Break Through…to What?
Green Economic Strategies and the Environmental Movement
A discursive review of
Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility
by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger
Houghton Mifflin, 2007
Every once in a while a book appears that dramatizes the poverty of (North) American environmental thinking on strategies of social change and economic development. The latest is Break Through: From the Death of Environmentalism to the Politics of Possibility by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. Unfortunately, it is a negative example, with the authors calling for a new paradigm of change, but offering a very limited (and often contradictory) social vision, with little in the way of economic alternatives. More interested in delivering hard hits to assorted environmentalists, the authors engage in suspect historical analysis and pop social psychology, apparently intended to rally environmentalists to support economic growth. Clearly much of the attention that the book has generated derives from its attacks on various individuals and organizations. But a lot of its appeal can also be attributed to a combination of people’s authentic hunger for positive economic action, combined with an acute lack of critical solutions-based thinking in the mainstream of the environmental movement. While N&S put themselves outside the mainstream, this is precisely where their ideas are coming from, albeit maybe a little right of centre.
The book is intended to flesh out and contextualize Nordhaus and Shellenger’s equally adversarial but probably more constructive essay of 2004, The Death of Environmentalism. That polemic basically argued for climate change mitigation strategy that would prioritize massive clean energy technology investment over narrow forms of environmental protection. It generated a fair amount of controversy among the big environmental foundations and NGOs that Nordhaus and Shellenberger (N&S) had worked for as PR and marketing guys in the previous decade. But, more generously, it could be seen as another call for the kind of positive alternatives that a more visionary minority of the environmental movement has been advocating, and developing, for several decades.
That essay was far from a holistic vision of ecological development,
but it at least proposed a focus of action for big environmental funders on
climate change and echoed the calls of stalwart researchers like Ross
Gelbspan for major eco-industrial development in energy. Earlier in the decade, N&S were
participants in the initiation of a “New Apollo Project” for major
The book, however, is a different story. Its stated concerns, defined in the abstract, sound valid enough: environmentalism should go beyond a narrow politics of limits, controlling pollution, etc. and focus on more positive potentials. It should appeal to people’s higher needs and aspirations, and develop a post-material “politics of possibility” that “swims with, not against, the currents of changing social values.” Sounds good—but then read on to find out what N&S think these currents really are: globalization, high technology, “creative class” communities-of-interest, and a “new social contract” based mainly on self-interest. The book plays on the appeal of more qualitative development, but delivers almost nothing but propaganda for economic growth. In a nutshell, what’s right isn’t new, and what’s new isn’t right.
Some of the things it does get right—like the interconnection between the social and environmental—it doesn’t follow through on. Break Through’s second chapter, for example, clearly the best in the book, is a good discussion of how feudal land tenure in the populous Northeast of Brazil fuels the destruction of the Amazon rainforest many miles away, and how environmental movement strategies in Brazil should prioritize debt relief and land reform. But analysis of social power relationships and concerns with social justice somehow evaporate in N&S’s subsequent discussion of American economic history, social movements and postmaterial prosperity. Democrats are chided for their preoccupation with social safety nets, universal health care and minimum wage legislation; activists are disparaged for their opposition to globalization; community-based economies are dismissed as parochial; and the Break Through website even endorses Bill Clinton’s heinous mid-nineties purge of the welfare system.
Leaders of a New Movement?
Ironically, it’s their positive contributions that most raise suspicions about the intentions of these ambitious young consultants. Positions consistently made by an important minority of the environmental movement for at least 25 years become, in the book, pretensions of a world-historical breakthrough by the authors. They seem to see themselves as leaders of a new “post-environmental” movement. It shouldn’t go unnoticed, however, that, while N&S portray their green critics as Neanderthal narrow protectionists preoccupied with a politics of limits, some of their most vocal critics are among the cutting-edge innovators in alternative economic development. This includes Michel Gelobter of Redefining Progress, a think-tank devoted to developing quality-of-life social and environmental indicators of real wealth; and David Morris, of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which for three decades has developed concrete alternatives in clean energy, zero waste, green and healthy building, eco-industrialism, benign materials, and sustainable communities.
The well-funded enviro bureaucracies for which N&S have worked as marketers are apparently all they know of the environmental movement. Identifying environmentalism exclusively with fund-raising, lobbying and oppositional activity, they seem to have completely missed decades of green economic thinking and action. Besides David Morris, we can mention E.F. Schumacher, John Todd, Bill Mollison, Vandana Shiva, Maria Mies, Amory & Hunter Lovins, Paul Hawken, Richard Douthwaite, Genevieve Vaughan, Michael Shuman, Frances Moore Lappe, Ken Geiser, Delores Hayden, John Lyle, Ed Cohen-Rosenthal, Wolfgang Sachs, Murray Bookchin, Wayne Roberts, Jane Jacobs, Michael Renner, Hazel Henderson, Walter Stahel, Wes Jackson, Mark Anielski, Robert Rodale, Christopher Alexander, Peter Calthorpe, Jill Bamberg, David Korten, Bill McDonough, and many many more. In addition to the complete absence of these diverse but complementary perspectives in their book, there is virtually no reference to the many positive green initiatives in sustainable food systems, community shared agriculture, permaculture, natural building, eco-industrial development, the carbohydrate economy, deconstruction, open source info networks, design-for-disassembly, green roofs, co-housing, community pattern languages, eco-infill, extended producer responsibility, community currencies, etc. Do these things fit into N&S’s new paradigm? While N&S do mention the Lovinses in their earlier essay, they are dismissed as not having a politics to implement their vision. Perhaps, but of the names listed above, most have thought longer and more deeply about the nature of politics and regulation in a green economy—and transitional mechanisms—than apparently N&S have even begun to consider. And, while often quite pointed in their criticisms of protectionist environmentalism, the innovators named above have also understood more subtly the nature of social movements: the dialectic between cutting-edge elements and the mainstream.
