Friday, 14th November, ECO DU and Durham Amnesty International organised the first student climate strike on the university campus. The 22 demands of the protest were, as detailed in ECO DU’s report on sustainability in the university from last year, directed at the fact that Durham University is simply not meeting it’s sustainability targets and not doing nearly enough to go carbon neutral, as directed by the Paris Agreement. I was in the thick of the protest and I can honestly say that it was one of the most heart warming experiences of my three years in Durham. That such a massive volume of students were willing to stare the university administration in the eye and proclaim their dissatisfaction was incredible. I urge the Durham administration to hear our voice and take immediate action. Time is running out, people.
But let’s be realistic about this. Even if Durham Uni does, in fact, go green, it will be only a microscopic drop in the acidified ocean as far as actually reducing global emissions and waste goes. What needs to happen, beyond simply implementing small scale measures, is a global, structural and radical change in the way that economic activity is organised. This involves (in my opinion, at least) massively cutting reliance on extractive industry, rapid transition to renewable energy, re-agrarianisation, anti-consumerism, wide-spread reforestation and intense government regulation on corporate practice among many other changes. It should be clear that these shifts pose a threat to status quo capitalism and, more generally, to present socio-economic organisation both in the Global North and South. Now, you may not agree with these as necessary solutions. That’s fine. But there should be no doubt in anyone who’s serious about tackling the ecological crisis’ mind that something needs to change. The status quo is simply unacceptable. It should also be clear to anyone that the something that needs to change is deeply economic.
I don’t claim to have come up with a plan for how to tackle climate change or even how to implement the above mentioned solutions. But I do think I have one idea for how an economist might go about thinking about them. It is this: politicise economic truisms. What I mean by this is that the economic truisms of the modern age that we are taught, not just in the West but all over the world, need to be politicised. The objectives of growth, Development, industrialisation and Euro-American modernity that we have been convinced are necessary ends-in-themselves for contemporary economies must be questioned. The reason for this is simple: they are the primary drivers of global climate change. And this is not a question of simply attaching qualifications to these concepts i.e. arguing that we need green growth or sustainable Development. It means fundamentally challenging what they mean and whether they are compatible with a truly sustainable mode of living. We need to discuss them politically i.e. not as inherent economic truisms but as objects of political discussion, in the same way that housing or healthcare are. And sure, you might conclude from these debates that economies do still need to grow or industrialise but, if you’ve had the right discussions, you will hopefully have good reasons why or to what extent.
This politicisation should not be particularly controversial in my opinion. After all, it was only until the back-end of the last century that globalisation, free trade and liberalisation, too, were objects of mainstream political discussion. But increasingly, they seem to be becoming supposed economic necessities in their own right (Trade Wars and Brexit notwithstanding). It’s not a ridiculous idea to think that growth or Development can (and should) be politicised as well. As economists, we do not have enough conversations about these matters (and neither do politicians, to be fair) but it seems to me that they are absolutely essential if we’re going to come up with economic ways to tackle the ecological crisis. So if you were the climate strike or are even just someone wondering how to think about economic solutions to the crisis, my plea is this: politicise economics.