Re-Imaging the Commons as ‘The Green Economy’ – A Critical Analysis by Dr.Joanna Boehnert

“…radically divergent definitions of the “green economy” create a serious dilemma for environmental communicators. The task of communicating a set of policy initiatives proposed by the UNEP that are closely related to the market liberalization agenda of the World Bank and neo-liberal political philosophies under the banner of the “green economy” creates debilitating confusion within environmental discourse. For the general public, the terrain appears as confusing and inaccessible as the financial innovations that allowed the financial sector, with the blessing of relaxed regulation and neoliberal governments, to develop financial mechanisms (largely outside of public scrutiny) that resulted in rampant speculation and the ongoing financial crisis that began in 2007…. Meanwhile scientists and social scientists are busy helping develop the conceptual, scientific and institutional infrastructure that will support the transition to the UN?s GEP with research to build consensus on the legitimacy of this new agenda.” – Dr.Joanna Boehnert 


Dr.Joanna Boehnert

Jan 24, 2013

[Note from author: I will present the paper Re-Imaging the Commons as ‘The Green Economy’ at the International Environmental Communication Association’s 2013 conference Environmental Communication: Participation Revisited: openings and closures for deliberations on the commons in June. This paper now on]

ABSTRACT: The United Nations’ green economy programme radically re-imagines the commons as a space where ecosystems services will be quantified, marketised and traded. This paper will examine issues with this version of the green economy for environmental communicators. It will review the etymology of the concept, examine contested ideas on what a green economy would entail and situate these proposals in relation to different economic approaches to the environment. It will suggest strategies for communicating the contested nature of the proposals and exposing obfuscations. This paper will argue that in stark opposition to green economics with its focus on participation and democratic processes, the UN’s GEP will close deliberations on the commons by privatizing ‘ecosystem services’ – thereby taking environmental decision-making out of a political sphere and into the marketplace.



The United Nations Environment Programme’s (UNEP) flagship document titled ‘Towards a Green Economy: Pathways to Sustainable Development and Poverty Eradication’ (2011) and accompanying UNEP reports at the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development the United Nations in June 2012, launched the UNEP’s green economy programme.  The reports use strong environmental language as a means of presenting their version of green economy as a far-reaching programme of reform to address environmental problems on a global scale. While the rhetoric suggests that the UN is serious about addressing the biodiversity crisis, green economists and a wide variety of social movements are less convinced by the proposed policy mechanisms. Civil society responded at Rio+20 with a plethora of critical responses: condemning what they claimed amounted to the corporate capture of the United Nations (Joint Civil Society Statement, 2012); condemning the UN’s ‘Natural Capital Declaration’ (Banktrack, 2012); condemning 20 years of Greenwash (Bruno, 2012); and indeed, condemning the entire ‘green economy’ project (Nadal, 2012; Brand, 2012; Patel and Crook, 2012). The Indigenous People’s Global Conference on Rio+20 and Mother Earth issued a strongly worded ‘Kari-Oca 2 Declaration’ declaring the UNEP’s green economy as ‘a continuation of colonialism’ (2012, p. 1) firmly rejecting market-based solutions, REDD and intellectual property rights over genetic resources and traditional knowledge. In the wake of the polarized positions at Rio+20, the conference ended with both civil society and the United Nations unimpressed with the outcomes. The New York Times claimed Rio+20 “ended here as it began, under a shroud of withering criticism” (Romero and Broder, 2012); The Guardian’s headline read; “Rio+20 outcome a focal point for frustration among campaigners” (Ford, 2012); and London’s Financial Times announced “Rio+20 lacks ambition, says UN chief” (Clark, 2012). The conference failed to achieve significant binding targets but more significantly the conference launched the UNEP’s ‘green economy’ programme that aims to significantly redesign the processes through which the global commons will be managed. Clearly the ‘green economy’ is a fiercely contested idea and the UNEP’s version is strongly opposed by wide variety social movements concerned with both ecological conservation and environmental justice.

In naming its programme the ‘green economy’ the UNEP implies a reframing of the entire economy along green lines. The language even suggests a connection to a particular school of economic thought concerned with the environment, that of green economics. However, the programme itself is largely concerned with attempting to protect the environment by establishing policies that will quantify and trade ‘ecosystem services’. This will be done in ways that reflect specific policy prescriptions of different schools of economic thinking on the environment, namely environmental economics and ecological economics. Since green economics is a field with radically different policy prescriptions to what is proposed, the naming of the new project creates severe confusion with contested definitions of the ‘green economy’. In this paper, the UNEP’s ‘green economy’ programme will be referred to as the ‘UN’s GEP’ to avoid confusion with what green economists have been describing as ‘green economics’ for over a decade.

The UN’s GEP aims to protect nature by accounting for ‘externalities’ of environmental damage. According to this logic, once nature’s processes are given a financial value, prices of goods and services will reflect ecological costs and it will no longer make economic sense to produce ecologically harmful products. The assumption that nature’s processes can be safely disaggregated and effectively managed using market-based mechanisms is embedded into this new project. This paper will focus on the market-making policy prescriptions of the UN’s GEP due to problems and inherent political tensions associated with this agenda. While there are other elements of the UN’s GEP, the financial valuation and marketisation policies are the most significant aspect of the programme since other proposals will be subordinated to the economic logic of market-based modes of governance. The central dynamic in the UN’s GEP is that it relies on the private sector for investment to fund the programme and that in exchange for capital investment; ownership and control over ecosystem services will be granted to private corporations. Expectations of profits will drive the new markets so other values will only exist as vague ideals ­– or convenient green marketing and public relations messaging to conceal continued, and indeed amplified, unsustainable development.

For environmental communicators, the UN’s GEP creates a condition of discursive confusion caused by opposing definitions of the ‘green economy’. This paper will examine contested ideas on what a green economy would entail, the etymology of the concept and situate these new proposals in relation to different economic approaches to the environment. It will compare ideas on what the ‘green economy’ means and how the UN’s GEP blurs these distinctions. In an attempt to clarify competing discourses, this paper will examine specific philosophical, methodological and political issues in regards to the UN’s GEP. The paper will end by reflecting on risks and suggesting strategies for communicating the contested nature of the proposals and exposing obfuscations. While the UN’s GEP is quickly becoming hegemonic, “there is as yet no agreed definition of what constitutes a green economy” (Stakeholder Forum, 2012). Since the ‘green economy’ is still being defined, environmental communicators have a role key role to play in drawing attention to power dynamics, motivations and economic interests of institutional players.

In stark opposition to what green economists have traditionally conceived of as the green economy (with its emphasis on democratic decision-making on environmental issues) the UN’s GEP will close deliberations on the commons through valuing nature according to economic logic and then using market-based mechanisms to address environmental problems. These new processes will exclude those without financial capacities from decision-making regarding the management of nature; now ‘ecosystem services’. While scientists and environmentalists involved with this project aim to find a means of enabling political and economics policies to acknowledge the value of the environment, submitting nature to the logic of the market is an extraordinarily dangerous enterprise. Instead, green economic theory argues that the economic system must submit to the logic of the ecological systems that provides the geophysical context for economic systems to exist in the first place.

The full paper can be accessed on the website.