What if the Green Economy is the Problem – Not the Solution?

I do marketing consulting for hippies.

I work with green, eco-friendly, holistic and otherwise conscious entrepreneurs to help them get more clients and increase their cash-flow. I help them find sustainable livelihoods doing the things they love.

And I have a confession.

I don’t think the Green Economy is sustainable.

I don’t think it’s the answer. In fact, it’s part of the problem.

These days you can’t go two steps without seeing the word ‘green’ being tagged onto some product or service. Magazines have their ‘green issues’, businesses are going green, Walmart and other huge companies are seeking to reduce their environmental footprint, every time I’m out at the organic food store I see some new eco friendly cleaner, some new organic/raw/vegan/alkalizing food bar.

And I’ve got mixed feelings about it all.

The Green Economy is a bit like Barack Obama.

Last week someone asked me what I thought about the Obama Presidency. I told them,

“Well . . . It’s new, fresh, inspiring and makes you feel good. But . . . it’s not sustainable. Is Barack Obama a good thing? Well, what we can say for sure is that his Presidency is less shitty. Profoundly and deeply less shitty than Bush’s presidency. So much less shitty that it’s worth celebrating for months. But, can the corporate, nation state structure of the USA ever be sustainable? I don’t think so.”

And neither can the Green Economy.

Consider how much metal would have to be mined to create the number of wind turbines we need. Or how much cooper would have to be mined to create the wiring for solar panels. Consider how bio-fuels – once considered the answer to all our problems is now seen to be one of the leading causes of deforestation and food shortages as land goes to grow crops for fuel instead of food to feed people.

Shouldn’t green marketing be about making green things seem normal (instead of making normal things seem green)?

* * *

But let’s step back . . .

After all, no one wants pollution of our land, waters, air or energy sources . . . but that’s exactly what we have. We have to face the sobering fact that we are collectively creating what nobody wants individually.

It’s become increasingly clear that the seemingly disconnected, vast array of problems we face are not in fact separate at all but merely different outgrowths of the same system. And it’s a system that is rotten to its core. The same core set of assumptions. The same worldview. This system has been labled a lot of things: Empire, Civilization, The Suicide Economy, Modernity.

The Suicide Economy is one of my favorite because it states the issue so clearly.

Scottish Joke:

A bloke walks into a Glasgow library and says to the prim librarian,

‘Excuse me Miss, dey ye hiv any books on suicide?’

To which she stops doing her tasks, looks at him over the top of her glasses and says,

‘Fook off, ye’ll no bring it back!’

Investing in this economy is like that. The returns are an illusion. You never really get them back.

To create alternatives we must understand the system that is already dominant.

To create solutions we need to understand the problem so that we don’t recreate it.

And, as the analysis of the world the problem gets clearer a solution is emerging – The Green Economy. And people are getting very excited about it.

This is the answer, many would suggest, that we’ve been searching for. When many people encounter the Green Economy they often feel this sense of having arrived “home”. It seems so simple and clear: problem/solution.

But I’m wanting to complicate that conversation a bit more.

I’m suggesting that there are really (at least) three visions of possible worlds. I’m suggesting that the Green Economy isn’t the answer. It’s isn’t the glorious end we’ve been searching for. It’s (possibly) a means to that end. It’s a transition to something else.

And, this distinction between ends and means is important.

If our goal is to be happy and healthy and create just, thriving and sustainable communities then we need to get serious about how to create those. As David Korten puts it, “We can’t talk the alternatives to death. We need to live them into being”.

The challenge is immediately apparent: many of the solutions don’t work. They won’t take us to where we want (and need) to go. For example: a lot of folks in the social entrepreneurial field seem to see the “Green Economy” as the endgame (rather than a means to a deeper transformation).

I was talking with a friend a number of years ago at a Second Cup Café. He was, and really still is, a hardcore capitalist business man. But this new more conscious economy was waking him up. To the smell of dollars anyway. This new green economy is full of chances to make money.

“You got to admit,” he said, leaning forward, holding the now ubiquitous soy chai latte in both his hands, “The green economy is more sustainable than what you’d call our current Suicide Economy.”

Of course, he was right. I sat for a while, sipping on my own chai latte (don’t you judge me . . .) and ruminated on his words before responding.

“Okay . . . sure. It certainly is more sustainable but . . . it’s hard to argue that it is sustainable. And it’s a dangerous frame to use because saying that the Green Economy is “more” sustainable implies that the Suicide Economy is at least somewhat sustainable. And it isn’t. At all.”

I often wonder what would happen if we reframed the conversation to be around violence instead of sustainability. What would happen if we named the fact that the Suicide Economy is deeply violent and that the Green Economy is simply “less violent”. But this is what we can’t admit. We can’t speak of this.

