The lesson for the green movement – only connect!

The road to reducing the impact of our current extractive economic system on the environment is long, tortuous, uncertain and filled with landmines.

Renewable energy, electric cars, biofuels – these are some of the technologies hailed as the route to significant progress. Yet, every bit of perceived progress soon seems to turn sour as soon as we start to understand the overall system effects.

When corn-based fuels were given a boost, it was soon discovered that they were highly inefficient. Some claim that more energy is used to produce corn-based fuels than the energy they generate. There was a big impact on food production and on farming practices that were environmentally damaging. These fuels became the poster child of environmental policy gone terribly wrong. But, particularly in the USA, farmers found the subsidies that came with the policy very attractive and it became impossible to row back.

Then came renewables and, in particular, Germany’s Energiewende – the big shift to renewables as the primary source of German energy. The debate about the wisdom and effectiveness of this policy continues to be the subject of heated debate – including among the parties currently trying to form a coalition coalition in Germany. For some, it has been one of the best things ever. Others point to rising carbon emissions through perverse effects as evidence that the policy was totally misguided. Where it will all end up is impossible to predict.

Now it seems to be the turn of electric cars. These cars produce no emissions out of their exhaust pipes. But recent work has shown that if one measures total emissions over the life cycle of the car (production, usage, recycling, waste), some small, petrol fuelled cars actually produce a lower carbon footprint than Teslas.

These difficulties highlight the difficulties of understanding environmental impact – let alone the challenges of devising policy that makes sense and actually works. Environmental activists see this as a reason to push forward more quickly. To experiment, learn and get better. Those on the opposite side argue for slowing the pace until we know exactly what we’re doing (which assumes that such a state is ever possible to achieve).

In our book, we suggest that it is time to stop looking at environmental policy in a silo. Environmental issues should be used as a different lens through which we evaluate how our economy works and work through what sort of economy we want to build for the future. The reality is that we live in extractive economies that are based, at their core, on extracting resources from the earth and in turn dumping our detritus back into it. Our whole economy is based on this principle.

Sure, we can be more ‘efficient’. We can extract a little less and dump a little less. But that’s not going to get us anywhere at all except, maybe, to postpone the day of reckoning for a few more years or decades – equivalent to a couple of milliseconds in geological time.

It’s time to start a much bigger debate. How do we transform our economies from extractive economies to, let’s call them regenerative economies? Economies where extraction and dumping become money losing propositions while activities that not only protect but actively replenish our natural resources become economically rewarding.

Our economies will not become anywhere near sustainable if all we do is become slightly more efficient but maintain their fundamental destructive underpinnings. It’s time for a bigger re-think.

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Radix is the radical centre think tank. We welcome all contributions which promote system change, challenge established notions and re-imagine our societies. The views expressed here are those of the individual contributor and not necessarily shared by Radix.


  1. Paul Gregory says

    “It’s time for a bigger re-think.” – The elephant in this room is overpopulation. But no-one is ready to grasp that nettle. People worldwide need to be given other purposes in life aside from propagating their genes or using children as an old-age insurance policy. It means creating employment that is intrinsically satisfying, rather than maximising short-term efficiency. No child must be put into the world for whom there is not an outline of a place, not only with parents able and willing to care for them, but also in a society where there will be human work to do. This will involve a clash of cultures and standing up to established religions.

    • Joe Zammit-Lucia says

      Thanks Paul for your comment. Population growth has been the subject of much debate, as you know. There are various competing views on that. One common sticking point, however, is what to do about it. Nobody has come up with any kind of policy suggestions that would be acceptable. The Chinese ‘one child’ policy that ran for so long was roundly condemned worldwide. So even if we were to get widespread acceptance of the need to contain population growth, what do we do about it in practice. The trite solution is ‘education’. That, unfortunately, is only a pretend solution.

