Why Green Capitalism Won’t Fix Climate Change
Paris Marx is joined by Adrienne Buller to discuss how the tech and finance industries are selling us false solutions to the climate crisis that are designed for their own benefit.
Adrienne Buller is the Director of Research at Common Wealth and the author of The Value of a Whale: On the Illusions of Green Capitalism. Follow Adrienne on Twitter at @adribuller.
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Paris Marx: Adrienne, welcome to Tech Won’t Save Us.
Adrienne Buller: Thanks for having me.
PM: I’m really excited to chat with you. You have a fantastic new book out, or it comes out in the United States and Canada, I believe, in October, and it’s already out in the UK. Is that right?
AB: Yes, that is correct. Good knowledge, good knowledge.
PM: Remembering my dates. Called “The Value of the Whale: On the Illusions of Green Capitalism,” this is something that I think that we’ve touched on in the show in the past and interviews with Sabrina Fernandez and Molly Taft, what capitalism wants to do for climate change, and how it seeks to profit from it and not really address the core issues that we need to be dealing with. I think that your book gives us a really interesting way to dig into this and to explore it further, and introduce some new topics that we haven’t discussed before on the show that I think the listeners will really enjoy. But I was kind of struck by the title of the book when I started it, “The Value of the Whale.” Whales are very beautiful and majestic creatures, I think. So to get us started, how should we understand the value of a whale, not the title of the book, but as lowercase words? And why use a whale to illustrate the concept of the book?
AB: Yeah, really good question. So the idea for the book itself, it’s a long time coming as all books, I guess, are. But the specific impetus came from this very niche study that was published, I think two years ago now (I’ve lost all track of time!) but published by the IMF, the International Monetary Fund. It was a few researchers, who I think maybe were well-intentioned enough, who were trying to make the case that we should invest in whale conservation, because they make contributions to the economy through ecotourism — so whale watching trips, and through their role in sequestering carbon. And they somehow arrived through some fancy sums at $2 million per whale, or about a trillion for the entire global stock as they described it. And sort of were making the case that because of those contributions directly to the economy, we should be investing in whales.
For me, it captured what is, I think, at the heart of my kind of critique that I explore in the book of green capitalism, which is this kind of forcing of the questions of climate and ecological crisis through the kind of impossibly narrow frame of the market and solutions that revolves entirely around markets and the price mechanism. As you said, whales, in particular, because they’re so kind of majestic and alien, and maybe this is my softer, liberal side coming out, but for me, they capture the mystery, the kind of wonder of the natural world in quite an evocative way. I thought it was a good starting point for just kind of how ridiculous or at least intuitively strange and icky, I guess, some of these approaches are. It then obviously opens up into a much broader discussion of the problems with market-based solutions to these questions.
PM: I love that. And so I guess we should understand all the slaughtering of the whales in centuries past not as a problem, because all those whales died and we killed all these majestic beings, but because we destroyed a lot of potential value that could be existing right now.
AB: Like trillions in value!
PM: Damn, how could they not have thought ahead. But you know, as you’re describing there, the key concept that the book revolves around is this idea of green capitalism — the way that we’re going to respond to climate change is through these market mechanisms, as you’re describing. So can you give us a bit more detail on what green capitalism actually is? And what the systems of capital seek to present as the solution to climate change?
AB: Yeah, so I mean, there are probably so many ways that you could define green capitalism. And indeed, a lot of people have different definitions. And I do, but the one that I just go from in the book as a starting point came from two, quite clear trends in the way that capital is responding to climate crisis. One of which is to confront it in a way that does as much as possible to prevent disturbing existing economic systems, institutions, distributions of wealth and power, in large part because, obviously, those are systems and distributions that are serving a particular cohort of people in power very well already. So logically, you want to find a way to decarbonize the system as it is with minimal disruption. Whether that’s possible is a different question. But that’s kind of the sort of approach.
The second is, as you touched on before, finding new domains for investment and speculation and profit in the transition to a kind of decarbonized future. And in part, that’s a response to what is, I think, a lot of corporations and financial firms recognize, a genuinely unprecedented threat to a lot of conventional domains of profit and return — so, kind of a response to that. And again, a lot of those are filtered through the prism of the market, as you know, the kinds of solutions that adhere to both of those drives that I identified there. So the book just explores what are some of the totemic solutions, if you will, of that kind of approach — whether that’s carbon pricing or sustainable finance, and sure, we’ll get into unpacking those. But that’s sort of how I understand it from a bird’s eye view, I guess.
