Sustainability and Social Justice or Sustainability versus Social Justice? Tracing some of the Contours of the Debate

By Lorraine Talbot, 6 July 2020

Are social justice and sustainability opposed, the same, or something more complicated? That is what this blog theme is about. The contributions to the Sustainability and Social Justice blog theme begin with those from participants at the conference Social Justice, Business and the Pursuit of Sustainability, that took place in Oslo 2-3 December 2019. The conference was organised by the SMART Project together myself and Birmingham Law School, University of Birmingham.

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Lorraine Talbot is a Professor of Company Law in Context at the University of Birmingham

Social justice and sustainability are desirable goals – but are they the same goals, or at least mutually supporting goals? In this blog theme we aim to examine the complicated and often contraditory relationship between achieving outcomes that benefit people and those that benefit the environment. In so doing, we welcome many different critical perspectives and approaches.

The environment as priority goal

For many people the relationship between environmental sustainability and social justice is an impossible balancing act. Both involve entirely different apporaches to growth. On the environmental side of the sustainability debate, there are the more radical environmentalists, degrowthers, who argue the changes needed to arrest environmental damage necessarily mean that society must use less and grow less, even if social justice is a casualty. The environment must come first. Yet in spite of the definitive nature of this position, the route to this outcome is problematic. Some scholars argue that reduced consumption can be achieved through gradually educating individuals to value uncommodified ‘simple’ pleasures and experiences – to become intrinsic rather than externalised human beings. But does the planet have time for change at such a gradual and individual level? Wouldn’t a collective approach be more effective? The challenges for individual action are too great, especially given the societal and corporate pressure to consume and to express our very individuality through our consumption. Accordingly, many are sceptical about an individualised and voluntary approach, arguing instead for change at a societal and state level, involving mandated restrictions on growth and consumption. The objection to this position is that it is hopelessly utopian in its breadth and depth - impossible, some might say.

Yet then, we have, paradoxically, just gone through a sudden, unanticipated and unprecedented change in consumption, but it took a worldwide pandemic to accomplish it. True, the sky is bluer, the cities are quieter, and wildlife is even returning to places long abandoned. But we have, in truth, only marginally reduced total consumption; and in doing so we have centralised consumption even more on megacorporations. The lockdown has left Jeff Bezos $25 billion richer, and the local greengrocer out of business. The long-term impacts of lost local business to the supercorporations are longer supply chains, more local poverty and reduced access to local goods, and more centralised wealth.

Can social justice be achieved with sustainability?

At the other end of the sustainability and social justice spectrum are those who maintain that environmental damage is both necessary and justifiable to create the goods and services necessary for social justice. For many, sustainability is a privilege of the well-to-do, who are insensitive to the deprivations of our global billions. So, while we may criticise the use of fossil fuels, and promote alternative energy sources, for many, using coal is the difference between life and death. In contrast, other development scholars point out the disproportionate suffering endured by the global poor as a result of climate change, and its racialised and gendered impact. It is women, black and brown women, who walk those extra miles to fetch water because climate change has increased scarcity. Again, covid-19 help us see clearly. The virus might potentially infect us all, but whether we lose our livelihood, whether we have access to support and healthcare and ultimately whether we die from it depends on our wealth, geographical location, health and ethnicity. 

Another compelling example of the complicated nature of the sustainability debate is issue of waste. Some see waste as necessary for capitalism to operate. It lubricates 

the rapid development and innovation that solve social problems and meet humanities’ needs. Waste is a feature, not a bug, of Schumpeterian creative destruction, inbuilt obsolescence is what fires the next stage of innovation. Environmental damage is a social good. Those to whom this is repugnant see the notion of creative destruction as, in itself, an argument against a political economy dependent on the growth imperative. From this perspective, both sustainability and social justice, depend not just on piecemeal reform but on a completely new economic model.

The no-conflict sustainability

Positioned in the centre of these debates, and as we will see in upcoming posts, there are scholars who argue that there needs not be a conflict between achieving sustainability and achieving social justice because living in a functioning natural environment is the basis upon which social justice is achieved. Access to the social and material goods necessary to flourish requires a sustainable environment, without which social justice is not possible.

Let’s discuss!

With this blog post, we aim to create an open space for discussion that recognises and embraces these diverse positions, from diverse disciplines so that we can engage with and learn from each other. We know there are no easy answers, but we must not be afraid to address the difficult questions.


Tags: Social Justice and Sustainability
Published July 6, 2020 10:39 AM - Last modified Aug. 23, 2022 11:16 AM