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Beyond old cleavages, new green debates

The growth/degrowth debate should be put in perspective as the latest version of older cleavages between the Greens, like the eco-centric/anthropocentric dilemma. Mapping the differences between environmental discourses helps us to better organise the contemporary discussion on the respective importance of technology, eco-efficiency, and management of the human needs in reaching sustainability.

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Mapping environmental discourses

The astonishing diversity of attitudes and discourses that have been historically associated with Green political thought has given rise to several attempts to account for that diversity through classifications and typologies, usually built upon one or a couple of conceptual pairs. One of the oldest and probably most influencing of those conceptual pair is the “anthropocentric – ecocentric” dilemma. According to Eckersley (1992), it is even the most fundamental area of difference between Green theorists as to the meaning, scope and political consequences of the ecological perspective. The anthropocentric – ecocentric opposition has ancient roots in the ecological tradition. It goes back at least to the (almost mythical) history of the relationship between John Muir and Gifford Pinchot. Gifford Pinchot (1865-1946) was the first head of the US Forest service and also the first “conservationist”. John Muir (1838-1914) founding father of the Sierra Club and of the first National Park in USA, the Yosemite park, is known as the patron saint of “preservationism”. Conservationists take care of the environment so as to get the most value from it for people. Typical of that perspective is the following statement, Pinchot is reported having said: “There are just two things on this material earth – people and natural resources.” At the opposite, the “preservationist” John Muir claimed that nature, especially wilderness, had “intrinsic“ value independently of human uses of it and as such should be preserved as far as possible from human interferences. The debate that took place between Pinchot and Muir in the USA about the Hetch Hetchy Valley and which put an end to their friendship, started the long standing polarisation between what Martinez-Alier calls “The gospel of eco-efficiency” and “the cult of wilderness”, even if in fact, this “John Muir versus Gifford Pinchot” is a rough simplification of environmental currents in the USA and one which ‘leaves aside part of the story.’ (Martinez-Alier, 2002, p. 7).

If the polemic about the existence and status of an “intrinsic value” of nature has been vivid amongst environmental ethicists and ecological philosophers, it cannot be said to have had an enduring influence on Green politics and practices. As Dryzek argues:‘The question of how to balance human and non-human interests is perhaps more easily answered in particular cases rather than at the level of philosophical abstraction. Philosophical dispute about the relative worth of human beings and the smallpox virus does not get in the way of the recognised need to protect the remnant ancient forests of California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia against logging; to keep uranium mines out of national parks; and to return the Colorado River to its free-flowing state.’ (Dryzek, 2005 [1997], pp. 184-185).

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The damming of Hetch Hetchy valley in the US at the beginning of the 20th century caused the first schisms in the green movement. The debate over the damming continues today.

Today, pace Eckersley, not much remains of the anthropocentric – ecocentric dilemma in the Green parties’ concerns and proposals. It should not come as a surprise: the urgencies they are facing today with climate change and biodiversity losses are formidable enough on purely anthropocentric grounds for not being necessary or sensible, to advocate more demanding standpoints. Even on purely utilitarian anthropocentric terms, the challenges are daunting enough….

Probably the same reason explains the (relative) vanishing of an erstwhile very active opposition between environmentalism and ecologism. While the pair “anthropocentric-ecocentric” was the keystone of Eckersley’s overview of Green discourses, the oppositions between environmentalism and ecologism is the organising principle of Andrew Dobson’s discussion of “Green Political Thought” (1990). It is symbolised by the distinction between green (small g) and Green, not even taking about “green” (between quotes). According to Dobson, while environmentalists (greens) take for granted that the environmental issues can be managed without fundamental social and cultural changes, ecologists (Greens), on the contrary, maintain that it calls for a radical change in our relationship with nature, our values and our lifestyles. As for ‘greens’, they just pay lip service to the environment by greenwashing business as usual.