PM: Absolutely. One of the things I found interesting in your writing about green capitalism was this notion of looking at policies through the lens of efficiency versus effectiveness versus justice. And when we see these green capitalist solutions, the argument is often that these are the efficient way that we respond to the climate crisis, we use this pricing, these market mechanisms, instead of the so-called ‘command and control’ response of regulatory measures and actual government intervention. So how should we understand that kind of framing of the policy responses? And how that really kind of serves to try to justify these market responses over other ways to address the crisis?
AB: Yeah, efficiency is, and I borrow from one of the mainstream climate economists that I talked about a lot in the book, his name is William Nordhaus. I’m sure many people listening will have heard of him. He has this great line, something along the lines of, ‘economists eat efficiency for breakfast, lunch and dinner’ kind of thing. And it’s their quintessential focus of conventional economic models, and is the presumed outcome of market exchange, in so far as when you have rational actors operating in this imagined market, you’re going to have an optimal distribution of resources of costs and benefits to solving the solution. That is one of the major justifications often used, even just assumed, about carbon markets and carbon pricing without necessarily sort of backing it up with the evidence. And I think that is the idea that efficiency should be prioritized is almost just this received common sense within mainstream economic circles, particularly in the climate space. It’s very rarely questioned as a priority, even though it may have nothing to do with achieving the outcome that we actually need, which is curbing carbon emissions or biodiversity loss as quickly as possible at a global scale, and in a way that is not punitively unjust and inqeuitable.
You could have an outcome that is technically efficient in economic terms, but doesn’t really achieve any of those actual outcomes, which I think most of us would be concerned with. But it’s used as this kind of justification, this positive assumed benefit of taking a market-based approach. That is because climate from the get-go, from the day that economists have been engaged in the climate question, have framed it very famously as the greatest market failure the world has ever seen. It’s a current failure of the market because we have failed to price carbon emissions, or we failed to price environmental damage. And so it’s an externality that is priced, and ‘we need to internalize it to the market,’ scare quotes there, ‘by putting a price on it.’ And so all of these kinds of things have just come out of decades in which that’s just been the only way that people have kind of spoken about this problem. But it’s now just kind of this received common sense in a lot of mainstream policy circles.
PM: Yeah, to illustrate the issue with relying on economists to shape the response to climate change, one of the things that you mentioned in the book is that there was a 1994 study that Nordhaus put together, where he showed that natural scientists see a 20 to 30 times greater impact on GDP as a result of climate change than mainstream economists did, illustrating that these people probably don’t have the best grasp of what’s actually going to happen here, and maybe we shouldn’t be relying on their solutions for the response that we should take.
AB: Yeah, the book spends a lot of time kind of picking apart the assumptions and methods of a lot of mainstream, is the term I use just for simplicity, economic models of climate crisis. Again, to come back to Nordhaus — I guess I like to pick on him, sorry — he’s kind of credited with being the first person to propose a two degree warming target. But since then the kind of model for which he won the sort of Nobel-adjacent Prize in Economics, his Dice Model, basically looks at the economic impacts of various kinds of degrees of global heating, and actually suggests based on efficiency and an optimal cost-benefit trade-off, that we should have a future that ideally would be three to four degrees Celsius, kind of baseline temperatures. Although the model suggests it is optimal, /[this temperature change/] is described by most scientists as catastrophic, or to borrow from Kevin Anderson, who’s a well known UK climate scientist, incompatible with an organized global community, to put it lightly. So yeah, I think, economics just has the wrong priorities when it comes to climate crisis, but also just isn’t equipped to deal with the phenomenal complexity and uncertainty inherent in natural systems. But we act as though it is equipped to deal with this, which I think is kind of the fatal flaw.
PM: Optimal for who, I guess, is the key question there. There are many different aspects of this green capitalist response to climate change that you outlined in the book. One of them that I wanted to pick up on, before we get into larger industries that are focused on this, is this effort to price carbon, right. As you’re saying, there’s this idea that climate change is a market failure, and you need to price the externalities and the externality is carbon and the emissions that are going into the atmosphere. Where does this idea that we should be pricing emissions come from?
AB: Oh, God. Well, I mean, that’s kind of at the origins of the very first approach, or the very first kind of engagement of economics with the climate crisis. I don’t know that I can pin down the actual first time that was proposed, but it’s very much always just the received common sense of mainstream economic consensus, which probably the time that that was cemented in the public consciousness was the Stern Review, which was 2006 or 2007. Nicholas Stern gave a very famous, major landmark review on the economics of climate change, and was the first to really hammer home the idea that we should understand it in that way, although that had kind of been within the economic common sense for quite a while. That’s because that’s the only way with which a market system can engage with this problem. If something doesn’t have a price, then it can’t be an element within a market system. And therefore you can’t have markets address and resolve it. So in order to render the climate crisis, or increasingly questions about ecological crisis and biodiversity loss, in order to render them compliant with market mechanisms, they first need to have a price. Otherwise there’s no currency of exchange for actors within that market system. It is absolutely a kind of necessary condition for doing that, even though it’s wildly inappropriate, often from a climatic or an ecological perspective.
