Tasteful Unsustainability (or the Story of a Green Economy)

When I strolled around the European Parliament in Brussels and suddenly noticed a poster that titled ‘Sustaining Sustainability’ in big red letters, then it caught my attention because of two reasons: First, such an over-exploitation of an already over-exploited catchphrase can only mean trouble and second, it happened right here, right now. The subtitle “making economics work for the global environment” combined with the list of high-profile speakers made me consider to send a short prayer to my god, random chance. Wasn’t that exactly the same question that I was pondering about for the last few month? Of course it was! Seeing whether or how an academic perspective would fit with a political, ‘real life’ one, oh how interesting!

The lecture was the STOA Annual Lecture 2013, where STOA is the Science and Technology Options Assessment panel of the European Parliament, being occupied with carrying out “expert, independent assessments of the impact of new technologies and identify long-term, strategic policy options useful to the Parliament’s committees in their policy-making role”. To set things into perspectives here, last year the panel had the General-Director of CERN talk about life, the universe, and everything (however, I’m only positive about the universe, but would imply the rest) or Tim Berners-Lee about an open Internet. That’s how high-key those lectures are. A few solid years into yet-another solid financial crisis, it is indeed refreshing to finally see basic economic issues discussed at such a level; it is overdue to do so.

Trip to the EU Parlament in Brussels
In the EU-Parliament. Red Letters!

Getting back to the working title of the lecture, for me it is a poorly chosen one. For one, what is sustainability anyways, and furthermore, ‘sustaining sustainability’ would imply that sustainability, in an economic context, is something that we already have and now need to sustain, i.e. keep up. An overwhelming amount of evidence tells us that we are, at a global as well as on local level, not even remotely at such a development stage. A more appropriate title would have been ‘towards a more sustainable global economy’, or something on those lines. Anyway, any effort in that direction is a positive one, no matter the title. Let’s discuss what was presented and simultaneously translated into eleven languages.

As always with critical topics about our environment, current extreme weather events make a good introduction (this time: the taifun Haiyan raging on the Philippines). To frame the discussion, the concept of a “green economy” is seen at the core of EU’s 2020 strategy, however still showing disappointing results and an increasingly polarized debate. Too often, it is said, is economic growth focused on short-term results; However, green growth would be compatible within the EU, and it’s task then is to engage global partners. To already do some environmental good, physical presence would be avoided since the whole talk was live-streamed online and questions to the panel could be tweeted in (#STOA2013). Also electronically, MEP and vice-president responsible for STOA, Oldrich Vlasák, opened with optimistically claiming that “today’s discussion might provide an answer” and proposed to “let legislators legislate, markets market, and researchers research”. One might critically point out that, when let alone, the first two of those workings are part of the reason why we are in need for this discussion in the first place; but I agree on the last point.

Trip to the EU Parlament in Brussels
The Panel.

The first keynote (New Thinking, New Measures, New Policies! Presentation here) was given by Ismail Serageldin, Director of the Library of Alexandria and a former vice-president of the World Bank (danger!). In that respect, he seemingly follows Joseph Stiglitz in jumping high from a Bretton Woods institution  to now, finally, question the neoliberal ideology and pointed out a few valuable things to consider while doing so. First, measurements: we, the collective intelligence of homo sapiens, now slowly come to realize that GDP is possibly not the holy grail to chaise for our national economies; It simply measures the wrong thing which then gives wrong incentives. As illustrating examples, the GDP value of a tree is zero while standing but >zero when transformed into toilet paper. Many alternative measurements have been proposed over the last years, for example the UNDP’s Human Development Index (HDI). Notably, when adjusted for inequality as to include a societal measure, the USA dropped twelve places down the ranking. However, even though we note that yes, inequality is certainly an important issue to keep in mind, HDI and similar measurements still leave out valuable variables, especially related to the environment. So, as “first steps in an ongoing journey”, Serageldin environmental national accounts and genuine (green) savings, contributing to an unmasking of many things left out by conventional economic thinking. Of course, no measurement can ever be perfect, given our world’s incredible complexity, but let me at that point refer you to a recent and very interesting discussion on the BBC Forum on the question of why we measure, in general. In this, Oliver James explains our need to measure connected to the rise of the free market economy about 30 years ago, where a business school-educated elite tries to find ways to squeeze out ever more from a broad base (or, us). In other words, an unequal society getting ever more unequal, which then … well, see above.
Serageldin continues to talk about sustainability as opportunity, which nicely framed sounds of course tempting. Not only will we save our planet having sustainability managed right, we also all end up living better! His definitions was on the lines of giving future generations as many, or more, opportunities as we had ourselves; or, in other words, more personal capital. This term comprises four other forms of capital within: (1) man-made (or produced), (2) natural, (3) social, and (4) human capital. Those four kinds of capital are partially substitutes and partially complements, meaning that the mix can change. Looking at the wealth accounting provides the following: only 20% of all wealth, everywhere, can be accounted for by produced assets (which is what economics tends to look at). The rest, or 80%, is made up of natural and human capital, therefore being the “real wealth of nations”. Hence, Serageldin  urges, it is “time for a real paradigm shift in economic thinking”; Our obsession with GDP growth would be “almost criminal” (I have to add: absolutely, although being, after having read Kuhn, a bit reluctant to use ‘paradigm shift’, but lets agree on ‘a new way of looking at things’).

