Details Created: 02 June 2012

‘Sustainable development’ remains a controversial concept, though it is still part of the dominant discourse on ecology and climate change. Activists have pointed to the impossibility and undesirability of ‘development’ – a western concept intrinsically linked to economic growth and to a reprehensible modernity, so they say – and the equally unacceptable and undesirable ‘sustainability’ which, according to them, perpetuates an unjust world order.

Words have their importance. As it is clear that the famous Brundtland report1 of 1987 and the World Development Reports of 1992 and 20032 of the World Bank do indeed link ‘sustainability’ to the possibility of ‘sustained’ growth, and since it is also clear that ‘development’ has been abandoned to the market and been replaced by ‘poverty reduction’, ‘sustainable development’ largely lost its meaning as bearer of fundamental change. The activist ‘climate justice’ concept may usefully replace it3. It makes clear that we are talking about justice and consequently about ethics as well as about the rights of current and future generations. It also facilitates the link which has to be made with social justice. These two agendas, it has to be stressed, are interdependent and one can never be complete without the other. This vision fits in with the definition of ‘environmental justice’ decided in 1991 : a rejection of all forms of injustice that takes away the dignity of some social groups and that hurt the integrity of nature. It has to be seen against the background of the reciprocity of all human beings, non human entities and supports of life4.

The social dimension of the climate justice agenda can be looked at from two different perspectives. On the one hand, one can start from the climate justice agenda and show that poor people and especially poor people in the global South are the first victims of climate change. The poor rightly demand, then, compensation and remedial action. This perspective will require other economic and environmental policies in order to alleviate the climate impact. On the other hand, one can take the perspective of the social justice agenda, and see in what ways it will have to be changed in order to take into account the protection and the demands of the victims of climate injustice. This perspective requires the re-definition and re-conceptualization of the social dimension and more particularly of social protection.

In this contribution, I want to focus on this second dimension, since the first one is amply documented already, while the second one remains under-researched. I want to examine the necessary links between climate justice and social justice and I want to argue that both cannot be delinked from economic justice and have to be looked at as transformative processes. Hence, this article has to be seen as a first attempt to provide some elements for a re-designed social justice agenda and a re-conceptualization of social protection.

Internationally, social protection has been reduced to poverty reduction since 1990. These policies are failing though this is only one reason why we should again broaden the agenda. Taking into account the climate justice agenda will mean we have to think of universalism, of collective and solidarity rights and of material and immaterial needs. The new social protection agenda will be about bread and roses. It will be about the common good and about the production and re-production of social life.

On the consequences of climate change

In the global South, the erosion of the soil, desertification, extreme weather events, etc. have disastrous effects on the livelihoods of poor people, precisely those who have the fewest resources to cope with them and also those who have no responsibility whatsoever for the emission levels which caused these events.

In the global North, poor people may have some responsibility for the emission levels, but they lack the resources to cope with climate change, such as funds to insulate houses and lower emission levels, funds to buy locally produced food, etc.

The most disadvantaged people carry a double burden of deprivation. They are more vulnerable to the wider effects of environmental degradation and have to cope with threats to their immediate environment …’5. This is a welcome change in the UN discourse, since the Brundtland report, as well as Agenda 21 and the Johannesburg Plan of Implementation put poverty at the junction of a two-way process. On the one hand, poverty eradication was seen as the ‘overarching objective’ of sustainable development, on the other hand it was seen as an ‘essential requirement’ for sustainable development. In the former case, the poor are considered to be the victims of climate change, in the latter case, they are the culprits of climate change and their behavior will have to be changed in order to make sustainability possible6. The zero draft for the Rio+20 Conference7 makes the reasoning fully circular: ‘we are convinced that a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication should contribute to meeting key goals in particular the priorities of poverty eradication …’ (§ 25) and ‘… while sustainable development is the overarching goal … a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication should protect and enhance the natural resource base …’ (§ 26).

It is clear that these divergent perceptions also have divergent consequences for the poverty eradication policies which are deemed necessary.