The whale is a really good example of that, right? So the only way that you can have the market engage with the value of whales is to put a price tag on that. And that sounds like kind of an extreme or fringe example, but whether it’s carbon emissions, or whether it’s what they’re now calling kind of natural capital, and ecosystem services, which are what it sounds — like the kind of services like clean air or water or disease resistance that ecosystems kind of provide to us freely — parceling those out and finding prices for them is now a major project. Again, it’s sort of the necessary condition for market solutions. Without doing that, then you have to acknowledge that markets aren’t equipped to address this problem. That’s, I think, where the kind of cementing of that common sense has come from.
PM: I appreciate you outlining that. And, you know, I think that there are multiple moments that we can look at where this attempt to entrench this idea of carbon pricing gets, I guess, put into climate policy and made something that all of these governments, whether it’s in Europe, or Canada, or wherever else, is looking to as the way to address the problem. And where I think there are real questions, as you outlined in the book, as to whether it’s really delivering the results that we would expect, or that we were told would would come of it. One of the industries that you mentioned in the book, and that you spend a lot of time talking about is the asset management industry. People might notably know the name of BlackRock from the small number of companies that really occupy this space, or dominate it at least. How should we think about the way that the asset management industry is responding to climate change? And what effects does that have on the way that we actually respond to this problem?
AB: God, how much time do you have? I think some people might find it a bit odd that I spent so much time focusing on asset management in the book given they are just one part of the financial system, and wider corporate sector. But I focus on them because I think they offer this perfect distillation of the sort of greed and capitalist logic and mindset, and also because they actually have quite an impressive degree of direct political influence. BlackRock, in particular, is very effective. So the asset management industry, presumably lots of people listening to the show will know, but maybe some don’t, is an industry that as it suggests manages assets on behalf of clients for a fee. So whether you’re someone who has a pension or whether it’s a university endowment, or you’re just a rich person with savings to invest, they will invest those on your behalf and make those investment decisions.
The industry has become both enormous and hugely concentrated over the past couple of decades. So BlackRock itself manages about 10 trillion US dollars in assets, and its closest competitor, Vanguard, was around seven last time I checked. And so they’re nearing kind of the 20 trillion mark, which is a full fifth of the entire global industry. So which is just over about 100 trillion in assets sloshing around. And that’s just two firms that have that kind of enormous amount of power both over allocations — where are we putting investment — as well when you buy shares in a company, you get the entitlement to vote at that corporate AGM (Annual General Meeting), you get the entitlement to engage directly with corporate executives to tell them what you want them to do.
Finally, because they’re now these universal, systemic type investment firms, they’ve been given substantially more political access than they may have had in the past. And so the combination of those factors has given them a lot of power in shaping the way that we respond to the climate crisis. They have huge sway over lots of companies they’re invested in. They get almost effective veto power at most major corporations, definitely in the US, often in the UK and Europe, and often around the rest of the world as well. Together BlackRock, Vanguard, and one other firm called State Street own about 20 to 25% of the average S&P 500 company, which may not sound enormous, but is very much almost an effective veto. Their level of influence is huge. When you consider that that is their scale around the entire global economy, you start to get a picture of their influence.
And the way they think about it is quite interesting. Because if you are a universally exposed investor, like a BlackRock, then you are particularly conscious of the fact that you are universally exposed to climate change, which is a global and systemic issue. And so I think you’d be hard pressed to argue that BlackRock isn’t actually very concerned about the climate crisis and about decarbonisation. It’s just the way that they channel that concern is not necessarily towards actually doing anything to try and mitigate the climate crisis. From their perspective, what’s important is minimizing the financial risks of the climate crisis to their portfolios, as well as ensuring that there’s constantly new investable opportunities for them, ideally relatively low risk investable opportunities. And that’s what you start to see in their policy imprint and the way that they engage with policymakers.
PM: As you’re describing there, you’re saying: Okay, BlackRock, and these companies are certainly interested in climate change. And you would think that if it is this kind of asset management industry, they’re holding so much of the market, that they would be thinking longer term, right? This is something that you talked about in the book; you would assume that they’re making longer term decisions, and really thinking about what these things are going to mean far down the line in a way that maybe more of a short term investor wouldn’t. But you say that in practice, that’s not actually the way that it works. Can you expand on that?
