The elusive green economy…


When exploring the idea of a green economy, we confront issues of power, equity and scale. These issues center around the critical question of who leads the green economy and what this means for different contexts and communities. Actions by local communities to transform their contexts indicates that the application of the green economy is not limited to high-technology sectors, but a creative mix of locally-relevant services, skills and knowledge. This theme is increasingly recognized within the global green economy discourse, including the UN-Habitat report on Urban Patterns for a Green Economy: Clustering for Competitiveness (2013) and Acey & Culhane’s piece (2013) on community-driven green jobs and livelihoods in Africa.

A number of themes emerged in the class green economy debate:  

A. Local contexts

Perspectives on green economy leadership often depend on scale and definitions of ‘local context’. For instance, while there is often a distinction drawn between cities and ‘rural’ contexts, the reality for many developing contexts is less of a rural-urban dichotomy given the continuation of rural life in cities. The nature of urbanization in these contexts affects the kind of green economy implemented and it is often the case that local actions in developing countries are difficult to gauge and monitor. Without participative, case research, the local green economies embodied by waste pickers in Egypt or bio-digesters in Kenya may escape the green economy label so often applied to the more efficient, post-carbon high-tech industries. While much of this analysis is a function of scale, and indeed a frame of reference, what tangible ways can we use to better appreciate the local green economy and gauge the success thereof in transformative change? Points to ponder:

·         Is the fixed dichotomy between elected official and communities still relevant and useful?

·         What role exists for a supportive policy in stimulating green economy incentives, particularly given the state of governance (or lack thereof) that creates acute government failures?

·         In the absence of an enabling environment, how can local communities drive a structural change in the economy? Viable options for this overarching transformation may exist through identifying synergies across a range of issues, e.g. labor conditions, health, environment, and employment equity. Although the Freiberg case represents the power of citizen-based activism for a greener economy, a robust national renewable energy agenda assisted in Freiberg’s solar transformation. This is in contrast to other countries, such as the USA and South Africa, where for geo-political and economic reasons, renewable energy alternatives have not found the same level of national purchase.


B. Regulatory and institutional context

In the USA, regional scale planning can differ greatly from what happens at the city or local scale, and voluntary formations are often formed between different agencies to coordination in an otherwise multi-layered institutional context. LAANE is one such example where the voluntary partnership and mutual agreement of local governments, NGO’s, research institutions and individual workers have set in motion a campaign to address poverty, inadequate health care and polluted communication are simultaneously addressed through voluntary action and cooperation (LAANE, 2014). LANNE represents the power of voluntary formations to create enabling environments for change, and the importance of achieving consensus among different stakeholders. A great degree of consensus building, stakeholder management and consultation goes into voluntary partnerships, particularly because of the dependency traps, lock-ins and rigidities of many institutional contexts. Insofar as the green economy entails physical, economic and structural transformation, it is also very much about a shift from a rigid governance systems, to an environment of learning and mutual consultation.



C. Innovation and creativity, whose role?


Much of what is represented by the green economy is innovation and creativity in delivering services and consuming resources at national-, city-, industrial- or household- scales. In many respects, a green economy may only be realized through the cumulative effect of innovation and action at these multiple scales. However, to re-collectivize our efforts, requires a multi-level perspective that appreciates and values the individual contributions of different actors in implementing a greener economy, which may challenge and sacrifice our definition of a green economy. The challenge emerges if we consider the massive investments by large multi-national corporations, such as Coca-Cola or Shell, in more sustainable business practices that are inherently unsustainable in terms of resource exploitation, yet provide the employment base for many of the world’s marginalized communities. Should such ‘greener’ economic investments be part of the transition to a green economy in its full sense?


A similar provocation is represented by Denzou, China, the world’s largest solar PV producer. Dezhou’s solar thermal industry employs around 800,00 people and approximately 90% of local households use solar water heaters. However, the bulk of Dezhou electricity still comes from coal-fired power stations and it remains to be seen whether solar technology will be able to shift the economy towards a more sustainable energy mix (UN-Habitat, 2013).


