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PoliticsApril 11, 2018

Why we can’t divorce genuine climate action from social justice


A slew of commentary and cartoons around the Green Party co-leader contest suggests we have to ‘choose’ between policy priorities, and it couldn’t be a bigger stack of nonsense, says Green MP Chloe Swarbrick.

If your modus operandi is purchasing organic food and carting it out the supermarket in a reusable bag, sipping fair-trade coffee out of a reusable cup, composting your waste and opting for cycling over driving, I applaud your action to reduce your impact on the planet. It’s important. It contributes. And it helps to raise consciousness of climate change and environmental degradation.

If, however, you simultaneously wag your finger at financially and time-poor parents for buying ready-made meals for their kids, or begrudge people on benefits the humanity/”luxury” of a weekly coffee, you’re probably missing the point.

Right there, in our daily assumptions and prejudices, lies some of the more salient examples of why environmental and social issues are inextricably linked. We have a system that produces and even incentivises harmful defaults: plastic bags, junk food, petrol guzzling. Operating outside of those systemic defaults require time, energy, and money.

The inextricable connection between our social and environmental issues go far deeper than that, though. Evidence demonstrates that the wealthiest in our country, and our world, are responsible for the large majority of climate-changing emissions, yet maintain the resource to continue moving further and further away from the destructive impact they’re having on the environment. Meanwhile, the poorest and most vulnerable in our societies contribute the least in emissions but hugely disproportionately suffer the consequences of rising sea levels, poisoned waterways, polluted air, and a climate changed world.

It was eye opening to see the op-eds flood in this weekend heralding the election of Marama Davidson as our co-leader, accompanied by apocalyptic predictions that the Greens were turning their back on climate change in favour of social justice. Such hot-takes miss a lot, not the least that Marama has spent huge swathes of her life advocating for the environment (notably, indigenous leadership on environmental issues).

Such commentators often simplistically point out that our name, and colour, is Green. The slightest bit more research would uncover that our charter is explicitly holistic in its four pillars: entrenching values of ecological wisdom, social responsibility, appropriate decision making, and non-violence. You don’t get paradigm shift towards genuine sustainability without all four. And, it’s worth remembering, they’ve been there from the grassroots genesis of our party.

I think Jeanette Fitzsimons said it best when she said, “We have an economic system that exploits both people and the planet.”

To individualise the systemic problem of climate change by morphing it into an issue of conscious consumerism is to scapegoat ‘lazy’ everyday people just trying to get by, while those who make a fortune depleting the commons laugh their way to the bank. Worse than ignoring the crux of the issue, it pits citizens against each other, exhausting time and energy and headspace that would make far more sense spent trying to collectively build an equitable, environmentally-friendly system change.

To individualise the systemic problems of inequality, homelessness, or mass incarceration in a wealthy and supposedly enlightened country like ours is to uphold a fundamentally flawed house of cards at the expense of our fellow human beings. It’s also proven a spectacular failure in approach if we’re genuinely seeking to solve these issues.

Under a status quo where we’re de facto polarised and pitched against each other, rhetoric-heavy politicians are able to justify environmentally disastrous activity, from industrial-scale farming through expansive oil drilling, because, they say, consumers have choice. They’re able to justify a low-wage economy, because, they say, workers have choice.

Consumers have the choice to ride the bus or drive their petrol car. Workers have the choice to work for a good boss or a bad boss (but heaven forbid they engage in industrial action and demand better choice). If our planet ends up in a hyperbolic ball of flame and climate change, it was the individual choice that did it, not our systemic mismanagement.

Choice, and its sibling individual responsibility, are scapegoats for systemic political action.

The irony of a web of law and tax that allows subsidising business by paying workers poverty wages, or spewing commercial waste into indigenous waters, is that we ultimately end up privatising profit and socialising cost. Citizens are underwriting bad business.

This system wasn’t divined by the gods. The social and environmental crises we face are not natural. They’re man-made, as is the system that underpins them. That means we have every ability to change the system – for the better of our people, and our planet.

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