Green Economy – What is the value of nature?

“Green economy” will certainly be a topic that dominates the Rio+20 UN Conference. The term is an attempt to link concern for economic well-being with concern for the environment.  At first glance it might even seem that those who until now have defended the market as the sole organizing structure for society have developed an ecological consciousness.  Could we be witnessing a change of heart in those who are responsible for the present crisis?  The term, however, is used ambiguously; there is no consensus among governments and NGOs regarding its meaning.  This article will explore the different approaches to “green economy,” and attempt to offer the outlines of a Franciscan contribution to the current debate.

Internationally the term green economy was first used in March 2007, at the G8+5 meeting. The German government proposed a study on “the economic significance of the global loss of biological diversity”.  It is being carried out by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).  The study seeks to implement what is called: The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity – TEEB; its aim is to assign a financial value to biodiversity.  Its goal is not simply to put a price on natural resources and the environment, but to capture complex ecological processes in economic terms.  According to TEEB studies, interactions among all living beings and the environment in which they live, and all the interactions of organisms with the environment and each other are services which should be quantified economically.  The danger is reduction of nature to a marketable asset.  This approach has already led to creation of markets for ecosystems, and it disregards the value of each ecosystem, species, etc., which are basically priceless due to their individuality.

In response to the call for a “green economy,” corporations, companies and governments around the world are creating a new business agenda. In 2010 the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) released a report called “Vision 2050 – a new agenda for business,” signed by 29 major corporations that are part of this international body.  The report is proposed as a tool for public policy formulation for the next 40 years, and it is important to note that a number of the WBCSD members have provided case studies and/or reviewed sections of the TEEB study reports.

In 2011 UNEP released a report, “Towards a Green Economy: Pathways to Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication.” It outlines a path of economic growth to 2050, and is a key contribution of UNEP to the Rio + 20 process.  In the report UNEP defines green economy as “one that results in improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities“ but a few lines later it employs the same measures and the same paradigm of domination and exploitation of nature that are currently in use.  Nature continues to be seen as an economic asset.  And for transition to a green economy by 2050, UNEP proposes annual investment of USD $ 1.3 trillion (about 2% of world GDP) in ten strategic sectors: energy, agriculture, buildings, fisheries, forestry, manufacturing, tourism, transport, water and waste.  The UNEP report echoes the Vision 2050 document, which speaks of vast opportunities in a broad range of business activities.

As described above, governments of the world’s biggest economies, corporations and the United Nations propose “green economy” as an approach that will reinforce the current model of economic development.  While economic, financial, environmental, food, energy and climate change crises reflect a structural crisis in capitalism, those who hold power seek to “solve” the problem by redirecting investment and technological innovation into the physical and biological systems that support life.  In the current context, however, it is not enough to propose “green economy” as the solution to our problems; the entire paradigm is being called into question.  First and foremost the current crisis is ethical and moral.  It highlights a need to understand the true nature of “economy,” and how we humans relate to one another and to nature, which provides the primary framework for our existence.  If we do not address the underlying ethical and moral issues, we will not be able to deal with the multiple crises we face by application of a largely cosmetic approach labeled “green economy.”  Any proposed solution that does not address the perverse logic of production and consumption patterns as they exist will neither eliminate poverty nor protect our planet.  We need to move beyond the logic of greed and inequality toward a culture of solidarity with people and nature.

Among others, the Brazilian government is proposing an “inclusive” green economy, calling for a series of measures that will give the poor, the excluded, access to greater opportunities in society.  But social exclusion is structural. Attempts to “include” the poor without changing the structures of society, structures like the economic and financial systems, the model of development, and cultural paradigms, will not bring about the desired results.  Such a green economy, at most, will offer compensatory policies.  An economy cannot be changed by giving it a new color.

In times like ours, when market logic aims to green the economy, we are challenged to find a better way to foster relations with one another and with nature.  Our Franciscan tradition provides strong motivation to become involved in efforts to deal with the current crises, and spiritual resources to promote a culture of solidarity with one another and all of God’s creation.  Francis of Assisi cared for creation, and his concern sprang from a deep respect for and interior solidarity with everything that God created.  In this spirit of Francis we would like to propose environmental justice as a principle to help us move forward.  It links the concepts of ecology and social justice; it is an approach that respects and promotes the dignity of both humankind and nature.  It helps us to stand with other people of good will who are inspired by the Earth Charter, which offers a set of ethical principles for building a just, sustainable and peaceful global society.  The Charter reflects a spirit of solidarity when it speaks of the “human family and one Earth community,” and calls for a commitment to protect the well-being of the community of life as a whole, of which humanity is one interdependent part.  Life and Nature have value in themselves, they are not mere economic assets.  As followers of Jesus and Francis we know that creation is the fruit of God’s gratuitous love, that all creatures are sisters and brothers.  Environmental justice encourages us to promote the integral well-being of all God’s creatures.

Environmental justice maintains that diversity, whether biological or socio-cultural, is characteristic of our world and must be taken into consideration and respected; it cannot be left to market forces.  Environmental justice shows how low-income groups are more exposed to environmental risks and damages, and how economic and social inequalities, including concentration of power in appropriation of natural resources, are at the root of injustice.  Green economy in its present form will not address these injustices.  Our happiness cannot be based on greed and consumerism.  We need to find a new paradigm based on solidarity.

In today’s world there are many concrete examples of economic solidarity with people, especially the poor, and with nature. The Fair Trade movement, the Grameen banks for microcredit, and the growing promotion of organic farming are but three instances of such concern.  There are also movements working to guarantee the rights of future generations and to promote changes to the governance system which will demand greater accountability and solidarity with people and with creation.  They are all part of the struggle for environmental justice, which is essential to eradicate poverty and promote the common good of humanity and nature.  Leonardo Boff sums up this approach when he writes: “Ecological justice acknowledges that human beings have a duty of justice towards the earth. The earth has dignity and otherness; it has rights. Having existed millions of years before human beings appeared, the earth has the right to continue to exist in well-being and equilibrium. Ecological justice proposes a new attitude towards the earth, an attitude of benevolence and mutual belonging, while at the same time seeking to repair the injustices committed by the technical scientific project.”  Let us take up the very Franciscan challenge to defend the entire Creation that God has given us!

written by Frei Rodrigo de Castro Amédée Péret ofm

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