Rio+20: From sustainable development to green economy. What is at stake? Which alternatives?

‘Among the issues: What does moving from sustainable development to green economy mean? What is hidden behind this new concept of green economy: green growth? green capitalism? something else? What conclusions should we draw from these twenty years, while environmental degradation has accelerated, inequalities have widened and that democracies are being undermined? Which alternatives?’ Quote from video below by

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development Rio+20 next week will attempt to address the crisis of biodiversity. Since the first conference at Rio in 1992 the UN has attempted to protect the natural world with policy initiatives based in a mistaken understanding of our relationship with the natural world. Even before the Rio 1992, critical environmentalists where aware of the short-comings of the ‘sustainable development’ as a methodology for the supposed conservation of nature. David Orton wrote;

Greens and environmentalists who today still use this concept [of sustainable development] display ecological illiteracy. There is a basic contradiction between the finiteness of the Earth, with natural self-regulating systems operating within limits, and the expansionary nature of industrial capitalist society. The language of sustainable development helps mask this fundamental contradiction, so that industrial expansion on a global scale can temporarily continue (1989).

In short, sustaining or increasing levels of consumption on the diminishing resource base with more people wanting ‘better’ lifestyles (i.e. more consumption) is not possible in the current context. It is not surprising that environmental problems continue to become more severe as policy makers continue to ignore material realities.

Today we find ourselves at a situation where most of the proposals on the table at Rio+20 will only accelerate problems. Strategies promoting ‘the green economy’ create new markets within natural processes as a means of protecting nature. But the ecological commons cannot be saved by turning ecological processes into commodities. I will briefly summarize three main reasons why creating commodities out of natural processes will not work to do the important work of protecting ecological systems:

1) Irreplaceable Nature. It’s no small thing to bring nature into the space where everything must prove its financial worth. We simply do not have the scientific capacity to measure all of the life-sustaining services provided by nature. What is possible to know for sure is that there will be no financial system to create this human construct we call money without the benefit of a stable climate, clean water and healthy local ecosystems. The paradox remains that in attempting to protect nature by assigning it’s services economic values, we reinforce the idea that the only thing that matters is the economic impact of a particular course of action. ‘Priceless’ is a concept that is quickly being destroyed as the scope of the market expands.

2) Price Tags as Absurd. When scientists do fix a price for nature these values are not only always absurdly low, but in the big picture view they are simply ridiculous. Consider the recent The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB) report, which estimates a total economic value of insect pollination worldwide at €153 billion (Gallai et al. 2009 in TEEB, 2010: p.8). It’s a high number, but does this number actually reflect the value of pollinating insects? Considering that we are dependent on functioning ecological systems, surely these ‘ecosystem services’ and the pollinating insects which are a vital part of these ecosystems are in fact priceless.

3) Quantification, instrumentalism and radical reductionism. Reducing the value of nature to financial terms is an epistemological prelude to violence on a material realm. Nature is more complex than what we can capture through a financial valuations and equations. Over-simplifying the processes of a system on which you are completely dependent is terminally foolish - not only for the natural world we claim to want to protect, but for the survival of humankind and our own children. Basic common decency demands that we are more rigourous with our thinking.

I hope we can use our time at Edgeryders to develop proposals to protect the commons that will replace the flawed approaches of ‘sustainable development’ and now the ‘green economy’. Acknowledgement of both the crisis conditions in the natural world and the systemic drivers of this crisis in the economic system is the first step towards genuine renewal.

Green growth is a need, not a choice

I strongly believe that, among the proposals on the table at Rio+20 summit, it should be pointed out that green growth is the best pathway possible to sustainable development.

Regarding the last twenty years, the only alternative scenario possible, in my opinion, is encouraging a new and more inclusive model of development that could be, at the same time, strong for the must industrialized countries of the world, shared also by the emerging countries, and sustainable for our sons.

Your assumptions are central to the continuing crisis.

Also, I presume you also mean daughters.

Destroying nature to gain nothing …

Thanks for the clear words on this Rio+20 thing. Had been still in doubt what to think about it … .

Personally I never understood this obsession with economic growth in the first place, and also not using such a primitive measure as GDP for it. Then recently I came across a great paper by our fellow Edgeryder Kevin Carson, titled “The Great Domain of Cost-Plus: The Waste Production Economy”. He sort of proves there how >75% of economic activity goes either directly to waste, to unnecessary or to harmful products and services. (Besides that, the elaboration and his writing style is a delight, well worth the read.) Yet I did not see anybody in power care about reducing this kind of waste … . Which is a shame, as not only do we exploit nature to produce nothing, we also stress ourselves out in jobs that produce nothing … .

