A green economic vision

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Stephen Lewis talks to Green Party economic spokesperson Molly Scott Cato about a new approach to economics

“We’re not going to save the planet by putting our country out of business.” This is the view of the chancellor, George Osborne, who suggested last year that protecting the environment and minimising climate change are burdens on the economy. But for others, this perspective is naive when the environment is the ultimate source of wealth and growth.

Molly Scott Cato, author of Green Economics and economics spokesperson for the Green Party, believes it is possible to have an economy, “that lives comfortably within the planet, addresses the social justice implications and is practically focused in terms of policy and community activity.”

However, this is not occurring, she believes, because “what happens in economies,” has drifted apart from how economics is taught in higher education.

Neoclassical economic theory, upon which our current system is based, is flawed because it is self-referential, says Molly: “Whatever question you put to it, it has an answer within its own ideology, but very little of what it does relates to what’s happening outside the window of the university. This is why they [neoclassical economists] weren’t able to predict the economic crisis and why they don’t worry about resource depletion.”

Most green economists derive much of their understanding from ecological economics, an approach that Molly feels is more grounded in reality. This understanding regards nature as the primary source of wealth and resources. To have a viable economy hence means that addressing the problems of dwindling supplies of fossil fuels, CO2 emissions and climate change is central.

With the need for renewable energy sources being the first pillar of green economics, this also connects to the issue of localisation, as much energy is wasted in the globalised system. Green economists also favour localisation for reasons of accountability, power and control.

“Local economies help to build strong communities whereas a global economy undermines them,” believes Molly.

Other politicians are beginning to praise the potential of a green economy. Energy secretary Ed Davey commented in April, for example: “We should make more strongly the business case for going green. Efficiency policies are unashamedly good for growth – using less resources lowers operating costs and frees up capital.”

But the defining characteristic of a green economist, according to Molly, is the idea that economic growth is the problem rather than the solution to the global economic crisis. “We start from the point that quality is more important than quantity,” she says.

“There is some good thinking in the Department of Energy and Climate Change, but by the time it gets to the Treasury it is crushed by the same last-century, pro-growth prejudices. The main problem is that the government is going for growth, so saying growth might not be the best thing for the planet, isn’t going to get very far.”

Within what the Green Party regards as the constraints of the current system, Molly’s main proposal is: “We should only invest energy in areas where we know ultimately that we will use less energy – what we might call ‘transitional investment.’”

She explains that this understanding would mean that it would make sense to invest in a national network of electric car recharging points or in insulating people’s houses, but building a new airport could not be justified.

Green economists are also suggesting carbon and land taxes. They want to see policies that will help us use land as a carbon sink. “We could use the tax system coupled with the local planning system to encourage that,” says Molly, “taking land away from wealthy farmers living from subsidies paid by the poor, and providing incentives for all those who own land to use it in the way that best captures and stores carbon.”

Green economists believe that traditional economics is unlikely to be able to make a real contribution to alleviating poverty, tackling environmental problems and moving us towards a more fair and sustainable world. If they’re right, new types of economics in which human and environmental justice are the foundation, might be the answer to building a more sustainable future.

Photo title: Molly Scott Cato is a green economist and expert in the social economy

Photo credit: © Tim Dickeson

  • Sabrina

    Im not sure I agree with the idea of investing in electrical car charging stations. At least in the United States most of our electricity is created by burning fossil fuels in the first place. We dont gain anything there. Then there is the issue of the toxic batteries that go into the cars. This sounds great but in reality it is a flawed idea until we can create the electricty in a clean way to begin with.

  • Sabrina

    “Local economies help to build strong communities whereas a global economy undermines them,” believes Molly.

    This is such a great statement and I think it is key! The same thing applies to welfare programs. They need to be run localy and the government needs to step aside. The government in the United States undermines these programs to so many levels.

  • Adam

    What we need to gleen from the present crisis is that growth of this current system is looking increasingly unlikely as we bump into the physical limits of what the world can supply and the debt that can be serviced. The system is now starting to feedback on it’s self, in systems’ theory this is a signal that the system needs to be corrected or replaced.

    Getting back to the land in a caring and sustainable fashion would go a long way to correct this unbalanced system. There are hundreds if not thousands of Europeans who longingly look at huts and small shacks with vegetable patches on the internet during their lunch breaks. We can pretend that modernity has brought us deep happiness but only for so long. We crave meaningful work, friendships and relationships. You can’t just bolt these on, they go to our core being.

    Going off-grid is tricky in countries like England because all of the land is apparently owned by somebody and planning permission is a bureaucratic mess. Look to Europe where people have no choice but to create something new from the ground up. The UK will stumble along with rising food, energy and housing costs where as others will see this as an opportunity to build resilience into their daily lives.

  • Pingback: A green economic vision. An interview with Molly Scott Cato of the green party (UK) regarding a new approach to economics. « Economics Info()

  • Paul

    Wrong, Wrong, Wrong,
    Speaking as an American Also; who makes his living in the “fracking industry” I have always maintained that hydrocarbons are too valuable to be used as fuel!!!
    Therefore not only should we be putting up more “charging stations” we should be putting up more “non fossil fuel burning” electric plants, and everything else.
    It is not a valid argument you offer, it sounds a lot like, Guns don’t kill people, and “I am not a scientist” but I doubt the 1000 scientists who say it is happening,,,and that WE not GOD are doing it.

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