While it is obvious that some behavior of poor people – cooking fuel, use of forests, old polluting cars … – will have negative consequences for the environment, it should also be clear that this pollution is in no way comparable to the emission levels of industrialized countries and the pollution caused by the wealthy people in the North. Suffice it to say that the ecological footprint of the world’s wealthy minority – in North and South – is up to 10 times larger than that of its poor majority.

What the latest UNDP report makes very clear is indeed that ‘sustainability’ is less an environmental question than it is an equity problem. Basically, it is about some people who have power – to pollute and to stop pollution – and many other people who have no power – to not pollute. The latter bear the consequences of the behavior of the former. Taking this reasoning further and having equity in mind, it also becomes clear that climate justice is basically a distributive problem and a common good. If one accepts Gandhi’s statement that ‘there is a sufficiency in the world for man’s need but not for man’s greed’ one also has to accept that climate justice comes down to what social justice is about: to give everyone a fair share of available resources, natural resources – water, land, clean air … – and economically created resources – income, social protection. And since we know that all these resources are limited by nature itself, this cannot be delinked from a larger transformative process.

Climate justice and social justice then go hand in hand and should be tackled simultaneously in the framework of a new globalization.

On the consequences for the social justice agenda

If we accept that poverty eradication is conditioned by climate justice and by social justice and not the other way round, we should re-visit the international discourse on poverty in order to check its validity for the future. Focusing on poverty as the independent or as the dependent variable of sustainable development will have consequences for the shaping of social and environmental policies. If poverty eradication is seen as the outcome of a sustainable development process, then it seems logical to focus on the preservation and enhancement of natural resources, the protection of land and water and livelihoods as well as on their equitable distribution. In that case, anti-poverty policies might focus on human rights, on inequality and on the universal right to a fair share of all resources, and on the unsustainable production and consumption patterns of the wealthy.

Yet, if poverty is seen as an obstacle to sustainable development, than everything must be done to stop the harm caused by poor people, in the first place by stopping population growth. A second option will be to give poor people access to productive and re-productive resources that are less harmful for the environment.

The 2003 World Development Report of the World Bank elaborates on the concept of sustainability. It refers to the utilization rate of the resource base of development, be it in social, environmental or economic terms. Poverty alleviation belongs to the social pillar of sustainability and is linked to ‘social stress – and, at the extreme, social conflict’ 8. It refers to relational and natural assets which are both part of the ‘broader portfolio’ to be managed by governments. ‘For the assets most at risk – the natural and the social – markets cannot provide the basic coordination function of sensing problems, balancing interests and executing policies and solutions9. In this approach both the environment and poverty eradication (‘and other forms of conflict prevention…10are inputs into a sustained growth process needed for enhancing well-being through time.

In other words, 40 years after the first report of the Club of Rome11 calling for ‘limits to growth’ in order to protect the environment, the World Bank comes full circle: environmental protection is said to be needed in order to preserve the growth process. In the same logic, growth is not needed in order to eradicate poverty, but poverty eradication – the poor – will help to promote – and produce – growth. The activists referred to at the beginning of this contribution do have a case in point then, though this focus on growth is totally new. But it does confirm the capitalist logic of endless exploitation, not only of nature but also of all human beings who are then at the service of growth and markets.

The new international social agenda

It is amazing nevertheless how consensual the poverty focus has become in development circles. Amazing, in the first place, because it is new12, and secondly because the UN had a very interesting discourse and programme on ‘social development’13. Major Latin American countries had social protection systems comparable to the ones existing in Western Europe, whereas the newly independent countries in Africa all introduced social security systems meant to be enlarged and completed with the progress of economic development. They were also meant to overcome ethnic division and to create national citizenship and belonging14. Needless to say though that structural adjustment programmes of the 1980s severely weakened all social protection systems. Poverty reduction programmes took their place.

Today, twenty years after the publication of the World Bank’s first major poverty report, we know that the two parallel international strategies for poverty reduction (PRSP’s – poverty reduction strategy papers – and the MDGs – millennium development goals) are failing. But after abandoning economic development to the private market and seeing poverty reduction failing, what should ‘development’ be about in the future? Is it possible to further lower the ambitions and promise to reduce extreme poverty by one quarter by 2050?

