Despite their apparent allegiance to growth at any cost, the larger developing nations are showing some commitment to new-economy values.
Brazil seems to be taking the lead in terms of carving out alternative paths: it touts one of the most ambitious and effective anti-poverty programs in the world, has a fair share of corporations that pursue environmental goals, and is home to several large cities that have pioneered “green” paths of urbanization. Yet while the Brazilian government took major strides over the past decade to protect the vast Amazon basin, President Dilma Rousseff (elected in 2010) has been backsliding on these protections. 

In China and India, bottom-up pressures for a new economy—or at least for something different from the old economy’s focus on growth—are increasing. China suffers from deep environmental degradation; in the past year alone, the government has been severely challenged by tens of thousands of protesters bravely putting themselves in front of coal-fired power plants, a copper smelter, petrochemical plants and trash incinerators. In India, strong citizen movements continue their long history of protesting huge industrial projects and fighting for alternatives that protect forests and watersheds.

In some smaller developing countries, like Bolivia and Ecuador, governments and movements have embraced the need for systemic change, including adding constitutional amendments enshrining the rights of nature and their citizens’ right to clean water—and both governments are renegotiating trade and investment agreements to curb the rights of corporations as well. Since 2009, the government of El Salvador has refused to issue gold-mining licenses. And tiny Bhutan has become famous for standing firm in its conviction that national progress should be measured in terms of such concepts as well-being and happiness.

Despite these steps forward, at the global Rio+20 summit in Brazil in June, governments refused to embrace any bold collective alternatives. Under the banner of a “green economy,” they seemed more interested in increasing corporate profits from greener consumption than they were in protecting the planet. Developing nations will need help leapfrogging the fossil fuel era. Instead of pursuing old-economy strategies to catch up to their wealthier neighbors, poorer nations and popular movements should continue to place concerted pressure on richer nations to fund innovative initiatives that will help chart a new-economy course.

Efforts to reduce unemployment and curb inequality must be considered alongside urgent threats to the environment and democracy, write John Cavanagh and Robin Broad in “It's the New Economy, Stupid.”