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Making local sense of food, urban growth, population and energy

The carefully constructed mirage of the ‘green economy’

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Not a week goes by nowadays without one high-profile institution or high-powered interest group directing us all to be part of the ‘new, green economy’. That’s where the next jobs are, where innovation is, where the next wave of financing is headed, where the best social entrepreneurship lies. There are the big inter-governmental organisations telling us this: United Nations Environment Program, UNCTAD, OECD, International Energy Agency, the big international lending agencies like the World Bank and Asian Development Bank. There are big think-tanks telling us the same thing – backed up by hefty new reports that are boring to read but whose plethora of whiz-bang charts are colourful. There are big companies, multinationals and those amongst the Fortune 500, also evangelising the new green economy and patting themselves on the back for being clean and green and so very responsible.

Artisanal blacksmith and his family, Maharashtra, India

What on earth are they all talking about? Does it have to do with us average, salaried, harassed, commuting, tax-paying types who are struggling with food inflation and fuel cost hikes and mortgages and loans that break our backs? Are they talking to our governments and our municipalities, who are worried about their budgets and their projects and their jobs too?

Here are a few answers from working class Asia. Let’s start with restating a couple of trendlines. One, the era of growth in the West is over. Growth is Asia is what is keeping the MNCs and their investors and bankers and consultants interested, and this means China and India (also Brazil, Russia, South Africa, Indonesia). Two, the environmental consciousness which began in the 1970s to spread quickly in the West led to many good laws being framed and passed. These were responses to the industrial and services growth in the Western economies. As globalisation took hold, people in less industrialised countries – ordinary citizens – saw what had happened in the West and learnt from their experiences with industrialisation. Green movements took root all over Asia and South America, protests were common, confrontations just as much, and global capital found itself being questioned again, even more fiercely.

These are the two major trends. The forces of production want to move much further into what used to be the ‘developing’ world, but want to meet much less resistance. That’s why they appeal to the consumer minds of China, India and the other target countries – you need jobs, homes, nice cars, big TVs, cool vacations, credit, aspirations, and lifestyle is what the messages say, whether they’re from telecom companies or condominium salesmen. But it’s hard to market all this stuff – real stuff, virtual stuff – to people who are still struggling to make ends meet.

This was after all the old 'green economy'. A late 19th century painting in a maritime museum near Mumbai, India

That’s where the ‘new, green economy’ tagline and its earnest-sounding philosophy comes in. “The main challenges to jump-starting the shift to a green economy lie in how to further improve these techniques, adapt them to specific local and sectoral needs, scale up the applications so as to bring down significantly their costs, and provide incentives and mechanisms that will facilitate their diffusion and knowledge-sharing,” said one of these recent reports. Look at the text which contains all the right buzzwords – ‘scale up’, ‘jump-start’, ‘applications’ (that’s a favourite), ‘knowledge-sharing’, ‘local’.

This makes the ‘old economy’ sound good but changes nothing substantial on the ground, or on the factory shopfloor or for the tens of thousands of little manufacturing units that do small piecework jobs for the bigger corporations up the chain. The world’s business philosophy has changed drastically even without the impact of environment and energy. To drive home this point, it has been a long time since we heard anything like ‘industrial relations’, and that alone should tell us how far the dominance of capital has reached, when labour, whose organisation gave the West its stellar growth rates in the 1960s and 1970s, has now become all but ignored. This is because the dominant interests associated with capital have insisted, successfully for investors and for pliant governments, that the manufacturing firms break loose from the industrial relations moorings they had established. The restructuring of firms to emphasise leaner and meaner forms of competition – as the ruthless management gurus and greedy consulting agencies instructed – was in line with market pressures that are viewed by the powers-that-be as crucial to the revitalisation of the economy.

Read their greenwash carefully and the control levers are revealed. “Further innovation and scaling up are also needed to drive down unit costs. Technologies will need to be ‘transferred’ and made accessible, since most innovation takes place in the developed countries and private corporations in those countries are the main owners of the intellectual property rights covering most green technologies.” So says ‘World Economic and Social Survey 2011: The Great Green Technological Transformation’ (UNESCO, Department of Economic and Social Affairs). Rights and access are built in from the start, as you can see.

And yet it is this very system of production, of the arrangement of capital and of the effort to weaken working regulations that is now talking about the ‘green economy’. Why do they even imagine we should believe them? They are the ones who have remained locked into the fossil fuel economy and who have partnered the enormous influence of the finance markets, who have followed every micro-second of the way the dictates of capital flows and what the market investors want in their endless quest for greater profits in ever-shorter cycles of production. For the major business of the world, ‘green economy’ is yet another route to super-profits and the consolidation of both forces of production and masses of consumers. The difference between now and the 1970s is that today they are able to successfully enlist the apparently authoritative inter-governmental organisations with their armies of economists and social scientists and engineers, to support this new profiteering. Only now, the cost is planetary.

3 Responses

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  1. Hey, tried adding your RSS feed to my Google reader account but got a strange error message, any ideas?

    Poker Tips

    July 25, 2011 at 20:23

    • Thanks for adding the rss feed. I can’t make out why Google Reader won’t take in WP feeds. Will look it up and let you know.

      makanaka

      July 26, 2011 at 21:23

  2. Just tried again and it works now, thanks.

    Poker Tips

    August 3, 2011 at 17:14


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