The quest for sustainability: Energy, trade and the economy

Globalization’s most important aspect is the economic one. This goes hand in hand with the gradual economization of modern life. The ideological faith in progress enshrined in the Enlightenment, together with the Industrial Revolution and subsequent liberal economic understandings, have reached their apogee in the neo-liberal globalization of the 20th and 21st centuries.

This is grounded upon the premise of infinite growth; the ultimate goal is to do more, produce and consume more, have our economies grow exponentially.[1]

This growth rationale has given way to three crises: In particular,

  • Global climate change is, according to the most authoritative resource, the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change working under the auspices of the United Nations, anthropogenic and mainly due to high emissions of fossil fuels.
  • Scarcity of resources, with many of the Earth’s valuable non-renewable resources diminishing or following a downward slide.
  • Huge indebtedness, with most countries highly indebted. Because growing our economy presupposes investments, we print and circulate money to such an extent that it does not correspond to the actual values of the products and services available. If everybody asks their money back now, only a small part can be repaid. The rest exists only virtually, through iconic financial transactions.[2]

anaptixi21In this context, this book aims to provide an alternative paradigm of development. After articulating its main tenets, it applies them to the case of Greece and, on this basis, formulates concrete policy proposals for the Greek case. It poses development against growth as the leading motor of the global society. While growth call for more, development calls for better; while the former puts more pressure on the Earth’s sinks and sources, the latter looks at alternative ways of delivering equal services without inflicting further damage to the environment. Since the economic system is a sub-system of, and dependent upon, the ecological system, we should measure and understand the biophysical limits and organize the economy within them.[3]

Ecological Economics, the theoretical framework of the book, is a field where natural and social sciences are brought together in order to synergistically and harmonically drive humanity into a hard and challenging 21st century. Its proponents proceed to a reorganization of the basic economic problems. Instead of giving primacy to the allocation of resources and, only secondly and to a lesser extent to redistribution, as mainstream economic thought does, they proceed to a reconfiguration of the basic economic problems of the global society.[4] More specifically, they

  • Posit the scale of economic activity as the number one problem to be tackled, which is currently ignored in mainstream economic thought.
  • Within this defined scale, they look at redistributive mechanisms that mirror social justice and provide a welfare net.
  • Only then do they allow for market mechanisms to ensure the most appropriate allocation of resources into the economy.[5]

With the above in mind, the book establishes a number of crucial points for the re-organization of the economy and the energy sector and provides a fresh eye to globalization and financial and economic global governance. In particular:

  • GDP counts only quantitative, not qualitative, factors and should be substituted by the more encompassing Index of Sustainability and Welfare (ISEW), which counts both costs and benefits, traces environmental and resource costs and measures progress and welfare.[6]
  • It is essential to apply an ecological tax reform, summarized in the motto “tax bads, not goods”. In this understanding, pollution, use of fossil fuels, overt consumption of resources etc. should be highly taxed. In return, taxes on employment and income should be respectively reduced, since they discourage employment and income, both of which is necessary for people’s welfare. This alternative tax system carries the potential to reorder motives and penalties and guide economic transactions to more viable and cost-effective pathways.[7]
  • The keyword to the organization of the economy is dematerialization, meaning that we aim to use less resources in the economy without decisively bringing down our welfare level. The emphasis, then, shifts from products to services. There are many ways in which we can burn less energy, or use less resources, to heat our homes, move around, and dress ourselves etc. Innovative business models on shared services (in informatics, clothing, heating etc.) can decisively add to the much wanted de-materialization of the economy.[8]

In the energy sector, a switch against fossil fuels and towards alternative, renewable forms of energy is equally fundamental and possible. The first step would be to remove the gigantic subsidies to fossil fuels, so that wind and solar energy projects, among other renewables, can have a chance at being competitive. Second, implementing the ecological tax reform means that the balance tilts in favor of clean energy for environmental and social reasons. Thirdly, renewables can yield the most if used at a local basis. Reorganizing our energy structures, then, is a necessary prerequisite for cleaning the energy mix and at the same time serving humanity’s needs. Fourthly, renewables are mostly used at a local basis, meaning that economic activity and profits remain at the local vicinity thus helping its economic vitality. Under this light, we should profoundly re-conceptualize pipeline politics and huge investments on fossil fuel energy infrastructure, since they will tie us to non-sustainable forms of energy production and consumption for decades to come.[9]

