Climate Change Campaigner's Biggest Challenge: Changing the Use Value of Money

28 May 2009

By Ann Danylkiw

“Clinton got it wrong. It's not, 'it’s the economy stupid,' it’s : the economy is stupid, stupid.” This, the final conclusion from Elaine Brook, the third of three panelists to discuss “How Green is your Money?” at the Guardian’s Hay on Wye literary festival Thursday. Brook, Alistair Sawday and Barbara Haddrill, an activist, a publisher, and travel book writer respectively, explained that the oft missed point of a “green economy” is re-evaluating valuation dynamics of modern economic growth.

Economic growth is commonly measured in national statistics as GDP or GNP, gross (domestic) national product—comprised of consumption (by far the largest proportion) plus investment (private) plus government spending (public investment) plus national savings plus parenthetical imports minus exports (usually vastly negative for developed countries like the US, UK, and EU and thus enviously positive for emerging economies like China and India). It lacks a coherent cost-benefit analysis of used environmental capacity or quality of life (though supposedly tackled by utility theory, the analysis utility provides is still wanting). These are topics tackled more recently by the New Economics Foundation, and many years ago by Marilyn Waring (MP, New Zealand). GDP says a lot about the volume and velocity of money flowing around an economy and very little about the way its people live.

Each panelist in turn makes their own experiential case as to why we, as individuals, must actively take positive decisions that force the economy to respond to a slower pace of life. Haddrill did so several years ago when she attended a friend’s wedding in Australia in a way that was compatible with her low carbon-lifestyle. “I saw being an environmentalist as a positive choice… I had the idea of slowing it [the trip] down so that the journey was the point, and not just the destination.”

Haddrill is a late twenty-something. In a loose hippie-style blouse and billowing brown trousers, her authority is classically statuesque: “The more I planned my travel, the more I thought about our addiction to flying and was it improving our lives? …What was it about—time or money? …All these people that have no time also say 'there is no way I could spend 7 weeks getting to Australia… its alright for you.' But why is it alright for me? I gave up my job and my life that I really loved and before I left really 80 percent of me probably actually didn’t want to travel ‘round the world by bus, boat, and train, but I did it because I made that choice and I believe we can always make that choice,” she insists.

Sawday speaks next. He is the typical perpetually “chillaxed” mid-lifer: gelled grey hair, plaid button up shirt, khaki trousers, loafers. Seeming almost like a new age preacher-man, he extols the virtues of authenticity, awareness, the political and social conviviality of the Slow Food movement—“through food, we can effect, individually, a small revolution if we buy a pig from the man next door who has grown it with love and isn’t particularly concerned about the profit and we eat it slowly and convivially with our friends, we are part of a small revolution.”

As a society, he urges, we must begin to favor people that take their time—“those that walk over those that drive,” artisans over mass production. And more importantly to acknowledge the affect the modern, faced-paced lifestyle has had on our society. He relates the time he stayed with the Amish community in Michigan, “they are intelligent about the way they view the outside world… they take a telephone and they realize that the telephone can completely disrupt and destroy their lives, but it is very clever. So they take it and put it outside their house, in a special box, and only use it between five and six in the evening, and never answer it otherwise… and the efficiency is still there… and so are the Amish.”

Elaine Brook, finishes out the trio of presenters and is the founder of a business network, Greenlinks. The view of the Green movement has evolved, in her view, “We have started with we have to want what we want now, but in a Green way—and that has moved to want something different that is Green. People have decided that they want something different and they just do it—and businesses respond!”

Brook, embodies the true spirit of a British woman—a charismatic explorer in her white linen suit, short blonde hair arranged to look casually swept back. Cheerily she recalls the years she spent living with Himalayan Buddhists, “an example of a real zero fossil fuel economy…people have really nice, big houses, a fantastic social life, they had enough to eat.” An ecologist, business woman, and activist, she says she had trouble “selling” the theory of zero carbon economies upon her return because for modern, Western societies there is no blueprint for people to relate to.

This vision of what Brook and the others suggest is very far from where we are today, but is nevertheless compelling. “I think it's possible to run a business with a lower expectation of profit and a higher expectation of community contribution. Every business is a real part of a community,” Sawday concludes; time and human contact, an awareness of the world around us—both our effect on it, and its effect on us.

As they finish there is applause, but yet a vapid sense of agreement. They make it sound so easy: make a positive decision and change the way you react to the global economy and the economy will respond via simple comparative statics. And it is an easy decision, for an audience almost entirely composed of grey hairs, twenty-something females employed by NGO’s, and white upper middle class couples. Granted this is crowd the Guardian Hay-on-Wye literary festival draws—but there is a lingering feeling that this is not the crowd that needs convincing.


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Ann is a freelance new media journalist, educated in Finance Economics. She considers herself to be a citizen of the world, though she is American by nationality, and a legal resident of the state of Wisconsin (yeah, go ahead and chuckle). See her other blog: Missing The Bear.
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