Introduction to Inside the Green Economy

Introduction to Inside the Green Economy

Green Economy is a source of both hope and controversy. For some, it points the way out of permanent environmental and economic crises and promises to reconcile – a long cherished Utopia – ecology and economics. It fosters the hope that we can hang on to our current high standard of material prosperity.

For the many who have so far been excluded from prosperity, inclusion is supposed to become possible thanks to the Green Economy paradigm. And both goals are to be accomplished while keeping within the biophysical boundaries of our planet. For others, Green Economy is “business as usual” dressed up in green, or merely a greenwashing manoeuvre which does not stop the overexploitation of the planet and even exacerbates social disparities.

Green Economy as the new paradigm

Green Economy has become a matter of contention. It is the environmental policy topic, which prompts heated discussion between North and South, between East and West, between grassroots movements and big politics, between upper classes and underclasses. The debate surrounding Green Economy causes frayed tempers because it is about much more than environmental conservation: how do we want to live in future? How do we want to share our planet’s limited resources with each other? What is the “good life”?

The attempt to establish Green Economy as the new paradigm reached its climax in the preparations for and events of the Rio +20 conference in the year 2012. That failed as an endeavour, but did manage to convey the distinctive feature of this paradigm into global climate and environmental policy: the economy itself should point ways out of environmental crises – including the way out of the political blind alleys of multilateral negotiations on climate change mitigation and ecosystem conservation.

In practice the impact of this paradigm became evident in 2015 at COP 21 in Paris: A process meant to deliver a global, comprehensive, legally binding and equitable climate regime has turned into a flower-basket of voluntary national commitments with hardly any verification or comparability – let alone accountability. The anchoring of an ambitious aim to “pursue efforts to limit temperature increase to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels” (Paris Agreement, Article 2, para. 1 (a)) is, admittedly, widely celebrated as a major achievement and the contribution of civil society pressure to get there well acknowledged. The explicit reference to this temperature goal is a significant improvement over what was achievable in Copenhagen 2009 and deserves to be celebrated. It can now be held against anyone daring to suggest to open a new coal mine anywhere on the planet. In that sense, many observers viewed the Paris outcome according to the market signal it gives to investors.

We have taken many wrong turns

However, if one dares to step back a little from the day to day business of climate policy making, there is no way around acknowledging that we have utterly failed because we have become too comfortable with a very narrow vision of the problem itself. As Wolfgang Sachs puts it: “A history of environmental policy as the history of forgotten alternatives has not yet been written.”  We have taken many wrong turns along the way: first by accepting that climate policy was about reducing emissions alone (this tackling the output side), then believing that a tonne of CO2 not only equals a tonne of CO2 no matter where it was emitted but that other greenhouse gases can be counted in CO2 equivalents. And finally by buying into flexible mechanisms of emissions trading and offsetting.

This carbon-centric worldview is very much part of the Green Economy debate – the two can hardly be held apart. The world is currently on the verge of taking yet another wrong turn by embracing the idea of “negative emissions,” with the goal of reaching “net zero emissions.” This shift implies that the world can continue to produce emissions so long as new technologies are invented to suck carbon out of the atmosphere at a later stage - instead of embarking on a radical trajectory that leaves fossil fuels in the ground, changes our agricultural systems and restores our natural ecosystems. But this is a myth - we can’t continue to emit massive amounts of CO2 and even establish new coal-burning power plants while claiming to address climate change through new technologies.

The obsession with carbon metrics helps to promote nuclear energy, natural gas extraction (including fracking), biofuels and other risky and harmful technologies, so long as they can claim to emit less carbon than was expected to be emitted without them. None of this will bring us any closer to the transformational changes in self and society that are required to deal with climate change, and that depend on the preservation and utilisation of diverse ideas and approaches that believe in non-linear change. In the monoculture of carbon metrics, real alternatives become literally unthinkable.

Threatening the capitalist growth model

The Green Economy as an exit from “business as usual” thinking based on linear change sounds good because the diagnosis that we cannot carry on producing and consuming as we used to seems to be shared by ever-growing sections of the economic and political elites. It is “concern” about dwindling production factors and the scarcity of key resources (oil, land, water, biodiversity and mineral resources) that drives technological innovations forward. The physical limits of the planet threaten the capitalist growth model.

So the departure from “business as usual” has indeed become politically tenable. But is there really political and social consensus about what that means? Is the departure from “business as usual” really happening? Is “business as usual” not still the default option, while the exit from fossil-fuelled and resource-intensive economics is the niche option at best? What policies are there for overcoming social disparity and socio-ecological injustice within and between societies, particularly given the context of climate change and resource scarcity?

