01/21/2014 - 11:39

Who can lead?

Human beings' complex and problematic relationship with their environment is becoming only more complex and problematic. Indeed this roundtable, which began as a discussion about how to meet energy needs and development goals while also satisfying higher public environmental expectations, has evolved into a broader discussion of what human beings must do to reestablish a harmonious relationship with nature. My colleagues have explored several ideas that might, if implemented, do exactly that. The problem, as is so often the case with policy questions, is how to turn ideas into reality.

Chuenchom Sangarasri Greacen has championed a suite of economic reforms including localization and redistribution—and has also delved into questions such as what constitutes the good life and what human beings should aspire to when they structure their economies and societies. Greacen's ideas fit in fairly neatly with an emerging movement known as social and solidarity economy. The UN Research Institute for Social Development defines social and solidarity economy as consisting of "organizations such as cooperatives, women's self-help groups, social enterprise, and associations of informal workers that have explicit social and economic objectives and involve various forms of cooperation and solidarity." Inherent in the movement are a critique of capitalism's emphasis on endless accumulation and a search for values that can underpin alternative forms of development.

Ashish Kothari, meanwhile, has emphasized Earth's ecological limits and the danger that mankind through excessive economic activity will break through them. His prescription is selective economic de-growth: For Kothari, the people of the Global North and the wealthy people of the Global South "must drastically shrink their environmental footprint and adopt sustainable lifestyles." Poor people's basic needs would be met in part through economic redistribution. This, in large measure, is the green economy paradigm that, with its emphasis on low-carbon, resource-efficient, and socially-inclusive development, has attracted increased attention in the years since the onset of the global financial crisis.

Greacen and Kothari offer progressive visions whose chances of implementation are constrained by political realities. Any major reorganization of markets, institutions, regulations, norms, and decision-making procedures, such as my colleagues' visions would necessitate, requires a popular mandate. No such mandate exists today. More specifically, changes that touch on energy are always difficult to enact because energy is not an ordinary policy area. Rather, it is the lifeblood of economies. Nations such as Japan, Australia, and Canada, far from embracing the thoroughgoing progressive changes that Greacen and Kothari advocate, are backtracking on their emissions pledges. Publics in most developed countries feel ambivalent about climate change, which they perceive as far removed from their lives, and their governments' policies reflect that ambivalence.

What the world urgently needs is a realistic model for a thriving green politics. But who can produce such a model? Who can provide the leadership necessary for achieving planetary sustainability?

Hope lies in informed, engaged citizens. Only they have the power to reconfigure capitalism; only they can embrace the transformative changes that ecological sustainability requires.