Boris Johnson's fairytale of green capitalism

The ‘green growth’ that Boris Johnson spoke of at the UN General Assembly is a fallacy, says Chris Nash. If we are to avert the climate emergency, we must build a society based on the principles of ‘regeneration’.

Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson, EU2017EE Estonian Presidency (CC BY 2.0)

Chris Nash

Boris Johnson’s ‘Kermit’ speech at the UN General Assembly might be a sign that the green message is, at last, getting through. However, the reality is likely that his strategists have convinced him that the climate now figures so highly in focus group meetings that he needs to ‘bag the green vote’ for the famous ‘early election’. It’s also probably come to his attention that green issues in the form of ‘conservation’ have a home in traditional Conservative ideology.

In one sense, it matters not – if his bumbling quips keep green issues at the forefront of people’s minds, then it makes our conversation with them that much easier. Though, there is a negative side to this speech. Johnson talks of ‘the breakthroughs and the investments that are made possible by capitalism and free markets’, attempting to sell us a fairytale version of green politics. Welcome to the wonderful world of ‘green growth’, a phrase that we will hear endlessly over the next phase of the climate emergency. This in itself is, of course, another piece of Johnson rhetoric because in ‘Boris-world’ it’s always possible to ‘have your cake and eat it’. However, ‘green growth’ may well turn out to be the final words on the lips of a dying planet.

Why should we Greens take on the challenge of telling people the inconvenient truth – that ‘green growth’ is just another rhetorical fallacy? In this country, and around the world, we are so deeply addicted to this narrative of continuous growth that it feels like political suicide to take an opposing stance. 

‘Green growth’ is a contradiction in terms. In her book ‘Doughnut Economics’, Kate Raworth provides convincing evidence that ‘growth’ has already taken us beyond several tipping points for global and ecological health. Therefore, continuing to grow in the same way will only push us closer to environmental disaster. In ‘Post Growth – Life After Capitalism’, Tim Jackson makes an even more fundamental point. Capitalism reached peak growth in the 1960s, and was only possible because of deeply dangerous levels of exploitation of natural resources. Since then, both the US and European models of capitalism have not delivered the growth to which we have become addicted. We now find ourselves in a crisis of growth capitalism, as the negative consequences of failing economies lead to nightmares of social injustice across the US and Europe – social unrest and record levels of poor physical and mental health.

Jackson describes the dilemma – “Capitalism has no answers to its own failings. It cannot pursue social justice while it continues to prioritise profit. It cannot protect our climate while it continues to idolize the stock market.” Only the Greens understand this because only the Greens link environmental and social justice in unified programmes not for growth, but for ‘regeneration’. We must bring this idea to the forefront of national thinking – it is ‘regeneration’ that stands in authentic opposition to Johnson’s ‘green growth’. Green growth does not change the fundamental predisposition of capitalism. It continues to go beyond the limits of what nature can safely provide, supporting fossil fuel extraction and use, arguing falsely that new technology makes the process safe. It doesn’t take much thinking to see who benefits from this – the fossil fuel multinationals and the political systems they subsidise. 

The argument of ‘regenerative economics’ is entirely different. It is not about doing ‘no more harm’ to the planet – the so-called ‘net zero’ strategy. It is too late for this. We are beyond too many tipping points. The challenge of regenerative culture and economics is to live in authentic harmony with the natural world by operating our society, our agriculture and our industry in ways that give back, as opposed to taking from nature. In the re-generative city, vehicles using roads and pedestrians using pavements would generate electricity as they move. Every roof would be flat and used for generating solar power and growing crops. These ideas are only the start of what could be imagined if we adopt the regenerative model of thinking.

So thank you, Boris. Thank you for nudging the national and international agenda in the right direction, but please don’t try to bamboozle us with more of your spin and electioneering. Green growth is an illusion, a children’s fairy tale which we Greens will vigorously oppose with the only grown-up, adult truth – that we must limit growth and move as quickly as possible away from the dying days of capitalism towards a culture of justice and harmony with our planet, based on the principles of regeneration.