From different perspectives, common ground is found

Aug 10, 2020 by

Today we heard Prof. Karl Steininger, Climate Economics and Sustainable Transition at Wegener Center for Climate and Global Change (WEGC) and Department of Economics, University of Graz, and Prof. Christian Zeller, from the Research Group of Economic Geography at the University of Salzburg. The two lecturers take very different approaches to the common problem of socio-ecological crisis (to put the issue broadly). Prof. Steininger took a technocratic economist’s approach, whereas Prof. Zeller took a revolutionary political approach.

The models presented by Prof. Steiniger to transform existing infrastructure and capital stock into a net zero carbon system did not include any involvement of civil society or fundamental transformation of the economic system. Rather, his argument was technocratic, based on the concept of translating global carbon emissions budgets into regional/national budgets and increasing efficiencies. He agreed that fundamental transformations have to take place, but that we have to start taking the necessary steps within the framework of the current system, while seeking a wider transformation in the longer term.

In contrast, Prof. Zeller’s argument was mostly about radical action now taken by society and how it should subjugate the economic system to the political democratic process. This is based on the argument that the capitalist mode of production (3 bases of capitalist mode of production: need to accumulate capital under competition; unpaid reproductive work is not accounted for; based on exploitation) produces imperialism and thus different forms of dominance and value transfer from dominated to dominating countries.  He argued that in order to change the prevailing economic system and move away from growth towards sufficiency, we must aim for the democratic social appropriation of strategic means of production. In his opinion, all ecological and all social challenges can only be tackled together, and the global dimension must be considered. Its not possible to first save climate and then tackle social issues.

Prof. Zeller’s vision is radical, revolutionary change towards what he calls ‘ecosocialism’. By that, he means that society needs to decrease its metabolism, decrease and change production, care more for people and planet, share global wealth and make decisions democratically. He emphasized that a central goal should be the fair sharing of the socially necessary working time, which includes paid as well as unpaid time. Such a radical shift would of course need to account for social and democratic planning to prevent unemployment and misery and set appropriate institutions and rules. There are still many controversies about how ecosocialism defines itself and how it operates in terms of ideology, model of ecology and green politics. Prof Zeller said we need to stay focused on the main objective, which is global health and degrowth.

Environmental justice and the hangover of colonialism also featured in our wide-ranging discussions. Both professors agreed that more developed countries – especially if taking history into account – have used up their carbon budget (i.e., their prospective ‘permissible’ carbon emission budgets are negative). Further, countries of the Global South should be able to use their prospective emission budgets in order to develop towards the Sustainable Development Goals intended level (i.e., ‘degrowth’ should accommodate continued growth in the Global South, while degrowing the Global North). Students also raised the issue of justice in transnational emissions budgets because many countries in the Global North do not take ownership of the emissions of consumer goods that are produced in the Global South (i.e., the Global South’s emissions are inflated by focussing on emissions where goods are produced, rather than where they are ultimately consumed).

A global Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) was mentioned at one point. However, the lecturers noted the limited effect of existing ETS and that the trade of emission allowances is another market-based mechanism which does not lead to the kind of required new system. Therefore, we have to think about other, non-market-based mechanisms, especially because the Global North has effectively used up its carbon budget. The new concepts should address degrowth and reduction of consumption.

On the one hand, Prof. Steiniger looked at the issue of consumption across various sectors of the economy and how they can become carbon free. He also noted that it is a societal discussion as to which sectors should be first to move. On the other hand, Prof. Zeller took a different approach. He said that, rather than focus on the consumptive ‘end’ of the process, it is vital to look at the means of production and value chains to find the hotspots of carbon emissions and to intervene effectively. He challenged us to reflect on what we want to produce, how we produce it, and where we produce it? He made a strong argument for this to be a debate that belongs firmly within the political democratic process and should not be left to the economy alone to decide. We need a new green deal for the carbon emission and the consumption problem because the current one was inefficient, we must mobilize people with a society, to focus more in this regard in terms of transporting less, caring more and making decisions democratically

A crucial and interesting point within the transformation of the economic system was made out by Prof. Zeller: the role of the unions. He notices that they represent a huge strategic problem as they are not aware of the how the climate crisis will affect them and the people they represent. They should be the ones to convince the working population of the necessity of this change. This continued a discussion of Prof. Thomas Hahn in an earlier session, who had said that employees fear the loss of their job and with it the loss of their quality of life, so they tend to be resistant to change. If people are presented with a new model that still leads to a good life, they might be convinced otherwise. And this is where unions could play an important part.

In short, from two very different initial perspectives, our lively discussions revealed that Prof. Steininger, Prof. Zeller and AEMS students shared much in common. Prof. Steininger explained that in the long-run their views are closer, than they might seem. His lecture focused more on which steps can already be taken within the system, for fast action is required. There are also benefits of the current system and we should use them. Mr. Zeller is convinced that limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees is impossible within the current system, however, he made clear that each step and measure that helps to counter it, is necessary, so there is no contradiction between reform and revolution. However, it took some time for these similarities to emerge and we could perhaps have spent more time discussing how to bring about the transformative changes called for by both professors.


Written by: Alex and Annette

Based on the session with Karl Steininger and Christian Zeller during the AEMS 2020.