A healthy transition to sustainability

All unsustainable systems become sustainable. The question is simply when and how that transition is made. The question is: how do we make sure that the transition to a sustainable economic system is good for the health of the population? David Holmgren has described four possible future scenarios in relation to two important sustainability challenges, namely, the dependence on fossil fuels as an energy source, and climate change. These scenarios can help us to imagine possible futures, and provoke thinking about necessary actions now if a successful transition is to be made.

In first scenario (termed ‘green tech’), fossil fuel decline occurs slowly and climate change is relatively benign. This allows time to develop technological solutions to the sustainability challenges, competitive pressures are less which reduces the likelihood of conflict and there is the potential to maintain standards of living. Here, there would be reduced meat consumption, more active travel and cleaner air, and potential for improved health. The extent to which this might reduce health inequalities and support improved health and increased standard of living amongst low income countries is, however, more dependent on the extent to which this is led by the market (in which there will inevitably by winners and losers) or through co-operation and shared responsibility for regulation (such as contraction and convergence of carbon emissions).

In the second scenario (termed ‘earth steward’), there is a rapid decline in fossil fuels combined with benign climate change. As a result, there is little spare resource available to develop technological solutions and the level of consumption per person would decline rapidly. This would be a bit like twenty first century crofting, but without the shared resources to maintain mobile phone networks, support high technology medicine nor highly developed consumer goods such as cars or washing machines. The health consequences of this, particularly in high income countries such as Scotland, could be profound, but not necessarily catastrophic.

Economic growth in Scotland has been associated with massive rises in life expectancy and health since the 1850s and all of that would be endangered, but some populations at particular points in time have thrived under low or negative economic growth conditions. Cuba is the most famous example, but Japan and wartime economies have also displayed such features. Once again, the key determinants of what will support a healthy transition in such a scenario are about the degree of co-operation, sharing and organisation that prevails – a dystopian scenario would be more likely if this was not achieved, and managing such a decline in economic activity would bring huge challenges for political leaders.

The third and fourth scenarios are more difficult to imagine delivering positive health outcomes, as both involve destructive climate change. The third (‘brown tech’) combines this with slow fossil fuel decline and imagines the mass use of coal-fired power stations and shale gas, resulting in severe air pollution, rising sea levels and coastal inundation, crop failures, storms and droughts. The potential positives of increased active travel and improved food systems would be unlikely to occur because of the availability and dependence on cheap energy, and the consequences of catastrophic climate change would lead to mass migration, international tension, conflict and growing inequalities.

However, the most dystopian scenario (‘lifeboats’) combines destructive climate change with rapid fossil fuel decline, thereby depriving populations of the energy resources they would require to survive the climate change challenges they would face. Avoiding this scenario is really the only option to maintain a semblance of health for the population.

It can be disempowering and dispiriting when future scenarios are laid out in this way, but there is much that the left can do – and the positive scenarios are worth fighting for. First, sustainability (including climate change and fossil fuel depletion, but not exclusively so) are issues that only the left has solutions for. So, this is our issue and we must ensure it is prioritised in our political work, becoming the foremost issue for public and political attention.

Second, we must challenge the suggestion the market can solve sustainability crises (other than in a dystopian manner). Where the impacts of an economic activity are externalised (as with carbon emissions), the market cannot deliver and so regulation, public ownership, rationing of emissions (which will benefit the poorest more than the rich) are all required. Third, we must collaborate to develop innovative and engaging solutions that highlight the co-benefits, such as to health and inequalities, of solving the sustainability challenges, thereby engaging the public in a positive debate about what a future Scotland, and world, could look like.

Gerry McCartney is a member of the Scottish Socialist Party