Just Transitions:
Social Justice in the Shift Towards a Low-Carbon World

Edited by Edouard Morena, Dunja Krause and Dimitris Stevis
Published by Pluto, November 2019, paperback RRP £29.99

Review By Tim Barton

Once upon a time, a few months ago (as things are accelerating fast, this is now a long time in climate science) this book appeared, looking at how we might organise a transition from our globalised gas-guzzling economy to a low-carbon economy in a fair and reasonable fashion. Even at that time, if I had been reviewing the book, I would have been cynical of most of the proposed solutions, as they tend toward the top down and are often not taking full cognisance of how much actual system change is needed. The hierarchical institutions to hand are a big part of the problem. Nevertheless, some of the ideas seemed worth pursuing: after all, it is unquestionably a necessity, from our point of view, far down the slopes of the economic pyramid, that any changes be justly managed.


Whilst we certainly need a rapid and just transition away from fossil fuels, all the power resides in those ideologically wedded to the vast inequalities we see today. To give one current example, last week Apple announced they would aim to be ‘carbon-neutral by 2030’, however it is a cleaner productivism they seek, not a massive reduction in production, and certainly no real effort to address the conditions in the Chinese factories Apple use.

Surely, by now, it must be obvious that we are only going to get a transition, just or otherwise, if we act  very urgently indeed, wrenching control of our energy systems away from profit-seeking corporations that are wedded to ‘business as usual’. Energy production, distribution, and use must be decentralised and brought under the control of local communities that will alter the scale of energy use in a sensitive and rational manner – the fight for a genuinely sustainable world requires ‘reduce reduce reduce’ to be shouted from every roof-top. It is undeniably taking too long to make the transition.

But the problem is a much more fundamental one – the productivist economic systems we are dominated by (whether sharing the fruits of trashing our life-support system fairly: socialism; or not: capitalism) gives but one direction to current efforts to move our energy economy: grow or die is a fundamental strand woven into all globalist solutions, whether ‘urgency’ is admitted or not. This carcinogenic obsession with ‘growth’ of profits about lives is a clear and present threat, one guaranteeing mass extinction of most species on a finite planet unless checked.


On current evidence (and the evidence of civilisational collapses past), at the very best, the current system can mitigate disaster, choosing which several billion of us to ‘lose’. The alternatives to mass die-off were dependent upon urgent action beginning in the early 1970s and upon a paradigm shift in our political and economic outlook. Although mitigating solutions can be suggested, and the book Just Transitions looks at a few, it is difficult to create a convincing package that in any way matches the size of the problem it must be applied to.

The ‘big story’ this year appears to be the pandemic. It at least shows that a degree of ‘precautionary’ action can take place, even in the biggest and baddest profiteering nations (here, and the USA). It also shows the shortcomings in those nations, as they have found profit still takes precedence over people. A fly in the ointment is social media, mass cynicism (partially derived from disempowerment), and gullibility (partially exacerbated by Govean pontification about the ‘evils’ of ‘experts’): these, together, have seen a huge rise in conspiracy-based resistance to hierarchically imposed rule changes. Yet these are nothing as compared to those needed, and as urgently, to have the remotest hope of a transition before a collapse (far less a ‘just’ one).

But I think that, for future generations, Covid-19 will not be the ‘big story’ of 2020. The big story will relate directly to the point of the book: a just transition becomes increasingly improbable, and indeed any transition bar a pell-mell crash of our world systems becomes increasingly unlikely, because 2020 may have pushed us past a key Tipping Point. Our British summer has been in play since late April; methane is burping out of the taiga and permafrost all across Siberia, which is a major greenhouse gas, far more powerful than CO2; the temperature rises that have melted permafrost have also caused subsidence, so roads and oil pipelines have buckled, leading to the biggest ever oil spill in the Arctic oceans; the same subsidence appears likely to have caused the radiation leak pluming over Europe from north-west Russia; and, the clincher, an unprecedented 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit (37C) in Verkhoyansk, Russia—north of the Arctic Circle  on June 20th! Whilst climate moves through patterns of natural change, this is an unprecedented spike, and matches only projections that factor in human-activity sourced warming.


Once upon a time, less than a year ago, a ‘Transition’ looked like it must be fought for, but, as more political activists argued for a Green New Deal, looked possible; a ‘Just’ one a little less so, but still, maybe, possible.  Now? Not so much. Whilst we must still fight (literally, seems likely) to force a sane and urgent (and if at all possible, just) transition NOW, we must feel the existential threat as the most urgent issue of the century. As noted in the introduction, by the editors, globalist ‘agreements’ often pay lip service to workers, unions, frontline communities, indigenous peoples – but almost always side-line them. One lesson of 2020’s pandemic must be that the grassroots must be empowered and involved or ‘solutions’ will meet a huge inertia blocking action. One of the big pluses of Just Transitions is its emphasis on ‘learning from the past to fight for the future’. Chapters such as Tales from the frontlines, by Kali Akuno, look at “building a people-led just transition”. Another critiques top-down efforts in Canada. And the concluding chapter takes a necessary if overly optimistic look at the challenges raised by seeking change ‘in a neoliberal carbon-intensive economy’.

Regardless of where in the chaos of synergistic tipping points we now may lie, we must harness fear, not to find ways to dismiss it through false hope or denial, but to empower a revolution. It is that or bust.

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