Deeper Transformation: "Greening" capitalism is not enough to fix the climate

As the next round of international climate change talks in Copenhagen approaches, the Canadian and Alberta governments are both doing everything they can to reinforce their long-standing position that doing something meaningful and effective about climate change would be impossible without destroying the economy.

At the same time, many of Canada's environmental and activist organizations are working hard to show Canadians, and Albertans in particular, that we can indeed have it all-we can have a real impact on climate change, create jobs and re-stimulate the economy and secure economic growth and prosperity in perpetuity.

The literature supporting the concepts of "green jobs" or a "green economy" has been around for some time now, but it really took off last year after the bottom fell out of the global economy and governments world-wide began engaging in stimulus spending. The theory was that, by directing their stimulus spending intelligently, governments could accomplish the dual goals of kick-starting the economy and beginning the transition toward a green economy.

In Alberta, for example, the Alberta Federation of Labour, Greenpeace and the Sierra Club collaborated on a report which showed how many Albertans could be put back to work through government support for things like home energy retrofits and public transit. The Parkland Institute followed this up with a report outlining how much more effective government stimulus would be if it was directed toward public services and renewables instead of toward royalty breaks and oil patch incentives.

It wasn't long before the focus of the message became economic growth itself-green policies were soon touted not only as the key to economic recovery, but also long-term economic growth. In the last two months alone, for example, we have seen a major report by the Pembina Institute and the David Suzuki Foundation showing how Canada could meet scientific-based emissions targets while continuing to grow our economy at nearly the same rate as if we did nothing. We have also seen a book by an Alberta consultant suggesting that we could continue to grow Alberta's energy-intense economy, and continue exploiting the tar sands, while being entirely carbon-neutral.

There is no question that all of this research is important and valuable-the evidence is now incontrovertible that we can meet short term environmental goals while promoting economic recovery and growth. The danger is that these short-term goals have become confused with the long term picture of what a "green economy" could and should be.

Anyone who has read Dr. Seuss's The Lorax understands fundamentally that a green economy is incompatible with one based on perpetual growth. In fact, it was exactly as the book's Onceler was in the middle of a rant defending his need and right to keep growing that the last Truffula Tree gets cut down, killing the forest forever.

So while it might be true that, in the short term, we can reduce our impact on the environment while continuing to grow the economy, in the long term it is not enough to simply reduce our negative impact-We have to eliminate it. And that is incompatible with economic growth. At some point we will need to come to terms with the reality that capitalism as a system depends on perpetual growth, and that if we want a truly green and sustainable economy, then we need to come up with a different system. "Greening" capitalism may buy us a bit of time, but in the end its growth imperative will still completely consume our limited resources.

We must also keep in mind that neither Alberta's economy nor environment exist in a vacuum. By focusing our energies on finding ways to make capitalism greener, we ignore the many environmental, social and global injustices inherent in capitalism. Where will the factories for solar panels, wind turbines, high-speed trains and buses be built? Whose labour will they exploit and whose rivers will they pollute? Will green capitalism still result in five percent of the population accumulating 95 percent of the wealth? Will those indigenous populations around the world who are currently the victims of uncontrolled economic expansion be victimized any less by "green" economic expansion?

Van Jones, the US based green jobs guru, has suggested that because climate change is putting our very survival in jeopardy, it is necessary for us to focus first on greening our existing economy. Once that has been accomplished, he argues, we can then turn our efforts to building a new economy which will be just and sustainable.

History tells us a different story however. Once we make advances, our energies are turned out of necessity toward protecting those same advances, not making new ones. Consider, for example, the extent to which our social programs and health care have been under attack since the day they were implemented. Have we been able to fight for more justice, or have we been too busy fighting to keep what little we've got?
We have an opportunity today to push and fight for the creation of an economy that is truly green, sustainable and just. Yes, it is critical that we take immediate steps to deal with climate change, but if we don't also work to deal with the long-standing social, environmental and global injustices wrought by our economy, then we will truly be no further ahead. We can't bring a green and just economy to be by simply making capitalism greener and kinder. We need a total overhaul. If we lose sight of that, we will never get there.

Vue Weekly, Week of November 19, 2009
Byline: Ricardo Acuña

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