The green growth paradigm has a long tradition – which has never been supportable

In October 1987, the United Nations published a report – Our Common Future – (aka Brundland Report) which was the work of the then World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) – that was chaird by the then Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland. It laid out a multilateral approach to dealing with climate change and establishing a path to sustainable development (growth). While the Report was published by Oxford University Press, you can access it via the UN – HERE. It is the foundation of the more recent ‘green growth’ and ‘green new deal’ movements that have besotted the progressives in the advanced nations. The problem is that the framework presented implies that we can maintain the capitalist market system with some tweaks and continue prioritising the pursuit of private profit as the main organising principle for resource allocation. I disagree with that approach and my current research is building the case for system change and the abandonment of the ‘growth paradigm’.

The Brundlandt Report defined sustainable development as:

Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs

It was written nearly 40 years ago but not much has changed.

The problem with the Report is that we can enjoy an ecologically sustainable future by working through free market systems as long as the government introduces carbon trading schemes – with carbon pricing.

So we continue to allocate resources via the private profit motive and allow the distribution system to be captured as it is today by the elites, and all will be well.

That was the overriding message of the Report.

The Report received early criticism.

In 1998, Helge Ole Bergesen published an article – Reformism Doomed to Failure? A Critical Look at the Strategy Promoted by the Brundtland Commission – in the journal – International Challenges (Vol 8, Issue 2, 6-10) – which introduced the notion of – Green Imperialism – and spawned several books and articles in the following years.

The term was taken to mean the tendency of the rich, advanced nations to tell poor developing nations what their environmental goals and strategies should be.

In other words, imposing elite preferences on peoples who are anything but materially advanced.

Helge Ole Bergesen noted the apathy of the global elites to sustained development in the Global South in the 1970s and after:

Such arguments fell on deaf ears through the 70s and from the beginning of the 80s they have been rejected in both word and deed. For decision-makers in Washington and London, Africa, or at least the largest part of it, could sink into the ocean without their interests as presently defined being involved. Why should the misery of the Third World be any problem to them as long as they can live with rapidly increasing poverty in their own countries apparently without much concern?


… the Western powers have only given minimal concessions which have been necessary to keep the dialogue going – and that has not amounted to many millimetres per year. At the same time they retain firm control over the most important decision-making centres like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and over international trade and finance through transnational companies and banks. In their view foreign aid is an instrument of foreign policy which is used to reward friends and punish enemies.


… the issue of capital flight from the Third World has been conspicuously absent in many debt rescheduling operations in the 1980s. While the creditors led by the IMF have insisted on tough adjustment measures within the developing countries, their elites have been allowed to export enormous amounts of dollar.

Helge Ole Bergesen considered then that the Bruntland Report, however well intentioned, was part of a political milieu that was only interesting in serving the interests of the global elites and “the policies of the large Western powers will in principle be dominated by economic liberalism and in practice by narrow political and economic self-interests – basically the same as today.”

It was concluded that:

The political conditions described above will make it very difficult to organize an effective and coordinated international effort in this field in the years to come.

Which is one reason – the most important one – why we are no closer to resolving this issue than we were 25 years ago when Bergesen wrote her article.

Related to ‘green imperialism’ is the practice of ‘eco-colonialism’ and ‘eco-imperialism’ – all referring to the actions by bodies such as the European Union in inflicting economic damage on poorer nations – for example, by boycotting exports – in the name of environmental protection.

The long history of opposition to colonialism had a new frontier.

When the EU banned the imports of Malaysian palm oil for use in European biofuels in 2019, the impact on the plethora of small scale palm farmers in that country was extremely damaging.

From the EU’s perspective, they were acting on reports that the palm oil sector in Malaysia and Indonesia had led to “massive illegal deforestation … by government and big corporations, forcing several species to the brink of extinction” (Source).

But it was one of those often encountered cases where large, multinational corporations and very small, family-run enterprises are involved in the same industry and the deplorable greed of the former leads to sanctions that damage the latter.

In Malaysia, the Federal Land Development Authority (FELDA) has allocated small allotments to poor farmers to harvest palm oil for export and the impact of the policy was unambiguously beneficial in material terms to the farmers and their families.

