Photo by Michelle Mendieta Mean.

Guest Climate Columnist Oli Storey argues that fairness must lie at the heart of a green recovery from Covid-19.

Time and time again human society has faced crises of existential order. In each instance people show themselves to be resilient, innovative, and resourceful. Individuals use these skills for a range of reasons, from making extortionate amounts of money, to keeping their family fed. For many decades we have been told that the world, and the crises that accompany it, are too complex and unintelligible for us to predict, mitigate, or prevent hardships. For too long it was presented as common-sense that ideology, ethics, and morality were surplus to requirement in the governing of society. And for too long ‘pragmatism’, the efficiency of the market, and individual choice has been presented as anti-ideology and pro-reason.

The truth is there have always been values, ideologies, and belief-systems guiding our societies. In the face of climate breakdown, a global pandemic, and economic recession, we should be thinking about the values we want our future society to be defined and guided by.

We are simultaneously experiencing the most crippling crisis of our existence and the crest of the next one. Except the climate crisis will cost twice as much as Covid has, per year, by 2050 if temperatures rise by 2.6 degrees. This crisis is existential because it has no end-date, we either correct our current trends or we do not. And unlike other crises, the costs cannot be so easily isolated. For example, by 2016, the top 1% incomes were recovering whilst the 99% continued to wait, following the 2008 financial crash. Similarly, the recessions of the 1980s in the Global North created instability and hardship which the West then recovered from and boomed economically, whilst leaving the Global South in a debt crisis and prolonged decades of austerity and stagnant growth. Even arguably the greatest recovery in history, Roosevelt’s New Deal in response to the Great Depression was an attempt at addressing inequality but did not address the specific issues of Black Americans.

Across the Globe, who is hurt most by crises? The poor, women, people of colour, disabled people, the LGBTQ+ community, and similar marginalised groups. Austerity in the UK particularly starved the health system of funding – reportedly leading to 130,000 unnecessary deaths, impacting disabled people in particular. This politics was grounded in the mantra of needing to ‘balance the books’. This economistic and supposedly value-less statement is actually laced with an ideological aversion to social security, as well as political apathy to down-right contempt for those who have experience bad luck in their life.  

Why is it important to reiterate that fact values, ideologies, and belief systems are central to our social lives? So we do not buy into false narratives of glory or vanity at a time when we need the most serious rallying of collective and humanistic solidarity in the history of humankind. Values, ethics, and morality are at root grounded in the individual and our conscious relation to one another. But we constitute our societies around collectivised values and rules. But we have been told implicitly for decades that we are all individuals that operate at their most efficient when we do so selfishly. Even as this propaganda was propagated by the media, advertisement, and governments, it did not hold any water. An economistic theory that applies in limited circumstances was never replicable in reality. Because individuals hold and great array of values in their hearts and mind. Solidarity, care, fairness, justice, community, to name but a few.

But does this mean we must throw out the market economy we know, love, and loathe today due to the scandalous shortcoming of this valueless value system? That is not necessary. Since the market is a reflection of society, and society is a reflection of us, we have the power to determine our individual and collective values and shape what is the mixed state-market-community society we live, thrive, and struggle in. This is not a luxurious task, but one that requires immediate action. Ultimately, we all value the prosperity of present and future generations around the Globe. There is a shared prosperity, across borders and generations, that is well within our grasp if we only face up to the task of preventing the disintegration of our global political and ecological order.

Green Recovery Now is a student research activism group that began last summer and is playing its role in the grand debate over our society’s future values. I have worked in the Outreach Team since October 2020, but now I lead GRN UK, the first instance of our research capacity becoming advocacy campaigns. I was personally stimulated into climate action three years ago on hearing that we had 12 years to limit climate catastrophe: not prevent, but limit. This deadline remains stubbornly concrete and terrifying as recent research by Johan Rockstrom outlines our window of ten years, in which time we can still make the rapid structural transformation necessary to keep within our planetary boundaries.

There is a general consensus amongst the leading global economies that something has to be done. Covid-19 has demanded the most State intervention we have seen since the World Wars, so there is the means and motive to act. And laying the right foundations and direction now is pivotal to producing the prosperity for future generations. At a time of great change we cannot let this chance to systematically and structurally undermine inequality and forge a new society slip through our grasp.

At the core of GRN’s mission is fairness, and the idea that the green economic recovery leaders pay lip service to needs to take account of the value of greater equality in all its forms. We believe in fairness as a metric for recovery plans that challenges inequalities at an international, national, household, and individual level through metrics of health, education, income, and representation. This is not to make perfection our goal, but to include these targets within this incredible moment to be bold. Whilst climate breakdown affects all of humanity, it does so to different degrees depending on one’s social position, just as the pandemic has done.

When researching a fair and green recovery, contextualisation is central to our methods, since fairness requires considering the local needs and capacities of each nation and place, and most importantly allowing people from these areas to chart their own policy decisions. Concurrently, whilst medium and low-income countries can leap-frog their way to green economic growth, the burden of transformation is not on them, but the historic emitters of greenhouse gases.

Here we can discuss what GRN brings to the field. By placing the moral and ethical value of reducing inequality at core of our research and policy advocacy, we are pushing a green recovery the way we believe it needs to go. It is clear, as with most crises, who will suffer the most from climate breakdown. That is why climate justice is racial justice, climate justice is social justice, climate justice is feminist justice. This is not the limit of the theory, but useful starting points for thinking about how green politics is a route through which we start to determine our society through the values we choose to hold, not because they are easy, but because they are right. By grounding ourselves in such principles, individuals, institutions, governments, communities, and business have a clear framework through which material and structural change can occur.

Challenging the status quo has never been easy or smooth, but the disruption has been brought about by our own encroachment into nature. We were even warned by the WHO one year ago of the likelihood of a global pandemic. But now the opportunity is here. To lay the groundwork that will reduce the likelihood of pandemics reoccurring, as well as a myriad of other climate catastrophes waiting to ravage the world, forcing famine, mass migration, and violent conflict. The need to act and collectivise has never been greater.

GRN has an international perspective, taking account of historic global inequalities, but we are a relatively small and new group that has to begin with the context we can affect most: the University of Oxford. In line with our method of researching, repackaging, and advocating already existent green recovery policies, we are looking to building upon the Disinvestment from fossil fuels campaign which was undertaken successfully by The Oxford Climate Justice Society. We will work with them to take this campaign further, to demand the University and Colleges pursue a ‘divest-reinvest’ strategy. We want a conscious effort to invest in Local and Green business and communities as a statement of solidarity with the planet, the people, and the lives suffering from Covid and climate breakdown. We do not want business as usual.

We want individuals, communities, and institutions to take responsibility, take their agency, and make decisions based on values that are innate to humankind. This is an exciting new venture that is very dynamic and open to change, but one that requires the enthusiasm and belief that expressions of radical activism do shift the centre ground. Thus, our goal is to make our radicalism ‘common-sense’.

If you are interested by what you have read and would like to engage as part of the team as a researcher, campaigner, outreach, content producer, communications etc., please reach out to myself and I would be happy to speak more about this – [email protected]

Max Spokes

Max (he/him) was formerly Environment News Editor and Climate Columnist at The Blue. He is in his final year studying History and Politics at Balliol.