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The Politics of Green Transformation

Talk of transformation is back in vogue. This time the call is for a green transformation. Recent and recurrent financial and environmental crises have drawn attention to the ecological, social and economic sustainability of the global economy. This has prompted calls for a new green industrial revolution, transitions to a low carbon economy or for more radical restructuring for de-growth or the pursuit of prosperity without growth. While calls for radical transformations are often made, but mostly ignored, this one has captured attention at the highest levels, whether through the launching of the Sustainable Development Goals, heightened mobilization around a ‘make-or-break’ climate agreement for Paris 2015, or renewed calls for a World Environment Organisation at the time of the Rio+20 summit in 2012. But what would a green transformation look like and who will bring it into being?  Most emphasis is placed on technology and markets: greentransthe need for massive public and private investment in new technological revolutions or on greening capitalism through pricing nature. But it is also political. What makes it so, and which and whose politics will shape the sorts of transformations that are desirable and possible? These key questions are addressed by a newly published volume on The Politics of Green Transformations which brings together leading thinkers on the politics of sustainability based at the University of Sussex. Questions surrounding what counts as green, what is to be transformed, who is to do the transforming, and whether transformation, as opposed to more incremental change, is required are all deeply political. For many, the green transformation is like no other we have witnessed so far. While history has witnessed numerous waves of disruptive economic and social change, brought about by technology, war and shifts of cultural values, none has been primarily driven by the goal of rendering the economy and existing model of development more sustainable. The political nature of the green transformation is heightened because change is needed quickly. A sense of urgency pervades current debates about sustainability amid talk of tipping points, thresholds and planetary boundaries. But though prefacing the word ‘transformations’ with ‘green’ focuses on the environmental dimensions of change, these almost inevitably raise questions of social as well as environmental justice. In many contexts, especially of developing countries, there is unlikely to be any green transformations if questions of social justice — jobs and access to resources such as land and water — are not part of the debate. The volume challenges conventional assumptions that green transformations can be either solely market or technology-driven. Politics create markets, enforce their rules and deal with questions of access. Likewise, politics determine which technologies are supported and neglected and whose needs take priority. We highlight a key role for green entrepreneurial states, willing to take risks, invest, subsidise and promote technologies neglected by the private entrepreneurs who are often assumed to lead innovation. But we also highlight a vital role for movements in driving change, resisting disruption to their livelihoods (increasingly also driven by green goals of protection and conservation) and articulating alternatives. They also play a key role in grassroots innovation and building alternatives from below. In practice, green transformations — whether state-led, citizen-led, marketized or technocratic — are produced by differing combinations of actors and drivers from ‘above’ and ‘below’. Green transformations must be both ‘top-down’, involving elite alliances between states and business, but also ‘bottom up’, pushed by grassroots innovators and entrepreneurs, and part of wider mobilisations among civil society. Each of these forms, styles and sites of politics combine, and play out in different ways in different places. Which pathways predominate will depend on the context: in China there is a stronger role for the state while marketized and technocratic pathways may be privileged in North America and Europe. They take a different form again in sub-Saharan Africa. But none are protected from the contested politics of who sets the goals of green transformations (whose knowledge counts), who wins, and who loses from particular ways of pursuing them. Current debates about the green economy and the transition to a low carbon economy would well to recognise this. Peter Newell is professor of international relations at the Centre for Global Political Economy, University of Sussex, and author, with Ian Scoones and Melissa Leach, of The Politics of Green Transformations, Routledge, 2015. This article appears in the excellent Le Monde Diplomatique, whose English language edition can be found at mondediplo.com. This full text appears by agreement with Le Monde Diplomatique. CounterPunch features two or three articles from LMD every month.

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