30 january 2019

From the ‘yellow vests’ to the social-ecological state

by Éloi Laurent, Social Europe on 30th January 2019

The concept of the social-ecological state can inspire a new social policy to tackle the twin crises of inequality and environment.

The revolt of the gilets jaunes is the first social-ecological crisis of contemporary France and one of the first in Europe. It was triggered by the major issue—too long eluded in the country of pristine republican equality—of fossil fuels trapping millions of workers daily.

Many others crises will follow or are already here, some blazing, others nagging. All ecological challenges are social issues and the environment is the new frontier of inequality. Either these environmental inequalities will be defused or they will explode in the face of politicians like social bombs. They will not disappear by magic.

A nagging social-ecological crisis? Food injustice, along with fuel poverty, is the cry that has resonated on the roundabouts with the gilets jaunes. At least two issues hurt millions in France today: access to food (the income share of the food budget of the poorest 10 per cent is double that of the richest, while food insecurity affects 12 per cent of adults) and access to good nutrition (the difference in the diet of the different social categories is not in energy density but nutritional quality). At each stage of life, food contributes to social inequalities in health: during pregnancy, breastfeeding, child and adult nutrition. We eat as we are and live and die as we eat.

Or take the sanitary injustice affecting children in urban areas polluted with particulate matter. Prolonged exposure to an additional 10 μg/m3 PM2.5 (the smallest and therefore the most dangerous particles measured) means losing about one year of life expectancy. Ecology is health.

A blazing social-ecological crisis? There is an injustice of fate in the impact of heat waves linked to climate change. The dramatic experience of the heat wave of 2003 (70,000 deaths in Europe) will repeat itself. In France alone, with one of the best healthcare systems in the world, 15,000 died in the canicule—90 per cent of the victims were over 65 and social isolation was a crucial risk factor. The crossing of the two maps, of the social isolation of the elderly and the risk of heat waves, provides us with a social-ecological indicator of the climatic vulnerability of European localities. Heatwaves act as a revelation of social isolation.

Social inequality is similarly implicated in the impact of the so-called ‘natural disasters’ which are increasing in Europe as elsewhere on the planet. Of the $158 billion of disaster costs worldwide estimated by the Swiss Re reinsurance group for the year 2016 (compared with $94 billion in 2015), less than a third was covered by insurance companies. Climate change leads to social precariousness.

And the list goes on, from access to water to exposure to noise, from ‘environmental cancers’ to street-cleaning equality. In the face of these social-ecological crises, the same question arises: are we ready? Obviously not. What can we do about it? Everything.

A social-ecological state

More precisely, we can be doing as we have been doing in Europe for over a century with resounding success—building collective institutions able to mutualise risk to reduce injustice. We can build a social-ecological state calibrated for the 21st century, where the crisis of inequality and the ecological crisis are intertwined and mutually reinforcing.

Environmental risk is certainly a collective and global horizon but it is also socially differentiated. Who is responsible for what and with what consequences for whom? Such is the main question of the social-ecological approach and it calls for a social-ecological policy.

What does this social-ecological state comprise? It organises the social-ecological transition to respond to environmental change with social progress. It is financed by fair ecological taxation, which makes visible the considerable hidden social cost of environmental crises while reducing social inequalities. There is nothing inevitable about the social injustice of environmental taxation: the original French carbon tax of 2009 redistributed money to the 30 per cent of the poorest French (today’s gilets jaunes) on the basis of income and spatial location, while the most efficient ecological-tax systems on the planet (especially in the Nordic countries) are all built on a principle of social compensation.

The carbon tax which has just been abolished by the Macron-Philippe government in the face of social unrest, on the contrary, was introduced by stealth in the French system and levied regardless of any social criterion. In hastily abolishing it, rather than thinking hard and long about social compensation, the government did the opposite of what must be done: we should not play the social against the environmental in a short-sighted way but carefully work to integrate the two in the long run.

The development of a social-ecological policy requires prior identification and analysis of the associated and sometimes inextricable character of the social and environmental dimensions: there is a need to recognise the ecological stakes within social issues, as well as to reveal the social stakes of ecological issues. Many if not all social-ecological trade-offs can then be transformed into social-ecological synergies: fuel poverty related to home heating results both in monetary poverty and energy over-consumption. Thermal insulation (home weatherisation) allows for a reduction in energy consumption (and thus lower related greenhouse-gas emissions, triggering environmental improvement), which translates into lower expenditure devoted to energy by fuel-poor households, allowing for social progress.

The social-ecological state also guarantees social-ecological protection for the most vulnerable (social groups as well as localities facing climate risk). It organises the development of jobs in the energy transition. It redraws urban spaces to make them sustainable and imagines their ecological co-operation with rural areas (vis-à-vis energy and food). ‘State’ should indeed be understood broadly: the social-ecological transition is polycentric, meaning that every locality and every community can and should participate.

Finally, the social-ecological state aims at human well-being—not growth or fiscal discipline—starting with health. It relies on a simple but hard truth: our societies will be more just if they are more sustainable and more sustainable if they are more just. In other words, it makes environmental sense to mitigate our social crisis and social sense to mitigate our environmental crises.
A ‘green new deal’ in the US

The idea of a ‘green new deal’ is resurfacing in the United States, under pressure from an ambitious new generation of red-green politicians who have understood the social-ecological crises we are facing and are not afraid of taxing the powerful to protect the vulnerable. While Europe was ahead of the original new deal by close to half a century, it is lagging behind this new horizon.

And yet the social-ecological state has the power to reinvent social progress in the face of socially unequal environmental crises, just as the state was reinvented when the welfare state was born, built and defended. That revolution started in Europe. The social-ecological transition should as well.

About Éloi Laurent

Éloi Laurent is a senior research fellow at OFCE (Sciences Po Centre for Economic Research, Paris), professor at the School of Management and Innovation at Sciences Po and visiting professor at Stanford University. He is the author most recently of 'Toward a Well-Being Europe' in the Report on the State of the European Union and The Well-being Transition: Measuring what counts to protect what matters.

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