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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About Tad

  • Brilliant Tad. Sadly with conflict-ion, I totally and absolutely agree.

  • Lishui

    I told the joke about the guy wanting a book about suicide to the librarian here. She didn’t laugh.

    which I think is a metaphor for how easy it will be to get people to understand that what we have is a suicide economy.

    because of how hard it is to get people on board with the the “harder” but more effective solutions, I’ve begun taking this all on as an individual, acting as though I’m the only one who is acting for the good of the world and as though nothing I do will influence others to change.

    this feels better for me, because too many of the proposed solutions like the Green Economy depend on everybody doing it all the time. not gonna happen.

    Think globally. Act alone.

  • Tad,

    I have to admit right up front, that you and I would likely disagree on many things. I tend to be very conservative across the board.

    But your post struck a chord with me. I believe that there are a lot of conservative folks out there who want to be part of the solution, but sense the same thing you point out: There is so much hype surrounding unrealistic scenarios and frankly phony claims that it is easy to want to draw a big circle around the whole green subject and keep it at arms-length.

    It is clear to many that the current roster of green technologies cannot be ramped up enough to replace our fossil-based habit. That said, it is also clear that they can (and need to) play a role in getting us to what is next.

    It takes guts for someone in your line of work to make such bold statements. I commend you for that.

  • hey billy, a pleasure to hear from you. what’s interesting is how much you and I likely DO agree on. Here’s a potential list. I would guess we both agree that sustainable energies will not be able to replace fossil fuels to meet our current lifestyle. I bet we both support local food, local farms and strong local economies. I bet there’s a lot more. And it puts us in a funny boat of ‘what do we do now?’. Clearly there’s a need to build solutions and alternatives – and that we need to invest as much as we can – many countries around the world are. But we also need to shift our lifestyles dramatically. And, that’s the question: what would it take to get people to do that? I guess we’ll find out. Thank you for your kind words sir.

  • Lishui. Think globally. Act alone. Interesting. There’s something to this – yes. act regardless. do it anyway. do what you can even though you can’t change everything. and this is the marketing challenge of the decade – getting people to see that there is a problem.

  • Yes I wish that I could clearly and concisely answer “what is it?” but that is the challenge that we are all facing. I totally agree that we all need to change, and change big time, but how?
    Foundations and basics are important – food, shelter, clothing – basic survival needs – if we focus on these and think about letting go of extras I think we are at least heading in the right direction. I do believe that our addiction to shopping and purchasing is a big hurdle to overcome here in North America. Shifting how we spend our time and energy so that this no longer is a major part of our lifestyle is a huge change, but one that I think we can do. It won’t happen overnight and many will experience emotional and even physical withdrawal symptoms along with the grief that goes with big change. If we allow ourselves to believe that whatever comes to fill in the time that we used to spend shopping can be pretty amazing – like a new adventure – we can start to welcome the change. Scaling pretty much everything back is also in order. This too is much easier if we learn to meet our emotional needs, get back on track with our particular life purpose, and stop trying to fill our emotional voids with things.

  • Paul Vaughn

    Enjoyed your thoughts. If you haven’t read John Bellamy Foster’s collected essays “Ecology Against Capitalism” your approach on these questions will be limited. In particular his approach to “Jevon’s Paradox,” which describes the phenomenon of how increases in efficiency in a capitalist economy lead to increases in economic scale. An anti-capitalist approach, in brief, is required, one that abolishes expoitation of both humans and nature.

  • hey paul. so interesting. and yes – wouldn’t it be wonderful if that was a core question in our system: “does this exploit human’s or nature?” I love it.

  • Carachi

    Next step is Donation Economy.

    Have you heard of the Ubuntu party in South Africa? http://www.ubuntuparty.org.za/

    They are going for the election(!) on community spirit and sustainability for everybody. They declare get rid of money, and start doing what is needed, for everybody. Because we are all one.

  • Melanie St. Ours

    Tad, thank you for bringing this conversation forward.

    Are you familiar with Charles Eistenstien’s work on Sacred Economics? Andrea Lee recommended his book & body of work to me, and if you haven’t yet read it, I’d encourage you to check it out.


    I certainly don’t have any answers, but voluntary simplicity, reducing consumption, and learning about some of these new economic models feel like good places to start.

  • It’s not so much about how much energy we have, but what we do with the energy we do have. It doesn’t really matter if we source it from wind, waves, sun or oil if we use it to the same ends. The earth doesn’t care how we power the machine we use to tear up the soil, fell the forests, break the mountain or drain the river. The new economy is therefore, at heart, an economy of energy, and it begins with our willingness to say I will do with less today. Will you? What’s possible now?