Intimate and family practices, generational justice, environmental justice and global inequalities

dogbod2016, blog

by Prof Lynn Jamieson
The phrase ‘environmental justice’ is particularly used to point to the unfairness of the differential impact of environmental degradation and climate change that means those who suffer the most are those who are least responsible for the cause of the harm. It’s the activities of the minority of rich countries in the world who have disproportionately created global warming and the resulting climate change but the majority poor of the world who disproportionately suffer –the intensified drought and floods in regions where poverty already renders people extremely vulnerable, small nation-islands of the Pacific losing their home lands to the sea. The World Bank publishes international league tables of carbon footprints on a per person basis – the estimated total amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere as a result of the activities of that country divided by their population. They put the average for 2011-2015 for the USA at 17 metric tons per person compared with 7.1 for the UK but there are 48 of the roughly 200 countries with less than one ton per person. The majority of countries of these are in Africa but they also include– Afghanistan, Cambodia, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Paraguay, Guatemala, Haiti, Togo, Tonga, the West Bank and Gaza.

In aspect of family, domestic and personal life involving food, water, energy and the consumption of other material resources as ‘stuff’, in the rich minority world people are ratcheting up much higher carbon footprint than their equivalent in the majority poor world. For example, a HOUSE OF LORDS European Union Committee 10th Report of Session 2013–14 noted ‘Consumers in industrialised countries waste almost as much food as the entire net food production of sub-Saharan Africa. The global carbon footprint of wasted food has been estimated as more than twice the total greenhouse gas emissions of all road transportation in the United States (US)’ Not all food waste is at the level of households but in the UK about half of it is and the UK has the highest rate of food waste in Europe. Within the national contexts of the minority rich world, it’s the more affluent who are the major domestic producers of the harmful carbon emissions and the major consumers of irreplaceable global resources. So to stick with the example of food, in the UK, alongside the food waste we have households sometimes relying on foodbanks because they have no money to buy food. There are stark inequalities between rich and poor households in the UK in all aspects of consumption including domestic energy use and transport.

Ways in which people enact being a family or being in close relationships – family practices, practices of intimacy and displaying family – are often also practices of consumption. Families and relationships carry practices and values of consumption; they transmit dispositions to consume or conserve. Practices of gift giving, orientations to transport, food, water, energy use, shopping, spending, saving, recycling are shaped, carried, and sometimes transformed in families and relationships. Obviously this is not to suggest families and relationships are the whole story, they are embedded in, constrained or enabled by wider contexts. Sociologists of families and relationships study many aspects of the intersection of consumption with family and intimate practices but only a minority with awareness of issues of sustainability or a political interest in thinking about the conditions that would enable families and relationships to be part of the solution. This must change. Such a change does not mean subverting other political agendas, challenging homophobic heteronormativity, or gender inequality or racism or ethnic or religious division – all of these agendas can complement taking a more direct interest in modifying the trajectories of environmental catastrophe that we are currently on.

The term ‘intergenerational justice’ has been used in a range of ways reflecting the different usages of ‘generations’. In the context of climate change, intergenerational justice refers to the definition of sustainable development adopted in 1987 by the World Commission on Environment and Development chaired by Brundtland ‘Development that meets the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. Within studies of family, gender and intimate life there is considerable interest in shifts in balances of power and the nature of solidarity that offer clues about circumstances that enable and constrain reconfigurations of justice and equality. There are also bodies of work documenting tension between understandings of fairness and how rules develop, operate and are modified in everyday lives. A great deal is now known about the shifts in power in intergenerational relationships and the related varied conditions of ‘the stalled revolution’ in gender equality. There are significant bodies of work concerned with how people draw boundaries around caring for and about other people. Boundary work is often gendered and boundaries can be classed, raced and sexualised. Work on stepfamilies, for example, shows class differences in how family configurations are altered by separation and reformation of couple relationships. Scholars of families and relationships have done a great deal of work around issues relevant to intergenerational justice without linking it to the concerns of the Bundtland report.

I invite you to consider the structural and cultural conditions that enable the two extremes that are alive in writing about families and relationships – ‘amoral familism’ (Banfield, 1958) and ‘world families’ (Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2013). ‘Amoral familism’ refers to a set of rules of conduct that focus on the short-run advantage of the family household and never further the interests of the group or community unless this is maximising the narrow family interest. Banfield argued that amoral familism was the outcome of a complex combination of material, economic and cultural factors. The majority of villagers lived in extreme poverty with no access to redress, being served by education and health systems which perpetuated illiteracy and ill health. He suggested that childrearing practices fitted with and perpetuate this code of conduct, combining indulgence with arbitrary and frequent punishment – a combination that communicates ‘there is no underlying principles but only fate’ and created emotional dispositions that work against a sense of self-efficacy and faith in making your own biography. Beck and Beck-Gernsheim coined ‘world family’ bringing together what the wider literature calls transnational families (family relationships that span national boundaries) and ‘mixed relationships’ that is relationships across boundaries such as ethnic, national and religious boundaries. The purpose of the term is a claim of potentiality – that world families could be a transformative. They are suggesting a dialectic between the intimate practices within world families and undermining the boundaries and inequalities of the system of nation states. There is a lot stacked against this. The structural and cultural conditions in the UK at the moment seem extremely hostile to ‘world families’; the Brexit move is clearly a hardening of national boundary and is seen by much of the rest of the world as clearly unwelcoming. However, is there also some hope in reports of local actions in memory and solidarity of the victims of the mass murder of gay people in Orlando?

About the Author

CRFR co-director Professor Lynn Jamieson writes the final keynote speaker blog from our 5th International Conference: Unequal families and relationships.


1987 Brundland Report: Our Common Future. Oxford: World Commission on Environment and Development.
Banfield, E.C. (1958). The moral basis of a backward society. New York: The Free Press.
Beck, U. and Beck-Gernsheim, E. (2013). Distant love: John Wiley & Sons.