AB: Yeah, I mean, in practice, they’ve fallen victim to the same demands as any kind of corporation, which is short-term obligations to shareholders or to the investors whose assets that you’re investing in. What’s interesting to me about BlackRock, in particular, is that they focus from an investment perspective on the nearer term. I think their long-term vision comes in their interest in the political sphere and influencing the overall shape that decarbonisation takes, particularly in the US. That is a very nebulous thing to say, and I’ll try and unpack that a bit. So, one thing that both 2008 and the financial crisis, and COVID demonstrated is this willingness on the part of states to use their monetary power to backstop the financial markets.
BlackRock is a huge advocate of those kinds of policies. And indeed, they were given the task of carrying out the Federal Reserve’s asset purchase program in response to COVID-19. They bought up a ton of their own funds in the process. That, to me, is quite interesting from a climate perspective, because if you are lobbying for that kind of support from the states using their monetary firepower, it provides this implicit backstop against the kind of small shocks that will sort of increasingly punctuate the much longer trajectory of the climate crisis. So if you know that you have this backstop that will keep asset prices afloat, if not rising, then that is your primary concern as BlackRock, rather than necessarily trying to mitigate those shocks, to the best of your power. I think that’s quite an interesting way to consider how they think about this.
The other thing is that they’re interested in the near-term, not really in net zero by 2050, or any of those kinds of things that they that they pretend to be. They’re just much more concerned with ensuring that the transition is kind of smooth, and that there isn’t this like mass loss of all the asset value of their fossil fuel investments, for example, and that that is a gradual transition that minimizes their regulatory risk over time, or that, again, in this process, that governments are using their capacities to create new investable opportunities in this imagined decarbonized future. Again, for BlackRock, because they’re sort of reason to exist, and the way that they make all their money is a fee that is based off of the scale and the value of the assets that they manage, that’s kind of all that matters is those asset prices.
So you can see these hypothetical futures, that they’re imagining in which maybe there are significant swathes of the globe that are kind of just relegated as sacrifice zones, or, you know, to hugely amplify extractive industry, in conditions that massively exploit the poor workers in the Global South, but provided that those are supporting the share prices of companies like a Tesla or other kinds of manufacturers in the Global North. And that’s not necessarily a problem for BlackRock. So there are futures in which we ‘decarbonize’ in scare quotes to a certain degree, but that are profoundly unjust. That, again, is not something that is a concern to them. When you have them kind of at the helm of helping to shape and influence this agenda, then I think, that’s where my concern really starts to deepen.
PM: Yeah, I appreciate that. And we’ll come back to that injustice, I think, a little bit later in our conversation. One of the other pieces of this that stood out to me, as I was reading, was that BlackRock also has this platform called Aladdin that it uses to shape its investment. This platform is also used by major tech companies, as well — they have a ton of money sitting around, this is quite well known — to also kind of figure out how they are going to invest their enormous amounts of capital. Can you talk to us a bit about that platform? And what is significant about it?
AB: Yeah, so if I described before, the fact that the asset management industry itself is concentrated, because BlackRock controls 10 trillion assets, then Aladdin is even more interesting, and/or concerning, as a platform. Aladdin is shorthand for the very kind of unsexy Asset Liability and Debt and Derivative Investment Network. It’s basically sort of a portfolio management program that is a bit of kit that provides investors all over the world with risk analysis and portfolio management analysis that they then use to make their own investment decisions. And it’s interesting, because those are all sort of models that are based off of people employed by BlackRock. While Aladdin isn’t managing the, I think last time I checked, 21 trillion in assets around the world that sit on that platform and use it to make investment decisions. BlackRock isn’t technically making those decisions, but it’s models and inferences and assumptions are very much informing how those financial decisions are made. So it’s a huge degree of power through this tech platform.
I should say 21 trillion was the last estimate that we had. But BlackRock actually stopped publishing estimates of how much is using that platform, because it garnered such negative press, that there could potentially be this risk. The reason that people defend financial markets is they’re meant to be, again, efficient, and they’re meant to make decisions that reflect the aggregation of all best known information that’s available. But if you have one entity, one tech platform that is effectively providing the same information to trillions and trillions of people worldwide, then you could end up with this very risky groupthink. That’s a criticism that’s been raised, even though Aladdin tends to fall by the wayside.
As you said, it’s not just financial firms that are using this. Loads of corporations use it to make their decisions, including Apple, and it’s very cash leaning, Braeburn capital, which is kind of funny because Braeburn’s a type of Apple, if anyone doesn’t know that. But Microsoft as well, Google, and everyone’s kind of using this platform to decide how to spend their corporate cash. And they’ve recently moved into specifically Aladdin has specifically moved into sort of climate portfolio risk analysis, whereas before it was just kind of generalized. Again, for me, that’s yet another mechanism for which they’re shaping the future of how we engage with the climate crisis through yet another channel.
