Green Economy: UN institutions fail to acknowledge flawed nature of dominant economic and political system

greenSenior experts Ashish Kothar, Federico Demaria and Alberto Acosta, in a recent paper, “Buen Vivir, Degrowth and Ecological Swaraj: Alternatives to sustainable development and the Green Economy”, say that ‘Green Economy’ (GE) and ‘sustainable development’ (SD) approaches entail a series of technological, managerial, and behavioural changes, in particular to build in principles and parameters of sustainability and inclusion into production, consumption and trade while maintaining high rates of economic growth as the key driver of development.

They argue that these attempts have failed (and will continue to fail) to deliver what they promised: halt the worsening of the planetary health, eradicate poverty and reduce inequality. Seeking to “repoliticize” the public debate by identifying alternative socio-environmental futures, they particularly refer to Buen Vivir experiment in Latin America, Ecological Swaraj or Radical Ecological Democracy (RED) in India, and Degrowth in Europe. These models, they say, bring about “genuine political and socio-ecological transformation”. Excerpts:

While the GE approach could be seen as an improvement over the conventional neo-liberal economic model, it remains fundamentally flawed on a number of counts. For instance, the final objective for a New Green Deal is the creation of ‘resilient low carbon economies, rich in jobs and based on independent sources of energy supply’. While on this end there might general agreement, the controversy remains on the means to adopt.

This is reflected in the ongoing discussions on Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to replace the Millennium Development Goals, which nations of the world are expected to adopt in late 2015. Among the flaws or weaknesses of the GE/SD approach as articulated thus far in various UN or UN sponsored documents (UNEP, 2011; UN Secretary General Panel, 2012; SDSN, 2013; United Nation, 2013; United Nations, 2014), including the final text for adoption ‘Transforming our world: The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’, are the following:

  1. Absence of an analysis of the historical and structural roots of poverty, hunger, unsustainability, and inequities, which include centralization of state power, capitalist monopolies, colonialism, racism and patriarchy. Without this diagnosis, it is inevitable that the prescriptions will not be transformative enough. From the time of the Rio+20 summit (2012), every UN report on the post-2015 Agenda has lacked such a diagnosis.
  2. Inadequate focus on direct democratic governance: There is welcome stress on accountability and transparency, but not on direct democracy (decision making by citizens and communities in face-to-face settings). Power in such a polity would flow upwards from the ground, enabling greater accountability and transparency than possible in only representative democracy. There is no mention of indigenous peoples’ rights to self-determination (now recognized under the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples), or of free, prior and informed consent powers to communities relating to lands and resources (ILO, Convention 169).
  3. Inability to recognize the biophysical limits to economic growth: While recognizing ecological limits, these approaches do not see the inherent contradiction between these same limits and unending economic growth (which necessarily entails increasing material and energy flows, as ecological economists have shown). Instead, there is repeated talk of ‘accelerated growth’, albeit ‘green’ and ‘inclusive’. Given that human activity has already crossed several planetary boundaries, we may need global degrowth, along with radical redistribution so that countries/regions thus far deprived can gain without further threatening the Earth. 4. Continued subservience to private capital: The approaches remain excessively soft towards big private business and finance capital, and dependent on their goodwill (i.e., voluntary measures) to not only make their operations sustainable but to provide financial support for the transition to sustainability. There is hardly any talk of the need to reign-in irresponsible corporate behaviour towards the Earth and people, through legal and other regulatory mechanisms; and no talk whatsoever of the need to transfer control over the means of production to collectives of producers. There is also continued faith in market mechanisms (e.g. the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) mechanism) as a major element of the GE, despite the evidence that these not only hardly work, but are inimical to the goals of equity and justice as they foster commodification.
  4. Modern science and technology held as panacea: There is some grudging concession to indigenous and traditional knowledge, practices, and technologies, but in general, the GE/SD approaches focus predominantly on modern science and technology. Largely ignored is the need to promote democratic, community-based research and development (R&D), and the importance of keeping knowledge in the commons or public domain. For instance, environmental problems need approaches such as ‘Post-Normal science’, a problem-solving strategy to be used ‘when facts are uncertain, values are in dispute, stakes are high, and decision urgent’.
  5. Culture, ethics and spirituality nowhere in the picture: The importance of cultural diversity, and of ethical and spiritual values (especially towards fellow humans and the rest of nature) is greatly underplayed. The crucial links between culture, sustainability and equity are neither worked out nor recognized.
  6. Unbridled consumerism not tackled head-on: While there is a welcome focus on sustainable production and consumption, there is no explicit focus on the need to curb and drastically cut down the present consumption levels of the rich in the global North (the so-called 1 percent, including the dominant elites of the South). Without this, the majority of humankind will never have the space needed to become more secure and genuinely prosperous.
  7. Global relations built on localization and selfreliance missing: There is little acknowledgement of the need for relatively self-reliant (not to be confused with ‘gated’!) communities, at least for basic material/physical, learning, and health needs, with governments and civil society facilitation. Examples across the world testify to the possibilities of such a transformation, which dramatically cuts unsustainable transportation, empowers people to be in control of their own lives, democratizes production and markets, and provides a stable basis for wider socio-economic and political relations across communities. On the contrary, the GE approach continues to promote large-scale global trade, albeit in products that are ‘green’ which according to UNEP would be more ‘competitive’.
  8. No new architecture of global governance: Missing is the need to change the current system of global governance to be far more responsive and accountable to the peoples of the world; whether it is a reformed UN, or a new global assembly of peoples that brings on board all relevant partners, indigenous peoples and local communities. Such global governance would have to prioritize human rights and environmental agreements over economic, finance, trade, and commerce agreements.

