Is the UK Labour party facing up to a post-growth future?

Logo of the Clarion club: cycling socialists.

Logo of the Clarion club: cycling socialists. Via Working Class Movement Library https://www.wcml.org.uk/wcml/en/our-collections/the-clarion-cycling-club/

Following recent short articles on this theme, here is a longer, more analytic treatment. A personal perspective from the author.  Download the full article as a pdf file.

Is the UK Labour party facing up to a post-growth future?

by Mark H Burton1

For longer than most of us have been around, the major political parties have been united by the goal of making more economic “growth” happen. They have been divided on the means, but there has been little or no disagreement about the goal. Only the Green Party has taken a somewhat different line, at times questioning the primary goal of “growth”, although I would argue that, even in their case, this focus has been inconsistent and poorly developed2.

In a recent piece for the Labour affiliated socialist society SERA (“Labour’s Environment Campaign”), Labour front bencher, Chi Onwurah, in a piece I have replied to3, argues that this is what distinguishes Labour from the Greens:

But what distinguishes us from the Green Party is their belief that economic growth and environmental sustainability cannot go hand in hand, that sustainability means abandoning the quest for greater economic prosperity and achieving a ‘steady-state’ of zero growth.”

However, there are indications that some sections of the Labour movement are at last beginning to accept that the pursuit of economic growth is highly problematic, and beginning to explore some alternatives. This ought not to be surprising, given the influence of the ecology movement on the New Left of late 60s and 70s. The New Left had some influence on Labour via things like the Greater London Council administration and the Institute for Workers Control, as well as through the influx of activists, feminist, Marxist, environmentalist, pacifist. However, the influence was marginalised both what Raymond Williams4 called the “productivism” of the mainstream labour movement and Labour’s neoliberal turn under Kinnock and Blair5.

I’ll review the evidence, or rather the straws in the wind, for an opening to the critique of “growth”,consider why it has been difficult for Labour politicians to accept the idea of a steady state economy, post-growth or degrowth, and finally look at what a Labour post-growth approach might look like6. I will draw upon things I’ve written elsewhere but also add in some new material.

Download the full article (pdf file).

1Collective member, Steady State Manchester – mark.burton{AT}poptel.org
https://steadystatemanchester.net

2See the party’s policy page on the economy: there are scattered references questioning growth and GDP but nothing like a coherent critique and counter-proposal: https://policy.greenparty.org.uk/ec.html

3My response was published by SERA (and the piece by Onwurah is referenced there too):
It was somewhat shortened and the title changed by the SERA editor: the original piece is here: https://steadystatemanchester.net/2017/12/19/practical-degrowth-for-labour/

4Williams, R. (1982). Socialism and Ecology. London: SERA. Reprinted in Resources for Hope, London, Verso, 1989.

5Going further back, the socialisms of William Morris and Robert Blatchford both had a strong ecological streak as did what were arguably even earlier roots of the British socialist consciousness in the peasants’ revolt and the mobilisation of Diggers and Levellers during the English revolution.

6For convenience I will use these terms, degrowth, post-growth and refer to the Limits to Growth and the Steady State Economy in a rather interchangeable way: there are, however some distinctions among them. See Kerschner, C. (2010). Economic de-growth vs. steady-state economy. Journal of Cleaner Production, 18(6), 544–551. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2009.10.019; Demaria, F., Schneider, F., Sekulova, F., & Martinez-Alier, J. (2013). What is Degrowth? From an Activist Slogan to a Social Movement. Environmental Values, 22(2), 191–215. https://doi.org/10.3197/096327113X13581561725194
For an overview of degrowth as a community of ideas and practice, see D’Alisa, G., Demaria, F., & Kallis, G. (Eds.). (2014). Degrowth: a vocabulary for a new era. Abingdon, Routledge.

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Practical degrowth for Labour

The article below is a slightly longer version of the piece published on the SERA (Labour Environment Campaign) website on 17 December, 2017.  See also this piece, also by Mark, which was  carried on the Left Foot Forward website, in response to John McDonnell’s speech which acknowledged the Limits to Growth.    Look out for a longer, more analytical piece coming soon!  SSM is a non-party group (collective members are members of more than one party, and of none)  but we think it important to be aware of, and engage with political actors – parties, other organisations and individuals.