The UK Guardian article (April 25, 2018) – How palm oil ban has made the EU a dirty word in Malaysia – reported the small farms:

… account for 40% of Malaysia’s palm oil output and yet none engage in any land-grabbing, the slash and burn or deforestation practices that were pivotal proponent for MEPs voting to ban palm oil in biofuels.

The ban was not well received in Malaysia and FELDA said that:

the Malaysian said that:

It’s the same colonial attitudes, the white man imposing their rule on us from afar … If the EU respect Malaysia as a sovereign country and as a partner in development and trade, they should not put this unfair restriction on us, and instead work with us on environmental concerns. Freezing us out is wrong.

The idea of eco-colonialism has a long history though.

If I walk through the parks of Melbourne, for example, I see Britain and Europe rather than the local flora.

The 1986 book by Alfred Crosby – Ecological Imperialism (book) – documents how “disease microbes, weeds, domesticated plants, and animals – that accompanied Europeans, devastating local populations and significantly re-making local landscapes” were important aspects of the invasion of the Global South by European colonialists.

The ‘green imperialism’ tag also interacts with neoliberal ideology.

Helge Ole Bergesen noted that the global elites since the 1970s had interacted with the Global South via the imposition of ‘economic liberalism’ in ways that would never have underpinned the prosperous development that the advanced nations had undergone in the prior decades.

In a chapter by Anja Nygren – Eco-imperialism and environmental justice – in the book ‘Routledge International Handbook of Social and Environmental Change’ (published 2014) – the author notes the:

… disproportionate impact of environmental degradation on the lives of poor communities and ethnic minorities in the Global South.

She rehearses the common argument that many on the Left are now making that the elite, advanced nations should not impose their environmental preferences on the Global South, especially under the guise of neoliberalism which she calls ‘Northern-driven development models’.

The idea of environmental justice becomes part of the dialogue on sustainability.

The former idea was established well before the the Brundtland Report was published however.

Anja Nygren details how “there is a long history of environmental justice struggles around the world” relating to “environmental justice is only one organizing principle among many issues, including indigenous rights, food security, human rights and democracy.”

But in the current era, “radical environmental activists have become inflexible in their demands for environmental protection and insensitive to the needs of the billions of people who lack food, health-care and other basic necessities.”

And the:

Northern environmental- development models … [have] … caused poverty and suffering in the Global South and … developing countries … [should] … generate sustainable strategies for endogenous development, without dependency on foreign aid.

Her point is that the “Northern capitalist conception of nature produces a view of the natural environment as a realm to be appropriated through commodification and control”.

I have written before how the evolution of neoliberalism has been characterised by the attempt (mostly successful) to turn everything into a labour process producing commodities.

Our leisure activities – sport, wandering through the bush, pedalling cycles etc – are now commodified.

And the mainstream economic approach to the ‘environment’ is similarly commodified – everything has a price, things are transacted, etc.

Related is the concept of – Green Grabbing – which is “foreign land grabbing and appropriation of resources for environmental purposes, resulting in a pattern of unjust development”.

A classic application of this are the carbon credit schemes that progressives think are part of the solution – which involve polluting corporations in the advanced nations marching into sustainable communities in the Global South and creating infrastructure like wind farms etc, that the market system recognises but which devastates the local well-being.

How progressive greens can support ‘market solutions’ in this way is beyond me – but they do and that is part of the problem.

The Brundtland Report approach, of course, has evolved into the ‘Green Growth’ and ‘Green New Deal’ movements, which are now popular among progressive left activists.

These contemporary expressions of the mainstream approach claim that all we need to do is have governments investing in green technologies and enterprises, which would reconfigure the ‘growth paradigm’ into green rather than carbon within the capitalist mode of production.

And more recent statements claim that the governments should provide incentives to the financial markets to create ‘green bonds’, which can fund these transitions.

Even some MMT economists then claim that with all the dislocation that will follow they can solve the unemployment via a Job Guarantee.

As one of the people who introduced the idea of a Job Guarantee into the MMT program I can tell you that it was never intended to be the solution to structural transformations – large or small.

Warren Mosler and I always considered the government should always seek to minimise the size of the Job Guarantee pool at all times.

The point is that we have a major dilemma within the Left.