Perhaps most perplexing is that, despite their calls for a new social contract based in postmaterialist values, N&S completely ignore the value revolution that is already taking place in virtually every sector of the economy—and not simply in energy. This nascent revolution—still largely under the radar of mass media and big institutions—includes major action for market transformation. This does not refer, as some believe, to simply changing consumer behaviour, but to gradually transforming the basic drivers of economic development—making social and environmental values primary—while revolutionizing the very concept of wealth. One of the primary tools of this value revolution is 3rd party certification—for green building, local-sustainable food, fair trade, smart growth, socially-responsible investment, etc., involving applications of a range of new indicators of qualitative wealth, from life-cycle assessment and eco-footprints to sustainable community indicators. Prominent agents of this value revolution include new forms of business—new enterprise networks growing rapidly throughout the economy, including green building councils, organic growers associations, eco-industrial networks, and especially the community-based movement for “values-driven business.” Perhaps the most visionary of these is the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), which is growing even faster than corporate responsibility networks. For now, just note these major omissions. I’ll come back to questions of markets and community later, since what N&S do say about them is positively disturbing.
Probably the strangest thing about Break Through is the contrast between the authors’ almost prophetic invoking of new forms of qualitative thinking, and the modesty, even conservativeness, of their view of economic development. In the closing chapter of the book they reiterate their call for a “postindustrial social contract that will allow the next generation of young Americans to turn away from survival values and materialistic status competitions and toward fulfillment, self-creation and a new ecological politics.” But what they actually propose are megaproject technology investments in energy and what sounds very much like old-fashioned quantitative economic growth. In David Morris’s words, “they call this a paradigm shift. I call it business as usual.”
Invoking Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, N&S’s postindustrialism argues that economic growth satisfying people’s basic needs must precede quality-of-life and environmental concerns. In their view, affluence generated the social movements of the sixties, and Afro-Americans first had to become comfortable materially before moving to establish their civil rights. With the same logic, they argue that the 3rd World today will never buy into environmental concerns until they’ve established substantial economic growth. And even in the “affluent” US, the majority of people will never get over their nonmaterial status anxieties unless climate change remediation can promise more economic growth. Thus, there must be “muscular investment” in clean energy technology and a turn away from “the politics of limits” (i.e. most forms of regulation associated with the welfare state). What’s wrong with this picture?
It’s by no means my intention to argue against major green investment. There’s actually something to be said for Van Jones’ conceptualization of stages of the environmental movement, moving from a focus on preservation (19th century) to regulation (1960s-70s) to investment (today). This schematic is not meant to imply we can dispense with regulation (or conservation), as many corporate critics of “command and control” argue. The focus on investment simply means that green transformation demands a restructuring of the economy to (1) more directly meet human needs and (2) create circular resource flows. These two tasks actually require each other. But such restructuring requires not just a redirection of investment but basic economic rule changes—changes that I suspect that N&S, along with much of big business, would resist.
As I argued in Designing the Green Economy, green and postindustrial development are virtually synonymous, simply different ways of describing an evolutionary transition from Quantity to Quality. Our survival depends upon successfully navigating this transition. Some people describe this as a crisis of sustainability, which it is. But sustainability—which is a quantitative way of describing the problem—is actually a derivative phenomenon. It is a result of the massive suppression of human and ecological potentials since WW II, aborting a new level of qualitative development. As Hawken emphasizes, simply surviving will require us to focus on positive regeneration…of communities and ecosystems. ‘Cradle-to-cradle’ proponents McDonough and Braungart say that we need processes and systems that are “not just less bad, but good.” Regeneration requires distinguishing between strategies geared simply to environmental protection and those that create ecological alternatives which tend to either integrate economic activities within natural process or mimic the closed-loop organization of natural systems.
These alternatives are very knowledge-intensive. They reflect a core characteristic of green development to substitute human creativity for resources. Some have described a green economy as labour-intensive. But “people-intensive” better suggests that green work is a very different, more developmental, kind of labour than the body- and soul-destroying cog-labour endemic to capitalism. Even some of the most routine and physical of this work (caulking, ramming earth, etc.) can lend itself to the worker’s development as well as society’s. For this reason, a green economy depends upon our cultivation, and unleashing, of human potential—throughout all of society. It is not an exaggeration to say that our climate crisis, like so many of our other crises, is a symptom of our suppression of deep and vast human capacities.