If large-scale industrial solutions pose a threat to more a true green economy, that is a fundamental shift in the structure and nature of an economy, is there an inherent threat posed by scale? Household-level innovation may assist in shifting individual decision-making from previously unsustainable paths, and importantly, towards to an ‘off-grid’ mix of infrastructure, resources and services that is so critical given the growing food-, water-, waste- and energy- footprint of the world’s growing number of households. However, it is this very growth, including the nature of contemporary urbanization, which undermines the Earth’s capacity to provide services and regenerate. At a personal level, we may have to make difficult choices about what we eat, drink, waste and how we power our lives, and it may be that we can’t implement a green economy globally, but can engage in a more localized green economy, one that is tangible and makes sense for us in our own ways. 





Acey, C. S. & Culhane, T. H. 2013. Green jobs, livelihoods and the post- carbon economy in African cities, Local Environment: The International Journal of Justice and Sustainability.

LAANE. 2014. LAANE: A New Economy for All. [Online]. Available:  [15 February 2014]

United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN Habitat). 2013. Clustering for Competitiveness: Urban Patterns for a Green Economy. Nairobi: Kenya.


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10 thoughts on “The elusive green economy…

  1. skonala254

    I read an interesting article recently on sustainable business practices and thought it was very relevant to your post.

    The article presents a question about whether it is fair to expect corporations to incorporate sustainable business practices. The article cites economist Milton Friedman who stated that social responsibility was not the responsibility of a corporation because it interferes with the primary objective of making a profit. Those who try to include sustainable business practices are at a competitive disadvantage because they must devote resources to become more sustainable. Clearly, being unsustainable can be bad for business as well because it may alienate employees or customers.

    So can we expect corporations to implement sustainable business practices on their own? or do we have to use federal regulations and/or make better decisions as consumers? I think I tend to lean towards the latter choice. Federal regulations place restrictions on corporations and force them to innovate to compete. Furthermore, consumers must be aware of corporate practices and must respond to the actions of corporations by making more informed decisions on how they spend money.

  2. Something that I have been wondering about green jobs in relation to revamping buildings and housing to be zero-energy is the impact this could generate, both at an environmental and social equity level, if implemented intensively throughout our nation. I think about the Great Deal with FDR, and their strategy to put people back to work in road construction and other infrastructure projects. What if the federal government decided, along with state governments, to fully fund job training and construction/labor work for each region to carry out the complete conversion of housing and buildings to be green, inside and out, including appliances? Would this generate a huge change to our energy consumption and make a drastic reduction to our environmental degradation? Would such an initiative generate millions of quality paying jobs, within construction, green manufacturing, and green services that could provide economic growth that reaches a great portion of the population? If targeted towards low-income and marginalized communities, could they acquire a better quality of life?

    I think that if significant investment and priority was given to an initiative like this with federal money, that same money would be reinvested by workers and businesses, circulating it throughout communities, generating economic growth for households. I feel that as of right now, initiatives have been carried out at a local level, such as the Clean Ports Campaign in LA, demonstrating the potential they have to systemically change environmental health and job quality. I believe this work needs to be scaled up in every region of our country, with strategies, planning, and community engagement tailored to each area.

  3. edermartinez

    Thank you for all your comments. I agree with most of your opinions.
    While I read, I was thinking about the importance the importance of scale to define a “green economy”. How we can define if an economy is being green? What are the boundaries defining the “greenness” of a certain City/State/Country? For instance, several big economies claim themselves highly engaged in reducing CO2 emission but in reality, their practices are not always associated to real improvements. Some of these “improvements” are mostly a type of production relocation. Factories are located outside certain City/State/Country border. In this example emissions are reduced locally as a statistical number, but the problem is being transferred to someone else

    The same is the case with electronic waste. Industrialized countries are shipping unusable electronics to be recycled abroad. I just watched a documentary about electronic recycling [ You can see the documentary here: ]

    Do you think those countries are green economies?
    What about these green jobs?