I sympathise with those of Marxist leanings who rail against the green imperialism of the elites in rich countries, including progressives.

A solution to the climate challenge, if there is one, must include advancing material well-being of the poorest communities – that is, more consumption and material security.

But overall, the globe must break away from the ‘growth paradigm’ and work out ways of surviving with degrowth – less energy consumption, less material usage.

But that pathway is in my view incompatible with the capitalist logic.

Green growth is okay for capitalist ambitions and having the financial sector fund it (read – continue gambling with financial products that do nothing to advance the well-being of the poorest members of our societies) will be a bonanza for the elites – until the climate shifts shut the whole world down.

Degrowth is not going to be okay for those ambitions because it will require the abandonment of the relentless accumulation of capital (in the hands of a few) while the rest of us continue to realise private profits for the few via our mass consumption behaviour.

The question I am researching at the moment is whether we can discuss these matters without recourse to class analysis.

Jason Hickel thinks we can – he claimed that ‘capitalism itself is just a symptom’ and not the real problem.

I disagree and will write more about that in the future.


Once the book with Warren Mosler is done (see yesterday’s blog post for details), my next book (with Dr Louisa Connors) is on degrowth and social change (hopefully out late 2024 or early to mid 2025).

These occasional posts about those issues are just notes that summarise what I am reading and thinking about in that context.

That is enough for today!

(c) Copyright 2024 William Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Great to hear you are working on a book to tackle the complex issues of degrowth and ecosystem collapse, Bill.

    if i ever had an issue with the way worthwhile economic goals get advanced by MMT luminaries such as yourself, it’s simply that at times it could appear to be projecting a indiscriminately “pro-growth” narrative at times. as opposed to Kate Raworth’s Donought Economy type of awareness (even if that’s scant on detail and theoretical methods at times) .

    i refer to degrowth more specifically as “strategic degrowth” so it doesn’t get confused for “return to self sufficient family units and a gifting economy” which is how some would have the term be defined or resonant. as the degrowth coin velocity increases i expect this will have to get debated repeated.

    to my philosophical/spiritual/psychic bent, growth and entropy are fundamental characteristics of the universe, and all natural ecologies. it’s *cancerous* growth and deeply problematic distribution and the reduction of all values and subjects to a monetary equivalent that’s closer to the root of the problem.

    some industries and pursuits will grow from invisible seeds, and that’s ok, so long as there’s holistic balance of human economy and restoration of ecological stocks and flows get prioritised. no industry or elite group can be continued to be allowed to work against this overarching aim of ecological restoration, just because they have the wealth, resources and connections to do so. neoliberalism’s biggest casualty has been decent morality and ethics in human affairs.

  2. Hickel sees the destruction of the natural world as one product of an ontological mistake: the division of reality into subjects (knowers) and objects (knowns).

    This ontological mistake, by separating people (subjects) from nature (objects), allows for the creation of the “selves” (Cartesian subjects). These selves form the foundation of all liberal thought, including capitalism.

    And, once subjects are separated from objects, objects can be destroyed without remorse.

    Capitalism requires this ontological dualism. It is in this sense, then, that capitalism is a symptom. The real problem is ontological (Cartesian) dualism.

    Class analysis, like Hickel’s analysis, questions ontological dualism. It does so by suggesting that there is no *autonomous* self, no *autonomous* subject. There is only a self created—constructed—by its membership in a class. It doesn’t matter whether there’s a self—the self has no agency. The self is a construction of its class.

    Hickel says: There is no subject. Class analysis says: Even if there is a subject, it doesn’t matter.

  3. 2nd Ed: Hickel says: Subject-object (Cartesian) dualism, by separating subjects from objects, leads to the destruction of objects (the natural world).

    Class analysis says: Class (that is, hierarchy) causes the destruction of the natural world and has done so since the dawn of mankind (far pre-dating Descartes). The myth of a primitive, possibly animistic, society that respected nature is not born out by the fossil record of extinctions. Subject-object (Cartesian) dualism is not a prerequisite for environmental destruction.

