Reframing care for our world as participatory people-led politics

“The natural world is being destroyed and it is a moral imperative to preserve and reconstitute as much of it as possible as soon as possible.”

To save our world we must stop harming it through over consumption and a fixation upon financial profit. If we leave it to our leaders and elites, steeped in the idea that growth is  natural and good, we may never grasp the stinging nettle of ‘de-growth’.

In “Why it Matters How We Frame the Environment” George Lakoff suggested ‘reframing’  what environmental concern means. The opening phrase above is his suggestion for a compelling call to action. One that allows us to understand that global warming is not a problem separate from ourselves. That we need a new world-view or ‘frame’. One of becoming good stewards and better carers of our world. A task in which everyone can and should play a part.

Can we please stop fiddling while the world burns

Time is running out. So in a recent blog on our website we discussed the Green New Deal. But is that really such a good idea? Don’t we need to shrink, not invest in our economy?

The DegrowthUK website recently compiled a list of articles about the Green New Deal. Some of those articles seemed to indicate that appealing for more public investment in more stuff was a distraction away from the main issue. Laid out were some of the ‘oppositions’, within a diverse and messy community of climate doers, thinkers and dreamers, towards the concept of the Green New Deal.

Digging into them showed a varied picture. First, I took a look at a Feasta article: Green New Deal, yes, but what that that mean? Which essentially says… yes, but… (or maybe but, yes?). As it concluded:

The Green New Deal, if presented as a way of investing in energy techno-fixes, could be a misleading magic formula.
If seen as a start of a dialogue about a wide ranging transformation of society including communities setting up arrangements to help each other, it could be helpful.

Finding the new ways to talk about People and Planet

Citizen Personas showing we all have different perspectives

The Green New Deal is being presented above as a way to engage people in dialogue, and to transform society through social action. That sounds much like a people led participatory democracy, similar to the Extinction Rebellion demand for people’s assemblies.

And echo our own blogs on citizens leading the climate conversation (through citizens’ juries) and Our Money, Our Planet (a participatory budgeting approach to tackling global warming.)

But not everyone sees the Green New Deal so positively. In a critique of the malignant Green New Deal, Stan Cox seems to be arguing instead for a centrally planned crisis economy, expropriating wealth from the rich. An argument that is, I think, a co-option of the climate emergency in support of a socialist economy, one of “sufficiency for all and excess for none”. Without saying how politically that will be achieved, unless through revolution, followed by a wartime style planned economy?

Soviet style 5 year plans, and Dig for Victory slogans came to mind? Maybe most people would instead vote to ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’. Yet, carrying on won’t save our world either!

A recent Guardian article by Jason Hickel says ‘yes’ to a New Green Deal, but argues it must also include caps on consumption, with caps increasing each year. So that doesn’t seem to be about pure Degrowth, but of achieving it through realistic incremental change. As Hickel says in his conclusion:

The science is clear: scaling down material use must be at the core of the Green New Deal – and at the centre of our climate policy.

I’d agree with that. Reduce, reuse and only then recycle. Few concerned with global warming could argue with it. Hence I think my own interest in the Green New Deal, and the potential it brings for more investment in carbon prevention (better insulation, greener transport and the promotion of ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’, alongside more renewable energy). And also social justice, redistribution and moderation of wasteful and thoughtless consumption by the rich. There is good evidence the richest UK households produce 3 times as much carbon than the poorest.

Though direct evidence is lacking (or hard to find), even the poorest UK residents probably have at least double the carbon footprint our planet can sustain.

An Independent article on Colonialism and the New Green Deal takes a similar but wider angle. That technology won’t save us, and through ‘business as usual’ the global south will probably suffer most. Because it always does. I agree that colonialism and global corporations bribing and manipulating their way into profit at the expense of the poorest is real, but can’t see many positive solutions offered by knowing that fact. Except, lets not forget, innovations like participatory budgeting started in the southern hemisphere to tackle corruption and redistribute resources fairly. The old colonialist countries do have something to learn from the global south.

Hope breeds despair? A paradox of de-growth?

A picture of a burning planet does not help us. A first sight it seems to be saying something must be done. But also, yes, its going to be a nightmare… which, as we know, can become a political trap.

Rarely does effective change come from projecting existential guilt onto ourselves or our leaders. If it did shouldn’t we have been able to guilt trip Donald Trump by now?

As in…  ‘Don’t you see you are wrong, oh no, he’s not listening. It’s probably hopeless, let’s not bother trying. Maybe lets invite him to celebrate D-Day instead.’

Sadly the elites aren’t listening. They just don’t buy the story that an end is in sight.

Might the Degrowth movement, by the use of the word ‘degrowth’ be its own worst enemy? Saying it feels like undermining a climate orthodoxy. Yet I feel a little more confident making this outlandish claim after reading “Degrowth  – a problematic economic frame” inspired by the work of Lakoff that I started with. Which fundamentally argues that ‘degrowth’, by opposing the ‘frame’ (or worldview) of growth risks enforcing it. A strengthening through opposition. That if we aren’t careful we create a false binary choice between growth (that’s good) and degrowth (must be evil). Because we all know growth, in an ecological sense, in a nurturing sense, in a human sense… is actually ‘good’.

