A sustainable economy act

We live in the age of environmental breakdown. Destruction of the natural world has reached a critical phase. Crucially, this isn’t isolated to climate breakdown. Vast swathes of land are being lost to soil depletion, over-fertilisation is polluting rivers and oceans, and animal populations are collapsing as the sixth mass extinction tears across the world. Changes in one part of the natural world impact another. Take the Amazon; its destruction drives species extinction in Brazil and contributes to climate breakdown by felling trees that absorb greenhouse gas emissions. In turn, an overheating planet kills the Amazon’s animals and trees, driving a vicious circle. All is connected. 

A pressing implication of this litany of catastrophe is that the natural world is being pushed toward ‘tipping points’, after which it could change rapidly and destructively, a cascade of environmental collapse as the delicate web of life comes apart. The consequences of environmental breakdown are already testing societies to destruction and will drive greater economic instability, famine, large-scale involuntary migration, and war. The historical disregard of environmental considerations has been a catastrophic mistake. 

Environmental breakdown is driven by the prevailing economic model: the rules that govern economic activity and the behaviours and dynamics that result. Institutional arrangements underpinning market dynamics are some of the most powerful forces driving destruction. In 2017, around US$1 trillion was invested in fossil fuels. This was partly the fault of short-termist decision-making encouraged by company law and valuation methods that neglect the environmental impact of investments. In turn, these arrangements are determined by the actions of policymakers in government, central banks and across the legal system. Lobbying and well-funded networks of think tanks and politicians keep the neoliberal dream alive, gifting us the living nightmare of environmental breakdown. 

Economic progress is almost exclusively measured in terms of gross domestic product (GDP), a uniquely poor measure that helps perpetuate the myth that economic growth necessarily leads to higher levels of social, economic and environmental wellbeing. Some evidence suggests that it may not be possible to ‘decouple’ economic growth, as currently measured, from environmental degradation in the time remaining or even at all. 

Overall, there is no country in the world that provides high social outcomes without destroying the natural preconditions upon which societies depend; that is, no country is a truly ‘developed nation’. What’s more, the consequences of environmental breakdown fall hardest on those most vulnerable to its effects and least responsible for the problem, both within and across countries. In the case of climate breakdown alone, wealthy nations have made the greatest contribution to emissions and are set to use a large proportion of the remaining carbon resources, condemning their former colonies to cascading destruction. 

In response, we urgently need to rebuild our societies, to make them: 

  • sustainable and just: bringing the economy to within environmentally sustainable limits while tackling inequalities and injustice and providing a genuinely high quality of life to all. 
  • prepared: Increased levels of resilience to the impacts of environmental breakdown, covering all areas of society. Things will get worse and we need to be better prepared. 

This is what a Green New Deal seeks to do, mobilising the resources of government and wider society to slow environmental breakdown and ameliorate injustice. We need a Green New Deal and we need it yesterday. But there are good and bad Green New Deals. Without consideration of the full picture of environmental breakdown, it is all too easy to imagine a scenario in which a globally-coordinated investment programme rapidly decarbonised nations across the world, but, in the process, sped up other environmental destruction, depleting the remaining fertile land and pushing more species to extinction. 

So the first step is to ensure we have a clear road map for avoiding the worst of environmental breakdown and acting on injustice. This can be done by passing a Sustainable and Just Economy Act (SJEA). The SJEA would mandate ‘targets’ for 

the rapid reduction of a full range of environmental impacts and restoration of natural systems as well as those for improving social and economic wellbeing. Environmentally, the UK already does this in the case of climate breakdown, with its Climate Change Act and the  new target of net-zero decarbonisation, which effectively places a greenhouse gas constraint on the economy. It is vital that this constraint is extended to cover all elements of environmental breakdown and explicitly linked to action to improve social and economic outcomes. Crucially, targets should encompass the environmental impact of goods and services imported to the UK; we can no longer export environmental destruction abroad. 

The SEA should be overseen by two independent bodies: one to advise and another to enforce. The advisory body – potentially called the Committee on Sustainability and Justice – should be an independent, expert public body. It should advise the government on environmental breakdown, its causes and extent, long- term goals and targets, give policy advice on how to achieve these objectives while maximising social and economic justice, and assess potential and planned policies, including the impact of domestic sustainability action on ecosystems and societies around the world. The enforcement body should be independent from the Committee on Sustainability and Justice and have powers to hold the whole of government to account on meeting the legally-binding targets of the SJEA. 

Most importantly, the Sustainable and Just Economy Act charts a course towards a new idea of abundance, allowing us to graduate from the current fixation on ‘greening’ an economic model that drives extreme inequality, mental and physical ill health and literally destroying the world. A more sustainable world can be a healthier, fairer world. Many of the other ideas in this booklet can help us get there. 

This essay was originally published as a chapter in the New Economy Starter Pack published by Autonomy.