A A few years ago, a group of my students told me they thought capitalism would solve the climate crisis. It was the end of the mandate and we had spent weeks discussing world politics; they were not uncritical or naïve. But as fires raged in homes and water flooded people’s stairways, with extreme weather driven by the climate crisis affecting countries around the world, they examined the global scale of the economic and political forces driving capitalism and they are asked if that could be our best opportunity. If the system had no choice but to correct course in the face of planetary collapse. Adrienne Buller’s recent book, The Value of a Whale, it shatters any hopes they might have had. Green capitalism will not save us, he argues, if anything it is making the climate crisis worse.
Green capitalism may not be what you think it is. With much discussion of the dangers of climate denial and criticism of climate-conscious advertisements from oil and gas companies, Buller’s book points to a change we stand to miss. In the last decade, some capitalists have embraced green politics and not just for the sake of optics. Seeing the climate crisis as an unprecedented threat to capitalism, they do not want to disprove its existence, but to solve it. For example, read BlackRock CEO Larry Fink’s annual letter. Their approaches — “smart pricing, markets and financial products,” Buller writes — are now “driving much of the global response to the ecological crisis.” In reading Buller, therefore, my students’ optimism was at least partially founded: capitalists have realized the problem. But what to do with their solutions?
“The goal of the book is to try and get into the head of someone who would count as a green capitalist,” she says from her living room when we talk on Zoom. Buller, director of research at the Common Wealth thinktank, found that his skepticism about this approach grew at his first job out of college. Working for an organization that has studied how business and finance affect the climate, he describes his previous role as “engaging investors in shareholder management and modeling how to align investment portfolios with the goal of 1.5° C”. The people she worked with were candid about their belief in sustainable investing, she says, but she wasn’t convinced.
This, plus her desire to “radicalize” people like her mother – someone who “cares about the climate crisis, cares about my future, is interested in politics, but isn’t an expert” – led to The Value of at Whale. Assessing the merits of green capitalism policies on their own terms, Buller separates them to see if they pass the “basic tests”: Do they work now? Will they ever? Will they create injustice in the process?
This is where the whale comes into play. Buller has a special affinity for these hulking but slender creatures: growing up, he saw them in the wild near his hometown of Vancouver, Canada. In 2019, IMF researchers set out to calculate the value of a whale. Adding up the number of ecotourists whales attract to different countries, plus the animals’ ability to store carbon, they came to $2 million for each large whale. Monetizing them was essentially green capitalism; “squeezing the climate and biodiversity crisis through the lens of neoclassical economics,” Buller writes. Here, the climate crisis is both a threat and an opportunity.
Referencing Overheated by journalist Kate Aronoff and academic John Bellamy Foster as influences (Kohei Saito’s book Capital in the Anthropocene, soon to be released in English, discusses similar themes), Buller’s book generated a lot of interest when it was published in July, including in the financial and corporate sector. “My LinkedIn ads have been out of hand,” he says with a smile. His appeal may lie in the way he methodically examines the “fatal flaws” in the different approaches of green capitalists.
The Value of a Whale argues that their version of decarbonization preserves existing inequalities while creating new opportunities for profit – neither a feasible answer to the crisis we have created, nor a right one. You cite three examples. First, carbon offsetting, which often relies on conquering the global south: just one way that the freedom to consume affordable goods in the rich world increasingly relies on the lack of freedom of people across the globe. world. Secondly, environmentally conscious investments, which are based on definitions of sustainability that are almost entirely unregulated. And third, asset manager capitalism, whereby large investment firms shape government climate policy so that among the multitude of available options, the one that is attractive to them is preferred. “Think about 1:1 replacement of cars with electric vehicles, instead of investing in mass transit,” she tells me. “Not all climate policies,” Buller says, “are good climate policies.”
One of the main policies of green capitalism that it has in its sights is the price of carbon. Approved by politicians, academics and the media, it covers a carbon tax and cap-and-trade schemes. The market should internalize the cost of carbon by raising its price and encouraging companies to switch to cheaper and cleaner energy sources. It is the “efficient” market solution to decarbonisation, according to its proponents.
But according to Buller, the “theoretical elegance” of policies like this bear too little relation to the scale, complexity and pace of the problems facing humanity. The price of carbon does not distinguish between different sources. For example: SUV drivers and people who can’t afford to replace their gas boiler are equally affected. And while it can work, it can’t work by itself. Decarbonization “isn’t something that a price signal can simply eliminate, given how integrated this infrastructure is into every part of the global economy,” he says. It needs “huge strategic and carefully planned investments”.
Much of the global economy is structured around fossil fuels which, for carbon pricing to be successful, the price would need to be “so high that it is economically devastating,” Buller argues, “particularly for the poor and is unsustainable for that reason.” Or it should be nice enough to get consent and not cause real economic harm, particularly to the poorest. And if so, it’s unlikely to really have an impact. These are simply not kinks we can untie as we go.” The evidence suggests it’s not working now at the required pace or scale,” he says, “and there’s little reason to think it will in the imagined future.” He then sends me a link to recent academic studies which, he says, demonstrate the his point of view.
Growing up and engaging with the world as it is, capitalists imply: green capitalism offers us something that is better than nothing. But to go along with this, Buller writes, is to willfully ignore “the accelerating and increasingly desperate pace of climate and ecological collapse; the failure of capitalism to provide basic welfare and freedom for the majority of the world; the boundless possibility that things are different.”
Back to the whale, at the end of our conversation, Buller says, “They are sentient species as far as the ocean and the planet as a whole are doing.” He rolls up his sleeve to show me a small whale tattooed on his arm, the same one that’s on the cover of his book and featured at the beginning of each chapter. “Their lifespan is so long that when they die you can see the invention of plastic and the acceleration of fuel-based infrastructure and agriculture,” he says. “They keep it in their bodies.”
Alien yet intimate, the whale should force us to think again. He says: “There is something profound about the whale when it comes to thinking about our relationship to the world that at least compels us to reconsider our position at the apex of the ecosystem as this uniquely intelligent being… to reposition ourselves in a network of existence rather than at the top of a sort of pyramid.
Completely at odds with green capitalism, this is a glimpse into the other world that Buller says is possible.