Re-Imaging the Commons as ‘The Green Economy’

The paper Re-Imaging the Commons as ‘The Green Economy’ was presented at the International Environmental Communication Association’s 2013 conference Environmental Communication: Participation Revisited: openings and closures for deliberations on the commons in June. This paper can be downloaded on and on the EcoLabs website.


ABSTRACT: The United Nations’ green economy programme radically re-imagines the commons as a space where ecosystems services will be quantified, marketised and traded. This paper will examine issues with this version of the green economy for environmental communicators. It will review the etymology of the concept, examine contested ideas on what a green economy would entail and situate these proposals in relation to different economic approaches to the environment. It will suggest strategies for communicating the contested nature of the proposals and exposing obfuscations. This paper will argue that in stark opposition to green economics with its focus on participation and democratic processes, the UN’s GEP will close deliberations on the commons by privatizing ‘ecosystem services’ – thereby taking environmental decision-making out of a political sphere and into the marketplace.

The Green Economy (NOT!): The Final Frontier

Re-Imaging the Commons as ‘The Green Economy’ 

The United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) (2011) flagship document titled “Towards a green economy: Pathways to sustainable development and poverty eradication” and accompanying UNEP reports at the Rio+20 in June 2012 launched the green economy project. The reports use strong environmental language as a means of presenting their version of green economy as a far-reaching programme of reform to address environmental problems on a global scale. While the rhetoric suggests that the UN is serious about addressing the biodiversity crisis, green economists and a wide variety of social movements are less convinced by the proposed policy mechanisms. Civil society responded at Rio+20 with a plethora of critical responses: condemning what they claimed amounted to the corporate capture of the United Nations (Joint Civil Society Statement, 2012); condemning the UN’s “Natural Capital Declaration” (Banktrack, 2012); condemning 20 years of Greenwash (Bruno, 2012); and indeed, condemning the entire green economy project (Nadal, 2012; Brand, 2012a; Patel & Crook, 2012). The Indigenous People’s Global Conference on Rio+20 and Mother Earth (2012) issued a strongly worded “Kari-Oca 2 Declaration” (2012) describing the UNEP’s green economy as “a continuation of colonialism” (p. 1) firmly rejecting market-based solutions, REDD, and intellectual property rights over genetic resources and traditional knowledge. In the wake of the polarized positions at Rio+20, the conference ended with both civil society and the United Nations unimpressed with the outcomes. The New York Times claimed Rio+20 “ended here as it began, under a shroud of withering criticism” (Romero & Broder, 2012); The Guardian’s headline read: “Rio+20 outcome a focal point for frustration among campaigners” (Ford, 2012); and London’s Financial Times announced “Rio+20 lacks ambition, says UN chief” (Clark, 2012). The conference failed to achieve binding targets, but more significantly the conference launched the UNEP’s green economy programme, which aims to redesign the processes through which the global commons will be managed. Clearly the green economy is a fiercely contested idea and the UNEP’s version is strongly opposed by a wide variety social movements concerned with both ecological conservation and environmental justice.

In naming its programme the green economy, the UNEP implies a reframing of the entire economy along green lines. The language even suggests a connection to a particular school of economic thought concerned with the environment, that of green economics. However, the programme itself is largely concerned with attempting to protect the environment by establishing policies that will quantify and trade “ecosystem services”. This will be done in ways that reflect specific policy prescriptions of different schools of economic thinking on the environment, namely environmental economics and ecological economics. Since green economics is a field with radically different policy prescriptions to what is proposed, the naming of the new project creates severe confusion with contested definitions of the “green economy”. In this paper, the UNEP’s green economy programme will be referred to as “UN’s GEP” to avoid confusion with what green economists have been describing as “green economics” for over a decade.

The UN’s GEP aims to protect nature by accounting for externalities of environmental damage. According to this logic, once nature’s processes are given a financial value, prices of goods and services will reflect ecological costs and it will no longer make economic sense to produce ecologically harmful products. The assumption that nature’s processes can be safely disaggregated and effectively managed using market-based mechanisms is embedded in this new project. This paper will focus on the market-making policy prescriptions of the UN’s GEP due to problems and political tensions associated with this agenda. While there are other elements of the UN’s GEP, the financial valuation and marketisation policies are the most significant aspect of the programme, since other proposals will be subordinated to the economic logic of market-based modes of governance. The central dynamic in the UN’s GEP is that it relies on the private sector for investment to fund the programme, and in exchange for capital investment; ownership and control over ecosystems services will be granted to private corporations. Expectations of profits will drive the new markets so other values will only exist as vague ideals ­and convenient green marketing and public relations messaging to conceal continued, and indeed amplified unsustainable development.

For environmental communicators, the UN’s GEP creates a condition of discursive confusion caused by opposing definitions of “green economy”. This paper will examine contested ideas on what a green economy would entail, the etymology of the concept, and situate these new proposals in relation to different economic approaches to the environment. It will compare ideas of what “green economy” means and how the UN’s GEP blurs these distinctions. In an attempt to clarify competing discourses, this paper will examine specific philosophical, methodological, and political issues in regards to the UN’s GEP. The paper will end by reflecting on risks and suggesting strategies for communicating the contested nature of the proposals and exposing obfuscations. While the UN’s GEP is quickly becoming hegemonic, “there is as yet no agreed definition of what constitutes a green economy” (Stakeholders Forum, 2012, paragraph 1). Since the green economy is still being defined, environmental communicators have a key role in drawing attention to power dynamics, motivations, and economic interests of institutional actors.

In stark opposition to what green economists have traditionally conceived of as the green economy (with its emphasis on democratic decision-making on environmental issues), the UN’s GEP will close deliberations on the commons by using market-based mechanisms to address environmental problems. These new processes will exclude those without financial capacities from decision-making regarding the management of nature – now “ecosystem services”. While scientists and environmentalists involved with this project aim to find a means of enabling political and economic policies to acknowledge the value of the environment, submitting nature to the logic of the market is an extraordinarily dangerous enterprise. Instead, green economic theory argues that the economic system must submit to the logic of the ecological systems that provides the geophysical context for economic systems to exist in the first place.

The full paper can be accessed on the website and on the EcoLabs website. I have worked several weeks on this paper and am presently not funded or supported by an institution. You can help me out by donating £1 for this paper here.

7 thoughts on “Re-Imaging the Commons as ‘The Green Economy’

  1. Dear Jody, I am following the commons debate in Germany. I was really upset about UNEP abusing the commons and the supposed tragedy for Green Economy purposes last year. Therefore I am really interested in your paper. Unfortunately I was not able to access the paper on 😦 Best, Stefan

  2. Reblogged this on patricktsudlow and commented:
    Once again, it appears the UN has bowed to the markets instead of common-sense. By putting a financial value on nature, just allows it to become another commodity to be speculated on. This is not what a ‘Green Economy’, is about and is not the solution but will only exasperate a worsening situation.

  3. Pingback: New Posters: Re-Imaging the Commons as ‘The Green Economy’ | EcoLabs

  4. Pingback: The World Forum on Natural Capital – A Radical Approach to Environmental Decision-Making #NatCap13 | EcoLabs

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