“Green Capitalism” Is a Lie

Policymakers who have belatedly recognized the peril of climate change now promote incremental, market-based solutions to the crisis. But there’s no way we can prevent ecological disaster without tackling the vested interests at the heart of global capitalism.

A forest fire burns, destroying dozens of acres of land in the province of Sassari on September 17, 2022, in Berchidda, Sassari, Italy. (Emanuele Perrone / Getty Images)

The development of “green capitalism” forms the subject of Adrienne Buller’s new book, The Value of a Whale. According to Buller, the ideology of green capitalism seeks to “preserve existing capitalist systems and relations in response to an unprecedented threat” while at the same time “ensuring new domains for accumulation in the transition to a decarbonized and sustainable economy.”

The book offers a rich and extremely useful overview of the many manifestations of this general green capitalist project: climate cost models using a “discount rate,” carbon pricing and offsets, and so-called ESG (environment, social, and governance) investing. Buller clearly explains the underlying rationales behind these policy ideas embraced by economists and financial capitalists alike and reminds us that there’s little evidence they work. Yet those in power persist in believing that might change, someday soon.

The Value of a Whale also shows effectively how preposterous it is that the most powerful people on Earth seem so confident in these “solutions.” The very same figures oversee a global financial regime that both drives the crisis and deploys regimes of debt and structural adjustment to hamstring the poorest countries — the same countries that happen to be most threatened by ongoing ecological crisis and climate breakdown.

While its analyses of the fundamental inequalities shaping global value transfers sometimes misses the mark in my view, The Value of a Whale is a powerful and convincing rejection of green capitalism as a potential solution to the climate and nature crisis.

Marx and Melville

What is the value of a whale? Karl Marx would have had some thoughts on this question. He would first have wanted to separate any discussion of capitalist value from broader social constructions of cultural, aesthetic, and spiritual value or “worth.” For Marx, capitalist value was a much narrower — and, like a whale itself, bedazzling — phenomenon of commodity exchangeability.

How is it that, under capitalism, we can say that things like a $10 T-shirt and a smartphone app are equal in value? For Marx, we must start by acknowledging something all commodities share: they are products of human labor.

Although Marx departed from the labor theory of value of Adam Smith and David Ricardo, he did fundamentally believe that for a commodity to bear value, it required human labor for its production. From this perspective, it’s obvious that a whale has no value in itself, since its production is fundamentally a biological process shaped by nonhuman systems of marine life.

And yet Herman Melville’s Captain Ahab would attest that in the particular conditions of nineteenth-century capitalism, the whale’s blubber was quite valuable as a source of illumination oil — and the labor process needed to obtain such oil was as harrowing as it comes. After petroleum provided a cheaper form of illumination — one that required much less though still harrowing forms of labor — the value of a whale plummeted.

But not to nothing. Even today, workers create “value” by organizing tourist whale-watching expeditions — purchasing boats and tools that are also made by human hands. Such value creation for whale-watching capital surely disrupts whale lives and migratory patterns.

It is clear, and Marx would agree, that the “value” capitalism can extract from the whale is a woefully inadequate proxy for the sheer beauty and cultural value of the creature itself. This has not stopped armies of economists, policy wonks, and politicians from thinking we can somehow align capitalist value systems and market prices with the imperatives of solving climate change and other ecological crises.

Asset Managing the Apocalypse

One of the most powerful aspects of Buller’s book is the way in which she conveys the urgency of transformative action. Her text includes countless examples of the utter horrors of capitalist ecological destruction, including the story of a beached whale that was found with an entire intact greenhouse in its body.

A mere 2 degrees of global heating — a level we seem destined to hit — would lead to the destruction of 99 percent of tropical reefs. Melting arctic ice has led to amplified heating and a wave of Siberian forest fires, “which in the past year spewed a toxic cocktail of ozone, benzene, and dangerous particulates into the air so thick the event was described by officials as an ‘airpocalypse.’”

