Human Well-being and the Biosphere

23 October 2020

During The Tocqueville Review/La Revue Tocqueville‘s recent conference on the notion of Well-Being, economist Eloi Laurent gave a presentation entitled “Human Well-being and the Biosphere: Connecting the Circles,” in which he argued that in the face of ecological crises, human well-being must be understood in connection to the health of ecosystems. In other words, that there is a reciprocal relation between social justice and ecological sustainability. Following the conference, Stephen Sawyer and Arthur Goldhammer had these questions for Laurent, building on the approach he outlined in his presentation. Eloi Laurent’s latest book is Et si la santé guidait le monde, published this year at Les liens qui libèrent.


Stephen Sawyer: You introduced the idea of the social ecological feedback loop, which will be at the heart of your forthcoming book. Can you briefly explain this idea and how it contributes to contemporary debates on the economics of sustainability?


Eloi Laurent: The question I am trying to address with this framework is the following: How can we represent the mutually beneficial social-ecological interactions between natural and human systems? Since the key feature of social-ecological policies is to dovetail social issues and ecological challenges, the circles in, for instance, Kate Raworth’s “doughnut” vision, with an ecological ceiling and a social floor, must be connected.


Concentric circles can represent the embedding of economic and social systems within the biosphere. But I wanted to go further, sketching a social-ecological feedback loop reproducing the mathematical symbol of infinity but also evoking a Möbius strip (the shape which has inspired the recycling logo since the early 1970s, and by extension the circular economy).


This vision depicting dynamic social-ecological synergies clarifies the circular and cumulative nature of the social-ecological loop by emphasizing two essential nodes: the link between inequalities and ecological crises and the link between ecosystem health and human health.


Stephen Sawyer: You suggested in your recent article with Berry that the “yellow vests were right.” What did you mean by this?


Environmental inequality does not only result from so-called natural disasters like hurricanes or exposure to health hazards such as air pollution, it can also result from public policy: for instance, carbon taxation based on energy consumption end up disproportionately burdening those on the lower side of the income spectrum and can exacerbate social inequality. This is exactly what happened in France when the Macron-Philippe government decided to increase carbon taxation from 44 euros to 55 euros a ton without any social compensation based on income or location. Close to 3.8 million French households (i.e. eight million people) are currently estimated to suffer from fuel poverty (close to 15 percent of the French population), with over 40 percent of households of the first income quartile considered fuel poor.


If you increase energy taxation without “recycling” its revenues into social justice, they will suffer the most simply because they devote 2.5 times more to energy in their budget than the richest households. Your carbon tax is thus going to be economically regressive and likely rejected politically because of that. The initial claim by the “yellow vests” that the carbon tax increase was socially unfair was indeed absolutely true. But there is nothing inevitable about the social injustice of environmental taxation:  the French carbon tax proposed in 2009 redistributed money to the 30 percent of the poorest French (2018’s “yellow vests”) on the basis of income and spatial location, while the most efficient ecological-tax systems on the planet (especially in the Nordic countries) are all built on a principle of social compensation.


Stephen Sawyer: During the discussion following your paper, Julian Culp (Philosophy AUP) posed the question of finding ecologically sound solutions for developing countries, especially in the global south. You responded that we needed to make a distinction between “luxury” versus “survival” emissions. What did you mean by this distinction?


To go back to the previous question, when you ask people like the “yellow vests” to make important sacrifices in their core livelihood in the name of the common good but omit to drastically reduce emissions from air travel, you make transition policy simply impossible. The ecological transition will be just or just not be. We know from the empirical work of Oxfam that the major imbalance between the size of the population and the volume of carbon emitted does not occur in the middle of the global income distribution but at the very top: 10 percent of the people on the planet emit 50 percent of all emissions, the vast majority of those super-emitters still living in Western countries. A typical “super-rich” household of two people produces a carbon footprint of close to 130 tCO2e per year (with motor vehicle use generating 10 tCO2e per year, household energy emitting 19 tCO2e per year, secondary consumption 35 tCO2e per year, and 66 tCO2e per year generated by the leading emission contributor: air travel). This is 25 times the world’s average! Let’s start by reducing those luxury emissions before trying to cut survival emissions.


Arthur Goldhammer: What do you think of Piketty’s proposal in his last book to impose a global ecotax linked to income?


A global ecotax does not make sense to me from a policy perspective. What would make sense in my view would be to have, at long last, at the UN, a serious global conversation on the criteria of allocation of the global carbon budget: agreeing on simple justice criteria (level of human development, population dynamic, historical responsibility, etc.) according to which the remaining emissions up until 2050 should be distributed amongst the world’s countries. Then each country would decide on the proper mix of mitigation instruments (taxes, regulations, etc.) to remain within their assigned budget. This, for me, is the whole point of COP 26 next year because the Paris Agreement is silent on climate justice while climate justice is the solution to climate change.


Photo Credit: Mike Swigunski via Unsplash


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