Environment and Welfare: Towards a Green Social Policy, by Tony Fitzpatrick and Michael Cahill (eds.)

Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 2002, xii + 226 pp., hb., 0 333 91984 X, £45.00. Order this book

The editors’ introduction debates the meaning of ‘sustainability’ and posits three possible ways in which demands and resources can be more evenly matched: “The first way (weak sustainability) is to expand the stock of resources. This can be done by replacing renewable resources, by substituting for non-renewable ones and by searching for technological solutions to depletion and pollution. A second way (strong sustainability) is to revise the demands that we make on the world so that, for instance we consume far less. So, rather than adapting the world to suit ourselves we adapt ourselves to meet the finitude of nature. The third way (moderate sustainability) is to combine elements of those two approaches. Each of these implies a subtly different conception of sustainability” (p.3). The question follows: Are existing welfare systems compatible with any of these definitions ? – for current welfare systems are based on the notion of economic growth and on productivist policies, and they themselves contribute to unsustainability; and the editors identify welfare systems’ relationship to wage-earning as an important part of the problem. As Fitzpatrick and Cahill conclude: “Welfare states have developed in concert with an employment society” (p.9).

The following chapters offer a variety of perspectives on the relationship between ecological concerns and economic and welfare systems and their possible reform. John Barry suggests that the ethical basis for a sustainable society is already in place, and that what we need to do is put it into practice; Matthew Humphrey describes ‘Green ideology’ as “a full fledged, independent ideology” (p.59) with distinctive practical outcomes – such as a Basic Income; Michael Cahill stresses the importance of the local; Tim Jackson asks how we might get from where we are now to a more sustainable social policy without doing new damage along the way – for, whilst a recession would result in fewer natural resources being consumed, it would also cause social damage; Meg Huby concentrates on public utilities and government’s role in her discussion of the sustainable use of resources; Colin Williams discusses Local Exchange and Trading Systems (LETS) and the social economy in general; and Adrian Little discusses a possible conflict between the rights-and-responsibilities argument for working time reductions and the responsibility-to-future-generations perspective of Green ideology.

Tony Fitzpatrick’s first contribution is a more theoretical chapter on ecosocial welfare as a thought-experiment which goes beyond liberal democracy; his second is a thorough discussion of a Citizen’s Income (called here a Basic Income). In many ways this is a summary of his excellent Freedom and Security: An Introduction to the Basic Income Debate (London: Macmillan 1999), but it is constructed around the reasons which Greens might offer for either supporting or opposing a Basic Income – for instance: a Basic Income “guarantees a minimum income for all and challenges the employment ethic, but it also seems to depend upon the ecologically very damaging activities to which Greens object” (p.150). The chapter concludes with a call for Greens to mobilise behind short-term aims as well as long-term ones, and recommends that one of those short-term aims should be a Citizen’s Income.

The book’s final chapter is by James Robertson, who recommends eco-taxation as a means of funding a Citizen’s Income, and recommends both eco-taxation and a Citizen’s Income as means towards a more sustainable society.

This is a thought-provoking book, and should be read by anyone interested in a sustainable society – for in fact it is more about that than it is about welfare systems. The fact that a Citizen’s Income is the subject-matter of one chapter and is given a thorough airing in three others speaks for itself. If the book’s contributors had stuck more firmly to their brief of relating the environment to welfare, then we would have had a book at the heart of which would have been a strong argument for the Citizen’s Income route to benefits reform.