Tackling inequality for social and climate justice - Fighting for a better world in a time of worsening crises

Green light at a trade union rally for fair wages and just transition

In this blog post, Halliki Kreinin from the University of Münster/RIFS Potsdam reflects on the growth-dependence of welfare states and why it is a critical hurdle for social welfare and sustainability. To pave the way towards resilient growth-independent welfare states, our project advocates for policies that break the link between growth and well-being through redistributing wealth, combating inequality, and providing welfare outside of paid labour. As right-populist ideologues increasingly exploit people's fears in an unstable world, the need for transformative narratives and policies that prioritise material security and social concerns become evident. As Halliki argues, transformative approaches need to "sandwich" ecological agendas within narratives that prioritise social justice to rebuild public trust.

"EU Project shows welfare policies are vital to climate mitigation"

We are living in a time of acute crises - social, environmental and economic. The impact of these crises is already felt across Europe, with extreme austerity measures in some countries resulting in higher annual death tolls than the Corona virus at its peak. Considerations of environmental policies need to take social worries and existential threats to welfare seriously. The effective implementation of policies that support sustainable fulfillment of basic needs has the potential to lead societies towards growth-independent welfare models, improving social and environmental outcomes.

In our recent press release, we spotlighted the findings from our research on six pivotal welfare policies, identified as essential for 1.5° lifestyles by expert stakeholders throughout Europe. Notably, working time reduction (WTR) and universal basic services (UBS) emerged as particularly significant strategies for fostering the sustainability transition and mitigating carbon emissions. Additionally, (eco-social) job guarantees, income ceilings, free public transport, and renovation programs for energy-efficient buildings were recognised as other necessary policy considerations.

While the benefits and necessity of such policies have been highlighted in previous research and also clearly stand out in our project outcomes, their political implementation in Europe remains uneven. The funding and implementation of these policies likely requires political debates in society and large coalitions uniting behind a shared common vision: social justice.

Growth-dependence in welfare states

Previous research, including research in our project, has shown that addressing the multiple crises requires a fundamental reorientation of our economic and social systems away from growth-dependence. The "Economic growth paradigm" is considered the number #1 structural barrier to sustainability efforts and to 1.5° lifestyles by diverse groups of stakeholders and experts in Europe. This key structure relates to other key barriers, including "the lack of consistent, predictable and integrated policies" , as well as the difficulty in "overcoming the power of vested interests". 

7 Most Impactful Structures 1-3
EU 1.5° Lifestyles
7 Most Impactful Structures 1-3

Currently, growth is required to fuel the welfare state and full-time paid work is necessary to provide for ourselves and our families. Our welfare systems are tied to how well the economy is doing and the availability of jobs, as the welfare state depend on funds generated through taxes (and jobs), which, in turn, come from a growing economy. When the economy is growing, there are more resources available to support social programs and provide job opportunities. 

However, this link also raises questions about the sustainability of such systems if the economy faces challenges, as well as due to the immense negative effects of continuous economic growth on the environment. The cumulative negative impacts of increasing production on the environment affect the sustainability of the very support structures designed to assist individuals and families.

Growing the economy not only worsens environmental degradation but also increasingly exacerbates social issues, as the benefits of economic growth are extremely unevenly distributed: rich people get richer while leaving most people poor, widening the gap between the wealthy and the rest even further. Recent research shows that the wealthiest 1% have acquired close to two-thirds of all new wealth generated since 2020 ($42tn), twice the amount of the remaining 99%. Thus while the negative effects of economic growth in the form of environmental crises are overwhelmingly experiences by poorer people, the benefits of growth in the form of wealth remain in the hands of the wealthiest who need it least. The idea that everyone benefits from economic growth is thus simply not true. 

Towards growth-independent welfare states and resilience

An important avenue to overcoming growth dependence is implementing policies aimed at redistributing wealth and lowering inequality. This is the ticket to a 1.5° lifestyles transformation. Progressive taxation systems, coupled with robust social safety nets, can act as effective tools to counteract the concentration of wealth and vested interests, and to provide welfare without further economic expansion. To win the political fight and enable a transformation to growth-independent systems, we must ensure basic social needs can be met independent of full-time paid labour. 