  4. Thanks for the in-depth summary. Of all the points mentioned above, I thought the following statements and questions were particularly hard to wrap my brain around:

    “The challenge emerges if we consider the massive investments by large multi-national corporations, such as Coca-Cola or Shell, in more sustainable business practices that are inherently unsustainable in terms of resource exploitation, yet provide the employment base for many of the world’s marginalized communities. Should such ‘greener’ economic investments be part of the transition to a green economy in its full sense?”

    As some of the above replies have already mentioned, there are definite concrete benefits to getting large MNC’s to change their practices so that their methods of working with local communities, extracting resources, and greening their stores are based on more “sustainable” practices. Because their impact is so huge, reducing their impact would probably have a proportionally large effect. The revolution ain’t happening anytime soon, so why not focus on mitigation?

    At the same time. there are of course some obvious challenges. As previously mentioned, corporations in the global capitalist economy pose inherent problems, as they promote consumption and resource extraction/depletion on such a massive scale. While we can reduce their harm – at the same time we fail to address the full fact that they’re still producing serious levels of harm on a global scale. (I guess since their harm radiates in multiple ways — from the unlivable wages they pay their workers in the states and overseas, to the working conditions of the workers, to the fact that they take out small businesses in the area, etc. etc. — this method would entail thinking of sustainability in all its dimensions, including issues of equity and justice, economics, (etc.) too…)

    On a political level, I also wonder about the harm that can be generated by allowing big corporations to appear “green” and safe. Shell and Walmart already put on huge campaigns to make themselves look good. Will people challenge big corporations and the injustices of global capitalism if they continue to think that this current way of living is sustainable and just? In other words, would it prevent real, structural, or revolutionary change from occurring (the change that’s truly needed to actually be sustainable)? What does the path to a just transition look like? What must or can be dismantled sooner than later?

    • The debate we’ve been having about the role of corporations in hindering and potentially helping us move toward sustainability is an interesting and difficult one in a number of ways, as Tiffany and Lili discuss in the comments shared here. I’d be interested in hearing others’ opinions about another factor that might begin shaping the relationship between corporations: the eco-conscious, social enterprise-favoring nature of Generation Y, who are just stepping into the career world. Though this is a very optimistic opinion, I’m tempted to think that Generation Y’s interest in creating careers not just for financial gain, but also for working toward the social good might have an impact on the way corporations are run. An article in the Guardian describes this in more detail

      This discussion is problematic in that it assumes the mindset of Generation Y is steadfast enough to overcome the enormous and long-standing power of profit-seeking (profit above all else) corporations. But if corporations are soon staffed with people who grew up learning and thinking that the workplace should be not just a place for earning money, but also for making the world a better place, then perhaps corporations themselves can be transformed into something better suited for promoting sustainability.

  5. ehannah27

    Thank you for the great summary and for bringing in additional case studies that exemplify the points made in class.

    I would like to briefly focus on the theme of regionalism and the green economy that you bring up in the context of how the US could facilitate a more institutionalized approach to fostering green economic investment. As in many discussions around sustainable development, the regional approach often seems to be the most effective and efficient to fully addressing the many ‘wicked’ problems of planning for sustainability. With the green economy, I feel the situation is no different, and more so, that there is an imperative to work regionally so that cities are not duplicating efforts and building on the strengths of each other. Very few cities can stand alone in growing their green economy (San Francisco may be a very special case), and this difficulty can put most cash-strapped cities at a disadvantage, and discourage investment in more innovative and green economic approaches.

    The East Bay Green Corridor ( provides a strategic approach to developing the East Bay’s ‘green economy’ without placing the burden on just one city to attract investment. The organization’s mission statement puts forth the vision ‘ create a thriving region of green technology innovation, commercialization and economic development that generates high quality jobs and meets environmental and social goals.’ This is a lofty vision, and thankfully there has been some research coming from the Department’s own Institute for Urban and Regional Development (IURD) on the developing concept of the green economy and within the East Bay in particular. Karen Chapple’s IURD research entity, the Center for Community Innovation, has produced a series of reports that provide more context on the green economy (and have a great primer on the concept of green economic development: The East Bay specific report ( identifies a key set of opportunities and challenges to how the East Bay can enter into the green economy, and hopefully get to the level of neighboring cities such as San Francisco and ‘clean-tech’ hubs like the Silicon Valley. The report provides an interesting set of indicators to measure the potential for green economic growth including number of patents filed, businesses identifying as ‘green’ and number of universities conducting research in the area. What does the class think of our local potential for growing our own ‘green economy’? Are these the proper indicators to measure success towards such a vision put forth by the East Bay Green Corridor?