The Green Economy goes far, but does it go far enough?

Certainly making jails more humane is a good thing. But what if we need to question the “idea” of jails and retributive justice (justice by punishment)? Sure, making machines more sustainable is good. But, what if we need to question the very idea of machines? Sure, Oprah Winfrey does some pretty great shows – but what if what we really need is the end to TV not just more progressive shows? Of course treating resources more sustainably is better than where we’re at – but what if what we need to do is question the concept of treating our non-human relatives as “resources”?

Are we letting the good come at the expense of the best?

Is it possible that the Green Economy is better but not the final destination? Is it possible that the Green Economy is still violent to the planet?

A few weeks ago I’d bumped into a neighbour of mine Mark Anielski, author of “The Economics of Happiness”. I told him that I’d just spoken at the Greenfest (the world’s largest green business consumer expo). “My friend just spoke there! And she told me that she just went off about how the Greenfest wasn’t much better than the mainstream. Just a green capitalism.”

I liked her already. So, I emailed an early draft of this piece to her.

She responded, “Yes I did “go off” on the whole shocking insanity of the event…. I was blinded by the flash of visa cards and when the radio interviewer asked me if I wasn’t just so delighted to see such a fantastic expression of sustainability I burst into tears right on live radio and said “WE can not eat our way out this mess… one can not buy their way to the salvation of the mother… this is an abomination… everyone here is on dopamine and is walking around in a trance… a consumer trance… we are doing nothing but selling a new drug that is organic… and it is the same drug addiction and core problem that is keeping everyone asleep and trapped… it is a grand co-opting of the change… it is like giving a heroine addict a new drug and saying” don’t worry you can do this one without feeling badly about it cause it is organic!!!” I was in shock.”

Perhaps the first place to start is to acknowledge that there is something beyond the Green Economy. And to work for that.

What do you think it is? What comes after the green economy? If it’s not the Suicide Economy and it’s not the Green Economy . . . what is it?


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A Story Teller for a New Economy

A September 2009 Interview with David Korten from Trim Tab Magazine

I met David Korten over a decade ago when I was involved in youth environmental work leading summer camps all around North America. Since then, he’s become an informal mentor and elder in not only my life – but much of the movement. I’ve rarely met anyone so deft at seeing the big picture and figuring out uplifting ways to reframe our current cultural story.

For decades, economic visionary and author David Korten has been tirelessly working to redirect the human course away from the destructive patterns of global corporate rule.

Led by the belief that those who control prevailing cultural stories control society, Korten is striving to rewrite the human story and reframe our shared understanding of a prosperous future to that of a life-serving economy that is ruled not by dominating corporations and establishments, but by communities and a mature consciousness.

Korten’s lauded books are fueling the movement to reconstruct our economy and society. His international best-seller, when Corporations Rule the world (1995), has helped to frame the resistance against corporate globalization.

The Great Turning: From Empire to Earth Community (2006), and his most recent, Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom wealth to Real wealth (2009), unveil the fictitious sense of prosperity and resulting harm generated by an Empire Culture and wall Street economy, and illustrate his vision for the new human story through the framework of the Earth Community and a Main Street economy.

A believer in the transformative power of engaged citizens, Korten has also been instrumental in the founding and development of numerous citizen groups that are working to shift the story of humanity through honest dialogue and the promotion of living economies, such as the People-Centered Development Forum (PCD Forum), Positive Futures Network, business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), and yes! Magazine.

His most recent, the New Economy working Group, is a partnership between the Institute for Policy Studies, YES! Magazine, BALLE, and the PCD Forum, whose goal is to reframe the economic policy debate to put the focus on improving the health of human, social, and natural capital, rather than the growth of profits and economic throughput.

Korten explains to Trim Tab his vision for the new human story and how building professionals can participate in the movement to rewrite it.

TRiM TAb: You’ve spent several decades pushing back against status quo thinking. With books like When Corporations Rule the World, you helped ignite a movement of people thinking differently about the economy. What got you started down this path?

DAVID KORTEN: For some thirty years I worked as part of the foreign aid establishment on a commitment to end global poverty, and for twenty-one of these years I resided overseas in low income countries, specifically Ethiopia, Nicaragua, Philippines, and Indonesia. I gradually came to realize that the development models being promoted by the official aid system were increasing the gap between rich and poor, pushing billions into ever more desperate poverty, destroying forest and coastal ocean ecosystems, and disrupting once rich cultures that supported a strong sense of responsibility to family and community.

