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.

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EcoLabs is moving!


In Colorado, I will be working on visualising issues of the green economy and climate communication discourses. This work would be situated in the Integrating Activities research theme at CIRES will focus on the visual communication of complex ecological problems. This practice-based research would facilitate interdisciplinary collaborations and learning thereby contributing to greater capacities to respond effectively to environmental problems.

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EcoLabs: Ecoliteracy at the Manchester International Festival

RED-ARROWEcological Literacy at MIF

Dr. Boehnert from EcoLabs will be talking how ecological literacy transforms the ways we understand sustainability at a free public talk for the The Biospheric Project at the Manchester International Festival.

Thurs 11 July
Designing the City

Designing the City considers how innovative design and architecture can tackle the need for more sustainable and ecologically efficient cities.  Our speakers Jody Boehnert from Eco-Labs and Michael Pawlyn from Exploration Architecture, will discuss their different approaches to embedding ecological principals into education and using nature’s models within architecture through bio-mimicry. Chair: Gavin Elliott Chair of BDP Manchester


The idea of free markets is an obfuscation

Recently I did an  interview with and talked about how the notion of free markets misrepresent our political and economic system. Here I am republishing part of this interview here (with their questions in blue text):

Yesterday, we published the first part of an interview with EcoLabs founder Joanna Boehnert. In response to a Blue & Green Tomorrow article about free markets (Free markets need to be free), Boehnert said on Twitter that it “[failed] entirely to deal with the problem that free markets systemically devalue the ecological wellbeing“. We asked her if she thinks the free market is therefore unsalvageable, and this was her response.

I am not against all markets absolutely. What I am absolutely against is misinformation, so it is important to note here that there is actually no such thing as a free market. Every market in the world has ways of working that was designed into the market, i.e. parameters that are predetermined. So-called free markets suit the interests of those who have the political power to design the terms of the market. What we have is a political and economic system that is neoliberal and capitalist. The idea of free markets is an obfuscation. Continue reading

There is an ‘Ecology’, the Fascist Turn and on Privilege

When Mckenzie Wark appeared on Novara, Resonance FM on May 28th 2013 he argued that a critical theory that does not confront environmental problems as one of its central problems was not worth discussing (I am paraphrasing – what he actually said was is more complicated and is transcribed below). Oddly, in this interview Wark managed to simultaneously acknowledge the validity of the environmental crisis as a theoretical problem – while also denying its implications in practice. For me this was a significant moment for Novara since it was certainly the best attempt they have yet made (that I am aware of) to engage with the ecological problem. Unfortunately, while Wark has many good ideas, his convoluted take on ecological theory is a classic example of extravagant lengths intellectuals (and especially the environmentally disengaged radical left) devise to continue to dismiss the most fundamental challenges posed by the ecological crisis and this culture’s legacy of ignoring ecological relations and perspectives. I will quote the most problematic parts of what Mckenzie Wark had to say starting with the following:

I would not call it an ecological crisis because that would presume that there ever was an ecology… and there sort of isn’t. It’s… what we know of the natural world includes its instability…and our species being is one that has acquired the capacity to kind of rupture environments on a kind of global scale. So I would be a little hesitant to use the word ‘ecological’….

Yes, it is true that what we know of ecology includes some instability – but far more important is the fact that there is relative stability within planetary boundary conditions. In a similar way to how our bodies can only function within a relatively narrow range of temperatures (maintained by homeostatic mechanisms), the earth will only be habitable for humans within planetary boundaries (including factors beyond climate change such as the nitrogen cycle and biodiversity loss). Once ecological Continue reading

Re-Imaging the Commons as ‘The Green Economy’ – Posters, images and new resources

I am publishing two new posters associated with the paper Re-Imaging the Commons as ‘The Green Economy that will be presented at the International Environmental Communication Association’s 2013 conference Environmental Communication: Participation Revisited: openings and closures for deliberations on the commons in Uppsala, Sweden June 6th-9th 2013. The posters can images can be downloaded here (as low resolution jpegs) or higher resolution posters to print on the EcoLabs website.


