It would seem that we need to grow our economies, so as to create jobs, and to ensure all people have access to healthy living conditions. Yet, according to recent reports (e.g. Rockström et al., 2009), we are in imminent danger of over-stepping planetary limits, pointing to the need to curtail our use of resources and production of waste so as to avoid further environmental degradation. We have, perhaps, 20 years to restore planetary balance if we are to avert irreversible and abrupt environmental change with deleterious, or even disastrous, consequences for humans. In recent years, several paradigms have emerged which may offer a way forward and which are now being discussed and/or implemented at a national level: Green Economy (e.g. South Korea); Ecological Civilisation (China); Sufficient Economy (Thailand) and ‘Living Well’ or ‘Vivir Bien’ (e.g. Bolivia). All are potentially promising but, though there are overlaps and parallels among them, they currently generally represent different transition directions. Therefore, it is vital to explore their consequences and implications. This project looks at two of these, Green Economy, because it is currently the dominant model internationally, and Living Well, because it is the most established alternative and the most radical in terms of its ethos and values.
A policy framework for the Green Economy has recently gained prominence through a series of reports and initiatives by the major supra-national development agencies, particularly UNEP (2011); the World Bank (2012) and the OECD (2011). The United Nations Environment Programme (2011) define a Green Economy is one that achieves ‘…improved human well-being and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities’ (UNEP, 2011: 16). However, there are a variety of uses of the term and it remains contested (UNDESA, 2012). Though there have been attempts to highlight the socially transformative potential of Green Economy (e.g. GEC, 2015) generally, Green Economy proponents seem to favour continuing with the predominant economic, social and cultural model, whilst addressing its ecologically problematic aspects through technology, market mechanisms and improved management. At a national level, the South Korean government was the first to promote and develop a Green Economy macropolicy at national level in line with this interpretation (though initially framing this as Green Growth in its policy documents).
Some argue that a market-based construction of Green Economy has come to dominate social, environmental and development policy and discourse, while redistributive or rights-based alternatives have been marginalised (e.g. Cook et al., 2012). When it was debated at the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20), the Green Economy concept and the underlying principles about how to achieve an equitable green transition were strongly contested by some participants. Most of the critiques centred on the perceived neglect of the social element of sustainable development. In particular, several Latin American national governments argued that the Green Economy approach, as proposed by the supragovernmental organisations, will be harmful for human health and increase poverty and environmental degradation though its prioritisation of business interests, economic growth and risky technologies (UNEP, 2013a). Some of these nations favoured, instead, a radical alternative macro-policy, ‘Vivir Bien’. Rooted in the worldview of Andean indigenous groups, Vivir Bien, sometimes referred to as ‘Buen Vivir’, or Suma Qamaña/Sumaj Kawsay/Ñande Reko in the indigenous languages, describes a communal and ecologically balanced approach to addressing the multiple environmental crises, whilst meeting human needs and achieving equality. It urges regulatory mechanisms and community participation in decision making to address environmental issues and eradicate poverty, emphasising that we cannot live well if other humans or other species do not. The Bolivian Government was the first national administration in the world to fully embrace this philosophy with a new constitution (2009) stating that all development projects should be evaluated through a lens of Vivir Bien. Bolivia’s commitment to this approach was evident with the introduction, in 2012, of the ‘Framework Law of Mother Earth and Integral Development for Living Well’ which establishes 11 rights for nature. The main criticisms of the Living Well approach, so far, have been that it has varying interpretations, that it is more of a polemical than a practical tool, and that its implementation has been constrained by ongoing dependence on resource extraction (see Bell, 2014).
Hence, both the Green Economy and the Living Well paradigms embody widespread hopes and concerns. Yet, there has been little interactive debate between their advocates and dissenters and very little investigation into their practical implementation and their relative success in delivering the objectives set. In 2013 the UNEP Governing Council acknowledged the different pathways available for reaching a resource efficient, low carbon and socially inclusive economy and requested that UNEP begin to ‘collect such initiatives, endeavours, practices and experiences on different approaches, visions, models and tools, and to disseminate them, and facilitate information sharing among countries, so as to support them to promote sustainable development and poverty eradication’ (UNEP, 2013b). Since then, UNEP’s project ‘Enhancing South-South Cooperation – Building the Capacity of Developing Countries to Promote Green Economies’ has initiated a forum for countries from the Global South to share their experiences of national green transition (UNEP, 2013d; 2014). However, this time-limited programme is due to end in 2015 so this ESRC Future Research Leaders project will build on this important initiative to find synergies in transition models.