Green Sins – How the Green Economy Became a Subject of Controversy

Teaser Image Caption
Windwheel on the Isthmus land strip in Tehuantepec, Mexico

The Isthmus of Tehuantepec in southern Mexico is the only place on the American continent where no mountain chain divides the Atlantic from the Pacific. The wind blows constantly and forcefully. It’s an ideal location for a wind farm. There are already 1,200 wind turbines standing there; by 2014, that number should climb to 5,000. Investors from Mexico and Spain have been flocking. The Spanish firm Acciona, for example, is building a large wind farm in Mexico, with the energy dedicated to Coca-Cola bottling giant Femsa, and to Heineken.

A smaller version of Germany’s energy transition towards renewables (Energiewende) is thus underway in Central America. Who would object to that? Yet there is resistance amongst the people – the small farmers feel betrayed. Contracts they previously signed are now being disputed. Most wind farms have been built on indigenous estates. The farmers now say they’ve been cheated, not sufficiently informed about the investments. The rents they collect, they say, are puny compared to the profits brought in by the wind turbines. Traditional use of the land no longer being possible, the people claim they’re poorer today than they were before. Even as the farmers demand that the leases be cancelled, their resistance is being criminalized. They are in part being prevented from even entering their leased tracts of land.

The idea that ecology and the economy belong together – are in fact inseparable – has long been promoted by many ecologists as well as some economists. Even so, the “green economy” is increasingly becoming an arena for political battles. Some political actors now speak of “green washing,” thus rejecting the notion of a green economy.

Expulsion of the poor

One need not search long for examples. In 2008, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh announced a national action-plan for climate protection. Expansion of solar energy capacity to 22,000 megawatts by 2022 is part of it – good news for climate protection. Not necessarily good news for the rural poor, however. In densely settled India, large-scale, on-grid solar capacity is being developed. Again, cases where the poor and most impoverished classes have been driven from their lands are becoming more and more common. An Indian environmental organization recently published a comprehensive report showing that while India indeed has lofty aims when it comes to renewable energy, it has no plan for how these aims can be achieved in a socially just and democratically legitimate way.

Who stands to profit from these new investments – and who loses out: these questions are becoming ever more pressing. Who is responsible for ensuring that people are not driven from their community and farming lands in the name of the “green economy”? That this term is not defined in international law only makes things more difficult. An attempt at the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in June 2012 failed. The concluding document of the conference says nothing useful about the green economy, because the states in favor and those against effectively neutralized each another – a classic UN formulaic compromise.

Nonetheless, the conflict between ecology and justice was visible just outside the Rio conference. At the mass rally in response to the conference on sustainable development, it was impossible to overlook the slogans, posters and t-shirts advocating against the green economy. Brazilian social movements, indigenous organizations, unions and environmental organizations declared the green economy as one of their prime enemies.

That resistance to the green economy is especially potent in Brazil should not be surprising. The Brazilian government touts its energy model of massive hydroelectric dams in the Amazon Basin – 28 additional dams are planned by 2017 – and the further development of sugarcane for biofuel, as successful examples for a green economy. For a densely forested country such as Brazil, blessed with the highest level of biodiversity, can be added that it has become a laboratory for new economic instruments.

They perceive the situation as such: Because the natural world is economically undervalued, nature itself should be viewed as a service and “natural capital” developed for markets, including financial markets. The United Nations Environment Programme has in particular propagated this position. This has outraged many actors in the Global South, especially in Latin America, who decry the economic commodification of nature as a new stage in the privatization and commercialization of nature. The transformation of nature into tradable goods and private property – including the carbon-capturing humus layer of the soil, or the leaf on the tree – they say, is a further cause of people who engage in traditional community economies being dispossessed and driven from their lands. It is not the hard-working natural world that is paid for the “services” it provides, but rather its “owner.”

For the majority of its protagonists, the green economy is seen as the answer to climate change and the global scarcity of resources. It is a good thing when the government and business interests take these topics seriously. It is not the goal, but the ways of realizing it, that are highly contentious when it comes to the green economy. The business associations and their think tanks sing only songs of praise of technology, innovation, and efficiency. Their definition of “green economy” excludes the social, political and democratic dimensions of economic activity. Thus the dark side of the green economy becomes ever more visible. The wind farms in Mexico and the solar power plants in India, and their impact on the local, mostly poor populations, bear witness to this. The social and ecological consequences of the mining of lithium or rare earth metals, used in solar panels, batteries for hybrid cars or wind turbines, has drawn increasing attention.

Who profits from innovation?

Increasing efficiency must be a part of every strategy seeking a transformation of the current economy based on fossil fuels and the devouring of resources. Efficiency requires both innovation and technology. Yet it must be clarified who profits from it and which avenues of participation remain open to those affected. This, in turn, necessitates cooperation and decisions based not primarily on economic-political grounds. Because innovation and technology, after all, are only good insofar as they can be applied in socially and ecologically just ways. Mistrust and resistance to technologies grow in proportion to their blind use without regard to their negative consequences, such as displacement and ecological trade-offs.

In addition, it must be recalled that high-risk technologies such as high-tech in space, the proposed artificial fertilization of the oceans, and even nuclear power in the name of climate protection are being sold as “green economy.” This, too, has served to discredit the idea of the green economy – within social movements and civil society organizations worldwide, and with some leftist governments in South America.

The green economy needs limits and social standards. For business, the green economy has so far been seen merely as a new and supplementary business area, given that fossil fuel-based, “brown,” inefficient economic activity dominates the world economy. Despite the worldwide expansion of renewables, this “brown” economy of fossil fuels and nuclear power represents 97 percent of the total, and must therefore remain the primary target of criticism and resistance of climate, environmental, human rights and development organizations. But we must also dispense of the notion that everything that is carbon-neutral is also socially and ecologically just. The green economy cultivates the image of so-called “win-win” situations. The wind farms in Mexico and the solar power plants in India demonstrate that social and ecological trade-offs must be considered. Similarly, the new, green, low-carbon means of business must face up to its social and human rights responsibility. Only then does the green economy represent a new vision; only then would it be a true paradigm shift.


„An earlier version of this article was published in German in the newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, October 10, 2012.





Barbara Unmüßig

From 1996 to 2001, Barbara Unmüßig chaired the supervisory board of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, and was elected president of the foundation in May 2002. Her numerous contributions to periodicals and books have covered international trade and finance, international environmental issues, and gender policy.