“Sustainability” and flavours of Green parties

By Matt Nolan 30/09/2014


There is an excellent post about the Green party, and considering how to frame itself over here – I recommend reading it.  Within the post, a lot was made about the term “sustainability” and the inappropriate nature of the “left-right” divide.

However, there is something I’d like to add.  The “left vs centre” debate going on at the moment involves a lot of agreement around environmental sustainability – it is the language around economic sustainability, and tying that explicitly to “social justice” that leads the current Green party to the left.  As a result, they are consistent – but the position may not be popular, representative, or actually correct.

In the past the Greens were technology pessimists and tended to believe that we needed strong “quantity” restraints to solve environmental issues (population limits etc).  The “left-right” debate seems to often get stuck on this – with the Greens saying they’ve moved to the centre by embracing market mechanisms and incentives to technology as ways of improving outcomes.  This is a smooth move by the Greens, good stuff – but I think it misses the central difference between the sustainability that the Greens focus on, and the sustainability which is the focus of recent Blue-Greenish rants.

I haven’t really used this before on the blog, but I think we can conceptualise this by looking at Treasury’s Living Standards Framework.  I’m not a fan of the entirety of the framework, but it is a cool way to help frame questions.  By considering the “capitals” involved we can get a good idea of what is “sustainable”.

In this context, sustainability involves a process where the overall stocks of “capital” (which produce social outcomes) are not being degraded.

A centrist Green party (the more I think of it the more I want to avoid Blue – as they are supposed to be just as likely to work with either main party) implies a certain view about the types of capital being degraded – specifically it is NATURAL CAPITAL that is being undermined, and which requires central government intervention.

The current Green party, which leans left, also believes current policies are degrading social capital – this is a social justice argument (even when it is framed in broader social responsibility terms as in the linked post), and forms part of the basis for “fighting inequality” in some sense.  This involves a view of the sustainability of social institutions and structures, due to the way people work with each other and consider themselves in their community.   This is a fundamentally “left wing” view.

Yes social and natural capital outcomes and processes are intertwined, but a policy focus on both social and natural capital still implies that the party needs to sit left, and inherently puts less weight on natural capital issues than a “centrist” party would.  This runs to the core of much of the disagreement – the relative weights played on these types of “capital” and whether there is currently an issue of degradation in those areas.

Personally, my reading of New Zealand data tells me that the real sustainability issue is in natural capital – not in our social capital (we are not the US).  In that context I prefer the weighting given by a centrist Green party.  This position is consistent (as is the left-green position) but who knows if it would be particularly popular – or will even be correct in a few elections time.  However, the language about sustainability and stocks of capital is a useful rhetorical device to help us analyse, monitor, and debate these issues.

 


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