Practical degrowth for Labour: a response to Chi Onwurah

Mark H Burton

As the size of the world economy has grown, so too has the pressure it places on our ecosystems. The consequences of that pressure are now becoming all too apparent. John McDonnell

Chi Onwurah praises economic growth but unfortunately combines a number of misunderstandings of the steady state and degrowth approach.

Every day the evidence mounts that industrial civilisation has reached a state of ecological overshoot and is heading for collapse. Climate change is the most obvious aspect, as scientists from Stockholm’s Resilience Centre have made clear with the concept of Planetary Boundaries. In 2015 they found that four of these planetary boundaries had already been crossed. Biodiversity loss, damage to phosphorous and nitrogen cycles, climate change and land use have all reached dangerous levels.

This scenario was presented by the “Limits to Growth” scientists in 1972. It was confirmed in their update report of 2004 and by University of Melbourne studies in 2008 and 2014. What other economic forecasting model has been so accurate over such a long time-scale?

Chi distances the Labour Party from the Green Party on economic growth. Eight Labour MPs including Daniel Zeichner and Barry Gardiner are on the All Party Parliamentary Group on Limits to Growth, chaired by Caroline Lucas. The possibility of economic growth on a finite planet is not a question of party affiliation but of scientific evidence: there is some evidence, probably temporary, of decoupling of CO2 emissions from GDP growth, in a few economies, at far less than the annual rate needed to mitigate climate change. There is none on other material use.

Solar energy is great but materials can’t be synthesised from sunlight and there are increasing carbon emissions from concrete and steel production, deforestation and soil destruction.

Technology can facilitate economic and social change but the economy is material, embedded in the ecosystem. ICT relies on vast expenditures of energy, copper, rare earths, water, and so on, which all impose limits on scale.

The present economic model depends on treadmill growth but degrowth to a steady state economy could be a planned, managed process. Socialists believe in taking control of the economy rather than it commanding us. Ecological economists Peter Victor and Tim Jackson have demonstrated that ceasing GDP growth needn’t increase poverty and unemployment. It does mean rejecting some shibboleths like the desirability of increasing productivity. But planetary limits do mean a radical reduction of consumption which can only be achieved fairly with planning and redistribution. This could mean escape from the treadmill of competition for status via consumption, with its deadly societal consequences, instead nurturing people’s capacities, conviviality, solidarity and stewardship.

Does it mean turning our backs on the global South? No, our wealth has been acquired through exploitation of those regions in concert with exploitation of workers here, and our prosperity still depends on exploitation those in the Global South. Our growth economy, with its insatiable consumption, continues to ravage the South through resource theft, hyper-exploitation, dispossession, rigged trading mechanisms and more. Degrowth could be a win-win, strengthening both our economies and those of the global South, freeing them from the malign environmental, social and economic impacts of extractivism.

Some sectors will have to grow, the “replacement economy” of socially and environmentally benign production. Whilst much of Labour’s economic and industrial approach is appropriate, it is only ecologically realistic if the aggregate level of resource throughput decreases and then stays stable. You can’t have that and overall growth.

Repeating the mantra of “growth” avoids devising and securing support for unprecedented and innovative policies. Like these:

1. Stop subsidizing and investing in activities that are highly polluting, moving liberated public funds towards clean production.

2. Sharing work-and resources, reducing the working week to some 32 hours, supporting employers to facilitate job-sharing, with income loss for the top 10% only.

3. Minimum and maximum income. High incomes mean disproportionate resource use: cap them but also set a floor.

4. Tax reform for a progressive system that taxes use of energy and resources, wealth, property and land value.

5. Control money creation, regulating bank lending for tight but cheap credit.

6. Citizen debt audit: “pardon” unpayable household debts.

7. Support the alternative, solidarity society through subsidies and tax exemptions for co-operatives, social enterprises, community land trusts, opening up resources to community groups.

8. Optimise buildings. Retrofit, refurbish, downsize and share, saving fuel costs and emissions. Expropriate vacant housing. Respond to any remaining need by building low energy social housing, within already urbanised areas.

9. Curb advertising, reducing the incessant promotion of consumption.

10. Establish environmental limits, via absolute and diminishing caps on the CO2 that can be produced and the material resources the country uses, including emissions and materials embedded in imported products.

