green economics book
book review

Two Reviews of Green Economics

Green Economics: Beyond Supply and Demand to Meeting People's Needs. Edited by Molly Scott Cato and Miriam Kennett. United Kingdom: Green Audit Books, 1999. Paperbound, 243 pages.


Walking The Tightrope

by Hanno T. Beck

Every few years another book emerges trying to summarize "green economics." It's a mighty difficult task. Authors have to be careful not to be simplistic, nor too detailed; be consistent, yet show the wide scope of green economic views; be fair to alternative viewpoints, yet avoid silliness; and, finally, the authors must make a book that is communicative and readable.

Molly Scott Cato and Miriam Kennett, in their book Green Economics, have done as good a job of navigating through the dangers as anyone can do. Their book, a collection of 21 essays, succeeds because it is pleasant to read and leaves you wanting to learn still more.

Where are the laboratories of thought from which will come the new economic policies, fresh findings and innovations of the next generation? Well, one such laboratory is called Green Economics and its doors are always open. Open-minded green economic inquiry takes place in every country on the earth, and on the Internet, and is becoming more influential, though slowly. Meanwhile, other economic perspectives -- for instance, communist economics and mainstream "neoclassical" economics -- have decayed into nervous cults where repeating old answers is more valued than seeking improved policies.

The essays in Green Economics address all the economic topics that a general survey should cover -- agriculture, jobs, money, taxation, commerce, consumption, national accounting, globalization, ethics. Personally, my favorite chapters were the essays on "A Green Taxation and Benefits System" by James Robertson and "Land Value Taxation" by Richard Bramhall. Both are very sharp, no-nonsense treatments and deserve worldwide attention.

It's fun to imagine what a similar book would look like if mainstream "neoclassical" economics were the subject -- every chapter would sound the same, and no author would dare to question the semi-religious dogma of that strange cult. By contrast, Green Economics is full of honest scientific questioning and even some "thinking out loud" and the result is a more refreshing, thought-provoking experience for the reader.

The book has some charts and graphs -- a few more would have been nice. All of the chapters are short enough to be read comfortably in a single sitting. This is not a book that will strain you.

I would like to see books of this sort include an index. The lack of an index makes it difficult to locate information on a specific topic. Several essayists, for example, mention carbon taxes, but how could you pinpoint where? In this modern age, an index of reasonable quality can be constructed simply by pushing a button and letting a computer do the compilation; an index would extend the value of a book such as this.

Watermelon Economics?

by Jeffery J. Smith

To get up to speed on the prevailing green understanding of economics, read Green Economics, edited by Molly Scott Cato and Miriam Kennett (1999). The book is British, its outlook global. It covers all the bases from growth and corporate domination to the tax shift and a Citizens Income.

That greens take economics so seriously bodes well for civilization. This collection of essays authored mainly by activists, not academics, is readable, lapsing into math only occasionally. While not conventional vis-à-vis the mainstream, its descriptions and prescriptions are conventional on the left. It blames markets, not the privileges which tilt the playing field. It militates against growth, even while a couple authors, such as Richard Douthwaite, distinguish between growth in quantity (unsustainable) and growth in quality (desirable). Proving consistency is not a virtue among true believers, one author critiques competition while noting that it was cooperation by corporations that won unfair policies.

Despite the pink template, even one steeped in green economics can learn something new:

    · Fritz Schumacher, author of Small Is Beautiful, was Keynes’ personally designated successor.

    · Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef (who also proposed the term “geonomics”) suggests nine basic needs and, when lacking, nine different poverties, including the familiar material misery.

    · Czechia needs three times the fuel its Western neighbors use per kilowatt hour.

    · Western Europe’s organic farms went from 120,000 hectares in 1985 to 1.2 million in 1996.

    · Green taxes do work; Sweden’s pesticide tax (1986) spurred an investment in reduction of 1.6 million pounds (1993/94), raised between 1.8 and 1.3 million pounds, and cut pesticide use by 65% (1995).

    · Bob Costanza (1997) figures the ecosystem’s services are worth $1654 trillion annually.

A telling image by Mercy Harmer is of goods and dollars passing each other, headed in opposite directions, thru a pipeline. To visualize the inputs into economies left out by mainstream economists, Maria Mies drew an iceberg with capital on top, Earth at the bottom, and unpaid housework (usually women’s work) somewhere in the middle. It’s static while humanity’s economies are dynamic, but helpful. Another chart by Ed Mayo shows that while GDP has been climbing, real social welfare has not, held down by the asthma epidemic, among other factors.

James Robertson’s chapter (my favorite) itemized some of the sources of values that society should tap – including land, resources, spectrum, and patents – plus gave a total figure of funds available for a Citizens Income (CI). His 25 billion pounds ($40 billion) yields $1,000 per year per adult Brit. Not much, but the calculation gets discussion started.

Clive Lord carries the analysis further, noting a few subsidies that would be folded into the CI. He also distinguishes between funds that belong to individuals and funds that belong to us all. Broader still, he connects a freed market to protecting the environment.

Bramhall, author of one of the better written chapters, draws heavily from Mason Gaffney, author of The Corruption of Economics, to tell the sorry history of disciplining the early practicioners in the field.

There are a few errors of fact. In the section on greenwashing, Judy Bari, the near-martyred forest activist, was severely injured by a bomb planted under her car but not killed. Discussing full-cost accounting, waste does raise the GNP but not more than if no illth had happened, merely the same as if the money had been spent on wealth.

The subtitle is "Beyond Supply and Demand to Meeting People’s Needs." Yet why oppose people supplying demanders to people meeting their needs? A market economy and human welfare need not be at odds. What deprives some people is not other’s success; the Creator did not set us down in a win/lose situation. What deprives some people is other people’s privileges. Privileges – tax breaks, subsidies, license to impose risk, and retention of nature’s rent – are creatures of politics, not markets.

May the next work by a green (perhaps the upcoming treatise on geonomics) not waste our scarce shot on the wrong targets and instead deepen and sharpen the discussion among progressives on how economies work, why they fail, and what we can do about it.

The last call stirred this soul – for a civil society sans borders, a loving globalization from the grassroots worldwide. This call needs to be heeded.

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