Obviously, it is not. And this may explain the new old discourse of several UN organizations who now again promote social protection, though calling it a ‘social protection floor’15 or a universal social protection16, going beyond poverty reduction. The most recent UNDP report does not speak of ‘poverty’ anymore but of ‘equity’ and sustainability. The latest World Development Reports of the World Bank also ignore ‘poverty’17. The new proposals point to the inherent weaknesses of the poverty agenda – ‘end of the pipe’ solutions – and their failure to look at the causes of poverty – market fundamentalism. They also show there are good reasons for re-conceptualizing the social justice agenda, since they show the insufficiencies of targeting and plead for universal policies. They rightly stress that poverty is a matter of the violation of human rights. Finally, they also show that universal social protection is perfectly affordable.

It would take us too long to analyze these different proposals here18, but the important point which has to be made in the framework of climate justice is that some new proposals are for a ‘transformative’ social agenda, which means that social policies should be able or should imply the transformation of economies and of societies. And this clearly allows us to link up with the climate justice agenda which is also about fundamental change.

The challenge then is not only to re-design the existing social protection systems, but also to re-conceptualize social protection and to do this with climate justice in mind. In other words we have to restructure the paradigm of social protection in the framework of a broader systemic change.

The new social justice agenda then, will go beyond poverty reduction, will tackle inequality and will protect people from climate change. It should give everyone a fair share of all resources, from income to health and education, water, forests and land. But most of all, we should reformulate the objective of social protection which, to my mind and in this framework, is about preserving society and social bonds, about combining individual and collective rights and responsibilities and taking into account material and immaterial needs. It is about preserving the best of what modernity has given us, but also about rejecting what finally threatens social life: neoliberal individualism. Social protection should link up with the common good, our relationship with nature, and with the production and re-production of social life19. This is impossible without changing the economic and political dimensions of globalization.

The post-development solutions

The new UN proposals go beyond the transformations of social policies coming from ‘green’ and/or ‘post-development’ activists. But do they go far enough? Let us first look at the post-development criticism.

The criticism of the existing welfare states links up with criticism of ‘modernity’, ‘individualism’ and material self-interest. Post-developmentalists see a ‘big state’ at work which makes people dependent on it instead of allowing for a solidarity policy leading to more autonomy of communities, families and individuals.

They want to promote social relations instead of the pursuit of more material goods (‘des liens et non des biens’), and therefore promote reciprocity between people. Individuals, families, households, neighborhoods and communities can look after each other and so use the human resources more than the economic resources20.

Often, they will defend a basic income, which is – if it is high enough – of course an excellent idea for eradicating poverty, but which does not tackle the inequality problem and may also imply a problem for the fair distribution of the socially necessary labour, as well as weaken labour’s collective representation.

The problem with these ideas is that they can be interpreted in two ways. They either link up with dominant neoliberalism, which also wants more reciprocity between citizens taking care of themselves, wants more volunteers to do social work, and wants to do away with rights, redistribution and welfare states.

Or, if they openly reject neoliberal ideas and defend rights, redistribution and – transformed – welfare states, it is not clear where this vision can lead to, except to localized solidarity. Clearly, welfare states can be and should be organized better in order to promote emancipation and autonomy, citizens can help each other with child care or care for the elderly. But these are not the chapters that make welfare states ‘unsustainable’ or ‘indefensible’21. Post-developmentalists mostly reject universalism and anonymous – organic – solidarity22. But they are not always clear on what should happen with income benefits and public services and goods.

The most important achievement of our welfare states, I want to argue, is precisely the anonymous, organic solidarity they introduced. They organized collective solidarity, people caring for people they do not know, giving rights to people one is not acquainted with. Surely, localized care systems can be excellent, but one also knows that all communities are hierarchical and exclusion always threatens those who do not conform to community rules. Especially looked at from a gender perspective, this is a very sensitive issue.

It is a fundamental misunderstanding of modernity to reduce it to the pursuit of material self-interest and to exclude altruism. ‘We have never been modern’, as Latour says23. Every day, at the local, the national and the global level, people witness their solidarity with others, be it on the basis of rights – contributions to the welfare state – or on the basis of a profound awareness of our common humanity – helping third world people. Both forms of solidarity can be improved, but it is a mistake to assume the non possibility of altruism within modernity.

