Book Reviews

Politicizing the Green Economy

Fatheuer, Fuhr, Unmüßig: Inside the Green Economy: Promises and Pitfalls

Climate Change is so depressing because it’s about more than just planetary destruction. As if trashing the place weren’t bad enough, our reaction has also been politically destructive and disempowering. This is because we have increasingly entrusted our shared future to the great impersonal Economy. The public has been hollowed out and the power has been redistributed to individual consumers, to producers, or to the vague and distant statistical agencies which design new markets in carbon offsets or wetland credits. Instead of acting with unity, we now wring our hands about incentive schemes and the potential harms to economic growth. To be sure, this is a trend which existed well before we saw climate change as a crisis, but the crisis is being used to stoke the market’s fires. The problem with all this, however, is that the market – either in its design or in its regular function – doesn’t ask us what we want. The market doesn’t believe there is an ‘us’ to be consulted. This has been a long-run disappearing act of the public, and it’s a minor miracle that there’s enough of a ‘we’ left to even feel helpless.

Climate Change isn’t just a simple story about how we unwittingly destroyed our home, having pushed it beyond certain thresholds only to feel helpless because we couldn’t get it back. In the full story, the helplessness comes first. Once we see that the death of politics is first, we realize that Climate Change isn’t a single dirty deed. It’s a murder-suicide.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to find tellings of this story which don’t seem conspiratorial and grasping. A successful narrative needs to have a tight grip on the economics, the international institutions, the embattled local politics, and the environmental science. Inside the Green Economy: Promises and Pitfalls is just such a successful account.

Transparently, it is written from a “discourse-critical and power-critical” perspective, aimed at re-politicizing ecology and exposing the ways in which purportedly environmentally friendly market incentives have not only been backed by powerful corporations, but how such schemes have been used to hide increasing environmental impacts. Worse, they document the ways in which these new markets, like carbon offset farms, have been used to enclose the common lands of indigenous or local populations, thereby forcing them to behave as market participants. This gives the whole exchange an aura of consent and obscures the social disruption behind a smokescreen of growth statistics.

Make no mistakes: this is a story about the imperialism of economic calculus. It is a story about how the economy has dethroned nature as our final master. Where we used to believe the economy was within nature, we increasingly see nature as an input into economic calculation. National and international market-schemes try to evaluate stocks of ‘natural capital’ and we are given bromides that “you can only treasure what you can measure.” Nature becomes the ‘nature that capital can see’.

The authors do an excellent job of arguing that this expansion of the economy to include bits of nature, however well-marketed, doesn’t avoid any difficult problems of evaluation or the negotiation of conflicts. Rather, market schemes (which assume that value can only take monetary form) displace the problems of evaluation from local political groups and tuck them in the back-rooms of big statistical agencies. Since these agencies are unaccountable and since they face impossibly difficult decisions about quantification, they are likely to be captured by corporate interests who have a lot to gain from the creation of new markets. The quick version, then, is that power is transferred from local polities to corporations under the auspices of well-intended market-fixes. If our authors can establish this much then it is small potatoes to argue that the interests of corporations don’t align with our social or planetary needs – their gains lie elsewhere. Accordingly, we can’t trust that the incentives of the corporations will be adequately tweaked with market-fixes like taxes or offsets because those very programs are so deeply shaped by the corporate interests themselves.

Power matters.

Though the book was designed to be small and accessible, I regret this simple treatment of power. We are asked to understand corporations as agents: they have ends and adopt strategies – just like people. While this is at least somewhat true, it downplays a different – and consequential – understanding of power: that it is a corollary of how we organize our knowledge. Consider this example: suppose you face a difficult decision in your life – that is, you have the power to make a difficult choice – and in a moment of difficulty, you decide to consult an oracle. The oracle puts on such a compelling show that you believe her when she tells you what she sees for your future. Once you believe her, there is no longer a difficult decision to be made; it has effectively been decided. What happened? The oracle didn’t exercise power over you directly, didn’t tell you what to choose, claim authority, or give you an argument. Instead, she got you to believe something – to change your beliefs about the world – and that newfound ‘knowledge’ made the decision for you. The knowledge held the power. Or rather: the knowledge was the power.

Something similar happens in how we understand our natural world. Power isn’t just traded back and forth between intentional agents like corporations and governments; power circulates and concentrates in different places depending on how we understand and measure nature, and it makes those corporations and government agencies possible. Think of the US Wetland Bank in the 90’s: in an effort to be more economical and conservationist, a cap-and-trade system was set up so that developers who destroyed wetlands in one place would be given an allotment of credits which they had to redeem elsewhere by rehabilitating wetlands or building new ones. The height of hubris? Yes. But it’s important to see that such a scheme could only come into existence if the measurements took a certain shape: that is, if a wetland could be reduced to a single measurement scale and compared with a wetland anywhere else. This is no small task but once such a form of knowledge becomes usable, a trading scheme is almost inevitable. The power is in the form of representation. A similar tale could be told with the trading schemes which are emerging from our vastly abstracted carbon metrics; they tilt the game in favour of offset farms and other tragedies.

This alternative view of power shifts the focus of environmental destruction away from intentional and rapacious corporations and onto the kinds of knowledge which let those corporations expand their reach in the first place. This implicates scientists, statisticians, and accountants in deep ways. Of course, our authors know this story – and they tell it with gusto elsewhere – but it doesn’t get much press in this book, and that’s regrettable.

Fortunately, whichever story you pick about power, the course of action is the same: democratize! The authors celebrate political conflict and insist that all different powers and interests must be made accountable to one another. This means we need to ask questions about the role for industrial lobbies, ask who controls resources (and who should control resources), demand equal civil rights, push for gender equity, insist on political transparency, and so on. The project is enormous and is reminiscent of Naomi Klein’s aptly titled This Changes Everything, albeit with more clarity and practical direction.

Expanding this democratizing insight to account for the second form of power (that which is the corollary of our ‘knowledge’) means that we must celebrate conflict and dialogue everywhere – not only in the obvious cases where ‘the economy’ is invoked to silence resistance, but also in our construction of knowledge about the world. Since the shape of our environmental science and our statistics prefigure the shape of our politics and our tools for coping, the work of measurement should not be exempted from scrutiny, cordoned off as somehow politically neutral. To believe this myth of neutrality is to cede power to the statistical bureaus and their more dubious masters without a fight.

Conflict is essential and is healthy. We will accomplish nothing of worth without it. Inside the Green Economy is a wonderful critique of the alternative program we have embraced: timid, we have prostrated ourselves to the economic illusion of consensus and the chimera of growth. Vaguely believing piecemeal incentive schemes to be the best overall strategy, we have legitimated the market’s takeover of nature and let ourselves believe the result is somehow inevitable and apolitical. Blinded thus to the interests and powers who design these schemes and benefit from them, we have hobbled our politics. If it is not to be a complete political suicide then we must first challenge the mythology that the market will save us.  Inside the Green Economy is a clarion call for why this must be our fight if we are to survive on this planet.

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