12/17/2013 - 07:56

To change policy, win power

Two of the solutions most frequently offered for addressing the "energy trilemma" of energy security, environmental sustainability, and social equity are to decrease overall consumption and to reform political systems. In this Roundtable, Chuenchom Sangarasri Greacen and Ashish Kothari have in their own ways argued for these two approaches. But solving the "energy trilemma" will require more than these approaches can achieve on their own.

Calls for reduced consumption can often miss an important point—that economic activity and use of natural resources do not always march in lockstep. In Japan, for example, gross domestic product increased by 42 percent between 1977 and 1987 but energy demand increased by only 14 percent. But beyond that, overzealous focus on household energy consumption can lead to the conclusion that individual behavior is the key to environmental sustainability. In most developing countries, this represents a utopian attitude. Growing middle classes in much of developing Asia, for instance, see automobiles and household air conditioning units as potent status symbols. Expecting newly prosperous individuals to foreswear technologies to which they attach high importance is bound to end in disappointment.

Individual consumption is governed by what individuals perceive as desirable and economically rational. Only government policy is strong enough to override these forces. Through policy, it may be possible to restructure consumption patterns so that they are environmentally rational—not just economically rational. But governments are not likely to produce such policies simply because of "measures that enhance democracy and increase transparency and accountability," measures for which Greacen advocated in Round Two. Rather, environmental movements must win greater political power.

So far, environmentalists have won many battles but seem to be losing the war. They have successfully lobbied for thousands of pieces of environmental legislation but the degradation of Earth's ecosystem continues apace. This is true in part because environmental movements are often characterized by weak organizational structures, limited vision, and incremental approaches to change. These problems must be overcome if environmentalism is to become a powerful political force instead of a protest movement.

Green parties in Western Europe have made some progress in this direction, with a number of protest movements having evolved into meaningful political parties. These parties have become parts of governing coalitions in countries such as Germany, Italy, France, Belgium, and Finland. For a time in 2004, Latvia had a green prime minister. In East Asia, on the other hand, a region that should be fertile ground for environmentally focused politics, green parties are generally unable to gain traction against competitors that champion prosperity through economic growth. But even if environmentalists do gain greater mainstream political power, they must remain vigilant against capture by market forces. The alliance of money and politics will continue to represent a danger for the planet unless the entire world collectively and decisively embraces a vision in which the goals of ecological sustainability and human well-being converge.

Ultimately, though, I would argue that economic de-growth is an extreme environmentalist goal that would prevent societies from prospering. Environmentalists must accept that life is for living.