Is the green economy really the new magic formula?
“Green economy” promoters present it as a model
that can resolve the ecological and economic crises.
This article by three members of the
Heinrich Böll Stiftung Green Political Foundation
questions the green economy’s basic assumptions,
hypotheses and proposed solutions.
Barbara Unmübig / Lili Fuhr / Thomas Fatheuer
The dominant image of the green economy is that it wants to get away from the use of fossil fuels. It is an attractive and optimistic message: the economy can continue growing and that growth can be green; it can even promote more growth… Is all that really possible?
It’s a question of faith
and selective blindness
Reconciling climate protection and resource conservation with economic growth in a finite and unjust world is a vain illusion. Given the positive associations it promotes, the term “green economy” suggests that the world as we know it can go on as it always has thanks to a paradigm of “green” growth” that achieves greater efficiency and low resource consumption. Nonetheless, this promise requires eliminating complexity in a deliberated way so that in exchange we can deposit enormous faith in the miracles of the market economy and technological innovation while ignoring and thus not addressing the existing structures of economic and political power. The green economy thus becomes an issue of faith and selective blindness.
The green economy can only be a viable option for the future if we recognize the planetary limits and guarantee a radical reduction of greenhouse effect gasses and a fair distribution of the resources and their consumption.
The green economy
wants to redefine nature
The green economy’s defenders advocate the economy’s preeminence as a decisive response to the current crisis. As a consequence, they seek to correct the market economy’s failures, expand the market and get it to take on realities that previously escaped its dominion, to which end they are redefining the relationship between Nature and economy.
The result is a new version of the concept of Nature as “natural capital” and of natural resources as “economic services of the ecosystem.” Rather than rethinking and transforming the ways we produce, distribute and consume, the green economy tries to redefine Nature by measuring it, recording it, assigning it values and then noting and putting it on a balance sheet, attributing to it an abstract world “currency,” known as “carbon credits.”
This way of thinking hides the multiple structural causes of the environmental and climatic crisis, leaving them outside of any consideration in the search for solutions. The consequences of such an approach are also reflected in the new market mechanisms for the trade in “biodiversity credits,” which in many cases do not avoid the destruction of Nature but rather organize the market criteria in a simplistic way.
The green economy reduces the need for a fundamental transformation to a mere economic question, giving the impression that it can be applied without major jolts or conflicts. The decisive question of how to create a better future with fewer material goods, a different perspective and greater diversity isn’t even asked.
It’s not enough to
reduce carbon emissions
The green economy establishes its main de-carbonization strategy as a sort of manta: “put a price on carbon.” The problem is that this reductionism to a price and a monetary unit—carbon credits—is unidimensional.
De-carbonization can mean many things: gradually eliminating the use of carbon, oil and gas; compensating for fossil fuel emissions by storing equivalent amounts of carbon in plants or soil; using technology to capture and store carbon on an industrial scale… From the perspective of social and ecological advantages, each of these options leads to totally different results.
The world crisis is more than a climate crisis. The system of “planetary limits,” established by the Stockholm Resilience Center and now widely recognized, identifies three areas where we have exceeded the safety limit just in the ecological sphere. These three areas are climate change, loss of biodiversity and nitrogen contamination, particularly due to the abuse of fertilizers in agriculture.
The green economy pays no attention to the complexity and interactions of these three crises and reduces the project of saving the world to a simple narrative about the economic model.
The green economy
makes innovation a fetish
Faith and trust in technological innovation are essential to the promises disseminated by the green economy. It gives relevance to innovation but does not place it in a context of interests and power structures.
There is no question but that we need innovation. Nor is there any question that to bring about a comprehensive transformation we require it not only in the technological sphere, but also in the social and cultural ones.
Innovation, particularly technological, must always be assessed in its social, cultural and environmental context. In the end, innovation doesn’t always automatically represent progress nor can conclusive results always be obtained with it. Innovation responds to the interests and power structures of those promoting it. As a consequence, many innovations contribute nothing to a fundamental transformation, but rather legitimate the existing state of things, and frequently prolong the life of products and systems that ceased being appropriate for a positive future.
The auto industry, for example, produces cars with increasingly efficient fuel consumption, but ones that are larger and heavier than ever. This industry has also proven to be highly innovative in its forms of camouflaging the results of the contaminating gas emissions tests, as was demonstrated in the recent Volkswagen scandal. In addition, It is replacing fossil fuels with highly problematic bio-fuels, both socially and ecologically. Can we really expect this industry to play a distinguished role in the transformation that must radically restructure our public transport systems to the detriment of private cars?
Innovations change our lives, but they do not create miracles. Nuclear technology did not resolve the world energy problem. Nor did the “green revolution” end world hunger. The examples of nuclear energy, genetic engineering and geo-engineering show how controversial technology is if its limitations and the social and ecological damage it can provoke are not previously examined in detail in all their dimensions.
