Green Economy and Growth: Fiddling While Rome Burns?

“Fiddling while Rome burns” may seem a stale analogy, but when talking of “green growth” and “green economy” (GGE, for short), it is appropriate. Despite assertions to the contrary, the only thing innovative about the GGE concepts is the buzz that surrounds them. Getting excited about them when they are hardly new or creative notions blithely ignores their critical limitations for dealing with the social and ecological challenges facing us today.

The modern environmental movement emerged in the 1960s as a reaction to two centuries of industrial growth that produced everything in varied and vast quantities — including pollution. As political scientist Albert Weale has helpfully discussed, the initial policy strategy to emerge from this disquiet was confrontational. Governments sought to regulate corporations whose effluents despoiled nature and human health. Regulations were designed to mandate certain practices and penalize pollution in an attempt to change business behaviour. The confrontational arrangement of the 1970s was obviously problematic, inefficient and even ineffective.

The alternative was to frame environment and economic growth as mutually supportive partners. Indeed, “Our Common Future” (the report of the World Commission on Environment and Development, also known as the Brundtland Report) of 1987 observed, somewhat inexplicably, that “poverty reduces people’s capacity to use the environment in a sustainable manner; it intensifies pressure on the environment” and therefore suggested that rapid economic expansion is essential for a healthy environment.  In the same breath, though, the report also recognized that there are “ultimate [biophysical] limits” and pinned its hopes of resolving this contradiction and realizing sustainability in the world on “ensuring equitable access to resources and reorienting technological efforts to relieve the pressure” long before these limits are reached.

The practical implementation of this prescription relied on realizing greater efficiencies and technological sophistication, and the appropriation of nature under expert management and market-based allocation. The report was less explicit — and subsequent policy even more so — on exactly how to enable “equitable access to resources” in practice.

The sustainable development agenda has been around for more than two decades. However, apart from some successes at cleaning up air and water, largely at the local level in affluent societies, its accomplishments in bringing about an arrangement of nature–society relations that is on the whole equitable and sustainable still appears limited. The basic problem is that the implementation of sustainable development unevenly emphasizes economic growth, and equity is seen as a managed outcome of applying modern science and technology to expand the economic pie and its subsequent allocation through free markets.

This approach has been unable to engage equity as a politically negotiated arrangement of fair social relationships. It should be evident to a casual observer today that while this strategy has succeeded in growing the economic pie, it has failed in arriving at a fair allocation of affluence and it effluents.

Efficiency is a necessary but insufficient condition today, when the imperative is to find sufficiency in a finite and deeply inequitable world.

Fast-forward to 2011 and the recent attention to “green growth” and “green economy”. The United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) describes GGE as an economic arrangement that “enhances growth, social progress and environmental stewardship”.  It recognizes biophysical limits and notes that the “objective of the green economy is to ensure that those limits are not crossed”.  It proposes a “Great Green Technological Revolution” to make technologies “more efficient in the use of energy and other resources and minimize the generation of harmful pollutants”.

In a similar vein, UNEP’s Toward a Green Economy observes that GGE is an arrangement where “growth in income and employment should be driven by public and private investments that reduce carbon emissions and pollution, enhance energy and resource efficiency, and prevent the loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services”. Reviewing these foundational assumptions of GGE, one must ask: What has changed in over two decades?

These ideas were innovative in 1987 when“ Our Common Future” was released. But to talk of them in 2011 as new solutions for persistent, unresolved problems is, to put it generously, unhelpful. They are good strategies, and policy must continue to emphasize them and expand their applicability. However, efficiency is a necessary but insufficient condition today, when the imperative is to find sufficiency in a finite and deeply inequitable world.

The scope of this challenge is unprecedented. The recent “great recession” revealed our inability to arrange an acceptable society without constant economic growth. Prevailing against this challenge requires a wellspring of imagination and creativity. Focusing on more efficient growth without situating questions of ecological limits, equity and distribution into the foundations of these discussions is rather futile.

Science and technology for sustainable societies

Ideally, the puzzle that GGE should help solve is how sufficiency can be approached practically, creatively and institutionally. Toward that end, some reflection on the dynamic interrelationships between technology and society is helpful.

Developing countries, especially low-income ones, with relatively low rates of electricity usage, may be able to “leapfrog” into electricity generation based on renewable forms of primary energy, for instance. As this assertion from UNDESA illustrates, the GGE discourse holds that developing countries and transition economies can advance directly to a green economy. The problem with the assertion of “leapfrogging”, however, is it fails to recognize that putting in place more efficient technology does not necessarily bring about the goals of equity and sustainability.  This is because technology implicitly embodies normative positions and engenders patterns for mediating the interaction between nature and society.

