The Private is Public

The mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, recently announced her council’s intention to reduce the city’s use of private cars in order to cut air pollution and carbon emissions. As a means of cities taking action on climate change it’s promising but what I found particularly interesting was the way Colau framed the action as an issue of social justice.

To quote Colau in the article, air pollution isĀ “a social issue because it affects the most vulnerable people – children, those who are ill – so it is a problem of the city, not just an issue that abstractly affects the sustainability of the planet”.

Now given that my previous post discussed recent research suggesting that framing climate issues in terms of justice was polarising (generally finding support from the left-leaning and not the right-leaning) this may not be the most effective communications message.

What is interesting though is that the environmental and health impacts of private car use are being treated here explicitly by a political leader as a public concern. That is to say, the externalities (ie. the costs borne by others) of private car use are not being simply ignored as an unfortunate side effect of private choices to drive a car. They are being clearly identified as an issue of public and collective concern, particularly for the most vulnerable amongst us who bear the costs often without gaining the benefits.

This is significant because in a pro-market view many individual choices are seen as simply private decisions. Indeed, in many developed countries, particularly geographically large ones like Australia, the US and Canada where urban sprawl is a common feature of cities, private car use is often seen as a personal right. Colau is calling that right, that personal choice, into question as a public issue. She is asking us to recognise and act on the social cost of excessive private car use.

This reminds me of the seminal feminist argument of the 1960s and 1970s that the personal is political. Issues that were often dismissed as private or personal, such as division of household labour, reproductive rights and childcare, were challenged by feminists as inherently political. By bringing these concerns out into the open and making them subject to public debate and even state intervention fairer arrangements could be reached that achieved greater gender equality and addressed negative personal and social impacts.

By addressing excessive private car use as an issue of social justice Colau is issuing a similar statement: to paraphrase the feminist argument, that the private is public. This is important because the environmental and social impacts of private activities will increasingly have to be recognised and acted upon as public problems if we are to address issues of the scale of climate change and environmental degradation. When it comes to the environment the private needs to become public.

This should not mean of course only targeting individuals and their choices that have negative environmental impacts. It means also targeting, challenging and changing the political, economic and social/cultural structures that enable and promote such choices and the broadly held assumptions that protect them. The environmental impacts of private business activity also need to be increasingly made a public concern. This is why Colau’s words and actions are exciting, because they represent just such a challenge.


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