Environmentalism and the question of justice

What is “environmental justice”? The inaugural meeting of the Young Fabians Ideas Series on Environmentalism tackled this question head on, examining a wide range of issues and topics: from energy prices to attitudes towards recycling. However, it was the issue of equality that formed the focus of the discussion, as set out by our keynote speaker, Melanie Smallman, co-chair of the Socialist Environment and Resources Association (SERA), Labour’s environment campaign.

In her opening comments, Melanie outlined key concepts which will be familiar to all who have an interest in environmental issues. First, the disjointed relationship between the environment and the economy.  Labour knows the economy is not working for the vast majority of people, a message the party is striving to convey through its cost of living campaign. However, the current structure of our economy is also fuelling inequality throughout society and damaging the environment. This is a failure on the social, environmental and economic levels. Melanie explained that the combined effect of this triple failure was not just harmful to our sense of wellbeing, but was also creating a situation unfavourable to the growth of industry.

On the question of equality, the group was asked to consider two challenges on the road to environmental justice. The first questions whether environmental policies should be formed to maintain the status quo or to actively improve the situation of the poorest in society. As members of the left, we do not accept the status quo when it comes to health or education policy- we want to improve the lot of the poorest. So why should we treat environmental policy any differently? On the flipside, policies that disrupt the status quo could be harder to generate the required level of political support to pass.

The second challenge concerns how we can practically achieve a just distribution of resources through the prism of environmental sustainability.  In a critique of the concept of personal carbon credits, a comparison was made between Melanie’s job and the department receptionist. Melanie is able to walk and use the tube to get to work and has a fulfilling job which includes overseas travel. The receptionist has an hour-and-a-half train commute to get to a mundane job with no overseas travel. Why, as many environmentalists argue, should these two individuals be allocated the same amount of personal carbon credits? Surely they should be weighted towards those whose jobs and lifestyles inherently cause less environmental damage so that they can benefit from selling their surplus allocation to those that cause more.

The discussion wrapped up with a question on whether alternative sources of value could play a part in furthering social and environmental justice. Essentially, it asked if including the value of non-human living things in our calculations on economic growth and wellbeing could lead to a more well-rounded appreciation of environmental justice.

Going forward, then, the Ideas Series will be asked to rethink not only human relationships, but human relationships with non-human living things, a task that will challenge established thinking around the concepts of equality and alternative sources of value. 

You can find out more about the One Nation Environmentalism Ideas Series here

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