Critique of the Green Economy - A Conversation with Barbara Unmüßig, President of the Heinrich Böll Foundation

For many years, Barbara Unmüßig has been an active environmentalist. In 1991/92, in the run-up to the Rio Earth Summit, she was head of the project office organised by UNCED, Deutscher Naturschutzring (DNR), and Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND). Since 2002 she has been co-president of the Heinrich Böll Foundation where, on 31 May 2012, a press conference took place on “Figures, Dates, and Facts about the June 2012 Rio Summit: A Green Economy – Silver Bullet or Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing?” Afterwards Schattenblick spoke with Barbara Unmüßig.

Schattenblick: Recently you published the booklet “Critique of the Green Economy” (with Thomas Fatheuer and Wolfgang Sachs). Do you think that your critical stance concerning green projects has deepened in recent years?

Barbara Unmüßig: Our critique doesn’t aim at green projects, it is targeted at numerous concepts for a green economy proposed by, among others, UNEP, OECD, or, most recently, the Worldbank. It is my deeply held conviction that we urgently need a greener economy, or rather, a more ecological world economy. In our essay we are trying to answer the question what such a green economy may look like. Is this a paradigm shift? Is it possible to scale back our economic activity – or is it all just about ‘greening’ existing structures? This is what the controversy is about. I do argue that because of the limited nature of our planet and the ecological challenges facing us, we have to reconsider the fundamentals of our economy. In that respect, I think, the existing blueprints for a green economy do not go far enough – which is why I criticise the models proposed by UNEP, OECD, Worldbank, as well as by consultancies such as McKinsey.

SB: It was noticeable that during today’s press conference the term “sustainability” was rarely used. How would you define it?

BU: Since 1992 the term sustainability has had a colourful career. Today, I’m trying to avoid it, as it has become a random term and lost all its substance. It’s become a very elastic concept with everybody trying to redefine it. Some use it to denote sustainable growth, others talk about sustainable pensions, etc. The original idea of sustainability as the responsibility to keep economic activity within certain limits in order to be able to sustain present and future generations is still very much valid. Presently, though, I rather use phrases such as “We do have to transform our societies,” as the term “transformation” encompasses much more – and we will have to switch from a capitalist mode of production to an economy and society that is modest and stays within certain limits. Alternatively you can say that we have to get “fit for the future,” which is a good term too, but as to sustainability, that has become an empty, fuzzy notion, and that is why I hardly use it anymore. 

SB: In your opening remarks at the conference you used the term “pacified growth.” Is that possibly something that simultaneously denotes anti-capitalism and sustainability?

BU: “Pacified growth” certainly doesn’t mean the end of capitalism. We know that growth is inherent to capitalism – and that is how it goes. It’s a law. Capital has to yield a profit and that means – especially where credit is involved – that there has to be growth and expansion. We thus have to consider how to scale down our economic activities in a way that respects the limits of our planet – with the art of restraint as part of the vision of a viable economy. In this context, people are thankfully once again trying to find new solutions. This is why there is debate about Prosperity Without Growth (Tim Jackson); this is why there is debate about how to design a post-growth economy; this is why there is a movement for degrowth as well as a Slow Movement. There is a global renaissance of the commons. All of these are part of a search for ways to escape our present, destructive model of production and consumption.

I think, this is one of the most positive developments – the re-emergence of people trying to find solutions, of pioneers who seriously think about how to get away from the constraints of the markets, the pressures for efficiency, the modes of production that deplete resources. The Heinrich Böll Foundation supports such quests – and one of them is the notion of pacified growth. The term was coined by Wolfgang Sachs and addresses the question of how to create wealth. As I have a very strong focus on the Global South, I’m especially interested in the question of how to build societies free of poverty and need. What strategies for development are there? Here, the aim cannot be to follow the paths of development the North has taken – development will have to give people rights and free them from poverty. Worldwide, two billion people are living in poverty and do not even have access to modern power sources.

SB: Do you think that, in this respect, your expectations have changed between 1992 and 2012? Have you become disillusioned in the face of actual developments?

