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Environmentalism without class struggle is gardening:

The Green Party should be – and appear to be – this century’s equivalent to the trade union movement.

By Councillor Oliver Moran.

Protests against environmental taxes in Europe, farmers’ blockades in the Netherlands, urban unrest in France, and the water-charges movement here in Ireland should cast a long shadow for the Green Party in government. 

The Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy launched last week contains much that is worthwhile, but an awareness of the political importance of avoiding an environmental transition that lacks social empathy should be visible in everything the party says and does.

Climate change and ecological decline disproportionately punish the worst off. The systems of economics that underlie them are exploitative of the poor, both globally and domestically, every bit as much as they are exploitative of nature and the planet.

The solutions not only should not add to that but must necessarily challenge the assumptions of ecologically and socially exploitative capitalism. This is not an easy balance to strike. System change, if not implemented well, is more likely to affect the most vulnerable first.

The party has progressive values at its core. This is a party that has among its founding principles that (a) unrestricted economic growth must be replaced by an ecologically and socially regulated economy and (b) the poverty of two thirds of the world’s family demands a fair re-distribution of the world’s resources.

But the Green Party has missed opportunities since entering government to speak in that sociological voice with the same conviction that it speaks about technocratic solutions for environmentalism. This shortcoming isn’t derived from any malice on behalf of my party colleagues in government but from a cultural reluctance within the party to publicly express these convictions in clear and unequivocal tones.

One of the roles of the Just Transition Greens, an explicitly left-wing faction affiliated with the party, is to challenge the party in government. Demanding more of it. 

Time, both political and in the context of climate and biodiversity emergencies, does not allow us the luxury of waiting.

The Just Transition Greens’ critique is evolving. Its end-point is not defined. What unites our members is not particular stances or policy demands that are very different to the rest of the party but a shared conviction. A conviction that it is the duty of the green movement in government to ensure that environmental solutions not only do not punish the exploited further but actively improve their conditions.

A just transition

For some this conviction is based in eco-socialism. For others it is faith based. One of the most acerbic criticisms of Pippa Hackett’s forestry bill was from the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice. Others, like me, reach for the traditional green pillars of peace, democracy and social justice.

This does not boil down to simplistic notions of “cycles lanes” vs “social justice”. It is about the lenses through which we see the world. Cycle infrastructure can and should be seen through the lens of social justice too, empowering communities through accessible and safe transportation.

The unifying aspect is a philosophy that refuses to disentangle the social from the environmental.

A just transition recognises that not everything that is good for the planet is good for people. If, in our rush to save the planet, we neglect the dignity of the poorest in our society, what kind of world will we leave our children? 

A just transition should lift up the horizons of all people, improving standards of living and protecting at risk workers and communities.

Waste policy

On 4 September, Eamon Ryan launched the new national waste policy. Justified or not, a far reaching policy that puts emphasis on the producers of waste was overshadowed by two bullet points in an 89-page document that seemingly lacked a nous for social justice. The irony was this drove some people to in effect defending exploitative capitalism.

It was lost in some of the criticism that ‘buy one get one free’ on items like confectionery and fizzy drinks does not benefit the lower paid. It is itself a system of exploitation driving consumption and waste. The supermarkets and retail multiples are no friends of the left or workers and producers. They work actively to exploit the poor, labour, farmers and the environment.

Neither is ‘fast fashion’ – as opposed to affordable clothing – a source of liberation for the poor. It too is exploitation, based on driving consumption, and it is a source of humiliation for people without the resources to keep up.

The waste policy is very good at what it sets out to do. What it does, it does well on its own terms. Where it falls short is in addressing some of the greater social challenges with equal strength. It describes but doesn’t explicitly challenge the inherent wastefulness of capitalism. It lacks a sociological perspective. It doesn’t mention the income of households and how this affects consumption and waste patterns.

Politically, launching a waste policy – that on the face of it would levy low cost clothing and ban cheap food offers – the day after a report had shown that 18% in Ireland are suffering deprivation is tone deaf. Not wrong, as I have described above, but tone deaf – and seemingly lacking in empathy and equal conviction for matters of social justice.

A socio-economic lens

Over-consumption and waste need to be seen through a lens that is socioeconomic every bit as much as technocratic. Tackling over-consumption and waste will only succeed if simultaneous efforts are undertaken to tackle income inequality, food sovereignty and human-rights violations.

Our environmental policies should recognise the interconnectedness between economic development and environmental degradation. They should, as the UN Sustainable Development Goals demand, seek to reach the furthest behind first. 

That is why our policies include a Universal Basic Income and a commitment to transform the relationship between producer and consumer, bringing them closer together – without the mediation of the consumption-driven capitalism of supermarkets and retail multiples. Both of these commitments have been included in the Programme for Government. They must be brought to the fore when the Green Party is talking about environmentalism because they are the same cause.

A four-day work-week and a living wage, coupled with the right to housing, and thus the right to a kitchen, would do more than anything to reduce food waste and improve nutrition among the poorest of families. The referendum on the right to housing and commitments to a living wage in the Programme for Government must be championed as green causes.

Measures against fast fashion mus be clear and explicitly proofed against furthering social inequality. We need to break the nefarious link between an exploitative fashion industry and the affordability of clothing for lower-income households. We should encourage positive practices in the global south where clothes are produced and be explicit why we are doing so, as well as supporting domestic sustainable clothing producers as indeed the new policy proposes.

And, yes, waste policy requires regulation of retail multiples that feed over-consumption and we must provide practical support for local retailers and food producers to break the dominance of the multiples. We need to develop alternative forms of production that support good working conditions and sustainable consumption patterns. These are also in the Programme for Government and must be driven forward with the same urgency and determination as technocratic environmental solutions.

The Green Party should be this century’s equivalent to the trade union movement. Environmentalism without class struggle is gardening. That language, conviction and voice must be injected into everything that we do in government.

The Just Transition Greens will hold its AGM on Saturday, 26 September, including public talks online. 
Oliver Moran is the secretary of the Just Transition Greens and a Green Party Councillor on Cork City Council.