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Joining Up the Dots Between Social and Climate Justice: Time for a New Eco-Social Contract

27 Oct 2021

Joining Up the Dots Between Social and Climate Justice: Time for a New Eco-Social Contract
This contribution is published as part of the UNRISD Think Piece Series, The Time is Now! Why We Need a New Eco-Social Contract for a Just and Green World, launched as part of UNRISD’s activities to support a fair and sustainable recovery from multiple crises. In this series, we invite experts from academia, advocacy and policy practice to critically explore the various manifestations of our broken social contracts, the root causes of breakdown and the role of rising inequalities, as well as the drivers of positive change. We ask not only which policies and institutional reforms are needed, but also which actors can do what to overcome inequalities and build greater social and climate justice. What are the values, mindsets, political alliances and social movements that we need to build a new eco-social contract? These contributions, which feed into the activities of a newly created Global Research and Action Network for a New Eco-Social Contract, are part of the global conversation on building forward better for post-pandemic times and sustainable futures.

Katja Hujo is Senior Research Coordinator for the Transformative Social Policy Programme at UNRISD
Isabell Kempf is Head of Bonn Office and Senior Research Coordinator at UNRISD

🟢 This think piece introducing the UNRISD series, The Time is Now! Why We Need a New Eco-Social Contract for a Just and Green World, argues that our social contracts are broken and cannot sustain the transformative vision of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Rather than fixing what was never a truly inclusive, ecological or equitable social contract, we argue that now is the time for a fundamental rethink of the principles and values that guide our societies and economies. This will require a process of meaningful participation, deliberation and negotiation in different places, at different levels and with all stakeholders, to commit to new eco-social contracts which are fully inclusive, grounded in human rights, respect planetary boundaries and support new forms of solidarity.

A world in crisis signals broken social contracts

In a world of serial and simultaneous crises where countless certainties are shattered, many people are beginning to question the principles and values our societies are founded upon, what philosophers like Hobbes, Locke, or Rousseau have called the social contract. A social contract can be defined as the explicit and implicit agreements between states and citizens that define the rights and obligations underlying legitimacy, security, rule of law, citizenship and social justice. Theoretical approaches to, and real-world examples of, social contracts may differ according to the weight they give to social order versus social justice issues. And indeed, current debates take an even wider scope: diving deep into the racialist and gendered nature of existing social contracts; our broken relation with nature; governments’ failure to protect their populations or denial of basic democratic and human rights; migrants falling between the cracks; informal workers without fundamental labour rights, social protection or just wages.

These debates, and the ways current social contracts are failing, manifest themselves in mounting challenges and clearly demonstrate three important reasons why we need a new eco-social contract.

First, recent crises threaten to reverse previous progress on poverty reduction, equality and SDG implementation. The ongoing Covid-19 health pandemic, in particular, is still wreaking devastating socioeconomic havoc across the globe.

Second, our global socioeconomic model has failed to produce sustainable development, has undermined biodiversity and resulted in an urgent climate crisis, with the world heading for a steep temperature rise in excess of 3°C this century—far beyond the Paris Agreement goals of limiting global warming to below 2°C while pursuing 1.5°C.

Third, we are seeing increasing social tensions, protests and conflicts, undermining state legitimacy and eroding democracy, as a result of rising inequalities, persistent patterns of social exclusion, unequal power relations and governance failures—including the lack of political will to address urgent challenges.

Indeed, a number of actors, from Black Lives Matter and Extinction Rebellion, to the UN Secretary General, the International Trade Union Congress and the World Economic Forum, have recently spoken of the need for a new social contract, articulating their ideas and claims on how state-citizen relations, capital-labour relations, gender relations and human-nature relations need to change to address the huge challenges that humanity must confront head on if we are to survive.

A global blueprint already exists: In signing on to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, governments in the global North and South committed to creating inclusive social contracts that leave no one behind and safeguard nature. This amounts to a global social and ecological compact. Despite its accountability and follow-up mechanisms, the 2030 Agenda remains a voluntary commitment that needs to be translated into national eco-social contracts whereby political leaders can be held fully accountable for the delivery of their obligations and promises, and all citizens and societal groups can contribute to defining and achieving common goals.

To turn the 2030 Agenda into reality, UNRISD (in its 2016 flagship report, Policy Innovations for Transformative Change) has advocated for an eco-social turn and innovative eco-social policies to catalyse the necessary change in ideas, policies and practices at all levels. Because we now also need to shape a more fair and just post-pandemic world, we want to reinvigorate these proposals and take the debate to the next level. To do so we’re joining forces with academics, practitioners and activists to create a Global Research and Action Network for a New Eco-Social Contract. This blog series is one of many activities and outputs that the network will deliver over the coming years. UNRISD’s 2022 flagship report will be an additional pillar of our engagement with this debate.

A diversity of social contracts exists…

What do social contracts look like? They rarely bear that name and may not always be easy to identify, because they are often worked into the heart of governance structures, which themselves differ greatly. It is then perhaps not surprising that there is a wide diversity of social contracts, emerging from different contexts. How were these social contracts created, and by whom? How did they adapt (or not) to changing circumstances? Did they deliver on their promises?

