Imagining A Moral Economy

Transition to carbon-free economy requires moral leadership
November 1, 2013

"If it is wrong to wreck the climate, then it is wrong to profit from that wreckage." —From the mission statement of the Fossil Free movement.

Rarely are we invited to consider ethical questions of right and wrong in matters of economic development, particularly in times of economic fragility, when jobs and investment are in high demand. Yet if the above quote is true for a corporation, pension fund, or other institutions, then it is equally true for a society or economy as a whole.

The language of morality, in recent years, has been avoided by many on the political left. In a post-modern world, it is sometimes viewed as passé. Perhaps we don't want to be seen as overly preachy or judgmental. And even those who come from a progressive faith background are reticent to speak from such a place when engaged in politics or policy-making. The unfortunate consequence is that the domain of morality has been left to the religious right or conservatives.

But, as any society debates core economic and policy ideas, the battle for moral leadership matters. And so, at this critical time, it is vital that progressives reclaim some of that language.

For too long, we've been told that our values must take a back seat to the imperatives of economic growth and the associated promises of job creation; that what best serves the interests of large corporations will ultimately benefit the rest of us.

Weaning ourselves off a dependence on harmful economic activities, however, is a tall order, no more so than when our economic security feels so closely intertwined with the fossil fuel economy.

It's wrong to presume that a moral economy would necessarily be one with fewer decent jobs. In practice, transitioning to a carbon-free economy will entail the creation of tens of thousands of well-paying jobs. But they will look different.

In the Canadian context, however, these narratives compete within an economic history that is tightly aligned with the exploitation of natural resources. Today that extractive activity is dominated by oil, natural gas and coal, industries that the climate imperative tells us should be managed for winding-down, not ramping-up.

Recent elections have hinged on an underlying economic insecurity, one that leads many blue-collar workers in particular to feel they need to stick with the status quo and double-down on the extraction and export of raw commodities. Economic insecurity trumps all else, producing a resignation that the moral questions these industries pose must be deferred.

But now is not the time to defer moral questions.

The climate crisis is the defining challenge of our time, economically, socially, and ethically. The infrastructure decisions we make now will last for decades, and therefore need to be made with deep deliberation, mindful of the type of future into which we are tying our children. Seen through such a lens, the merits of pipelines extending either west or east from the tar sands appear ill-advised.

Defining a moral economy

Before proceeding, let's pause to explore what we mean by a "moral economy." It's not a new concept, even if it seems out of place in many of our daily discussions of the economy. It is intertwined with notions of a "fair" or "just" or "democratic" economy, but its ethical dimensions reach further. It's not merely concerned with distribution, but also with what we choose to produce and invest in, and the nature of the jobs that result.

We offer this simple definition: A moral economy is one in which people do not feel they have to sacrifice their values, harm human dignity, or compromise ecological health in order to achieve economic security.

This definition is as much a cultural shift as it is a policy one. It's not about public vs. private so much as reconsidering the balance, and bringing a new lens to the economic planning that both governments and businesses undertake.

All economies (or economic systems) seek to deal with the same basic questions: How is the production of goods and services to be determined? How should those goods and services be distributed? Who or what commands the allocation of scarce resources? How should the income and wealth pies be sliced?

Too often, economics masquerades as a pure and objective science, and free-market economic policies are presented as "value-free." But nothing could be further from the truth. Economics is about policy choices, and produces winners and losers; values are always at play.

So what, more specifically, would a moral economy look like, and what differentiates it from our current system?

  • Jobs: In a moral economy, our livelihoods better align with our best ideals for ourselves. Imagine a society that places value on service and caring – for children, the elderly, and those with disabilities – and that this is reflected in people's wages. The economy provides community-sustaining, family-supporting jobs -- jobs that don't separate families, that don't endanger workers or harm others, and that provide a sense of purpose and fulfillment. Does this mean we will always love everything about our jobs? Of course not. But it means we can feel proud of the work we do, and pleased if our own children choose to follow in our path.
  • Ecological Justice: In a moral economy, natural resources are not depleted and the commons is not despoiled. Economic development is not driven by a "gold rush" mentality, but is thoughtful and deliberate about how scarce resources are used. The need for income in the present does not penalize the well-being of future generations.
  • Indigenous Sovereignty: In a moral economy, Aboriginal rights and title are respected, and we strive to honour the commitments made to those who first occupied this land. These rights are not theoretical, but instead are given a place of privilege in economic planning. The upholding of Indigenous sovereignty is not only at play in matters of specific resource development projects. It is also a shift in how we jointly make broader economic and social policy decisions.
  • Equality: In a moral economy, we do not tolerate poverty, and policies are put in place to lessen rather than increase the inequality divide by income, gender, and ethnicity. Extreme inequality is actively discouraged; low-wage work is appreciated and properly compensated, and conversely, high-end salaries are not competitively bid into the stratosphere. The goal is true social mobility, rather than one's life chances being determined by the lottery of one's birth.
  • Shared Good: In a moral economy, the health and security of each family is mainly protected by enhancing the well-being of the entire society, a principle at the heart of public health care. In such an economy, many of our core needs – for housing, child care, education, health care, retirement security – are provided collectively. This reality allows us to escape the financial treadmill, and liberates us to take risks and embrace necessary change, particularly in the face of the climate crisis. In a moral economy we seek to uphold a social contract based on mutual responsibility, sharing and co-operation, rather than competition, hoarding, and accumulation.
  • Meaningful: Imagine an economy where a "good life" is not confused with materialism. Excessive wealth is not celebrated and coveted. In a moral economy, we narrow the gap between what has market value and what has social value; wages and prices reflect the true worth of things, rather than being determined by irrational or perverse market forces. Instead of adhering to a shallow measure of income or economic activity, we measure success by people's happiness, health, and well-being.