PM: I think you’ve outlined that really well. And we were thinking about finance and the tech industry and how these major companies are shaping our response to climate change, but also so many other issues. There’s also this metric that has emerged, and maybe that’s the wrong way to put it, you can correct me on the terminology, within the finance industry of ESG, which is supposed to provide investors with this idea that these are kind of ethical companies that you can invest in that are solving social problems, or are good for the planet, or what have you. What is that metric or that index, or however you would describe it? And what is the problem with thinking that this is the way that we solve these problems through these specific kinds of investments and ranking them in this way?
AB: Yes, ESG is maybe a passion product of mine that I, again, maybe dedicated a bit too much time to it in the book, but that’s fine. So ESG stands for Environmental, Social, and Governance, and it is a framework, I guess is what I would say, for investing that tries to take criteria related to those three issues. So environmental issues, social issues, labor and human rights questions, and then governance, which is governance within the corporation, and try to take those into account and how you allocate your capital as an investor. It’s become a hugely popular for lots of reasons. Some of it, I think, does genuinely reflect this interest in the part of the masses in at least feeling like you are investing sustainably. We talk a lot about woke capitalism these days, I think there are a lot of woke capitalists who have a genuine interest in looking like they’re profiting by doing well, by doing good is the whole thing. It’s become hugely trendy within the industry, there are loads of estimates of how much is actually invested in this way. People suggested it’s trillions, and will become an increasingly mainstream element of the financial system as a whole in terms of assets invested this way.
But there are all sorts of criticisms, interestingly, from across the political spectrum. So you know I make a left critique of it. But again, the woke capital critique comes from the reactionary right. Fox News and The Economist have been running stories on why ESG is now bad. I think a lot of those critiques come from the fact that there’s maybe what’s called greenwash, which is false advertising. So funds that are marketed as green, but they’ve got fossil fuel companies in them and those kinds of things. To me, that’s not really the the fundamental issue with it, although there are some particularly egregious examples. I remember my own pension, I’m in the sort of climate aware version, and ExxonMobil, for a long time was one of the top three holdings in my climate aware pension.
PM: But Adrienne, they’re investing in renewable energy now!
AB: So they do quite well in ESG rankings, and this comes down to some of the critical questions with ESG is that, fundamentally, it is an approach that is based on financial risk, rather than material risk. What I mean by that is, the question is: What are social issues? Or what is the climate crisis? Or what is your governance going to mean for my portfolio? And the risks of that to my portfolio, rather than, you know, what are the risks in my portfolio is creating in a material real world sense. So that sounds like maybe pedantic difference, but it makes a huge difference in terms of what you actually end up investing in. So the example I like to give is Vanguard, which, as I mentioned before, the second biggest asset manager. They have this flagship, US-based ESG fund. It’s basically just a slight tweak of the S&P 500. So the companies you end up with, the top holdings are Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, Google, all those kinds of things. In some senses, maybe that’s kind of fine. But obviously, for most people listening, understand that, one, it is doing very, very little to contribute to addressing the climate crisis or any of these issues. Because most people, I think, would think that climate themed or a sustainable fund would be investing in renewable energy or green tech in the future or whatever. That’s the assumption that most people would have.
That’s clearly not the case when you’re just loading up on Big Tech and Big Pharma and financial firms, let alone their role in contributing to massive human rights violations or questions of exploitation in the labor market and all sorts of very nasty stuff that we know many of these firms to be involved in. Again, it’s because those, probably under the matrix, aren’t deemed risky enough to be cancelable in the ESG universe. The other thing is, a lot of this comes down to questions of disclosure. So Exxon does well because now it discloses how it thinks about its Scope One and Two emissions, which is just the emissions associated with its business operations, not its end use products. Or, [Exxon] talks about how much algae and biofuel it’s going to produce. But because it’s disclosing that information that’s deemed less financially risky, because you’re providing investors with a clear sense of your plans. That comes down again to this idea that markets are efficient, and given the best information, they’ll make the correct and best and optimal decisions. So firms that disclose a lot tend to do quite well in ESG frameworks, even though that might not correspond to their actual kind of impact on the real world.
And Tesla — we talked about a little bit before getting on the podcast today — Tesla is an interesting example in this respect, because they were booted off the S&P 500 Index, I think, in May of this year. I think for a lot of people that was a fundamental shock because Tesla is one of the only companies in a lot of these baskets that people would conventionally think of as, at least, being engaged in the climate crisis. I’m talking to, not your listeners, but to the wider public. They were dinged for all sorts of questions related to some accusations, very rightfully, of terrible workplace harassment, gender discrimination, and those kinds of questions. But also because they didn’t publish a low-carbon emissions plan, and that kind of plan would relate to how they think about emissions from their plants, which again, is very minimally material to the climate crisis, but was enough to get them taken off the index. I think that speaks to the heart of what ESG does, which is it just considers how to reduce risks to your portfolio, rather than to try and actually bring about a decarbonized future. It’s much more just about betting on it.
