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Green system change and circular economy

ESSAY: In order to safeguard our livelihoods, we should move away from a system that continually demands that we become more efficient, productive and profit-maximizing.

(PS. This article is machine-translated from Norwegian)

On 25 June 2020, a petition with 75 signatories was published in a number of Norwegian newspapers. The message was that we must develop an economic system "that can give us a good life without increasing the consumption of energy and material resources", and that work on such a system change must begin immediately. The appeal sparked debate, with input from both critics and defenders of the current order.

Those who rejected the demand for system change emphasized the value of the established system – a liberal order characterized by the distribution of power between the state, economy and civil society, with a great ability to ensure prosperity and welfare for more and more people. The defenders of the system therefore called for a clearer indication of what is to be changed, and how the changes are to be implemented.

When the petition's signatories responded to this challenge, it became clear that the word system change has no uniform conceptual content. Therefore, it is important to take time for a reflection on how we understand the system that is under criticism, as well as what it means to change a system. Is it a revolution, where you start with blank sheets and new crayons – or a transformation, where a varied series of large and small measures are implemented, based on the idea that the interaction between them will transform the system from the inside?

Eternal growth

Questions like this I have elucidated through two books. The first book, From everlasting growth to green politics > (2017), provides a thorough presentation of the growth mechanism's emergence and functioning. I assume that a growth impulse has characterized humanity throughout our existence. Through the agricultural revolution, the rise of capitalism and the industrial revolution, the impulse has been refined into an increasingly powerful mechanism.

This mechanism cannot be reduced to a purely economic size. For centuries, the state power has strived for growth – first for the sake of its own power, gradually increasingly to safeguard the well-being of the population. In this way, we have all become part of the way the growth mechanism works, in a symbiosis between political choices, the dynamics of the economy and the demands and wishes of the population. After World War II, the growth mechanism was institutionalized through a compromise between the red and blue sides of politics, with gross national product (GDP) that the totem the political economy could dance around.

The expansive system has in some ways worked excellently. At the same time, the shadowy aspects have gradually become clearer – partly in the form of varied environmental problems, partly through the human consequences of living in a system that constantly demands that we become more efficient, productive and profit-maximizing.

Green modernization

Against this, an ecological critique emerged throughout the 1970s, a critique that promoted a need for change at a profound level. In a short phase, it was thought that system change was on the way, but this hope weathered everything in the 1980s. With the Brundtland Commission's Our Common Future as the focal point, the environmental challenges were instead incorporated into the system's logic – where environmental protection and growth-based progress no longer appeared as opposites, but rather prerequisites for each other.

People, companies and nations make a fortune by draining resources and destroying nature.

Since then, the strategy for green modernization has dominated the work of solving the environmental crises. The call for system change is aimed at this line of modernization, but the signatories hardly agree on what the alternative should be. If we look, we can identify an ecological-ethical critique that seeks a more toned-down way of life in harmony with a natural nature – and a neo-Marxist critique with a clearer front against capitalism, patriarchy and other established power structures, and with a greater willingness to technical solution grip.

The similarity between these two critical environments is that they repeat messages shaped in the 1970s. But hasn't the world changed significantly since then? The concept of the Anthropocene age tells us that our impact on the natural environment has become so extensive that something has changed forever. There is no longer any way out of the web of nature / society we have created, something we should consider when discussing opportunities for system change.

This is addressed in my second green book, The future of Norway > (2018). Here the possibilities for creating system change are explored, but rather than nostalgic repetition of the thoughts of the 1970s, I seek to anchor the change measures in a recognition that the anthropocene has changed our reality. The strategy the book ends up with can be described as a green transformation – with thoughts that have later been shown to be closely related to the message in the first main report from UN nature panel, published in 2019.

The green transformation is here about implementing a number of small and slightly larger change measures, with the aim of getting them to interact in a way that changes the logic of the system. This can happen partly through components being replaced or changing the mode of operation, and partly through the relationships, connections and interactions between different components being formed in new ways. In this way, the system change will grow from within, and create a holistic tissue that works differently than before.

The future of Norway concretizes this via three main tracks. The first addresses the need for shifts in what we humans experience as the good life, what we strive for and what we unite around – with a view to giving other impulses to the development of society.

We are here in a landscape characterized by Erik dammann og Arne Næs, with their message of appreciating a simpler life. In recent times we find such thoughts in Pope Francis. In his encyclical Laudato Si, he emphasizes the need to limit oneself – something we can achieve by shaping an ecological culture that characterizes our entire way of seeing, thinking, living, assessing, deciding and acting. In this green culture, our ability to value existence ("being") will be practiced, at the same time as we become better at seeing that less is more contains a truth we have forgotten in the consumer society.

