February 2012, Week 4


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Thu, 23 Feb 2012 20:22:21 -0500
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Earth to Labor - Economic Growth Is No Salvation

By Sean Sweeney

New Labor Forum
Winter 2012

[This article first appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of New
Labor Forum, http://newlaborforum.cuny.edu]


The notion that economic growth is, almost by definition, a
good thing has been subjected to serious and well-informed
criticism in recent years. Diverse organizationally,
geographically, and ideologically, those challenging growth
are united by one realization: the world's ecosystems are in
a state of extreme distress and the planet will be unlivable
in just a few decades. Climate change, ocean acidification,
species extinction, desertification, ozone depletion, and
alarming levels of water contamination and scarcity are part
of a long list of crises that have their origins in one
thing - economic activity that increasingly raids the
world's stores of "natural capital" and pollutes and
degrades everything in its path. The message emerging from
the critique of growth is loud and clear - human
civilization must quickly put a check on economic expansion
and allow the ecosystems to repair themselves before it is
too late.

Indisputably true, but what can unions do? Workers are, of
course, part of the very economy that seems to be causing
the environmental problems, both as producers and consumers.
How can unions, even in theory, be against economic growth?
And unions and workers do not feature much in the talk about
an ecological post-growth society (the few eco-socialist
writers being the exception). The overuse of insipid terms
like "green jobs" cannot hide the fact that the ecological
crisis is not on the agenda of the U.S. labor movement. And
those who raise ecological issues are likely to be reminded
that labor is too embroiled in a struggle for its own
survival to have much time and energy to commit to planetary
survival. However, labor has much to gain by addressing,
rather than avoiding, the ecological crisis and its causes -
many of the solutions would help, rather than harm, unions
and workers.

Green Capitalism and Ecological Modernization

Thus far, unions that have been engaged in ecological issues
(mostly outside the U.S.) have tried to repackage growth as
part of a green economic agenda, looking at growth the way
an internist would read a patient's cholesterol levels. Just
as there is good and bad cholesterol, there is good growth
(the "real" economy, green investments, rebuilding
infrastructure) and bad growth (financial speculation, asset
bubbles, etc.).

But what is green growth, exactly? The world's leading green
growth theorist and spokesperson is probably former World
Bank chief economist, Sir Nicholas Stern. In 2006, Stern
authored a major study on the economics of climate change,
known as the Stern Review, which rejected the idea that
growth must inevitably lead to more emissions and ecological
stress. Human civilization does not have to learn to get by
with less, he says, nor does capitalism itself need to be
fundamentally restructured. Low carbon production and
environmentally-friendly growth is technically possible. All
we need to do now is make it a political reality. This
perspective, known as "ecological modernization," rests on
the premise that technological and other efficiencies can
"dematerialize" economic activity. We can get more output
from fewer material inputs, thus decoupling economic growth
from environmental damage. Perhaps the main policy plank in
the platform of ecological modernization is the pricing of
externalities like carbon dioxide and other pollutants. Once
priced, the markets will work their magic and the economy
can keep growing indefinitely. Government is important, but
only as an enabler of green economic activity and not in any
direct command-in-control sense.

Unions, globally, have operated on the premise that the
real-world historical options are essentially twofold.
Either humanity will transition to some form of green
capitalism, or we will face a "suicide capitalism" scenario
where fossil-fuel corporations and major industrial,
agricultural, transportation, and retail interests are
successful in extending "business as usual" past the point
of no return. The former allows space for unions; the latter
does not. Unions have therefore generally accepted Stern's
green growth perspective and are, whether truly conscious of
it or not, ecological modernizers. However, unions question
whether private markets can drive green growth, and they
have sought to move the debate toward a global Green New
Deal (GND) through which governments - supported by labor -
play a leading role, particularly in setting emissions
targets and timetables.

In a similar vein, many U.S. unions support Obama-initiated
green investments and a green industrial policy as a means
to restore both U.S. competitiveness and its manufacturing
base. This was the message of the Apollo Alliance and it is
now the main message of its successor organization, the
Blue-Green Alliance. It is also the message of the
mainstream environmental "Big Green" organizations. The
green growth perspective therefore dominates the trade union
discourse, both domestically and internationally.

Green Gone Wrong?

Today, however, ecological modernization faces a double
crisis - a striking loss of political momentum coupled with
an erosion of its main theoretical underpinnings. In fact,
the two are deeply connected. Green business is not driving
capitalism's main agenda. In the U.S., the fanfare around
the Climate Action Partnership (CAP) and other green
corporate initiatives is now just a dim echo, stretching
back to the more hopeful early days of the Obama presidency.
The prospects for an effective economy-wide price on carbon
through a cap-and-trade system have been dashed in the U.S.
and in most of the developed world. The Koch brothers,
rather than Google and Nike, are shaping both politics and
policy. Meanwhile, the green economy has stalled. This is
reflected in a recent Brookings Institution study which
noted that "the clean economy grew more slowly in [the]
aggregate than the national economy between 2003 and 2010."

In the U.S., environmentalists blame the woes of green
business on Big Oil and Big Coal's shoot to- kill approach
to carbon pricing, EPA regulations, and renewable
electricity standards. Oil companies have made $1 trillion
in profits in the past ten years, so spending $30 million on
a lobbying campaign to defeat climate protection legislation
is a smart business move. But the political power of fossil-
fuel corporations is not simply determined by the number of
lobbyists on the payroll. It derives from the availability
of the fuels, the returns on investments, and the stability
of demand. It also speaks to other large corporations' weak
and fleeting commitment to their stated environmental and
climate protection goals. The Fortune 500 companies that
formed the CAP could have easily matched the fossil-fuel
lobby's spending several times over if there was a sound
business incentive to do so. The problem is that no such
incentive exists.

