Anyone with straws left out in the ideological wind will have noticed a recent uplifting gust of ‘green growth’ emanating from the policy-making elite (government agencies, supranational organizations, think tanks and NGOs) and its activist offshoots.
The spread of this mantra, now a commonplace of mind-numbing press releases, lofty communiqués and pious editorials, has been extraordinarily rapid.
‘Ministers’, said the OECD secretary-general, ‘acknowledged that green and growth can go hand in hand.’
In 2009 the South Korean government of Lee Myung-bak set up a Presidential Committee on Green Growth. As part of emergency efforts to sustain aggregate demand amid the global crisis, the ROK’s so-called Green New Deal involved $41 billion of construction spending.
Nearly half this expenditure went towards the Four Rivers Project of dam and weir building, dredging, river diversion, and the construction of ‘riverside villages’, lakes, islands and athletics fields for tourism. (Fiscal expansion was combined with a reduction of the corporate tax rate and privatization of five state enterprises.)
This demonstration of the president’s eco-smarts met with a worldwide downpour of garlands and applause. Sensing a useful vehicle to pursue Seoul’s diplomatic influence and the interests of local firms, Lee (a former Hyundai Engineering and Construction executive) established a regional ministerial network on green growth (the Seoul Initiative).
Then a Global Green Growth Institute was established, with Nicholas Stern and Thomas Heller given the titles and salaries of co-vice-chairs (Jeffrey Sachs sits on the board).
In 2011 the governments of Denmark and Mexico joined the ROK in creating the Global Green Growth Forum.
The latter entity, according to website effusions, will ‘propel a new wave of economic growth, paralleling the IT-revolution, and secure long-term economic growth, including development in emerging economies and developing countries while mitigating the risks of climate change.’
Meanwhile the Asian Development Bank released a 2011 report on ‘greening growth’ in Asia and the Pacific. The Australian Greens hope to ‘unleash knowledge-based industries and intelligent green growth.’ McKinsey consultants promise to ‘help clients find green growth solutions that balance value-creation and sustainability.’
Such is the humdrum linguistic Muzak of greenwash: no satire of its vapidity could improve on it.
Last year’s Rio+20 UN conference on sustainable development named a ‘green economy’ as one of the summit’s two ‘themes’. A guidebook to the Green Economy was prepared, noting how ‘in 2008, the term was revived in the context of discussions on the policy response to multiple global crises… the context of the financial crisis and concerns of a global recession.’
In 2012 a World Bank report was advertised as a ‘framework for countries to begin greening their growth.’
Its founding members included ‘over 50 of the world’s largest energy companies, international financial institutions and development finance banks working to deliver greater investments into clean energy, transportation, agriculture and other green investments.’ This ‘new club of international financial institutions, development banks, companies, and private investors’ included Merrill Lynch, Deutsche Bank, Barclays, Morgan Stanley, HSBC, Zurich Insurance Group, Samsung, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Wal-Mart, Siemens, GDF Suez, Alcatel-Lucent, Eskom, McKinsey and Accenture.
This alliance, administered by the World Economic Forum’s Green Growth Partnerships Initiative, aimed to stimulate ‘green investment’ in ‘developing markets’, by promoting trade liberalization for ‘green goods and services’ while ‘dramatically increasing efforts to target public funding to leverage private investments’.
In other words, pools of private savings, along with ‘overseas development assistance’, would be mobilized for ‘innovative financing’ (i.e. public-private partnerships) in the energy, agriculture, water and transport industries of poor countries, such as the DESERTEC project in North Africa.
‘Engagement of the host-country government’ would be required to ‘develop tailored mechanism to de-risk investments.’
A PricewaterhouseCoopers employee described with bracing candour the ‘role of government’ in this ‘win-win opportunity’ of green growth in ‘developing markets’:
[The] ability to extract some money out of government can often make the difference for the private sector in terms of an investment that might be marginal and one which is profitable for them. So leveraging public finance in this way will be very important to companies.
