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Linking Degrowth to Environmental Justice

For “Scharf-links”, a German online newspaper, Dr. Joachim Spangenberg , co-chair of EJOLT’s steering committee, spoke about the activities of EJOLT and the link between Environmental Justice and Degrowth, looking forward to the Degrowth meeting in Leipzig in the first week in September 2014 where EJOLT will be present. In the interview he explains that justice is a core element of any Degrowth process. Without justice, Degrowth won’t work.

[?] Dr. Spangenberg, for many people at EJOLT the Degrowth movement of the global North largely corresponds to the environmental justice movement of the global South…

[!] On our EJOLT map of environmental conflicts ( it is not only possible to identify which regions are affected and which industries are causing conflicts, but also where perpetrators are coming from. These companies are primarily mining companies or other manufacturing industries, private ones as well as state owned ones. Apart from very few exceptions these companies are based in industrial countries, especially in Europe and the U.S. The victims of conflicts, in contrast, are mostly from countries of the global South. In these countries each month 2-3 leaders of environmental movements are being murdered. For them protection of the environment in is not a matter of goodwill but it is a matter of life and death.

[?] Who allows or fosters such developments, governments or corporations?

[!] State-owned energy companies in OECD-countries contribute 200 billion per year to state revenues. Many states are financially dependent on these companies and also on the taxes from private resource companies.

Many of the private companies are stock exchange-listed companies. The goal of high share prices collides with ambitious environmental targets. For example, to reach the 2 degree Celsius target two-thirds of remaining fossil fuels would have to stay in the ground. If this target were actually enforced, stock prices of the world’s largest corporations would collapse–their market value is based on the amount of resources they own, as these are considered the basis of future profits. Anything that reduces expected profits will lower the companies’ market value and this applies to laws protecting the environment, labour rights or indigenous people’s rights as well.

Australia‘s largest mining company, for example, would lose 50% of its market value if it had to re-classify 2/3 of its fossil fuel reserves as „unburnable fuels“. Mining and oil companies, but also the waste industry, do everything in their power to avert more stringent laws, more ambitious political targets and more effective sanctioning. Yet, with the Renewable Energies Law (EEG) in Germany it became apparent that big companies do not necessarily have the upper hand – RWE has lost 80% of its market value. However, the tough fight over renewable energies continues, also with the aid of the German Federal Government, to safeguard as much of the market value as possible.

[?] Which potential do you see in a global network of environmental organisations?

[!] Within EJOLT, NGO members work together with scientists. This way they learn how to phrase their perfectly legitimate concerns in an economic, scientific and juridical terminology so that these will be better appreciated by the media, policy makers and in court. For this we build upon experiences and practices of NGOs worldwide. At the moment we are, for example, working together with Friends of the Earth Nigeria, who fight against Shell. On the basis of these experiences we – environmental activists from Nigeria, the Netherlands, Norway and Italy, supported by scientists from Spain, Brazil and Germany – have prepared information material on how to successfully bring corporations to court. The materials are available on our project website for free and are disseminated through our NGO- and scientist networks; the EEB (European Environmental Bureau) collaborates with us.

[?] With concepts such as „ecological debt“, you are calling attention to the unequal distribution of wealth and power between global North and global South. Which implications does this have? Is this a request to industrial countries to pull back economically?

[!] First of all, it is remarkable that concepts such as ecological debt, and also ecological footprint and ecologically unequal exchange have been developed within social movements or in close cooperation with social movements and only later on were picked up by science. Many large funding programmes fail to notice that science has to listen to civil society to identify issues that need investigation instead of just sticking to its own kind, in a rather autistic fashion.

By establishing mandatory standards for sustainable management of resources some ecological crimes which are now lucrative would become unprofitable. On the other hand, it would become attractive to invest in energy saving and energy efficiency instead of exploiting new coal and oil reserves. Yet, appeals to corporate responsibility will not be able to halt further irresponsible capital investments – only politics can set limits to this. It is the task of NGOs (environmental groups, Third World groups, trade unions …) in industrialised countries, and in particular in Germany, to fight against these injustices together.

I don’t think this a withdrawal though, it is not about isolation. It is about establishing moral rather than geographical boundaries. So far multinational companies benefit from the fact that protective regulations for the preservation of common-pool resources, or institution in charge of enforcing regulations, are too weak. This needs to change.

[?] Does it not clearly follow from this that the economy has to shrink in the affluent countries?