The next speaker, UNEP’s Achim Steiner, left the audience with a video message talking about the importance of the “green economy”, but his talk seemed very much like a high-level UN document, therefore strong in buzz words but lacking any concrete content. To move on, Monika Kirchner from Infineon Austria told us great stories about why her company is so highly efficient, which we accept for now but also note that her views as a CEO may be a bit, well, biased in that respect. To move on further, Hans Bruyninckx (presentation here) from the European Environment Agency (EEA) pledged for an “absolute decoupling” of economic performance and efficiency gains. Also, noting that a simple focus on an increased resource efficiency is not enough (e.g., homes are more efficient, but also larger), we need to rather focus on system innovations, and not on small, incremental ones. Bruyninckx also reminded us that ecosystem resilience must be explicitly targeted – and that, more generally, we need to work on changing the message and the discourse. Yep, working on it.

In an interesting Q&A session after the official discussions, Bruyninckx pointed out that the most dangerous hegemony is the one that allows no other dominant thought (the question was about economic growth). Because it is even hard to think otherwise, solutions will likely not be sufficient because leaving out the root of the problem; we ought to break out of that paradigm (what out, here’s that word again)! Regarding education, the system that was developed during the last 150 years, roughly about having children repeat boring tasks, we do need some fundamental change here, too. And, more specifically, in economic education, which masters leaving out much of the valuable questions altogether. But, Serageldin is convinced, “change will come” (although maybe too slowly). Finding ourselves in a TINA (there is no alternative) situation, we ran out of time to wait and define things; we ought to act. Yes. Finally, on the question whether EU leaders are ready for a green economy: “some are”. Positively stated, the lecture was sympatrically summarized by Anne Glover, Chief Scientific Advisor to the President of the European Commission. Long title, short message: Continual economic growth can’t happen, since (hopefully, by now, most of us realize that) we live on a finite planet which implies finite resources, except three: (1) sunshine, (2) gravity, and (3) human ingenuity [I think (3) is a bit overly optimistic (and in fact not quite infinite, but possibly still very big), and living in Sweden and the month being November, I now even subjectively doubt (1), but I’m sure that’s different in other places].

SO: As we now successfully acquired the knowledge that our Western lifestyles are certainly not sustainable, we have the great opportunity to work towards changing that. However, people tend to be lazy and reluctant to change. So we all clap enthusiastically, walk out of that lecture room warm-heared and ready to change the world just to find precisely a perfect example of what is described above: A breathtakingly variant (for my student standards, at least) dinner buffet with everything from mussel morsels to exotic fruit skewers (with pineapples from Indonesia, kiwis from New Zealand, strawberries from Spain, etc. [NB: educated guess]) to many other things I can’t possibly describe with my limited language skills but assuringly tasted fantastic. Now of course everyone walk up and feasts; because it just tasted so damn good! Also, it’s there. And this ironically illustrates what in my opinion much of sustainability debates are subject to: Ambitions talk yes, but change, not necessarily. But at least, we talk.



So long, and thanks for all the fish.

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