Critical reflection on the green economy launched in Berlin


The Berlin-based Heinrich Böll Foundation today launched the English edition of its book “Inside the Green Economy”, a critical reflection about supposedly sustainable, global economic trends, strategies and technologies labeled as “green economy”. The joint work of Barbara Unmüßig, Thomas Fatheuer and Lili Fuhr puts the “green economy” to the test, discusses its promises and shortcomings, describes actual consequences and names its blind spots – social, political and technological.


“The common perception sees the green economy to be prosperous and a way out of the fossil-fuel age,” Barbara Unmüßig, president of the Heinrich Böll Foundation today said. “It’s a nice, optimistic message: The economy can continue to grow and growth can be green. With its positive associations, the term ‘green economy’ suggests that the world as we know it can continue much as before thanks to a green growth paradigm of greater efficiency and lower resource consumption. Furthermore this view reasserts the primacy of economics, thereby failing to recognize the depth of the transformation that is required,” Unmüßig said. “It responds to the multiple crises with more economics. Economics has become the currency of politics, say its advocates. Consequently, they intend to correct the failure of the market economy by enlarging the market.”


“The most powerful talisman of all protagonists of the green economy is technological innovation, which justifies simply waiting for a cure-all invention to come along. But, though new ideas and innovations are obviously vital to address complex challenges, environmental or otherwise, they are neither automatic nor inevitable. Innovation, particularly technological innovation, is mostly shaped by economic and political interests, so it must be judged in its social, cultural and environmental context,” Unmüßig stresses.


In its 10 chapters, the book also develops a critical vision of current innovation processes, pointing out that generally interest-driven innovations often lead to a life extension of products and systems that are no longer fit for the needs of sustainable societies. The book refers to current examples of supposedly “green” trends in the automotive industry, where engine fuel efficiency gains are being eaten up by larger, more powerful, and heavier vehicles than ever before. At the same time, the authors argue, apparently more energy is being spent learning to manipulate emissions readings, as Volkswagen and possibly others did, than to develop genuinely “green” vehicles or completely new systems of integrated private and public transport. The same goes for biofuels: They extend the lifetime of a clearly obsolete combustion technology and put the brakes on the development of groundbreaking new technologies, while at the same time generating enormous social and ecological impacts.


“Many global problems today – such as climate change, loss of biodiversity or hunger – are being defined as problems that can be overcome with the right technological solution. But large-scale manipulation of our global climate through so-called geoengineering technologies or the use of extreme genetic engineering (synthetic biology) to address malnutrition or even to support conservation objectives are dangerous techno-fixes. Their potential impacts go way beyond anything humans can control, they delay real action towards transformative change and let us believe that all can be fixed without fundamental changes to how we produce and consume,” says Lili Fuhr, who heads the Ecology and Sustainable Development Department of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Berlin.


The authors explain that at present there is no plausible scenario that combines growth, absolute reduction in resource use and more global justice in a world of nine billion people. Each of the needed transformational steps would have to acknowledge the evident and undeniable global environmental limits and imperatives. But this might be highly controversial or even conflictive as a successful green transformation will inevitably crush many vested interests rooted in the current business models. Therefore, the authors insist that a truly green transformation would have to be conceived mainly as a genuinely political task, tolerating and democratically managing differences of opinion and conflicts of interests. Basic human rights, such as freedom of organization, free speech and the right to peaceful assembly, are the normative foundation upon which transformative strategies have to be negotiated, say Unmüßig, Fatheuer and Fuhr.


“It is not about a lack of alternatives: many strategies, from organic farming to networked mobility systems that do not rely on private vehicles, are already within reach, or are even being implemented. It’s essentially the lack of political will to implement these strategies in the face of entrenched, economic minority interests which produces blockades,” Unmüßig says. “The challenge is to overcome these vested interests and to reprioritize the protection of the broader public interest – a task which often is up to civil society.”