books climate change economics

Book review: The Value of a Whale, by Adrienne Buller

What stops us from acting to stop climate change? Why are we yet to turn a corner on global emissions, let alone bring them down? How is so much talk by so many supposedly powerful people leading to so little action?

Adrienne Buller argues that “self-defeating adherence to flawed assumptions and ‘solutions'” is a big part of the problem. A narrow way of viewing the world has stunted our imaginations and shrunk the range of solutions seen as realistic. In this ‘stocktake’ of where we are, she summarises them under the banner of green capitalism.

“At the heart of green capitalism,” writes Buller, “is an effort to defend and minimise disruption to existing economic systems, broad distributions of wealth and power, and institutions amidst the profound challenges posed by ecological challenge.”

There are two main pillars to green capitalism. The first is to maintain current economic patterns, decarbonising the status quo but making no effort to redistribute power. “The default position is one of constant assurance that no action taken to avert the possibility of catastrophic ecological damage will damage ‘the economy’.” The second pillar is to look for new opportunities to make money – the much celebrated ‘green growth’.

These two big priorities dictate which solutions are prioritised by governments, and that get the support of academics, think tanks and big funders – and which ones don’t. The two biggest examples of green capitalist solutions are carbon pricing and carbon offsets. Carbon pricing appeals as a market-driven solution, and by focusing on carbon emissions specifically, it doesn’t upset power structures such as fossil fuel companies. As Buller explains, existing efforts – even the ones judged to be successful – have so far delivered very little.

Carbon offsets are another favoured solution. They provide an excellent opportunity to create a new industry and make money, again without ever having to challenge fossil fuel interests or high consumption lifestyles. Instead, a colonial logic prevails: live however you want, and people in a poorer country far away will plant some trees or something.

Finance is another tool of green capitalism, and Buller shows how climate finance and ‘ethical investment’ so far has focused on protecting the rich from climate change, rather than directing funds towards change: “Ask not what your portfolio can do for the climate crisis, but what the climate crisis will do to your portfolio”.

By aiming to decarbonise but otherwise leave things the same, green capitalism will lead to further inequality, ongoing exploitation of the global South, the continued excesses of hyperconsumerism, and further erosion of democracy. But maybe we should just put up with that if it’s going to stop climate change on the way, right? The trouble is that green capitalist solutions aren’t making a material difference. Emissions aren’t falling. Carbon markets aren’t working. The carbon offsets market is rife with corruption, exploitation and dubious claims. These false solutions have been a distraction.

Furthermore, because they benefit the richest, they are quite rightly seen as elitist. Sometimes that leads to push-back, such as the gilets jaunes movement in France. At other times it leaves people uninspired and disengaged from debate about climate change.

In this well-researched book, Buller forensically sets out the case against some common non-solutions – or certainly solutions that are leaned on too heavily. What we don’t get is what we do about it, or what solutions we should prioritise instead. That’s for another book. What this one does is name the problem, and outline how green capitalism has proved too narrow a lens to deal with this unprecented crisis.

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