  6. lrudis

    I think the LAANE example was so powerful because it demonstrated how a group of concerned citizens could, with a passionate and well-coordinated effort, make a huge impact on local government and, in turn, the operations of industries with which their well-beings are mired.

    We also talk about private corporations as propagators of many of our ecological and social ills. We also tend to agree that the current efforts of major corporations like Coca-Cola are maybe slightly more than token gestures to acknowledge the (hopefully) rising sustainability movement. Because of the massive scale of these multinational corporations, even small changes to green operations can amplify to have a big effect. Once again, however, it would be important to distinguish “sustainable” from “more sustainable than we’re doing it right now.”

    I think that it’s important to keep in mind that corporations are not immortal, nor necessarily immoral. It would be useful to start a discussion about specific ways in which the amorality inherent in corporate activity can be used to the advantage of the moral consumer. Ultimately, corporations will only survive if there remain enough consumers of their products. RIght now, corporations’ inertia keeps them on a track of over-consumption of resources. However, we as consumers may have more power to push them in a different direction than we have acknowledged.

    Do you agree that corporations are a reflections of the morality of their consumers? How can we use the LAANE as a model for coordinated pushes against seemingly gargantuan proponents of business-as-usual?

  7. Thanks for capturing the class conversation so well and for articulating the many different issues related to yet another wicked problem – creating a “green” economy. It strikes me that as stated in the Wheeler piece there is no easy single answer, but rather the need for many actions that appropriate at different scales.

    In the US context local governments can and have helped to take steps toward a green economy through several exemplary actions:

    • Creating a local green job training program in conjunction with efforts to grow a related sector
    • Developing a local and sustainable purchasing ordinance – One example is in Cleveland Ohio
    • Encouraging green businesses and / or local businesses – One example is San Francisco’s Green Business Program

    Certainly these local government successes will need state and regional support to shift society toward a low-carbon solution.

  8. There are some very thought provoking questions laid out in this blog article. I really agree with your idea of confronting power, equity and scale when trying to create a green jobs and a green economy. The LAANE example is an excellent case where many actors and scales are coming together, however we have to consider that it is in a US context. I had a friend who worked as an organizer for LAANE’s Clean Trucks program and I was always impressed by the hurdles they jumped over to move their campaign forward.

  9. Thanks for very informative summary of the class with different valid perspectives.

    Reframing the local context is a very good point, because it is important to recognize the spectrum of (urban-rural) and how it is defined in the developing countries.
    We may agree that the examples brought about different African cities are “Green” but they remain facing two challenges: (1) the possibility to replicate them in similar areas, and (2) the potential to scale it up to become on overall policy implemented on higher scales.

    According to the Green Economy Article, the political strategies towards green economy are related to: (Prices & taxes reform, green energy, research & development, and harmonizing ecological and economic goals). These policies are executable in a developed country with powerful institutions, unlike the developing world where such tools/policies are less likely to be of any impact.

    It is interesting that in the developing countries, most of the initiatives are administrated by local NGOs. Al-Darn Al-Ahmar and Mansheyyet Nasser are examples I am very familiar with and without these grass root organizations such initiative will not see the light.

    The article by Acey & Culhane supports the argument that the developing countries are complex and addressing green jobs by looking at wages in cities undermine the fact that there is much contribution in the economy by the informal sector.

    One issue I brought in class, which is that: greening the job shall be a philosophy incorporated in the business and not only meeting a (green) checklist. Greening shall be in the entire process from the idea to the final product. There are “green” jobs in a touristic resort that is far from being “green” in relation to the natural and cultural resources.

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