On June 13, a good agent provocateur, former National Planning Commission member Mike Muller, proposed in a panel discussion at a Trade and Industrial Policy Strategies (TIPS) conference on sustainable growth and industrialisation that we should decolonise the idea of the green economy. Muller has had a long beef with environmentalists. He thinks environmentalists are doing the bidding of northern, developed econo- mies that are intent on imposing a green agenda on developing countries to stunt their development.
Some of this may hold true, as fanatical, or absolutist, environmentalism can lead to more harm than good.
Concerning the issue of decolonising the green economy, at first glance, the idea seems to have merit – but only until you unpack its inner core.
This article advances several arguments that suggest that decolonising the green economy is far from being a rigorous counterpoint and that we should not be selective in terms of what we choose to decolonise.
Firstly, it is curious that the proponents of the decolonisation of the green economy say little, if anything, about decolonising dirty industrialism. It so happens that we must refer to when Jan Smuts called on Dr Hendrik van der Bijl to return from the US to lead South Africa’s industrial development by unlocking the linkages between cheap coal, steel and the building of an extensive rail network. Smuts had in mind the models of the US, England and countries in continental Europe. Smuts had seen what unlocking coal and steel had done in unlocking wealth in these countries.
Later, when the National Party came to power, we also inherited the Fischer-Tropsch technology, which makes it possible for coal to be converted into liquid fuels. By all accounts, this industrialism was successful, but the beneficiaries were the white minority and, like cheap coal, cheap black labour also formed the backbone of this one-sided dirty industrialism. The 1912 Land Act ‘freed’ up black farmers and the Africa peasantry, forcing them into the chattels of urban industrialism and the mines. So, if we are to talk about decolonisation, let us start with this history before we become obsessively critical of cleaner energy industrialism, which is the new wave of industrialism emanating from the northern, developed economies.
Secondly, the logic that everything that relates to the green economy is European or Western in origin shows up the poverty of analysis than the truth of reality. It is true that much of the discourse promoting concepts such as sustainability, green growth and green economy had its origin in northern, developed economy environmentalism. The intellectualism on environmentalism is dominated by Western thinking, academia, think-tanks, foreign relations agencies and donor agencies. It is also true that patents for green technologies are still held by Western-dominated firms and institutions, but one must include here South Korea and Japan.
Environmentalism, though, is no longer a Western phenomenon – it has gone global. The borders between what is north and south are becoming increasingly blurred. There is also an active indigenisation of environmentalism as national or local groups discover their own environmental roots before colonial history or even the advent of the dominant Western discourse. However, this intellectualism is diverse and rich, and ranges from capitalist models to socialist versions of environmentalism. There is no singular view of what the green economy entails.
Northern, developed economies have turned environmentalism into new market opportunities, and so too have emerging economies. Emerging economies that have fallen victim to the mimetic impulse have turned to dirty industrialism for rapid growth and development, becoming the factories for Western firms. Having uplifted their populace, these countries now want to be leaders in green technologies. I am referring here to China, South Korea and India. They are driven by necessity, as they have also created a legacy of environmental damage.
China’s new 2025 manufacturing plan is aimed at making it a leading country in green technologies and places a great deal of emphasis on indigenous innovation.
Thirdly, countries adopting new green technologies in the south do so, at least, for ideologi- cal reasons or because of coercive pressure. They may play the donor and international funding game but their positions are often quite astute and expedient. There are pragmatic and practical reasons for doing so. Thanks to China’s, other major developed and emerging economies’ widespread adoption of renewables, as a case in point, has seen radical price drops that is benefiting everybody around the world.
Price reductions will also benefit Africa. The rapid adoption of cellphones in Africa has been driven by need, innovative entrepreneurship and price decreases. Whereas cellphones were the preserve of northern, developed economies, they are the advantage of poorer countries that want to leap-frog into the twenty-first century without governments having to invest in massive new communications infrastructure.
Cellphones have enabled other forms of indigenous innovation, such as M-Pesa, agro-info aggregation, remote market exchanges and many other applications. Renewables will in future not only replace diesel generation (a major source of power in grid-deprived West Africa) but will co-exist as hybrid systems with diesel generation. Again, necessity is the mother of all innovation – not ideology nor a green imperialist conspiracy, as Muller seems to suggest.
This has all been driven by consumer power and private investment. The same will happen with new energy technologies that are modular and are driven by user needs and will bypass what will soon become outdated centralised models of delivering energy services.
It is trite and misinformed to suggest that green colonisation is a Western and northern phenomenon only, as southern, emerging and developed economies are also pushing the green technology wave out of self-interest and to outcompete northern, developed economies. It is clear that the issue of green decolonisation is a lot more variegated, complex and nuanced. Let us have a richer discussion on the green economy.