On 26th May at the University of East London, a launch event was held for the new themed issue of Critical Social Policy, on Social Justice, Social Policy, and the Environment. The launch event included authors from all papers in the themed issue, discussants, and keynote speakers Professors Ian Gough (LSE) and Susan Buckingham (Brunel). Around 45 people attended from across the country (and from Canada via video link). The sessions involved paper authors presenting key arguments from their papers, and a discussant responding, before audience questions.
One striking aspect of the event was its interdisciplinarity: as well as people who would primarily identify with ‘Social Policy’ as a discipline, there were economists, geographers, sociologists, media scholars, epidemiologists, and political scientists present. Despite differences of approach there were common concerns, including most importantly a concern to ensure that social and environmental agendas were not at odds. In the current context of Conservatism and cuts, it was an important reminder of how much social scientists can contribute to debates that are too often seen as technical rather than socio-political.
Key topics discussed at the launch included:
To what extent we can talk about ‘Global North’ and ‘Global South’ as coherent entities. While some participants felt the division to be a useful one highlighting continuing global inequalities , others pointed to the heterogeneity within the South (and North) in arguing for more differentiated categorisation.
How decarbonisation can be re-politicised and become a debate about what kind of low-carbon society is socially desirable. There was a feeling that carbon and ‘the environment’ was too often abstracted from its social context and used to impose potentially regressive policies.
Whether there is a ‘Big We’ affected by climate change. While some participants disagreed, others felt that constructing a universal subject affected by global warming would enable political collaboration and change.
Connections between climate change, class and class-based social movements. There was a lively debate about the class basis of ‘Climate Camp’ and the extent to which its protests had the potential to connect with class-based social agendas.
How to apply environmental justice frameworks to different contexts, including the UK flood risk context, and how to apply the frameworks to affected groups beyond the framework’s original focus (generally ‘race’ and to a lesser extent class).
What we understand as environmental activism. Participants pointed out the political implications (as well as limitations) of activities such as setting up local food schemes, comparing them to more spectacular forms of activism.
Tensions between values and organisational imperatives when setting up environmental initiatives; for example, wanting to reach excluded local communities against needing to break even financially, against the desire to promote environmental values.
How to measure quality of life in rural contexts; what does pollution mean in a non-urban context and can we use measures developed for quite different environments?
What we can learn from the Cuban experience of decarbonisation. Is the West about to undergo its own ‘Special Period’ (without oil) or was our ‘Special Period’ World War Two? How can we open up debate about possible different pathways to decarbonisation?
My only regret as organiser was that we did not have more time to discuss these issues, but conversations were started that will continue in print and at other events. Participants came from all stages of academic life (from undergraduate and postgraduate students to professors), demonstrating the strength of the field and hopefully, its ability to make visible critical social science perspectives on ‘the environment’.