      • Paul Gregory says

        1. “One common sticking point, however, is what to do about it. Nobody has come up with any kind of policy suggestions that would be acceptable.”
        This will involve a major cultural shift across different cultures and is not going to happen without conflict (there will be empty eggshells) or quickly. Moral leadership (sometimes) means standing one’s ground when one is being condemned as immoral. Hence what is acceptable changes with time, i.e. across two or three generations. Least acceptable of all are famine, child mortality, warfare and ethnic cleansing. Contraception is kinder. We will also have to acknowledge mild racism as a fact of life, with some groups (whether deliberately or inadvertently) reproducing as a faster rate than their neighbours and so provoking suspicion and conflict, conflict that may take on the guise of religion. There is more than one elephant in the room.
        At one of my five websites, I have an essay on godparenthood. There is a connection with our topic, which I do not discuss there. I advocate giving (non-religious) godparents legal status, involving rights and duties (for example visiting rights even if the parents quarrel with the godparent; being called to account if abuse has occurred that the godparent should have known about). Once anchored culturally (a generational matter), the institution of godparenthood would mean most or many adults being involved emotionally with specific children that are not their own. This would change the idea, dominant – indeed suffocating – in many cultures, that life purpose (and insurance!) is bound up with one’s own flesh and blood, or immediate family. There are other beneficial ramifications I cannot go into here, but the reader can spot them and think them through. Note that the principle of godparenthood, historically and as here advocated, is that it is a way of involving people outside one’s family – the godparent should not be related to their godchild. The extended family and family loyalties, on the other hand, tend to encourage excessive breeding (and inbreeding).
        “The Chinese ‘one child’ policy that ran for so long was roundly condemned worldwide.” Not by me. It has, surely, been a resounding success. How else would China now be relatively prosperous and an economic superpower? A cultural shift has been achieved such that many there now only wish to have a small family.
        For my part, I roundly condemn the establishment media, power mongers and religious crackpots who have derided the one-child policy without proposing alternatives. So much for the power of condemnation and grandstanding…
        One approach (technique) that was reported recently was to give women visiting clinics in Africa monthly a payment if a test showed they were not pregnant (presumably also providing them with contraception).
        Secure property rights, including the certainty of pension payouts in old age, also have a role to play.
        “No child must be put into the world for whom there is not an outline of a place, not only with parents able and willing to care for them, but also in a society where there will be human work to do.” It would be no bad thing if religious leaders (e.g. Frances, the King of Kitsch Ethics) were challenged regularly to affirm this precept.
        There are doubtless other measures, some of which would certainly be controversial, which can only emerge and be fine-tuned when there is no tabu on addressing this elephant in the room.

  2. Stephen Gwynne says

    The first sensible perspective on ecological issues and justice I read in a while, at least from a centrist (mainstream) position.

    I’m currently doing a MOOC on global prosperity beyond GDP and it has become obvious that even to maintain our vast modernised infrastructures will require extractive growth which points to a need to scale back our infrastructures but as you point out is this likely or even possible, especially if radical social justice measures aren’t put into place.

    The fact that our extractive economies are underpinned by competitive-based market systems does not help, which as pre-democratic systems have now been internalised as ‘natural’. I say this because competitive-based systems tend to duplicate and replicate, cut corners on longevity with built in obsolescence and make goods to attract to a large range of income scales ranging from shoddy to high quality

    Yes I think it will help if green taxes are levied, current externalities are incorporated into the true cost of food and energy, development and biodiversity offsetting schemes are based on a net gain principle, natural capital accounting is fully incorporated into public and private auditing systems and the polluter pays and precautionary principles are applied but the fact of the matter is that some form of degrowth strategy will need to be activated in order to avoid irreparable ecological degradation.

    I too have made a distinction between regenerative and degenerative economic activity and have also made a distinction between low, medium and high impact human activities. Obviously more of the former in both sets of distinctions will be required which means facilitating all forms of low impact living including off-grid smallholdings in place of high impact industrial agriculture which will require a national land re-distribution programme.

    The question is whether the public can swallow lowering expectations around health, education, technology, disposable incomes etc despite far reaching social justice measures and whether elite groupings can tolerate a reduction in their capacity to acquire controlling interests. Or is it the case that humanity prefers to take our civilisation to crisis point and then fight it out from there.

    I’m curious what your book has to say.

    • Joe Zammit-Lucia says

      Many thanks Stephen for your kind words. Worth also considering whether in a truly regenerative economy (if such could be devised) concepts like ‘de-growth’ have relevance. If economic growth were to mean ever more replenishment rather than destruction, then what’s the point of de-growth?

      • Stephen Gwynne says

        Yes I know what you mean and considering the negative connotations of ‘degrowth’ it is best avoided. Which leaves regenerative and degenerative economic activity. However I’m not sure how regenerative economic activity can replace finite resources as a viable source of sustained inclusive growth without recourse to systems that are based on collaborative collectivism whether these systems plan resource allocation through the market or through central or decentralised democratic control. Either way radical restrictions will need to be put in place in order to create (ecological) redundancy within the system which forms the ecological platform for regenerative systems. Ecological Footprinting frameworks would refer to this as becoming an ecological credit country.
        This required Transition commonly known as The Great Transition would require a period of extreme rationalisation as degenerative economic activity was curbed and the required green infrastructure was regenerated. In this respect degrowth is a mandatory part of the process albeit temporary. How deep degrowth will need to occur depends on the extent to which a country is in ecological debt.

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