Proposed purpose statement: “Transition Network supports community-led responses to climate change, inequality and shrinking supplies of cheap energy, building resilience and happiness.”
By Bill Kerry, Co-Director, The Equality Trust
Under the growth model of economics which currently reigns across the globe (albeit performing rather badly) well over a billion people live on less than a dollar a day. Consider if you froze the world’s current wealth and income distribution in its existing proportions as perhaps envisaged by steady-state economics or even shrank the current configuration to meet the requirements of degrowth. At best we would be continuing the current dire situation and at worst we could be unleashing a massive upsurge in poverty and suffering across the world. Sufficient resources exist in the world’s economy to provide for all. They just have to be massively redistributed from rich to poor.
The Equality Trust’s evidence demonstrates that more equal countries in the developed world are already more sustainable. Their flatter and less competitive social hierarchies dampen demand for conspicuous and excessive consumption and encourage a shorter working-hours culture. Recycling rates are higher in more equal countries and their business leaders are more likely to support international environmental treaties. These countries also give more in overseas aid to developing countries which are, of course, the ones most immediately threatened by poverty and climate change.
A crucial point should be made here. Although the countries of the developed world are reaching the end of what economic growth can do for them in terms of wellbeing, life expectancy and happiness, the same is not true for the developing world. Developing countries still need economic growth in order to raise their living standards to decent levels. What is needed to achieve transition is for developed countries to pursue egalitarian policies allowing them to achieve a sustainable economic model whilst simultaneously transferring far greater resources to developing countries. Greater equality in one hemisphere only would be no victory at all.
Such a scenario presents enormous challenges, not least gaining public consent and generating political will. The good news is that greater equality can help here. Evidence shows that more equal developed countries have higher levels of trust and it is this bedrock of trust which will be needed if we are to make progress. Currently in the UK, for example, barely one in three of us thinks that most other people can be trusted. It is not surprising, therefore, that we are reluctant to contemplate significant changes to our current lifestyles when we probably do not trust others to make the jump with us. This mindset could be changed by moves to greater equality as it fosters greater trust and more community-minded attitudes that even extend across national borders. It will also allow us to maintain high levels of well-being such that the transition to sustainability will not seem so difficult or unrealistic.
The immediate challenge in the UK is to set out new, popular and transformative ways to achieve greater equality. There is no great appetite for revolution – yet another deep capitalist crisis has failed to raise up the grave-diggers predicted by Marx. Even traditional reformist demands for more progressive taxes and greater welfare spending – or direct state intervention in the economy – are struggling to gain traction. Transformative routes to equality in the twenty-first century will therefore need to seize the popular imagination if they are to succeed. Growing calls for pay justice such as those of the living wage and pay ratio campaigns suggest that entrenching greater equality in the very structures of the economy could be the way to go. This would have the added benefit of making it much harder for unsympathetic governments to reverse these gains in the future. We should now pursue these ideas vigorously.