BU: I did publish a lot for the 1992 summit, and this year, in 2012, I had another look at what I had written back then. What I noticed was that even then I’d been rather realistic and sober. I wouldn’t say that 1992 was the Earth Summit, that it was the milestone, the crossroads of history – that’s not the case. It’s important to remember that although the 1992 summit yielded some important results such as conventions on the climate, biodiversity, deserts, and the Agenda 21 – approaches that go far beyond what is being implemented today – the underlying policies weren’t very inspired. Some solutions to practical questions regarding the climate and biological diversity were brought underway, yet we’re all aware of what happened with the climate convention. Up to the present day, we’ve been unable to cut CO2 emissions in order to avoid a climate meltdown. Quite the contrary: Today emissions have reached their highest level ever. 

SB: Do you think that capitalism or the neoliberal version thereof bear a fundamental responsibility for the degradation of the environment? Will certain precepts such as the maximising of profits have to go – or to be overhauled?

BU: As I said before, capitalism, as we know it today, needs profits, otherwise it will be unable to pay the interest on the loans it needs for investments. How to escape from this necessity for growth, how to stay within ecological limits, that is the crucial question for the 21st century. And this is why I take part in and support all efforts to think about how to overcome the necessity for growth. Still, I don’t use the term “anti-capitalism,” as I do not yet know what the “anti,” that is, the opposite, the alternative, would be.

We have to reflect; we cannot act as if we knew the answer. The old answer of the Left, that nationalisation will solve the problem of private property, doesn’t lead anywhere. I think what’s central are social, democratic, and participative innovations – and such approaches are being shunned by policies for a green economy that promote nothing but technological solutions. This is why the Heinrich Böll Foundation promotes debates on the commons: How can we advance social innovation in a way that changes the manner in which people interact and, at the same time, protect resources? What economic model will be able to reconcile a fair distribution of resources, social justice, and respect the limits imposed on us by nature?

There are a number of leftist governments around the world, in Latin America and elsewhere, that have successfully implemented redistribution policies, among others Lula da Silva in Brazil. The Brazilians have managed to achieve the Millennium Development Goals to reduce poverty in their country by 2015, yet this social redistribution that is taking place – and I cannot stress enough: rightly so – is based on the extraction of resources and thus on the economic model of extractivism that depletes resources, depletes the land, and exploits the people. This has to be made very clear. If this weren’t the case, there would be no movements such as those of the indigenous or landless who, in Brazil, fight against this model of development that promotes redistribution by degrading the environment.

SB: … and that condones working conditions on sugar plantations that are not much removed from slavery.

BU: Exactly. And that is what the landless attack: Working conditions that are degrading and in contravention of human rights. And it’s not just sugar plantations – the same is true in mining. We address the question of how to achieve human rights-based, social development without depleting limited resources. For me, this has been the question in 1992, and it still is today. The problem is, that we have made very little progress as far as ideas are concerned – and even less in practical terms. 

SB: Deutsche Bank had commissioned Pavan Sukhdev to put so-called ecosystem services and biodiversity on a new economic footing. Don’t you think there’s a conflict of interest here?

BU: Deutsche Bank had released Mr. Sukhdev so that he could be in charge of UNEP’s major TEEB study (The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity). I do not want to speculate about a conflict of interest – that is something you would have to ask Mr Sukhdev himself. I have spoken to Mr. Sukhdev at length, and this interview will appear in the foundation’s magazine Böll.Thema, due 11 June. In this conversation I have tried to confront him with all the criticism that has been aimed at the approach to protect nature or ecosystems by monetising so-called ecosystem services and biodiversity.

I think much of the criticism of the “Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity” initiative is valid. A main point of contention is that this will intensify the economisation and mercantilisation of nature and environmental policies. Today there are still millions of people who make use of nature without destroying it. They don’t need new market-based approaches such as those that are now being suggested from many quarters. Shouldn’t it be possible to just leave nature alone, that is, not to extract resources from the Arctic or virgin forest areas? Such questions are being put forward by the foundation, and many NGOs, indigenous peoples, and all those who want to live peacefully with nature are addressing them too. We do not want to promote a false economisation of nature, that is, an approach that, once again, would expropriate and expel local populations.