Where post-developmentalists do have a point however, is in stressing some theoretical foundations of modernity, the importance of social relationships and non-material needs. Particularly today, we see the dangers of neoliberal policies for social life itself. Neoliberalism only knows individuals – remember Thatcher: ‘there is no such thing as society’ – and promotes competitiveness, the pursuit of self-interest, flexibility, etc. Neoliberal globalization has given rise to a ‘precariat’ of denizens, of people who are neither victims nor heroes but are profoundly disaffiliated, migrants and asylum seekers, but also temporary workers and interns. Not only do these people lack basic rights, they also lack stable relationships, communities24, and other people to live with and to share with.

There are many reasons then why we should re-define our social justice agenda and also give it a new foundation. There is not only the ambiguous agenda of international organizations, but also the threats of neoliberalism and the deficient solutions of post-developmentalism, the changing economic and social environment, the emerging climate agenda and the philosophical questions around modernity and individualism.

The social agenda and the common good

In the 18th century, modernity gave us human rights as an expression of an emerging emancipated individual. In 1948, after the Second World War, the newly created United Nations adopted a Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This remains the major reference for everyone who wants to speak of justice. It also mentions economic and social rights – later explicited in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – and made possible an emerging third generation of solidarity rights.

Human rights however are individual rights and totally ignore human relationships and social life. They ignore the common good. Surely, economic, social and cultural rights can be seen as collective rights. As has been explained by Castel25, social security was able to organize collective funds with the contributions of workers. These collective funds were a solidarity mechanism for all those who needed it. It was the worker’s version of ‘ownership’ which at the time, the end of the 19th century, was necessary in order to be recognized as a citizen. Since workers had no property and were not owners, they were not citizens. Only by creating their collective insurance funds were they able to build their assets, to construct their rights and become fully-fledged citizens. Furthermore, there is a ‘third generation’ of rights – the right to development and to a healthy environment … – which are also called ‘solidarity rights’ because they take into account the behaviour and inter-relationships of individuals. However, their recognition as ‘human rights’ is still very controversial. Even the second generation is contested by liberals who claim they inevitably destroy the ‘real’ – negative – rights of freedom. Hayek spoke of the ‘mirage’ of social justice and the ‘road to serfdom’26. In this conception of human rights, individual freedom prevails and the common good is totally ignored.

Flahaut 27, philosopher and anthropologist, describes how these human rights came about and how their foundation is in fact seriously flawed. On the one hand, they are based on universal moral principles. On the other hand, they are founded on a western conception of natural law, on the belief that humans exist by nature – or are created by God -, for and by themselves and that these individuals have created society. They decided to make a ‘social contract’ in order to satisfy their material needs. In this vision, individuals precede society and in modernity, individuals can even live without society (see Robinson Crusoe).

Modernity also cleared the way for liberal economics. According to this discourse, individuals do not participate in the construction of the common good but are said to pursue their own interests. These interests are supposed to coexist harmoniously with the interests of others, re the ‘private vices and public virtues’ of Mandeville. The pursuit of individual interests will automatically lead to a common good. In fact, the common good becomes the free market.

This is an unsustainable myth, says Flahaut. The problem is that human rights do not tell us anything on how morality and natural law relate to each other. How do we have to define social relationships and intersubjectivity? What does link individuals to each other? Can the social contract be exterior to what constitutes the individual?

The point is, according to Flahaut, that our social life is so much more than a practical arrangement in order to satisfy our material needs, it is an end in itself, because society in fact precedes the individual. He supports his thinking with the results of research in primatology, paleoanthropology and the psychology of development. It allows him to turn the reasoning around and to state that the individual cannot exist without society. The individual emerges from society, it emerges from the bonds which link people together and which link each of us to the whole of society. Social relations are not purely contractual but are constitutive of each one’s individuality.

By only seeing individuals and interests28, needs take the place of desire, of the libido dominandi, of amour propre29 and we seem to forget what Montesquieu has told us: power leads to abuse of power. Interests were also conceived of as being ‘natural’, as coming from individuals ‘as they are’. They are supposed to kill destructive ‘passions’. But interests have become so overwhelming that we forgot about really existing other human feelings30. The market fundamentalism we are witnessing today does not produce a common good, does not even produce a common interest and does certainly not produce society or social life.

