I have always felt a strong interest in environmental topics. As such, despite having obtained my BSc in Physics, I decided to get my MSc in Environmental Engineering at Instituto Superior Técnico in Lisbon, where I learned about a variety of topics, some of them more technical – water supply systems, waste management, environmental impact assessment – and others less so, e.g. environmental policy and economics. This interest also led me to participate in other activities, such as, last year, the Federation of Young European Greens’s Youth in Crisis conference, at the European Parliament, where I met with like-minded youth to discuss the environmental, social and economic problems Europe faces today, as well as, recently, Maastricht University’s Student Forum. There, my working group, led by a tutor, had three intense, but very satisfying days to approach, research, structure and write a policy proposal – which was later presented to a representative from the European Commission –, on the subject of the circular economy, which called for the implementation of a “product passport”. This document would, for each manufactured product, include thorough information on materials, in order to improve recycling processes, either public or producer-led, thus closing supply chains and preventing loss of the materials’ value, with the goal of reducing resource extraction and delaying the coming resource crisis. I count that event as one of the most positive experiences of my life, for allowing me to meet and collaborate with some of my highly achieving, motivated and environmentally aware peers – several of whom I have kept in touch with, which is by itself a positive outcome –, for the atmosphere of focused and collective learning and working, and for having produced a tangible result. As such, I am hopeful that my participation in Green Academy will be an experience just as, or even more, rewarding.
The above-mentioned Student Forum, as well as my learnings over the past few years, have led me to see that a big part of the ecological problem that we face now and that is bound to worsen in the next decades arises from the continuing reliance on GDP growth – thus, on increasing consumption, leading through overexploration of natural resources – as an absolute, incontested goal. Not only has GDP been known to be flawed since its inception, for assigning equal value to good and bad activities and for not considering non-monetary ones, but it fails to account for the depreciation of capital, especially natural capital, our most precious resource and the one on which all economic and human activity ultimately depends; despite all that, GDP continues to be seen as an absolute metric of a region’s wealth and even as a proxy for its well-being. Thus, the destruction of natural capital – for instance, through depletion of natural resources – is seen as a positive and wealth-generating activity, when in reality it can be anything but, since its negative consequences need not be accounted for under GDP; likewise, spending in ecosystem enhancement and conservation is seen as wasteful, instead of as an investment with positive future returns. Several alternative macro-economic indicators whose calculations include unpaid work and environmental damage, such as the Index of Sustainable Economic Welfare, have existed for decades, and the transition towards their adoption appears to me as a pressing undertaking, for evident environmental reasons but also due to other factors, chiefly the significant upcoming increase in systemic unemployment due to automation. Moreover, apart from the over-reliance on GDP, the fact that modern economies all orbit around debt and depend on it for functioning is a major factor in sustaining the current trend as well, for debt, to be paid back (with interest), requires growth from those who contracted it, and almost every economic actor has.
This criticism of growth is tied to the validity of the commons model more closely than it might appear, since only in an economy that values sustainability and resilience over unbridled growth can natural resources be seen as sources of subsistence rather than as commodities: thus, the ‘commonization’ is also a ‘de-commodification’ – and, of course, a ‘de-financialization’, since resources (or, as they are known in those settings, ‘commodities’) are also treated as assets that can be traded and speculated upon, even at the expense of users, as was seen in the global food price crisis of 2008.
Since the commons model for natural resources is seldom applied nowadays, and, when so, only at a fairly local scale, I think that there need to be adequate structures to ensure its proper implementation. For instance, an issue to be considered is how the commons depends on the existence of social bonds between its users. These bonds will decrease self-interest and render each user dependent, to a point, on social approval from the rest of the community, leading them to maintain a sustainable level of consumption. In a globalized economy where users have no bonds tying them to one another, those pressures disappear and users’ selfishness increases: unsustainable consumption will arise more easily. Moreover, in resources whose exploration is very capital-intensive (i.e. with high fixed costs) users have an incentive to maximize their consumption, in order to better profit on their initial investment. Two examples of these issues at play are, in my opinion, the collapse of Newfoundland’s cod stocks (large, international trawlers with satellite imagery and radar data) versus the relative sustainability of Maine lobster fishing – a local community using labour-intensive, artisanal capture methods. On the other hand, in developing nations, the opposite dynamic appears: it is only because some resources (such as the large African mammals, or the tropical rainforest) are seen by some as a commons for all of humanity that international financial and logistical efforts are made towards their conservation.
The commodification of natural resources also results in the benefits arising from their exploration reverting to the wealthiest, thus leading to inequality and social exclusion, the conflation of economic and political power, the enforcement of a top-down centralized system of strategic decision-making, etc., as well as other diverse associated phenomena such as the concentration and proprietarization of knowledge or the erosion of small-scale communitarianism.
Whereas the changes made towards a ‘greener’ economy are economically beneficial to some, such as producers of renewable energy or makers of cleaner cars, the paradigm shift towards an economy based on commons rather than on commodities, on stability rather than on growth, would, despite allowing for fairer access to resources and reducing our environmental footprint, bring no such obvious economic advantages. This results in this systemic transformation being incredibly difficult to implement: large multinational companies and resource-rich countries rely on exploration of natural resources and need growth to not only increase their earnings and their power but even to be self-sustainable – and, as more powerful institutional actors than citizens, they tend to impose their will in the case of conflicting interests. Thus, the best scale at which to effect this transformation could be a local one, where resources’ users can have social bonds and common goals, and where large groups’ interests and influence are felt less intensely.
I believe that to reverse this trend of “top-down hubris” (Robert Steele) is a daunting but enticing challenge, and I hope that, by attending Green Academy this coming August, I can learn more about these issues from experts, discuss them with my peers, and actively participate in the proposed workshops, as well as enjoy and get to know the Croatian seaside and the island of Vis.