[!] The physical throughput of the western and northern economies must be reduced by 70-80 percent over the next century. The question is: how can we achieve this without causing misery and poverty here. What this does to GDP is in principle of no concern, except for Finance Ministers and bankers who fear for their interest based profits. We have to decrease physical consumption, we need a leaner economy and we have to ensure that developments will be socially just.

[?] Are you implying that justice is a side effect of this process? Do you think that Degrowth will be positively influenced by an equitable distribution?

[!] First of all, justice is a fundamental element as well as a requirement for any Degrowth process, not a side effect. Without justice it is impossible.

Secondly, regarding equitable distribution – it is indeed possible to increase the welfare of a country by redistributing income and resources (a recipient of social transfers will gain more from 100 Euro extra than a millionaire). Yet, higher income equality also leads to an increase in consumption, as the poorer parts of the population (have to) consume a larger share of their income immediately. What matters is how this consumption might look like. In principle, this means to focus more on quality and durability instead of a higher quantity of junk. The objective is to increase the quality of life; increase the kind of services that are available to people, without increasing the number of products and reducing the amount of resources consumed.

I think the difference between „consuming more“ and „living better“ is pretty obvious in the debates about the „good life“, which are currently going on in Latin America (around here discussions on that topic have calmed down since the 1970s and 1990s) – so there is still a lot we need to learn. A crucial requirement for being able to learn from “distant neighbours” in the global South, is to de-economise our world view. Unless we start rethinking these issues, and begin to prefer quality of life over earning more money, we will not be able to solve this.

[?] Does the argument for Degrowth not lose a lot of its power if it is only limited to the goal of reducing the consumption of resources? Ensuring equal access for people to the sources of their livelihoods certainly is a matter of „rights“.

If one argues, as you do, that we need strong institutions as defenders of society against business, do you then not neglect the dependency on economic growth, connected to banking and financial structures and their destabilising influences? What is the use of criticising ruthless economic interests if one does not address the underlying causes?

[!]Within the last 200 years 20% of humanity have managed to overcome poverty, hardship and illness, but in doing so plundered the planet‘s resources. By now another 60% of humanity are trying to achieve this by the same means and it has become perfectly clear that this will lead to a collapse of the Earth’s systems if they follow our example. The global challenge will be to make possible a decent life for everybody while consuming significantly less resources and generating less emissions than today. With a reduction by half we should be on the safe side.

After all, natural resources have not been produced or distributed by anybody in particular – in my opinion these resources are the common heritage of humankind and the right to use these has to be distributed fairly. This may sound moderate, but (as today 20% of humanity consumes 80% of the resources) it means in effect a reduction by 4/5 in the affluent countries. Combined with the global reduction by half necessary for environmental reasons, it will be necessary that the affluent countries consume 90% less resources as a requirement for achieving ecological and global social sustainability.

This will be impossible without changing the modes and levels of production and consumption, and it will require a massive redistribution. Otherwise we will suffer a social catastrophe. This, in turn, means to no longer dodge the critical question: how to break the grip of the people who benefit from the status quo and who do everything in their power to preserve it, for their benefit and at the expense of the vast majority.

A concrete example: to enforce a more equitable income and wealth distribution we will have to not only demand a better and more comprehensive minimum wage but also a maximum income. The best way to change the distribution of wealth is to use inheritance taxation, or an inheritance cap: In absolute terms 10 million € are enough to provide a non-working heir with 10,000 euros each month – does anybody need more than that? Of course there are numerous technicalities, but that should not distract from the heart of the matter: shouldn’t an inheritance cap be the next important topic to debate?

According to the “Brundtland-Commission” sustainability means to “satisfy human needs, in particular those of the poorest, while observing the limits on the use of nature“. Our current economic system is unable to achieve this; it is socially ignorant and ecologically blind. We actually could not afford this system for the last couple of decades, as we did. Ecologically (not so much in monetary terms) we live off the stock and squander what future generations would need as a livelihood. We are liquidating our wealth and count that as growth. Then we distribute the profits in a way that massively benefit 1% while 90% are left empty-handed or with even less. To change this means to call for true democracy and challenge the current power structures. This may sound radical and is it indeed; we have to address the root of problems, if we want to achieve more than just cosmetic changes. It will be absolutely vital for the future existence of our civilisation (not that of humanity) to do so.

Interview by Felicitas Sommer

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