What has to be tackled then is this biased view on individualism and interests, on human rights preceding social life, a view which ignores that society precedes the individual and that social life is necessary in order for the individual to emerge.

Social relationships are constitutive of the individual and this implies that rights and duties are inseparable, rights are not prior to duties, let alone to social life. Solidarity is so much more than practical and useful. It becomes justified by the fact that ‘existing’ can only be the result of our relationships to others. Human rights conceived of exclusively as individual rights and ignoring human relations even endanger politics by putting individuals and morality above politics. They do not define social relationships and inter-subjectivity. They make it impossible to think of how each being is questioned in relation to something in social life.

So that which we have in common, that which is a common good and which is what makes us individuals is precisely social life. Society then becomes an end in itself.

Neoliberalism threatens this ‘society’ and is indeed killing people because atomized individuals cannot survive. The problem with capitalism is its anthropology. The individual is not self-sufficient and contrary to what Hayek said, the common good is a concrete objective value. The threats against society caused by destroying relationships, communities and bonds, by promoting competitiveness, flexibility and the struggle for life are extremely dangerous. This is precisely what is happening today to the ‘precariat’, non-citizens ‘freed’ from all commitments and all bonds31. The welfare of the collectivity does not coincide with the welfare of individuals, and neoliberalism finally kills both.

This is why not only individuals but also society has to be protected, materially and immaterially, in the first place by recognizing the primordial role of social life as a condition for the emergence of individuals.

That is why we need a new and broad concept of social protection, which will encompass these material and immaterial needs. It will have to encompass but also go beyond individual rights, it will have to stress the collective rights and responsibilities, stress the things which we share, stress our interdependency and stress the links with nature of which we are part. It should imply the third generation of human solidarity rights.

Human rights then certainly do not have to be abandoned, but they will have to be embedded in a broader approach that makes a link with our social relationships and makes room for collective and solidarity rights.

In short, social protection will have to be structurally reformed and will have to contribute to the common good. It will consist of different elements, which will have to be democratically decided on by societies, while at the same time implying a global redistribution of incomes and resources. It will have to preserve social life and social relationships, as well as take into account climate justice.

Re-defining Social Protection

In the past, the main objective of social protection was guaranteeing income. Later, in Europe, it became ‘making work pay’. To-day, social policies are subordinated to economic freedoms and are meant to promote growth. I suggest the aim of social protection now becomes:

  • To preserve society and social relationships
  • to avoid conflicts and make relationships among people and with nature as harmonious as possible
  • to provide for economic and social security and a fair share of incomes and resources, leading to an adequate standard of living.

How then should our welfare states be transformed in order to pursue these objectives and take into account the requirements of environmental justice in order to contribute to the common good?

A first proposal can be to integrate the social justice agenda into the new paradigm for a ‘Common Good of Humanity’, as proposed by François Houtart32. This now consists of four dimensions:

  • Re-defining the relation with nature: from exploitation to respect for it as a source of life
  • Re-directing the production of life’s necessities – prioritizing use value over exchange value
  • Re-organizing collective life through the generalization of democracy in social relations and institutions
  • Institute interculturality while building the Universal Common Good

Secondly, it should be clear that no political, economic, social or ecological change is possible without a change in power relations. Whatever proposals are made, they will always require political and social struggle in order to make change possible.

Thirdly, talking about a social justice agenda always raises the question of its affordability. In wealthy Northern states this can only be a matter of political will, since many economic resources can be mobilized through fiscal changes or taxes. In poorer Southern states tax systems should in the first place be strengthened, capital flight should be stopped and a global solidarity redistributive system can help to meet the needs.

Finally, one difficult point has to be cleared. Whether or not people promote policies of ‘de-growth’, it should be clear that the pursuit of economic growth, especially in the North, has reached its limits. How to guarantee the funding of solid social policies – implying insurance and redistribution – if there is no or very limited growth? Global wealth today certainly is sufficient to fund a global welfare system, though it is far from clear that is the way we should go. The question of growth – which, where and how – will certainly have to be examined in the framework of the transformative process. It should be clear though that we need a set of new indicators – beyond GDP – in order to get a better picture of what we produce and how this relates to emissions, resources and welfare.