While we are often a jumble of contradictory values, for most of us this kind of an economy probably sounds pretty good. You may not agree with all the above, just core elements of it. The problem is that too many of us have been persuaded that these values, while desirable, are unrealistic.

Perhaps a helpful re-framing is to understand that our current task is to set a transition course from our present economy, in which these values are too often suppressed, to a future economy in which they can be realized. What would such a transition look like?

Our Crossroads Moment

The stories we tell about the history and future of our economy are rooted in competing moral narratives.

Our economic history of resource development invokes values of ruggedness and independence. This telling of our history is deeply tied to the land and natural environment, even if that relationship has become increasingly unsustainable. And it witnessed the building of new communities to which many experienced a sense of belonging, even though that development rode roughshod over existing First Nations communities.

A telling example of these competing narratives was in play in the recent election in British Columbia (where we live). During that election, Premier Clark's campaign employed a clear and compelling narrative. Clark started each of her speeches with a personal story: her parents lived modestly, neither poor nor wealthy, but paid their bills, advance-paid for their funerals, and left their kids mortgage- and debt-free. It was a simplistic story, and not analogous to a provincial economy, but it resonated, it was memorable, and it had an ethical dimension.

She then shifted that story of "me" to the story of "we and now." This is B.C.'s moment, and a clear choice is before us. According to the premier, we could let a "once in a generation" opportunity slip away, or seize the potential of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and be "debt-free" within 15 years, thereby leaving all of our children debt-free.

That story worked for the election, and, as others have noted, the opposition failed to put forward a competing economic vision or a narrative that could animate a different set of values.

But what does this type of economic plan, completely reliant on the further extraction of a fossil fuel, really mean for the legacy of all our children? Even if LNG really did represent a windfall for the province's treasury (a dubious proposition, as the CCPA's B.C. economists have noted), what does it mean to be fiscally debt-free by depleting our carbon budget, racking up our climate debt, or consigning children elsewhere to more climate chaos and destructive weather events?

That said, we are indeed at a crossroads moment. But the choices before us are larger and more complex than those on display in our electoral contests. The more fundamental question with which we must wrestle is whether we want to plow billions of dollars into meeting the infrastructure demands of a dying/death economy versus investing in the infrastructure of a new/moral economy. As noted above, the infrastructure decisions we make today will last for decades; they lock us into a certain path.

Given this, do we want more fossil fuel pipelines, or more public transit and inter-city high-speed passenger trains? A few more jobs in the export of raw commodities, or many more jobs in energy retrofitting buildings? More investment in port infrastructure and gas liquefaction, or more investment in building social infrastructure such as low-income housing, child care, and residential care for frail seniors? More subsidies for fracking and mining (conducted by some of the most profitable corporations on the planet), or more supports for clean energy development? Do we want jobs outside people's home communities, or a re-localization of manufacturing and food production?

These are not pie-in-the-sky questions. They are conversations we need to be deliberating over now. Our moral legacy, along with the planet we leave to our children, will be determined by these choices.

A time of transition

There is good news, too. As we make the needed transition away from fossil fuels, there will be no shortage of jobs. Rising to the climate challenge represents a massive economic task, much like our society experienced when it moved to a war footing in World War I and World Wat II. It is going to involve billions of dollars of investment and tens of thousands of jobs. At issue is whether the transition will be undertaken in a just and thoughtful manner, if sacrifices will be shared, and how we will pay for it.

But pay for it we can. We are one of the wealthiest societies on the planet. The transition can be financed if we appropriately tax those industries that are depleting our carbon budget and those individuals who are ammassing phenomenal wealth.

The wartime comparison is apt. In previous eras, we did not leave so much economic decision-making to the private market, where the allocation of resources is determined by individual consumer choices and profit-seeking corporate investment choices. Rather, we engaged in more deliberate economic planning. We appreciated the role of government infrastructure investment. We recognized that resources were scare and the task at hand was urgent, and we allocated resources and guided investments accordingly. The point here is not that there is no role for the private profit-seeking sector, only that we need to get the balance right.

Further good news is that much of our economy already reflects this transition. The extractive mining, oil and gas industries represent only a small share of Canada's GDP, and an even smaller share of employment. Conversely, there are entire industries where an alignment already exists between what has social value and what has market value, sectors where we care for one another, or teach, or create art, or otherwise engage in activities that enrich our lives with a limited ecological footprint.

And more is achievable in the near term. We can expedite the transition by investing in universal child care, social housing, home and residential care for seniors, and green infrastructure.

All of this is possible, though none of it is simple. The key is not to be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the end-goal, but to focus on the transition before us, and to ensure that the decisions we make today start us in the right direction.

We should have high expectations of our current leaders. Deferring the hard moral questions to the future will not do. Leadership matters – it shifts the debate, it re-orients attention and activity. It is needed to guide a society through massive transition.

But the challenge is to bring a moral lens to economic planning. While the transition may involve a degree of uncertainty and economic sacrifice, the outcome can be a better life, with more economic security, where our needs are met, and we are able to feel proud of the legacy we are leaving future generations.

(Christine Boyle is a community organizer and the director of Spirited Social Change, exploring the intersections between values and our work for a better world. Seth Klein is the CCPA's B.C. Director.)