The green economy makes
a false promise of efficiency
It’s true that our economy is increasingly efficient, and that is indisputably positive. But at the rate we’re moving, that efficiency will be insufficient.
Let’s just look at the example of household appliances, which consume increasingly less energy. But as there are more electrical apparatuses in our homes than ever, that reduces, if not neutralizes, the positive effect of their increasing efficiency and energy savings.
Although it is possible to delink energy consumption and growth, we have to do even more to achieve the needed transformation, and that means achieving a radical and absolute reduction in energy and resource consumption, especially in the industrialized countries. Achieving that absolute reduction is not feasible without questioning the basis of growth in the current prosperity model.
There is no feasible scenario that combines economic growth with an absolute reduction of environmental consumption and greater global justice in a world of nine billion inhabitants.
It is apolitical and
ignores human rights
The green economy has numerous blind spots. It has little concern about the political aspects, barely registers human rights, does not recognize the people immersed in economic processes, ignores the social actors and suggests that it is possible to make reforms without triggering conflicts. It ignores social conflicts such as those that arise with the construction of wind farms and does not respond to the question of who has the capacity to store carbon from the forests.
Given the growing awareness that there is no longer an option, that things aren’t changing, the green economy provides a supposedly non-political vehicle that is hegemonizing the path of transformation while at the same time obscuring the economic and political interests, hiding the structures of power and property, forgetting human rights and not taking into account the resources available to power.
The future requires
realistic environmental policies
To respond adequately to the challenges of the future we need a realistic vision of the world, one without the distortions of a meaningless illusion such as the one the green economy offers.
The solutions will not be simple nor will they all result in a scenario “advantageous for all.” It will not always be possible to reconcile ecology and business. The needed transformation will affect powerful interests and there will be losers. The transformation can’t be obtained without hard negotiations, conflicts or resistance.
This realism represents a call to action, particularly to the action of those responsible for formulating policies. Governance has been crucial to greater environmental advances. The protection of human and natural habitats, motivated politically and applied without exceptions, are much more effective than monetizing Nature and the vital spaces of peoples who have protected their ecosystems for millennia.
There are feasible options
There is no lack of options or good examples. Organic agriculture, even on a large scale, is already a reality and constitutes a highly productive sector of the economy. The theoretical bases of alternative forms of mobility systems in networks have already been developed and their initial phases tested. They don’t rest primarily on the use of private vehicles, although automobiles with zero emissions have not been discarded.
Although there is no need to regulate each small detail, specific prohibitions are occasionally indispensable for substances such as leaded gas, highly toxic insecticides and chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) insofar as their use can be independently monitored and with low exposure thresholds. Options exist if innovation is not confined to the concept of technological innovation. New lifestyles and new forms of urban life also constitute innovations. A decentralized supply of renewable energy is within the sphere of the possible, as is the elimination of subsidies that harm the environment. Generally speaking, there is no shortage of options; the difficulty is in putting them into practice, especially given the reticence of entrenched minority interests. Given these reticent postures, stopping to analyze how to respond to the question “How can we achieve green growth” is senseless.
Re-politicizing environmental policy
Radical realism is essential to be able to come to terms with a political ecology that is not deterred by uncomfortable questioning and seeks a fair social and ecological transformation that benefits the majorities of any society.
We must re-politicize environmental policy and return to the term “political ecology” as a way of comprehending the complexity of the relations between politics and ecology and between human beings and Nature. We must see to it that environmental policies and controls come before economic interests.
Social, cultural and technological innovations must be more intimately interrelated. Technological innovations, particularly their social and ecological impacts, must be subjected to broad debate and democratic control.
“Greening” the economy with resource conservation, the transition toward renewable energies, improved technology, effective economic incentives and taxes is unquestionably one step toward the solution.
Even taking all this into account, it must be understood that a comprehensive socio-ecological transformation project goes beyond it. It must question the established power and give priority to democratic structures and decision-making processes that put fundamental human and environmental rights at the center.
Reversing the current tendencies requires more radicalness than the green economy proposals. That won’t be possible without passion and optimism, but nor will it without conflicts and struggle. Our new book [Inside the Green Economy – Promises and Pitfalls (2016)] is an invitation to the debate.
Barbara Unmüßig is president of Heinrich Böll Stiftung, the Green Political Foundation, Lili Fuhr is head of the foundation’s department of ecology and sustainable development and Thomas Fatheuer is the foundation’s sociologist and philologist. This article, edited and translated by envío, is from the foundation’s June 2016 bulletin and was originally titled “Nine Theses on the Critique of Green Economy.”