Most of us sense this, and N&S cater to this intuition in their emphasis on going beyond “the politics of limits,” but their vision itself is severely limited, and in some ways even destructive. Despite big talk of qualitative vision, there seems to be severe lack of understanding of what an ecological economy is or might be, and the structural changes necessary to implement it. N&S’s negative attitude towards community raises alarm bells. Massive investment in infrastructure without a primary focus on community seems to miss the point completely.
A fundamental flaw in N&S’s thinking is confusing postindustrialism with superindustrialism. Postindustrialism, as suggested above, is all about closing resource loops and directly meeting human need—for nutrition, access, shelter, illumination, entertainment, community, and self-actualization—in the most elegant and efficient ways possible. Superindustrialism is the channelling of the information revolution into the old linear extraction-to-disposal economy in the same old resource-intensive, labour-displacing and polluting ways. As suggested above, in recent decades this has been the waste of human potential as much as resource waste. Today’s economic globalization, with its constant extension of production and consumption loops, and its debasement and exploitation of cheap labour, is an expression of superindustrialism.
N&S make the same mistake that many mainstream environmentalists do when they believe that the post-WWII North American economy created affluence. In fact, one can more realistically make the reverse argument: that the post-WW II Fordist economy was a structural subversion of possibilities for abundance, amounting to a systematic reproduction of scarcity through the deliberate creation of waste: stuff we don’t need, produced in ways that don’t make sense. It was a means of perpetuating production-for-production’s-sake without having to orient production to people’s real needs. Such a reorientation would, of course, have entailed major decentralization of production and planning, threatening the industrial elite.
The Great Depression itself can be seen as a spontaneous system shutdown in response to the threat of abundance. Scarcity has always been the underlying basis for old-line capitalist markets, the mindless markets constituting the capitalism’s Invisible Hand. This is not necessarily a bad thing in an early industrial era when most of society’s core needs revolved around very material issues of food, shelter, clothing and basic infrastructure. But since civilization’s rise several thousand years ago, the power of scarcity has also been a means of maintaining social inequality. Class, after all, is based in the control of scarce resources; and this suggests that when resources are no longer scarce, elite dominance is much less likely. One of the things that Marx got right was that industrialism’s open-ended economic growth would eventually threaten class power by eroding scarcity. This began to happen in the technological and productivity explosion of the Roaring Twenties. What Marx didn’t fully anticipate was the possibility that growth could be redirected into waste in order to reinforce scarcity and class.
Capitalism’s crisis of ‘overproduction’ had, however, a cultural as well as an economic side because the source of this great productivity was itself a cultural revolution that threatened that other major prop of class, cultural monopoly. Class society had always been divided into “high” and “folk” culture. But new forms of cultural production, including science, white collar work, mass communications, universal education, etc. began giving workers access to “high” culture as both producers and consumers. In addition, at the pinnacle of material production, new mass production industries gave workers access to broad new forms of organizational power, expressed in industrial unionism which spanned whole industries (UAW, Steelworkers, UMW, etc.). So in a very real sense, the rise of culture-based development represented (for the elite) the overproduction of working class power.
There is also the more strictly market dimension of overproduction. That is, by late in the twenties, production had begun to outdistance the wages of worker-consumers, creating a chronic shortage of “effective demand.” There were a number of particular precipitators of the 1929 crash; but just one fundamental reason for the absence of recovery—the inability of old-line markets to service emerging qualitative needs. In the past, economic depressions meted out harsh medicine, as wages, prices and bad debt deflated; this destruction itself re-established new conditions for profitable investment. The overproduction of the Great Crash period, however, was more structural and historically unique, demolishing “business confidence” in the ability of worker-consumers to buy all the stuff that production could generate. Mindless markets are good only for handling stuff, and the mainly standardized needs for it. Economic development had reached a point where the conscious planning of consumption—and specific targeting of human need—had become a necessity. This should have been the last hurrah for the mindless markets of industrial capitalism.
Left Keynesians and New Dealers rightly saw that a key element of a
progressive solution to this demand crisis would be an equitable
redistribution of wealth, putting more purchasing power in the hands of
workers. More often than not, however, the abundance that
many of them talked about involved intelligently planned communities,
reduction of work time, universal education and free health care. That is, it
had strong qualitative elements. If
they had won out, the seeds of real affluence might have been planted. But
they didn’t. By around 1948, left New Deal aspirations for planned communities
and economic democracy were eclipsed by a permanent war economy and
It was not lost on conservative policy-makers that it was the war that had actually ended the Depression and begun to provide plenty of effective demand for American producers. The Cold War was a handy device to continue war production, and a vast military apparatus would in any case be necessary to secure the resources needed for the wasteful suburban economy which would fragment the American landscape. Many Americans would benefit materially from this waste, but precisely how much, and for how long, is a valid question of debate. The gains of industrial unionism, along with New Deal rights to organize and bargain collectively, were used to support wasteful mass production/consumption. Worker gains were partially deflected by contracts that tied wages to productivity and short-circuited quality-of-life and economic democracy issues. Wage gains were also offset by planned price inflation—as a new debt-based economy put Americans on an economic treadmill trying to keep up. Thus, grassroots gains were real but double-edged. No one should underestimate the importance of labour gains and social safety net achievements. And yet within core economic development , choices for non-material fulfillment—along with true social spaces, consumer services and public transit—were not provided or even eliminated.