As I looked upstream for the source of this dysfunction, I found that the economic policies favored by most official aid agencies, and particularly by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, favored the interests of global corporations over the interests of people and communities. Eventually, I realized that these same market fundamentalist policies were accelerating social and environmental breakdown in high income countries as well, including the United States.

TT: Can you briefly summarize the major differences between the Era of Empire and Earth Community, cultural models which you present in The Great Turning, for our readers?

dK: As Riane Eisler noted in her classic Chalice and the Blade, there are two basic models for organizing human activity. One is the hierarchical model of domination. The other is the non-hierarchical model of partnership. I refer to the one as Empire and the other as Earth Community. Earth Community features shared power, mutual accountability, and cooperative self-organization in the manner of healthy ecosystems. Life naturally organizes, by nested “system” hierarchies, as distinct from hierarchies of domination or central control. The nearest equivalent in nature to contemporary economic systems centrally controlled by powerful global financial institutions for the exclusive benefit of their top managers is a cancer that seeks its own unlimited growth without regard to the consequences for the body on which its own existence ultimately depends.

TT: Do you feel like we are making strides towards the Great Turning, or does it seem that Empire Culture is still prevailing in shaping people’s reaction to the economy and the recent political shake-up?

dK: There has been a tension between the forces of domination and the forces of partnership throughout human history that for thousands of years were resolved decisively in the favor of domination. This began to change as the Enlightenment and the American Revolution spread the idea that every person has the right to a say in the decisions that affect their lives. Over the past half century, we have seen a spreading awakening from the cultural trance of Empire. Many of those who experience this awakening have formed what I call liberated cultural spaces in which to explore the possibilities of Earth Community. The green building and local living economies movements are leading examples of the creation of liberated cultural spaces as a change strategy.

That said, the Empire culture, which is actively cultivated by corporate media and deeply embedded in our educational systems, continues to frame political debate and rule- making regarding our economic institutions. This has been painfully evident in government’s response to the Wall Street financial crash. As different as their intellects and values are, the responses of George W. Bush and Barack Obama have been virtually identical—both have sought to restore irreparably corrupted financial institutions to their former state of function by pouring in trillions of dollars— public outrage against Wall Street notwithstanding.

The Wall Street system doesn’t need to be fixed. It needs to be replaced with a new money system designed to serve people and nature.

TT: Many of our readers are ready to make the big shift— what do you tell such people? How do they begin their transformation?

dK: We each contribute to the Great Turning when we act to:

1. Change the framing stories of the culture through honest conversation.
2. Create a new reality through bottom up initiatives to create living economies and living buildings.
3. Change the rules of the game through political action to favor a just and sustainable New Economy.

Changing the framing stories of the culture is foundational; for example, the story that it is our human nature to be individualistic, greedy, and violent—which is a foundation of the idea that dominator systems of organization are inevitable and beneficial. Similarly, the story that Earth is an open frontier of limitless resources free for the taking is a foundation of the idea that advertising to drive consumption to generate profits for the already wealthy is the key growing prosperity for all.

The contrasting Earth Community stories recognize that extreme individualism, greed, and violence are pathologies that manifest the dysfunctions of the immature human. Our capacity for love, cooperation, and service manifests the potential of our mature nature. We can choose to cultivate the latter and thereby learn to share the resources of a finite living Earth to secure the long- term well-being of all.

TT: Are you encouraged or discouraged by what you’ve seen from the Obama administration so far? What advice would you give to President Obama to help him shift the nation to an Earth Community?

dK: Barack Obama may be the most able and dedicated leader to ever serve as U.S. president. That said, the forces of corporate rule have sown social and political divisions so deep as to make the United States nearly ungovernable. They have convinced much of the public that government can’t work and the only alternative to a system of rapacious corporate greed is the stifling bureaucratic oppression of socialism.

I would love to have the opportunity to share with President Obama the vision of an Earth Community economy of rule based markets and strong caring communities as outlined in Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth. In the end, however, he is a politician facing enormous pressures from Wall Street power holders. We the people must mobilize to create an irresistible countervailing political force to strip Wall Street of its economic and political power and complete, the great historical transition to true democracy.

TT: What advice would you give to a building professional (e.g. architect, engineer, developer, etc.) to help him/her shift the industry and their communities to an Earth Community?

dK: Be true to your values and vision, as they represent the values and vision that most people share in their heart of hearts, even though they are rarely reflected in the corporate controlled public discourse.

TT: You say repeatedly that people all over the world share the dream of happy and healthy children, families, communities and natural systems. How would you then explain how we have allowed the Empire Culture and Wall Street to prevail? How can we begin to realign ourselves with our shared dream?

dK: The empire keeps us separated and conditions us to avoid the conversations we must have to discover that our private dreams of a world that works for all align with the dreams of the vast majority of humanity. Honest conversation is the most powerful of revolutionary actions.

