Given that we know the planet is rapidly heading towards ecological disaster, and given our knowledge of the causes and solutions, why has so little real progress been made? Why have we still not bent the curve in terms of reducing the emissions and economic practices that are causing the climate crisis? Why are mainstream economists so eager to assess the value of nature, climate-induced disasters, and planetary survival?
These are the central questions posed by Adrienne Buller in The value of a whale, a well-argued and highly relevant critique of “green capitalism” and its attempts to put a price on planetary survival. Buller is a Canadian based in the UK as Research Director for Common Wealth, a think tank that examines public ownership for a democratic and sustainable economy.
His answer to these questions is that policymakers at all levels of governance have, almost without exception, accepted the ideological framework of neoliberal economics to inform policy and have returned public decisions to the power of capital.
Hence the rise of so-called green capitalism. Green capitalism, despite the climate denialism coupled with inaction, does not necessarily deny the reality of the climate crisis, but privileges market-friendly policies and sets the stage for financial and commercial interests to dominate a future “green economy” .
“Fredric Jameson argued that it was easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. The discipline and profession of mainstream economics and market-centered forms of governance have been essential to this decline of the imagination, compressing the horizon of alternatives into a pinhead and making natural, inevitable and inescapable a world dominated by market dynamics and governed by the price mechanism,” argues Buller on the lack of imaginative thinking outside of green capitalism.
“Green capitalism is the project guiding much of the global response to the ecological crisis and the unprecedented threat to capitalist systems it presents.”
According to Buller, there are two defining pillars of the green capitalism paradigm: “first, the effort to preserve existing capitalist systems and relations in response to this unprecedented threat, and second, securing new areas of accumulation in the transition to a decarbonized and ecological economy. sustainable economy”.
For example, think of electric cars. They are certainly contributing to the goal of decarbonizing passenger vehicles and generating major new investment in new areas such as charging station infrastructure, battery technology and manufacturing, and resource extraction for raw materials. raw materials such as lithium, which are more in demand for electrification. and energy storage.
But the growth of the electric vehicle market presupposes the sustainability of a simple change in energy supply (from oil to clean electricity) as opposed to reducing the significant environmental burden of owning a personal vehicle. True decarbonization of the transportation sector would require comprehensive planning and investment in public goods such as public transit, passenger rail, and in creating high-density urban environments with access to high-volume infrastructure. The expansion of these public goods does not fit the model of green capitalism.
Another major argument in The value of a whale criticizes carbon pricing, proposed by liberal economists and embraced by Canadian governments and other advanced capitalist economies as the cheapest and most effective way to foster the transition to renewable energy and energy efficiency.
Putting a price on planetary survival is certainly a market mechanism that green capitalists would certainly adopt. In practice, however, there is little evidence of the actual effectiveness of these pricing schemes in reducing emissions, given political opposition from businesses and working-class households concerned about rising costs, and uncertainty about the level of carbon price needed to force significant changes in the economy behaviour.
Governments do not necessarily consider the distributional implications of change and instead focus on the profitability of price manipulation. In the green capitalist regime, carbon pricing is often seen as the primary lever for change when it should be secondary to regulation and economic planning. It is much more efficient and fairer, for example, to increase the price of carbon after investments in energy efficiency have been put in place to limit inefficiencies later, than to consider everything as inefficient without investment in green alternative.
Another chapter examines the concept of carbon offsets, often purchased by consumers and businesses to supposedly even out the balance on increased carbon emissions. For example, in an effort to balance their emissions spending, oil companies have invested in reforestation to absorb carbon from the atmosphere. But on the ground, there are plenty of questionable practices and wishful thinking about the impact of reforestation efforts on continued oil production. Many newly planted forests have been destroyed by wildfires and droughts, induced by climate change caused by the same increase in emissions they were meant to offset.
Buller is also highly suspicious of claims of positive impacts from ethical and environmental, social and governance (ESG) investing, widely touted by the green capitalist corporate sector as a meaningful pathway to real change. Companies may commit to voluntary carbon emissions reductions, but almost always limit monitoring and implementations to their own operations, rather than examining the broader externalities and global implications of their policies.
In Canada, major oil and gas companies, backed by government grants, have committed to reducing their domestic emissions on a schedule that includes the use of carbon capture and storage technologies. But this approach does not take into account the emissions of oil and gas exported to other countries, while counting the emission reductions of clean technologies that are still in development.
Buller shows how the ESG commitments of companies and investment funds generally amount to vague and unenforceable “greenwashing”. Even where there is some substance to the promises made, there is only a weak and tenuous link between financial investments and what really matters, namely real investments in renewable energy, energy efficiency and the just transformation of economies based on unsustainable practices.
Buller also provides excellent insight into the geopolitics of climate justice, demonstrating that many less developed countries lack the means and political power to deal with the challenges of the ecological crisis.
Although rigorous in its critique of green capitalism, Value of one Whale feels out of solutions. However, Buller goes on to articulate political ideas for a better future in another recently published work, titled Owning the Future: Power and Ownership in Times of Crisis (Back, 2022). Along with co-author Mathew Lawrence, Buller argues for democratic economic planning through the state and multiple forms of social ownership—certainly a requirement for the just transformation and decarbonization of a capitalist economy.
Adrienne Buller is Director of Research at Common Wealth. Adrienne’s writings and work have appeared in The Guardian, Jacobinthe new statesman, New Left Reviewand FinancialTimesamong others.
The value of a whale: on the illusions of green capitalism by Adrienne Buller is now available from Manchester University Press.
Andrew Jackson is Senior Policy Advisor at the Broadbent Institute.