In Session 5, we focus upon the cultural and social dimension to sustainability. Let’s start by listening into a conversation between two sociologists, John and Tony. Welcome to this session on poverty and sustainability. I’m joined by Tony, who’s the author of a book on climate change and poverty. Tony, can you tell me something about these two topics? Most people already understand something of these two topics already. They understand that there’s a great deal of poverty around the world. And even in a rich country like the UK, most people, I think, accept that there is real hardship and deprivation, still.
So far as climate change is concerned, well, most people understand that the planet is warming, and that this is having effects on our weather, that it is creating more heat waves, more droughts, rising sea levels, more flooding, and, of course, pressures on water and food supplies, as well. And how you see the two topics as connected? Well most obviously, poverty will have considerable effects in the developing world, affecting the health of millions of people because of increased malnutrition, infectious diseases, and cardiorespiratory diseases. But my book is particularly concerned with the developed world. And we will see, I think, that the impacts here will be particularly adverse due to increasing flooding and droughts both happening in the same year.
And of course, the cost of adapting to and dealing with climate change is bound to have an impact on our economies, although less of an impact than if we do nothing. You’ve mentioned that there are different effects across countries, and countries differ in terms of their degree of affluence, and development, and so on. How might there be different effects within countries in terms of affluence and less affluent people? Well clearly, some people are going to be more vulnerable than others. Those with inadequate resources. And that vulnerability means those people are less able to adapt to risks, to cope with risks, and are more likely to experience harm. Now we know this because it already happens.
It happens in regard to employment, health, housing, and those kinds of things. So as the social and ecological agendas come together, I think that poverty will increasingly take on what I call eco-social characteristics. Now by eco-social poverty, I mean an inadequacy in those resources which are both social and natural, where the social and the natural are interwoven. And this means that vulnerable people are less likely to have their basic needs met, and are less likely to have opportunities available to them that the rest of us take for granted. So as the global situation worsens, we’re likely to find that vulnerable people in particular are really going to suffer. Can you give a concrete example of these effects? Well, OK.
In my book, I talk about energy, for instance. Now there’s any number of objectives that we need to meet when it comes to energy. We need to heat homes during the winter. We need to cool homes during the summer. We need to protect the interests and the incomes of the poorest. And of course, we need to reduce actual carbon emissions. Now at the moment, we are spectacularly failing to meet any of these objectives. So take fuel poverty, for instance. At the moment, about 4.5 million people in the UK are fuel poor, and 3.5 million of those are defined as being vulnerable households.
So how we use buildings, how we design buildings, is going to be key in bringing the social and ecological agendas together. And that’s going to mean things such as a major retrofitting programme, which could last decades, greater energy efficiencies, protecting the incomes of the poorest. About how we use energy, how we pay for energy, and the kind of energy that we use is going to protect them, as well as the rest of us. A lot of people are very worried about rising food prices. How do you see this as affecting food supply for a country like Britain?
Well, I mean, just as already there’s a great deal of fuel poverty, so there’s an enormous amount of food poverty in our country. And increasing numbers of people are reliant upon charitable donations and food banks, et cetera. Now all of that is against a background where our food chains have been increasingly dominated by corporations, by the big supermarkets. And those supermarkets tend to be interested in making cheap food available rather than healthy food affordable. And of course, the foods that we waste– much of it avoidable waste– goes into landfills and creates methane, which has a more potent effect, indeed, than even carbon dioxide.
So what we need to do is to improve the quality of the food that reaches our shelves, and the kind of shops and supermarkets within which those shelves sit. It essentially means trying to take back the food chain, to base it upon principles of sustainability, of localism, and of fairness, and indeed of democracy. So that we think of food and the delivery of food more as citizens, rather than simply as consumers. Over the last 30 years or so, Tony, there’s been rising inequality, rising poverty. Not just in Britain, but Britain is now one of the most unequal countries in the world. Why will thinking about things in terms of environment and climate change make a difference?
Well, I mean, there are several imperatives. One is humanity. The obligations that we owe to the vulnerable– to vulnerable humans, obviously. I actually think most people accept that there should be a social floor, or a social minimum, below which nobody should be allowed to fall. But the language of obligations also extends to non-humans. To those creatures over whom we have power, and for whom, therefore, we have responsibility. But it’s also a question, secondly, of personal self interest. The conditions associated with poverty affect us all, whether we know it or not. The society is an interdependent entity. But increasingly, I think, the main motivation– the main imperative– is one of survival. We have a considerable challenge that we need to meet.
And unless we all recognise that challenge, unless we all recognise that we need to swim more or less in the same direction at the same speed, then we might end up fighting ourselves rather than fighting the climate change which affects us all. So we all have a common interest in doing this, and that means appreciating the importance of social conditions, as well.
Increasingly in political debate, people talk about the problematic behaviour of the poor rather than the problem of poverty. How might the debate shift from the problem of the poor to the problem of poverty? Well, we need to appreciate that the case that has to be made is essentially about moral and political principles. And the idea that we section of one part of society and say, it’s all about you, no longer holds in this interconnected, interdependent world in which we live.
And therefore, I think that we need to make a moral case, which is about appreciating how social systems and policy instruments and economic systems catch up with the kind of moral and ethical acknowledgement of the importance of climate change that I think is increasingly part of public opinion and public thinking. So, in your view, what needs to happen? Well, I reject the kind of fatalism which says that poverty is inevitable. Those countries which have made a concerted effort to tackle poverty have often been successful. And if I’m correct that poverty is taking on eco-social characteristics, then we need, as it were, to take things to the next stage.
OK, Tony, if you were to summarise some key points for viewers and listeners to take away, what would they be? Well, there are so many, but a series of questions occurs to me. Firstly about the economy– do we need sustainable growth, or do we need to base our economies upon a kind of post-growth, steady state model? We also need to think about technology. Is technological fixes is the way to go? Massive geoengineering projects? Or are we the people who need to change in our lifestyles and how we produce goods and exchange goods with one another? We also need to think about the nature of capitalism. Can we create a green capitalism? Or is capitalism inherently environmentally destructive?
And finally, coming back to social policy, we need to think about the welfare state. Can the welfare state be greened? Or is it the case that we need to think of a new way of organising ourselves and organising our social distributions. Now, I don’t have easy answers to any of those questions, but this is part of the conversation that we need to kick start. Well, thank you very, Tony. Plenty of food for thought there for the rest of the session.