PM: The Tesla example really shows us, gives us an insight into what ESG actually is, and the problems with it, even as much as I would hate to agree with Elon Musk on a particular point. But I think it’s really interesting, because you talked about how, during the pandemic, there was this idea that ESG funds were doing much better than conventional funds, and it was kind of presented as, look, see, if you invest ethically, then that means that, you know, you’re going to make more money in the long run, ignoring that these ESG funds were kind of overrepresented in tech, which had this real boom, during the pandemic, that is now kind of coming down. And so because it’s invested in these conventional firms that aren’t necessarily like, really environmentally conscious, or, you know, even oil companies like like Exxon, it doesn’t really give you a real picture that that is what’s going on here.
AB: No, it doesn’t. And, you know, one of my favorite ESG examples that kind of links to that is that there was this fantastic study that looked at ESG funds that were based off of the Russell 3000 Index. So that’s an index of 3000, mid-sized US corporations. And it found that the biggest difference, by orders of magnitude between the ESG funds and the mainstream funds based on an index, was that the ESG funds selected for companies with few or no employees. That’s because, again, with this financial risk metric, if you have no employees, then you have no labor disputes. So from the logic of ESG’s, it is completely coherent. But obviously, from the logic of most people, would think of what ESG advertises itself as which is, you know, contributing to a better kind of social world, obviously, that’s complete nonsense. And it’s those kinds of factors that buy this kind of silly chance over the course of the pandemic, in a lot of cases helped ESG funds outperform.
Obviously, labor became a huge question and problem for companies during the pandemic. So if you’ve got no employees there’s much less strain there. Oil had this major price crash early on. That was reflected, again, in their outperformance, because they tended to move fossil fuels away and invest more in tech, as you said, which had a boom, and all of this was quite arbitrary. And again, it just is because it comes down to what are the financial risks at any given time in the global economy? And in some ways, you know, that’s almost fine. I have this thing with financial markets, where I’m kind of like: Go away and play in your Casino. But what concerns me about ESG, in particular, is just that it’s become the sense of that ‘doing well by doing good’ has become really powerfully ingrained common sense in a lot of governments in the Global North. The UK, where I live, is one example they’re really obsessed with greening the financial system as their post-Brexit policy. I think it’s creating a distraction from actual policies that would address this crisis and make people’s lives better. And so it’s just creating this veneer of action where there really is none. And that, I think, is one of the big concerns for me.
PM: I definitely echo that concern, and I feel like you’re talking about the financial industry aspect of it. But another thing that comes up in your book is how figures, like Bill Gates in particular, are pushing these really green capitalist solutions that focus around using technology to solve the problem, rather than having these really structural changes, right? Thinking that all we need is these techno-fixes, rather than changing consumption patterns, or more structural factors for how we live, and that’s how we solve the problem. How do figures like Gates and these kinds of techno-fixes fit into the larger kind of framework of green capitalism? And how did they benefit the finance industry as well, when we’re thinking about the kind of transition that they want to see?
AB: Yeah, I mean, that’s a brilliant question. And a complicated one. Bill Gates is an interesting figure, because yes, his book that came out is quite interesting. Because it is, as you said, all about this kind of imagined innovation and tech solutions. When I was looking at the book, it was like 90 mentions of the word innovation and not one of the word inequality, which I think tells you everything you need to know about how he thinks about this problem. Yeah, tech solutions are the kind of ideal way for advocates of a green capitalist approach to achieve that first pillar that I outlined, which is to find a way to decarbonize, which does as little as possible to disrupt the existing systems and ways of organizing our economies that we currently have and which suit you quite well. So for Gates, he’s one of the world’s most prominent advocates of carbon pricing, again, under this idea that it’s going to just magically spur innovation to new tech solutions that will move us away from carbon-intensive energy sources and ways of producing and consuming, even though there’s not really much compelling evidence to support that.
I think, we’ll probably come to talk about thi, but EVs are, again, a great example of that. There are lots of equivalent innovations that are focused on just replacing the kind of systems that we have now, one for one, rather than doing anything to address the inherent, inescapable questions of kind of inequality and injustice that are at the heart of these problems. I talked about this in the book, some people might roll their eyes and say, it’s all very, very nice to talk about wanting to address inequality, but this is a climate crisis, and this is a solution that will be solved through science. But the evidence continues to pile up to suggest the reverse — there is simply no escaping the question of profoundly unequal and indefensible distributions of wealth and production and consumption and emissions in the global economy. Tech is a great way to avoid having those conversations because it allows us to have this imagined present and future in which we’ve solved the problem without any of those messy political issues.