Above – Overview of problems associated with the UNEP’s ‘green economy’.


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Denial in Environmental Communication

People tend to deny information that they find uncomfortable. In the seminal book States of Denial sociologist Stanley Cohen states that a proclivity to deny disturbing facts is the normal state of affairs for people in an information-saturated society. Cohen’s book is based on wide-reaching cross-cultural studies including Nazi Germany, South Africa, Israel/Palestine, Rwanda and others zones of human rights abuse, genocide and state sanctioned or institutional violence. Cohen describes strategies of denial on a personal level as psychological and cognitive, and on societal level as communicative and political. Denial can function psychologically below levels of awareness; denial is a ‘high speed cognitive mechanism for processing information, like the computer command to delete rather than save’ (Cohen 2001:5). On a cultural level, communication breakdown works to support denial. Relativism reinforces denial strategies in popular culture and in political debate. In its most extreme form, relativism makes all value systems equal, even those responsible for human suffering and the destruction of the natural world. In this way, relativism is corrosive to moral action.


Although Cohen’s analysis of how disturbing information is avoided is based on violence against people, this work on denial is relevant for environmental communications as first suggested by climate communicator George Marshall (2007, 2009) and further developed in this thesis. Understanding the psychological and communicative processes at work inform strategies to break denial in order to facilitate acknowledgement of environmental crisis – the essential first step towards transformation. This chapter will examine how environmental communication can break the numbing effects of denial of ecological self through a greater understanding of associated psychological and social processes.

Denial is complex and multi-faceted and a primary communicative obstacle in environmental communication. Cohen describes the psychological and cognitive processes supporting denial in individuals. The ability to block out, remain passive, apathetic, indifferent and unresponsive is, an unconscious defence mechanism for coping with guilt, anxiety or other disturbing emotions aroused by guilt. The psyche blocks off information that is literally unthinkable or unbearable. The unconscious sets up a barrier that prevents the thought from reaching conscious knowledge (Ibid:5).

According to Cohen, denial manifests in three different ways (although each of these has endless characteristics):

1) Literal (nothing happened)
2) Interpretative (what happened is really something else)
3) Implicatory (what happened was justified) (Cohen 2001:99)

Each of these strategies for denial must be circumvented with care. These types of denial are further complicated by levels at which they become evident within individuals:

1) Cognition (not acknowledging the facts)
2) Emotion (not feeling, not being disturbed)
3) Morality (not recognizing wrongness or responsibility)
4) Action (not taking steps in response to knowledge) (Ibid:9)

Each of these states of denial is also a stage towards acknowledgement as part of a strategy to break denial. The processes that occur in individuals are multiplied across cultural groups where denial becomes institutionalized and systemic (Ibid:94).

Denial in social groups is exacerbated by communication failure and by powerful interests that benefit from keeping denial working in their favour. On a cultural level, multiple individual cases of denial leads to normalization, then ignoring which develops into collusion: ‘People trying to look innocent by not noticing’ (Ibid:xii). Here cultures of ‘splitting’ develop characterized by dissociation and psychic numbing (Ibid:93). Cohen describes how cultures plagued by high levels of denial escape into a state that he calls ‘innerism’, defined as an ‘escape from the public sphere into private life and consumer interests’ (Ibid:156). The spectacles of consumer capitalism clearly provide sufficient distractions.

Cohen’s work on denial has useful insights for the communication of ecological literacy. Collective acknowledgement must become an explicit goal. Cohen explains that ‘acknowledgement is what happens to knowledge when it becomes officially sanctioned and enters public discourse’ (Ibid:225). Collective acknowledgement is transformational as it ‘makes previously normalized conditions into social problems… [and]…social institutions, policy strategies, and, even a new language are in place to undermine denial and encourage and channel individual acknowledgement’ (Ibid:250). This dramatic change comes about through the work of social movements and public discourses that aim to chip away and eventually shatter denial. Strategies for breaking denial involve creating the individual and social capacity for acceptance of circumstances. Social movements use processes of consciousness-raising or politicization to effect this change (Ibid:11). Tactics for breaking denial aim beyond merely presenting the facts and invoking moral arguments to directly addressing the social and psychological mechanisms that support denial.

