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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Tim Jackson (Prosperity Without Growth) vs. Stoneleigh (The Automatic Earth)

Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend two events in one day presented by two significant economic analysts. Stoneleigh runs The Automatic Earth, now the 7th largest global website on finance, did a presentation in the afternoon at the new economics foundation. Later I attended a public debate – ‘Economic growth, prosperity and sustainability: a contradiction?’ in Westminster with Paul Ekins and Tim Jackson, hosted by the Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester.  I have a lot of respect for Tim Jackson, his analysis and the fact that he has been able to bring sensible and radical positions into government working with the now becoming defunct Sustainable Development Commission. Nevertheless, it does appear to me that the Stoneleigh has a more important story to tell at the moment.

Stoneleigh’s analysis is based the relationship between financial systems and energy systems. We are facing an economic contraction on a scale greater than that of the great depression. If those in charge of the economy had paid attention to the critiques of the economic model based on endless quantitative growth earlier, we might not be facing such a dire economic predictions. As it is, shifting policy to reflect geo-physical realities (such as the fact that the earth’s resources are finite and that climate change threatens civilization) would be smart, but it will not save us from more immediate dangers that will now be an inevitable consequence of the failure to manage financial sector responsibly combined with the failure to plan adequately for the advent of peak oil. 

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