Whoever puts economic principles first, thus turning ecosystems and biodiversity into commodities – or “assets” as they’re already being called – needs ownership structures to enable trade. This, unfortunately, has the effect to destroy commons, to expel and disenfranchise people.

SB: Do you know of any positive examples where such economic principles have been applied – possibly on a small scale?

BU: We’re still in the very early stages of dealing with the economisation of nature. For example, there is something Mr. Sukhdev, the head of TEEB, has pointed out: It might make sense to evaluate what services some ecosystems generate, especially in the case of certain accidents, let’s say shipping disasters, where an insurance company has to know how much it will cost to repair certain types of damage. This may be especially useful where ecosystems such as the oceans are involved, and here it may make sense to have bases for calculation. This is why, for some time now, economists have tried to evaluate ecosystem services.

Another attempt to evaluate ecosystem services is Ecuador’s proposition not to exploit its rainforest oil in order to preserve local habitats. This is the famous case of the Yasuni oilfields, and the slogan is “leave the oil in the soil.” Here, the question is to gauge the value of the forest for humanity against the value the oil would generate if extracted. This is a positive example and it goes to show that whenever nature is to be evaluated one has to ask: Who is it good for? Who owns what? Who’s in control? Such questions point to the greater question of ownership and distributive justice.

To me, the fundamental question whether there can be compensation for doing nothing, for not exploiting nature, is one of the most crucial environmental debates. This is why Yasuni was such an important template, as the international community made it clear that it supports global commons and for this is prepared to leave oil reserves untouched.

I would like to see similar moves in Brazil concerning their offshore oil, which should not be exploited; drilling for oil underneath the seafloor, 1,800 metres below the sea, is such a risky endeavour that it should not be attempted. This is even deeper than Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico – and we know what happened there… If those offshore fields were left untouched, there would have to be calculations concerning the economic impact of not exploiting them. 

SB: Isn’t it terribly difficult to make such calculations, as there are so many risk factors involved, some of which we’re not even aware of?

BU: That’s right. Unfortunately our approach is trying to find technological solutions for global environmental crises instead of considering scaled-down economic activity, savings, and doing with less – in one word: sufficiency. The point is not to claim that technology can never offer solutions; the challenge is to ask, again and again, what technologies we support and who controls them. Plus: What will be the social and environmental consequences?

What worries me is this trend to regard technology as a panacea, to make it an absolute, without ever discussing lifestyles and patterns of consumption. Many technologies are high-risk – nevertheless they are being introduced with utter recklessness! The consequences such technologies have are hardly ever being evaluated. This is something we, as a foundation, demand, and we would like to see some debate at the Rio Summit concerning this issue, some kind of UN-wide debate about the social and environmental consequences of technology. So far, there’s nothing like it within the UN – and that in spite of the fact that there are plans to install mirrors in space and to go ahead with the massive fertilisation of oceans!

All governments in the North, and some in the South, too, spend huge amounts on research and development for high-tech solutions – instead of giving money to research into plants adapted to climate change that then may be cultivated by peasant farmers. Which, once again, poses the question: What research and for whom? Who’s helped by what technology? And who will be responsible for high-risk technologies?

We’re familiar with the international debate about genetic engineering; there’s also some expert debate about possible dangers posed by nanotechnology – however there’s no real socio-political debate. Look at the whole issue of geo-engineering as a response to climate change. This is nothing but another effort to find a quick technical fix and avoid the wider, causal question of CO2 emissions. There are numerous new business areas that are trying to ‘greenwash’ their image in spite of the fact that there’s nothing green about them in the first place; they do nothing to tackle the root causes of the problem, all they do is pile up new risks for our planet and its atmosphere.

SB: Very apt closing remarks, I think. Thank you very much for the conversation.