Greening the Economy: Where has the social dimension gone?

On the occasion of the launch of Development 55.1 'Greening the economy',  Sarah Cook, Director of UNRISD, talks about the problems and limitations of the green economy, its lack of a social dimension, and her expectations for Rio +20. 

Q.: What is the main message of this issue of Development, ‘Greening the economy’ produced in partnership with UNRISD? 
A.:  This issue addresses possibilities and contestations around 'greening the economy' as an approach to sustainable development. The concept of ‘green economy’ has emerged in recent years as a potential solution to the interrelated social, economic and ecological crises – for some it appears as the 'magic bullet' that will drive a new phase of green growth.  For many authors in this volume, however, current green economy policies are built on the same mechanisms that created crises, and risk reinforcing or exacerbating serious social inequalities and exclusions. 
The papers highlight in particular the neglect of the conventional 'third pillar' of sustainable development – the social dimensions. Through this ‘social’ lens, they challenge key elements of current approaches to green economy – the valuation and commoditization of nature and its management through market-based trading mechanisms; the capacity of the current economic system to generate necessary incentives for sustainable consumption and production patterns; as well as the assumption that poverty eradication and more equitable development will follow from low-carbon growth provided compensatory or protective mechanisms are in place to address any negative social consequences. 
Instead, these papers offer critical assessments of the opportunities, costs and benefits of such policies for different populations and social groups. They convey a range of voices and perspectives (from local perceptions to global debates) around justice, equity and fairness, and point to the importance of social policies and governance processes for ensuring an inclusive and just green economy. Empirical studies show how certain groups are impacted both by environmental change and by policy responses, but more importantly reveal the practices and agendas being pursued among diverse groups - women, small farmers, local communities, indigenous groups, southern NGOs, at times in conjunction with governments or corporate actors – which create alternative possible visions, approaches and pathways to sustainability.
Q.: In October 2011 UNRISD held the conference on 'Green Economy: Bringing back the social dimension'. How can a Green Economy that takes into account social and cultural aspects be achieved?
A.: Any single answer or 'green print' would risk falling into the conventional development trap: one approach or solution is not feasible for such complex challenges. What the conference offered was a refocusing of attention towards key but neglected areas of enquiry, pointing to the limits of dominant frameworks and providing insights gained from often marginalised forms of knowledge. 
The conference brought together a body of empirical analysis – from post-industrial to low income countries across all regions of the world – showing how market mechanisms have contradictory consequences (sometimes unforeseen but often predictable) for the livelihoods and well-being of affected populations. Through these analyses, the possibilities of alternative approaches to a 'greener' economy were articulated – pathways not reliant solely on market-based solutions, but rooted in local livelihood, knowledge and value systems, and implying different roles and consequences for states, markets, corporations, civil society and communities.
Collectively the conference participants raised fundamental questions: whose values, priorities and interests are shaping the concept and policies of green economy, whose knowledge counts, and how can diverse forms of livelihood and production systems be incorporated into our search for global policy solutions. Papers offered new thinking on issues such as the role of social policy, regulation, participation and collective action in promoting a ‘green and fair’ economy in different contexts. In terms of framing global discussions, a strong case was made for legitimising a broader range of social science knowledge within science and economics-dominated policy debates on sustainable development. At the local and national policy level, more inclusive and participatory processes of knowledge generation and decision-making are needed to ensure policies reflect local livelihood and value systems, and do not undermine existing sustainable approaches to environmental stewardship.
Q.: What might be achieved at Rio+20? 
A.: Rio+20 (together with the People’s Summit) provides the opportunity to refocus world attention on the triple dimensions of sustainable development - the challenges posed by economic and climate crises, as well by increasingly unsustainable levels of inequality and rising demands for a system that delivers social justice.  
Rio+20 has strong prior statements and principles about sustainable development, (notably Agenda 21) on which to build. It may be unrealistic to expect a major breakthrough in terms of consensus or commitments to implementation; but a constructive and inclusive dialogue (including between governments and civil society) can build the much needed political momentum - for more participatory and consensus building processes, for the mobilisation of resources needed for a sustainable future, and for the framing of new sustainable development goals which reconnect issues of climate change and green economy to rights, equity and the broader vision of sustainability. 
Rio also presents an opportunity to move beyond north-south or developed-developing dichotomies, to start the reframing of a global agenda around shared challenges and common goals while respecting varied needs and responsibilities of different countries and communities, and to strengthen the global institutional architecture. Any collective process clearly needs to grapple centrally with diverse social, gendered and ecological contexts, and thus the inevitably unequal consequences of any market-based approaches.
Broader civil society engagement provides an opportunity for mobilisation to raise awareness about the alternatives for action and policy not only at the level of states and policy makers, but also in addressing the expectations of all of us as individual consumers. 
Interview by Laura Fano Morrissey


Sarah Cook took up the position of Director of UNRISD in November 2009. She moved to UNRISD from the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) at the University of Sussex, UK, where she had been a Research Fellow since 1996. She also worked for the Ford Foundation as Programme Officer for Governance and Public Policy from 2000-2005. (Source UNRISD)
Cover photo: katerha/flickr