Common ground or poles apart? Greens and the state on sustainability

The idea of ‘sustainability’ is hugely important to green parties around the world. The Green Party of Aotearoa New Zealand is no exception; indeed, the word appears on the party website’s header, as shorthand for one of its four charter principles, ‘ecological wisdom’. Sustainability is central to the Green Party’s expression of its environmental vision. This is a vision of a future in which “our human economy will be sustainable because it is in harmony with ecological processes … resources will be used no faster than the rate at which they can be replenished and wastes will not exceed the ability of the environment to absorb them safely.” With this in mind, the party seeks to “ensure that sustainable development will take priority over growth in GDP as a national goal”.

What does sustainability mean in practical terms? In a recent speech, Green Party co-leader Jeanette Fitzsimons considered sustainability from a business perspective, noting how “business is going green by finding smart ways to use all their inputs more efficiently – less energy and materials per widget, less waste, less toxic materials. They will even change the nature of the widgets so they last longer, are repairable, reusable, recyclable.”

“But,” she stressed, “in the end that can go only so far.”

“The ultimate challenge is to redesign an economy that stabilises and reduces its inputs of energy and materials yet still satisfies human needs. It’s how to be more profitable without always getting bigger. … The task before us is to accomplish the biggest revolution in industrial times – to change the direction and goals of our economy to serve real needs, quality of life, human happiness.”

The NZ government is also firmly committed to environmental sustainability, seeing it at the heart of the nation’s identity. As part of building this identity of environmental sustainability, the government identifies three high level long-term objectives:

• increasing productivity by improving the resource efficiency of production processes;

• minimising economic risk associated with environmental impacts; and

• taking advantage of market opportunities, including building on our clean green image and developing new high value products and services that contribute to both environmental and economic development.

The relationship between environmental and economic development is such that “environmental sustainability should not always be viewed as a ‘win:lose’ trade-off between the economy and the environment. Resources that were once seen as non-economic in nature are increasingly seen as possessing significant economic value.”

From a business perspective, there are many proven benefits of sustainability understood in this way, such as:

• Reduction in operating costs.

• Improved identification and management of risks.

• Created value through enhanced and positive customer response.

• Increased ability to attract and retain employees.

• Increased learning and innovation.

• Reduced Government intervention.

However, the Ministry for the Environment emphasises that “sustainability is not environmentalism in disguise and does not mean suppressing business innovation, or reining in economic growth.”

Common ground or poles apart?

Let’s reflect on what the government is saying here. Firstly it recognises that environmental sustainability is central to the nation’s identity, a suggestion that greens would certainly not dispute but would hope that it means more than a ‘100% pure’ tourism branding exercise. An affinity with the natural world and a recognition of its innate worth might not be too much to ask… Unfortunately, that expectation is rather wide of the mark because, let’s not forget, sustainability is not environmentalism!

This is a statement of quite startling brazenness, and I am unsure how many exclamation marks it might be appropriate to use in these circumstances. Given that environmentalists toiled for decades to draw the ecological crisis to the attention of blinkered governments and their ministries, I wonder what members of Federated Mountain Clubs, Forest and Bird, Greenpeace, and the like make of being airbrushed out of the picture in this fashion.

When we look at the detailed statements, we see there is some common ground: it is agreed that sustainability implies energy efficiency standards, waste minimisation, and smart innovations. However, greens generally see these technical issues merely as a beginning, the first steps towards to a revolutionary restructuring of the economy; the government, on the other hand, sees no such outcome in sustainability, only increased productivity and further marketisation of the natural world.

In particular, ideas on growth diverge significantly and quite explicitly. For the Green Party, sustainability means that quality of life takes priority over growth. For the government, though, sustainability promotes growth.

In summary, then, ‘sustainability’ as understood by greens and ‘sustainability’ as understood the government are poles apart. But how can this one word mean such different things? How has this happened? The history can be found in the academic tracts of political science and environmental sociology, and it is well worth bringing it into the light of day.

How sustainability came to be: ecological modernisation

The term ‘sustainability’ came into widespread circulation after the report of the UN’s Brundtland Commission in 1987, where it signified the means by which potential ecological disasters could be averted: by making development sustainable. The definition produced by the Commission is very familiar: sustainable development is “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

This Brundtland definition might be best described as a vision statement. Bringing this vision into being is the practical task now facing us, and the NZ government’s version of sustainability – outlined in the excerpts presented above – is known in academic circles as ‘ecological modernisation’ (EM). EM emerged from the late 1970s onwards as key technocratic policy institutions such as the OECD developed an alternative to the reactive and legalistic strategies governments had previously been adopted to deal with pollution and biodiversity conservation [1].

EM is therefore not some corruption of a pure green vision; it was always grounded in a techno-managerial view of the world. It evolved as an approach to policy that fully recognises the ecological crisis – thus accepting the observations about the state of the natural world that drive ecological politics. To that extent, the pressure of the environmental movement told, forcing governments to open their eyes and acknowledge what was happening about them. However, those same governments and institutions never paused to consider whether they also formed part of the problem. As a result, EM assumes that “existing political, economic and social institutions can internalize care for the environment” [1] – a complete rejection of the central belief of green politics.

