According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) ‘Green growth means fostering economic growth and development while ensuring that natural assets continue to provide the resources and environmental services on which our well-being relies’. Green growth: Ideology, Political Economy and the Alternatives assesses the impact and viability of green growth and outlines the alternatives.
We find ourselves in a dire socio-ecological predicament, evident on so many registers: climate change, ocean acidification, soil erosion, biodiversity loss, nitrogen cycle disruption, to name just a few.
The associated impacts for life on earth are becoming harder to ignore. Average temperatures, sea levels and the frequency of extreme weather events have all increased in recent years. Thankfully, so too has public recognition that deep-seated societal changes are needed if ecological disaster is to be averted.
Political elites have, despite mounting evidence, shown themselves completely unwilling or unable to take transformative socio-ecological action. Keen to defend the current social order upon which their privileges rely, they have offered nothing but variations on a ‘business as usual’ theme. But now more than ever, real action is needed – and nothing short of a fundamental break with dominant mainstream political and economic ideas will suffice.
There are, of course, many obstacles facing those seeking just such a break. Many of these barriers are easily identifiable, frequently discussed and relatively uncontroversial within environmentalist circles: the concrete actions of powerful fossil fuel companies, right-wing think tanks, and corrupted political elites, for example.
Yet a far more serious impediment – one much more contentious among environmentalists than the activities of Exxon and the politicians they bankroll – has been subtly but successfully undermining activities aimed at ecological protection for decades: the notion of ‘green growth’.
As we will see, this concept provides valuable ideological cover for those seeking to maintain capitalist social-ecological relations in the midst of an environmental crisis of capitalism’s making. Clearly, then, efforts oriented towards sustainable transition can only advance by engaging in a thoroughgoing critique of this increasingly prominent concept. Green Growth: Ideology, Political Economy and the Alternatives provides a highly valuable contribution in this regard.
This edited collection brings together 12 engaging essays from key thinkers in the field of political ecology covering a range of theoretical perspectives. It is divided into three categories. The first considers the contradictions of green growth and lays the theoretical groundwork for the rest of the volume; the second mobilises the ideas set out in part one to examine a series of case studies from across Europe, Asia and Latin America; the final section discusses some emerging alternatives to green growth strategies.
The book opens with an editors’ introduction that usefully contextualises the green growth concept: its beginnings, contradictions, limitations, political implications and socio-ecological ramifications.
If we want to understand the ideological power of green growth narratives today, we are told, we must first consider the ‘sustainable development’ discourses that began to appear in the 1970s, and specifically the contradictions that led to their emergence.
At that time, increasing public awareness of the negative environmental impacts of capitalist growth regimes brought questions of ecological protection to the fore. It was in this context that ‘sustainable development’ – based on the notion that capitalist economic development could be made compatible with social goals and environmental protection – became the buzzword of the day.
Critics, however, argued that those pushing this agenda were less concerned with social empowerment and ecological protection, and more interested in alleviating public anxieties about ecologically destructive capitalist growth (in so doing neutralising environmentalists’ challenges to its pursuit).
Over time, sustainable development’s green veneer wore ever thinner. Spin on to the early 2000s and it seemed to have lost what little remained of its waning ecological credibility; by then, for many, it had simply become synonymous with the maintenance of capitalist economic growth.
It was as sustainable development lost its way that it became folded into a new framework: that of ‘green growth.1 While some consider this merely a reprise of sustainable development discourses, the volume’s editors argue that green growth differs in some significant ways. First, green growth strategies tend to downplay questions of social justice and state involvement; second, they stress the need for market co-ordination of ecological protection activities (indeed they claim that ecological sustainability can only be achieved through market mechanisms). Third, green growth strategies tend to conceive nature as a specific kind of capital to be quantified, produced and accumulated: they constitute a new way for enclosing commons and incorporating ‘ecosystem services’ such as pollination and carbon storage into circuits of capital.2
It was in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis that the green growth/economy concept became consolidated. After the crash, green growth and green stimulus packages were championed by mainstream policy makers at a wide range of institutions such as the United Nations (UN), the World Bank and OECD. These packages offered, it was argued, a way forward that could simultaneously resolve pressing economic and environmental problems. It was ‘win-win’.
By 2012, so influential had the notion of the green economy become that the UN Rio+20 conference on Sustainable Development, called The Future We Want, was entirely dedicated to this issue.
Of course, ecological problems have only intensified since then; correspondingly it seems, so too has the clamour of the calls for green capitalist growth. Today this notion constitutes a key theme around which many much-vaunted ecological protection strategies are organised – not just among the more ecologically-aware policy-making elites, but also within environmental civil society organisations and parts of the green left.
