A Critique of the Green Economy. Toward Social and Environmental Equity


A Critique of the Green Economy. Toward Social and Environmental Equity

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Green City - Greenery seems to be taking over the roof of one building in lower Manhattan. Picture by alykat under CC BY 2.0 License. Original: Flickr.  


June 7, 2012
Barbara Unmüßig, Wolfgang Sachs and Thomas Fatheuer

The first United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, was once hailed as milestone for environmental policy. Yet it did not mark a real turnaround, nor did it usher in a socially and environmentally sustainable future. Since then all the important global environmental trends have taken a turn for the worse. In politics and industry decisions are still taken with scant regard for climate change, biodiversity loss or dwindling resources. This essay outlines the reasons why any radical rethinking on the part of the political and economic elites at the next conference on sustainable development – once again in Rio de Janeiro – is not to be expected.

Climate change, dwindling resources, food security, ecosystem and biodiversity loss all need to be treated as priorities and acted upon swiftly. Yet the Rio+20 summit is beset by major dilemmas. The global economic crisis cries out for more growth. Similarly, classical growth and development models continue to be viewed as the answer to the problems of poverty. Yet climate change and the growing scarcity of resources demand global restraint, moderation and shrinkage. We need a new “great transformation,” a new social contract between all nations that accepts the limits of what the planet can provide and strives for development premised on human rights. Instead we are offered traditional macroeconomic answers that by themselves to not resolve the problems.

It was hoped that the heads of state and government from all over the world who gather in Rio de Janeiro might take the planet’s limits seriously and at last take the necessary steps towards a low-carbon, resource-efficient and more equitable world. Twenty years after the first Earth Summit, it seems that this hope is to remain but a dream. In this essay we should like to highlight what will not be said in Rio – but needs to be said nevertheless. The planet’s limits require bold and radical steps towards a global transformation. The green economy is seen as the new way forwards for “the future we want” – as the Rio+20 slogan puts it. At the Rio+20 conference this idea will feature in international negotiations for the first time.

But what it is or is supposed to be is still hotly debated. This paper sets out the key tenets of the green economy, which invariably place the economy at the center of any discussion of sustainability. It is true that we shall save the planet only by working with the economy rather critical examination of the existing concepts and to outline alternatives. Technology and efficiency play a prominent part in all concepts of the green economy. But to what end and for whom, we ask. Not everything that is “green” and efficient is also environmentally sustainable and socially equitable. We need efficiency, we need to save resources, but we also need a policy of managing with less if the Earth’s resources and its atmosphere are to be sufficient for everyone on the planet and if a life of dignity and without want is to be possible. Efficiency, consistency, sufficiency and human rights are the elements of a green economy, of wealth combined with moderation.

All the authors were active in the political arena, in writing and in research at the time of the first Rio Summit in 1992. That Earth Summit helped shape our thinking and actions, along with those of so many others. With regard to the environmental state of the planet and the economic and political constellations of power and interests in the world we are realists; the signs are not pointing towards a great transformation. But at the same time we are optimists, because we believe that humans have the will and the strength to strive for their wellbeing and their freedom — for a Buen Vivir!

Click here to read Critique of the Green Economy. Toward Social and Environmental Equity (54 pages, pdf, 213KB)

About the Authors

Barbara Unmüßig has been President of the Heinrich Böll Foundation since 2002. She specializes in globalization, climate policy, national and international gender policy, promotion of democracy and crisis prevention. In 1991/92 she headed the UNCED project office of the German League for Nature and Environment (Deutscher Naturschutzring, DNR) and Friends of the Earth Germany as part of preparations for the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992.

Dr. Thomas Fatheuer studied social sciences and classical philology in Münster, Germany. From 2002 until 2010 he lived and worked in Brazil, for some of this time as head of the Brazil office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Rio de Janeiro. Since 2011 he has worked as a freelance consultant and author in Berlin.

Dr. Wolfgang Sachs studied theology, sociology and history. For many years he was a researcher at the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, guest lecturer at Schumacher College in England and honorary professor at the University of Kassel. He is a member of the Club of Rome. He has published widely in Germany and elsewhere on the environment, globalization and new models of wealth. 

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