How can socio-ecological transformation and cohesion succeed in times of crisis?
The past few years have been shaped by a large number of crises that humanity is confronted with at the same time. The climate crisis is just one of many – other factors include the pandemic, the loss of biodiversity and, most recently, the geopolitical energy crisis resulting from Russia’s brutal war of aggression against Ukraine. These crises not only condition and influence each other, but also give rise to additional conflicts in the course of overcoming them; there is also talk of a communication and responsibility crisis or a crisis of democracy and justice. In 2021, the term “global polycrisis” was coined in light of a new understanding of how all these conflicts are intertwined.
The crises are symptoms of the same problem over and over again: our unsustainable way of life, geared towards infinite growth, on a finite planet. The focus is on the socio-ecological crisis. After all, no country is currently succeeding in securing the basic needs of its inhabitants – let alone future generations – at a sustainable level of resource use that can be extended to all people worldwide. At the same time, social inequality is growing, as are global emissions and the use of resources and energy. As a result, we not only run the risk of missing the climate targets, the livelihoods of current and future generations are also threatened by exceeding further ecological limits and irreversible tipping points.
By definition, an unsustainable way of life cannot continue. Change and transformation are therefore as unavoidable as they are urgently needed. They happen “by design” or “by disaster”, i.e. through active action or doing nothing and “keep it up”. The associated cultural, socio-ecological or technical changes are summarized under the keyword of socio-ecological transformation. The transformation is seen as an answer to the twin problems of the “twin crisis of unjustice and biosphere” just described. This understanding of transformation has at least three implications:
First, it shows that the socio-ecological transformation should go hand in hand with a so-called “just transition”, understood as a far-reaching change towards a fairer future. This shows the ethical dimension of the current crisis: the (re)establishment of inter- and intra-generational justice as well as inter-regional environmental, climate and energy justice is imperative.
Second, it recognizes that the climate crisis is just one of many environmental and social crises associated with transcending planetary boundaries, and that environmental and social issues are intricately intertwined. On the one hand, compliance with ecological limits is necessary in order to ensure the basic supply of water, energy or education in a socially just manner and to enable life in dignity. On the other hand, social conflicts are evoked that influence and complicate the management of ecological crises.
Thirdly, it becomes clear that the crisis and change mode triggered by the polycrises does not end after a certain period of time, as the previous understanding of crisis implies. It is a new normal of crises that will exist as long as a just and secure future is not guaranteed. The English distinction between transformation – understood as a process of fundamental change – and transition – transition from one state to another – makes it clear: the transformation is open-ended and can lead to a desirable future. That’s optimistic.
Consequently, the socio-ecological transformation in the context of multiple crises aims to create a “safe and just space for humanity” in which a social minimum is ensured and an ecological maximum is not exceeded. In addition to all the urgency, there is a great opportunity here: The transformation to a desirable and just future can be steered – through active participation, i.e. “by design” instead of “by disaster”.
The target and limit values for such a future have long been laid down in treaties and agreements, such as the Sustainable Development Goals or the Paris Climate Agreement. 197 countries around the world have agreed to the latter, and the remaining global emissions budget must be derived from it. It is also clear that the way we produce, consume and transport must change. This affects not only our energy system, but also our economic and social system. We don’t have a knowledge problem. The implementation and ambitions are lacking, as shown by the decision of the Federal Constitutional Court in 2021, which resulted in an amendment to the Climate Protection Act.
Especially in times of acute crises, such as we had during the Covid-19 pandemic or as we are still experiencing during the current brutal war of aggression against Ukraine, the implementation of the socio-ecological transformation and climate policy goals must not give way to short-term crisis management . However, an acute crisis can also serve as a catalyst for positive change and acceleration of socio-ecological transformation. Cohesion and a policy that sticks together are crucial.
1. A policy that holds all the threads together in times of crisis
Crises can then become a catalyst for transformation if it is possible to design short-term measures in such a way that they are in line with long-term socio-ecological goals. It is crucial to create awareness that the crises are interrelated and cannot be viewed separately from the overarching socio-ecological crisis. It becomes clear that in the context of socio-ecological transformation only low-emission, sustainable technologies, energy and innovation are future-proof and economically competitive. The Covid-19 pandemic and the current geopolitical energy crisis illustrate this.
The primary goal during the Covid-19 pandemic was to save lives, causing the economy to partially grind to a halt. The challenge was therefore not only to stimulate the weakened economy again, but also to make it crisis-proof and future-proof. Companies and industries that have used the help from the economic stimulus package to change course instead of just keeping things going with fossil fuels and have invested in energy-efficient, renewable technologies and innovations are better off in the energy crisis. Because currently the energy-intensive industries are heavily burdened by the rising prices of fossil energies. Energy security and relief for households and the economy are rightly at the forefront of politics.
Politicians should provide incentives for investments in energy saving and in innovations that support transformation. Taking into account the climate protection goals and the remaining emissions budget, it becomes clear that an extension of the use of nuclear and coal energy and an oversized liquid gas infrastructure can neither help to reduce fossil dependencies nor make the economy future-proof and crisis-proof in the long term. A good energy policy is therefore also a good economic and industrial policy and supports crisis management and socio-ecological transformation.
2. A policy that holds society together
Since the socio-ecological transformation affects the economy and society as a whole and has social effects, it can be understood as a task for society as a whole. Solidarity and politics that hold society together are central to the success of the transformation, acute crisis management and functioning politics. In times of crisis and transformation, cohesion helps people work together instead of against each other on solutions and visions for a desirable future.
The socio-ecological crisis, especially the climate crisis, is accompanied by severe inequality and injustice. The injustice is that countries and communities that contributed least to the crisis are hit hardest by its effects, while having the fewest resources to deal with it. Added to this is social inequality, which according to the latest UNDESA World Social Report has increased by 70 percent worldwide compared to the time before the Covid 19 pandemic. This trend can also be observed in Germany and is being further intensified by the Covid 19 pandemic and the energy crisis. Households had to forego income due to short-time work and are now suffering from rising energy prices and inflation, which is not sufficiently compensated for by lower wage increases.
As a result, many citizens will have to make do with less income, purchasing power and prosperity this year as well. Low-income people, who are already socially disadvantaged, are more affected by the consequences of the Covid-19 and energy crisis, as they have to spend a large proportion of their income on energy and food. In addition, they usually live in poorly insulated apartments, which is associated with higher energy requirements. In such times of crisis, cohesion can help to cushion negative effects. Neighborhood help and donations are examples of solidarity and mutual support in times of crisis.
A lack of cohesion and increasing social inequality can lead to social polarization and declining acceptance of political measures, and complicate the political decision-making processes needed for crisis management and transformation. Crisis policy should therefore not only be good energy, climate, industrial and economic policy, but also good social policy and promote participation in shaping the socio-ecological transformation.
Claudia Kemfert has headed the Energy, Transport and Environment department at the German Institute for Economic Research (DIW Berlin) since April 2004 and is a professor of energy economics and energy policy at the Leuphana University in Lüneburg. She was appointed to the Advisory Council for Environmental Issues in 2016 and is on the Executive Committee of the German Society of the Club of Rome.
Franziska Hoffart is a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Environmental Management, Resources and Energy (CURE) at the Faculty of Economics at the Ruhr University in Bochum and a research associate at the Advisory Council on the Environment.