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A ‘socio-ecological contract’ has emerged as a way to conceive together the transitions needed to steer out of today’s crises to safer harbour. But what does it entail?

The challenges of the ecological transition are immense and a socio-ecological contract is needed to confront them. The notion of ‘contract’ implies reaching a strong agreement, with a long-term perspective, which works for all parties concerned—this cannot be an agreement vulnerable to the vagaries of day-to-day politics.

Fundamentally, such a new contract should link the social and environmental dimensions of the transition—including the underlying economic model. This was the theme of a conference held in February by the European Trade Union Institute and the European Trade Union Confderation.

There are four dimensions to the contract, or four ‘I’s: ideas, interests, institutions and indicators.

Ideas, or how to frame the issues

The right framework to define the issues and problems is essential. Depending on which narrative dominates, these will be very different and entail different public policies. Three main frameworks stand in competition.

In the first, we are faced solely with the climate issue. In this vision, the challenge is essentially to adapt capitalism through the (accelerated) use of existing technologies or technologies close to maturity (innovation), while keeping these changes mangeable, to ensure continuity with the society we live in today—albeit possibly making it a little more egalitarian.   

The second framework is broader: here, we are facing not only a climate crisis but also an accelerated decline of biodiversity and scare resources. This narrative therefore calls into question the ‘traditional’ capitalist system and seeks to promote a new stage of green capitalism, aimed at ensuring a sustainable and just transition. Different dimensions are examined—not only production but also consumption. Furthermore, the question of inequalities is central.

The third addresses the fundamental philosophical question of the human being’s place in nature and in the ‘hierarchy’ of species (‘deep ecology’). In this framework, what is needed is a cultural revolution which would fundamentally question capitalism and our vision of the world.

It is not entirely clear which of these options is winning out, although debate generally oscillates between the first and the second—the implicit model for what follows.

Interests, or actors and their strategies

There are also three key interests. The first is the state, back in fashion because it seems to be the only institution capable of setting long-term objectives. This is a welcome development after decades of neoliberal questioning. Its return to favour should not however let us forget important critical analyses of the state and its supposed neutrality: old questions about the dominant interests defended by the state and about state control—questions coming from the Marxian tradition as well as from its later critics—deserve to return to the debate too.

The most important aspect here is conflict. As shown by Hans Bruyninckx, director of the European Environment Agency, conflicts between different interests will be at the heart of the argument about ideas.

The financial institutions are becoming more central to the discourse on the transition, particularly on what constitutes ‘green’ investment (and the parallel ‘social’ taxonomy). Yet, as underlined by Ann Pettifor, there is a fundamental contradiction here: to give a central role to financial institutions means submitting once again to their power, which will then be almost impossible to limit.

As collective actors, trade unions are increasingly finding themselves at the centre of these debates, particularly because climate issues are having and will have significant consequences in many sectors: automotive, heavy industry, construction, agriculture, chemicals, waste and recycling, mines and so on. The key question is what place they will have.

On the one hand, there are the challenges of coping with restructuring (including geographical aspects) and retraining (often within a sector, such as construction). But the primary issue, as stressed by the economist Mariana Mazzucato, is securing a role in the definition of problems and thus also of solutions—not only managing the consequences of change.

In this regard, the trade union movement has a rich tradition. It has been a key actor in the struggles for decent wages and social protection but also over health and safety, working conditions, worker participation and working-time reduction—and, in particular, in the debate on alienation and liberation from work. This heritage should make unions key figures in setting the narrative.

Institutions, or standing the test of time

For a power balance to settle and stabilise in the long term, it is necessary to have public institutions—in the sociological sense. This is the forgotten dimension of this debate and undoubtedly the most complex. Here we could consider citizens’ assemblies and their legislative extension; to what extent the environmental dimension is taken into account in such official bodies as the Economic, Social and Environmental Council in France; the development of an environmental role for works councils, and the emergence of environmental delegates.

But, on the whole, this is not much. We are seriously missing European-level arenas which can not only serve as platforms for debate—on the points where consensus can quickly be reached and on those where further discussion is needed—but also have the capacity to influence decisions in the medium to long term.

Indicators, or what to measure

There is a long-standing debate on indicators that go beyond gross domestic product. Various projects have been developed to do so, generally complex and ambitious, by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Joseph StiglitzEloi Laurent and so on.

It’s important to simplify, to focus on the strong links between social and environmental issues. These mainly concern social inequalities, which mirror climate inequalities and the just transition, and diversity and participation, which reflect the challenge of biodiversity loss.

We should therefore have two series of indicators which would measure the social dimension of the transition. For example, on inequalities we could consider not only the classic indicators—the Gini coefficient, the ratio of top-to-bottom income quintiles and the rate of poverty—but also salary inequality, average (and maximum) salaries of chief executives, the number of poor workers and so on. Regarding diversity, we could include the integration of non-nationals, visible minorities and refugees, the participation of women on company boards, the capacity of education to promote social emancipation, the participation of workers, civic and citizen participation and so forth.

This is a limited set of issues in relation to the much wider question of wellbeing or the definition of a ‘good life’. But it does have the advantage of being able to take quickly into account the challenges of work and its quality in equal measure.

The different dimensions of the four ‘I’s sketched out here deserve further exploration, individually and in terms of how they interrelate. It is a matter of establishing a dominant narrative which frames the challenges as well as identifying the appropriate actors and their alliances. Such alliances will have to be created in institutions to achieve consensus in the long term but also to open up spaces of permanent dialogue. To measure progress, indicators of inequality and diversity could help mark the path ahead.

This is the true meaning of a socio-ecological contract—something we have to create together.

(This article was originally published on Social Europe)

Photo credits ibrahim hakki ucman

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