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The Politics of Bread and Circuses: A Trade-off Between Prosperity and Sustainability

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By Alice Palmer

· 5 min read

The road to sustainability is paved with numerous obstacles, including uncertainty in scientific and technological predictions, the power of national sovereignty, the influence of large corporations, and the vast disparities in wealth that exist between countries. People, however, are also simply afraid of tackling global warming because the changes required to effectively do so pose a threat to the idea of capitalist prosperity.

Environmentalism aligns itself with specific political cleavages. Andrew Dobson, British professor of Politics, Political Theory and Environmental Politics, differentiates two hypothetical world-zones: global North and global South. This differentiation reflects the way the latter's experience global warming. This article will predominantly focus on discussing what Dobson denominates as global North, which is represented by developed countries where capitalism is historically the most prominent economic and political system in practice.

In fact, as American political scientist Ronald Inglehart points out, climate change is a "post-materialistic priority". What he means with this sentence is that such matter tends to be prioritised by countries and people who do not face directly these so-called "materialistic" issues, as for example the provision of basic health and housing. The majority of developing countries econmpassed by the "global South", including Madagascar, Yemen and South Sudan, are suffering the immediate consequences of climate change without having caused much of it themselves.

In the "global North", the current trend dictates that conservative parties tend to gravitate away from environmental issues. British Conservative Party Politician and former Prime Minister David Cameron once commented "all that green crap", with regards to environmental taxing proposals. More drastically in the USA, the biggest polluter and most ineffective actor in addressing climate change, the majority of Republicans go so far as to deny the negative impact of human activity on environmental decline altogether.

In an effort to compartmentalise the global emergency that is climate change, governments worldwide have designated departments to environmental concerns, making it far easier for them to be cast aside and considered separate. However, environmental problems are interrelated both with one another and with other policy issues, thus if we seek to create change, as we probably should, environmental consciousness must be an angle from which we seek to make all political and economic decisions about our countries and corporations. We, therefore, cannot draw up political aims with the ultimate goal of prosperity without taking into consideration their environmental implications.

Yet, societies of the "global North" are currently far too focused on providing for the needs or rather wants, of the wealthy. American President Donald Trump's homophobia, xenophobia, sexism and denial with regards to climate change were written off simply because under his administration, he created jobs and minimally increased GDP. Then what will happen in the next 25 years following his administration, during which scientists predict we shall commence irreversible, cataclysmic environmental collapse? Trump among other worlds leaders, was merely temporarily appeasing the American people - as Roman poet juvenal would say, providing them with food and entertainment: panem et circenses. Ecological modernization has been a popular movement amongst the increasingly popular European Green Parties, aiming to find a compromise between the environmentally and economically oriented. Green Parties, aiming to find a compromise between the environmentally and economically oriented.

It seems unlikely that, as a society, we can maintain our expectations of industrial production whilst simultaneously solving the climate change crisis.

It recognises the presence of environmental issues and argues that they can be solved without radical changes in our habits. Rather, it suggests that problems could be solved by a more effective application of technology, increasing the efficiency of industrial production systems by a Factor X, thereby reducing environmental collateral. However, we can only relatively decouple environmental impact and economic output. While with ecological modernization we can reduce impact per unit of production, we are still increasing the overall total impact on the planet.

For absolute decoupling to take place, efficiency gains would have to be made faster than output growth. Scientists have found very little evidence that this could ever happen, so it seems unlikely that, as a society, we can maintain our expectations of industrial production whilst simultaneously solving the climate change crisis. To put it simply, constant economic growth requires constant growth in input. As a numbered people on a single earth with finite resources we cannot continue to increase conomic growth. It is both logically and practically impossible.

It is, as a consequence, worthless for politicians to declare climate change "one of" the policy priorities and inefficient for voters to consider themselves satisfied with such declarations - satisfied with being fed and entertained. The majority - more than half - of carbon emissions from fossil fuels have entered the atmosphere in the last 25 to 30 years; that is in the period in which global warming was understood and governments were supposedly fighting it. Promises of environmental protection cannot and will not go hand in hand with accelerating economic growth. But we do not need to be so selfless as to shift our focus away from the prosperity of our species. Rather, we must re-evaluate our view of prosperity in our society.

Fufillling short-term goals should not be what politicians strive to do nor what makes them popular candidates amongst voters. Prosperity should mean sustainability, it should look long-term. The two aims are synonymous with each other: if we want to continue existing as a species, prospersouly, there must be a a radical shift in our priorities. The ultimate political and social aim of prosperity should first and foremost encourage individuals to think outside of themselves enough to include the survival of our species as a whole both North and South.

Future Thought Leaders is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of rising Energy & Sustainability writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem. This article was also published as part of the 20th Edition of KCL Dialogue.

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About the author

Alice Palmer is currently a young paralegal at Blaser Mills Law. Previously she has been awarded with an LLM in Law and Legal Practice by BPP and a bachelor's in PPE by King's College London. She has also volunteered at multiple organizations and tutored for multiple years across her higher education and early career.

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