Three: Challenges for social policy

Having explored the broad social dimensions of environmental issues we narrow our focus onto social policy – both as an academic subject and a set of government activities – beginning with the principal critiques of its assumptions and practices which have been offered by greens.

Obviously, much depends on which environmentalists we are talking about (see the Introduction, this volume; also Jordan, 2010: Chapter 5). In general terms, however, most would assent to some version of the following.

Environmentalists oppose social policies and welfare systems that are unsustainable. The basic idea is that a finite planet cannot support endless appropriations of its resources and unlimited contamination of its ecosystems. Some types of growth are less damaging than others but, for greens, only that growth which is consistent with, and preferably enhances, the coping capacity of the Earth is justifiable. Both ends of the political spectrum therefore stand accused. The Right treat rising material prosperity as the central justification for capitalism and free markets, the job of social policies being to assist markets by maintaining social order and enforcing the disciplines that unregulated markets require. Many on the Left have thought it best to champion social justice by emphasising a painless form of redistribution where basic needs are met by directing ever-higher levels of growth in appropriate directions, through horizontal redistribution and modest forms of vertical redistribution. In short, ‘productivism’ can be said to underpin all welfare regimes, whatever their political complexion. Another charge, therefore, is that social policies contribute to unsustainability. By perpetuating the ideologies of productivism, welfare systems help to fuel more unsustainable growth.

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