what is empowerment in times of climate crisis?

Dowling, E., Angioni, J. und Stani, L. (2023): Lernen für den Wandel – Auf dem Weg zu einer emanzipatorischen Nachhaltigkeitsstrategie im sozialen und ökologischen Umbau. Informationanen zur Umweltpolitik Band 210. AK Wien.

“Averting the climate crisis while improving the lives of working people – yes, it can be done!

This was the motto of the first Academy for Just Transition that took place in Vienna in April 2023, bringing together actors from across the trade unions, the Austrian Chamber of Labour, academia, and the climate movement. Following this motto, this study accompanies the formation of the academy and is intended to stimulate thinking and action.  We discuss current challenges for collaboration and present examples of historical and current organising and pedagogical methods from the trade union and climate movements. Our aim is to offer ideas for fostering solidarity and building common action. We conducted interviews with individuals working on educational programmes and projects within trade unions in Austria and beyond, the Austrian Chamber of Labour, as well as climate activist contexts. We also gathered information on past and present movement campaigns and strategies, as well as materials on organising and pedagogical methods.

Just Transition (which in German is often referred to as social and ecological transformation) must address the question of how economic, social, and political structures need to be changed to promote social and economic justice, protect the climate, and preserve planetary boundaries. A mere focus on individual consumption patterns is not sufficient to achieve this, instead existing infrastructures and modes of distribution need to be wholly transformed. Without real alternatives it will not be possible for many people to withdraw from emissions-intensive infrastructures and fossil fuel dependency. A conscious and democratic shaping of economy and society as opposed to the technocratic and profit-oriented modes of the capitalist economy. This means transforming the ways in which goods and services are produced and the ways in which energy and mobility systems are organised. This requires a shift in the relationship between society and nature as well as a shift in existing relations of power that uphold the status quo and block necessary change. Labour (paid and unpaid) is an important cornerstone of transformation. Likewise, it is important not to focus exclusively either on the local or the global level but consider the interplay and interdependency between these two spheres.

Following from this, in this study we asked ourselves what an emancipatory sustainability strategy could like. Importantly, if a combined social and ecological transformation is to be successful in the long term, people need to be able to participate in shaping its design. Ordinary people need to be active in the efforts to bring about social and environmental change. This requires developing visions and possibilities for action that challenge and side-step the existing neoliberal common sense. Broad alliances and coalitions for achieving a just transition in different areas of economy and society are particularly important to achieve a shift in consciousness, as well as structural change at the economic level (production, reproduction (care work) and consumption) and at the institutional level (political decision-making and legal regulations).

An emancipatory strategy for sustainability follows the method of connecting and combining. Quite generally, this method involves connecting and combining issues of social and environmental justice in broad coalitions and alliances. More specifically, this is an organising method that begins from where people are in their thinking and being in the world.  The idea is to begin from lived experiences, connecting these to the structural conditions that shape them (economically, culturally, politically), but also in exchange and discussion, enabling individuals to see that what they are experiencing is similar to what others might be experiencing. This method also involves people experiencing the power of collective action and that together with others they can achieve things that they wouldn’t be able to do alone, while also taking the skills and knowledge that people have seriously in its contribution to organising efforts.

See here for an English translation of the orientations for action.