The sustainability debate: false solutions versus real alternatives

There was a time when environmentalists concentrated their efforts on trying to make governments, businesses and the public understand the need to move towards sustainable economic activity. Today, political discourse and marketing narratives are awash with the term ‘sustainable’ – alternated with similar adjectives such as ‘green’ or ‘eco-friendly’. The call of the environmental movement has been clearly heard, but it seems to be a Pyrrhic victory.

The current debate is about the content of the term sustainability and whether the solution to the environmental problems caused by the capitalist market economy lies in more market mechanisms. It is important to clarify here that when we talk about environmental issues, we refer not only to climate change but also to the loss of biodiversity; the pollution of the oceans and territories; soil infertility and desertification; the growing production of waste; the emergence of pandemics and other aspects of ecosystem collapse – which we will generically call the environmental question.

But what does sustainability mean? The term gained prominence with the Brundtland Report, published in 1987, for the United Nations. The text opposes the approach of economic development to that of environmental sustainability and defines sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present”. without compromising the needs of future generations”.

Over the past 35 years, however, the content of the term has been diluted to the point that everything, if backed by a good marketing campaign, can be called sustainable, while the prospects for future generations are increasingly uncertain.

Corporate marketing has been so excessive in its misuse of labels such as “green”, “sustainable”, “eco” and “organic” that the term greenwashing is now widely used to refer to companies that claim to care. environment while continuing to pursue a very polluting economic model. The examples are innumerable: the electricity multinationals who pride themselves on producing “green energy” while having an extremely negative socio-environmental impact, particularly in the countries of the South; “organic” fruit transported over thousands of kilometers and packed in sumptuous amounts of plastic; a “sustainable” fashion based on the same model of fast fashion which violates the rights of workers, uses chemicals which harm their health, pollutes the territories and generates enormous quantities of waste.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of the sustainability dispute, because it’s about so much more than marketing. With the blessing of multilateral institutions and most governments, we are witnessing the rise of a “green economy” that argues that the market can and should solve the environmental problem. The paradigmatic mechanism is the carbon market, which commodifies the emissions that accelerate climate change. Capitalism has finally succeeded in making air a commodity.

“Green capitalism” is an oxymoron

Sustainability understood according to the criteria of “green capitalism” allows some of the most polluting companies on the planet to receive generous funding, for example from the so-called EU Green Deal and Next Generation EU funds. This is particularly striking in the case of energy companies such as Iberdrola, Enel Endesa and Naturgy, which present themselves as being committed to green energy while carrying out megaprojects with disastrous socio-environmental impacts in Latin American countries.

What is at stake here is the transformation of the environmental issue into a huge business opportunity. But the very idea of ​​green capitalism is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms: capitalism is based on an endless accumulation of capital; the planet, however, has limited resources.

It is very easy to succumb to the temptation to believe, as these companies tell us in their marketing messages, that we can change the planet simply by buying the products of their new “green” range, without changing anything else. , nor our ways of life, nor the power structure that sustains the current socio-economic order. There are no easy solutions to problems as complex as those raised here. If that sounds easy, it’s definitely not the solution. We are not moving forward, for example, if we move from monoculture oil palm to monoculture soya, whether or not the EU considers one to be more “sustainable” than the other. Nor are we going to solve the energy crisis by simply replacing conventional cars with electric cars powered by lithium batteries.

The difficult times we live in require a thorough analysis of how we got to where we are today. It is essential that we arrive at an accurate diagnosis if we are to develop policies capable of remedying the problem. The environmental question is directly linked to the logic of domination that has shaped the world for centuries and which is based on interconnected forms of oppression based on class, gender and racial discrimination. If we forget that the wounds of colonialism are still deeply rooted in contemporary societies and are maintained by neocolonial mechanisms that update the hierarchies established centuries ago, then we misdiagnose the problem and misinterpret the policies capable of remediate. Likewise, any historical vision that recognizes the responsibilities of the Old Continent must recognize the climate and environmental debt owed to the countries of the Global South.

Green economy solutions that avoid any mention of justice or rights deepen inequality and environmental devastation, and fuel techno-optimism – the belief that technological breakthroughs will save us from disaster. But there will be no geoengineering capable of saving us from environmental collapse unless we change the current predatory model of production, distribution and consumption.

Real alternatives and political imagination

At a time when, as the American critic and author Fredric Jameson said, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism, avoiding easy solutions requires not only a great effort of political imagination, but also a valuation of the experiences already in place. The actors of the social economy are often very aware of the extent to which their initiatives, however modest they may be, contribute to experimenting with new worlds, considering through praxis economic alternatives to a decadent system; new worlds where production, distribution and consumption come together, where consciousness is restored to the human relations that underlie market exchanges, where ethics and justice find their place; new worlds that can prevail over a world in which we have grown accustomed to thinking that the strongest have the right to impose their will.

Unlike those who strive to change something to ensure that everything stays the same, collective processes of transformation and emancipation promote communal self-management. Unlike the individualism promoted by advertising and marketing, social economy initiatives and food sovereignty and energy sovereignty movements favor a collective and community approach. The alternatives they promote go well beyond simply proposing individual alternatives to consumption needs: they build communities, re-establish links, invent new ways of doing and thinking together.

If we dismiss the easy solutions because they are false, then we are faced with an immense challenge which will involve technological changes but above all a profound transformation of collective imaginations – the starting point for an ethical and political change which places the reproduction of life, and not of capital, at the center of economic activity and social life.