We have seen ecocentrism opposed typically to anthropocentrism, but in some typologies it is opposed to technocentrism, as in O’Riordan (1981) who characterises ecocentrism as follows: ‘Ecocentrism preaches the virtues of reverence, humility, responsibility, and care; it argues for low-impact technology (but is not antitechnological); it decries bigness and impersonality in all its forms (but especially in the city) and demands a code of behaviour that seeks permanence and stability based upon ecological principles of diversity and homeostasis.’ (O’Riordan 1981, p.1; quoted by Dobson 1990, p.85). Recently, three researchers of the Sustainable Cities Research Institute of the University of Northumbria have proposed a mapping of environmental discourses on a two dimensional space resulting from the crossing of two axis: a technocentric – ecocentric axis and a inequality – equality one.

Figure 1. Mapping of environmental discourses. (Source: Hopwood, Mellor and O’Brien, 2005:41)

As figure 1 show, Hopwood, Mellor & O’Brien identify three sub-spaces in the map, which they call respectively “Status quo”, “Reform” and “Transformation”. There is no room here for a detailed discussion of the relative position of each discourse in the whole picture. Some choices of location will appear certainly controversial, to say the least. It is likely, for instance, that ATTAC members will be surprised to be considered reformists and neighbouring factor 4 groups! More fruitful would be the enrichment that the introduction of time, as a third axis, would constitute. It is lacking in figure 1 but not totally in Hopwood, Mellor and O’Brien’s comments. They note, for instance, that: ‘The mainstream environmental groups such as Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, WWF and Sierra Club are largely in the reform group and increasingly have moved from grass root activism and mass protest to political lobbying and working with business and government.’ (Hopwood, Mellor, & 0’Brien, 2005, p. 44). Actually, with time, not only have many organisations changed place in the ideological-political landscape, but the landscape itself has probably changed a lot.

Not all overviews of environmental discourses are built upon conceptual antinomies like the one we have been discussing so far. For instance, Dryzek in his influential (and rightly so) “The Politics of the Earth” published in 1997 doesn’t pretend deducing his ten political attitudes toward the environment from the articulation of conceptual or logical dilemmas. However, underpinning the seemingly unstructured enumeration of survivalism, prometheism, administrative rationalism, democratic pragmatism, economic rationalism, sustainable development, ecological modernisation, Green consciousness, Green politics and ecological democracy, it is possible to discover three organising categories at play, namely: global versus local environmental issues, technocratism versus democratism, radicalism versus reformism and resources-orientation versus people-orientation. In addition, people-oriented environmentalism is also broken down in two major options, one aiming at changing people themselves, their beliefs, value-orientations and attitudes; the other aiming at changing only the institutions (rules and incentives). According to Dryzek, what discourses such as deep ecology, ecotheology, ecofeminism, bioregionalism, ecological citizenship, etc., have in common is that they all maintain that what must be changed in priority is the way people experience nature, the way people think about it and the whole cultural matrix of industrial society. This is why he put them all in the ‘Green consciousness” group. On the contrary, what he calls “Green politics” doesn’t pretend to change the people themselves but focuses on the social, economic and political institutions.

Resources and/or people-oriented strategies

I think the distinction “Resources-orientated versus People-orientated” is useful for understanding what is at stake in the current debate about growth, eco-efficiency and delinking. It is not an ethical or philosophical category but a purely pragmatic one. It was already implicit in the IPAT equation formulated in the 1970s by the biologists Barry Commoner, Paul Ehrlich and William Holdren for analysing environmental problems. They demonstrated that every environmental problem (I) originating in human activities of production and consumption can best be seen as the result of three interwoven factors: a) population (P), i.e. the number of people producing or consuming a given product, b) the number of units per head of the good or service produced or consumed (A, for affluence) and, c) the environmental unitary impact of each unit of the product produced or consumed (T, for technology). To give just one example: the total GHG emissions of a given country (I) can be expressed as the product of its population (P) times the GDP per head of that country (A) times the intensity in CO2 (CO2/$) of its economy, which depends on its technology (T). We will not open here the discussion on the accuracy or the drawbacks of the IPAT equation. It has indeed been criticised and some refinements have been, often rightly so, brought to it. What is interesting with IPAT is the simple yet powerful idea of identifying 4 big classes of factors, environment and technology (I and T) on the one hand, and demography and affluence (P and A) on the other. Things can be simplified further by pooling together environmental resources and techniques in the single class of resources, and by pooling also population size and the average consumption level in the higher category of human needs. So doing, we come close to the carrying capacity idea, defined here as the ratio “resources/needs” or “IT/PA”.

