From sustainability debates to the Green New Deal

Input für eine Podiumsdiskussion auf Einladung der London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE)

Auf Einladung der German Society, habe ich am 2. Februar 2021 mit Hans Joachim Schellnhuber und Rolf Buch über soziale Nachhaltigkeit diskutiert. Hier mein Input: 

Learning the right lessons from the Covid crisis – Time for a shift towards sustainability

Input for a debate at the London School of Economics

Thank you very much for the invitation, I’m delighted to be talking about sustainability today.

When I was elected to the local parliament in my home city of Dresden around 20 years ago, promoting the idea of sustainability was one of the matters close to my heart. Sustainability – back then, that was a term that you had to explain first. 

In conversation, I always described it as being able to make great progress by viewing environmental and social matters as interlinked and combining these with a different economic policy. I also realised, however, that the term didn’t have a mobilising effect. Social movements used other words, such as climate justice.

Does it make sense in the face of a global pandemic to revive the idea of sustainability once again? Covid-19 has turned a great deal upside down. The year with Covid has also shown us that the idea that the market would sort everything, is over. It’s not the neoliberal belief for more market power that is going to get us out of this crisis. If we want to overcome crises in a sustainable fashion, we also need to reshape our economic policy.

It is now time to commit to economic restructuring, because the route out of the crisis cannot simply lead back to the way things were before Covid – ultimately based on the double exploitation of people and of the environment. It is precisely this focus on profit that makes a society more susceptible to crises. So it’s about time to change and rewrite the rules.

Nine billion for an airline, nothing for air filters

I’d now like to illustrate this with two examples from Germany. The way the economic policy of the Conservative party works is the following:

When sectors with a well-established lobby encounter difficulties with sales, the Minister of Economic Affairs is all too happy to help out with a few billion euros, no questions asked.

This was already wrong before Covid. It would have been far more beneficial to have linked economic assistance with the goal of social and ecological restructuring. This would also have equipped the jobs in these sectors for the future. Of course employees in various sectors of industry are concerned about structural change. Of course the transformation of the energy sector means huge adjustment for coal miners, while the transport transition has an impact on the car-sector. These fears of loss in the face of industrial structural change must be taken seriously.

One thing that doesn’t help anyone, however, is to feed the illusion that things can continue as before. Instead, it is far more important to provide future-oriented solutions. The Covid crisis has made the failures of the present economic policy especially clear again: nine billion euros issued unconditionally to the airline Lufthansa but next to nothing for mobile air filters. Even though these air filter are able to filter out virus-laden aerosols and thus increase protection in schools, bars or theatres. 

In other words, billions spent on products and services that are currently not in demand, and also have a negative impact on the environment. Yet barely any investment in products that are urgently required to enable social aspects of life with a high level of protection against infection.

World health is more important that profit interests

A similar effect can be observed when it comes to the debate over vaccine licenses and patents. It was already clear before Covid that patents on life-saving medicines make it impossible for countries of the global south to gain access to these. As property rights for knowledge, patents mean profits for the pharmaceutical industry. For poorer countries, however, they mean deaths. Deaths that could have been avoided.

On top of this, we now have the fact that the fight against Covid can only be won through global action. Otherwise, the virus will return. So it’s not only a moral issue whether poorer countries have access to vaccines, it is also very much in our own interests. 

We in the Left Party have a pragmatic proposal, namely that the WHO be put in a position to gain intellectual property rights for medically relevant knowledge in order to make this available to poorer countries – if need be, against the profit interests of the pharmaceutical industry. And yet the government has blocked this. It appears profit interests are more important than global health. I believe that the exact opposite should be the case. The health of the world takes priority over profit. Those were just two examples to make clear how necessary it is to have economic policy with a regulating effect.

Environmental protection makes our world more secure against the pandemic

At the start of the Covid crisis, some suggested that environmental matters needed to take a back seat. How wrong they were! We now know that the destruction of ecosystems and global warming helped create the conditions for a virus to move from animals to humans and thus cause a pandemic. To put it simply, environmental destruction increases the risk of a pandemic. Environmental protection, on the other hand, makes our world more secure against these.

Covid has intensified existing social inequality.

Covid has intensified existing social inequality. In Germany we have noticed that people with low wages have lost a particularly large share of their income as a result of the crisis. Among those earning 900 euros per month, one in two has lost income. Upwards of 4500 euros a month, it is only one in four. 

In addition, the immune system of poorer individuals is, on average, not as well equipped to defend them against the virus. A study by Düsseldorf University Hospital showed that the long-term unemployed have a significantly higher risk of suffering a serious case of the virus. In short, the Covid crisis increases the urgency with which we need to defuse the environmental and social crises – and to do so in a sustainable way.

This calls for the courage to restructure our economic policy.This combined approach to social, environmental and economic aspects was already part of debates on sustainability.

Green New Deal

However, in the interim this has undergone further development. Social movements and political actors from all over the globe are enthusiastic about a Green New Deal as a comprehensive project for societal change. Prominent supporters include US Democrats from the party’s left wing, with Bernie Sanders and AOC, while the British Labour Party has also set out an equivalent Green New programme.

This has been inspired by the historical experience in the US around 90 years ago with President Roosevelt’s New Deal, issued in response to the challenge posed by the Great Depression. 

As a feminist, it is very important to me to work against the marginalisation of women in history. In this context I therefore happy to mention that the very social progress created by the New Deal was, also thanks to the dedication of one woman, Frances Perkins. Frances Perkins was the first female cabinet official in US history. She fought for a stronger welfare state as Secretary of Labor.

The Green New Deal concepts developed before the Covid crisis were concerned primarily with solving the environmental and social emergencies. Drawing the necessary conclusions from the shock of Covid has now been added to this. The fight for a Green New Deal incorporates the basic ideas of the debates on sustainability, of taking a combined approach to social and environmental matters. That is one of the benefits of the idea of sustainability.

The Green New Deal takes this and develops it further, it is popular among relevant movements and, with its historical connection to Roosevelt’s New Deal, expresses the necessary historical urgency for restructuring. That is why I am calling for a Green New Deal.

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