11. Abolish the misleading GDP indicator. Focus on real things- jobs, incomes, activity, investment, care, health, wellbeing and environmental restoration.

This isn’t a full programme for a steady state economy but it demonstrates how, far from suggesting something impractical and unpopular, SERA could and should promote a genuinely ecological literate and socialist approach: degrowth.

Note:
* Some of the ideas in this list first appeared in a piece by Giorgos Kallis.  Some have been reframed for the British context.  Others have been added here. Other notable attempts to construct a practical post-growth/degrowth/steady state policy set include those in the 2010 Enough is Enough report and the subsequent book by O’Neill, Deitz and Jones.

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Why do people move? Implications for a Viable Economy.

Why do people move, or not move? What impacts does moving have on places that people move to? What about the impacts on places that people have left behind? These were some of the questions we discussed at Steady State Manchester’s recent ‘Moving on up?’ discussion.

 

Migration is not a crime cartoon

(from openclipart, by “worker”)

At Steady State Manchester, we have developed policies and positions within the Viable Economy that begin to address the question of mobility.1 For example, we put forward alternative ways of thinking about migration and population, capital investment and localisation, and inequality and regional differences. Each of these incorporates mobility in some way. However, within these are different kinds of mobility. On the one hand, mobility can refer to the geographical process of moving around, or to a more abstract understanding of moving between socioeconomic classes, or to the flows of capital. These can likewise be understood at the individual, regional, national or international scales. Finally, there is a time aspect: are we considering the mobility of everyday life, or the longer-term and more permanent residential mobility?


In order to develop Steady State Manchester’s understanding of mobility, we view the physical mobility of people in the world as an issue with impacts on Mancunians, with clear implications from the global scale to the local. Indeed, the decision of people to move (or not) relates to questions of local infrastructure, global events, socioeconomic class and capital flows. For example, in Manchester, this can include a tram line linking the wealthy suburbs of the city, a refugee fleeing war-torn Syria and settling in Salford, a new bicycle lane connecting Manchester and Didsbury, global capital funding of massive new high-rise apartments, or a Northerner settling in London because “that’s where the jobs are.” Each of these involves the physical, spatial mobility of people, either in daily life or more permanent mobility, and occurring at both global and local scales. This phenomenon is also being repeated in urban areas around the globe.

To clarify our position on mobility, we sought to have a discussion with people from the Greater Manchester area about this very issue, which we hope to inform our advocacy, research and publications, but also to develop a clear position ahead of the new draft Greater Manchester Spatial Framework (GMSF) publication in June 2018. The first draft of this document was woefully inadequate. Indeed, the Executive Summary resembles an out-of-touch plan to pursue ‘growth’ (mentioned 15 times), at all costs, barely accounting for the residents (4 mentions) or even people (6 mentions) impacted by this. A second draft is being written in response to over 20,000 comments, but we are preparing for the real possibility that this new spatial strategy will again inadequately reflect the long term interests of Greater Manchester’s people, let alone even consider limiting the economic ‘growth’ that harms the natural ecosystems and environment. A spatial plan for Greater Manchester ought to take account of the many reasons why people might make a ‘mobility decision’ to move to this area, or how likewise how an ‘immobility decision’ is reached. So, we felt that our understanding of physical, residential mobility – with clear economic, social and ecological implications – should be informed by the thinking of interested people from the Greater Manchester area.

The range of unique perspectives at the discussion provoked some stimulating conversation about mobility, and surely will contribute toward our organisational position on the GMSF – and on mobility more broadly, into the future. Below is a brief summary.
The first part of the evening was a brainstorm exercise in groups around the question of why people move, or don’t move. This generated considerable conversation both within and between the groups. At the end, each group recorded the reasons they came up with on sticky post-its, then put them all on a flipboard sheet. A wide variety of reasons for moving or not moving – what seems appropriately called a ‘mobility decision’ – were identified (see Table 1, below). Broadly, five categories of drivers emerged: economic, necessity, government policy, identity, and social relationships.