Welfare provisioning has been under increasing attack in many countries in the EU, with austerity measures, and the responsibilisation of individuals for societal ills causing death, deprivation and despair, and disproportionately affecting vulnerable populations. The erosion of social safety nets and the parallel emphasis on individual responsibility have contributed to a widening gap between the privileged and the marginalised. The long-term consequences of austerity measures have led to a weakened social fabric, hindering the overall well-being and resilience of communities. 

Against austerity and the responsibilisation of individuals for structural inequalities, the six policies discussed by our project offer security in times of crises, alleviating existential fear. Universal basic services ensure that everyone in a community, region, or country has access to essential services like transportation, electricity, heating, education, healthcare, housing, and food, regardless of their income, wealth, or job situation. By recognising that the fundamental structures of our economy influence our ability to live in environmentally friendly ways, UBS provide sustainable infrastructure and access to public goods, crucial for those in financially precarious positions. Going beyond traditional welfare state services, UBS are not tied to employment also breaking the link between economic growth and well-being while promoting inclusive and community-driven decision-making processes for socially and environmentally just needs satisfaction.

Voluntary eco-social job guarantees (JG) can complement UBS policies by providing employment opportunities for those seeking jobs, focusing on socially and ecologically important tasks, enhancing stability in an employment-dominated economic system. When integrated with universal basic services and other initiatives, such as working time reduction and eco-social taxation, these measures collectively contribute to building growth-independent societies centered on welfare and well-being.

Winning political debates in insecure times

In a time marked by the rise of right-populist and right-extremist ideologies, which capitalise on people's uncertainties through simplistic solutions and scapegoating, it is crucial to offer pragmatic remedies that prioritise material security. To effectively challenge and counter the prevailing narrative, it becomes even more important to intertwine environmental and climate justice with broader social justice concerns.

In democratic societies, transformative action requires a broad democratic consensus, which is difficult not only due to escalating crises, defensiveness, and fear, but also vested interests and powerful economic agents working against transformation.

Winning political debates in insecure times requires a nuanced understanding of the factors contributing to the rise of right-populist and right-extremist ideologies. Vested interests have a stake in maintaining the status quo, perpetuating the growth-dependence, and resisting transformative changes. Far-right parties create diversions from the real issues by simplifying complex challenges and offering convenient scapegoats. Their narratives however often lack substantive solutions to the multiple crises we face, including environmental degradation, economic inequality, and social injustice. Thus, the strength of a progressive stance is precisely that it is based on forging a uniting narrative around "real" answers to the multiple crises. 

It is essential to recognise that the allure of far-right ideologies is, in part, a response to the insecurities bred by economic instability and social dislocation. To address these challenges effectively, pragmatic solutions must prioritise material security, incorporate environmental and climate justice into broader social justice concerns, and steer public discourse away from divisive narratives.

Shallow "green" agendas - especially at the EU level - have often been developed within existing frameworks that prioritise economic growth over social welfare. Not only have these failed to tackle the root causes of the environmental and social crises, but have also added to a general mistrust around environmental policies. Facing growing scepticism due to their (sometimes rightful) portrayal as elite interventions, shallow socially-blind climate policies have been instrumentalised by parties invested in the status quo. This portrayal has triggered a resurgence of climate skepticism and a broader rejection of green policies.

The challenge ahead lies in the need to navigate and address these concerns, recognising the legitimate critiques of prioritising the economy over social welfare, while emphasising the importance of ecological sustainability and climate action within a more inclusive framework. 

To build (back) public trust, ecological agendas need to be sandwhiched within approaches that genuinely prioritise social justice. This means also building narratives around social justice as the goal of any environmental policies. Only through such transformative shifts can social-ecological initiatives effectively address the urgent challenges posed by climate change, and garner broader public acceptance to do so.

Halliki Kreinin - University of Münster/RIFS Potsdam

This blog post is based on a short commentary written for the EUropainfo magazine .