Eurozone to Environmentalists: “Austerity Doesn’t Work”

Posted on May 3, 2012

After causing untold pain with very little to show for it, the backlash against austerity in the Eurozone is gaining ground. The diktats from Brussels and Berlin have pushed public tolerance to its limit. Politicians standing on an anti-austerity platform are making gains in the polls and at the ballot boxes. The message is clear – while most people understand that they have to correct the excesses of the past and get themselves on to an economic path that is more sustainable, they reject the idea of a sharp and prolonged austerity with no clarity of outcome and no promise of a future. The tide is turning and politicians are starting to embrace the need to add hope to discipline and asceticism.

And herein lies the lesson for the environmental movement. I have written in previous articles that the environmental movement “should be about aspirations and improvement more, much more, than about guilt and austerity”. And yet, as Bruno Latour remarks in a recent article, “green politics has succeeded in leaving citizens nothing but a gloomy asceticism, a terror of trespassing Nature”. It is not clear when the penny will drop that this is a dead end road.

Let us be clear. People (ie most of us) will not stop or significantly reduce their consumption. The billions in developing countries will not stop aspiring to first world standards of living and consumption. People will not embrace the mantra of guilt and austerity ‘for the sake of the planet’. Neither is the pursuit of a ‘no growth economy’ likely to be a viable option. An environmental movement built on the assumption that prolonged austerity can succeed will inevitably crumble.

Yet, it would be unfortunate, if not tragic, were the environmental movement to fail. To succeed, it must embrace the reality of human behavior rather than live in the fiction of the activist mind. We are much more likely to succeed by offering hope and aspiration; by basing our strategies on the assumption that societies will want to continue pursue a better quality of life for their citizens; and by coming up with ways of making that compatible with maintaining an environment that can continue to support us and help us meet our aspirations.

Some, of course, will argue that we can re-define what ‘quality of life’ means. It does not have to mean more consumption, more accumulated wealth, and so forth. Yes, maybe. But if that is so, then we need to turn our attention to defining this new ‘quality of life’ in terms that have some chance of appealing to large numbers of people in all walks of life – urban and rural, wealthy and poor, educated and not – not in terms that only appeal to the romantic nature lover or in terms that look good in some erudite technical analysis but have no meaning in the real world. This is no easy task but one that may be worth investing in – especially if such investment serves to displace the emphasis on guilt and austerity.