What any social justice agenda is about is the protection of society as such, of all members of society against socially destructive markets33, against the life cycle risks and against climate change consequences. It should be a universal agenda, even if organized at the national level – we are not talking of a global system – in order to equalize opportunities and risks.

The social justice agenda has to complete the human rights agenda, putting civil, political, social, economic, cultural and environmental and other solidarity rights at the same level, but also considering social, economic and cultural rights as collective rights, to be completed with a right to a clean and safe environment and a fair share of the planet’s resources. It is concerned with health, education and most of all security. It is about doing away with the fear of want, the anxiety of losing a job or of getting ill. It is a collective agenda, of indeed anonymous solidarity, a condition of universalism. Social protection should be about the production and the re-production of society. And as was stressed by Sen and Anand34, it would be a gross violation of the universalist principle if we were to be obsessed about intergenerational equity without at the same time seizing the problem of intragenerationality.

Proposals for a new social justice agenda

This first attempt to design a social justice agenda taking into account the requirements of climate justice, will have to be limited to some basic principles and suggestions. They will have to be completed, amended and corrected.

What the preceding reflections lead to is an enlarged universal social protection system, combining individual and collective rights, material and immaterial needs, going beyond poverty reduction but also tackling inequality and sustaining universalism, State guaranteed, while reserving a crucial role for participating and empowered citizens. It is necessarily transformative. It can consist of:

  • A contributive social insurance covering workers and concerning labour accidents, pensions, health care, income loss…
  • A tax-based non-contributive mechanism for people in the precariat or not participating in paid work, with more or less the same elements
  • Contributive and tax based insurance mechanisms to protect people from the consequences of natural catastrophes (floods and droughts, earthquakes, failed harvests, etc.)
  • A series of public services, paid out of progressive tax systems, such as health care, education, public transport, water, clean power, housing …
  • Regulation of paid and non-paid work in terms of working hours, remuneration, protection of health and safety, collective bargaining, etc.
  • Rules and solidarity mechanisms to take into account the limits of Planet Earth: sharing and redistributing of resources like water, seeds, land and forests
  • Rules for community solidarity in order to avoid exclusion and/or abuse.

In this context, some specific points have to be stressed:

  • When social protection has to preserve society and social relationships, it is obvious it can never coexist with poverty – people not having enough to satisfy their basic needs cannot be participatory members of society. It means poverty will have to be banned, be declared illegal and definitely disappear from this world.
  • At the heart of this project is redistribution, not only of incomes but also of resources, risks and opportunities. This includes time, power, commodities, transport, energy, etc.
  • Also at the heart of this project is care, for oneself, for others, for society and for nature.
  • The distinction between productive and re-productive work will have to disappear.
  • Health care is extremely important in order to avoid environment related diseases. It should therefore become much more preventive and take into account local knowledges.
  • Reproductive rights are also extremely important in order to empower women and recognize the role they play in preserving social life and the environment.
  • Climate change will inevitably provoke new migratory flows which will have to be better regulated in order to protect migrants who should have equal rights everywhere.
  • In order to protect vulnerable people and in order to save energy and make houses resilient to natural catastrophes better organized collective services – most of all ecological city planning – have to be set up.
  • In order to improve self-sufficiency and make locally produced goods affordable the right to land and agriculture is of utmost importance.
  • Specific attention should be paid to humanitarian rights. What will have to stop is the shameful beggar policy each time a natural catastrophe happens. It should be clear that people have rights and that their survival and their well-being cannot depend on the willingness or unwillingness of wealthy citizens to pay for help.

This being said, humanitarian interventions should be avoided as much as possible, since, however well-intentioned they may be, they have rarely helped to solve the political problems that always exist. Local populations are not powerless and should be enabled to do what they can, whereas external interventions always weaken local populations and weaken political accountability. Pure humanitarianism does not exist and all too often geopolitical and economic interests play a major role.35 A global fund to unconditionally help financially and materially in every case of natural catastrophe can be a feasible solution. People’s lives and livelihoods should neither depend on charity, nor on political or economic benevolence. Precisely in times of catastrophes, social life plays an extremely important role.

