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Tackling inequality: the means to a sustainable future

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25 June, 2009

I had an interesting debate last week.

At the Groundwork Northwest Staff conference, I was asked to argue against the statement that ‘Economic development is discredited’.

Now like a lot of these debates there was a slightly false element to this, because I believe that the profession of economic development is indeed a bit discredited, via recent events.

Nevertheless I stood up for the profession wholeheartedly nevertheless!

Arguing against the doughty champion of sustainability - Walter Menzies, Chief Executive of the Mersey Basin campaign, the tussle got down to a key fundamental - How do we get to a sustainable economic future? What are the means to a sustainable future, rather than the end?

For me, the means are about firstly greater levels of equality and fairness and that this is a precursor to any sustainable progress. Walter took a more purist environmental line.

Walter and I were never going to disagree on the fundamentals, as regards the need for sustainable development.

We were agreeing that growth as we know it is damaging and we should have no time for fleeting investment, footloose capital, and burning up the ozone. He also agreed with me that like John Maynard Keynes that ‘we are capable of shutting out the stars and the sun because they do not pay a dividend’.

However, there is something dubious about arguing for reducing consumption and curbing growth across the board when society is still so unequal.

It is a bit much to start telling the poor, in this country or the poor in other countries to stop consuming, stop using your car, buy a bike and grow your own food.

Local Government has carbon reduction targets within LAA’s, but they must also address social exclusion and poverty. For me you can do both, but first and foremost you need to be create fairness and more equality, and start redistributing the fruits of growth as it stands.

It is the means to the sustainable end. Of course we need to curb excessive consumption and reduce our carbon footprint.

But this cannot be at the expense of equality and new forms of social justice. It is easier to argue for a reduction in aggregate consumption, if there is a tangible and perceived sense of fairness within our society.

As the recent publication ‘The spirit level: why more equal societies almost always do better’ by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett argue ‘politics should be about the quality of social relations and how we can develop harmonious and sustainable societies’.

Seems to me is that unless we get some equality and a politics that engages with wealth creation and redistribution, we are not going to get anywhere near a sustainable future.

I reckon this kind of debate between myself and Walter is one which will come up again and again.

The space between out two opposing views is where policy practice at a national and local level needs to sit. Failure to do so, will result in a separation of the environmental and social justice agendas.

If this happens we will be no nearer a sustainable future.

CLES Summer Summit: Forging Resilient Local Economies, is on the 14-15 of July. Info on www.cles.org.uk

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