Table 1: A ‘mobility decision’: why people move or don’t move

Themes

Reasons to move

Reasons to not move

economic -for work or job opportunities

-education or study

-lack of resources

-unaffordability

necessity -persecution/forced to leave

-escaping from civil strife/conflict

-climate change (flooding of low-lying land, desertification)

-age-related events (access to care, safety, particular accommodation needs)
government policy -forced displacement for development

-policies favouring gentrification

-social housing policy

-ease of transit links

-infrastructure

identity -adventure

-hope for a better life

-culture (nomadic, or characteristic of society)

-uncertainty and risks

-fear of change or the unknown

-comfort where one is already

-membership of a cultural community

social relationships

-to start a family

-to be closer to family/friends

-love and family

-social contacts/network

-roots and support networks

Then, a second exercise asked the attendees to identify the outcomes for people moving, both on the places people move to and on places people leave (see Table 2, below). These included demographic, economic, socio-economic, and socio-cultural impacts.

Table 2: Outcomes of moving: Impacts on places people move to versus leave

Types of impacts

Places people move to

Places people leave

demographic -cultural diversity -depopulation, ageing population

-money sent home

socio-economic -bringing new skills/ knowledge/expertise

-gentrification

-investment and spending

-strain on resources

-‘brain drain’

-lower tax income

-loss of ‘social infrastructure’

socio-cultural -conflict

-local exclusion

-loss of diversity

-fragmentation of families

Following these exercises, we came together for a discussion about the outcomes of mobility in the case of Greater Manchester in particular, both now and in the future as more people are making the decision to come to this city-region. This led to the identification of some key challenges, included reckoning with the tension between development and equity, the role of speculative finance in development, a need to address safety and health concerns, the possibility of the loss of heritage, and the potential for regional integration. Finally, we discussed the global issues at play in driving these outcomes, including environmental damage to the global food system. We concluded that these need to be integrated into the GMSF. One attendee’s call for any policy to “start with the pavement” serves as a palpable reminder that these global issues driving mobility decisions have a tangible impact on the everyday lives of Mancunians.

Overall, this discussion illuminated a host of issues that ought to receive scrutiny in the new GMSF. While some have been considered by Steady State Manchester in our previous work, others emerged that present opportunities for further exploration and understanding. Over the next months, we plan to develop an alternative position for the GMSF that captures and incorporates the discussions had and insights gained at this fruitful event. Thank you again to everyone that was able to attend!

James Vandeventer and Steady State Manchester

1 By “mobility” we mean here the longer term movement of people from place to place to take up new homes and livelihoods, rather than the ability to move around a particular place.

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Community wealth building: resources for a new dawn or for a better collapse?

This post has also been published as “Launch: Community Wealth Building” on the Stir to Action blog.

I attended a launch event for the new issue of Stir magazine. In case you don’t know it, Stir is a great source for thinking and practice in the (alternative) New Economy, with quite a big emphasis on finding ways to make these approaches take off at scale. The Stir Magazine covercurrent issue is on the theme of “community wealth building” and includes articles on Anchor Institutions, Local Government procurement, woodland, radical cities, the post-anarchist thought of Murray Bookchin, corporate colonisation of localist initiatives and more. It’s worth a subscription.

The evening event, in Manchester’s new Federation House venue, was well attended (with a lot of people I didn’t recognise, a lot of them from the co-operative movement I’d guess) and fronted (in order of speaking) by Jonny Gordon-Farleigh, Stir’s editor, Neil McInroy of CLES, Matthew Brown of Preston council and Clare Goff who edits New Start magazine (another good resource but sadly mostly behind a paywall). Each has an article in the current Stir edition.

Neil spoke on the need to keep “our wealth” local, making it work for our communities and stay there. Inevitably this leads straight into the question of power: as with wealth, the key questions start from “who has it?” and “how is it used?”. Matthew spoke about the Preston model, where, building on the success of getting local anchor institutions to purchase locally, the council, in alliance with other actors, is trying to simultaneously pull on several levers at once: good incomes via the Living Wage, good investment via the local Pension Fund, gaps in business coverage, good financial institutions via a possible Community Bank, and a local socially and work to establish an environmentally and socially friendly energy utility. Clare spoke about a local organisation in Liverpool that is showing how urban regeneration can be community-led.

This is all exciting and inspiring stuff and I want to see more of it. Yet it is also important to maintain a critical understanding of what is happening and therefore what its limits, shortcomings and indeed traps might be. So what follows isn’t meant to dampen enthusiasm but rather to help critically energise it, so that these approaches can be relevant and effective.

