A Caring Approach to Sustainable Development: A Feminist Perspective on Why the Green Economy Concept Falls Short

A Caring Approach to Sustainable Development includes adressing the social costs of "green development"
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A Caring Approach to Sustainable Development includes adressing the social costs of "green development"


Daniela Gottschlich

By Daniela Gottschlich

By deciding to focus on the green economy at the Rio+20 Conference in 2012, which was proposed by the United Nations Environment Programme in 2011 as a major contribution to the summit, the UN is now putting a concept aimed at improving “human well-being” and “social equity” while simultaneously reducing “environmental risks” and “ecological scarcities” on the international agenda. The main focus is on industrial production that is more efficient in terms of its energy and resource use, as well as on environmentally responsible consumption. But is this concept, which is interpreted in different ways by different actors, capable of actually providing new impetus for the necessary transition towards sustainability?

Proponents of the feminist care perspective, in which the focus is on caring for people and nature, consider that the concept of the green economy (as it has been discussed so far) does not lead to fundamental change because it does not break with the dogma of growth or with the economy’s one-dimensional focus on the market and production. What is needed is a fundamental change of perspective and policy priorities which women’s networks and feminist economists have been calling for since the early 1990’s through a care and precaution focused perspective that prioritizes equitable human development and the satisfaction of basic human needs which are inconceivable without a sustainable safeguarding of livelihoods.

Care as one of the major points of reference in feminist economics is mainly concerned with “care work”, that is, the tasks involved in the care that we give to ourselves and others, particularly to children, the elderly, and those in need of care. Because of gender norms and roles, women are globally the primary givers of care, largely unpaid and underappreciated. In a broader understanding of care (following Joan Tronto’s seminal work from 1993) as used here – and implied in Agenda 21 and the Rio principles 20 years ago in the form of precaution and intergenerational justice –, the term also includes care (work) for future generations, as well as for nature. These complex interdependent social relationships do not only encompass everything needed on a personal level to shape and maintain a “good life”, but also involve preserving the social fabric of societies and (re)generating them. In conjunction with the productivity of nature, care work thus forms the basis of all economic development. Both the preservation of these foundations and the configuration of the relationship between processes of production and reproduction determined by the market and organised by the lifeworld are essential to sustainable development.

One will notice that in the current definition of a green economy, the links between the market economy and the care economy are not made. This is problematic in several ways.

Firstly, the much-criticised “halved” perspective of predominant economic thinking and the dichotomisation of “productive” and “reproductive” spheres inscribed in it are maintained in the discourse on sustainability, including in UN led processes.

Secondly, the green economy pays scant or no attention to the interconnected crises in the market economy and the care economy, negatively disproportionally affecting women all over the world. The burden of safeguarding one’s own survival increases during periods of economic crisis as new boundaries are drawn between public and private areas. For example, the restructuring of the welfare state in Europe and austerity policies in other parts of the world in order to “overcome” public indebtedness and global imbalances has led to cutbacks in public infrastructure. On the one hand, parts of the public (mainly local) care services and welfare are being transferred to private-sector actors whose services citizens must now buy as clients, if they can afford to. On the other hand, formerly socialised tasks are being shifted (back) to private households and thus to carers and/or volunteers, the majority of which are women.

A third problem becomes apparent when life-related care is confronted with the market economy’s logic of utilisation and efficiency. This can currently be seen in health and elderly care in the developed world where a commercialised understanding of efficiency is becoming the benchmark for the organisation of work in this sector. However, this does not lead to improved quality in the care of sick and elderly people. On the contrary, it involves “processing” a large number of patients as quickly as possible, either because of a flat-rate payment per treatment or because medical and care staff are not paid “to talk”, but rather only to provide certain care services within a set period of time. This short-sighted rationality of (monetary) utility maximisation does not have anything in common with human dignity and quality of life. The transfer of capitalist economic principles has a destructive impact both on the person receiving care and on people who take their care work seriously.

As an analytical category, care is useful in questioning and criticising the normative principles of prevailing economic thinking and actions. However, the green economy has only looked at the overexploitation of natural resources so far – social, frequently gender-based exploitation has not been on its agenda. In this concept, nature is regarded as capital, as a static resource, rather than being perceived in its vitality and inherent worth. Furthermore, green economy approaches do not make the jump from “green growth” to “human development” or “sustainable livelihoods” as a basis for sustainable development.
This is precisely where the future-oriented potential of the care economy lies. This concept perceives development as embedded in the socio-ecological context and places the economics of daily life and its focus on life-giving processes at the forefront. The components for a more sustainable way of living and developing include the principles of cooperation and participation. The configuration of both labour and the economy as a whole always serves as the springboard for socio-ecological change. In this context, it is as important to reduce working hours, include the different time needs of individuals as social beings, and redistribute all socially necessary work among more people and between the genders as it is to link the processes of manufacturing, regeneration, supply and disposal in order to preserve or improve socio-ecological quality. Restructuring the economic system on primarily ecological lines, while largely omitting justice issues, is not enough to achieve sustainable development.

Click here for the pdf version of A Caring Approach to Sustainable Development (3 pages, pdf, 467KB)

Daniela Gottschlich
is a Ph.D. Student at the Leuphana Universisty in Lüneburg, Germany, where her research focuses on sustainability, feminist theories and rural development.

*A longer version of this article,“Sustainable Economic Activity: Some Thoughts on the Relationship Between the Care Economy and the Green Economy,” including bibliographical references is available online as a background paper prepared for the project Green Economy Gender_Just,  which was initiated by genanet, Germany.