For example, more equalized capital-labour relations and shared growth were at the heart of 20th century social contracts in industrialized welfare states and some late-industrializing countries in the global South. The promise of this bargain was delivered through an increase in the social wage for workers (employers’ or state’s social contributions) and a substantial expansion of social policies and publicly funded social services. During this period, which is often called the golden age of capitalism, all involved parties seemed to benefit: organized workers and their families, a thriving business sector, and an expanding public sector financed through growth-driven fiscal receipts.

Beyond the social contract associated with Western welfare capitalism, other kinds of social contracts and associated narratives, or normative frameworks, can be found across the world. In Africa, examples range from communitarian approaches dedicated to the common good such as Ubuntu—“I am because we are”—to post-colonial social contracts concerned with nation-building, state legitimacy and social cohesion. Social contracts in the Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) region have been labelled populist-authoritarian, grounding their legitimacy on security and service provision rather than participation.

Social contracts were often shaped by the dominant economic and political power structures: Western post-war social contracts, for example, were negotiated between governments, trade unions and employer’s associations, reflecting centralized corporatist industrial relations. In countries with important agricultural sectors, agrarian social pacts were forged, linking producer organizations, politicians and bureaucrats for policy formulation and coordination, or incorporating farmers into rural-based political parties. These bargains often resulted in more universal and tax-financed benefits as seen in the Nordic countries. Social contracts in mineral-rich countries were frequently characterized by elite capture and distributional conflicts as the cases of Chile, the Democratic Republic of Congo or Zimbabwe show, leading some scholars to argue that resource-rich countries are afflicted by a resource curse. However, there are also examples of governments which have included marginalized groups into social contracts in resource-dependent countries by widely distributing the benefits of resource extraction. In Bolivia, for example, the social contract was renegotiated during the government of indigenous President Evo Morales in the early 2000s. The process created a new shared narrative around the concept of buen vivir, a communitarian vision with indigenous roots on how to live in harmony with others and with nature, which was incorporated as a foundational narrative in the Bolivian constitution of 2009.

…and are unravelling

Many 20th century social contracts forged in the post-war/post-colonial era began unravelling during the period of neoliberal policies and accelerated globalization starting in the 1980s. They were increasingly replaced by new types of contracts that emphasized individual responsibilities for well-being through market mechanisms to the detriment of communal values, redistribution and public provision. Social contracts in the global South were undermined by debt crises and austerity policies. State-citizen relations and political legitimacy worsened as a result of shrinking fiscal resources, deteriorating public services and the social costs of structural adjustment. Donor bargains bypassed citizens and shifted governments’ accountability to deliver on their social contract from national electorates to external actors, while policy space shrunk as a consequence of loan conditionality.

Our missing contract with nature

A common characteristic of most 20th century social contracts was their failure to recognize planetary boundaries, protect biodiversity and ensure the sustainable use of natural resources. The consumption and production patterns associated with these contracts were not viable for the long term, and have resulted in the depletion of natural resources, pollution and environmental degradation. Indeed, while humanity has prospered, admittedly unevenly, it has come at a devastating cost to nature: Estimates show that between 1992 and 2014, produced capital per person doubled, and human capital per person increased by about 13% globally; but the stock of natural capital per person declined by nearly 40%. There was simply no binding obligation for economic actors, or the state, to protect the environment.

At the same time, the right to extract resources, deposit waste and emissions, and use eco-system services for profit-making, was taken for granted. Under this model, those who practiced more environmentally friendly ways of living were quickly pushed to the sides. All too often traditional farmers, fishers or indigenous communities with livelihoods based on sustainable use of forests, land and water resources were deprived of land and resource rights by big corporations or predatory rulers, or saw their livelihoods based on natural resources destroyed as a result of pollution and commercialized resource exploitation. Now, in the face of the devastating effects of the climate crisis, citizens around the world are calling upon governments to spearhead the transition towards sustainability, demanding a new eco-social contract.

The time is now! A new eco-social contract for a just and green world

Where do we go from here? In a recent issue brief, UNRISD suggests a number of principles that could guide our future deliberations around a new eco-social contract.
    1. Human-rights based social protection for all
      beyond employment-related social benefits. This will include those excluded from previous social contracts.

    2. A contract with nature
      because human life exists on a finite planet, and economic activities and societies cannot be delinked from Earth’s ecosystems.

    3. Transform economies and societies
      to halt and reverse environmental destruction and climate change and promote social inclusion and equality.

    4. Address historical injustices
      by promoting just transitions, decolonized and indigenous knowledge, and social values and capacities from the global South.

    5. Gender justice
      so that activities of production and reproduction are equally shared by women and men and different genders, and sexual orientations and expressions of gender identity are granted equal respect and rights.

    6. New forms of solidarity
      bringing together progressive alliances between science, policy makers and social activists; and replacing the old mindset of “us against them” with a new “spirit of unity”.

    7. A progressive fiscal contract
      that raises sufficient resources for climate action and SDG implementation and does so in a fair way.

We are inviting contributors to this series to share their research, experiences and opinions in our common quest to build a new eco-social contract for sustainable futures.

Photo: Sarah Ardin, Shefta Shifa (public domain via Unsplash)


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This article reflects the views of the author(s) and does not necessarily represent those of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development.