Vivid examples of planetary breakdown like this are common enough, but they serve Buller’s purpose well, because they effectively reveal the preposterous nature of any idea that business-as-usual, free-market capitalism could somehow put a stop to these cascading effects. The urgency of her writing shows that we require much more transformative solutions.

The book also offers a much-needed account of the role of asset-manager firms in driving a new form of green capitalist hype. Political economists have only recently taken notice of the gigantic power of these firms in shaping the architecture of global finance.

The extent of their power is staggering. As Buller observes, just three firms — BlackRock, State Street, and Vanguard — together control more than one-fifth of any given S&P company and hold up to one-quarter of the average public company’s shareholder vote in the United States, not to mention 80 per cent of the market for exchange-traded funds (ETFs).

These companies also have direct political influence: for example, the Biden administration’s economic team is led by BlackRock alum Brian Deese. Over the last few decades, Federal Reserve policy has prioritized maintaining rising asset values across the economy as a whole above any commitment to rising wages or full employment.

Asset-manager firms amount to a new form of common ownership that favors generalized growth across the vast domain of index-based funds over any interest in a particular firm’s performance. I have recently argued that climate activists should shift their attention away from consumers and their carbon footprints and toward those who own and control the means of carbon-intensive production. Yet Buller’s account shows how complex and concentrated the category of “ownership” is in our contemporary, financialized form of capitalism, posing a real challenge for campaigners.

Any industrial capitalist doing the dirty, carbon-intensive work of digging up and selling fossil fuels, forging steel, or making chemical fertilizer must pay less attention to the material processes of production — not to mention its destructive ecological effects — and more to their financial overlords demanding increased quarterly returns and rising share prices.

The ESG Hype

The role of asset-manager capitalism in the global economy expanded significantly after the financial crisis of 2008 — a crisis that one might have thought would teach regulators not to let particular firms become “too big to fail.” What makes Buller’s account so useful and timely is her ability to situate these firms as the core drivers of the new craze: ESG investing.

Buller rightly labels the hype around ESG largely “smoke and mirrors.” Her arguments have been further vindicated since the book was finished. When powerful politicians in the fossil fuel states of Texas and West Virginia attempted to organize a boycott of firms like BlackRock, accusing them of being captured by “woke capitalism,” BlackRock executives predictably distanced themselves from more aggressive climate goals.

A report on the firm’s voting strategy included the following sentence: “Many climate-related shareholder proposals sought to dictate the pace of companies’ energy transition plans with little regard to the disruption caused to their financial performance. “

Moving forward, BlackRock has pledged to avoid “prescriptive” investing that would favor one energy source over another on the basis of ecological criteria — according to the company, market competition should decide.

In her analysis, Buller usefully highlights the important distinction between sustainable “investing” — the idea that we can align shareholder returns with green goals — and sustainable “investment” — actual productive investments in a new green economy. The notion that finance can ignite massive productive investment is pure delusion. It is a financialized political economy that has led to declining levels of real investment across the board.

An Imperial Mode of Living?

Since the book contains such a sharp account of the concentrated power and wealth of asset managers and finance capital, it is somewhat disappointing when The Value of a Whale turns to a very different kind of analysis of global ecological inequalities. After discussing the ways in which International Monetary Fund structural adjustment programs and other coercive mechanisms have for decades imposed the chains of finance capital and debt on the Global South, Buller asserts that it is ordinary workers in the Global North — not the owners of capital — who are the prime beneficiaries of worldwide drains of wealth that sustain “excess consumption.”

To make this argument, she draws from an increasingly popular, but in my view fundamentally misguided, concept of “the imperial mode of living.” This concept derives from the German scholars Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen. As Buller summarizes it:

By providing a measure of security and material comfort to the majority of the population within capitalist centres such as Europe and North America, the “imperial mode” is the basis by which the working and middle classes in those centres remain in compromise with capital.

Through this compromise, she argues, the working classes of the Global North are guilty of draining resources and labor from the Global South simply by living their lives.

