Green economics – surviving the trial

Kate Munro's picture
Insight by 
Kate Munro
17 November 2011

“Neoliberal, capitalist economics is bankrupt, morally and intellectually, but nothing changes,” were the opening words of Neal Lawson from Compass at a debate Putting the Green Economy on Trial.

[flickr-photo:id=5712320588, class=right, size=m, caption=Rain forest landscape in Uganda. Photo by Douglas Sheil/CIFOR]

He described the infrastructure of consumerism and marketing that has developed under the current system as difficult to escape; a seductive new vision of what it is to be human is needed, he said.

The evening debate invited a diverse panel from business, non-governmental organisations and academia to critique the Green Economy Coalition’s (GEC) vision of an economics that addresses the systemic root causes to the many challenges we are facing. European leaders are preoccupied with an economic crisis that has inspired doubts over the capacity of the existing economic system to serve our societies, while an ecological crisis grows quietly in the background. Falling biodiversity rates and rising atmospheric CO2 levels are just a couple of the symptoms. 

The GEC’s work seeks to address the interconnectedness of these challenges in an inclusive way. The diverse membership of the GEC, including progressive businesses, NGOs, the UN Environment Programme and the International Trade Union Congress itself shows the wide range of sectors getting engaged in green economics. The global Occupy movement was also highlighted as an important sympathetic constituency in the evening’s discussion.

However, despite growing interest around the world, green economics has yet to leap the chasm that divides it from mainstream economic thinking. In exploring how to address this, the discussion couldn’t avoid the issue of how much green economics fits within, or challenges, the existing paradigm, as Lawson’s comments illustrate.

The vision put forward by the GEC addresses the need for green economics to support the three pillars – social, economic and environmental – of sustainable development.  But comments from private sector representatives  indicated that from a business point of view, the term ‘green’ can readily be interpreted more narrowly, often with a particular focus on carbon emission reductions.

The potential conflict between these approaches was well illustrated by a story from Hannah Stoddart from Oxfam. She described how up to 22,500 people were evicted from their land in Kiboga and Mubende districts of Uganda by the Ugandan National Forestry Authority to make way for a New Forests Company (NFC) plantation. Oxfam's work with the communities concluded that many have been left destitute. Testimonies from villagers suggest that no consultations were undertaken prior to eviction, and that some people were even violently forced from their land.

The New Forests Company describes itself as a 'sustainable and socially responsible' company. Its plantations contribute jobs and revenue, along with the timber products countries need as they develop which would otherwise be logged from natural forests. The NFC also hopes to attract more revenue from carbon credits, and has recently submitted a Project Design Document to the UNs Clean Development Mechanism. The Forest Sterwardship Council (FSC) — the global gold standard for forestry best practice — certified the two NFC plantations despite evidence that the circumstances surrounding the plantations and the evictions by the Ugandan government contravene basic FSC principles.

Yet despite this noble intention to be at the forefront of green and socially responsible investment, the NFC plantations have ended up resulting in the destruction of the livelihoods of some Ugandan communities. 

Following Hannah’s comments, Neal McIndoe from Trucost gave a further example of ‘green’ business, presenting Puma’s interest in acquiring water-rich lands in Africa to grow cotton as an example of green supply chain management. His comments didn’t reference the growing concern over foreign investors acquiring rain fed or easily irrigated land, leading to the displacement of rural communities from high yielding lands.

These examples  of ‘green’ businesses  working against poverty alleviation shows the complex green economy challenge. It must make a set of green economy principles in developing countries operational, in a way that is inclusive and feasible within the current political context.

The GEC’s national dialogues in countries such as Mali and Brazil are having a real impact on supporting and communicating economic policies that meet sustainable development objectives. This is a vital step towards mainstreaming and implementing the principles of green economics, and learning from practice.

Distinct strands of green economic thinking

As last night’s debate illustrated though, there are several distinct strands to green economic thinking. They range from a vision of a paradigm shift in global economics to a more immediately feasible approach focusing on investment opportunities. If political interest in green economics continues to grow in developing countries, as it is now, the differences, and occasional conflicts, between these approaches may prove challenging to manage.

Is it possible for one political vision to win the support of the great diversity of sympathetic parties – from Occupy movement protesters, to development NGOs and large progressive businesses – and sustain this support when the vision is translated into hard policy? And is such an inclusive approach needed?

The outcomes of the GEC’s national dialogues are enough to inspire optimism that the agenda has its own momentum. However as the NFC project in Uganda illustrates, the wide range of activities that can fly the green flag currently includes development projects with major negative social impacts. Such cases risk leaving popular audiences in developing countries unconvinced that green economics really can provide solutions to the problems they face, such as poverty, inequity and a lack of social justice.

This problem is not easy to resolve. Green economics risks disappearing into an abyss of discredited theories and ideas if it doesn’t engage powerful actors in government and industry, alongside the NGO community. But how do advocates support integrating a neoliberal capitalist system, while not alienating popular social movements? This balancing act is crucial as history has shown they can often be the most powerful agents of change.

Visit the Green Economy Coalition website to find out more