    Élites use the destruction of the natural world to satisfy the wants and needs of the governed, allowing the élites to maintain their position (recent example: China since 1980). When élites fail to deliver goods, they are toppled. The need of élites to deliver goods is the basis of capitalism. The need of élites to deliver goods is the basis of colonialism. The need of élites to deliver goods is the basis of the “green growth” movement. Social and political class hierarchy is now dependent on economic class hierarchy. And that economic hierarchy (class) is maintained by destruction of the natural world.

  4. Hi Bill,

    Interestingly the Critical Theory Network at the University of Auckland has a seminar on Wednesday 8th May @1pm by Pasi Heikkurinen and Jenny Rinkinen titled “Being and Practice: A Dialogue on Degrowth.”

    The session will be streamed. I can let you know more details if you wish (I won’t post them in public here, it’s not really my place to do so)—feel free to contact me.

  5. Capitalists will always present proposals that must necessarily conclude with extraction of a private profit. And even better, for those of a neoliberal bent, if those profits are via rent extraction so as to avoid the risk of failure that comes from personal exertion. Why, In light of The Limits to Growth predictive models, that have been shown to be uncannily accurate over the last 50 years, and the analysis and work of such as Herman Daly and, more recently, Kate Raworth, should anyone seriously doubt where our human induced ecological overshoot is taking life on earth? Humans can argue all they like about their manmade economic system but nature will never care while continuing on its scientifically based trajectory, models or no models.

    Is there anything more absurd than a bunch of economists arguing that infinite growth on a finite planet is possible? The negentropy supplied by the sun in concentrated fossil fuel form laid down over aeons, and harnessed by our species within the geological blinking of an eye, is the energy that has allowed humanity to expand into its end stage of exponential growth before an upcoming anticipated collapse. As it is today, our species is consuming 1.7 earths.

    Not only must capitalism die but even moving to a wartime command and control economy is looking highly unlikely to salvage much of the current wealthy western way of life. While ever there are too many of us on the planet creating inordinate quantities of waste products, as well as having insufficient time within which to effect a soft landing for life on earth, then an argument amongst economists about solutions to an existential problem like global heating is but a mere distraction from scientific reality.

    Retired Australian Admiral and former Chief of Defence Forces Chris Barrie again recently spoke plain to all of us from the perspective of knowledge within the military forces when it was said, in a report by him and other senior former military and intelligence leaders, that it is “astonishing” that climate change only rated a passing mention in the government’s National Defence Strategy which had dedicated “precisely two sentences of substance” to climate impact.

    “The universe is not here for us, or because of us, or designed to lead to us. We are simply here because we can be. It would not be possible for us to find ourselves in a universe in which the rules did not permit our existence.” – Tom Murphy, Do the Math blog

    Or, putting it another way, it can be read into Just Six Numbers by Martin Rees, which is presented without an economist in sight.

  6. Hi thanks for this. A while back on coming to Aotearoa a Pakeha guy living over from us explained that the reason native plants had died back was because exotics from Europe (etc, I guess) were weaker/deficient in the fight for survival. Putting this resonant piece of bio-colonialism aside, I still came to realise that its antithesis could miss an important point. I learnt that natives could displace exotics if left alone, and regrowth of natives returned land, though it did not return-reverse change exactly back to conditions before colonial expropriation cleared it with huge burning off and by industrial logging. When settlers came they saw a stripped back newly-Europeanised landscape, then ready to exploit for agriculture and Western markets during the vast economic growth of the 2nd half of the 19th C. So, to cut a familiar story short is to state that Pakeha made it *impossible* for native growth to return, and that fact *completely* turns the Western colonial narrative on its head. So Bill’s narrative about the devastation wreaked by total economic competition is repeated exactly in terms of environmental destruction. Visiting Zealandia it seemed that their rewilding program permits old exotic growth to temporarily sustain regrowth, although natives then steal back the light by permanently overgrowing the exotic. There’s an interesting educational picture at one of Zealandia’s info points outside, that gives an impression of the ecosystem of trees and plants before colonial change, and then a differing native process involved in restoration and regrowth. To me it’s a story of (re)emergence I feel perhaps engaging ideas from complexity thinking – you can return by reversing the route by which you arrived. Maybe its similar to sustain more directly economic reemergence in the global South.

  7. Sorry, typo, ‘you CAN return by reversing the route by which you arrived.’ should have read ‘you CAN’T return by simply reversing the route by which you arrived.’

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