Sustainable Places: Addressing Social Inequality and Environmental Crisis

We are experiencing two interconnected and far reaching crises – one social and one ecological – that global governance is failing to address at a sufficient scale and with the urgency that is required. These crises are the subject of a new book that I have written with the excellent team of Dave Adamson, Lorena Axinte and Terry Marsden, published by Routledge this month. Although the book is clear about the failures of political and economic decision-makers to confront these crises, it nevertheless concludes that within this predicament places offer hope and are the sites for sustainable actions and experimentation.

The book begins by considering two problems. Firstly, the inherent contradictions of current policy responses (Sustainable Development Goals, decoupling, ‘green growth’ etc.) to the environmental crisis. Secondly, what we call ‘lock-in’ problems – if, for example, consumption declines there are implications for places dependent on producing the goods currently consumed. In this context, we explore agglomeration and the ‘friction of distance’ model. We suggest that there is a need to reassess the organising principle of globalisation as, although we do not rule out global trade, there is a need to move away from the notion of resource extraction and a carbon-based economy.

The book also examines the broad social structure established following the industrial revolution, with a particular emphasis on the post-World War Two ‘settlement’ and its creation of places and social structures within ‘organised’ capitalism. We trace the collapse of those communities into deep poverty in the wake of post-industrialisation. On the global stage, we explore the structure of poverty and inequality with its origins in slavery, colonialism, and post-colonialism. In addition, we examine the legacy from those stages of globalisation for First Nations people.

The book also considers the active process of marginalisation and peripheralisation in the context of unequal social and natural rights. It considers how we may develop a critically normative approach to nature and place given the Anthropocene. We suggest that there is a need to move beyond the treatment of the ‘environment’ as a compartmentalised and non-human space, or as a surface or set of layers only to be protected or restored.

We acknowledge that although the globalisation of food has opened ways to explore other cultures, exchange products, and practices and has enriched our lives in many ways, it has also produced certain losses and has severely impacted the planet. Long supply chains, unequal power relationships in agriculture, trade, and consumption, as well as overproduction, overconsumption, and over-waste are all facets of globalisation and capitalism. Adopting this ‘cultural’ lens allows us to explore questions and interlinkages around environmental damage, health, inequality, waste, and gender roles, highlighting how our worldviews are reflected in our food systems.

Overview of the research methods process used during a Deep Place study

The second half of the book explores ‘Deep Place’, our method for undertaking place-based analysis and planning, which is grounded in an empirical concern with how to achieve more economically, socially, environmentally, and culturally sustainable places and communities. The four Welsh case studies – Tredegar, Pontypool, Lansbury Park, and Llandovery – are considered within the broader national context of Wales. Despite each community facing its own range of challenges, we suggest that each has within it sufficient human and natural assets to achieve a sustainable and more equitable future.

The book also reports the development of the Deep Place method in two very different contexts from the Welsh studies. The first study is the Australian town of Muswellbrook in New South Wales. The second is an informal settlement, Freshwater (Fres Wota) in Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu, a group of Pacific Islands. With more restricted scope than the original studies, the first sought to inform an economic diversification strategy with the potential to employ social housing tenants and mitigate poverty in a low carbon economy transition from mining. The second had the objective of informing the allocation of resources within a small-scale international development programme to create the best impact on local economic activity and poverty alleviation.

The book concludes by identifying a praxis of ‘regenerative collectivism’ that can sustain human well-being and support environmental regeneration. We contrast the fundamental human trait of collective coexistence with the hyper-individualism of capitalist ideology. The book suggests that as the twin issues of environmental degradation and inequality are collective threats, the solutions will require a collective response. We also argue, however, for the inclusion of nature as a member of the collective with rights of protection and renewal, and that future generations should be considered contemporary members of the collective. We conclude that some economic experiments evident today have the potential to develop within the current order, to be its eventual replacement, and we evaluate their potential to form part of what we call a new ‘regenerative collectivist’ ethic.

We have written the book to contribute to contemporary policy and academic debates about how best to address the social and environmental crises. A new economic order, whilst eventually inevitable, requires radical change. We are under no illusion that such change will be easy, but it is essential given the current impasse, caused, not least by the conjunction of carbon-based, neoliberal capitalism in crisis and the multifactorial global ecological crisis.

The book can now be ordered from Routledge ahead of its publication this month:

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