My Turn: For our survival, we need a new social contract

For the Monitor
Published: 10/8/2019 7:00:12 AM

Sept. 20, millions of youth across the globe took to the streets to join the #ClimateStrike movement started by the extraordinary Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg and led in the U.S. by the young people of color who founded and direct the Youth Climate Strike.

As both a father and the executive director of Rights & Democracy, a people’s organization in New Hampshire and Vermont, I attended the local strike in Burlington, Vt., with our 7- and 9-year-old children. Before we went, we discussed why it was necessary to fight for their right to a future, the need for a Green New Deal and the need to dramatically change our way of life on this planet. These are the same demands that Rights & Democracy members and allies will bring to our Oct. 13 People’s Presidential Forum at the University of New Hampshire. We will challenge candidates to join us in creating an entirely new social contract for our country. The Green New Deal is only the beginning.

As author Naomi Klein writes in her recently published book, On Fire: The Burning Case For A Green New Deal, the climate and ecological crisis we face is “born of the central fiction on which our economic model is based: that nature is limitless, that we will always be able to find more of what we need.” Thunberg raised this issue when she spoke at the United Nations Climate Summit, calling out the irresponsibility of world leaders who continue to let a system be based on “fairytales of eternal economic growth.”

We don’t need elaborate technological solutions that allow us to keep growing our economy in a more sustainable way. Instead, we need a comprehensive social, economic and political transformation that addresses an even more fundamental failure: We live in a society that “grows” the economy through the extraction and pollution of finite natural resources and the economic exploitation of the vast majority of humanity.

In a country where, despite vast wealth, we see a rise of what some experts call “deaths of despair,” technological solutions can offer nothing more than a temporary bandage while the wound continues to fester underneath.

For this reason, the Rights & Democracy Institute is working with partners such as the National Economic and Social Rights Initiative, the Center For Popular Democracy and People’s Action to challenge candidates and political leaders to support a counter-model to our current system.

The counter-model that is presented in the New Social Contract report, released in 2018, looks to community-driven solutions that can transform our system toward protecting rights, bringing democracy to life, and sharing resources equitably and sustainably.

Along those lines, the Green New Deal resolution proposed by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey is a strong vision that launches this future by incorporating, into a clean energy plan transformative ideas like a federal jobs guarantee and Medicare For All. These approaches would move us toward an economy that focuses on care over consumption, and meeting needs through a regenerative economy that provides what we all need, when we need it and within the bounds of our planetary home.

Given the stakes for humanity, already in the midst of a mass extinction, it is painfully clear that the 2020 election could not be more critical for us to radically change direction. We must move forward with bold ideas at this scale.

We have begun with the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, and must continue finding bold solutions like a Homes Guarantee, and a New Social Contract For Workers. Each of these ideas are necessary, yet still not sufficient. We must dismantle the economic and finance systems that are at the core of what threatens our very existence. This includes the wasteful spending on the military and suicidal nuclear weapons, and divesting from not just fossil fuels and extractive industries but also the incarceration system. Instead, we should invest our shared resources in communities that provide the freedom to thrive and developing a just immigration system to ensure freedom of movement for climate refugees. Together all of these represent the emerging vision from social justice movements. They are bold. Can our candidates match that boldness?

Human nature is social and we rely on each other, but we live under a broken model that fails to recognize this and threatens our very survival. We must demand more transformational leadership from our candidates, together with organized peoples’ movements with the deep moral conviction that accompanied other great transformations, such as the abolitionist movement.

Our youth know this, and it is our collective responsibility to roll up our sleeves and join them. That means many more and much bigger climate strikes, winning political mandates in the upcoming elections and organizing locally to build the democratic structures that we will need in order to see through a just transition that puts people and the planet first. It is our best possible future, and one we can build together.

(James Haslam is the founding executive director of the Rights & Democracy and Rights & Democracy Institute, based in New Hampshire and Vermont. Learn more about the about the Oct. 13 People’s Presidential Forum at and about the push for a New Social Contract at

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