In the same way that every household keen to make ends meet has to balance its needs with its income, every population has to adjust its lifestyles to its resources. Starting from a hypothetical state of equilibrium between resources and needs, a sustainability crisis happens when the state of the environment (I) has become objectively or subjectively (is perceived as) unable, taking account of the available technologies (T), to keep on sustaining the extant or desired standard of living and livelihoods (A) of that population (P). The cause can be exogenous (earthquake, tsunamis, volcanic eruption, drought….), endogenous (population growth, over-exploitation of the resource base) or combined (as is often the case). It is acknowledged that one of the most important endogenous factors of sustainability crisis in history has been an unchecked population growth, as Malthus was the first to highlight.
In order to overcome the crisis, there are but four possibilities:

  1. Managing resources but not needs
  2. Managing needs but not resources
  3. Managing both needs and resources
  4. Managing neither needs nor resources

Techno-prometheists versus green radicals

By managing resources, we understand here the setting of public policies at the highest institutional level with the purpose of acting directly or indirectly on the amount of resources available for final use; and by managing needs, the design of policies aiming at acting directly or indirectly on the amount of resources considered adequate. Managing resources goes either through extensification, intensification or both. The first strategy consists in widening the resource base through colonisation, military conquest, land clearing, etc. We include in the idea of extensification the transformation of a previously unexploited raw material or energy source in an economic resource, as it happened when coal, then oil has entered the production function on a large scale. Exploiting coal and oil from the ground can indeed be conceived as a kind of colonisation of the underground, as an extension of available land into the vertical dimension. The second strategy, intensification, consists in extracting more output from each unit of the environmental base through technological or organisational innovations, and/or through working harder, in other words in increasing the productivity of resources. We have already encountered it here above: it is the “gospel of eco-efficiency”.

As for needs, management consists of measures that close the gap between resources and demand by shifting the level of consumption down to the level of available resources either by containing the number of inhabitants through emigration, fertility reduction, infanticides, wars, and so on, or by decreasing the standard of living of a significant part of the population. In his book “Collapse”, Jared Diamond gives an interesting example of needs management in the Tikopia islands around 1600, when inhabitants went on to slaughter all the pigs living on their islands. The slaughtering is explained by the awareness of a conflict between human and pigs’ feeding since it was necessary to divert food from human nutrition in order to feed animals which used to devastate gardens and constituted a luxury good consumed principally by the ruling class. Note also that religions have played a considerable role in managing people’s needs and aspirations in many a society throughout history. In fact, as Daniel Bell showed (1976) in order to install our current habits of (over)consumption, capitalism had to overcome the resistance of its former best ally: the protestant ethic and Puritanism.

Though there is certainly no unique way to cope with sustainability crisis it is most likely that societies prefer trying first to enlarge their resource base if opportunities exist before intensifying work and a fortiori restraining consumption. The problem is that there are limits to extensification in a finite world. On the other hand, there also limits to continued intensification. In the absence of radical technological innovations, incremental improvements in the productivity of resources yield decreasing marginal returns so that, eventually, a restraining policy can prove necessary to prevent a social and cultural collapse, at least during the transition period when old technologies and resources are being exhausted and the new technological cluster is still gaining momentum. However, imposed restrictions are rarely welcome by population so that restraining strategies are rarely explicitly adopted and implemented as such. More often, they remain implicit and unnoticed at first, being installed through the progressive, silent relaxation of dispositions and practices formerly ensuring that even the least well off could enjoy a sufficient standard of living.

Table 1 is an attempt to categorise the main political discourses on the problem of global environmental limits identified by Dryzek according to the importance they attach respectively to the management of resources and to the management of needs.

Prometheism refers to the attitude, typical of many neo-liberal economists, which denies the existence of absolute environmental limits to growth and the need for any intervention of the State be it in order to improve the resource basis, or, still less, to induce people to change their consumption patterns. Though prometheists acknowledge the possibility of temporary shortages in some resources or temporary overloads of the capacity of the environment to absorb pollutions, they maintain that the market alone through the price mechanism and provided property rights are normally allocated and respected, is able to bring the system to a new equilibrium between resources and needs and, moreover, at a higher level than before the crisis.