To a certain extent, such impulses can emerge from below, through people's involvement – but they should also be stimulated through political measures. This can be done, for example, by supplementing measurements of economic variables with better measures of quality of life and well-being. At the same time, we know that such a turn away from the economy can provoke reactions from the unemployed, the poor and other vulnerable groups. Solidarity, social justice, economic equalization and social cohesion are therefore concepts we must emphasize if a green transformation is to take place without releasing social unrest.

Politics for a green society

The next main track is about politics and the governance system. What should the authorities do, and what can be developed through market dynamics or the involvement of civil society? What are the management's goals, and how can we ensure that the results are as we want?

We need to raise awareness of the responsibility of government agencies to develop overviews, plan, monitor, tame special interests, intervene, facilitate, stimulate and prepare for necessary adaptations. An example of such shifts is found in the process leading up to the Climate Act, which was implemented in 2018, and which is intended to promote the implementation of Norway's climate goals and the transition to a low-emission society. The law constitutes a new management instrument in the Norwegian state administration, as it is not aimed at the population, but is established to regulate the politicians' work.

Deliberate design of green legal regulations can often interact with the development of a greener ministry structure. The Norwegian Ministry of Finance has fought for a dominant position in shaping Norwegian environmental policy and at the same time actively worked to spread market solutions (climate quotas, etc.) internationally. For some years I have been arguing that the time is ripe to turn our most powerful ministry into the Ministry of Sustainability. Partly because the word sustainability can be assumed to shape the thoughts of power in a different way than the word finance – and partly because a new name will make it natural to change the ministry's competence, organization and functioning in a green direction.

A greater room for opportunity for green entrepreneurship and innovation, anchored
in a diversity of small businesses, local businesses, cooperative farming and
collaborative solutions.

On a more concrete level, we need a debate about the art of management as such. For some decades, the mantra has been that the policy's responsibility is to establish predictable frameworks, created via self-regulatory systems in which economic actors compete – possibly supplemented with stimulus packages or active use of tax policy. What has been lacking is the will for more active use of plan management, injunctions, prohibitions or restrictions on human development and the economy's resource extraction, production, sales and consumption of goods and services.

A genuinely circulating circuit

The third main track brings us into the field of economics. We know that the functioning of the economy is crucial for a real green transformation to take place. The interface between production, sales and consumption on the one hand and nature's tolerant limits on the other must be different than they have been in recent centuries.

This topic has close links to the foregoing, as leading the economy in a greener direction can be seen as a management technology issue. For some, such a statement breaks with familiar thoughts. We like to learn that the economy is a limited field that works according to its own truth mechanisms. At the height of growth, economic actors have long had the opportunity to extract the resources they needed to produce, sell and sell their products – while being able to close their eyes to the negative aspects of resource extraction, production and shipping pollution, and the littering of used goods. As long as we allow economic actors not to take responsibility for these negative effects, we accept that it is possible for people, companies and nations to make a fortune by draining resources and destroying nature.

For some, this leads to a backlash that requires a totally different, ecological economy. The dominant strategy, however, has been to cultivate the growth / protection line, where the economy greens, but does not change in any fundamental way. I use to refer to the dominant motive here as "AS Norway" – a reality where capital actors interact with government interests and an insatiable material logic of prosperity, where growth-based progress is both a goal and an indisputable truth.

From such a vantage point, a demand for a system change is perceived as dangerous, and thus one reacts instinctively by rejecting the entire debate. In the Norway of the Future, I say that we should take this rejection seriously. If we want system change, we should refrain from getting lost in overly radical utopias. If we set the current system up against the most radical ideas, we realize that there is a large space between these two. A realistic strategy for system change requires that we take the step into this space and seek changes that are not to be created via a rationalistic overall plan, but through concrete adjustments that in interaction with each other release a system change.

Through a combination of positive and negative instruments – with alternating green, blue and red roots – it should be possible to create a greater opportunity for green entrepreneurship and innovation, rooted in a diversity of small enterprises, local companies, cooperative farming and cooperative solutions. A dynamic that should be channeled in the direction of a genuinely circular economy. This concept has in a short time become politically common property, with associated criticism of a linear system where resource extraction, production and consumption inexorably lead to littering. The spirit of the times dictates that we should instead work towards a society where repair, waste management and reuse are the hub of the economy – so that the products and materials remain part of the circulation for as long as possible.

The strategy of transformation

I hope my sketch of selected moments from the books has highlighted how the transformation strategy can be a fruitful path to system change. Rather than dreaming of (or fearing) a system to be established via a rationalist overall plan, I emphasize the value of a number of large and small measures of change, implemented at different levels and fields of society. Step by step, components can be replaced, adjusted, related and interacted in other ways than before, with the aim of letting our current reality be transformed in the green direction.


Svein Hammer
Hammer is a dr.polit. in sociology and regular reviewer in Ny Tid.

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