  • Rules for the organization of community solidarity are necessary in order to avoid exclusion and arbitrariness, especially in order to protect vulnerable groups such as women and sexual minorities.
  • The role of social partners remains very important in order to defend the changed power relations and to continuously defend the social protection of all societies and all people.
  • This is an ambitious agenda that does not have to start from scratch. The proposed ‘social protection floor’ from the ILO in its two-dimensional strategy – linked to universal social security – is an excellent starting point.

A transformative process

To avoid misunderstandings it has to be stressed first of all that no social agenda will be able to encompass all necessary political, economic or physical changes that climate justice requires. It is not via the social agenda that neo-liberalism or climate change can be undone, but rather the reverse. The current economic logics will have to be abandoned in order to introduce a better social justice and a climate justice agenda. It is not the social justice agenda which will lead to a drastic reduction of CO2 emission levels. It will only be able to contribute to it via price systems or other incentives, but most of all via a new paradigm for our collective life on earth. The new social justice agenda can only become reality within a transformed economic system, a transformed monetary system and a democratized political system, objectives to which it can contribute precisely by protecting people. A new economic system will have to stop all unsustainable production and consumption patterns and re-think development models in the North as well as in the South. What we need, then, is a series of parallel processes of change.

The new social protection paradigm cannot come about overnight. It will be the result of many and long struggles alongside other and parallel struggles for another economy and society and for another world. These different struggles and processes will have to strengthen one another, since no one can come about without the others. It is not acceptable to postpone one while waiting for the other.

A first parallel process concerns democracy, participation and empowerment of citizens. Social protection cannot be imposed without directly being articulated to the real needs of people. Promoting a broad social protection then means promoting active social citizenship.

Active citizens will have to reclaim the state to guarantee their rights. Even if many components of the new social protection will have to be arranged at the local level, states are needed to respect, see to the implementation and guarantee the rights of all people.

States will also have to intervene in the funding of social protection, together with social partners. Solid tax systems are a crucial element, as well as capital controls and transparency.

The transformative process is also linked to international relations. In the first place for organizing solid redistributive systems instead of the fragmented and geopolitically oriented so-called development cooperation. Secondly, redistribution of all resources involves a pluralistic multipolar world and a democratization of the UN system. The self-determination and sovereignty of peoples will have to be strengthened and confirmed, though they should also be redefined in view of the equal rights of all people to resources.

Transformative social protection cannot come about within the current financial and economic system. First of all, a major reform of the monetary system and policies will have to be looked at. Secondly, international trade will also have to be re-designed in order to preserve the environment and in order to guarantee equal rights to all resources. Productive systems will have to be re-arranged accordingly.

At the level of societies, social protection has a more direct impact. It will stop the impoverishment processes and the growing inequality. In this way, it will make an end to dualized societies with a small and wealthy top class facing a majority of poor.

This social protection is incompatible with neoliberal policies in that it wants a strong and integrative state, less inequality, decommodified public services and is based on domestic and international redistribution of incomes and resources.

Finally, it should be clear these changes can never be imposed on people but will have to be built from the local level, with all people, up to the global level and international organizations. It this way it contributes to the coming about of another democratic world.


Seen in such a broad way, intrinsically linked to change at the level of society and of the economy as well as of international relations, transformative and universal social protection systems go beyond socialism or capitalism. They come nearer to the concept of ‘buen vivir’ (the good life) as this is being constructed in some countries of Latin America. It requires not a rejection but a revised and improved concept of modernity.

Transformative social protection policies will necessarily have to be universal, in order to play the role that is expected from them. They will allow people to contribute to a common good that requires a new economic and political agenda as well as cultural change. In this way they can become truly sustainable and contribute to social and climate justice.

A universal transformative social justice agenda within the framework of climate justice is in essence a social investment policy. However, this should not be understood in its neoliberal sense – investing in the productivity of people – but as investing in society and social relationships, in a justice system which will allow people to survive in full awareness of their interdependence and of their common limited planet.

1 World Commission on Environment and Development, Our common future, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1987.