What Galbraith called The Affluent Society could more realistically be called The Effluent Society, a massive diversion of economic potential from real abundance and quality of life. James Howard Kunstler calls it “the greatest misallocation of resources in human history.” The new social movements of the fifties and sixties are far more accurately viewed not as products of affluence, but of reactions to the wholesale denial of human potential and qualitative development. At their essence, however intuitively, they questioned not only the distribution but the very nature of wealth. The seeds had been planted in the Roaring Twenties, which were characterized not just by great productivity gains but by widespread cultural experimentation. New productive forces based in culture and human development began pointing to new qualitative directions for economic development. These potentials were waylaid by depression, war and then waste, but the sixties’ movements for human rights, peace, environment, women’s rights, etc. were themselves nascent expressions of a different way forward, a return of the repressed. The experiences of material hardship and social solidarity in depression and war did enrich the sensibilities of the social movements; but they were taken in new directions in the sixties.
The post-WWII boom based on waste could only be maintained for so
long. Eventually the costs had to come due; “pay me now or pay me
later.” By the seventies, the burden
of waste began to register in fiscal crisis, stagflation, health and environmental costs, etc.
Vietnam War military spending and the OPEC oil crisis also undermined
Real abundance in
the era of cultural production can only be qualitative not quantitative. This applies just as much to underdeveloped
as developed countries: the focus has to be on directly meeting human needs
(material and non-material) and building capacity to do this, not on mass
production or financial accumulation for its own sake. The specific combination of material and
non-material needs may vary tremendously from place to place, but the
priority and process is the same. Almost everywhere, material scarcity is
used as a means of social control. In
Despite all their polling and focus groups, N&S are out of touch with the pressures most Americans feel. They are definitely drawn to postmaterialist values—because they intuitively sense the suppressed potentials. But what they experience are the same old pressures of material scarcity that have always kept people in line, albeit in different forms than during the thirties. Waste and debt have been the key forces in shaping contemporary forms of scarcity in the ‘developed’ countries. North American capitalism is driven by a scarcity-mentality, scarcity which is both material and cultural. While the flames of fear and insecurity are fanned by politicians, mass media and the advertising industry, people feel insecure for good reason. Many mainstream environmentalists unintentionally aggravate the difficulties of developing real alternatives when they blame the consumer for overconsumption. Certainly our system has encouraged many forms of self-alienation, and creating alternatives definitely begins with oneself. But few choices have been provided to most people for non-material fulfillment. N&S obviously refrain from blaming the victim in the same way, but their attitudes toward ordinary people are even more patronizing. By echoing the mainstream environmentalist critique that we live in affluence and insisting, for example, that “Kansans more than met their fundamental interests long ago,” they obfuscate the power of scarcity, reinforce the worst kind of superindustrialist ideology, while clouding the possibilities for living in a completely different way.
Recognizing that that North Americans are suffering real material pressure helps us understand the potential appeal of green development—especially if we are providing interesting new realms of creative work. It also reveals the horizons that open up if we can meet everyone’s basic needs for food, shelter and clothing—creating a new level of security that stimulates both individual creativity and a sense of community and belonging. This kind of economic development—geared not only to conservation but to massive dematerialization—can only result from (and be powered by) a psychology of abundance. But it is cultural even more than material. People can better live with material limits when there are many fulfilling choices they can be actively involved in.
somewhat to the little that’s concrete about N&S’s new paradigm of
possibility: the muscular investment in clean energy technology and
research. Clean energy—in particular,
clean energy technology—seems to be
the sum-total of N&S’s vision of a sustainable economy. Concerns with energy today are, of course,
extremely central to both dealing with climate change and establishing
environmental alternatives. It is
great that the Apollo
Creating a green energy economy is about far more than substituting clean for dirty energy. In fact, as eco-footprint developer Bill Rees often points out, without dealing with more fundamental questions of economic growth, the discovery of a totally-clean, totally-free form of energy would be a disaster for the planet. It would accelerate the destruction caused by conventional economic growth by making it all the more efficient and inexpensive.
Despite their postmaterialist rhetoric, N&S’s views on energy, on technology and on economic growth are mainstream industrial perspectives. Two key dimensions stand out: first, questions about the purpose of energy use—which N&S fail to raise since they miss the wasteful character of North American economic development since the Depression. Second, there is the centrality of organizational factors, particularly spatial organization, in creating ecological energy systems.