denial in EC no.1 - outlines copy

Learning to accept denial as a natural phenomenon and not demonize those who perpetuate denial (despite the destructive consequences that are a result of the lack of political will and motivation for change) must be a foundational concept for effective environmental communication. Understanding the psychological processes of denial can help communicators assist individuals through the difficult process of acknowledging and reacting to disturbing environmental information. Getting to the point where denial is acknowledged and actively addressed is key. Cohen explains:

Instead of agonizing about why denial occurs, we should take this state for granted. The theoretical question is not ‘why do we shut out?’ but ‘what do we ever not shut out?’ The empirical problem is not uncover yet ever more evidence of denial, but to discover the conditions under which information is acknowledged and acted upon. The political problem is how to create these conditions. This reframes the classic studies of obedience: instead of asking why most people obey authority so unthinkingly, let us look again and again at the consistent minority – nearly on-third, after all – who refuse to obey (Ibid:249).

Communication strategies can be designed to turn denial into a category of social deviance. For example, drawing analogies from the feminist struggle, compare the social acceptability of misogyny in 1950 versus 2011. Environmental communicators must work to make denial of ecological conscience as socially unacceptable as misogyny.1 Pressure groups and social movements work on shattering denial to end the normalization of ignoring and help create collective acknowledgement. Cohen’s work is based on denial of human rights abuses rather the harm humanity perpetuates on the natural world but the lessons learned from these struggles can inform an understanding of denial of ecological relations. History has witnessed radical social change in the past where new moral codes were created and we have consciously changed power dynamics, laws and institutions accordingly (obvious examples are the civil rights, feminist and anti-colonization movements). Similar strategies are now needed to encounter denial of ecological relations in order to move to acknowledgement and action.

This text is re-published (slightly edited) from my 2012 PhD ‘The Visual Communication of Ecological Literacy: Designing, Learning and Emergent Ecological Perception‘, which is available here.

Strategies of Denial of Ecological Self


This week I am finally publishing Chapter Nine of my PhD: ‘Communication Failures: Strategies and Denial of Ecological Self. I have been stalling to post this chapter with the rest of my PhD as I am aware that many parts of the left that have been somewhat hostile to deep ecology and especially some of the content I cover in this chapter. Deep ecology has sometimes been dismissed due to its association with a lack of criticality, disengagement from political struggles for social justice and its recuperation by capitalism. While I sympathize with this critique, I will argue that deep ecology and ecopsychology associated with ecofeminist analysis have vital contributions in describing both the ways in which social relations are reproduced and the psychological challenges associated with making social change possible. Principally this analysis sheds light on denial, dissociative alienation and pathologies arising from the repression of ecological self.

Ecopsychology characterizes the repression ecological self as resulting in a narrowing of awareness and a psychic numbing. The psychological, social and political implications of denial of the ecological self and the reductive understanding of ego are evidenced by mental illness, cultures of denial and political systems designed with little regard for the well-being of the ecological and social contexts that makes economic prosperity possible. Herein social and ecological injustice are symptoms of errors in perception and understanding of self. Working to heal the psychological problems that result from the denial of ecological self is part of the process of making political change possible. Political theory needs deep ecology and ecofeminism as much as deep ecologists need political theorists to help do the work of making political change possible.


The Green Economy (NOT!): The Final Frontier


The UN’s Rio+20 declaration ‘The Future We Choose’ warns; ‘the scientific evidence is unequivocal…the time to act is now!’ With this document the UN calls for ‘a great transformation’ emerging from the recognition that business as usual is no longer sufficient. Humankind is now in the ‘Anthropocene’ wherein we must live within the ‘safe operating space of planetary boundaries’. Does this environmental rhetoric demonstrate that the UN is serious about addressing the biodiversity crisis? Or has the UN simply appropriated green language to sell its new project to the global public?

