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Indispensable imagination

by Johanna Bergmann
Western consumerism is still the international model: a supermarket in Beijing, China

Western consumerism is still the international model: a supermarket in Beijing, China

The shift to a sustainable society requires more than greening the economy by using better technologies. Expert literature discusses additional necessities in the pursuit of a sustainable future. By Johanna Bergmann

The terms “green economy”, “green new deal” and “green growth” have marked the debate on sustainability in recent years. These concepts usually boil down to changes in production methods, focusing on how technology should serve to decouple economic growth from resource consumption. Some recent publications, however, spell out that this approach will not do, and this review essay will discuss proposals that go beyond technological changes.

Vision for a sustainable world

Several authors point to the importance of establishing a common vision of a sustainable world. Leggewie and Welzer (2009) comment that “a political society seeking to find an appropriate answer to its serious future problems ... cannot avoid the question of what the world should look like in ten or 25 years.”

Welzer and Wiegandt (2011) say that we need images and stories to show why a sustainable world is attractive. They want to get people excited, tackle their fears and encourage them to change their lifestyles. Their collection of essays contains visions proposed by scholars of international reputation.

Fiction can also sketch out ecological utopias. “Ecotopia” (Callenbach 1974) created a vision of an environmentally sound society of the future. The book is marked by the ideas and technological options of the 1970s, but it still paints a fascinating picture of a green society in all its aspects. “Das Tahiti-Projekt” (Fleck 2008), in contrast, conjures a vision of what would be technologically achievable today – provided that the institutional environment is conducive. Broad societal discourse should consider relevant visions, whether in academic writing or fiction. Human beings create their tomorrow based on what they dream today.

Limits to growth

The idea of a green economy is often criticised because it sticks to the paradigm of economic growth. Basically, the green economy is about more efficient resource use. However, critics argue that efficiency is always more than outweighed by growth, which is called “rebound effect”. Some scholars insist there cannot be infinite growth in a finite world. Accordingly, they demand to design economic policies that are neither based on growth nor geared to it.

Tim Jackson (2009) is a British economist who states that western industrial economies will expand beyond Earth’s tolerance levels if they keep growing. He admits in his bestselling book that there is to date no credible model for a non-growth economy. Jackson makes suggestions on how to move forward, calling for a clear vision, more courageous policymaking and a sound strategy. He considers three measures to be essential for changing society:
– upper limits for using resources and damaging the environment must be defined,
– GDP calculation must give way to a more reliable indicator of prosperity, and
– society must rethink attitudes and move on from obsessive consumerism.

In a recent report (2011), the German government’s Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU) suggests that a post-growth economy will require considerable changes (note article by WBGU authors on p. 322 ff.), but it does not reject the growth model entirely. The WBGU doubts that decoupling strategies will succeed, arguing that there is no evidence for rebound effects ever being overcome. The WBGU points out, however, that no single country is likely to forego economic growth in a globalised world. The governmental advisors also warn that slowing or even zero-growth in advanced nations could have a harsh impact on economic activity in developing countries.

Strengthening democracy

Many authors consider a reform of democracy and political institutions necessary on the road to a green society. One recommendation by the WBGU is to strengthen proactive government, empowering the state to regulate more, while at the same time improving ways for citizens to participate in policymaking. Governments should bind themselves with mandatory rules, by making climate protection a constitutional goal, passing long-term laws and gearing all state agencies to climate protection. For the citizens, in turn, the right to bring class action suites should be extended and more ombudsmen/women appointed for amicable settlement of disputes. WBGU considers it essential to include the public in general as well as science in policy making.

In contrast to such a reform of democracy “from above”, Leggewie and Welzer promote a transformation “from below”. They want citizens to organise in broad social movements. The authors use a range of socio-psychological arguments to establish why the “meta-crisis” (which is brought about mutually reinforcing crises and threatens the global system as we know it) can be overcome only by re-politicising civil society. Their point is that state reforms do not automatically make a society rethink its attitudes and redefine its values.

It remains debatable, however, whether a mass movement, as desired by Leggewie and Welzer, can sprout in time if democracy is not reformed first. Social movements are likely to emerge only once environmental problems have grown too big to solve. At the same, a sweeping extension of democracy is unlikely to happen without substantial public pressure. Ultimately, the two dynamics are probably interdependent, and would have to boost one another.

Master plan for change

Even if humanity had a collective vision, a non-growth economic model and better participation opportunities for citizens, we would still not have reached a sustainable world. The publications discussed here offer a wealth of ideas on the matter. Not all of them can be covered here. These publications are all worth reading as starting-points for further reflection.

Unfortunately, however, they tend to fail to address lines of conflict or do not discuss them in depth. The authors do not elaborate in sufficient detail how to overcome the attitudes that block multilateral policy­making, nor do they delve deeply into what it would mean for global power relations, and the developing world in particular, if rich nations moved on to a sustainable lifestyle. There is a lack of plausible proposals on how to achieve the transition to a sustainable society fast enough to stop climate change.

This is a serious shortcoming, given that there was only minimal progress in the past two decades, in which the challenges were already clearly understood. The authors, moreover, do not say what should be done to convince the climate sceptics that thwart progress at the national and international levels. In this regard, the WBGU publication
is a positive exception.

The WBGU report is comprehensive enough to serve as a master plan for achieving sustainability, and the stringecy of its arguments justifies the authors’ optimism. This document gives good recommendations on how to accelerate change, and it assesses lines of conflict.

Among other things, the WBGU wants development policies to look beyond alleviating poverty, and emphasise climate-friendly growth. In this setting, it is in favour of strengthening urban and regional planning through a global capacity-­development initiative, for instance.