In a paper that has been around since 2004, and that has not attracted, in my opinion, anywhere near the attention it deserves, Robert H. Frank makes the case that more progressive taxation benefits the economy (at least for indebted nations such as New Zealand and the United States), society, and the environment.
The reason lies in the peculiar characteristics of what he calls “positional goods” – those goods whose primary consumption benefit is that they signal ones place in the social pecking order:
Should we dam the Mokihinui River on New Zealand’s South Island?
The state-owned enterprise behind the plan, Meridian Energy, says we should build the proposed NZ$300million 85m high dam because it will generate around 310-360GWh per year of zero-emission electricity, and provide security of electricity supply to the South Island’s west coast. Surely that has got to be better than another generating plant running on fossil fuels.
There are, of course, other ecological issues to consider, such as biodiversity. Opponents of the scheme, such as the Green Party, argue that “The Mokihinui River is NZ’s seventh most significant river for its biodiversity values. It is home to 12 species of native fish including the chronically endangered Longfin eel. Hundreds of thousands of longfin live in this river and they will be disastrously affected by the planned construction of a 85m high dam and the drowning of 330 hectares of native podocarp rain forest.”
The Royal Forest and Bird Society notes that, because Meridian is a state-owned enterprise, “with political will” other energy options can be pursued. However, last year the Environment Minister (in the previous government) decided not to intervene because the Economic Development Ministry and the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Authority both support the project. The Greens have urged the current Conservation Minister to take action, given his own department opposes the project.
How can a decision be made on an issue such as this? Such decisions are difficult, undoubtedly. However, looking at such problems of environmental decision-making in broader terms, Tasmanian researcher Paul E Smith argues that the representative institutions of liberal democracy are set up to fail the environment.
Human progress seems to have been boiled down, in the minds of many, to a single notion – economic growth. All human advancement is, it seems, captured in this one variable; politicians and business commentators hold their breath as they receive the latest GDP statistics and our destiny is revealed in a number. Today, growth is the “the supreme, overriding objective of policy” for every government (except one, the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan).
It might come as a surprise to learn that governments have not always had this growth obsession. In fact, economic growth only came into the policy picture 50 or 60 years ago, initially as a means to guarantee full employment in a post-war economy and avoid the horrors of the Great Depression. It quickly became the dominant policy goal in its own right. As the OECD makes clear, going for growth is now a basic assumption of economic policy and, outside the realms of green/ecological economics, it goes entirely unquestioned.
The recognition that growth has not always been the be all and end all of human endeavour is the beginning of an understanding of the damage that the obsessive pursuit of growth wreaks. We can challenge the growth imperative, unravel the assumptions behind it, and comprehend the environmental and human consequences of pursuing it with pathological desire. And with that understanding in place we can ask – is there an alternative to growth? It may be killing the planet but can we live without it?
Many political columnists, editorial writers and others, informed or otherwise, seem base their expectations of support for green parties on their perceptions of public concern about the environment. Such concern undoubtedly is widepread. That the electoral success of green parties around the world falls far short of these expectations then provides a handy stick with which to beat green parties: something is wrong in the way the greens are presenting themselves. Very often the ‘analysis’ (I use the term loosely) boils down to criticism of the left orientation of green parties or of particular politicians: “If only the greens would stick to being an environmental party as they are supposed to be,” cry the commentators.
This suggestion is nonsense, as I have discussed previously. The left orientation of green parties around the world is a consistent and coherent representation of green ideology, and the ecological worldview that underpins it includes and integrates a concern for social justice.
So, what other explanation could there be for the performance of green parties in national elections?