Economics for system change - an overview
The movement for climate justice has successfully branded itself around the "system change not climate change" motto, shifting the discourse from individual action to the structures of our socio-economic system. This change of environmental narrative from a purely green consumerist perspective to a vision targeting the unequal and destructive forces behind capitalism might well be representative of the times we live in, whereby post-capitalist and anti-neoliberal discourses are gaining increasing recognition and support.
Every social movement is inevitably influenced by the politico-economic context in which it is embedded. The environmental movement shifted from a focus on limits to economic growth around the 1970s to a green growth paradigm through the neoliberal turn of the 1980s. Only in recent years there has been a distancing from the green consumerism narrative essentially focussed on individual behaviours with no reference to the socio-economic and political forces at play. However, given the significance of the green and sustainability mantra of the past decades, it might take time until people associate environmentalism with something more than eco-consumerist practices, such as changing light bulbs, recycling or buying "green products".
Environmental groups and organisations are now looking at tackling the actual structures of our economy by pushing for fossil fuel divestment, a sustainable food system and community energy. This narrative is associated with an element of people reclaiming power from those capitalist institutions, illustrated through "People Power" slogans and campaigns. More importantly, there has been a growing awareness about the “intersectionality” of issues, such as class, gender and race, particularly among the movement for climate justice. Intersectional theory refers to the overlapping systems of oppression and discrimination, which American civil rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw introduced to feminist theory to refer to the specific experiences of black women.
These are clear signs that the tide is turning within environmental thought. What these new demands have in common is a vision for a different economic system. An economy that respects social rights and promotes emancipatory, sustainable and regenerative alternatives to the extractivist and exploitative rationale of capitalist structures. These alternative visions thus point to the need for a new economics to bring about those changes. An economic discipline that takes into account the negative environmental and social impacts of its policies, while valuing the ones that promote human and ecological wellbeing. This is what the transdisciplinary field of social ecological economics is attempting to do. Given the action-oriented nature of the discipline, it aims at creating sustainable prosperity and wellbeing. Other economic schools of thought, such as marxist political economy, feminist economics or institutional economics have similar normative orientations.
If environmental and social justice movements are indeed serious about changing the structures of our current economic system, it seems necessary that they start embracing the language of economics - or the "mother tongue of public policy" - to quote the phrase used by economist Kate Raworth. The economic discipline has become instrumental in the way that it is now favouring the status quo by teaching a single vision of economics - the neoclassical school of thought - which has disastrous consequences for our planet and people. It is therefore crucial that we start reclaiming economics for what it could be, as it is after all a social science, despite what mainstream economists might say, based upon normative foundations.
In recent years, the movement for rethinking economics has been gaining ground through its advocacy for a pluralist economics that would promote some of the changes demanded by environmental organisations. However, it is important that environmental and social justice groups also dare use a language that has for too long been the privilege of the powerful elite. There is a need for laying out the full vision of what "system change" could be like in reality. In particular, envisioning what a sustainable economy would consist of not only in terms of a fossil free energy system but also with regards to aspects of work, money and the social commons. Those are key economic pillars, which once reclaimed have the potential to change the actual structures of our modern economies for the greater good without reproducing the oppressive structures of capitalist economies.
To foster systemic change, it requires deep economic transformations which must take place alongside concerns for issues of class, gender, racial, and environmental nature. For social movements to be able to foster real "systemic change", it is then a prerequisite to learn about the (mis-)functioning of our modern capitalist economies before proposing true progressive economic alternatives.
Emilie Tricarico is a graduate of the Ecological Economics MSc program at the University of Leeds and a campaigner on environmental and social justice.