This kind of argument might have seemed plausible in the postwar era of strong working-class power, but it makes no sense after a multidecade assault on the wages and living standards of the working and middle classes in the Global North. Even when speaking of that earlier period, it is highly debatable whether we should understand the working-class gains of the postwar decades in Europe and North America as deriving from fundamentally exploitative, imperial processes.

Of course, this brings up old debates among socialists about the veracity of the so-called “labor aristocracy” theory. This suggested that a privileged layer of the working class in the wealthiest capitalist states — or perhaps even the working class as a whole — received some of the benefits of colonial superprofits. In any case, it is hard to claim that any such aristocracy exists today, if indeed it ever existed in the first place.

Fueling the Fire

Working-class and middle-class people in the Global North might indeed gain some material comforts based on resource flows from the Global South: anyone who drinks coffee can hardly deny this. However, extensive research on inequality has shown that the main monetary beneficiaries of neoliberal capitalism can be found among the top 10 percent of these countries. In fact, the benefits are highly concentrated among an even narrower layer — the top 0.1 percent.

Christopher Lakner and Branko Milanovic have developed a famous “elephant curve” graph to illustrate global patterns of inequality. Their work shows that middle-class and working-class layers in the world’s rich countries have essentially seen no income gains during the period of neoliberal globalization, with the gains concentrated among the wealthy at one extreme and the world’s poorest people at the other. The latter trend is visible above all in China.

The World Inequality Lab recently produced a report that analyzes responsibility for carbon emissions in Germany and France, linking wealth ownership in capital stock to production emissions. Production emissions arise from burning fossil fuels or consuming electricity in the process of producing commodities, whereas household emissions are linked to residential electricity usage, household heating, and transportation.

The results based on capital ownership in production emissions are staggering. The bottom 90 percent of the population are only responsible for 17.2 percent (France) and 11.9 percent (Germany) of such emissions. The bottom 50 percent are responsible for just 1.9 percent and 1.1 percent in the two countries respectively!

The share of emissions accounted for by those social layers rises when we add their “direct” household emissions to the total. However, I would argue that the capitalists who provide the fuel for such emissions deserve more of the blame than the households (in contrast, the authors of the report attribute 100 percent of those emissions to the households). It is those firms that actually profit from such fuel sales and whose entire purpose is to continue accumulating those profits through the expansion of fossil fuel production for decades to come.

In short, even if workers derive some comfort from the current setup, capital gets all the money. Corporate profits are based on the dual exploitation of workers and resources from the Global North and South alike.

Instead of pitting these workers against each other, we should identify their common enemy and exploiter in the form of capitalists like the BlackRock CEO Larry Fink. An understanding of this shared interest and solidarity is necessary to building a global working-class movement able to beat back the relatively unchallenged rule of capital that we have seen over the last several decades.

Us and Them

Another problem with this mode of thinking is that it fundamentally attributes the problem of ecological breakdown to consumption — or a “mode of living” — rather than the social and class organization of production (also known as a mode of production). According to Buller, “The evidence that affluent consumption is the primary driver of ecological crisis is expansive.”

This makes it sound as if the power to drive ecological destruction does not lie in ownership but in consuming power, with figures like Fink only causing such damage when they leave the shiny offices of their companies and begin spending their wealth. Yet it is Fink’s BlackRock role that sees him manage wealth flows around the world to innumerable carbon-intensive projects. Such activity must be vastly more important than whatever fuel or meat he consumes in his personal life.

This kind of analysis is quite mainstream among the environmental left today, along with the degrowth ideology underpinning it. However, if we want to actually build a mass movement capable of taking on the power of firms like BlackRock, we will not succeed by describing the majority of the population in states like the United States or the UK as imperial or too comfortable in their standard of living.

Despite these quibbles, The Value of a Whale is a well-researched and excellent overview of the misplaced faith in green capitalist, market-based solutions. It also represents an urgent analysis of the new financial structures of ownership and power today and their maniacal confidence that we can trust them to solve the crises we face. The astonishing concentration of this power should at least give us some comfort: there are far more of us than there are of them.