Greens and the Economy

I am so glad I was in Rome for the founding of the first ever European party, the European Greens. The youth conference before the main congress was also one of the high points as I attended the excellent working group on “Is ideology lost in Green parties?”. This working group involved heated arguments which I love. But I was pleased too that we ended up talking mostly in the realm of economics in terms of ideology because that’s something I have long felt we Greens needed to tackle before the house comes crashing down on our political project.

The reasons for this seem to boil down to the fact that Greens are ideology inconsistent at present. Some Greens want instant protection of the environment at the expense of the economy and thus society. Others realise this and so propose a marriage of the ecology and economy as Grazia Francescato said in her speech to the Congress as a practical solution to ensure survival of the Green project. What must be said about this is that it is not a surrendering of nature to money. Saying that one needs the economy equally as much as the environment does not necessarily mean that one cannot change the economy in this process of mature Green politics. What it is about is accepting the realities of how we can obtain our goals of ecological sustainability and thus proposing practical methods to get there sooner rather than later.

During the working group on ideology there was a split between those who wanted nothing to do with economics, those who wanted the Greens to come up with a universally applicable economic system and to market that system to the voters, and those who saw economics as just a tool or a means to an end – the end being the environment – and didn’t see the value of debating it to come up with Green economies to rival the present system. I must say I was feeling a bit like Joschka in that room (full disclosure: I am a fan) with all the fundi’s (fundamentalists) speaking furiously and a participant who would probably be described as neither fundi nor realo (realist) asking me did I really believe that having the economy on an equal footing would allow products to become less ecologically damaging (I had questioned why we should reduce consumption when all that will do is force up unemployment. Suggesting this does not mean that some consumption cannot be reduced, just that reducing consumption per se will have undesired effects and that to say that economies can stay healthy by switching consumption to better consumption is a more credible position). To paraphrase what the camp calling for a coherent economic vision by the Greens is saying is that our economics has to change from a shaky eco-centric version of greening economics which isn’t capable of dealing with the realities of the modern world to one that will be the policy concept that voters latch onto because at its heart is economic stability or progress and creating jobs and generating benefits for each citizen wherever they live in terms of social, ecological and economic needs.

So just what is wrong with Green economics as it stands? Nothing I guess, but the way it’s taken on board by Green parties is another matter. Greens tend to obsess with the ecological economic elements and don’t push for economic reforms for a Green economy that will lift up society so all its citizens can live a good life without damaging the environment. After all we are the party of human rights so it would be hypocritical if we excluded the right not to be unemployed from our political responsibilies. What we need is a Green economic position that brings about economic reforms for the economy’s sake. Sustainable development does not deny the world economic growth if that growth is neutral in resource use, depletion etc. Calling for lower levels of economic growth before the transition to a Green economy has been given a chance to work is likely to prevent a Green economy from taking hold and becoming a reality. If one wishes to see a Green economy arrive by their fortieth birthday (because the transition takes time) then they must do what is needed to receive that present.

We cannot wave a magic wand and create zero-polluting machines overnight. The world is not a fairy tale it is a real planet that must be dealt with real, workable solutions. That means giving the universities the money and years of research required to develop new technologies for industry so it can deliver the goods of sustainable development on a reasonable schedule. An example of this is the four-wheeled vehicle that everybody (including other Greens) except myself apparently drives. Honestly, I don’t see the need for them! But others obviously do – even a majority of Greens I’d imagine – and how long did it take for zero-pollution cars to become available? Twenty years? Whatever it took, few of the most polluting contraptions and ways of living can be ‘neutralised’ at the click of a finger let alon e in five years.

In essence a marriage of the economy and ecology is what Green parties should be about. Including society in there as one of the kids (or partners in a tripartite marriage) too would also be vital for Green living to be made a norm. At the same time as we call for ecotaxes on fuel and the ecologisation of industry we must call for lower taxes on incomes (depending on the country: Ireland for example needs more tax revenues for public services) and tax breaks for companies to get them to pursue green business options. The key to making Green politics work instead of Green parties remaining small and not getting enough done to save the Earth is getting the balance right between economics and ecology for a while until the marriage is complete. We have a brilliant dream for life in the twenty-first century. Do we want to throw that down the toilet.

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