Where can I recommend this paper to be put on the Rio+20 conference agenda? :wink:

It would depend on the perpsective?

Hi Jody, Matthias,

I think that it all depends on the perspective. If price tags, values, quantifications are created to commoditize nature and enrich the private sector, then it is a danger more than a progress. But if a commons sector is created along side the public and private sector with new types of institutions based on cooperative stewardhip or trusteeship, then putting tags and values is a way to ensure that those who use these resources for commercial purposes don’t deplete them and take care of replenishing them. It’s using the financial metrics and accounting systems to rein in on abuse and overexploitation of the commons and reverse the destruction. On an epistemological and ideological point of view the issue may be controversatial, I agree…  I see this as a transtion to change behaviors an move towards totally new paradigms. I would personally prefer to see polination undervalued especially if the ecosystem service is co-governed by a cooperative of beehives and can be reevalued by them if necessary, than to see the bees totally destroyed because they are priceless…

There are 100 proposals up for vote until Thursday out of recommendations from the Rio Dialogues online. One of them is the creation of new instutions to cooperatively steward and manage the commons. > Vote:

In Topic= Sustainable Development as an Answer to the Economic and Financial Crises

for Item= New institutions should be created to steward and manage the global commons and adopt commons-based economic models.

Text of the proposal:

Voted for this … seems fine to me because you mention:

[…] a patrimonial approach of replenishment and growth of the commons (whether material or immaterial) as the basic discourse for sustainable development and starting point for new economic models,

You know about the International Seabed Authority? Seems like a good example for the commons institutions you envision. And they successfully managed to prohibit irresponsible exploitation of polymetallic nodules and other seabed resources for decades … it’s not the only reason this is not done in large scale, but their counter-capitalist ruleset seems to have made a good contribution to that …

Whether or not commons institutions include monetary units for natural resources is another question, independent from having commons institutions. I’d still say, let’s not do that. Money is just quantized rights, that is, quantized power … so if the bees have a price tag, somebody could just pay it (like Bayer, if they really caused the mass bee deaths in 2012 with one of their insecticides) and be not guilty for destroying the bees. Yet if bees are priceless, you can’t buy yourself free from destroying them …

Yes it’s a question of accountability

I agree. I guess it’s a question of finding ways to make people/organizations accountable to the commons, and not able to get away with it…

On the Financial Valuation of Bees

I am pleased to see that the conversation as developed a subtheme on bees. I have been planning to write something about the bee crisis and valuation soon. For the moment, yes I agree we absolutely need commons institutions - but it seems to me that other mechanisms must be established to regulate the use and abuse of the ecological commons. Matthias is exactly right - putting a price tag on any element of the commons makes them available to the highest bidder. In the wake of the economic crisis, capitalism is looking for new markets and one of the most lucrative markets on the planet is the expansion of capitalism into the ecological commons. This is a massive money making bonanza for the same financial industries that just finished bankrupting nations states around the world. While nations can ultimately survive in some way from this kind of assaults, nature does not do bailouts. When ecosystems collapse they can go for good - so it this opening up the ecological commons to the whims of market based mechanism is sheer madness.

On waste and the growth

In sustainable design circles the figure that is commonly quoted is that ‘90% of the resources taken out of the ground today become waste within three months’. Our economic system and the way that we design things makes an awful lot of useless waste even before we get the stuff that falls apart a few months after we buy it. This is the way in which the current economic system works.

There is a bit of movement by some people in relative amounts of power to address wasteful growth. One such person is Tim Jackson, formerly head of the now terminated UK Sustainable Development Commission, who wrote ‘Prosperity without Growth’. This book very clearly describes how danger of endless economic growth, the ways in which it is no longer making greater prosperity or happiness (in the UK atleast), and ways in which we could organize to create social well-being while ending the treadmill of quantitative economic growth and ecological degradation. Yet the SDC was quickly disbanded by the new conservative government who seem to be ideologically opposed to thinking about environmental sustainability unless it becomes a buzz word that legitimises the creation of new markets. I am not writing this because I think the SDC were the answer to our problems (FAR from it!) - but just to point out that there is some somewhat enlightened people in government fighting against destructive economic growth at the expense of the environment and future generations.

Thanks for the link about Kevin’s work. I am somewhat familiar with some of this line of thinking. To me it seems to underestimate the manner in which markets tend towards monopolies without some kind of regulatory system. I am sympathetic but I have yet to see what I consider to be a viable proposal for how stateless market anarchism proposes to resolve environmental problems or deal with the ‘free-loader’ problem. I am attracted to many elements of anarchist political theory but I have real problems with the utopianism of both right-winged and left-winged anarchism. Still I think this terrritory is fertile and could be the space in which better political models and organising strategies emerge.