• Lead-organizer: United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD)
  • 15:30 - 17:00
  • Date: 15 Jun 2012
  • Room: T-5

Integrating the social dimensions of green economy into policy

Organizing partners

United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD, lead organizer)
International Social Science Council (ISSC)


The preparatory process for Rio+20 has called for renewed attention to the social dimensions of development. However, the green economy and sustainable development debates have largely been dominated by economic and environmental concerns. This side event brings together policy-relevant lessons from recent research by UNRISD, UNESCO and ISSC with a focus on how narratives both reflect and shape social change. Sustainability calls for judgements about connections between heterogeneous beings linked by diffuse and uncertain connections. Achieving sustainability depends on a strong knowledge base, effectively deployed, but it cannot be thought of purely in technical or epistemic terms. What is required is a reflexive relation between agents accepting responsibility for the very long-term effects of their actions and the non-humans and systems to which they relate. Sustainability thus calls into question both identity and orientation in the world. This means that sustainability cannot be achieved without being imagined, and cannot be imagined without being inscribed in narratives. The side event will focus on an alternative narrative of sustainable development emphasizing the gaps and barriers that need to be overcome in order for the social dimensions of green economy to be better integrated into green economy decision-making.

Detailed programme

The side event will report on ongoing work among some of the partners, including a one-day workshop organized on 14 June in the context of the ICSU Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development. It will consider the competing narratives, and approaches to narrative, that relate to sustainability, and in particular the missing stories that currently impede the capacity to imagine a sustainable future. Specifically, we will outline what a “social lens” on the green economy might look like, pointing to the key role for social policy in addressing negative social impacts of transition, institutional change, and achieving policy coherence. These social dimensions are not add-ons to economic or environmental concerns, but underpin the process of structural transformation required to move towards development policies that are inclusive, equitable and sustainable. Finally, we will highlight directions for future research in this area, to understand the social challenges of sustainability, the social functions and dynamics of narrative, and the ways in which a green society can be underpinned by an alternative story of sustainability.

Emphasizing narrative does not mean rejecting current framings of international discussions on sustainable development in favour of some utopian alternative. The point is rather that current framings are narratives too.

The green economy, for instance, is a story – a story about technical and economic challenges which, if overcome, can open the path to more sustainable futures. And it excludes many important aspects of sustainability. To date, in particular, green economy and sustainable development debates have been dominated by environmental and economic concerns, while social issues have consistently received least attention. There is as yet little consensus on how the social dimensions of green economy should be defined and addressed; what mix of social, economic and environmental policies are required; or about what kinds of institutional and participatory processes are most effective in framing policies.

Consistently with this narrative, in policy discussions, the social dimensions of the green economy are often addressed quite narrowly in terms of green jobs, incentives for green consumerism, and the kinds of education/retraining, social protection safety-nets and social dialogue required to facilitate the transition. At the same time, we see a great deal of technical emphasis on decoupling economic growth from carbon emissions, via green technologies, green financing and the greening of markets (such as PES, REDD etc.) or green growth. Currently, policies that address social dimensions tend to focus, first, on issues of protection and compensation of those negatively affected by certain processes of change, and second, on attaining co-benefits between the three spheres of sustainable development. However, this approach may not go far enough towards transforming the fundamental structural inequalities and political inconsistencies at the centre of current global crises, poverty and unsustainable development.

The side event will consider this script in connection with alternative story lines that might help policy-makers in moving towards understanding the social cornerstones of sustainable development, and thus towards a more social perspective on the green economy. In other words, the ability of the international community to reach agreement around the green economy is related, in part, to how compelling it is as a story.

Alternative narratives – of human hybris, of geopolitical imbalances, of social injustice, and others either current or to be invented – operate in the same way. They tell a story of what is wrong, how it can be fixed, and what kind of future might emerge from fixing it. Such narratives produce real social, political, cultural and economic effects to the extent people relate to them – by rejection or by subscription. Stories are shaped by their audiences as much by those who tell them.The side event will report on a series of ongoing activities organized by the partners in places where telling sustainability stories is both a challenge and work in progress – because of the rapidity of social change, specific environmental vulnerabilities or tensions between established identities and the challenges of adaptation. The hypothesis, which is being tested both conceptually and empirically, is that storytelling can translate between environmental and social change and thereby make an essential contribution to the development of adaptation capacities. We thus propose not just to analyze the role of narratives in shaping or impeding social change, but also to reflect collectively on how to create the framework needed for robust and useful narratives of change. Bringing together scientific analysis, artistic imagination and social self-understanding opens a space in which alternative futures can be imagined and their stories told. Whereas adaptation is too often considered to be a primarily technical and economic issue, it is in fact a comprehensive social process, which is profoundly cultural and bears on issues far beyond any narrow understanding of the “environment”.

Reflecting the emphasis on the cultural dimensions of adaptation, the side event will report on the outcomes of a one-day workshop organized in Rio de Janeiro on 14 June in the context of the ICSU Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for Sustainable Development, during which particular emphasis will be put on art. It is proposed, notably, to fumble around “The Elephant in the Room”, a concept elaborated in cooperation with the South African sculptor Andries Botha in reference to his life-size elephants of wood, metal and recycled rubber, which evoke everything we elide about sustainable development. The abstract, mute systems of climate and biodiversity for which, nonetheless, we are required to take responsibility. The impossible, indispensable dialogue with all our planet mates. The ghostly presence of those future generations for whose benefit we are called upon to act sustainably. The need to imagine new forms of transformative thinking, living and acting – and not simply seek technical solutions. At the same time, of course, the elephant, both powerful and vulnerable, is a poignant metaphor for the fragility of the environment. Imposing the presence of the absent elephant will both anchor and unsettle our discussions on 14 June – and the side event on 15 June will be the occasion to take stock of what will have emerged.

Sustainable development is a demanding story. It needs to connect social and environmental dimensions that are often kept separate, and to understand the economic implications of each. It needs to adopt a lengthy and indefinite timeframe, and at the same time to relate it to short-term challenges. And it needs to give a central place to human beings while recognizing that it is non-human systems and entities that largely set the terms of human survival. Reflecting on narratives is thus no a distraction in the quest for sustainable development – it is core business.

John Crowley, UNESCO
Patrick Degeorges, Environment Ministry, France
Grégory Quenet, University of Versailles, France
Alexandre Florentin, MyCity+20
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