The New Green Economy (Part 2): What Does a Sustainable Economy Look Like?

This is part two in a three part series on the “New Green Economy” conference held by the
National Council for Science and the Environment (NCSE) at the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center in Washington, D.C.. Part one covers a speech by EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson.

In a session today, “Growing the Green Economy or Greening the Grown Economy?,” Robert Costanza, Director, Gund Institute for Ecological Economics, University of Vermont, moderated a panel including Mindy Lubber, President, CERES, Van Jones, author of “The Green Collar Economy,” Tim Jackson, Economics Commissioner, UK Sustainable Development Commission, and David Orr, Professor of Environmental Studies, Oberlin College.

Robert Costanza, Director, Gund Institute for Ecological Economics, framed the session by asking: “Do we nudge or even shove the existing economy in a new green direction, or do we need to completely redesign it from the bottom-up?” To organize the discussion, Costanza asked four questions of the panelists: “Are current forms of economic growth sustainable? Is economic growth desirable? What does a sustainable economy look like? How can we make the transition to a sustainable economy?”

Are current forms of economic growth sustainable?

Tim Jackson, Economics Commissioner, UK Sustainable Development Commission: “No, we’ve already passed the threshhold.”

Mindy Lubber, President, CERES: “Worldwide population growth is expected to rise from 6.23 billion to 9 billion by 2050. We are running out of water. California industries lost $3 billion last year because of water shortages (in part, resulting from climate change). We are producing more and more, but can’t keep this up.”

David Orr, Professor of Environmental Science, Oberlin College: Orr pointed to Alan Greenspan’s recent comments that “there were flaws in his economic model,” and added: “Current growth has really just pushed the bill onto future generations and other people around the world. We have not been growing honestly. However, even this flawed, dishonest growth wasn’t doing what it should have been doing.”

Van Jones, author of “The Green Collar Economy”: “We are running up against ecological limits. However, for billions around the world, we need to pull their consumption levels up to decent levels. This is the challenge.”

Is growth desirable?

Jackson: “Income growth in the poorest countries is desirable. Economic growth also contributes to economic stability, which is needed for social stability. So in some cases, economic growth is desirable and needed. What we really need, though, is an economy not reliant on growth for stability.”

Orr: “The primary areas of growth in the U.S. economy have been related to the military. We’ve grown more militaristic as a result. Also, growth has taken the form of sprawl — Detroit is the poster child for what happens after sprawl.”

Lubber: “For countries with power, a new economic system would be threatening. We are already in a deficit in terms of natural resources. We must therefore put prices on the true cost of using natural resources — we need a price on carbon.”

Jones: “Economic systems work if they solve people’s problems. Right now, we have a financial crisis, structural crisis (jobs are moving to Asia), and an environmental crisis all at once. Americans are still dissatisfied (and voted in a new Republican Senator in Massachusetts) because we can’t solve even one of these problems.

What does a sustainable economy look like?

Orr: “It won’t look like what we’ve done in the past. Bill McKibben is coming out with a new book in April called “Eaarth” because he says humans have actually changed the climate to  such an extent that it’s literally a different planet. The U.S. is now a debtor nation $10 trillion in debt. We are in a radically changed world. On the positive side, we now have green buildings; solar-powered buildings are proven to be doable. There’s biomimicry, which can lead to innovations in products. We have theoretical basis for a green economy. We’ve had a revolution in design capabilities. There can be growth in more honest ways now.

Jackson: “We have to make ecological investments (low-carbon technologies, ecological assets) and support ecological enterprises instead of profit-making firms. Returns on investment need to be calculated in terms of social and ecological returns as well. Current social community organizations are really the blueprint for future market-oriented organizations.”

Lubber: “We need honest accounting. In the short-term, we need prices on natural resources. Capital markets are logical and have been responding to the fact that CO2 is free. Putting a price on carbon will help us build low-carbon innovations into products.”

How can we make the transition to a sustainable economy?

Orr: “We are in a new age of Enlightenment, but may not realize it. We recognize and are discussing on a global level the deep philosophical, political, ecological and economic problems facing humanity. That’s pretty exciting. However, sustainability also needs to work in the worst areas — in mountain top strip mines in the Appalachia region — for it really to work. Until then, sustainability will just remain an abstraction.”

Jackson: “We do need to get prices right — the accounting, and build social capital. Government can facilitate and lead the way.”

Lubber: “There was more than $140 billion spent last year on clean energy in the U.S.. This year, that number should go up to $190 billion, and needs to continue to increase.”

Jones: “Change is not a good thing to everyone. We also need to think about continuity. Some things in the new green economy are actually quite old — valuing skilled labor and enterprise (instead of welfare). The green economy should reinvent old, static sectors. The green economy needs to present a hopeful vision. The environmental movement needs to present a positive picture.”

Read part three: What is the role of education and R&D?, which outlines a discussion among David Gergen, Director, Center for Public Leadership, Harvard University, Michael Crow, President, Arizona State University, Richard Freeman, Professor of Economics, Harvard University, Martha Kanter, Under Secretary, U.S. Department of Education, Kyung-Ah Park, Vice President, Environmental Markets, Goldman Sachs, and Congressman Rush Holt (D-NJ).

Image credit: Solar farm, TreeHugger.

One thought on “The New Green Economy (Part 2): What Does a Sustainable Economy Look Like?

  1. Mark L. Johnson 01/27/2010 / 4:43 pm

    The future will be a “green” economy, or there will likely be much of a future, anyway. While the “developed” countries don’t want to face up to it; the future of a peaceful world depends upon refocusing our resources from obsessive consumption to helping the underdeveloped world create their own, local green economies.

    In ancient scripture, the “poor” ate vegetables, instead of meat; so, I’d call that a pretty green focus. Up until less than 200 years ago, the world was based upon a subsistence lifestyle for all but a very few elite and powerful. The vast majority of people existed upon what they could hunt and harvest for themselves or a relatively small community. The colonial-like collecting of natural resources for the consumption of wealthier populations has often both decimated the lands of hunt-gatherers and small subsistence farmers and forced them into cities where their lifestyle may be less than subsistence.

    Landscape architects need to help communicate the importance of a more sustainable and equitable layout of our sites and communities and we need to look beyond advertising to see if the products we specify truly tread lightly on the environment and economies of less wealthy peoples.

    Mark L. Johnson
    Ecotone Land Design, Inc.

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