The greening of the economy

Sustainability drawing 3I am really tired of the “economy” apparently determining everything. It doesn’t.  Nor should it. There are other measures of life and well-being we need to consider, such as spirituality, happiness and fulfilment or satisfaction. The country of Bhutan, for example, has a Gross National Happiness Index. The index measures sustainable development that is balanced against economic notions of progress, and it also gives equal importance to non-economic aspects of wellbeing.

From time to time, an organisation somewhere tries to address the imbalance. World Environment Day was established by the United Nations in 1972 to stimulate worldwide awareness of the environment and encourage political attention and action.

The United Nations also declared 2012 the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All and the theme for World Environment Day this year is Green Economy: Does it include you?

It is a good question, albeit I am answering it somewhat belatedly. What do the economy and the environment have to say to each other?

In the last two centuries, some unfortunate trends have developed as to how we measure what is good. The natural environment, in the eyes of many, has become just a resource to be exploited, with little thought for immediate and future consequences. Alongside of this, we find people’s value measured primarily in terms of their financial assets. The best way I can demonstrate this is to recommend to you a short video that had a dramatic impact on me. It was filmed in the Niger Delta, an oil-rich place that Western oil companies have been drilling for some years. It is the home to many thousands of indigenous people, who have lived on this land for many thousands of years. They live on it, and farm it for their food. This youtube video shows what most of it now looks like. Amnesty International has produced this clever parody of Shell’s own publicity, to expose their hypocrisy. See it here at:


As you can see in this short film, the environment is ruined for those who live there. They will never benefit from the wealth generated by the oil. Their land, their crops and they themselves are not valued in this economy. Shell Petroleum has consistently refused to spend money to clean up the mess they have made. The people of the Niger just aren’t important to them. In this economy, the poor black people do not matter. In this economy, the cost of restoring the degradation and ruin to the environment is not counted.

What is measured as ‘good’ is the price of the oil. If we just look at what we call a resources boom, then the economy looks good. If we count the true cost of getting and using those resources, then we have a large problem. The problem with this standard Western way of judging whether the economy is good is that no one is counting the damage as part of the cost.

You have all probably heard of the World Bank, an organisation which is an international financial institution that provides loans to developing countries for capital programs.

The World Bank’s official goal is the reduction of poverty. According to the World Bank’s Articles of Agreement (as amended effective 16 February 1989) all of its decisions must be guided by a commitment to promote foreign investment, international trade and facilitate capital investment. In 1991, the chief economist at the World Bank, a man named Lawrence Summers, encouraged the placing of dirty industries in developing nations.

The reasons he gave for this were lower wages and lower costs associated with potential health problems workers may develop. He issued a memo saying “I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest waged country is impeccable and we should face up to that”.

This memo was leaked and Summers later issued an apology, but we cannot fail to perceive that this economic vision made one class of people far less valuable than another, and showed a callous attitude to some of the poorest and most vulnerable people on our planet, not to mention the way the environment itself would suffer from the threatened toxic waste. And we can see Summers’ comment played out in places like the Niger delta. Surely those who care about ethics and environment need to find a voice and protest against such injustice.

Humans are part of the web of creation; we are part of life in the biosphere known as planet earth and we are reliant on it. Our health can only be good if the planet’s health is good. Our economy can only be considered good when all people are benefitting from it. And we need to find other ways of measuring what is good for us – the development of the ‘economy’ as we know it in financial terms should be but one measure.

Instead of just having economies associated with ‘growth’ and ‘progress’, we also need to measure things like people’s happiness, their satisfaction with life, how long they live, and how much of what they consume impacts on the life and health and happiness of others.

We need to value the things that cannot be counted, such as the beauty of a wilderness, river or forest. We need to put a price on clean water and fertile soil. Because poor people, ecosystems and animals are not able to pay, their rights and well-being are not seen as important in our current system. Consumer choices and economic growth should not be the only measure of well-being.

The alternative economic system is often referred to as a ‘green economy’. This name recognises that until recently, the only economy we have considered is one promoting financial and material growth. The name ‘green economy’ stresses that a healthy economy is one that is sustainable, benefits all people and respects the natural world. The principles of a green economy include a commitment to the common good, equitable use and distribution of resources, and a belief in the importance of the integrity of creation.

A green economy recognises that unlimited growth on a finite planet is not possible. We need to re-imagine these terms to see ‘progress’ and ‘growth’ as the flourishing of all life, rather than the accumulation of wealth by a few at the expense of the many. Rather than purely economic, progress needs to be seen in terms of a world that is more just, equitable, respectful, compassionate and loving. If poor humanity continues to suffer because some of us are taking too much or many wild creatures continue to experience the threat of mass extinctions, we are not growing anything other than an impending catastrophe on our planet.

The development of a green economy needs to be understood in the context of the understanding that creation, all creatures great and small and their habitats, as well as all people, are equally important. It is essential for us to revise and broaden our definition of economy to include the natural world and defy any attempt to put a dollar-only value on it.  We should value it because of its intrinsic value, not because of its monetary worth.

We are at a critical point in history, facing some considerable challenges including the damaging effects of human-induced climate change, the depletion of cheap abundant energy and a global food shortage. These challenges are global and they are connected to each other as both cause and consequence. They are the results of social, political and economic systems that have come to do more harm than good; systems built on values of greed, power and materialism. We have developed a global economic system that is now diminishing, rather than improving our capacity to live sustainably on our planet.

Living in a way that is fair and sustainable is a challenging message to those of us who live in the West. I hope that we can re-image a world where creation is treated with respect and all peoples are seen as equal, and that “green” will cease to a pejorative political word for some and instead be seen as also meaning fair and sustainable and just. And I hope that by doing so, we can ensure the future of our planet, its myriad of living things, and its fragile ecosystems for the grandchildren and great grand children of all the peoples of the earth.



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