Mandy Meikle

What Makes a Fair Society?

In short, equity makes a fair society. Equity involves trying to understand and give people what they need (as opposed to want) to enjoy full, healthy lives. Equality, in contrast, aims to ensure that everyone gets the same things in order to enjoy full, healthy lives. Like equity, equality aims to promote fairness and justice, but equality can only work if everyone starts from the same place and needs the same things, which is not the case.

A breakthrough might come when we see ourselves as all one species (as well as just one species), each member of which is as important as the next. We tend to care more about our contemporaries than about ‘others’ – in a fair society, there is no ‘other’. Take one of those ‘needs’ – food. Today, as many people are overweight as are malnourished, and in the ‘west’ you can be both at the same time. Go, progress! In 2013, food banks fed 913,138 people across Britain, over a third of whom were children. This is no fair society, and that’s in the so-called developed world.

Many cultures have lived and developed in ways that persisted for millennia – they were sustainable. Hierarchical behaviour was not known among hunter-gatherers, but once humans settled down and started accumulating property for agriculture, hierarchy became more the norm. This, I believe, was the dawn of inequality, when we left the Garden of Eden. Consider Christian texts in the context of the indigenous people of the day and ‘the fall of man’ makes a bit more sense.

So what drives the destruction of sustainable cultures in the name of progress? What dictates that indigenous people should become ‘civilised’? I am not being romantic about the joys of forest-dwelling and subsistence agriculture but we have to ask why it is that the only people left who truly understand how to live sustainably are being told that how they live is wrong, backwards – Stone Age. We have to ask why ‘progress’ is more important to us than their survival. Why is it that people are removed from their land so that ‘we’ can extract natural resources (unsustainably, of course), only to move on once that land has given up its treasures? Unless we can answer questions like these, then talking about what makes a fair society is just an academic exercise. As Chomsky might say, “who decides?”

Consider the recently-landless – those generations who don’t remember how they used to live, but nor have they found a way to live well in the degraded landscape they are now stuck with. Millions could be lifted from poverty by rural electrification using decentralised renewables, for example – but where’s the profit in that? Can a capitalist society be fair? Can industrialism be sustainable? And development for all? There’s no point wanting to ‘make poverty history’ without also addressing the other end of the spectrum. Why isn’t there a ‘make millionaires history’ campaign?

This ‘fast-track to oblivion’ approach is not ‘just human nature’ for it is not a trait of all human beings. It is a trait of certain human beings who benefit from having the rest of us stuck on a treadmill of work (if it’s not been outsourced), debt and tabloid media. We fail to even notice the smoke and mirrors, let alone see through them. The fear of being rendered jobless or homeless – worthless – is essential for our complicity in this charade called civilisation. That and the ‘dream’ of joining the wealthy, whether via hard graft or the lottery.

Like Gail Tverberg, I used to think it was just the energy of fossil fuels which allowed our population to rise so dramatically over the last 200 years. However, Gail introduced me to another aspect: globalisation has effectively eliminated territorial boundaries. Yes, there are still wars – the economy needs wars, just like it needs fashion, luxury items and waste – but we no longer limit our population to what our environment can provide for sustainably. Without sustainability there can be no equity because this isn’t just about the here and now – future generations come into this too.

In a fair society, limits need to be the basis for every decision we make, business or otherwise. As economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen put it in 1975, “Will mankind listen to any program that implies a constriction of its addiction to exosomatic comfort? Perhaps the destiny of man is to have a short but fiery, exciting, and extravagant life rather than a long, uneventful, and vegetative existence…” Destiny aside, which is more fair?

Mandy Meikle, PhD in Microbiology, Editor, The Reforesting Scotland Journal, Researcher on Climate Justice, Glasgow Caledonian University, Founder and Chair of a local community trust

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