Green Economics: An Introduction to Theory, Policy and Practice, by Molly Scott Cato

Earthscan, 2010, xvi + 224 pp, pbk, 978-1-84407-571-3.

Molly Scott-Cato, economics spokesperson for the Green Party and lecturer at the Cardiff School of Management, has produced an excellent introductory account of green economics.Green Economics is not, as its author readily admits, a monograph based entirely on new research or empirical evidence, though it has that too. Instead, what Cato offers is a summary of how Green economics as a field has developed historically, and what it offers which other approaches to economics often fail to take account of.

The book opens with a short introduction in which Cato sketches the key tenets of green economics. These include a desire to expand what we understand as being the economic sphere; a deep concern with social justice and equality; and a concern to alter the ways in which economic relationships shape our relationship to the environment. More generally, this section also sees Cato advance her most succinct definition of how green economics differs from conventional capitalist economics:

In the capitalist ideology it does not matter that economic growth is destructive and does not increase human well-being; it only matters that there is more money changing hands in the global market. There is too much emphasis on standard of living, usually measured in purely material terms, and not enough on quality of life. For green economists growth is the major problem, not only because it is usually bought at the expense of the planet, but also because it is actually reducing our quality of life (p. 9).

The book itself is structured in 3 parts. The first sketches the contours of green economic theory. Here, Cato fulfils the valuable function of drawing together a diverse range of work by a wide range of contemporary green economists, including Mary Mellor, Derek Wall, James Robertson, Richard Douthwaite and others. She also links this body of contemporary work to both longer historical tendencies and wider, non-European strains of thought. In part 2, Cato outlines a green economic ‘vision for the future,’ discussing important areas such as work, money and business. Part 3, the longest and most detailed section of the book, details a number of policies for a green economy, and sets them within the wider context of the policy environment as it presently stands.

Cato offers a number of excellent ideas, including discussions of the democratization of the money system, co-production as an economic strategy, and the broader idea of a ‘convivial economy,’ in which economic forces are structured around human needs, rather than the other way around. Such ideas press towards a justification of her argument that ‘for the majority of green economists, a sustainable economy will not be a capitalist economy’ (p 106). Within this vision for an economic future, Cato gives central prominence to the idea of a Citizen’s Income. During a chapter on ‘Green welfare,’ as well as during other stages in the text, Cato sets out the crucial role which a Citizen’s Income might play in a green economy, and in doing so illustrates perfectly how green economics involves altering conventional social relations as well as our engagement with the environment.

Cato argues that a Citizen’s Income is important because of its status as a universal benefit, payable to all. This she supports as an effort to move away from the intrusive, means-tested benefit system we currently have which both undermines ‘a green commitment to autonomy,’ and creates social divisons by ‘sowing discord between those who are and are not eligible’. Cato argues that a Citizen’s Income might be funded in part through a new system of taxation which would include the taxation of ‘common resources,’ most importantly of land.

Cato has provided an excellent synthesis of a broad range of work and succeeds in establishing in outline what a green economy might look like, and what steps might need to be taken in order to move in this direction. That said, the book also suffers from some problems which are also associated with the broader field of green economics. For one, it sometimes feels that there is an over-fetishisation of ‘the local,’ in that this occasionally seems to be put forward as the panacea for all our economic ills in contrast to the inequities of globalization. Yet this formulation relies on a false division between the local and the global, and also ignores the fact that there is nothing inherent within them that stops locally-based economies being just as uneven and unequal as supposedly more ‘global’ ones.

Despite this criticism, Green Economics offers important ideas for anybody seeking a way beyond our current economic impasse which will put the interests of the bulk of humanity and the natural world ahead of those of a cabal of wealthy individuals and corporations. As Cato so clearly demonstrates, green economics is an emerging field within which there remains room for considerable discussion and debate, and it is high time that it came to be taken more seriously.

Review by Daniel Whittall