Grey, green or blue economy? It’s sustainability, stupid!

By Pim Martens

It is clear that the present financial crisis has more or less laid to rest the old modes of economic thinking. The crisis has put paid to the grey economy, based on the theories of Milton Friedman and others, who believe strongly in the efficiency of the private sector and the market mechanism. The present situation does have a positive aspect, however, which is that science, with politics in its wake, is forcing us to think about different ways to look at our economy and society in general.

One solution that is often referred to is a transition to a green economy. The core of a new, green economy involves the clean, safe production of goods, materials and energy. A green economy is circular, which means that waste forms the raw material for new products. A green economy is ‘bio-based’, which means we no longer use oil but green raw materials derived from plants and waste. While it is certainly a step in the right direction, a green economy is in fact an illusion. If we produce more efficiently while simultaneously producing twice as much, still under the influence of the growth dogma, then the final result will always be less sustainable than before. But the green economy also has other serious shortcomings: we ask consumers to pay more, generally for poorer quality, and we ask financiers to invest more for lower yields. Moreover, much of the capital invested in sustainable shares by people with Euro or Dollar signs in their eyes has (also) simply evaporated.

So what about a blue economy, as suggested by Gunter Pauli? Pauli developed the idea of a blue economy starting in the late 1990s. Inspired by ecosystems, the blue economy involves the cyclical production (there we go again) of food, income and jobs from ‘waste’. In other words, there is a similarity to ‘cradle-2-cradle’ thinking.

The key idea underlying both the green and the blue economy is that sustainability problems can be solved with innovative, technological improvements, without us having to modify our lifestyle. Solutions are principally sought in technology, rather than, for example, in the social or cultural arena, while there is still a clear association with growth, earning money and a continuation of our consumptive behaviour. Furthermore, the consequences of green or blue economic systems for transport (stripping down and re-using products leads to more traffic) and energy consumption (recycling takes a lot of energy) commonly remain under-illuminated.

In other words, it is by no means certain that a green or a blue economy will lead to sustainable outcomes. We still have no idea how waste streams can be directed so that they arrive in precisely the right quantity, at the precise moment and at precisely the right location to serve as ‘food’ for other processes, with only a marginal demand for transport and energy. The same goes for the question of how the seemingly inherent growth of the technosphere can be limited.

It is clear that economic thinking of any colour just doesn’t work. We have to rid ourselves of the notion that ‘profit’ automatically means ‘more money’, and that ‘growth’ can only be ‘economic’. We have to realise that we have to place people and the environment above profit and capital. It would be better to replace our entire body of economic thought by a philosophy that dares to take a hard look at the complexity of our current social and environmental issues. That means sustainable development, without the ‘P’ of profit.

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