Back in the seventies, when energy guru Amory Lovins was pioneering the Soft Energy Path, he put the focus on the system, not on supply. Energy supply wasn’t unimportant: a soft-energy system, he argued, would tend to be a flexible diverse mix of largely renewable sources which would vary from place-to-place and season-to-season. But his real focus was on end-use. That means not simply on conservation and plugging leaks, but on human need. As Lovins put it, we want “hot showers and cold beer” and not necessarily power plants and fossil fuels. The latter are just means-to-the-end, and usually not very sensible means. In Lovins’ view, by focusing on real needs, and working backwards to find the most elegant and efficient ways of meeting those needs, one could routinely dispense with lots of unnecessary supply.
A holistic focus on end-use takes us beyond simple efficiency to questions of the purpose of production. The industrial ecologists of the 80s and 90s like Walter Stahel took this perspective beyond energy, by defining the ultimate ecological closed-loop economy as a service economy. This is not the superindustrial service economy where manufacturing is outsourced to global cheap labour zones. In the eco-service economy, manufacturing would be kept local and subordinated to service; stuff would simply be means to the end of satisfying needs for nutrition, shelter, entertainment, illumination, communication, etc. In contrast to our current mass production and consumption model, great attention would have to be paid to specific human need and the specific conditions of its fulfillment. Making people happy, or at least healthy, secure and comfortable, could pay off in major resource savings and efficiency gains. This is why projects to develop community indicators of real wealth and quality-of-life are so important. Postindustrial or qualitative wealth—in contrast of the quantitative industrial wealth of standardized mass production—is specific to place and circumstance, a topic I’ll return to later.
N&S seem to feel a major research breakthrough is needed to establish their clean energy infrastructure. Others have criticized them for not specifying what this breakthrough would be, but to me that is not the important thing. What’s disconcerting is their pessimism about existing green technologies, basically because they are thinking in terms of low-order linear substitution. Granted, renewables should be receiving far more support than they have been. But our main energy difficulties are not a hardware problem, anymore than world hunger is a productivity problem. N&S’s technology solutions are avoidances of the basic problems: the failure of mindless markets to meet real needs, and very bad organization.
As permaculturalist Bill Mollison
often says, the greatest gains in the efficiency of any system usually result
from a simple rearrangement of system components to work in more sensible and
complementary ways. This is especially
This principle is routinely violated in modern
These practical necessities suggest two general strategies for eco-development: (1) nurture human creativity and participation wherever people are, including in domestic work, in informal economies, and in the rapidly-growing, largely non-market electronic commons; (2) nurture natural productivity wherever it is, including in back alleys, on rooftops, on roadsides and in deserted lots. Our first step is recognizing that production takes place everywhere.
N&S don’t seem
to like communities much. In their view,
as bulwarks of NIMBYism, geographical communities apparently present
innumerable headaches to enlightened environmentalists seeking major wind
farm developments and the like. In
perhaps the silliest chapter in Break
Through, The Prejudice of Place, N&S
go from the specific struggle over the proposed Cape Wind windfarm
development project near the Kennedy family’s vacation homes, to grand
negative statements about the role of community in social change. Whatever
position one takes on
Let us count the reasons. Community is the nexus through which a green economy’s qualitative wealth, organizational efficiencies, and participatory democracy revolve. We are talking about far more than abstract loyalties here. We are talking about optimizing the potential of unique people, subcultures and ecosystems. We are talking about quality of life and new concepts of wealth, about stewardship of complex social and ecological micro-processes, and about new forms of distributed or decentralized production and self-management. As sustainable agriculturalist Wes Jackson puts it, ecological development demands a high “eyes to acres” ratio—with lots of participation essential to make the most of local conditions. In contrast to industrialism’s financial wealth, which is monolithic and homogenous, qualitative wealth is specific to place and context. Despite the importance of quantification like life-cycle analysis, embodied energy, carrying capacity, fair earth-share, etc. which are so central to our new forms of evaluation and certification, all these things are simply tools helping us to understand and support qualitative value. For this reason, probably the most important indicators for creating a new society are sustainable community indicators which synthesize a wealth of hard data, but which ultimately must be processed through the needs and aspirations of real people in real places. Green development, as discussed in the previous section, is about far more than the substitution of energy monocultures or becoming more efficient. It is about fundamental solutions and developmental potentials that can only be achieved in an integrated way in everyday life.
As energy guys, N&S should be more aware of the distributed character of green energy, and the movement’s quest to make every building and settlement a producer, not just a consumer, of energy. Even most closed-loop manufacturing, based in reuse and design-for-disassembly, demands increasing proximity and regionalization. So much of the waste of our industrial economies is embedded in processing, unnecessary processing which can only be short-circuited by the increasing use of local resources. This is not a reductionist “small is beautiful” approach, but a question of appropriateness. Our forms of production and consumption must link across scales, but the main trend for achieving both eco-efficiency and meeting human need is growing self-reliance and community empowerment.