Dale, Mathai and De Oliveira, however, are keen to highlight the many social and ecological risks inherent in the pursuit of green growth strategies – a thread that will run throughout the book. For green growth critics, they note, no amount of ‘techno-economic fixes and improvements in the management of markets will enable the path of endless growth to continue’.3 Indeed, to believe that ecological destruction can be curbed while pursuing growth-oriented policies – whether supposedly ‘green’ or otherwise – is, they suggest, ‘utopian folly’.4
Given that green growth advocacy is the loudest voice in environmentalism today5, the need for a solid critique of this increasingly influential concept is clear. Part one of the book provides us with the conceptual tools to do just that.
Part one: The contradictions of green growth
The four essays in Part one focus on the contradictions of green growth. These chapters cover a wide range of key theoretical issues of interest to anyone seeking to develop an understanding of ‘green’ capitalist growth and its negative ecological impacts.
Chapter one discusses barriers to the transformation of consumption habits, potential pitfalls of renewable energy transition, and the difficulties associated with challenging an economic orthodoxy focused on the pursuit of endless, ecologically-destructive growth.
The intersections between environmental politics, conceptions of nature, financialization and neoliberal governance are covered in chapters two and three.
In chapter four, James Meadway discusses the historical linkages between John Stuart Mill’s steady-state vision and the works of recently influential de-growth thinkers such as Tim Jackson and Serge Latouche. This contribution is of particular interest right now as it offers valuable insights into debates currently raging between de-growth thinkers and advocates of the Green New Deal in the US.
Ultimately, Meadway argues that those who champion steady-state economics as an alternative to capitalism accept too much of conventional economics; consequently, they are unable to present a systemic critique of capitalism.6 It is a shortcoming that leads steady-state thinkers to consider growth as a choice – one that, with a bit of political will and the right kind of reforms, can simply be cast aside. Meadway, however, by drawing on Marx and on critical insights from the degrowth literature, argues that more fundamental changes are required. In his view, the transition to an ecologically-sensitive society will require the democratisation of production, the provision of a basic income, the reduction of work time and a greater role for planning. None of this, he stresses, will come easy: such demands will not be realised through garnering political will, but will require in the end a significant political contest.7
In these chapters, many areas central to debates around green growth are introduced, unpacked and critically interrogated: de-coupling, population, the Jevons Paradox, de-growth, gross domestic product (GDP), and so on. Also comprehensively highlighted throughout are the capacities of green growth strategies to further embed neoliberal agendas. This theme is elaborated upon in part two.
Part two: The case studies
Building on theoretical foundation set out in part one, the five case studies in part two explore green growth projects and their socio-ecological implications across a range of countries in Europe, Asia and Latin America.
The chapters highlight the ‘failures’ (in terms of ecological sustainability, not in terms of consolidating elite power structures) of green growth strategies implemented in the various countries.
Bluemling and Yun, for example, show how what was initially sold as a programme of green growth in South Korea was in fact used to push through land reclamation projects and the construction of nuclear power plants and dams. This, they suggest, highlights the ‘autocratic character of green growth’ inherent in elite-led green infrastructure programmes – not just in South Korea, but in India, Japan and China too.8
In Europe, Mahnkopf highlights how the EU’s renewable energy strategy – ostensibly a programme designed to boost green energy production and reduce carbon emissions – helped to further entrench market competition and increase the influence of large corporations in the energy sector.
A similar pattern emerges throughout the volume’s other case studies focusing on Brazil, India and Latin America: green growth projects were heralded as ways to enhance levels of ecological and social protection – yet in the end, their effect was to extend market reach and further embed capitalist eco-social relations.
This is not to suggest that we do not need new ‘green’ infrastructure projects – clearly given the increasingly palpable effects of the ever-widening metabolic rifts between human social systems and non-human natural systems, such projects are needed now more than ever. The case studies do, however, raise questions over the real motivating factors behind these projects and the interests they serve.
The case analyses align with the findings of many other writers who have sought to highlight the problems associated with elite-led green infrastructure projects, such as Ashley Dawson and McKenzie Funk. The case studies are useful as they put some empirical meat on the bones following the theoretical discussion in part one – and in so doing lend solid support to those who argue that building a meaningfully green transition programme will require organisation not from above, but from below.
Having discussed green growth in terms of ideology and practice in parts one and two, the final section contains three essays focusing on ’emerging alternatives’ to green growth.
These essays – which, in a volume so short, can provide only a flavour of the wider literature rather than a full-blown manifesto or survey of the field – examine a number of green transition strategies ranging from the reformist to the more radical. All, however, take the ecological inadequacies of green growth strategies as their starting point, and each stresses the urgent need for socio-ecological transformation if environmental catastrophe is to be averted.
Adding to the literature on the progressive possibilities associated with small-scale organising and interstitial strategies of social transformation, Ashish Kothari examines social movements in India.
