Economic security: A green alternative to the growth obsession

The green movement’s broad political strategy is to question the validity of the state’s legitimation: the sense that citizens have that the government institutions of the society within which they live are “just, benevolent, in their best interest, and deserving of their support, loyalty, and adherence.” In this article I want to look at the ways in which greens challenge the state’s legitimacy in practice, and the gains this strategy has delivered. The key point at which this strategy has fallen down is identified and a solution proposed.

Greens challenge the state’s legitimation by highlighting that it is not acting in benevolently or in its citizens’ best interest. In practical terms this means demonstrating that widespread ecologically damaging practices (dams, energy generation, farming, food manufacture, forestry, high fuel consumption, release of GE organisms, mining, road-building, pollution, trade, and so on) are being mismanaged by the incompetent state – or, in some situations, are being actively supported, promoted or even funded by the irresponsible state.

This strategy implies a belief that the state’s failure to take account of green interests must eventually provoke an environmental legitimation crisis – a widespread withdrawal of citizen support for the state. This belief therefore also implies that the state’s political legitimation can only be maintained in the long term by the inclusion of green interests in the key policy agendas of the state.

In Aotearoa New Zealand, as elsewhere, the environmental movement has scored some extraordinary successes. Events such as the Save Manapouri campaign of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Maruia Declaration of 1975, and the GE-free movement of the late 1990s have put considerable pressure on the state at times, and occasionally even extracted some concessions as a consequence.

There’s a fly in the ointment, however. Because all these green challenges have ultimately derived from the ‘anti-growth’ viewpoint that has been central to so much green thinking, they have also carried a challenge to another key concern of the state: the economic growth imperative. And so, as a direct result of this threat to growth and all that it means for citizens’ expectations of a high and ever-improving standard of living, greens have been unable to muster sufficient leverage on the state and sufficient long-term support amongst civil society to provoke any sort of serious environmental legitimation crisis. Careful ‘steering’ has been all that has been required to navigate the state through periodic outbursts of environmental concern. In the NZ context, this steering has included the creation of the Department of Conservation in 1987, the enactment of the Resource Management Act by a National government in 1991, and the establishment of the Royal Commission on Genetic Engineering in 2000.

So far, then, given the radical scope of the green agenda for social transformation, it has to be said that the returns on the ‘legitimation crisis strategy’ have been very modest.

In these intensely frustrating circumstances, social movements often succumb to co-option. This may provide some level of inclusion in the state, and may deliver marginal or symbolic policy gains in peripheral area, but such gains come at the very costly price of distracting and dissipating the energy of activists, and of moderating the movement’s demands. A further typical consequence is the bureaucratisation of the movement to align it more closely with the organisational expectations of the administrative state.

Now it may well be that this sort of co-option won’t happen to the green movement on any significant scale (though some NGOs around the world have clearly succumbed). Maybe we just need to be patient and accept that there tends not to be any instant gratification available when promoting a radical social transformation. Nonetheless, in a recent article published in the German journal of social theory, Analyse und Kritik, John Barry and Peter Doran offer another possible way ahead. If we recognise that the primary strategy of the challenge to legitimation is permanently stymied by the growth issue, then it is clear that the growth issue must be addressed much more effectively. In order to do this, Barry and Doran suggest using the concept of economic security (pp. 265-271). This concept is defined by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) as consisting of two elements: basic social security (health, education, housing, etc) and work-related security (income security, employment security, etc).

Barry and Doran’s argument goes as follows: our society has inherited a tradition that assumes a positive correlation between ever increasing material affluence and political stability (p. 269), and I would also argue that this assumption extends to a connection to social well-being as well. However, Barry and Doran pick up on research published by the ILO which shows that the key indicator of happiness and well-being is not economic growth at all – it is economic security.

This strongly supports the green view that policies designed to enhance economic growth do little to enhance ‘quality of life’ (if we interpret that rather flexible term to mean social security and work-related security, as outlined above).

So we can now see how to mount a serious green challenge in the economic arena, based on a positive expression of a fundamentally different set of values, not just a different taxation policy. Greens can now not only question society’s growth obsession but also reframe the debate with a meaningful alternative concept that actually is linked to ‘quality of life’: economic security.

Barry and Doran pick up on some of the challenges that lie in wait for such an approach. In particular, any attempt to de-link the notion of ‘quality of life’ from economic growth must face up to the issue of consumption. This is no mean task: such a challenge confronts not only the cherished idea of consumer sovereignty but also our fundamental self-image. That is to say, greens must actively challenge the way in which “corporations, advertisers and retailers target the insecurities and perceived vulnerabilities of ‘consumers’ [for whom] a whole host of existential choices come to be negotiated through the prism of consumption” (p.266).

SourceJohn Barry and Peter Doran (2006) Refining green political economy: From ecological modernisation to economic security and sufficiency. Analyse & Kritik, 28, 250-276.


Leave a comment

Filed under David, economic analysis, green politics, social justice

Comments are closed.