The so-called ‘Green Economy’ launched at Rio+20 reveals a new approach to sustainable development, based on creating new markets for nature’s processes. The basic provisions of the natural world are now ‘ecosystem services’ (water purification, plant pollination, carbon capture and maintenance of soil fertility, etc.). Presently free and commonly shared, the emerging programme will soon quantify, financialise and marketise them. The commodification of the natural world supposedly aims to protect nature by accounting for ‘externalities’ of environmental damage by industry. 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.

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Rio+20 – The Green Economy: Not what it appears!


The language in the official UN documents promoting ‘The Green Economy’ published during the Rio+20 UN Conference for Sustainable Development last week is strikingly reflective of the language used by advocates of sustainability and even by social movements. In UN’s declaration ‘The Future We Choose’ certain phrases could have come from a Climate Camp press release; ‘the scientific evidence is unequivocal…the time to act is now!’ The document calls for ‘a great transformation’ and a recognition that business as usual is no longer sufficient in the Anthropocene’ wherein we must live within the ‘safe operating space of planetary boundaries’. Are we finally making progress?


Unfortunately what we are witnessing is not progress but an undermining of decades worth of green politics by using of the language of environmentalism while rejecting any accompanying structural analysis of the origins of ecological problems. The UN Green Economy programme uses phrases and rhetorics devices of green movements. Unfortunately, these are neutered of political potential. The Green Economy is about creating new markets for ‘ecosystems services’, the basic provisions of the natural world, now considered ‘free’ such as water purification, plant pollination, carbon capture and maintenance of soil fertility. Creating new markets around these services sets the stage for the expansion of capitalism into the natural world – the global commons.

Financialization of Nature from ATTAC.TV 

The Green Economy is a programme of fixing prices for natural resources once regarded as free. Well-meaning ecologists, scientists and environmental policy makers are now working towards the construction of infrastructure for the financialisation and commodification of ecosystem services. These processes attempt to protect Nature by accounting for ‘externalities’ of environmental damage through economic processes.

Meanwhile, green theorists and social movements claim that without a macroeconomic analysis of the dynamics of neo-liberalism these policies initiatives will reproduce and even increase current problems. Tragically, by bringing neo-liberal economic mechanisms into the sphere of nature, the global commons will be subject to an intensification of exploitation.


Alejandro Nadal, author of Rio+20: A Citizen’s Background Document, explains a fundamental error in the UN’s understanding of the management of the commons. The “global commons” is not what classical Romans called res nullius. Nadal explains that res nullius means that a thing has no owner and, therefore, anyone can appropriate it. Instead of having no owner, the global commons are commonly owned – they are res communis. The global commons must not be an object of private appropriation. We are a community – not commodities ripe for exploitation.

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Rio+20 – Saving Biodiversity or Capitalism?

‘Among the issues: What does moving from sustainable development to green economy mean? What is hidden behind this new concept of green economy: green growth? Green capitalism? Something else? What conclusions should we draw from these twenty years, while environmental degradation has accelerated, inequalities have widened and that democracies are being undermined? Which alternatives?’  – from Rio+20: From sustainable development to green economy, what is at stake? Which alternatives? by Alter-Echos 

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development Rio+20 next week will address the crisis of biodiversity. Since the first UN conference at Rio in 1992 the UN has attempted to protect the natural world with policy initiatives based in a mistaken understanding of our relationship with the natural world. Even before the Rio 1992 critical environmentalists were aware of the short-comings of the ‘sustainable development’ as an approach for the conservation of nature. David Orton wrote;

Greens and environmentalists who today still use this concept [of sustainable development] display ecological illiteracy. There is a basic contradiction between the finiteness of the Earth, with natural self-regulating systems operating within limits, and the expansionary nature of industrial capitalist society. The language of sustainable development helps mask this fundamental contradiction, so that industrial expansion on a global scale can temporarily continue (Orton 1989).

In short, sustaining or increasing levels of consumption on the diminishing resource base with more people wanting ‘better’ lifestyles (i.e. more consumption) is not possible in the current context. It is not surprising that environmental problems continue to become more severe as policy makers continue to ignore material realities.


Today we find ourselves at a situation where most of the proposals on the table at Rio+20 will only accelerate problems. Strategies promoting ‘the green economy’ create new markets within natural Continue reading