Finally, it is essential to reconsider the current form of globalization. The comparative advantage argument of the classical liberal scholars of the 18th century echoed the virtues of free trade in a world where capital was immobile. Today, however, with capital being more mobile than anything else, the concept of comparative advantage loses its meaning, since with the transfer of capital it appears only in the forms of limited or absent environmental protection that costs a lot, and suppressed wages that translate into exploitation. In this way, production moves to the regions with the worse environmental and working standards, a suboptimal outcome both for our planet and the economies around the world.[10] In this light, it is essential to reconsider free trade policies. It is proposed that the West, where the highest, albeit at cases inadequate, ecological and working standards are to be found,

  • Applies eco-tariffs to imports by states and companies that do not comply with environmental regulations and standards. This will act as pressure to these companies and states to meet high eco-standards. Once this is achieved, tariffs should be instantly withdrawn.
  • Applies social tariffs to imports by states and companies that do not meet basic social and working standards in their production procedures. Once these are met, tariffs should again be instantly removed. The World Trade Organization’s workload should revolve mostly around these cases, rather than the opening of free trade to other regions on uncertain grounds.
  • Paves the way for a different theorization of free trade based on the free movement of ideas and knowledge that will generate more collective human knowledge for all. The regime of intellectual rights, hence, is up for re-conceptualization. This is so since they block knowledge transfer, from which the whole of humanity can benefit.[11]

Lastly, the creation of money has gone totally out of control. From a means to serve society, it has become an instrument in the hands of profit-making organizations, banks, to maximize their profits and expand the growth of the economy. This, however, translates into a highly indebted world, where the circulated money far exceeds the actual value of goods and services currently at play, as well as the biophysical limits. Since resources and the upper limits of pollution have become the limiting factor in the global economy, it is prudent and essential to make money circulation contingent upon the biophysical limits. Only this way can the financial and ecological systems work harmonically and symbiotically to the benefit of human existence and welfare.[12]

Overall, the ecological economics framework applies an ecological lens on most problems of the global society. Under this light, it aims not only to weigh a balanced critique against the deficiencies of the global economy, but also to provide fresh new ideas and perspectives as to how they can be tackled with. It proposes a holistic new framework for energy, trade, economic and global governance restructuring that can lead us into a truly sustainable future.


Book: Development and Welfare in the 21st Century. The approach of ecological economics and the case of Greece. (IWrite, 2013)


[1]Douthwaite, R. 1992. The Growth Illusion: How Economic Growth Enriched the Few, Impoverished the Many, and Endangered the Planet. Canada: New Society Publishers.

[2]Heinberg, R. 2011. The End of Growth: Adapting to the new economic reality. Canada: New Society Publishers.

[3] Wackernagel, M. and Rees, W. 1998. Our Ecological Footprint. Gabriola Island, B.C.: New Society Publishers; Latouche, S. 2009. Farewell to Growth. Cambridge: Polity Press.

[4] Daly, H. and Farley, J. 2004. Ecological Economics. London: Island Press; Costanza, R. (ed.) 1991. Ecological Economics: TheScience and Management of Sustainability. New York: Columbia University Press; Capra, F. 2003.The Hidden Connections: A Science for Sustainable Living. HarperPerennial.

[5] Daly, H. 1996. Beyond Growth. The Economics of Sustainable Development. Boston: Beacon Press.

[6] Daly, H. and Farley, J. 2004. Ecological Economics. London: Island Press; Daly, H. 1996. Beyond Growth. The Economics of Sustainable Development. Boston: Beacon Press.

[7] Lawn, P. 2007. Frontier Issues in Ecological Economics. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar; Daly, H. and Farley, J. 2004. Ecological Economics. London: Island Press.

[8] Jackson, T. 2009. Prosperity without Growth? The Transition to a Sustainable economy. Sustainable Development Commission.

[9] Daly, H. 1996. Beyond Growth. The Economics of Sustainable Development. Boston: Beacon Press.; Wackernagel, M. and Rees, W. 1998. Our Ecological Footprint. Gabriola Island, B.C.: New Society Publishers; Proedrou, F. 2015. Rethinking Energy Security: An inter-paradigmatic debate. ELIAMEP Policy Paper.

[10] Daly, H. 1996. Beyond Growth. The Economics of Sustainable Development. Boston: Beacon Press.

[11] Lawn, P. 2007. Frontier Issues in Ecological Economics. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar; Daly, H. 1996. Beyond Growth. The Economics of Sustainable Development. Boston: Beacon Press.

[12] Douthwaite, R. 2006. The Ecology of Money. Ireland: The Foundation for the Economics of Sustainability.