PM: Yeah, it’s the escape from the political question, right? Easier technologies that will solve climate change, then we don’t need to talk about how Bill Gates or Elon Musk are still flying in their private jets and living in their big mansions and things like that. But also how, just more fundamentally, the way that much of society, especially in North America, but the Global North more generally, is set up in a way that is really extractive towards the rest of the world, and depends on them to kind of do the production and things like that, that emit a lot of the emissions that enable the consumption for the Global North. And so I wanted to talk a bit more about that because you introduce it in your answer there.
You talk about an imperial mode of living in the book, where this way of living that depends on this entrenched global inequality that has existed for a long time, and is imagined to continue far into the future in a green capitalist future. Electric cars fit into this very well. And certainly listeners of the show will be very familiar with my critique of electric cars, and certainly Thea Riofrancos has been on as well to talk about how there’s this idea that electric cars are going to solve the problem, that they are a silver bullet, and then you kind of dismiss the mining that happens often in the Global South in order to enable this transition. So what is this imperial mode of living? And how do you see it as being key to green capitalism and, obviously, that being a problem?
AB: Yeah. So I should start by saying that the phrase the “Imperial Mode of Living” is not mine. I borrowed it from the very brilliant German academics Ulrich Brand and Markus Wissen. They have a book called “The Imperial Mode of Living,” which I highly recommend; it’s published by Verso. Basically what it describe is, they specifically avoid using the phrase lifestyles to avoid that individualizing frame and to focus on the way in which societies are organized in the Global North and our base livelihoods are organized. As you said, it’s reliant on a lot of exploitation of resources and land and labour in the Global South, but also in invisible communities within countries in the Global North themselves.
So it’s this framework to talk about the ways in which even really kind of mundane, middle-class things that we do every day often involve this kind of invisibalized exploitation — whether that’s of undocumented workers in slaughterhouses in Texas or in Alberta, because we’re Canadians, or whether that’s exploited miners or land grabs from subsistence farmers in the Global South to service the carbon offsets that support the demands for emissions of the Global North. It’s just a really helpful framework for me that allows us to grapple with the question we talked about, the North-South divide a lot, and that remains incredibly important. But there is also a really important distribution of inequality and exploitation within northern and southern countries themselves. So while most of the world’s globally affluent are going to be in the UK, in the US, and Europe, that’s not exclusive, and it’s a reminder that there are also exploited populations domestically, as well.
The last thing that it describes, and this speaks to the kind of tech question is that the imperial mode of living you know, they kind of use frameworks around kind of hegemony and those kind of questions from from Gramsci. It’s basically this kind of implicit contract between those at the kind of top of the income spectrum and those who are lower and lower-middle class kind of laborers in Global North countries, which is that you can have these kinds of specific kind of comforts, or conveniences. And these are a lot of things that kind of tech solutions provide, or the EVs provide, as a compromise for, again, kind of solidifying this existing kind of set of distributions. So it will make your life more comfortable and convenient in specific ways, in order to prevent this reckoning with the much more fundamental injustices in distribution that needs to happen. To make that contract work, we’ll make sure that there are aspects of the global economy that that remain invisible. And for me, EVs are sort of emblematic of that, and the invisible labor and environmental damage that goes into lithium mining and that extractive process, which, since you’ve had Thea [Riofrancos] on, and she’s the kind of all-star in that space, I don’t need to reiterate, but I think they capture that kind of question really, really well.
PM: I appreciate you outlining that. I think it’s such a key thing for us to recognize, especially as we’re in this moment, where we recognize that a transition needs to happen, that things need to change about our society, and we have this opportunity to say: Which path are we going to take? Are we going to address these really fundamental inequalities? Or are we just going to allow these problems to continue and allow them to be greenwash than to say: This is how it is, this is how things need to remain? One of the things that come up in the book, time and time again, is this focus on growth. And you know, you were talking about how our use of technology allows us to ignore these more fundamental issues, and just, I guess, the politics of what is actually going on. And just assume that because there’s new technology, that things are going to be solved. And I feel like you know, when it comes to growth, there’s this kind of assertion that growth needs to continue, and that we need to ignore what actual benefits growth provides or whether it’s actually providing benefits and not thinking about the bigger picture of how the economy works, and what needs to happen in order to drive that growth and how we measure growth and how that doesn’t necessarily result in the kind of changes in the kind of society that we would want to see. So how do you think about this question of growth? And why is this important to the larger framework of green capitalism and taking that on?