The entire theoretical framework of ecological modernization
and green capitalism was developed around a presumed
certainty - that natural resource scarcity would make more
efficient use of those resources the key to competitiveness
and, therefore, success. But that certainty has since been
downgraded to a remote possibility as new sources of fossil-
based power emerge. In North America, this entails the
further exploitation of Canadian tar sands oil, the
harvesting of apparently large stores of natural gas
embedded in shale formations by a process known as hydraulic
fracturing or "fracking," and the expansion of surface coal
mining in states like Wyoming and Montana where the Wyodak
coal bed - the U.S.'s leading source of coal - covers ten
thousand square miles in the Powder River Basin. These new
sources of fossil-based energy are in the process of
changing the global political economy of energy and helping
to strangle the global green growth agenda.

But even if fossil fuels disappeared tomorrow, ecological
modernization would still have to deal with what has been
called "the rebound effect," by which savings from increased
efficiency get ploughed back into the economy in the form of
greater investments, more growth, more consumption, and more
environmental stress. This effect was observed during the
time of the steam engine, when Victorian-era economists
realized that a more efficient engine made the use of coal
more cost effective, which led to an increase in the demand
for coal. In short, the idea that capitalist accumulation -
driven by profit, consumption, and growth - can become truly
green has become as frail and unstable as Arctic ice in the

Ecological Unionism

Three years ago, a global climate agreement and an eco-
Keynesian future seemed likely - today this is a fantasy.
The resurgence of neoliberal policies since 2009 has
politically uprooted green capitalism, and the way back will
be difficult. Meanwhile, union resistance to the neoliberal
attacks on workers and social protections appears to be
growing, and other social movements are also mobilizing.
Labor is now in a position to openly break with ecological
modernization and craft its own Green New Deal as part of a
new policy agenda. This agenda must be more ambitious than
the standard "demand-side" Keynesian policy response to
economic recession with a green tint. Unions can develop a
GND that is green enough to slam the breaks on the present
levels of ecological destruction, while providing a pathway
toward more sustainable living standards and a deep
restructuring of economic life - a truly transformational
multi-decade project.

How can it be done? Clearly, achieving economic security and
environmental sustainability will require a series of bold
policy interventions. Unions can be confident that the
ecological case for the public ownership and democratic
control of carbon- and pollution-intensive industries and
services - beginning with power generation and energy-
delivery systems - is cast iron. Given the impact of
privatization on workers and communities, the social case is
similarly strong. The goal should be to expand democratic
control over major investment and production decisions, and
over financial institutions and transactions, while
asserting a new set of social and environmental conditions
on private capital for the good of workers and the
environment. This could put an end to "ruthless growth" and
drastically slow the rate of ecological damage, while
establishing a platform for an even deeper restructuring of
economic life over the longer term. But without a
qualitative increase in economic democracy, a transition to
a truly sustainable economy is, at this point,

How would such a GND shape trade union politics and
workplace demands? Work sharing, shorter hours, and more
flexible work schedules can help achieve environmental goals
and bring about an improved quality of life for working
families. Unions can now use ecological arguments to push
back against conditions of modern slavery (mind-breaking as
well as back-breaking work).

Unions have done their best to defend the "social wage" as
well as money wages. A new program to expand the social wage
would involve using ecological arguments to promote policies
to improve both the quantity and the quality of leisure.
This would include investing in public mass transit, parks,
sports facilities, and cultural institutions; making changes
in land use policies to build communities and not
megastores; and expanding opportunities for biking and
walking. Fighting to shift taxes on income to taxes on
carbon can also help redistribute wealth and reduce

A tricky issue for unions is the question of consumption.
For labor-based economists, the fact that wages have not
kept up with productivity increases is a key factor in
creating and perpetuating the recession and high levels of
unemployment, and unions link calls to restore labor's share
of the wealth to the need for more consumption to restore
economic growth. But from an ecological perspective, the
picture is more complicated. Real wages may be stagnant, and
the real cost of housing, education, and health care has
skyrocketed in the past thirty years. However, consumer and
household goods have become much less expensive. Cheap wear-
it-once clothing, electronics, and other goods create a
pleasant illusion of wealth. Food costs half as much - in
real dollars - as it did in 1966, and up to a third of all
food purchased in the U.S. gets thrown away. The ecological
impact of the skyrocketing consumption of these goods needs
to be acknowledged. Unions can play their part in promoting
lifestyles that eschew unsustainable and unnecessary
spending. Living well and securely is not measured by trips
to the mall, "bargain buying," and rising credit-card debt.

As a guiding principle, ecological unionism can begin by
acknowledging that workers are connected to and dependent
upon the ecosystems that are being destroyed at an alarming
rate. The same economic system that abuses and commodifies
the environment also abuses people, animals, and all organic
life. Today's labor movement could benefit enormously from a
fresh narrative, one that is deeply ecological and capable
of connecting workers' needs to a vision for a truly
sustainable society. An ecological narrative conveys the
urgent need for radical change and new relationships between
production and consumption - a realignment of society's
relationship to the natural world. Let there be growth - in
human development, social solidarity, and building an
economy based on sufficiency and cooperation.

[Sean Sweeney is the director and founder of the Global
Labor Institute, a program of the Cornell School of
Industrial and Labor Relations. He can be reached at
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