit the playing fields of Eton or as Deborah Orr put it in The Guardian, ‘the effluent … hit the affluent’.

Though the PM would have us believe the floods were caused by the Environment Agency, the vast majority have finally woken up to the fact that climate change is linked to human behaviour, more generally, and what’s more that it is an urgent issue, likely to affect everyone.  Therefore, now that everyone is taking at least one environmental problem – i.e. climate change – seriously, it would seem that I could stop all this research and activism, pass on the baton, take up a relaxing hobby like knitting and let everyone else ‘sort it out’.  But I haven’t been able to because a) we now only have about 20 years to prevent the imminent and irreversible overstep of the planetary boundaries within which humanity can safely live (Rockström et al, 2009) – not a situation conducive to restful activity of any kind; and b) the way the problem is generally being ‘sorted’ seems to be making things worse, not just for the environment, but for society as a whole, particularly the worst off.

So, instead of knitting an extremely long scarf, I wrote my first book Achieving environmental justice to explore what to do and to implore that we do it.  I have called the book ‘Achieving environmental justice’, rather than ‘Achieving environmental friendliness’, because I see the environmental crises we face as crises of social injustice.  They are about social justice because:

  1. Most of us are now living in unhealthy environments that poison and kill us
  2. The poorest and least powerful live in the unhealthiest environments
  3. The same poorest and least powerful are the least likely to have caused the environmental crises
  4. The solutions to the environmental crises being implemented sometimes intensify the problems of the poorest and least powerful
  5. The processes of environmental decision-making rarely include the poorest and least powerful

Focussing on these social justice issues, the book considers the extent, form and causes of environmental justice and injustice in a variety of countries, from the US, UK, Republic of Korea and Sweden to China, Bolivia and Cuba.  It also looks at the solutions to the environmental crises being implemented in each country, particularly evaluating the effectiveness of technological innovation and market-based mechanisms in comparison with more regulatory or redistributive approaches.

Some of the proposed solutions have comforting, win-win sounding names, such as ‘Green Economy’, ‘Geo-engineering’ and ‘Payments for Ecosystems Services’.  However, when these policies are examined from an environmental justice perspective, asking who benefits?, who decides?, and why?, many of the proposed solutions appear to be deeply concerning.  Hence, the book questions whether the widely applauded market-based solutions (e.g. South Korea’s Green Growth policy) are really effective and for whom; and compares their outcomes with that of more redistributive and regulatory policy approaches (e.g. Bolivia’s Living Well policy). I conclude that ‘green capitalist’ solutions are generally inadequate, ineffective and sometimes harmful because capitalism’s necessity for short term profit means that longer term consequences must be ignored.

Last week, the recent IPCC report again highlighted the threats to our health, homes, food and safety as a result of rising temperatures but it did not advocate radical social change.  Flash floods, 153 lightning strikes a minute, calling in the army, the PM in his wellies, whatever happens, we are still generally only willing to consider environmental policy that fits in with, or benefits, business.  This does not seem rational to me.  Hence, the book invites readers to consider that capitalism and markets may not be the answer to these crises and may well be the cause.  I am hoping to be called mad or dangerous as, at least (according to Tony Benn who I consider was right about most things) that will mean we will be on the path to progress and I will shortly be able to take up knitting.

Achieving environmental justice: A cross-national analysis is available with 20% discount at www.policypress.co.uk.

 

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