Taken together, these approaches all intervene in the circuits of exchange and distribution. Indeed calling them “community wealth building” isn’t quite accurate. They are really more like “community wealth capture” and maintenance. Yes, the wealth is already there in our urban settlements, but where does it come from? What these approaches don’t seem to do is intervene in the circuits of production and accumulation – where wealth is actually created, as value (in the Marxist sense of transformation based on labour power, harnessing the earth’s natural bounty). These circuits are now global in nature, with much production having been outsourced, especially during the Thatcher years, to the global South. That is why our urban landscapes are post-industrial, and in the regions outside the hot spots of London and the South East, still (structurally, chronically) depressed.

So, once the circuits of exchange have been captured, once wealth is put to use in the local economy, what then? Is this a sufficient answer to the malaise of our local, low wage, low satisfaction, economies? The official model has been one of “capture inward investment, and in the joy of being exploited for profit by external investors, some of it will trickle down” (no they don’t quite say that). That doesn’t work, and we are all struggling to find the magic bullet to replace it.

The bigger question follows, and that is about ends. Is this about restoring and augmenting, what despite the inequality and pockets, nay swathes, of deprivation, is nevertheless an extremely privileged, resource dependent, globally exploitative standard of living? By increasing the disposable incomes across our settlements won’t this do just that? Won’t it also increase the stream of imports? On a global level, we reached overshoot on August 2nd: that’s to say, humanity used more from nature than our planet can renew in the whole year. We use more ecological resources and services than nature can regenerate through overfishing, soil destruction, over-harvesting forests, and emitting more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than the biosphere can take up. Worse, if the whole world had extracted and polluted at the rate of the UK, then Overshoot Day would have fallen on the 4th May.

Putting these two issues together, with the realisation that overshoot leads to system collapse, then it seems that the “community wealth capture” strategy might be better thought of as a tool for ensuring that we “collapse better1”, rather than as a path to a new dawn where we will all enjoy a restored pre-2007 prosperity, or a 1964 level of well-being.

Several people from the audience (myself included) asked questions that picked up elements of this challenge and to be fair, the three panellists answered them well. Neil spoke of the importance of starting somewhere and learning from action as you go. Together they emphasised the limits of local strategies in the face of central government’s continued austerity policies, the rise of automation, the need for Trade Unions to embrace the model of worker-run enterprises (recalling the heretical left thinking of Benn allies, the Institute for Workers Control, of the 1970s) and the need to “crowd out” the traditional capitalist banks.

Mark H Burton

Read more about the adequacy or otherwise of alternative policy frameworks to the post-industrial challenge, and the concept of a “better collapse”, in Mark’s longer working paper: After Peak Capitalism: The Livelihood Challenge.

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Greater Manchester Pension Fund: an obstacle to action on climate change?

A new report “Fuelling the Fire” shows that UK council pension funds are still investing billions (£16 Billion in fact) in fossil fuel companies. The sums invested have increased, although this is more a result of stock value and currency movements than an actual strategy of ramping up fossils.  However, it also means that little progress has been made on taking the monety out of these risky investments and putting it to better use.   Our local fund, the Greater Manchester Pension Fund (GMPF) is a big part of the problem.  At nearly £1.7Bn  is holds more than 10% of the total fossil investment of UK local government pension funds.  That’s the biggest absolute holding (OK it’s the biggest fund) and also the biggest percentage holding (so being the biggest fund doesn’t work as an excuse).  This is risky stuff given that there is a carbon bubble – most of the assets of these companies can’t be used, if even the modest aspiration of Paris

are to be met.
And it is risky for all of humanity, GM pensioners, their families, not to mention people in Bangladesh, the Andes, the Pacific islands and Manhattan.  That’s because companies use capital to continue opening up new reserves and then promoting their combustion.  That’s your money, GMPF scheme members.

 

Just think of what good that money could be doing if divested (in a responsible, planned way) from fossil fuels and re-invested in Greater Manchester.  GMPF has made investments in housing (some of it social) and in renewable energy, but these investments are insignificant compared to the fossil fuel stakes.

