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27 July 2022

Adrienne Buller: “Green capitalism is its own form of denial”

The Canadian author discusses her new book The Value of a Whale and why markets won’t save the world.

By George Eaton

The acceptable face of capitalism is today a green one. Bill Gates, Mike Bloomberg and Mark Carney all insist that markets are the key to saving the planet. But as the climate crisis becomes ever more inescapable, should anyone believe the hype?

In her new book The Value of a Whale, Adrienne Buller exposes what she calls “the illusions of green capitalism”. The title is a reference to the price that the International Monetary Fund recently assigned to great whales: $2m per specimen on account of their contribution to eco-tourism revenue and their capacity for carbon sequestration.

“It captures the most absurd elements of this project,” Buller, 28, the incoming director of research at the Common Wealth think tank, told me when we met at London’s Natural History Museum, where a blue whale skeleton (named Hope) hangs from the ceiling. “The idea that you would try to conserve nature by finding a way to put a price tag on great whales – porpoises and dolphins are excluded, by the way, because they aren’t important enough to carbon sequestration. That captures how meaningless a lot of these approaches can become if we don’t stop to think about exactly what we’re doing, which is separating out individual species from the environment they’re in.”

Though Buller writes movingly of her first encounter with a whale as a seven-year-old in British Columbia – “the distinct feeling that I had just had the curtain lifted on another world” – her book is not that of a romantic liberal. Rather, it is a deeply researched account of why green capitalism is self-defeating.

[See also: Can “Trussonomics” work?]

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Buller concedes the intuitive appeal of ideas such as carbon offsetting before exposing the tragic and sometimes farcical reality. “A lot of carbon offsets based around reforestation have actually gone up in flames in climate-related wildfires in North America,” she said, including land claimed for green purposes by Microsoft and BP. Others were never offsets to begin with.

In September 2020, the energy firm TotalEnergies claimed that a $17m shipment of liquefied natural gas was “carbon neutral” on the grounds that it paid local volunteers and workers to clear the underbrush of a Zimbabwean forest as a wildfire preventative measure. “What this does is justify further emissions under the guise that, somewhere down the line, they will be removed. A lot of the time that isn’t what happens,” said Buller. She gave the example of Shell’s net-zero plan, which would require an area of land for reforestation three times the size of the Netherlands by 2030. “If you apply that kind of logic to all the world’s major polluters, or consumer decisions, you pretty quickly run out of land,” Buller wryly observed. “This is the inevitable outcome of an offset regime that’s based on enabling consumption to go on unchanged among the affluent.”

What of ESG (environmental, social and governance factors): the buzz phrase beloved of green capitalists and the City? “It’s become a scapegoat on the right and the irony is that I agree with that assessment – a lot of it does represent green- and woke-washing,” she said. In other words, an ethical facade that masks a less appealing reality.

“Many of the ESG products that are being offered are devoid of any kind of investment in a green future,” Buller said. “They take a mainstream fund such as the S&P 500 and slightly change the weighting so that you have less exposure to airlines and fossil fuels and, most likely, much higher exposure to Big Tech companies such as Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and Facebook.

“It’s hard to argue that Amazon, for example, has a particularly great standard on labour rights or that there haven’t been issues around exploitative supply chains for a number of those companies.”

[See also: How “nudge theory” can prompt pro-environmental behaviour]

But is the fundamental problem the entire notion of green capitalism, or simply that it isn’t being tried properly? “The argument I make is that green capitalism is a contradiction in terms,” Buller told me. “Because it’s predicated on systems and dynamics that are not reconcilable with a sustainable planet, whether that is the idea of constant and unending growth entirely decoupled from material resource use or the fact we’ve sustained Western lifestyles off the exploitation of invisible people and places around the world.

“Eventually you run out of cheap labour to exploit, you run out of land to use for offsets and you run out of resources to exploit for all of us to have our own shiny new electric vehicle.” Green capitalism, in short, is “its own form of denial”, she said.

Buller was born in Vancouver and politicised by her surroundings. “I spent my childhood running around temperate rainforests and swimming in the Pacific. But Canada is also an intensely resource-extractive economy and some of my most powerful early memories are of massive clear-cut forestry projects.”

For her, the country’s progressive image is at odds with its regressive economic model. “We just have very good PR. Justin Trudeau is a case in point. The man will walk at the head of student climate marches but then the country has to collectively own a pipeline”. (The Trans Mountain pipeline was bought by the Canadian government for C$4.5bn in 2018.)

Buller comes from a medical family – her mother is a healthcare CEO, named as one of Canada’s most powerful women, her father is an interventional cardiologist – and her first degree was in life sciences at McGill University. She moved to the UK in 2017, at the height of Corbynism, and studied global governance and ethics for her master’s at University College London, subsequently becoming co-director of the campaign group Labour for a Green New Deal.

When asked what she makes of Labour’s post-Corbyn trajectory under Keir Starmer, Buller is withering. “It’s completely misjudged that Labour has moved entirely away from the pledges that he campaigned on [during the 2020 leadership election] and that includes a robust commitment to tackling the climate crisis,” she said. “I do think that has been a big betrayal and I will stand by the word betrayal. There has been a betrayal of the activist base that I don’t think even Keir Starmer would deny and that has been an explicit strategy to differentiate himself from his predecessor.”

[See also: “I often spend my time sounding like a Lib Dem”: Rory Stewart on the fractured Tory party]

Part of a new generation of transatlantic left thinkers, Buller was drawn to socialism by “a much more honest conception of freedom around our collective emancipation, rather than my freedom necessarily being reliant on exploitation of others”. Her forthcoming second book, Owning the Future (published on 23 August), is co-authored with Mathew Lawrence, the director of Common Wealth, and will argue for “a new era of democratic ownership: a reinvention of the firm as a vehicle for collective endeavour and meeting social needs”.

In Four Futures (2016), the US writer Peter Frase explored four possible scenarios for life after capitalism: luxury communism (equality and abundance), rentism (hierarchy and abundance), socialism (equality and scarcity) and exterminism (hierarchy and scarcity). Of these, it is the final one that Buller regards as most likely, at least for now. “There will be pressures around the world for necessary climate migration and my greatest fear is that we have a society that becomes comfortable with creating an even harsher ‘Fortress Europe’ and that designates huge parts of the world as sacrifice zones.

“It may not be viable in the long term because eventually you undermine the conditions for that zone of safety. But things will have to get worse before they get better,” she said.

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This article appears in the 27 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special