John Weeks argues in our ‘just transition’ series that its success is linked to a political message of hope.
In December Social Europe launched its just-transition series, which has transformed the discussion and debate over achieving a sustainable, social and economic European Union. The initial article and those that followed clarify the political tasks required to achieve an equitable social system, beyond the current reliance on environment-undermining methods of production and distribution.
Along with concrete proposals, the just-transition discussion has however highlighted the need to discard fallacies which weaken the movement for a sustainable society. Perhaps the most politically debilitating is that inherent in the fight for a sustainable planet is a generational conflict.
This hypothesis is founded on two non sequiturs. The first asserts that the older generation has ‘stolen the future’ of the younger generation by its inaction on environmental policy. Second, and implied, is the assertion that the older generation is responsible for the environmental crisis, while the young are its victims.
Generational conflict is commonly used to depoliticise policy issues, such as wealth concentration. Such arguments share a fundamental flaw—a failure to view humans as living in societies. As should be obvious, in all societies the old were once young and the young will grow old. The idea that society is permanently divided between age groups is static and a variation on the infamous assertion by the former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher that there is no such thing as society.
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Nor is it true that environmental issues are more relevant to the young than the old. The immediate health impact of pollution on the elderly is at least as serious as for children and teenagers, with the most obvious effect respiratory ailments, which disproportionately affect the poor. The generational-divide assertion serves as a useful fiction for those who wish to avoid confronting the politics of constructing coalitions to achieve environmental rescue.
Far more plausible than the generational argument is the class element in the just transition. An effective transition will necessarily imply elimination of many well-paid, skilled jobs, for example in motor-vehicle production. Replacing these with productive green jobs is essential for gathering political support for the transition.
Further, the assertion that the environmental crisis has robbed youth of its future comes from a singularly middle-class perspective. Inequality and poverty have robbed millions of youth throughout the world of their future. This is why each country requires a just transition in which the struggle for environmental sustainability is part of creating decent incomes, as argued by Spain’s deputy prime minister Teresa Ribera. Our internationalism requires us to extend the just-transition process to those low-income countries heavily dependent on hydrocarbon exports.
Closely linked to the generational-conflict fallacy is a second—the sweeping accusation that ‘our leaders have failed us’. This derives from the further non sequitur that while politicians have had decades to act, they have failed to stop environmental deterioration. Effective action on the environment is not an issue of time. It requires confronting and successfully overcoming opposition from special interests.
EU politicians who have fought for environmental justice require and have earned the support of progressives. Rather than berate our allies for what they have not done, we need to build the coalitions that will achieve further advances. That task involves inspecting and assessing the stance of politicians, as for instance ‘Labour for a Green New Deal’ has done with contenders in the UK party’s leadership race.
The EU needs bolder action, and its own green programme represents a basis on which to build. How to build the cross-country coalition for a just transition through a green programme brings me to the third fallacy.
Stoking fear of disaster was not an effective method for marshalling ‘remain’ voters in the 2016 UK referendum on EU membership, nor is it a likely formula for success to save the environment. Some will consider the dire warnings as exaggerations; more importantly, when believed predictions of catastrophe can provoke despair and ennui.
Samantha Smith, director of the Just Transition Centre of the International Trade Union Congress and partners, provides the antidote to this fallacy: we replace fear with hope, a programme ‘offering workers and communities hope for the future’. Most successful politicians recognise that citizens respond to hope rather than fear—none more so than Franklin D Roosevelt, four times elected president of the United States.
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In the autumn of 1932, ‘FDR’ made his first run for the presidency with one third of the US labour force unemployed and more on short hours. He chose as his unlikely campaign song ‘Happy Days are Here Again’ (Happy days are here again, the skies above are clear again …). And he won a landslide majority.
The just transition could take a lesson from Roosevelt. Perhaps it could choose the 1926 Irving Berlin hit, ‘Blue Skies Smiling at Me’, offering the rousing promise of the healthy, sustainable future we seek—or, more European and sophisticated, the first movement of Beethoven’s Eroica.
John Weeks is co-ordinator of the London-based Progressive Economy Forum and professor emeritus of the School of Oriental and African Studies. He is author of The Debt Delusion: Living within Our Means and Other Fallacies (2019) and Economics of the 1%: How Mainstream Economics Services the Rich, Obscures Reality and Distorts Policy.