“Although direct negation (eg as “degrowth” negates “growth”) may appear to logically undermine a frame, it activates the frame in our brains, strengthening its physical, neural basis. And, by a process which cognitive linguists call “mutual inhibition”, alternatives to the frame are inhibited by continual focus on its reinforcement/negation.”

Which I tend to agree with. As in… ‘turkeys won’t vote for Christmas?’ and ‘sheep don’t want to be shorn’. By being perceived as a vote losing idea, our elected politicians just don’t enact the needed climate friendly policies. Not least because the lobbyists and corporations keep on repeating the mantra of ‘growth is good. Think about all those jobs.’

Do turkeys vote for Christmas? Or are we sheep?

Should we accept that people are sheep, and that experts know the answers? Can’t we leave it to them to convince the politicians?

Scientists have been telling us about global warming for years. After all, in 1896, Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius realised that increased atmospheric CO2 fuels a greenhouse effect and the global warming of the planet.

But if we know the problem and the answer, why would climate activists need a citizens’ jury or a People’s Assembly on climate change? Or the sheep have to do anything, except leave it to the politicians and their experts to sort it out.

Because they haven’t. And people aren’t sheep. Or turkey’s. We are citizens. And we do still live in a democracy.

We must start re-framing climate change more than an environmental crisis, into an economic crisis. A crisis in justice, law and governance. A crisis of democracy.

In a video podcast of a 2013 conference on climate change a Danish conservative politician connected climate change back to the economy, within a new frame of ‘stewardship’ and good housekeeping. The original meaning of economics. (Its long, and to keep it easy, watch from 2:20 minutes to 11:00 minutes.)

That to me is the Green New Deal. A practical first step that helps us think through alternatives. That puts global warming at the heart of an economic and political debate.

However, irritatingly (at least to me) was that the Degrowth web-post discussed above, where stories questioning the Green New Deal were being collated, ended with an old environmentalist appeal that ‘we know the answer.’

“What we need to work on is an ecologically and economically literate Green Deal. The expertise is there in the degrowth movement, so what’s stopping us?”.

Positive myth building for a more liberated Sheep?

I think the frame of Growth is stopping us. Of course ‘framing’ is a difficult concept to get across, but it does bring me back to what we try to do at Shared Future, and the title of this blog.  That the environmental movement needs to be framed as a participatory, political, social economy project.

I ‘do’ participatory budgeting(PB) because I believe it generates agency and solidarity, and builds community. Enables people to believe they can affect changes themselves. Potentially that can help all of us to reframe global warming as something that we can do something about. That we can do something to help to create a better world if we come together, and our political leaders give us some access to the financial levers. Challenging the concept that people are turkeys and sheep. Look for example at Lisbon’s 5million Euro Green PB, launched in May 2019.

Paris PB project
Paris residents used PB to reimagine uses for abandoned railways
Lisbon City Council’s first-ever ‘green’ participatory budget, supported and managed by South Pole and EIT Climate-KIC’s City Finance Lab, has been allocated a €5 million budget for climate change projects selected by local citizens.

Participatory Budgeting won’t be a solution in and of itself. Or a citizens’ jury for that matter. Neither will the Green New Deal be… but I feel its a step in the right direction. Within a frame of care and stewardship.

“The natural world is being destroyed and it is a moral imperative to preserve and reconstitute as much of it as possible as soon as possible.”

Stop promoting one solution over another. Put it back to the people.

A citizens’ jury looking at issues of community wellbeing

We have to see that climate change is the symptom, not the cause of our economic crisis.

Global warming is multiple and complex, and fundamentally about difficult issues of population growth, inequality, power and technology.  To reverse climate change we have to develop models for integrating the concept of ‘climate’ into a fairer economy, where economic externalities (like carbon) are brought back inside the frame of the economy. That means accepting a role for economics. But not old school monetarist trickle down economics. Some new thinking. Perhaps like this, or this. Or even this. Progressive economic ideas.

To bring it back to the beginning of this overlong blog

The Green New Deal, if presented as a way of investing in energy techno-fixes, could be a misleading magic formula. If seen as a start of a dialogue about a wide ranging transformation of society, including communitiessetting up arrangements to help each other it could be helpful.

That dialogue, I would argue starts in a citizens’ jury or assembly. That transformation is potentially enabled through participatory budgeting. Those arrangements are about social enterprise and cooperative action. A democratic social economy.

At its simplest, re-framing global warming is about building a fairer, greener, and political ‘shared future’. One where dialogue, social action and a people powered democracy is our new normal.

Jez Hall is a director of Shared Future, and coordinates PB Partners.


Postscript: In this blog I am concerned people reading it take away that I’m questioning if DeGrowth is the right paradigm. Of course it is. We need to radically shrink our carbon footprint, and engage all citizens in how to achieve that much needed shift to a new social, political and economic reality. I am not claiming my analysis is better than anyone else’s. We need to take many much needed steps, whilst realising the urgency and the challenges ahead.