‘They teach us’: how whales can help dispel the myth of green capitalism

<span>Photograph: John Van Den Hende/PA</span>
Photograph: John Van Den Hende/PA

A few years ago, a group of my students told me they thought capitalism would fix the climate crisis. It was the end of term and we had spent weeks debating world politics; they were not uncritical or naive. But as fires ripped through homes and flood water lapped at 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 asked if that might be our best chance. If the system would have no other option but to course correct when faced with planetary collapse. Adrienne Buller’s recent book, The Value of a Whale, dashes whatever hopes they might have had. Green capitalism will not save us, she argues – if anything, it is making the climate crisis worse.

Green capitalism may not be what you think it is. With much discussion about the danger of climate denial and the criticism of oil and gas companies’ climate-conscious ads, Buller’s book points to a shift that we risk missing. In the past decade, some capitalists have embraced green politics and not just for the sake of optics. Seeing the climate crisis as an unprecedented threat to capitalism, they don’t want to disprove its existence but solve it. As an example, read the annual letter from the BlackRock CEO, Larry Fink. Their approaches – “prices, markets and clever financial products”, Buller writes – are now “guiding much of the global response to the ecological crisis”. In Buller’s reading, then, my students’ optimism was at least partially founded: capitalists have woken up to the problem. But what to make of their solutions?

Adrienne Buller at home.
Writing The Value of a Whale, Adrienne Buller says she tried to ‘climb inside the head’ of a green capitalist. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

“The goal of the book is to try to climb inside the head of someone who would count as a green capitalist,” she says from her living room when we talk over Zoom. Buller, director of research at the thinktank Common Wealth, found that her scepticism of this approach grew at her first job out of university. Working for an organisation that researched how businesses and finance affect the climate, she describes her former role as “engaging investors on shareholder stewardship and modelling how to align investment portfolios with the 1.5C target”. The people she worked with were genuine about their belief in sustainable investment, she says, but she wasn’t convinced.

This, plus her desire to “radicalise” people like her mum – someone who “cares about the climate crisis, cares about my future, is interested in politics, but is a non-expert” – resulted in The Value of a Whale. Appraising the merit of the green capitalist policies on their own terms, Buller picks them apart to see if they pass “basic tests”: do they work now? Will they ever? Will they create injustice in the process?

This is where the whale comes in. Buller has a special affinity with these mammoth yet streamlined creatures: growing up, she would see them in the wild near her home town in Vancouver, Canada. In 2019, researchers at the IMF set out to calculate a whale’s value. Totting up the number of eco-tourists whales lure to different countries, plus the animals’ capacity to store carbon, they came to $2m for each great whale. Monetising them was green capitalism in essence; “squeezing the climate and biodiversity crisis through the lens of neoclassical economy”, writes Buller. Here, the climate crisis is both threat and opportunity.

Sperm whale underwater.
Researchers at the IMF valued large whales at $2m each, due to their capacity to store carbon and their appeal to eco-tourists. Photograph: SeaTops/Alamy

Referencing the journalist Kate Aronoff’s Overheated and the academic John Bellamy Foster as influences (Kohei Saito’s book Capital in the Anthropocene, forthcoming in English, speaks to similar themes), Buller’s book piqued a lot of people’s interest when it was published in July, including in the finance and corporate sector. “My LinkedIn adds have been out of control,” she says with a smile. Its appeal may lie in the way it methodically examines the “fatal flaws” in different green capitalists’ approaches.

The Value of a Whale argues that their version of decarbonisation preserves existing inequalities while creating new opportunities for profit – neither a viable response to the crisis we’ve created, nor a fair one. She cites three examples. First, carbon offsetting, which is often predicated on the seizure of the global south – just one way in which the freedom to consume affordable goods in the rich world is increasingly based on the unfreedom of people across the world. Second, environmentally conscious investing, which is based on definitions of sustainability that are almost entirely unregulated. And third, asset manager capitalism, under which huge investment companies shape government climate policy so that among the multitude of options available the one that’s attractive to them is privileged. “Think 1:1 replacement of cars with electric vehicles, in lieu of investment in mass transit,” she tells me. “Not all climate policy”, Buller says, “is good climate policy”.

One of the main green capitalist policies that she has in her sights is carbon pricing. Endorsed by politicians, academics and the media, it covers a tax on carbon and cap-and-trade schemes. The market is supposed to internalise the cost of carbon by increasing its price and encouraging companies to switch to cheaper, cleaner energy sources. It is the “efficient” market fix for decarbonisation, according to its proponents.

But according to Buller, the “theoretical elegance” of policies like this relate too little to the scale, complexity and pace of the problems facing humanity. Carbon pricing doesn’t distinguish between different sources. For example: SUV drivers and people who can’t afford to replace their gas boiler are affected in the same way. And even if it can work, it can’t work alone. Decarbonisation “isn’t something that a price signal can just do away with given how embedded these infrastructures are in every part of the global economy”, she says. It needs “huge, strategic and carefully planned investment”.

So much of the global economy is structured around fossil fuels that for carbon pricing to be successful, the price would either have to be “so high that it would be economically devastating”, Buller argues, “particularly to the poor and it’s untenable for that reason. Or it would have to be gentle enough to get buy-in and not cause real economic harm, particularly for the poorest. And in that case, it’s unlikely to really have an impact.” These are not simply knots that we can loosen as we go. “Evidence suggests it isn’t working now at anything like the required pace or scale,” she says, “and there’s little reason to think it will in some imagined future”. She later sends me a link to recent academic studies that, she says, prove her point.

Grow up and engage with the world as it is, capitalists imply – green capitalism offers us a something that is better than nothing. But going along with this, Buller writes, means wilfully ignoring “the accelerating and increasingly desperate pace of climate and ecological breakdown; the failure of capitalism to provide basic welfare and freedom for the world’s majority; the boundless possibility for things to be different”.

Coming back to the whale, at the end of our conversation, Buller says: “They are sentient species for how the ocean and the planet as a whole is faring.” She rolls up her sleeve to show me a small whale tattooed on her arm, the same one that’s on the front of her book and that’s pictured at the start of each chapter. “Their lifespans are so long that when they die you can see the invention of plastic and the acceleration of fuel-based infrastructure and agriculture,” she says. “They hold it in their bodies.”

Alien yet intimate, the whale 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 at least prompts us to reconsider our position at the top of the ecosystem as this exclusively intelligent being … to reposition ourselves in a web of existence rather than at the pinnacle of some kind of pyramid.”

Completely at odds with green capitalism, this is a glimpse of the other world Buller tells us is possible.