In their superficial generalizations about community and global citizenship, N&S seem oblivious again to the main progressive trends in alternative economic development, particularly a focus on the local—which has already spawned corporate “local-washing,” as well as a dynamic grassroots business movement (BALLE) which is connecting social, economic, political, environmental, and even spiritual dimensions through the nexus of community. Certainly, emergent forces of cultural production have created new forms of non-geographical communities-of-interest. But these forms of community can and should be complementary. The networked information economy actually makes the regionalization of physical production more practical. Some of the most exciting developments of our information economy are those like WISER Earth, the Pharos Project, and the Interra Project that employ globally-accessible databases in the service of local community development. Community currencies—especially those pure informational forms like LETS—will thrive in the electronic commons, especially since they will be unencumbered by the security needs that plague commodity-money. Interra is a mechanism that is at once a money system that has built-in biases toward regeneration and an information source for local development. Green economic development depends on rooting unity in diversity, and vice versa. We’re not talking mindless localism here, but a “nested hierarchy” of relatively self-reliant but interdependent communities.
It should be a given, however, that the road to redefining wealth and community development will not always be smooth. There will almost inevitably be contestation, because of the diversity of viewpoints, because beneficiaries of inequality (class, race, gender, etc.) will want to defend their power, and because there are ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ qualities in both individuals and communities. Communities just have to find ways of working those things through themselves (albeit in relationship with other communities), and struggle to constantly create choices that affirm the ‘higher.’ NIMBYism can take positive or negative forms, as can YIMBYism. But while we definitely need governmental action to support regeneration, we equally need a spectrum of incentives and disincentives built into every area of society. Just as a green economy features distributed or decentralized food, energy and goods production, so also it needs distributed regulation, expressed in finance, certification, communication, education, community design, civic culture, and many forms of participation. The scale of a green community-based economy is, in itself, a key factor encouraging democracy, participation and accountability. It is no panacea, but it makes most of the other positive elements more possible or effective.
Given N&S’s attitude to community, it is not exactly a surprise to read their uncritical attitude to corporate globalization. To them, markets aren’t scary; there are good and bad markets, depending on how we use them. Being anti-globalization, they feel, is as meaningless as being a pro-globalist free enterpriser.
As David Morris pointed out, this sounds like pure ideology, like one gets from the Cato or Fraser Institutes. Even business professors engaged with large corporations around corporate social responsibility (CSR) acknowledge there are some structural problems with both the corporation and global markets—succinctly if imperfectly summed up in the documentary film The Corporation. There is clearly lots of debate about how one remedies this, but one cannot deny the need for, or the existence of, major movements for market transformation. Their focus is finding ways to reduce the all-powerful influence of the financial bottom line, and building more constructive incentives and disincentives into markets. Partly, this means incorporating full costs into market prices. But, even more fundamentally, it means finding ways to make social and environmental values into market drivers. Most notably they include the certification systems for green building, wood, local-sustainable food, eco-tourism, and even of corporate governance itself (B Corporation).
Because of these structural factors, it’s pretty clear that companies can’t fully become sustainable (let alone regenerative) on their own, regardless of the intentions of their managers. Whatever they tell you, big or small, they need help. Small values-driven businesses, while they can put social and eco-values in command, need support networks, access to finance and information, and markets. Big business has more resources and access to information, but it is far more constrained by the single bottom line. So it too needs help from the outside—be it via regulatory rules, new enterprise networks, stakeholder pressure, or certification systems.
For guys big into new paradigms and postindustrialism, N&S are surprisingly liberal about markets. For them, postindustrialism brings new anxieties for consumers, but doesn’t seem to affect macro economic processes. In reality, there is a simple basic difference between industrial and authentic postindustrial markets: industrial markets have always been driven by exchange-value and postindustrial markets must increasingly be driven by use-value, or real need. Exchange-value, or money, is just abstracted Quantity; the bottom line for industrial enterprises has been accumulation, whatever stuff is involved. Consumption is just an afterthought, important only that it’s sufficient enough to keep production going and people buying. Industrialism (the technical form) and capitalism (the financial form) have, in a nutshell, been all about material accumulation, full stop. In an earlier period, capitalism’s mindless markets, however unfair, could allocate scarce resources reasonably well. Material needs are, after all, fairly standardized, and generally ‘more’ is better. But the Great Depression ended that era once and for all—even if corporate capitalism since then has attempted to maintain the veneer of separate political and economic spheres, in order to perpetuate production-for-production’s-sake. As discussed earlier, perpetuating these structures and material obsessions has required the deliberate creation of scarcity through waste.
The culture-based production of postindustrialism puts end-use, use-value and consumption in command. That is, it puts human need first. ‘More’ is not only not better, but “dematerialization” is a primary goal of economic development. Consumption cannot be taken for granted. Meeting needs and providing service is a conscious custom operation, the job not of a centralized state, but of what Korten calls “mindful markets.” Money, the be-all and end-all of industrial accumulation, must become the instrument of service. Community-based economies, certification systems, green finance, tax shifting, and extended producer responsibility (EPR) systems are among the key means to refocus producer attention on service with minimal resource use.
It is no exaggeration to say that corporate globalization, as we know it, is antithetical to a green economy. As ecological economist Herman Daly says, eco-efficiency demands increasing restrictions on flow of material goods and physical capital, and fewer restrictions on the flow of culture and information. Says Daly: “trade recipes, not cookies.” Corporate globalization pushes for precisely the opposite—via free trade and intellectual property rights. Both of these things suppress the potential of knowledge-based development.
capitalism is also driven by a fundamentally anti-ecological relationship between
labour and resources.