Ecological modernisation, contrary to Prometheism, doesn’t believe that a capitalism left uncontrolled will be able to solve the current sustainability crisis. Moreover, it fears that without a determinate and ambitious intervention, of the State, the crisis will deepen and take catastrophic proportions. Advocates of ecological modernisation believe that a re-orientation of production methods and massive investments in green technological innovations through public policies will suffice to get us out of the ecological mess. In short, they trust science and technology, imagine a new green capitalism and believe in sustainable economic growth. Born around 1980 in Berlin, adopted on a large scale in the Netherlands during the 1990s, ecological modernisation remains a very influential approach. The currently very fashionable “Transition Management” current is but a recent avatar of ecological modernisation. On the other hand, many initiatives which, while being not enlisted under the “Ecological Modernisation” banner, focuses also almost exclusively on improving the productivity of resources through technological innovations and market incentives share the “ecological modernisation” belief in the possibility of decoupling economic growth from environmental pressures. Amaury Lovins, Ernest Von Weisacker and the whole “Natural Edge Project” are the most renown champions of this attitude (Smith, Hargroves, & Desha, 2010). However, we know now that, even if eco-efficiency improvements can bring a relative decoupling between growth in consumption and growth in environmental pressure by minimising environmental inputs per unit of GDP, it will not necessarily translate in “absolute decoupling”, i.e. in decreasing absolute amounts of energy and raw materials consumed or pollutants emitted by a given economy.

A new generation of pragmatic green radicals

Green radicalism is more than sceptical about the capacity of the industrial system to reform itself in the right direction and also on the efficacy of public policies focused only on production patterns and technological innovations in addressing the problems of global limits. At the core of every form of green radicalism, there is the conviction that there will be no long lasting solution to the ecological crisis except through a fundamental reorientation of cultural values, norms and beliefs. If eco-efficiency is the key word of ecological modernisation, “sufficiency”, “local” and “de-commoditisation” constitute the mantra of the currently most active Green radicals. The recent explosion of grassroots initiatives in “Voluntary Simplicity”, “Towns in Transition”, LETS or “local food systems” testifies to the vitality of Green radicalism and also of its transformation compared to what it was not so long ago. Compared to the intellectualism of Green radicalism in the 70 and 80, Green radicalism has turned more practical and concrete, even if an important part of what happens under the de-growth banner remains purely intellectual.

Despite the critiques that have been directed to the concept of sustainable development from Prometheists like Robert Solow, Julian Simon or Bjorn Lomborg, as well as from Green radicals such as Serge Latouche and the de-growth activists; despite its very limited impact on practical public policies at the global level, sustainable development is still alive and remains for many an attractive idea. Its seduction comes from its capacity to enlist elements of the ecological modernisation discourse as well as Green radicals’ grassroots initiatives. Refusing to engage in sterile oppositions such as growth versus de-growth, anthropocentrism vs. ecocentrism, technology vs. culture, it invites to engage in a pluralism of activities in eco-efficiency, sufficiency and decommoditisation.

Indeed, a consensus is emerging on the fact that transition towards sustainability will need innovations and changes at three different levels:

  • at the technological level where products and services with a lighter ecological footprint must take the place of less eco-efficient ones;
  • at the institutional level where non-market based modes of provision could be promoted alongside marked-based ones;
  • At the cultural level where less materialistic values and lifestyles should be developed and fostered without loss in welfare for people.

In other words, effective transitions to sustainable consumption will probably be mixed strategies acting on the three levers identified here above, the mix being different according to the consumption sector or domain (food, mobility, housing, leisure…) and both the culture and current consumption level of each society. In any case, we, consumers from rich, Western industrialised countries will have to learn to consume less (sufficiency), more efficiently and also differently (de-commoditisation).

For a more thorough discussion of eco-efficiency, sufficiency and decommodification and their relations, see : P.-M. Boulanger (2010). “Three strategies for sustaibale consumption”, S.A.P.I.EN.S. Vol 3, N°2, pp.1-11. On line at:

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