Publication Southeast Asia - Socio-ecological Transformation Building the Social-Ecological Future

A new volume exploring transformative approaches to sustainability in Vietnam

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Illustration: Nguyen Vu Xuan Lan

Our world is engfuled by multiple simultaneous and interrelated crises: the climate crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic, threats to health systems, the global financial crash and subsequent bank bailouts, humanitarian emergencies due to natural disasters, and global biodiversity loss. Each and every one of us is affected by them to some degree, and they all tell us one thing: more of the same is not an option.

Philip Degenhardt directs the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Hanoi Office.

Many people feel like this. However, they are unsure what the right path to a socially and ecologically sustainable future might be. The answer of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation and other left actors worldwide is social-ecological transformation. But what does this mean in practice? And how is it different from the “sustainable development” championed by others?

Firstly, our analysis is different. Those of us who believe in a social-ecological transformation see that our current economic system, neoliberal capitalism, is faced with multiple crises. We seek a comprehensive answer. Therefore, our response must not look to solve each individual problem in isolation. Instead, it must grasp their interconnectedness and solve them together. In other words, it is essential to understand that these individual issues merge into one global, multi-layered crisis.

Secondly, another difference is our clear focus on social and ecological aspects in all projects and target-oriented concepts. This orientation is essential because purely economic development cannot create a better future for all. Just repeating old economic mechanisms with a little more green paint, as we so often see under the banner of sustainable development, will not be enough to overcome this multi-faceted crisis.

The social-ecological understanding of a global, multi-pronged crisis implies a clear rejection of the hegemonic dogma of neoliberalism. On a planet with limited resources, unlimited and unrestrained growth is impossible. Therefore, the prevailing view that social, economic, and societal development is only possible through economic growth must be challenged.

To promote a social-ecological transformation, the four destructive industries that most threaten our livelihoods must be transformed: energy, transport, industrial agriculture (including agribusiness), and the military-industrial complex. In exacerbating the current multi-faceted crisis, their interdependencies and relations with global finance and the tech sector are particularly noteworthy.

This destructive quartet is responsible for the worst pollution and the highest consumption of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels account for about 80 per cent of the world’s energy supply. The transport sector alone is responsible for more than 60 per cent of global oil consumption and 25 percent of carbon dioxide emissions. It is an immense accelerator of climate change and climate-induced migration.

Likewise, globalized neoliberal agriculture leads to problems including monocultures, land grabs and displacement, loss of biodiversity, soil degradation, and drought, to name just a few. Meanwhile, the damage caused by wars, such as Agent Orange (a chemical defoliant used by the US military) in Vietnam, and radioactive munitions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan as well as elsewhere around the world, make the military-industrial complex unsustainable from a social-ecological perspective. Moreover, it devours huge amounts of capital. This money is then no longer available for other, less harmful sectors.

The multidimensional, interconnected crisis is largely caused by this quartet of destructive industries. Once we agree on the problem, we then need to consider the solution. This includes bringing together different progressive actors from all over the world with different experiences and ideas to oppose neoliberalism with a new economic and social model.

But how can we build a counter-power against a greenwashed capitalism that tries to solve the current crisis with the very same mechanisms that created it? Social-ecological transformation is our answer. It is a progressive, left-wing intervention in the discourse on sustainable development. It aims to overcome a development path that destroys social relations and ecological diversity. It combines and gives equal weight to theoretical and practical knowledge within a multidimensional approach. This means that not only academics, and politicians, but also indigenous communities, urban stakeholders, and other actors must have a voice in shaping social-ecological transformation. Different, balanced answers are needed on both large and small scales, which have to be worked out together.

Social-ecological transformation can be seen as a framework for transformative projects within societies. It is an open concept that should be developed on a broad basis and with as many partners as possible. Likewise, there must be networking between the actors involved in the debate as well as across national borders with others pursuing the same theoretical approach. Last, but not least, openness is needed. We must be responsive to local conditions, integrating them while also formulating precise ideas about what a social-ecological transformation could look like.

Building the Social-Ecological Future: Transformative Approaches in Vietnam aims to contribute eight concrete examples from Vietnam to the global debate on how to implement a social-ecological transformation. It includes ideas and initiatives from scientists, youth workers, and people who have been working with nature and for a sustainable coexistence for decades.

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