The focus is on labour productivity (how much can be produced with as
little labour as possible) but not on resource-productivity, since resources
are so cheap or even free. Whether labour is displaced or degraded, the
worker is a cog in the industrial machine and a commodity on the market. In
our existing global economy, there is a distinct relationship between cheap
labour exploitation zones and the massive material throughput so antithetical
to a conserver economy. ‘Everyday
depressed prices’ of resources goes hand-in-hand with the proliferation of
McJobs and unemployment. The creation of green economies depends on a
fundamental reversal of this relationship: with an emphasis on
people-intensity and resource-savings.
This people-intensive work is largely of the creative sort. For this reason, while Wal-Mart is to be
encouraged in its “greening” campaign, it is silly to think it can become
truly green without more fundamental restructuring. Considered the “template”
company for today’s global system in the same way GM was for the postwar
world, Wal-Mart’s strategic focus is rock-bottom labour costs, and it is
inexorably driven to outsource to regions where the working population is
most defenceless. Back home, Wal-Mart
is inextricably an agent of sprawl.
The greatest part of the CO2 emissions Wal-Mart is responsible for comes
from the driving
that shoppers must do simply to get to and from the store. For Wal-Mart to become green, it would have
to adopt a living-wage/creative-work
model, pull back its outsourcing to domestic manufacturers
(a la American Apparel), decentralize its stores amidst public commons
and mixed-use developments, and reinvest its profits locally. By the same token, sustainability for
Although N&S promote their insights as the essence of a new paradigm, they resist offering any real programmatic suggestions, except clean energy investment and promotional themes for the Democratic Party. By contrast, the following recommendations for environmental movement strategy follow from the previous discussion about the actual form and content of a potential green or postindustrial economy. Like most of other aspects of a future sustainable society, they are already being developed by cutting-edge elements of the green and/or other movements. But all could use more support by mainstream environmentalism if indeed ENGOs are to go beyond being mindless nay-sayers or surrogate industrial managers. This is not to suggest that oppositional activity is not necessary; far from it. But ultimately solutions depend on our implementation of qualitative alternatives.
Indicators of real wealth: Absolutely fundamental to creating ecological or knowledge-based economies are measures of qualitative value. It’s an apparent paradox that qualitative development requires more quantification than old-line accumulation which was a pretty simple matter. Qualitative wealth requires complex information on ecosystems, communities and economies: from mass-balance accounts, to eco-footprints, genuine progress indicators, to life-cycle assessment, to social and educational indicators, to local economic multipliers, to sustainable community indicators, and many more. None of these indicators are absolutely objective, as even LCA depends on the choice of the accounts to be considered. At the community level especially, people must make difficult subjective choices about what they consider real wealth for themselves. There is excellent work being done in all these areas, but by and large, our social movements tend to underestimate how important they are. Such indicators are the raw materials for ‘mindful markets’ driven by social and ecological values.
Third-party certification: These systems are among the most important applications of the indicators discussed above. The most powerful ones are simultaneously forms of evaluation, market creation, and regulation. As Robin Murray has pointed out, the Fordist Waste Economy depended just as much on the de-skilling of the consumer as it did the de-skilling and segmentation of the production process. Knowledge can leverage tremendous market pressure when made easily accessible to end-users. Green consumerism is a problematic strategy as an individual effort; but it can be truly transformative when customer choices are collectively aggregated into markets and combined with efforts to redesign and close loops ‘upstream.’ Some environmentalists decry eco-labelling as just more greenwashing, but in fact the development of these systems promises to make greenwashing increasingly more difficult as time goes on. Sustainability inevitably entails reclaiming our communications systems from the advertising industry. It makes sense to finance the product databases and directories which will guide intelligent purchasing in the future with massive taxation of advertising, in effect redirecting investment from waste to conservation, from brainwashing to knowledge. These emerging forms of certification constitute important new de facto forms of regulation. Based in civil society, they should not be a substitute for governmental regulation (as some argue), but should complement and reinforce it. Certification can apply not just to products and services but firms and processes as well. Among the most radical is the B-Corporation certification, which requires companies to embed social responsibility directly into their governing documents. Like the movement for “corporate charters,” they try to deal with the structural irresponsibility of the corporation, but do this in a more positive manner, in effect changing firm “DNA.”
Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR): Along with the precautionary principle, this is the most important regulatory application of the “life-cycle approach” which underlies all ecological economics. When producers are forced to take responsibility for the full life-cycle impacts of their products, they get very creative about reducing their mass and toxicity; and they focus more on providing service. Usually identified with take-back programs in waste management, EPR is actually a comprehensive principle that can take many forms, depending on the product in question. Many certification systems, e.g., constitute what Lindhqvist called “informative EPR.” The point is that we must look closely at all forms of ownership and work, to design them to support stewardship. In the case of many products of service (consumer durables), centralized ownership (and operational leasing) may be the best way to close loops. In many other cases, decentralized ownership—for example of land—may be the ideal way to encourage stewardship. The environmental movement really needs to examine what forms of ownership and regulation are most appropriate to the goal of sustainable cradle-to-cradle relationships. The labour movement should also have great interest in this, since service-oriented production involves more and more-creative work.
