Climate change and the new economy

By Prof Bronwen Morgan, Professor of Socio-Legal Studies (University of Bristol Law School).*

57038b77a959739f43138d18_Issue13Spring2016As 2016 lengthens its stride, the ambivalent euphoria of the Paris agreements on climate change gives way to a sense of ‘where to from here?’ While the technicalities of the Kyoto Protocol were never easy fodder for inspiring collective action, the new terrain is arguably even more forbidding on that score. Each country will submit Nationally Determined Contributions, a welter of sector-specific plans and measures which will be assessed, monitored, analysed and reviewed by carbon management professionals via procedures still being fought over. This is, from the perspective of global climate treaty processes, a ‘bottom-up’ approach to responding to climate change.

What if, instead, we were to turn our collective attention to a very different conception of ‘bottom-up’, a grass-roots process of building a new economy as a response to climate change? Not the new economy of the tech start-up world, itself an extension of arguably over-optimistic hopes that the economy-as-usual can, with the help of science and technology, provide products or processes that will decouple growth and carbon emissions. No, the ‘new’ here is more about the way ‘economy’, ‘market’ and ‘exchange’ can be re-imagined so that they move away from the extractive processes that damage our ecology. Innovation is socio-ecological more than technological, internalising a more generative relationship to the resource base upon which production and consumption depend.

The new economy from this perspective is captured by the sprawling and energetic webs depicted by The Real Economy Lab project, described inclusively as ‘the caring economy, the sharing economy, the provisioning economy, the restorative economy, the regenerative economy, the sustaining economy, the collaborative economy, the solidarity economy, the steady-state economy, the gift economy, the resilient economy, the participatory economy’. These overlapping visions are at the heart of my current research on the links between climate change, activism and social enterprise, as well as an important aspect of the Law School’s Centre for Law and Enterprise directed by Nina Boeger. I have been conducting the research for this project in both the UK and Australia under an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship, and have engaged a wide range of diverse partners from outside academia in public events both in Bristol and in Sydney. Two highly relevant public conferences will be held soon taking this work forward: Shaping the Corporate Landscape in Bristol in June 2016, and Building the New Economy in Sydney in August 2016.

What are the traits of this kind of new economy that are distinctively relevant to the climate change challenge? Three stand out.

Mutuality and reciprocity is the first. From commons-based conceptions of governance, to cooperative forms of enterprise, to the bricolage of gift economies sewn into the fabric of many new economy initiatives, interdependence takes priority over extractive dominance. And this helps to temper the pace of extraction – for slowing down is the second trait, building forms of exchange and production that focus on relational outcomes, including a heightened sensitivity to our relation to the non-human world.

Third and finally is the process of building both mutuality and slowing down into the architecture of formal rules and flows of money that shape economic life, all the way from the tentative reformism of initiatives like the benefit corporation through to  the much more systemically challenging commitment to degrowth.

A sceptic might worry that calling for this kind of new economy as a response to climate change is but a cri de coeur, fated to be too little, too late and insufficiently powerful – a sentiment once captured somewhat sardonically in the observation that  ‘Goldman Sachs doesn’t care about your chickens’. To this, we could respond by pointing, via an observation of climate change processes themselves, to tipping points, the knowledge that sometimes social and political processes, like geological ones, unleash a sudden and intense flood of effects.

This is one way of understanding what the women’s movement did over its history. This powerful social movement looked deceptively understated during the several decades after the first wave of suffragette activism. Yet this period of seemingly peripheral and disconnected pockets of activity erupted in the 1970s in second-wave feminism. Perhaps something akin to a new wave of ecosocial environmentalism is where the new economy is headed?

Whether or not a tipping point is imminent, there is much potential for the new economy to contribute to climate change responses. Its experiments and directions are much more viscerally connected to meaningful livelihoods, sociality, community and positive visions than the global climate change treaty processes and their attendant effects. These processes remain very important, and as much as anything, a symbol of collective commitment at a planetary level.

But to turn them into a response that makes a difference ‘all the way down’ will require, as William Connolly argues in his book on The Fragility of Things, a delicate ability to both slow down and speed up simultaneously – to slow down enough to change our habits, perceptions and expectations at an everyday level, yet speed up democratic activism that seeks to change public rules, state priorities and economic practices.

The new economy provides spaces that enable both those processes. It is a fertile site for building bridges between its emerging experiments and the global climate change architecture. Those links are well worth our collective energy, attention and imagination.

* For more about Prof Morgan’s recent research, you can read B Morgan and D Kuch, ‘Radical Transactionalism: Legal Consciousness, Diverse Economies and The Sharing Economy‘ (2015) 42(4) Journal of Law and Society 556-587. A previous version of this post appeared in the magazine Stir to Action published in Bridport and available in hard copy locally in Bristol.


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