To learn more – see the press release from Fossil FreeGreater Manchester: http://fossilfreegm.org.uk/index.php/2017/11/09/greater-manchester-councils-investing-1-8-billion-climate-wrecking-companies/
and the full report is here: http://gofossilfree.org/uk/fuellingthefire
Press coverage:

The Financial Times covered it here – and “Greater Manchester Pension Fund did not respond to requests for comment.”

The Meteor covered it here.

Salford Star covered it here.

About Manchester covered it here.

Manchester Evening News has still to cover the story.

 

 

 

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Local action on climate change and flood prevention.

Our outgoing collective member, Judith Emanuel writes:

“I spent a wonderful day planting a hazel tree coppice in the Calderdale valley organised by an inspirational organisation Treesponsibility, which is based in Hebden Bridge. So lovely to be out in a beautiful place, learn a new skill and do something with others which may make a positive difference.

New plantings (via http://www.treesponsibility.com )

“Treesponsibility aims to educate people about the need for action on climate change, to involve local communities in tree-planting, and to improve the local environment and biodiversity for the benefit of local people and future generations. In recent years they have been focussing attention on tree planting for flood mitigation. They work in partnership with bodies such as the Environment Agency, Calderdale Council and the National Trust.

“Hundreds of people from all walks of life have been involved with the project, including local volunteers and landowners, schools from Calderdale and beyond, a wide range of community groups, and visitors from further afield joining tree-planting weekends, details of which can be found on their website (http://www.treesponsibility.com/.

“Since its formation in 1998, Treesponsibility has planted an average of 5 hectares every year – that’s over 12 acres of new woodland per year. This season they plan to plant 30,000 trees; three times as many as last season!

“Treesponsibility is also a founding member, and a key delivery partner in The SOURCE partnership, which aims to take preventative action to help create a healthy, resilient and biodiverse landscape, for the benefit of all the people in the Calder Valley both now, and in future years.

“They plan to expand over the coming years, and would like to play an additional role in the delivery of the Yorkshire and Humber regional forestry strategy by offering help and support to anyone interested in starting a similar project in other parts of the region. They hope to achieve roughly 10-20% of the region’s targets for new woodland through community reforestation. They offer skill-sharing workshops, passing on practical advice on obtaining, evaluating and designing planting sites, maximising involvement, raising resources and communicating the science of climate change.

“You can join a weekend which is open to all. Children are welcome. Access is limited for people with limited mobility. Not all the jobs are physically demanding and people who need the less demanding jobs are welcome too. They were very flexible, welcoming people to come when they could and wanted to be there, for as long as they could and wanted to be there.

“Other weekends are open for group bookings. They welcome celebrations of special event with friends and family and team-building events. Cost per person for the weekend is £25 including all meals which are vegan and home-cooked at the hostel. People are also welcome to come for the day for which there is no charge. They welcome donations

“If you are inspired, I recommend joining a weekend and might even see you up there”

For background reading, here is George Monbiot’s article on the link between upland deforestation and lowland flooding.

 

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Website changes

Regular readers might have noticed that we have been revamping our website to give it a less cluttered appearance and make it easier to navigate.  It was getting a bit cluttered! We hope you like the changes.

You’ll find that some of the new pages are empty for now – we are working on this with some new material to help readers orientate and navigate.

It would help us a lot if you would let us know if there are any broken links:  just email us by clicking here.

And do let us know if you’ve any thoughts an ideas about the site.

Thanks!

 

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Moving on up? An open discussion on global-local issues.

Global and local.

Tuesday 7th November from 6.30pm to 8.30pm
Methodist Central Hall, Oldham St., Manchester, M1 1JQ   please book by emailing us through this link

There is a growing social divide by income and geography, an ever-widening wealth gap between peoples of different backgrounds, races, genders, classes and generations.
Many people are experiencing difficulties in making ends meet, and have greater insecurity and anxieties for their futures.
November’s Steady State conversation will explore the many troubling and challenging questions that face peoples and communities affected by poverty and austerity, conflict, aggressive resource extraction, climate change and environmental damage.
How does social and geographical mobility affect personal and group identities? What influences disparities in income and wealth for particular groups in today’s society? What would help and encourage social cohesion and global solidarity? What lessons are to be found in social movements that support a more inclusive and better future for all?
Steady State Manchester invites those who are interested in developing a common agenda and vision for peoples in both the Global North and the Global South.

For more events see our ‘What we are doing’ page

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