“SSE initiatives are the seeds of change, a key piece in promoting the eco-social transition”

Interview with the economist Rubèn Suriñach Padilla, coordinator of the Futurs ImPossibles project.

16/01/2023 - 17:10 h - Climate emergency Ajuntament de Barcelona

Interview with the economist Rubèn Suriñach Padilla, coordinator of the Futurs ImPossibles project.

How does the Solidarity Economy Network (XES) work on the ecological transition?

The first Socio-Environmental and Solidarity Economy conference , whose aim was to give the environmental aspect full focus in the Social and Solidarity Economy (SSE) debate, was held a few years ago as a result of an initiative by a group of cooperatives forming part of the XES. We did this because we could see that it was being dealt with as a side issue rather than a central one. It was included in the discourse, but environmental matters were not being seriously included in practice. The XES Ecology Committee was created at that conference, with cooperatives such as Espai Ambiental, El Risell and La Fàbrica, among others, who promoted it and opened up a gap, raising awareness among the rest of the SSE and XES social base on the importance of placing the environment at the centre of the debate.

The current circumstances have led the environmental crisis to take on a much more central role in recent years. We increased awareness slowly and gradually, but the exacerbation of the double whammy of the climate and energy crisis has made the urgency of the matter impossible to ignore. In fact, the XES is now drawing up a strategic plan made up of three major global challenges, one of which is the environmental crisis.

How do you envisage this eco-social transition being carried out?

Our action is based on the basic premise of the environmental crisis as a global challenge with two main facets. One of them is the climate crisis, which will condition how we can live on this planet in the coming years, decades and centuries. And the other is the energy crisis which, although accelerated by the war in Ukraine, is something that had been predicted for many years in connection with the depletion of fossil fuels as the system’s driving force. As a result of this double crisis, we must rethink the way our society is organised and also the economic system underpinning this idea of ecological realism. Any future scenario we project must be based on ecological realism.

We must reduce the amount of energy and materials we consume, because of their shortage and also because of the climate crisis. The question is which degrowth or reduction in consumption to carry out. Should we carry out a reduction in consumption led by the elites or capitalised on by the far right, with the possibility of an eco-fascist scenario? Or, as we would argue, should we aim to achieve an ecological transition involving social justice and economic democracy?

One of the pillars of such a transition is social justice, putting in place major income and resource redistribution policies to ensure that the poorest do not end up being the ones who pay the most for this crisis. And the other pillar is economic democracy in the sense of empowering society to lead this change both in the economic sphere and by mobilising and organising civil society on the street. This is where the SSE plays a key role when it comes to showing that needs can be met, and economic activity created, in an alternative way, respecting the planet’s limits and on the basis of organisational democracy.

Why is it important for this conversation to be led by the social and solidarity economy?

We are dealing with an unprecedented environmental crisis and, as an SSE, we must be ready to face it, because the creation of economic alternatives is successfully promoting initiatives to fully include the criteria for the achievement of a fair and democratic transition. They are democratically managed community and business projects with an environmental conscience that also comply with the principles of labour, economic and social justice. SSE initiatives are the seeds of change, a key piece on the entire board for the promotion of the transition.

What role do individuals play in these eco-social transitions and your proposed model?

In spite of having been a member of Opcions for many years, I’ve gradually become a bit sceptical about individuals’ ability to bring about change. Individual change is relevant when it comes to promoting a different consumption culture in small social settings, at micro level, but in order to generate change at macro level any individual change must be part of a collective change.

If you’re considering consuming in a conscious manner and suddenly start trying to fix all of the world’s problems, you’ll face a very difficult path. And it’s even worse if you’re doing it on your own. If you want to approach it from your own lifestyle, you must find collective spaces for sharing it, such as consumer cooperatives, parenting groups or exchange networks, where you can share the change process with others. And take part in street actions whenever you can.

So what is the role of public authorities?

If you’re talking about undertaking a transition process based on social justice and the redistribution of resources, the parties who are best placed to carry out this redistribution process are administrations with state policies, macroeconomic policies that can make fiscal changes and reallocate public resources in accordance with priorities. Even if this involves introducing basic incomes, reducing working hours, and supporting and retraining people who previously worked in highly polluting industries but are now unemployed and must retrain in order to work in other sectors. And who better to carry out such macro-economic policies than the central government?

So what is the role of civil society in this context?

The public authorities are hardly likely to promote this change by themselves. That’s why we need an active and mobilised civil society to lead the way. We must follow the best possible path in this dialogue between what civil society says and what the administrations do. Two recent examples, the airport expansion and the Winter Olympics, show a potential way to do this. These two projects, which are of direct benefit to the techno-capitalist elites and have had the administrations’ support, have been successfully stopped by a mobilised civil society.