AB: Yeah, so the growth question for me comes in, in the last chapter of the book, where I tried to grapple with what some people kind of described as, you know, carbon reductionism, this question of just focusing on carbon emissions when we talk about sort of global climate and ecological crisis. And in the same way, that tech is often kind of misconstrued as this sort of disembodied kind of space that doesn’t involve intensely physical components, whether that’s huge internet servers, or in a crypto mining or any of these kinds of things. There’s these huge embodied and very resource-intensive elements to tech, even though it’s often displayed as this ephemeral thing.
The same thing happens in the climate space and in green capitalism, which is this idea of carbon being the be-all and end-all question and as this abstracted issue where it’s just kind of carbon emissions exist on a spreadsheet, and we can increase or decrease them without considering the very kind of embodied reality that goes into decreasing them. That for me is where the growth question enters because there is some evidence, and the UK again is the example that’s often used here, where carbon emissions can be absolutely decoupled from economic growth expressed in terms of GDP to a certain extent, but it’s nowhere near the kind of pace that we would need to be anywhere close to kind of ‘safe,’ and I’ll use that in scare quotes, climate targets.
But when it comes to the question of resource use and consumption, there just isn’t evidence that that can be decoupled from economic growth. That is kind of this scientific reality that I think is uncomfortable and that we need to engage with. Again, tech solutions really come into this, and EVs are one of them. We just don’t have the capacity to replace every single car in the global fleet, one for one, with an EV. And we don’t have the capacity to just offset all the emissions in the Global North as it currently stands, and the distributions that they currently have, because there’s simply just isn’t enough land to do that, even though Shell will publish scenarios about requiring land, the size of the Netherlands to offset their company’s emissions, in the kind of physical embodied realm is where we really come up hard against the question of sort of indefinite economic growth. It’s one that I leave a little bit open-ended in the book, but I think it’s one that’s not talked about enough because of this kind of carbon reductionism. I think they’re really interesting. Not only is that related to techno-solutions, but also kind of has an interesting parallel almost to the way that people think about tech, and it’s sort of lack of footprint, which is obviously not the case.
PM: I appreciate you making that connection on, you know, what is a tech podcast. To close off our conversation, I have really enjoyed this. We started by talking about the value of a whale and how the finance industry has pegged that at around $2 million. And in the book, you talk about how at least there’s there’s one report that pegs a human life at around eight to $11 million. So everything needs to have a price in this kind of future right in the in this green capitalist future in the continuation of capitalism and its desire to continue expanding into more areas to price new things to bring it within the system, so it can continue growing, right. Obviously, as we’ve discussed, this is not the way that we’re going to address the climate crisis, at least in any way that is going to result in a livable planet for a lot of people. As you say, economist thinking that three or four degrees is somewhat optimal is incredibly concerning. So what is the alternative to this? And how do we fight this vision for a green capitalism that ultimately maybe serves the finance industry, if they’re thinking quite short-term and not thinking about the broader effects of climate change, rather than the rest of us?
AB: I think the kind of fundamental problem with the green capitalist approach for me, and again, I’ll draw a parallel here to tech for you, a lot of the impetus for doing it is that it supposedly gets around the kind of messiness of politics, and we treat sort of green capitalist solutions, like carbon pricing as if they’re somehow apolitical. It’s often the same in tech. People imagine that tech isn’t in and of itself political or that more tech is inherently good, considering the kind of quality of the solutions. Green capitalism suffers a similar fate, which is this idea that any solution, we’re all so desperate to not have catastrophic climate change, I think it’s really easy to say any kind of solution or change is better than nothing and to be drawn towards these.
The issue for me is that green capitalist solutions often don’t even pass the basic hurdle of curbing emissions or environmental degradation that they claim to. But beyond that, they necessarily don’t engage with the messiness of politics, or they try to evade them. They also don’t contribute to the other questions that I mentioned before, which is a world that is radically less unequal and radically more democratic and just. That is the approach that we need to be taking, not just because for many people listening, that justice, inequality, democracy, these are things that we might consider, good in and of themselves, but because they are pragmatically, even if you didn’t care about them, they’re pragmatically necessary to resolving this question of climate and ecological catastrophe. So that would be the framework by which I evaluate kind of any solution or proposal to addressing these crises.
And a similar framework could easily be deployed to think about technologies and what technologies are serving us and not. Adrienne, i’s been fantastic to speak with you, to dig into your book, to learn more about the finance industry and how it shapes our approach to climate change in a way that doesn’t really serve us.
PM: Thank you so much for taking the time.
AB: Thanks for having me. It was a pleasure.