2 World Bank, World Development Reports, 1992 and 2003, Washington, The World Bank.

3 This does not imply acceptance of all activist arguments on development however. Development has been – especially in the UN discourse – much more than economic growth and the earlier documents on economic and social development, as well as on the ‘Unified approach’ of the 1970s, remain very interesting reading.

4 First National People of Colour Environmental Leadership Summit, Washington, 24-27/10/1991, quoted in Canovas, J., La nécessité d’une nouvelle conception de la responsabilité au service de l’en-commun, Thèse soutenue à l’Université de Bourgogne, 2012, p. 401.

5 UNDP, Human Development Report 2011, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2011, p. 5.

6 For a more complete analysis of this discourse, see Mestrum, F., Poverty Reduction and Sustainable Development, Environment, Development and Sustainability 541-61, 2003.

7 United Nations, The future we want, Zero Draft on Outcome Document for the UN Conference on Sustainable Development, 2012.

8 World Bank, World Development Report, Washington, The World Bank, 2003, p. 14.

9 Id., p. 184.

10 Id., p. xx.

11 Meadows, D. et al., Rapport van de Club van Rome. De grenzen aan de groei, Antwerpen, Het Spectrum, 1972.

12 The UN did take into account social problems but never talked about ‘poverty’ until the 1970s. The solution to social problems was ‘development’ and not ‘poverty reduction’. The World Bank put ‘poverty’ on the agenda at the beginning of the 1970s, though without any success. It did succeed in 1990 after the publication of a first major poverty report and one decade of ‘Structural Adjustment’ policies.

13 See e.g. United Nations, Declaration on social progress and development, Resolution G.A. 2542 (XXIV), 11 December 1969.

14 Adésina, J.O., “In search of Inclusive Development” in Adesina, J.O. (ed.), Social Policy in Sub-Saharan African Context, Geneva, UNRISD, 2007.

15 ILO, Social protection floors for social justice and a fair globalization, International Labour Conference, 101st Session, 2012, Geneva, ILO, 2012.

16 UNRISD, Combating Poverty and Inequality, Geneva, UNRISD, 2010; United Nations, Re-Thinking Poverty, Report on the World Social Situation 2010, New York, United Nations, 2010; United Nations, World Economic and Social Survey 2010, New York, United Nations, 2010; CEPAL, Protección social inclusiva en América latina, Santiago, CEPAL, 2011.

17 World Bank, World Development Reports 2011 and 2012, Washington.

18 For analysis of the ILO social protection Floor, see Mestrum, F. Global Social Protection: Beyond Poverty Reduction?

19 Houtart, F., From ‘Common Goods’ to the Common Good of Humanity, Berlin, Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, 2011,

20 See e.g. Latouche, S., La planète des naufragés. Essai sur l’après-développement, Paris, La Découverte, 1991 ; Rahnema, M., Quand la misère chasse la pauvreté, Paris, Fayard, 2003.

21 Coote, A. and Franklin, J., Transforming welfare: new economics, new labour and the new Tories, s.d., s.l.

22 Durkheim, E., De la division sociale du travail, Paris, PUF, 1973 [1893].

23 Latour, B., Nous n’avons jamais été modernes, Paris, La Découverte, 1997.

24 Standing, G., The Precariat. The new dangerous class, London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2011/

25 Castel, R., Les metamorphoses de la question sociale, Paris, Fayard, 1995.

26 Hayek, F. von, The Road to Serfdom, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1976, [1944].

27 Flahaut, F., Où est passé le bien commun ?, Paris, Mille et une nuits, 2011.

28 Hirschmann, O.A., Les passions et les intérêts, Justifications politiques du capitalisme avant son apogée, Paris, PUF, 1980.

29 Flahaut, F., op. cit.

30 Hirschmann, O.A., op. cit.

31 Standing, G., op. cit.

32 Houtart, F., op. cit.

33 Polanyi, K. The Great Transformation, Boston, Beacon Press, 1957.

34 UNDP, Human Development Report 2011, op. cit., Overview.

35 De Waal, A., Famine Crimes. Politics and the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa, Oxford, African Rights and The International African Institute, 1997.

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