The administrations and political parties will gradually realise what is and isn’t socially acceptable, regardless of how hard they are pushed by the elites. Public administrations are key to undertaking these changes. But an organised and mobilised civil society is also important.

Would these dynamics also apply to municipal policies?

The co-production of public policies by public administrations and civil society is a much more realistic possibility at a local level. This is because of the relevance of proximity. The Barcelona 2030 Social and Solidarity Economy Strategy is a co-produced policy which is already proving that it is possible to promote public policies as co-productions between civil society and the administration.

In fact, when we talk about economic democratisation, this is what we’re really talking about: introducing the democratic management principles developed by the SSE into the running of the administration.

As you go up each level and it’s no longer just about the local area but about Catalonia or Spain as a whole, things become a bit more complicated. This is why mobilisation must always be part of this social dialogue: we must always have a voice pointing in the direction we want to take, a voice that speaks on behalf of future generations and is not constrained by the electoral calendar.

And this is where Futurs Impossibles comes in. What is the project about?

The XES, Coòpolis and the Debt in Globalisation Observatory have decided to put this project together, taking the initiative when it comes to proposing a different ecological transition rather than continuing to adopt a reactive role and form a united front of social movements which shows that an alternative ecological transition is possible.

Impossible Futures is a three-pronged project. The first part is yet another impact and awareness campaign on the eco-social transition that was launched in September and revolves around the website, where we’re constantly adding links to talks, debates and articles on 12 major subject areas that fuel the eco-social transition debate.

This campaign leads to the second part of the project, the Eco-Social Transition Forum (to be held on 24 and 25 February). One of the main goals of the forum, which will include different stages, is to form a united front of movements organised and coordinated at both political and activist levels to work on joint proposals and a common roadmap.

The third part, which is taking place in parallel to the other two, involves holding a set of future scenario workshops. We held a training session with the Altekio cooperative in Madrid for 25 facilitators from all over Catalonia with links to cooperative centres, facilitation cooperatives and others. These workshops, which we’ve been holding since September, are a tool for creating a joint vision to adapt the situation to four possible future scenarios (eco-fascism, corporate Green New Deal, transformative Green New Deal and degrowth) and make people ask themselves what their local area or region will be like in 2040 in each of those scenarios and draw the temporal thread that led to them. We then create lines of action to boost their beneficial aspects and reduce their undesirable ones. Anyone can request a workshop, and we will assess whether it can be done.

How is this project related to the #ESSBCN2030 Strategy and the Enfortim l’ESS [Strengthening the SSE] campaign?

The ecological transition is one of the #ESSBCN2030 Strategy’s Strategic Lines (L8), but no one in the participatory area wanted to take the initiative from the SSE to show an alternative ecological transition. So it fell to us. In addition, the XES and the Coòpolis Eco-Social Transition Circle are two players from the participatory area and the driving group.

The call for the Strengthening the SSE initiative included a specific category for developing major lines of action in the strategy. It has been key to starting the project. Now it will continue into 2023, because the forum is only a milestone in a bigger process. We want to draw the SSE together around possible visions of the future, placing the project at the service of the community. In fact, on Friday 24 February we will be holding a workshop at the forum on future scenarios for the entire SSE ecosystem, including all the organisations in the #ESSBCN2030 Strategy’s participatory area.

How can we build this transformation from a place of hope rather than defeatism?

There is a great contrast between visions based on hope but with potentially very naive approaches to social change on the one hand, and alarmist visions, which discourage people from taking action, on the other. We must be conscious of the current situation, of the fact that the challenge we’re facing is a very difficult one, but without allowing ourselves to think we’ve lost before even fighting the battle. We must think of the fight as an end in itself. We don’t know if we will achieve a desirable future. The main thing is to fight for this desirable future. That we fight for future generations. Active hope is also an activist philosophy under which victories are commemorated and people feel part of a global whole.

You have published Tot era massa fràgil with Pol·len Edicions. Why is it so important to build new and different fictions?

Precisely in order to foster mobilisation. For example, my novel has two timelines: one in 2025 and one in 2045. The one set in 2045 is a dystopian and almost eco-fascist future. But you know exactly what brought you here and what social dynamic led you to this situation. It helps you understand the dilemmas that civil society has had to face at particular times in order to address what was going on, the disruptions that can arise. It enables you to identify those decisive moments that can turn your life towards one scenario or another so that you can be ready to act in those moments. The plot of the 2025 timeline focuses on the dilemmas of a major political disruption, and I’ve placed the SSE at the centre of this debate too, because the narrative is driven by group struggles. It’s not a story about an individual hero or someone fighting for survival on a completely individual basis. Rather, it is driven by the search for hope through group struggles.

When defining possible futures in works of fiction, it’s important to ensure they are not naïve and that they show that situations can be difficult but with a possible way out.