Technology implicitly embodies normative positions and engenders patterns for mediating the interaction between nature and society.

Modern human’s encounter with fossilized energy illustrates this attribute of technology and the unprecedented social, political and economic dynamics that ensued. Long ago, Lewis Mumford eloquently reported on this sudden encounter that put “mankind in a fever of exploitation”, so much so that the logic of mining pervaded the “economic and social organism” and became the norm for subsidiary economic and industrial organization.  This logic of “disorderly exploitation and wasteful expenditure” acquired a life of its own and continued to propagate quite independently of whether or not the initial mine of energy was depleted.

Two attributes of the relationship between technology and society must be highlighted here.  First is their reciprocal influences, wherein a portfolio of technical capabilities and an accompanying economic logic lit that “fever of exploitation” and subsequently the “animus of mining affected the entire economic and social organism.”

The second attribute is the phenomenon characterized as “technological momentum” by Thomas Hughes (1994), wherein “disorderly exploitation and wasteful expenditure remained, whether or not the source of energy itself disappeared”.  Whether we consider a specific instance such as breaking the addiction to oil, or the considerable difficulties of figuring out a steady-state economic arrangement, the momentum of past choices is evident.

In this context, the common duality of technology as socially “neutral” (its impacts are largely accidental and, therefore, society only needs to focus on fiddling with it so as to avoid or mitigate its unwanted consequences), or of society as being “technologically determined” (its social impacts are inherent to its design) are half-truths that reduce it to a spectator sport controlled by the key players in the field. Yet, the evolution of technology choices ought to be anything but a spectator sport.

In certain forms, technology holds the potential to be liberating and emancipatory and is at par with, or even more influential than, politics and legislation in shaping society. Thus, it is imperative for society to have at least a comparable (if not greater) influence on its evolution and form.

What appears to be lacking is the ability for society to influence the evolution of technology and to impart to it values of sufficiency.

As Andrew Feenberg eloquently offered in 1991, “the design of technology is thus an ontological decision fraught with political consequences. The exclusion of the vast majority from participation in this decision is the underlying cause of many of our problems”. He further notes that “technology is not a thing in the ordinary sense of the term, but an ambivalent process of development suspended between different possibilities. It is a social battlefield … a parliament of things on which civilizational alternatives are debated and decided”.

Thus, fundamentally, what appears to be lacking is the ability for society to influence the evolution of technology and to impart to it values of sufficiency that are already visible in some conceptions and practices of human development and economic organization. The crucial need is for emerging green technology infrastructure to be able to embody these changes from the status quo. An attendant emergent requirement for green technology innovation, then, is that it be “democratic” as opposed to being “authoritarian” (after Lewis Mumford).

A democratic technological infrastructure

In addition to addressing the question of scale (discussed above), a democratic technological infrastructure is also crucial for pursuing equality. Democratic technologies are particularly helpful in distributing means to generate wealth, a theme that was central to Mahatma Gandhi’s critique of modern technology.

This vision was eloquently captured by the gifted polymath D. D. Kosambi in the context of debates over the choice of civilian nuclear power in India. In 1960, Kosambi reasoned that there were significant difficulties in centralized generation and subsequent supply of electricity to a population as vast and dispersed as that of the sub-continent. In this context, he noted that the solar energy brought with it the distinctive advantage of “decentralization”, not just from the technical point of view but for a political and economic perspective as well. He argued that solar power was particularly conducive to “dispersed small industry and local use…” and that “if you really mean to have socialism in any form, without the stifling effects of bureaucracy and heavy initial investment, there is no other source so efficient”.

Going forward, our great faith in technological fiddling must be balanced by the burning fact that an unconditionally expanding economy (efficiency notwithstanding) is no longer feasible, not least because of the biosphere’s energy and material limits and the inequality it presupposes. Thus, as countries seek material infrastructures to mediate nature-society relations, the focus must move so that designs being considered can internalize and engage valuations of sufficiency, and realize a realignment of control over production and consumption arrangements from capital to community.

A truly green economy, in short, must be a revolution of democracy and equality as manifest in the technology infrastructure that is shaped by society, and which, in turn, is shaped by it.

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Green Economy and Growth: Fiddling while Rome Burns? by Manu V. Mathai is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Dr. Manu V. Mathai is a Research Fellow in the Science and Technology for Sustainable Societies Programme at the United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies. Dr. Mathai’s research and teaching interests centre around interlinkages between the themes of energy, environment and development, with a focus on science and technology policy and conceptions of human and economic development amenable to greater fairness on a shared and finite planet. He is the author of Nuclear Power, Economic Development Discourse and the Environment (2013).