Given the technocratic worldview of EM’s originators, such as the OECD, EM derives from a philosophically narrow, instrumental view of nature. This is nature seen as a reserve of resources to be exploited efficiently, as a business risk to be managed, as a void that has no meaning unless it can be profited from. And in this OECD universe, culture, beliefs and values, not being reducible to financial terms, are simply ignored. No wonder that EM has been described by John Dryzek, rather pointedly, as environmentalism for engineers and accountants [2].

The EM version of sustainability has a seductive appeal for the state: its suggestion that a technocratic/institutional focus on efficiency, innovation and management will resolve environmental problems obviates the need for any sort of social and cultural change [3]. Whether it is by accident or design, the institutional understanding of “what is to be sustained” refers simply to the sustaining of the established economic system and “cherished western practices of individualised, consumption-oriented identity formation” [4].

Most noticeably, EM completely neglects the emancipatory aspects of green politics. Radical green calls for a social transformation based on major changes in value systems and our relationship with the natural world do not regard profits and growth as sacrosanct, and do not suppose that sustainability must be circumscribed by business priorities. For greens, the integrity of the natural world, social justice and peace are considerably more important than free markets, enhanced profits, economic growth and the accumulation of wealth. Nature does not exist simply to provide for the needs of human society and business; it has an intrinsic value and worth in its own right, and deserves our protection and conservation simply for that reason alone. Similarly, human society does not exist simply to meet the needs of the economy; in a sustainable future, the economy must be re-embedded in and again made subordinate to society. Principles such as these are not just wheeled out for fine speeches about national identity: they must permeate policy, and they must inform the actions of everyday life.

In short, while greens are calling for the ecologisation of the economy, the government is pursuing the economisation of the environment [5]. Greens must recognise that the government has a highly restricted, one-dimensional view of both the natural world and human society, and ecology as politics is far, far more than this.

Very often, when conventional wisdom is challenged, there comes a point when the challenger is asked “so what would you do?” It’s a fair question and it often results in a pause for thought. In the debate about sustainability, I believe the nimbys can guide us to the answer,

Radical democracy

The term ‘nimby’, meaning ‘not in my backyard’, still seems to be the insult of choice for developers keen to patronise and belittle any grassroots organisation resisting their latest projects (new highways, power stations, high voltage power lines, wind farms, hydro schemes, airports, gated communities, etc). Experts in a wide variety of disciplines have planned their project with great technical skill and careful attention to environmental impact assessments, detailed cost:benefit analyses, and the bureaucratic requirements of the relevant territorial authorities. All the facts have been considered by the experts, and opponents of progress and its attendant economic advantages are small-minded/ignorant/selfish luddites representing no-one but themselves.

Renowned German sociologist Ulrich Beck is spot on when he says that “the benefits and burdens of more or less dangerous and burdensome production or infrastructure plans can never be ‘justly’ distributed” [6]. Grassroots opposition to all the types of ‘projects’ mentioned above reflects this knowledge by insisting on having its say. In truth, therefore, nimbys reflect a serious breakdown of trust between society and expert opinion. Expert opinion has lost its aura and consequently, Beck argues, “the model of unambiguous instrumental rationality must be abolished” as we demand the “forms and forums of consensus-building cooperation among industry, politics, science and the populace” [6].

Beck is forthright in stating what this means [6]:

1. People must say farewell to the notion that administrations and experts always know exactly, or at least better, what is right and good for everyone: de-monopolisation of expertise.

2. The circle of groups allowed to participate can no longer be closed according to considerations internal to specialists, but must instead be opened up according to social standards of relevance: informalisation of jurisdiction.

3. All participants must be aware that the decisions have not already been made and cannot simply be ‘sold’ or implemented externally: opening the structure of decision making.

4. Negotiating between experts and decision-makers behind closed doors must be transferred to a public dialogue between the broadest variety of agents, with the result of additional uncontrollability.

5. Norms for this process – modes of discussion, protocols, debates, evaluations of interviews forms of voting and approving – must be agreed on and sanctioned: self-legislation and self-obligation.

This is one possible way to challenge the rule of the technocratic elite and the dominance of instrumental rationality. It is not an attempt to overthrow reason, but a desire to return to a human-centred decision-making process that encompasses all aspects of our existence and not just the profit motive. This is what democracy looks like! Such participatory models of decision-making will allow people to consider and express what ‘sustainability’ as ‘quality of life’ really means, and will give them the opportunity to voice not just facts and legal arguments but feelings and hopes, dreams and histories.

References to print sources

[1] Maarten Hajer (1995) The politics of environmental discourse: Ecological modernisation and the policy process. Oxford University Press.

[2] John Dryzek (1997) The politics of the Earth: Environmental discourses. Oxford University Press.

[3] Susan Baker (2007) Sustainable development as symbolic commitment. Environmental Politics 16(2), 297-317.

[4] Ingolfur Bluhdorn & Ian Welsh (2007) Eco-politics beyond the paradigm of sustainability. Environmental Politics 16(2), 185-205.

[5] John Barry (2003) Ecological modernisation. In EA Page & JLR Proops (eds) Environmental thought. Edward Elgar.

[6] Ulrich Beck (1997) The reinvention of politics: Rethinking modernity in the global social order. Polity Press.


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