a A few years ago, a group of my students told me they believed capitalism would fix the climate crisis. It was the end of the term and we had spent weeks discussing world politics. They were not uncritical or naive. But as fires raged in homes and floodwaters splashed down people’s stairs, with extreme weather driven by the climate crisis hitting countries around the world, they looked at the global scale of the economic and political forces driving capitalism and wondered if this might be the best of us. Coincidence. If the system has no other choice but to correct course when faced with a planetary collapse. Adrian Buller’s latest book, The Value of a PiscesAnd the Take off whatever their hopes are. And she argues that green capitalism won’t save us — and if anything, it’s only making the climate crisis worse.
Green capitalism may not be what you think it is. With much discussion of the danger of climate denial and criticism of the climate-conscious ads of oil and gas companies, Bowler’s book points to a shift we risk missing. In the past decade, some capitalists have embraced green politics and it’s not just for the sake of optics. Viewing the climate crisis as an unprecedented threat to capitalism, they do not want to disprove its existence but rather to solve it. As an example, read the annual letter from BlackRock CEO, Larry Fink. Their approaches — “smart prices, markets, and financial products,” Bowler writes — “direct much of the global response to the environmental crisis.” So, in reading Bowler, my students’ optimism was at least partially grounded: Capitalists had woken up to the problem. But what are we to make of their solutions?
“The point of the book is to try to climb inside the head of someone who might be considered a green capitalist,” she says from her living room when we speak over Zoom. Bowler, director of research at the think tank UK ParliamentShe finds that her skepticism of this approach grows in her first job outside of university. She works at a foundation that has researched how business and finance affect the climate, and describes her previous role as “engaging investors in shareholder oversight and modeling how investment portfolios align with the 1.5°C target”. She used to say that the people she worked with were honest about their belief in sustainable investing, 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” — resulted in a Pisces value. By assessing the merit of green capitalist policies on their own terms, Bowler singles them out to see if they pass “fundamental tests”: do they work now? Will they? Will they create injustice in the process?
This is where Pisces comes in. Bowler has a special affinity for these giant but streamlined creatures: Growing up, you’ll see them in the wild near their hometown of Vancouver, Canada. In 2019, researchers at the International Monetary Fund set out to calculate the value of a whale. Putting together the number of ecotourists luring whales to different countries, as well as the animals’ ability to store carbon, they came to $2 million per large whale. Converting them into green capitalist money was in essence; “Squeezing the climate and biodiversity crisis through the lens of neoclassical economics,” Bowler writes. Here, the climate crisis is both a threat and an opportunity.
Referring to journalist Kate Aronoff’s overheating and academic John Bellamy Foster as influences (Kohei Saito’s Capital in the AnthropoceneAnd the coming in english, He talks about similar topics), Bowler’s book sparked a lot of people’s interest when it was published in July, including in the financial and corporate sector. “My Linkedin was out of control,” she says with a smile. Its appeal may lie in the way it systematically examines the “fatal flaws” in the green capitalists’ various approaches.
The Value of a Whale argues that their version of decarbonization maintains existing inequalities while creating new opportunities for profit – neither a viable response to the crisis we have created nor an equitable response. You cite three examples. First, carbon offsets, which often depend on capturing the Global South—just one way in which the freedom to consume affordable goods in the increasingly rich world depends on the unfreedom of people around the world. Second, environmentally conscious investing, which is based almost entirely on unregulated definitions of sustainability. and third, asset management capitalism, under which huge investment firms shape government climate policy so that out of the many options available the attractive one will have preference. “Think about replacing cars with electric vehicles 1:1, rather than investing in mass transit,” she told me. “It’s not all climate politics,” Bowler saysGood climate policy.
One of the main green capitalist policies it espouses is carbon pricing. Endorsed by politicians, academics and the media, it covers a carbon tax and Cover and trade charts. The market is supposed to absorb the cost of carbon by increasing its price and encouraging companies to switch to cheaper and cleaner energy sources. It’s the “effective” market solution to decarbonization, according to its proponents.
But according to Bowler, the “theoretical elegance” of such policies has little to do with the scale, complexity, and pace of the problems facing humanity. Carbon pricing does not distinguish between different sources. For example: SUV drivers and people who cannot replace their gas boiler are affected in the same way. And even if it succeeds, it cannot work alone. Decarbonization “is not something a price signal can take away just given how deeply entrenched these infrastructures are in every part of the global economy,” she says. It needs “massive, strategic and carefully planned investments”.
So much of the global economy centers around fossil fuels that for carbon pricing to be successful, the price must be either “so high as to be economically devastating,” Bowler argues, “particularly for the poor and indefensible for that reason.” Or it should be kind enough to get approval and not cause real economic harm, especially to the poor. And in that case, it’s not likely to have a real effect.” This isn’t just a knot that we can untie as we go along. “Evidence is that it doesn’t work now at anything like the speed or range that would be needed,” she says, “and there’s little reason to think it is. Will succeed in the envisioned future.” She later sent me a link to Recently Academic studies that, she says, prove her point.
Grow and take the world as it is, as the capitalists point out – green capitalism offers us something better than nothing. Going along with it, Bowler writes, means willfully ignoring “the accelerating and increasingly desperate pace of climate and environmental collapse; the failure of capitalism to provide basic well-being and freedom for the majority of the world; the infinite possibility that things could be different.”
Returning to the whale, at the end of our conversation, Bowler says, “They are a species that is aware of how the oceans and the planet as a whole work.” She raised her sleeve to show me a small whale tattooed on her arm, the same one that’s in the front of her book and that is pictured at the beginning of each chapter. “Their lifespan is so long that when they die you can see the invention of plastics and the acceleration of fuel-based infrastructure and agriculture,” she says. They keep it in their bodies.
Pisces should force us to think again. She says, “There is something profound about the whale when it comes to thinking about our relationship to the world that prompts us to at least reconsider our place at the top of the ecosystem because this is an exclusively intelligent organism… to reposition us in a web of existence rather than at the top of some kind of pyramid.”
Completely at odds with green capitalism, this is a glimpse into the other world that Bowler tells us is possible.