Going Green without the Moralism

by Heleen de Coninck

There is no question about it: social democrats need to embrace environmental sustainability. Protecting our natural surroundings, keeping our air clean, providing a healthy environment and access to nature for everyone should be at the core of social democratic policies, just like providing economic and social sustainability should be.

However, we have to admit that in the triangle environmental, social and economic sustainability, sometimes simplistically referred to as planet, people and profit, the balance is tilted. While we see that at the moment either type of sustainability is sacrificed to short-term gains, environmental sustainability often loses out even in more prosperous times. Why is that?

Perhaps some answer can be found by identifying who will be defending each type of sustainability. Profit has strong advocates with undivided attention and a great enthusiasm. Markets facilitate and reinforce the drive for profits. Profit, or the economy, hardly needs active support to be taken care of.

People also look after themselves, to some degree. They have greater difficulty representing the interest of social sustainability, as they lack certain types of information and moreover need to organise collectively, which has significant barriers. But if people’s interests are blatantly, attributably and visibly harmed, action can generally be taken.

But who is defending the planet’s interests? Eventually, they relate to people again. But if those people are consumed by their own needs or by short-term concerns, the planet can become the defenceless victim of other interests. This is exactly what we have seen time and again. This leads to the conclusion that just finding a balance between giving sufficient attention to the three pillars of sustainability is insufficient. The balance should be found in the outcomes of these pillars, which means that support for environmental sustainability needs to be beefed up. Otherwise it stands to lose out.

Then what needs to be done to achieve that? In my experience in the Netherlands, green-minded social democrats are often deeply concerned about the environment. They often have morally grounded reasons to advocate strong green policies, driven by feelings of fairness and solidarity with future generations and vulnerable developing countries. The question is, however, whether the moral argument alone is compelling enough to overcome the daily temptations of people’s needs and profit. For a certain fraction of the population, it is. For an overwhelming majority at least the Netherlands, it clearly is not. To them, it is useless to drive the point home that being green is good. This is not convincing. It is much more important to make the point that green is good for them.

There is plenty of evidence, both historical and future cost-benefit analysis, that we are all better off in a world where the environment is protected. There is also plenty of evidence that environmental policies help. An additional argument for less green-minded social democrats is that environmental sustainability is as unequally distributed as economic and social sustainability: people with lower incomes often live in unhealthier houses, have less access to nature and more exposure to air pollution. They are also (generally) less aware of environmental issues and obviously have less money to spend on sustainable alternatives – from solar panels to organic food. There are compelling arguments for environmental sustainability beyond social democratic principles and morals. It would serve the environmental movement in Europe if the point was made more that environmental sustainability is pragmatic and pays off, as this will convince people that need convincing.

Perhaps the most relevant and difficult topic in that respect is international climate policy. In the UN climate negotiations, moralism dominates the agenda. Moralism suggests a climate treaty in which industrialised countries pay to reduce their emissions, and pay for adaptation to climate change in developing countries. This is fair, as the past and current emissions of industrialised countries are expected to cause havoc in developing countries, and industrialised countries have a higher ability to pay.

But is it happening? The Kyoto Protocol was based on such morals, but has not succeeded to make a dent in global carbon emissions. For the United States, it was clear from the beginning that it put economic self-interest above the global public good. But eventually even willing countries such as Japan and Canada gave in to considerations of economic sustainability – both countries are not on track to make their Kyoto targets despite having ratified it. From the perspective of these countries, the perceived costs of the treaty outweigh the perceived benefits. They do not perceive reciprocity. Many studies have shown that reframing a climate treaty towards the economic and social interests of those who should act is possible, but the focus on moralism prevents such approaches from being considered seriously.

If we want to address the current environmental problems and reach environmental sustainability, we need to win the hearts of people who live by different values from those that green-minded social democrats prioritise. The same goes for countries in international environmental treaties. Moralism can be applied to in the most blatant cases of unfairness, but should be used with restraint when the case is less obvious – only to support more pragmatic arguments such as self-interest. In the Netherlands, such pragmatism currently seems the only way to save environmental sustainability from oblivion.

This column is  part of the Sustainability in the Good Society Online Debate jointly run by Social Europe Journal, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung London Office and Compass.

Heleen de Coninck works at the Energy research Centre of the Netherlands (ECN) and is programme manager for international energy and climate policy at the Wiardi Beckman Stichting (WBS).

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