Our view of the realities is influenced by whatever science provides for us in the way of knowledge and data. In the first part of the book we demonstrate what a huge task changing course really is.

Downplaying the magnitude of the necessary reorientation

Never before in human history has there been so much systematised and concentrated knowledge as in the context of global environmental crises. Nowadays we are confronted daily, at least via the media, with the realities of social inequality, poverty, refugee flows and wars. We know all about the present and future dangers of catastrophic global climate change and we can be live spectators of species extinction.

If in this book we show the terrifying picture of “business as usual” and refer once again to the scientific data on planetary boundaries, we do so because we want to make clear the scale and urgency of the political and social task of changing course. Green Economy – as it is understood by the majority of its advocates in the economy, politics and some supranational institutions – correctly identifies many problems but downplays the magnitude of the necessary reorientation.

Admittedly, our discourse- and power-critical analyses of the conceptual assumptions underlying Green Economy and its practice, particularly in climate change mitigation and nature conservation but also in agriculture, paint an alarming picture of the present and the future. Nevertheless, we see the analyses of the planetary boundaries and social inequality and injustice as the starting point for a positive vision that does not induce paralysis but rather incites radical action: they clarify the challenge we face if we want to move closer towards the Utopia of a good life for all people on Earth, a democratic, more equitable and peaceful world within the planetary boundaries.

Universal human rights must be part of the journey

The permanent social, economic and environmental crises are closely interlinked. Discovering how environmentally sustainable innovations can be generally integrated with normative principles of justice, democratic control and participation, and with universal human rights, must be part of the journey towards a fundamental transformation of our economy and society. Acknowledging the size of the task is the stimulus for this process, which many have already started in order to find the social and technical innovations that we need.

Many Green Economy advocates also see how great the challenges are. But when it comes to solutions, all too often, they confine themselves to technological innovations and new markets. Such a strategy truncates the challenge to the economic level and creates the impression that a quick fix is possible without any major disruptions.

Indeed, it is all about hope. Resignation is no source of good counsel. Breaking people down into optimists and pessimists, which is unfortunately a common tactic in environmental debates, is too simplistic in our view. Radical realism is the core of our understanding of a political ecology that needs to gain social majorities and does not shy away from unpleasant tasks. Even if that is difficult: technological and social innovations must be much more closely interwoven; as broad a social and participatory search as possible and corresponding alliances are needed.

No new Garden of Eden

The great task will be to continue the project of modernity, embracing the latest knowledge about planetary boundaries as well as the old vision of broad democratic participation and an end to poverty and injustice. This is no small undertaking; it is political and ethical, and it calls for passion and tenacity. It will not lead to a new Garden of Eden. It will be embattled with social and environmental struggles.

The Green Economy – as it is currently conceived and practised in the economic mainstream – does not face up to this Utopia. It offers more instant answers, which are mainly economic and technological. At the heart of Green Economy is an appealing promise: we can change course, and then all will be well. More technological innovation will enable us to bring about the efficiency revolution and to decouple economic output from energy and material consumption. Not that these are in any way unnecessary! Without new ideas and inventions we are marching on the spot, and will never master the complex challenges of the future. But they alone are not enough. The task is much greater.

In all proposals for green transformation, innovation has keystone status. In this book we demonstrate, with reference to many examples, where innovative pathways are bringing forth new “green sins”, and particularly where innovation is leading down blind alleys. We likewise describe how innovation has to be socially and environmentally embedded in order to make genuinely sustainable contributions to social and environmental transformation, and explore whether or not the decoupling of a country’s economic output (GDP) from the consumption of nature and materials is illusory.

Green Economy redefines nature, not the economy

All the Green Economy conceptions, which we discuss mainly in the second part of the book, make the economy pivotal to their proposals on sustainability. What is more, they proclaim economics to be the overall system and ecology a subsystem, instead of the reverse. This Green Economy redefines nature, not the economy. (We are aware of parallels to other economification tendencies, e.g. affecting care work or development co-operation, but these are not an explicit theme of this book.) And homo oeconomicus is once more at the centre of all solutions.

