From greed to green: A change imperative to the economy

Thursday, 28 August 2014 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

 Green growth was the idea that was pushed out at Rio+20. Sri Lankans were there and we must have said yes to the conference communiqué. A lot is expected from the teams once they are back in their home territory
It is interesting to analyse our behaviours, needs and aspirations within the current economic system. A simple analysis without much emotional attachments may reveal that we are really keen on more of everything. The more you have, the more you are respected by society and this ‘more’ really means material things. We have listened too much to the ‘Material Girl’. If we have missed in this area of pop culture, the tele-dramas usually reinforce the concept ‘if you have money you can have anything’. So you are out there making money! The tenants of the current economic system, though no theory may directly admit it, are based on nurturing the ‘greed gene’ of your body. If we are to clean our collections made over the years, throwing out unwanted things or things we have used only once or twice, there definitely would be a tsunami of materials. Almost all our advertising budgets are run on promoting ‘go for it’ and ‘to prefer more rather than less’. As success is well and truly measured on quarterly results and how some unseen shareholders are satisfied, all of us have got into a consuming machine that should run well to generate the growth. This is linear economics in action – produce more, consume more and discard more. Any slowdown on consumption is considered a global economic down turn and if someone in the EU or in the USA starts reusing innerwear beyond a certain number of washes, economies like ours can face severe consequences!  

At the mercy of the market

This ‘for more’ has become a strong driver in our existence and our work logos. Personal ethos too had been wired similarly. As such, the development theories of the ‘Washington Consensus’ points to the dominance of the market as central to development. Market forces will establish the ‘right’ equilibrium and indicate the ‘right’ thing to do. You are at the mercy of the market but today we are so happy when we get addressed and get compartmentalised. We listen with attention when we are told that this is what the Gen Y should be doing. We leave aside our common sense and join the pack with glee and start wearing the right colour and the right type of everything. Of course to fulfil these obligations, you need to go on a spending spree.  

Green growth

With these changes, the world also witnessed events such as Rio, Rio+10 and most recently Rio+20. These are the most high-profile events. Then we have Addis Abba principles. We appear to be aware of People, Planet and Profits but we need to extend our knowledge on these and more so the reasons for these directions. The world representatives decided on sustainable development as a goal in Rio and Rio+20 drove the concept of green growth as purely an end goal was found wanting. People felt that a more practical mechanism or a pathway was in need of development. Green growth was the idea that was pushed out at Rio+20. Sri Lankans were there and we must have said yes to the conference communiqué. A lot is expected from the teams once they are back in their home territory. Since then green growth has gathered momentum. The World Bank is speaking of going beyond GDP and in fact has clearly spelt out why GDP is not sufficient and does not tell the truth. We know why. GDP does not capture social costs as well as environmental costs. Coal power stations need not be monitored for mercury emissions as threats to the aquatic food chain and subsequently to the broader human society are not factored in. When a problem arises, then someone has to solve that problem. Water being a public good does not enter the market and as such pollution is not costed. Bottled water is an exception, a scenario that has resulted due to haphazard pollution that has taken place over the time. Currently air is subjected to the same carefree pollution and we see the emergence of oxygen bars and recently in China, bottled oxygen to breathe! It is easy to understand that this is not a funny state of affairs that is developing as a result of looking at development quite narrowly. Going green has become a big issue and certainly occupies airwaves. Individuals, organisations and now entire economies are declaring their intentions. Few of those are actually engaged in really achieving what had been declared. No question that the final result is quite satisfying. We still await major economies that we can truly view and emulate. However, many transformational projects and examples are available and those case studies offer much insight to the process of change. Take an example, more than a dozen coal power stations have been proposed under the new electricity generation plan. It is quite clear that the long term energy delivery depends on establishing a string of coal power stations. Simultaneously the State has identified the achievement of 20% of electricity via renewable by 2020.  

Green strategy and action plan

Sri Lanka also has a green strategy and an action plan – the Haritha Lanka program. Thus Sri Lanka technically has defined a policy of seeking renewable power, an action plan for greening many other segments, yet appear to follow the business as usual scenario. In changing we need to understand and execute that the single track of economic development is no longer the basic premise of planning. How easily we can get on to the triple track of development – economic, social and environmental – is the question to answer. Many forces are at play to ensure change does not happen. The positive feature at this stage is that broadly elements of a green economy are being discussed. Green economy cannot be heralded as if by magic. You have to work for it and in fact this can amount to a lot of work and involve some sacrifice as well.  

A green economy

It may be important to understand the meaning in a little more detailed manner. There is no one approach or one single definition for a green economy. A green economy does not favour one political perspective over another. This is quite important in our country as we always seem to look at issues through glasses made out of politically-coloured glass. It is relevant to all economies as it is to do with human existence and quality of life. The UNEP (United Nations Environmental Program) defines a green economy as one that results in human wellbeing and social equity, while significantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities. You can see that this is more holistic than the way we define the economy today.  


Going green means cultivating and being engaged to more sustainable and environmentally-friendly practices. Your activities by and large will not change. However the activities now take on a more responsible approach. One becomes more conscious of why one needs to engage in that activity. Any activity anywhere usually consumes raw materials, energy and time. Thus if an activity can be eliminated, one is going to stop consuming and enabling saving to the future the entire raw material and energy requirements. Imagine a typical activity which may involve many sub tasks. Thus an elimination implies saving of a significant quantity of useful material and energy. Consider this being repeated across over the economy. Imagine going many times to an administrative office just to obtain a signature without which the letter would not make it to the next level. I listened to a presentation yesterday which indicated that in order to support water and related issues that there are 51 Government acts and 40 institutes. However the University of Colombo research in that particular area has revealed the presence of two latrines for 65 families. Sadly, problems have remained while one may argue with each other on how to proceed. Inefficiencies mean money and resources down the drain. I am sure we have many examples. We as a nation inherited some of these practices from colonial masters though over time instead of moving towards simplification have ended up completely muddying the regulatory waters. Whether we are in a conventional economy or a green economy, such efficiencies cannot be tolerated! However in a green economy as people are placed first, you will tolerate less this type of structure than in a conventional economy. We must understand the pitfalls of a greed economy. It is time to call spade a spade rather than using nomenclature that clouds the truth. Challenges are many when one seeks a green economy, but surely when you understand the philosophy, they are well worth taking up! [The writer is Professor of Chemical and Process Engineering at the University of Moratuwa, Sri Lanka. With an initial BSc Chemical engineering Honours degree from Moratuwa, he proceeded to the University of Cambridge for his PhD. He is the Project Director of COSTI (Coordinating Secretariat for Science, Technology and Innovation), which is a newly established State entity with the mandate of coordinating and monitoring scientific affairs. He can be reached via email on]

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