Thus, in one of its guises, ‘green growth’ is simply a lever by which investors seek to gain access on favourable terms to profitable new outlets for their funds.
If this were all it was, it wouldn’t be especially noteworthy or unusual.
Private infrastructure investments (as well as those in transport, resource extraction, etc.) typically have a long time horizon, tying up vast amounts of illiquid capital for decades during which yields arrive slowly and may be comparatively low.
If such projects are to proceed at all, private firms embarking on them must be insured (usually by government guarantees, subsidies and tax breaks) against the risk that their future cash flows will become insecure (through obsolescence or expropriation), be insufficient to repay loans, or not prove profitable enough to be worth their while.
Such government backstops generally arrive if private investments can be framed or packaged as meeting some kind of social imperative.
And, of course, firms owned or domiciled in advanced capitalist countries regularly ask for, and receive, diplomatic, political or military help from their own imperial state when trying to penetrate new regions and markets and when dealing with potentially unhelpful foreign governments.
But there’s more than that to the embrace by the OECD, World Bank, WEF, etc. of ‘greening the economy’.
To see why, note how the WEF described climate change as a ‘diplomatic opportunity’:
An international narrative of economic growth and a low-carbon future collectively presented by the governments of the major economies during 2009, in a leadership collaboration with international business, civil society and climate experts, would offer a positive, unifying and long-term multilateral agenda for both the economy and the climate, as well as a positive message for consumers and voters.
This affirmative and growth-based agenda would help the global public see how the long-term economic interests of major economies such as the USA, China, India, the EU and Japan are served by coming together around a shared set of objectives to drive forward a low-carbon global economy.
‘Green growth’ has thus arisen to perform an important ideological task for political rulers, ‘international business’ and ‘civil society’.
It provides an empyreal vision, assuring a worried and potentially restless ‘global public’ that all necessary changes are in train, that the remedy to ills caused by capitalist accumulation is found in capitalism itself, and thus that preserving the environment and capitalist social relationships are compatible and indeed complementary goals.
The conditions under which ‘green growth’ (and its forebear ‘sustainable development’) can fulfil this ideological role are worthy of examination, for these conditions are social rather than technical.
How does such thin, empty fare seem plausible or muster any persuasive force?
Amplification by the media, scholars and think tanks, and relentless ‘seeding’ by powerful actors in other communication channels, is one thing.
The boundless credulity and motivated ignorance of ‘activist’ groups is another. Most eco-activist groups cannot be sharply distinguished – either in policy goals, funding or personnel – from ‘green industry’ lobby groups whose members seek rents (subsidies, procurement contracts, etc) from government support for the ‘green economy’.
International NGOs like Greenpeace and the WWF gratefully attend exclusive conclaves such as Rio+20, the Davos Forum and OECD summits. At these convivial gatherings they issue agendas for a green economy and green growth, which are as glibly insubstantial and as respectful of existing economic institutions as the versions released by their corporate co-attendees.
On Australia’s domestic scene, the Climate Institute and Australian Conservation Foundation, along with the ACTU, ACOSS and the Australia Green Infrastructure Council, lobbied the Rudd government for a Green New Deal. The Wilderness Society, linked to the Greens rather than the ALP, also follows the fortunes of a ‘clean green new economy.’
But the ideological appeal of ‘green growth’, and its ability to mobilize a constituency in its support, is more solidly rooted than mere mystification or self-interest can explain.
It is made possible by real social developments and economic changes that have occurred over the past few decades. For some (mostly property owners), an apparently ‘weightless’ new economy provides a stream of income (whether dividends, interest, rent, royalties, capital gains or salary) that seems no longer to depend on any resource-using material process of production.
Thus has been created a mirage of ‘decoupling’ between aggregate output and energy or material use. Unreliant on physical inputs, surely (it is said) such an economy (‘dematerialized‘, ‘decarbonized‘, etc.) escapes geophysical and other constraints, and is free to grow without limit?
I’ll explain this in the next post.