Why we need to 'mainstream' the environment

Natalie Bennett argues that the environment should be considered at the heart of all political and economic discussions and decisions – recognising how the consequences of climate change and environmental degradation impact all elements of life on Earth.

Port Arthur, Texas, under water in 2017 in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.
Port Arthur, Texas, under water in 2017 in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.

Wikimedia Commons

The environment and the consequences of climate change – such as extreme flooding as seen in Port Arthur, Texas, in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey in 2017 – must be central to any discussion on political economy, says Natalie Bennett.

Natalie Bennett

At a recent public discussion event hosted by Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute (SPERI), an audience member asked a journal editor why so many articles presented took no apparent account of climate change, despite it clearly impacting their topic.

He responded that one of the listed requirements of any journal article is to be “intellectually rigorous” – given the nature of the event, I had to stifle my will to heckle into a cough. By now it is clear that no thought about political economy can now be “intellectually rigorous” unless it considers climate change and all of the other ways in which we are butting right up against or exceeding the limits of this one fragile planet.

So I was pleased, when I attended the Political Studies Association (PSA) annual conference in Nottingham, to see that the ‘environmental politics’ strand was very prominent. I was speaking on one of the highlighted panels on that very topic, and the conference title, ‘(Un)sustainable politics in a changing world’, made clear reference to the state of our choked, poisoned planet.

Still it struck me that while the topic was being given prominence as a separate subject, it didn’t yet have a place at the heart of every discussion on every panel. But environmental politics and the consequences of climate change must be central to any conversation on political economy, from international trade to Brexit.

To get to where we want, and need, to get, we have to operate within the limits of this planet.

It reminded me of the mid-1990s, when I worked on women’s development issues – there was a great debate about whether to maintain women’s issues as a separate strand of activity, or to ‘mainstream’ it in every activity of organisations like the World Bank and the International Labour Organisation.

Gender mainstreaming’ is now the accepted intellectual approach, if something that far too often remains undelivered.

It struck me at the PSA conference that there is a clear parallel here, and an even stronger argument for mainstreaming the environment. Women are more than 50 per cent of the population; 100 per cent of us depend on the environment for our very existence, from Bill Gates to a newborn baby in rural Malawi.

The environment and the threat of its collapse matter to everyone from multi-billionaires to the poorest on this planet, in every corner of it, to everyone alive now and everyone who will be born in the future. And every political decision impacts on it – whether the voting system or Brexit.

So the question is: how do we ensure that this is taken into account in every aspect of political and daily life? “Consider the environment” is going to be a mystifying phrase to an academic, a policymaker or a politician who’s never given any thought to the fragile state of the world and how it must change their approach. (And yes, there are a great many of them about.)

My suggestion is to look to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs – also known as Agenda 2030 after the deadline for their achievement).

They cover major issues, from climate change and the state of our oceans to biodiversity and resource management, and are internationally agreed as a set of crucial, existential issues that have to be addressed.

The goals are far from perfect. As one of my fellow panellists at the PSA event pointed out, they still have entrenched in them a claim for the desirability of “growth” – perfectly reasonable for developing countries where many still may not live in a household with access to electricity, or have access to a paved road to take produce to market, but not in the Global North.

Environment and inequality closely linked

The SDGs are a decent starting point. And what’s crucial about them is that they also include goals for human life, for tackling inequality and poverty, for ensuring that baby in Malawi has access to education and clean drinking water.

While we trash this planet, we continue with our current politics and economics that are sentencing billions to a life of insecurity, fear and even hunger, including millions in Britain.

We also need to ‘mainstream’ inequality and poverty, for practical as well as moral reasons. There are enough resources on this planet for every human to have a decent life, and the environment to be restored to a far less parlous state, if we only share our finite and depleting resources out fairly.

Everything about how we treat our planet and arrange our societies has to change. And to get to where we want, and need, to get, we have to operate within the limits of this planet. That’s not politics, it’s physics, as fundamental as the need to consider gravity when walking along a cliff.

So if you’re an academic, a politician, a journalist, an ordinary person living your life, you have to be a systems thinker and mainstream environmental (and equality) considerations in everything you do. By doing that you can improve your life, and guarantee a future for us all.