Ecological Swaraj or RED

Emerging from the grass-roots experience of communities and civil society practicing or conceiving alternatives across the range of human endeavour in India, Ecological Swaraj (loosely, self-rule including self-reliance), or RED is a framework that respects the limits of the Earth and the rights of other species, while pursuing the core values of social justice and equity. With its strong democratic and egalitarian impulse, it seeks to empower every person to be a part of decision making, and its holistic vision of human well-being encompasses physical, material, socio-cultural, intellectual, and spiritual dimensions.

Rather than the state and the corporation, it puts collectives and communities at the centre of governance and the economy, an approach that is grounded in real-life initiatives across the Indian subcontinent (see www. This approach rests on the following main (intersecting) elements:

  • Ecological sustainability, including the conservation of nature (ecosystems, species, functions, and cycles) and its resilience, building on the belief that humanity is part of nature, and that the rest of nature has intrinsic right to thrive.
  • Social well-being and justice, including lives that are fulfilling and satisfactory physically, socially, culturally, and spiritually; where there is equity in socio-economic and political entitlements, benefits, rights and responsibilities across gender, class, caste, age, ethnicities, and other current divisions; where there is a balance between collective interests and individual freedoms; and, where peace and harmony are ensured.
  • Direct political democracy, where decision-making power starts at the smallest unit of human settlement (rural or urban), in which every human has the right, capacity and opportunity to take part, and builds up from this unit to larger levels of governance that are downwardly accountable; and, where political decision making takes place respecting ecological and cultural boundaries.
  • Economic democracy, in which local communities (including producers and consumers, often combined in one) have control over the means of production, distribution, exchange, and markets; where localization is a key principle providing for all basic needs through the local regional economy, and larger trade and exchange, as necessary, is built on and safeguards this local self-reliance; and, where nonmonetized relations of caring and sharing regain their central importance.
  • Cultural and knowledge plurality, in which diversity is a key principle; knowledge (its generation, use and transmission) is in the public domain; innovation is democratically generated and there are no ivory towers of ‘expertise’; learning takes place as part of life and living rather than only in specialized institutions; and, individual or collective pathways of ethical and spiritual well-being and of happiness are available to all Ecological Swaraj is an evolving worldview, not a blueprint set in stone. In its very process of democratic grassroots evolution, it forms an alternative to top-down ideologies and formulations, even as it takes on board the relevant elements of such ideologies. This is the basis of its transformative potential.

Conclusion: the need for radical movements to foster transformative socio-ecological transitions

The inability or unwillingness of UN institutions and processes to acknowledge the fundamentally flawed nature of the currently dominant economic and political system, and to envision a truly transformative agenda for a sustainable and equitable future, is disappointing. But it is not surprising, given that these processes are in the hands of officials of nation-states and formal sector ‘experts’ with private corporate power pushing from behind, and there is seriously inadequate voice of ordinary (including indigenous) peoples in them.

For this reason, even as civil society pushes for the greatest possible space within the post-2015 SDGs Agenda, it must also continue envisioning and promoting fundamentally alternative visions and pathways. There is a need to relocate at the centre of our societies the value of solidarity and mutual principles of social organization beyond the conventional economics and utilitarianism on which the GE is based.

This complex challenge, barely sketched in this text, we will not meet overnight. We must give way to transitions from existing alternative practices worldwide, guided by utopian horizons advocating a life in harmony among human beings and between us and the rest of nature. This urges us to move towards a new civilization demanding another economy and another politics. It is a patient and determined construction and reconstruction – one that begins to dismantle various dominant fetishes (like ‘growth’), and promotes radical changes from existing experiences, especially at the local level, typical of a RED.

The possibility of radical well-being notions such as those outlined above becoming prevalent, and replacing the currently mainstream model of ‘development’ (with or without its ‘sustainable’ and ‘green’ robes), is clearly dim in the current scenario. However, it is not an impossible dream; indeed, as multiple crises increase when even the ‘Green Economy’ fails to deliver as it inevitably must, people everywhere will be looking for meaningful alternatives.

This is already happening for instance in the context of Southern Europe’s severe economic crisis, or as a response to the alienation of an increasingly capitalist state in many southern countries. Indigenous peoples, local communities, civil society and other actors of change need to continue dreaming, practicing, and promoting these alternatives, for one day there will be an overwhelming demand for them, and it will be tragic if we would have meanwhile abandoned them because we thought they were an impossibility.


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