Twenty years after the Rio UNCED conference, our world is still deteriorating. The costs of inaction are accumulating: social, environmental and – least of all – economic cost. Those who are bound to suffer most are frequently the poor in North and South who have contributed least to the emerging catastrophes. The environmental and social debt are accumulating rapidly, but not so the willingness to stop the accumulation or even pay back the environmental and social debt, in whatever form.
Right now the Green Economy is promoted as the solution to these problems. The promises are striking (conserving nature, overcoming poverty, providing equity and creating jobs), but the means and philosophy behind it look all too familiar; a stale diet of environmental modernisation reloaded, and freshened up with a significant dose of neoliberal political thinking. In a nutshell, the concept is vague and in particular, the ways in which the social objectives are to be achieved remain either unspecified or lacking credibility. Changing power structures is not an issue.
To UNEP, who promoted the concept, the sustainability crisis is the biggest ever market failure. The driving forces are left aside. Describing it this way reveals a specific kind of thinking: a market failure means that the market failed to deliver what in principle it could have delivered, and once the bug is fixed the market will solve the problem. However, unsustainable development is not a market failure to be fixed but a market system failure: expecting results from the market it cannot deliver, like long-term thinking, environmental consciousness and social responsibility. Whoever considers the failure of sustainable development to be a market failure will call for effective markets, undisturbed by policy interventions, not for replacing market decisions by political prioritising. They will also consider corporations as the drivers of a green economy, promote deregulation and restrict government intervention and civil society participation, thus reiterating the failures of the last 20 years. Another downside of the economic thinking is its image of society as composed of independent individuals. As justice and democracy are interpersonal relations, both play no role in economic models and prescriptions, and they remain vague in the Green Economy as discussed at Rio +20.
The core objective of the green economy strategy is to turn the environmental challenge into a business opportunity. Pricing nature as a production factor, turning ever more public goods into private property, together with a boost in “green technology” is expected to offer new business opportunities by decoupling growth from environmental impact. This is expected to provide the basis for a new cycle of economic growth.
However, there is no way of having the promised long-term economic growth without growing resource consumption, the total throughput of our economies. This growth of the physical industrial metabolism requires more mining, more biomass for biofuels, more waste incineration and dumps, and consequently more threat, damage and violence to the local communities worldwide that are defending their livelihoods, fighting at the commodity frontier.
The EJOLT network documents environmental justice conflicts worldwide, mapping 400 by now and 2000 by the end of 2013. Thousands of conflicts, a couple of environmentalists murdered per month, dismantling civil rights from Australia via South Africa to Brazil, destruction of the environment and suppression of the people at oil production sites from Nigeria to Ecuador; that is the price of a growing industrial metabolism, and the Green Economy will not stop or revert it. No Green Economy without Environmental Justice!