“It’s the economy, stupid!” Of course it will not work without the economy – and the same applies to the idea of a comprehensive ecological and social transformation. In the theory and practice of Green Economy, however, there is an ominous paradox: it wishes to tackle the obvious failure of previous economics by using the old tools in new fields, namely realising the public and private values (valorisation) of nature and other domains of life. The assumption is straightforward: we need a Green Economy so that market failure – as is universally attested with respect to climate change and biodiversity – can finally be overcome. Instead of more political intervention and regulation, more market is held to be the answer to these two environmental crises, with new market-based instruments aimed at finally calling a halt to the exclusion of nature and certain ecosystem services from the capitalist market.

At the end of the book we deal with the blind spots in the various Green Economy conceptions. One of Green Economy’s very major blind spots is its failure to acknowledge social actors, blanking out the social and human rights impacts of some economic practices and ignoring social reproduction (the “care economy”) as part of that economy, as do all traditional concepts of the economy. Green Economy is blind to power and politics and to questions of justice and democracy.

No swansong for an economy that recognises planetary boundaries

We have chosen to deliver an extensive critique of Green Economy – as transmitted to us conceptually and experienced in practice so far – because under the banner of an intrinsically positive concept, it suggests that the world as we know it can largely be preserved with a more efficient and resource-saving new, but green, growth paradigm. A world that acts as if growth-fixated technological innovation were the only possible answer, and in which the important question of how we can create a better future using fewer resources differently and diversely is deemed obsolete.

While we criticise the Green Economy as we know it to date, we do not want to sing the swansong for an economy that recognises planetary boundaries and normative foundations such as universal as well as economic, social and cultural human rights. That is not exactly how many Green Economy concepts have been developed, however. They have emerged from institutions which have independently and wilfully put concepts on the table that have never been subjected to broader societal or parliamentary debate.

Criticising the Green Economy is not without its risks. Are there not more pressing topics? Should we not concentrate our publications and political energy on the battle against the brown fossil-fuel economy? Are we too harsh on those who have recognised the problems and are looking for quick and pragmatic answers, for which political majorities could be garnered here and now?

Moreover, the world is being torn apart by wars and terror; millions of refugees are on the move. Do we not risk making overwhelming demands when we seek to come to grips not only with the planet’s huge environmental crises but also with the dispute over right and wrong solutions?

An invitation to join the debate

Focusing attention on all the structural causes of the many crises and working on solutions really does verge on an overwhelming demand. Since the causes are all interdependent in one way or another, however, in place of sectoral action, integrated and transdisciplinary perspectives must be practised in the search for answers as to how a social and ecological transformation can be accomplished. The Green Economy can and will reconfigure our economy in the context of environmentally and socially sustainable innovation, in such ways that we will consume somewhat fewer resources, pollute the environment somewhat less and it will offer better, more future-proofed jobs. The environmental trend reversal will have to be more radical, though. Equally, the justice and redistribution policies with which poverty and hunger can be halted will need to be embedded in the planetary boundaries and in democratic processes.

In the policy-making arena, the governments of the world continue to indulge in irresponsibility. On the multilateral level, the steps taken are far smaller than would seriously be needed to halt the immense destruction of nature. The new global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the new socio-environmental guard rails of the United Nations (UN), will do little to change this because, as they stand, they are entirely non-binding and not particularly ambitious. The acceptance of the Paris Agreement at the COP 21 climate change conference in December 2015 is a major diplomatic breakthrough. Yet it hardly responded to enormity of the challenge and the needs and pressure from people on the ground demanding a global deal anchored in climate justice.

In this book we describe the major negative trends of Green Economy because they counteract the many positive approaches like the success of renewable energies. At the same time, we refrain from describing concrete alternatives in practice because they have already been described – in this and other contexts – prolifically elsewhere. We are interested in the possibilities of a change in course in political practice, and therefore we analyse which theoretical assumptions and which actors are really behind the new Green Economy narrative. In that sense our approach is discourse-critical and power-critical. It calls for answers as to how society can be liberated somewhat from the dominance of economics, or how the “embedding of the market” (Karl Polanyi) into society can be brought back to fruition.

This book is an invitation to join the debate. We are neither the arbiters of truth, nor do we claim to have perfect insight into the crises and solutions with all their diversity, complexity and interdependency. Indeed, it is doubtful that any individual alive can make such a claim. But for that very reason, our concern is to put forward a fundamental and maximally comprehensive critique of Green Economy conceptions. That critique questions the basic assumptions and hypotheses and investigates the implications of the solutions proffered by such conceptions – and hence, offers a foundation for a differentiated, well-grounded and constructive debate and sets signposts for those seeking and struggling to chart viable pathways for the future.

This is an excerpt of the book "Inside the Green Economy" and is a part of the dossier of the same name.