The green economy: mythical or meaningful?

28 Feb 2014

This article considers several issues associated with the concept of the green economy. What is the green economy? Where did it come from? Why do some embrace it while others disdain it?


The conflicts among ecological and economic goals have been a central characteristic of environmental politics since the emergence of the modern environmental movement in the 1960s. On one side of the debate is the argument that reducing pollution and protecting ecosystems and other resources unnecessarily impairs economic expansion, competitiveness and prosperity. From this point of view, although some environmental safeguards are needed, public policy should favour growth as a general rule. On the other side is the assertion that human health and ecological limits demand a carefully managed path for growth, including little or even no growth, and a preference for ecological over economic goals when they conflict. Environmental politics has consisted of a struggle to define where the balance between these goals should be struck.

Over the past few decades, as competition among ecological (including human health) and economic goals has escalated there has been growing interest in finding a way to reconcile them. Are economic growth and environmental protection necessarily a zero-sum game? Is there a choice beyond simply balancing these two sets of goals, one that recognises complementary and synergistic rather than simply conflicting relationships? The most significant effort to answer this question was the 1987 report of the World Commission on Environment and Development. The commission sought to lay out a strategy for respecting planetary biophysical limits while, at the same time, not foreclosing the possibility of economic growth and all of its consequences. In identifying this need to find an environmentally sound path to growth it was looking in particular at developing countries. The WCED offered a middle ground in the growth versus economy debate: poverty reduction and economic progress are a priority, but within a framework which respects ecological limits, over the long term, alongside more integrated policies.

A subset of this more general discourse of sustainability, the concept of the green economy aims to provide a pragmatic and even synergistic solution to the economy–ecological conflict. It asserts that, not only may economic and political development occur in ways consistent with recognition of planetary limits, but many potentially positive relationships exist among these two goals.

This article considers several issues associated with this concept of the green economy. What is the green economy? Where did it come from? Why do some embrace it while others disdain it? Is it a meaningful way of designing a path forward at a time when such a path is urgently needed? Is it just another passing fad, or, worse yet, a justification for business as usual?

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