TT: Can you summarize your vision for a new economy based on Main Street instead of Wall Street?

dK: More community, caring relationships, creative expression, cultural exchange, and authentic communication. More equality, leisure, material frugality, durability, and local closed-loop production cycles. More local control, ownership, and self-reliance in food, energy, and construction materials, with everyone participating as both worker and owner. Less consumption, waste, commuting, auto-dependence, air travel, and long-haul shipping. More peace, less war. More life, less money.

TT: How do we begin to declare and obtain independence from Wall Street and begin building this new economy?

dK: Every decision we make as workers, consumers, investors, and politically active citizens to favor local independent businesses over Wall Street corporations and to strengthen the relationships of caring communities contributes to building the New Economy. For your readers who are looking for guidance on the steps they can take, I recommend Yes! Magazine, which tells the stories of what countless people are already doing.

TT: How do standards such as the Living Building Challenge play a role in the shift to the new economy?

dK: They require turning from the machine to the organism as the framing metaphor. The New Economy is a living economy and requires that we learn to think like living organisms functioning as nodes in living ecosystems. The Living Building Challenge places the building industry at the forefront of this transition.

TT: What new initiatives are on the horizon for you?

dK: I will soon turn my attention to preparing an updated and expanded edition of Agenda for a New Economy.My priority remains much the same as it has been for more than two decades: to reframe the public debate on economy policy in ways consistent with the imperatives and opportunities of the 21st century. I have learned a lot in the interim and it is no longer the lonely work it once was, but I expect that this priority will keep me busy for a few more years.

T T : Amid a deteriorating economy, society and environment, what gives you hope?

dK: The fact that so many people are awakening from the cultural trance of Empire and embracing the living economy/living building challenge.


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The Civic Cycle – Michael Drew’s ‘Pendulum Presentation’

A few months ago, I saw Michael Drew lead what he calls his ‘Pendulum Presentation’. He calls it that because of the notion that, every 40 years the economy swings between a more selfish, idealistic cycle and then back to a more civic, community cycle. Michael is a bit of a genius – having gotten over 65 books on the New York Times best seller list. This is worth watching.

What do you think? Are we really in a civic cycle? If so – what do you think it means for our businesses?


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Crises of Capitalism

Can capitalism be fixed? What do we do when the very system we’re in is not only full of problems, but IS the problem?


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The Story of Brilliance

A few years ago, Annie Leonard created a video called ‘The Story of Stuff‘ where she used basic animation to communicate to people where all of their ‘stuff’ went. The video went viral and has been viewed by millions.

Since then, she’s made videos on ‘The Story of Cap and Trade’, ‘The Story of Cosmetics’ and ‘The Story of Bottled Water’.

Here’s what’s so brilliant about it.

She created the initial video and it was a success. But then she asked, ‘what else could I do with this brand?’ I see so many entrepreneurs create their initial offering and, when they’re met with success, stop. They tell themselves, ‘well, everyone’s bought my movie! There’s nothing else I can do!’ It’s like the therapist who is so good that his clients get better and don’t come back. Never thinking that maybe he could also write a book, start delivering talks and workshops, or create products to sell.

Also – her videos are so good that groups around the world use them to make their points. Not a bad way to make a name for yourself. Make tools that are so good that people around the world use them for their own causes.

She’s become a hub and trusted advisor in the field of sustainability – even a celebrity.

Look at the heart of what you do and ask yourself, ‘are there other ways to express this?’

You might be surprised.


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WEBSITE: Get huge bargains on ethical products here

Annalea Krebs from Vancouver has started a very exciting new project called EthicalDeal that uses the power of group buying to help people get top quality, ethical and green goods at bargain prices. It’s a win for the businesses selling them and a win for those buying them.



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The Sad, Sad Story of Mr. W

I think this is one of my favourite ads of all time. It takes something that could seem abstract and humanizes it. Touching, funny and poignant.


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Greening the Desert

I just got back from leading a marketing workshop at a permaculture retreat in Alberta. This single video has done more for the awareness of permaculture in the world than just about anything else I know. It was responsible for many of the people at that training first hearing about permaculture. Why? Because – it tells an incredibly compelling story. Imagine if you could create a video so powerful about what it is that you do . . .


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Shiny Suds Commercial

Key Lessons from this video: Imagine you want to raise awareness about the toxins in our cleaning products. Here’s a provocative and funny example of how to do it.


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Hellmanns Commercial: Shop Local

Key Lessons from this Ad:

This commercial is so rich in watchable content that everyone in the local scene is going to spread it far and wide. What if you made your marketing so useful that people in your scene used it to further their own causes?


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