There are many competing ideas of how the global economy should be transformed for the sake of sustainability.
The economic system is widely considered a major driver of global environmental change. There are many ideas of how it should be transformed but quite often they are in competition with one another … to the point of proposing totally different societal trajectories along a pathway of sustainability.
United by the universal idea of sustainability, popular concepts like green, blue, circular, bio-, steady-state or degrowing economy have much in common, and yet they clearly differ based on a few key premises and considerations about which way society should head. However, instead of focusing on contradictions, it is better to start with exploring what is unique about each of these concepts.
The green economy has gained the most traction in recent years. Supported by powerful organizations like the UN and countries like Sweden, Germany and Denmark, it has focused on low-carbon development, cleaner production, resource efficiency, extended producer responsibility, eco-labeling, the spread of green jobs and governmental support to more environmentally benign choices within various industries. A simple comparative Google search will reveal more publications on the green economy than on any other concept further mentioned, and it is certainly so in the real world as well, with most global economic sustainability initiatives emphasizing a green economy as their key conceptual frame. It has even inspired a highly popular online course by sustainability researchers from the Institute of Industrial Environmental Economics at Lund University.
In certain circles, like the World Bank and OECD the green economy has been further transformed into the green growth agenda, making it even more fit into the “growth paradigm”, the currently dominant global economic system. Good in its premises, the green economy however has been often criticized, not least by the supporters of other concepts, for its dependence on subsidies, on being too all-encompassing and on its failure to actually address the foundations of environmental crises.
Among the loudest critics of the green economy is Gunther Pauli, founder of the blue economy concept and author of the cognominal report by the Club of Rome, which features 100 innovative solutions and promises 100 million new jobs. The visionary thinker and entrepreneur has spent decades exploring scientific discoveries and business models that help nature regenerate itself, but are also more economically viable than their counterparts, whose growth is coupled with increasing pollution and carbon emissions.
It is not by subsidizing the green economy, but only by outcompeting the not so green one can real progress towards sustainability be made, according to Pauli. The solutions promoted by Pauli and his team include reusing coffee grounds for the production of mushrooms, making shaving razors from silk and many more. New ideas get regularly published at the Blue Economy website. Blue economy ideas have gained most attention in Japan, Greece and a number of African countries.
Together with a few other intersecting concepts like natural capitalism, cradle to cradle, performance economy and biomimicry, the blue economy has inspired the quick spread of a circular economy movement, not least through persistent action by organizations like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and Circle Economy, as well as through support by powerful actors like the EU.
The basic idea of a circular economy is that to achieve win-win outcomes for society and nature alike, we need to eliminate waste from the system and circulate materials in the economy as long as possible, sustaining or increasing their value. Circular economy strategies include upcycling, circular design, reverse logistics and the application of innovative business models. Immensely attractive for businesses and nations worldwide, a circular economy has been implemented in more than a dozen of countries and thousands of companies, while industry leaders like Google and sustainability thought leaders like William McDonough help the concept to keep on conquering the world.
Complementary by nature, yet different in focus, is the concept of a bio-economy, which looks at how we can transition to using mostly renewable resources and develop bio-based materials, products and markets, as well as how the relevant sectors can improve their efficiency. Recently, the European Environmental Agency suggested uniting the two concepts into a circular bio-economy as the best solution for all.
And still, there is something about those ideas that has been bothering more critical scientists and organisations for decades: their dependence on endless economic growth and their aspirations to fit within the capitalist mindset to gain fast adoption and vast support. Meanwhile, it is the pursuit of economic growth per se that has been at the core of global environmental crises, say supporters of the steady-state economy movement in academia and beyond.
The central statement of the steady-state economy supporters is that “further economic growth in wealthy nations is neither sustainable nor desirable”, as put by Daniel O’Neill, a researcher at the Centre for Advancement of the Steady State Economy and the author of Enough Is Enough. Among other prominent promoters of the idea are economists like Herman Daly and Joshua Farley, who reference research in the field of ecological economics and the laws of thermodynamics that limit our possibilities to indefinitely transform nature.
Rather than adopting politically correct positive stances towards everything that is at least slightly greener, researchers suggest a fundamental transformation of the global economic system with an increased focus on promoting equality, which is seen as more important than mere economic growth for both the flourishing of individuals, society and nature as a whole. The idea has been best articulated in two books by economists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett: The Spirit Level and The Inner Level.
It is also important to transition towards more realistic measures of well-being like the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI). Unlike GDP, GPI measures many more factors that contribute to human well-being, including overall life satisfaction or time available for leisure. It is only through overcoming environmental inequality and social injustice, as well as through learning to live within the limits posed by nature that we can hope to sustain human flourishing on Earth, say steady-state economy proponents.
Even more radical are supporters of the degrowth concept. Drawing from ecological economics, human and political ecology, as well as environmental philosophy, degrowth researchers and activists state that in many fields we actually need to degrow our economy (foremost in war-related or other destructive and dirty industries) and work towards transitioning from a consumption-based globalized economy to heterogeneous and more equal economies of smaller scale, where people have the opportunity to focus on what really matters, and not only rush in an endless pursuit of more wealth.
Degrowth supporters resist the commodification of everything on Earth and instead focus on a true appreciation of the world around us beyond its immediate economic value. They also highlight the importance of dematerialization, nurturing food sovereignty and climate justice, as well as adopting unconditional basic incomes. With still little support from global actors, the degrowth movement has nevertheless been showcased at a number of international conferences.
One of its major texts, Degrowth: A vocabulary for a new era, has been translated into over 10 languages (including forthcoming editions). Researchers have widely explored possibilities of degrowth in agriculture, tourism and various other sectors, and there is an increasing number of local attempts to implement degrowth ideas in real life.
With this diversity of concepts it might be hard to choose a single one to adopt and promote and it is most likely that the future will resemble a mix of the aforementioned ideas. Meanwhile, as physicist Richard Feynman famously said: “reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled”. As the natural world changes rapidly, we will soon witness which concepts are more practicable than others, and thus what type of economy nature can really sustain.