Basing his study on the movements that have emerged out of common land struggles in rural India over the past decade, he sets out a vision of what he terms ‘Radical Ecological Democracy’ (RED) or ‘eco-swaraj’. This, he suggests, is a ‘socio-cultural, political and economic arrangement in which all people and communities have the right and full opportunity to participate in decision-making, based on the twin fulcrums of ecological sustainability and human equity’.9
RED works by bringing together a ‘complex mix’ of social groups focusing on issues such as localisation, community power, diversity, equality, and alternative economic organising to counter the totalising logic of industrial capitalism. Such initiatives, Kothari insists, are suffused with emancipatory potential: ‘creating spaces within the existing system and fundamentally challenging it… retaining or regaining the best of tradition while discarding the worst… synergizing old and new knowledge’.10
The eco-democratic vision he sets out has enticing elements; however, gaps in his proposals – rooted in an inadequate grasp of strategic considerations – appear ultimately to undermine the possibility of achieving this potential. He stresses, for example, that ‘the state has a critical supporting and enabling role to play’ in building towards meaningful eco-societal transformation.11 Subsequently, he demands that the state should:
…strengthen… its welfare role for the weak… assist communities in situations where local capacity is weak, rein in business elements or others who behave irresponsibly towards the environment or people.12
All admirable aims, it is true – the problem is, he provides few clues as to what will eventually make the state perform such functions. In the absence of a developed discussion regarding the building of a social force capable of driving such demands, it reads more like a wish list than the foundations of a viable political strategy.
Böhm, Misoczky, Watson and Lanka, in their essay13, seem to me to have a better grasp of the strategic considerations involved with organising at capitalism’s ‘periphery’.
They argue, too, that the potential exists to open up ‘cracks’ in dominant socio-economic structures that can form a basis for more fundamental challenges. However, through their investigations into ‘alternative’ food systems in India, the UK and Brazil, they also draw attention to the limitations inherent in this approach.
In their essay, they show how ‘alternative’ projects – despite appearing as key sites of resistance – can all too often end up as ‘part and parcel of capital’s continuous attempts to find new ways of accumulation and legitimization’.14 Despite their emancipatory intentions, peripheral projects ultimately must integrate into capitalist markets in order to survive, and typically end up mirroring and/or helping to maintain the exploitative capitalist practices they were initially designed to challenge.
This does not mean dismissing such ‘alternative’ initiatives as irrelevant: after all, through them, social groups reproduce themselves and can create ‘less competitive human relations and… possibilities of cooperation’.15 Such activities, then, can play an important role in bringing about ecologically-sensitive social transformation. But they can only do so if we understand that ‘the dialectic resides in the need to value these practices and, at the same time, to criticise their intrinsic limits’.16
To sum up, this book is a fantastic resource for anyone seeking to understand the ways that capitalist green growth ideologies operate to maintain embedded systems of social relations despite their role in pushing human civilisation to the edge of ecological catastrophe.
These essays also provide us with the conceptual tools needed to inform the development of political strategies oriented towards ecologically sustainable social change. The green growth concept is a powerful weapon in the armoury of those who seek to prioritise the needs of capital accumulation over the needs of the planet. Only by challenging it can we step back from the abyss.
Green Growth: Ideology, political economy and the alternatives, edited by Gareth Dale, Manu V. Mathai and Jose A. Puppim de Oliveira, is published by Zed Books
1 Green Growth: Ideology, political economy and the alternatives, ed. Gareth Dale, Manu V. Mathai and Jose A. Puppim de Oliveira (London: Zed Books, 2016), p. 4
2 Green Growth, p. 4
3 Green Growth, p. 1
4 Green Growth, p. 11
5 Green Growth, p. 14
6 James Meadway, ‘Degrowth and the roots of neoclassical economics’, in Green Growth, p. 90
7 Meadway, ‘Degrowth’, pp. 110-111
8 Bettian Bluemling and Sun-Jin Yun, ‘Giving green teeth to the Tiger? A critique of “green growth” in South Korea’, in Green Growth. 129
9 Ashish Kothari, ‘Beyond “development” and “growth”: the search for alternatives in India towards a sustainable and equitable world’, in Green Growth, p. 214
10 Kothari, ‘Beyond “development”‘, p. 214
11 Kothari, ‘Beyond “development”‘, p. 217
12 Kothari, ‘Beyond “development”‘, p. 217
13 Steffen Böhm, Maria Ceci Araujo Misoczky, David Watson and Sanjay Lanka, ‘Alternatives to green growth? Possibilities and contradictions of self-managed food production’, in Green Growth, pp. 253-270
14 Böhm, Misoczky, Watson and Lanka, ‘Alternatives’, p. 255
15 Böhm, Misoczky, Watson and Lanka, ‘Alternatives’, p. 269
16 Böhm, Misoczky, Watson and Lanka, ‘Alternatives’, p. 269