Localization: There will likely always be some appropriately world-scale industries. But relative self-reliance is unquestionably an essential overall direction for creating green economies today. Decentralization—like dematerialization and detoxification—is a basic characteristic of authentic economic development today. As noted earlier, even green manufacturing, based in reuse, demands greater regionalization. Peak Oil will likely speed up the transition, but a strictly defensive attitude can be short-sighted and debilitating. Local living economies, grounded in greater self-reliance, can serve as foundations for a new kind of global connection and cooperation. They will increasingly be involved in generating knowledge in at least two strategic realms: (1) local economic multipliers, quantifying and monitoring the relative impacts of local and external capital; and (2) green/social product and service directories to support bioregional development. The work of Michael Shuman clearly demonstrates that a focus on local independent business can offer many immediate benefits for communities large and small, in terms of quality, accountability, employment and capital retention. Paradoxically, emphasis on local self-reliance via import-substitution can strengthen a city’s external trade relationships. BALLE—the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies—is pioneering new territory in creating enterprise networks to support local development. The environmental movement can be doing more to support and extend BALLE networks, along with similar initiatives.
Green Financial Systems: On the need for finance, I can agree with N&S, except that the emphasis should really be on investment at the community level where the core of a green economy is created, and it must go, not just to energy, but to all the key sectors where values-driven businesses need capital. It should also be added that finance should, in itself, be considered as a powerful regulatory tool. Every community should have credit unions, development banks, etc. that lend preferentially to enterprises that correspond to green community plans. By the same token, we should be gradually gaining control over our savings and pension funds so that they can be working for us well before retirement.
Green Pathways out of Poverty:
Whatever the essentially egalitarian and decentralized nature of green
economies may be, real social justice will not be attained without strong
conscious efforts to make it so. As Van Jones has been so
articulately pointing out, the New Green Wave raises the ante for those of us
who have been advocating green development for so long. The creativity behind the green economy’s
displacement of resources is not primarily that of
Decommodifying Knowledge / Green Wikinomics: While our social movements are making the most of the Internet, most are unaware of the depth of the economic revolution it signals and the importance of current struggles over intellectual property. Over the past 15 years, a new “networked information economy” has emerged, which has gradually introduced not just new possibilities for individual autonomy from big mass media, but also new forms of mass collaboration largely outside conventional markets. Old forms of copyright and patent which once served to encourage innovation by rewarding innovators now act as fetters on sharing and creative collaboration. The outrageous waste caused by design-for-obsolescence in the electronics industry is only the tip of the iceberg of the massive squandering of human and material resources carried out by the IT, software and related industries. Laurence Lessig calls the current campaign against “piracy” a “war on creativity” by industry incumbents. As Daly pointed out (“trade recipes not cookies”), a green economy depends upon free flow of culture. Informational processes should not be governed by the same kinds of market rules, based in scarcity, governing material commodities. Old-line markets are not appropriate ways to be remunerating most forms of cultural production. As Brand said, “information wants to be free,”—as it tends to multiply itself at a cost of next to nothing—so we have to develop other ways of supporting people engaged in such creativity. Basic Income programs (guaranteed annual incomes) and community currencies might play roles in doing this. Solving our climate crisis, developing green economies, and taking democracy to the next level will entail a vast amount of creativity. The environmental movement must get more engaged in finding ways to unleash it, at very least by taking a stand in current struggles over intellectual property.
In sum, the new paradigm of green economics is about much more than clean energy hardware or changing voter/consumer behavior. “Swimming with the current” is good advice, but requires great discrimination to distinguish between authentic currents of human evolution and retrograde materialist undertows. With recent breakthroughs in mass environmental awareness, environmental organizations have an opportunity to raise the level of discussion and awareness to a new plane. It’s OK, even desirable, for some companies to be trying to cash in on sustainability, so long as evolving standards are guiding such self-interest in the right direction. It’s essential, however, that others are exploring the opportunities for creative engagement, participatory democracy, social justice, and community regeneration provided by more holistic green development potentials. Leaving behind a narrow politics of limits and actualizing positive win/win possibilities does not mean relinquishing one’s critical faculties or surrendering to the corporate/global race-to-the-bottom. The real horizons for knowledge-based development have to do with community, democratization, ecological design, and with actualizing new levels of human potential in every sector of the economy. Embryos of this qualitative way forward exist in all of our progressive social movements. The creation of a new society has already begun; we first need to recognize and support those already involved.
Brian Milani teaches green economic and green
business courses at York U’s Faculty of Environmental Studies and OISE-UT’s
Transformative Learning Centre, and is the author of Designing the Green
Economy: the postdustrial alternative to corporate globalization. A member of the Coalition for a Green
Economy, he also helped found Green
Feedback is welcome: bmilani (at) web.ca