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- Author: Adrienne Buller x
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Nature is being destroyed at an unprecedented rate. Despite countless pledges and summits, we remain on course for a catastrophic 3 degrees Celsius of warming. In a world of immense wealth, billions still live below the poverty line and on the frontlines of environmental breakdown. Increasingly, the world is waking up to this reality, but are the ‘solutions’ being proposed really solutions? In this searing and insightful critique, Adrienne Buller examines the escalating plunder of the natural world under financial capitalism, and exposes the fatal biases that have shaped climate and environmental policymaking. Tracing the intricate connections between financial power, vested interests and environmental governance, she exposes the myopic economism and market-centric thinking presently undermining a future where all life can flourish. The book explains what is wrong with carbon pricing, off-setting and asset management’s recent interest in all things environmental. Both honest and optimistic, The value of a whale asks us – in the face of crisis – what we really value.
The introduction sets up the parameters and argument of the book. It opens with the International Monetary Fund’s valuation of a single whale to question the use of setting the monetary value of nature, opening out to demonstrate that this is just part of the financialisation of approaches to ecological and climate crises. The introduction then goes on to spell out the different aspects of economic thinking inherent in these approaches, which will be explained and analysed in the following chapters.
The first chapter begins by interrogating the basic assumptions, rules and frameworks that guide mainstream, market-centric economic thinking. These are the foundations of green capitalist thought, informing most climate and environmental governance and the institutions that generate it.
The second chapter examines the defining environmental policies and programmes pursued by many of the world’s powerful political economic institutions and governments, namely carbon pricing and carbon offsetting regimes. It is within this chapter that the programme of ‘green capitalism’ begins to take shape. Together, the first chapters explore how the flattening tendency and appeals to scientific objectivity of neoclassical economics, in combination with the depoliticising tendencies of market-centric governance and thought, serve to erase the inescapably political nature of ecological crisis and obscure the essential role of power in determining the contours of our responses to it.
The third chapter maps a critical and relatively nascent site of power in the global economy and, importantly, in the design of the green capitalist programme: the asset management industry. Once a niche industry serving the wealthy, asset managers now sit at the helm of Wall Street’s immense power, with a consistently growing influence over policy including, saliently, how many governments and international institutions are designing their responses to ecological crisis. This chapter examines the historically distinct combination of incentives, governing logics, and mechanics that drive this vast and highly concentrated industry, exploring the outsized impact of a small cohort of enormous firms. There are countless firms and industries at play within the messy politics of ecological crisis, not least the fossil fuel giants; however, their role is not documented here for the same reasons that the efforts of denialist politicians is not focussed on. First, these efforts have been catalogued in considerable detail elsewhere; and second, though they remain influential, they are not the primary entities shaping the green capitalist project as it is defined here, oriented as it is toward a particular set of ‘solutions’.
The fourth chapter delves into the increasingly central role of the asset management industry in policymaking and in practice, namely within an essential new site of green capitalist effort: the booming ‘sustainable finance’ industry. If the focus of the book is skewed toward actors in the Global North, it is because, unjust as this reality is, the sites of power shaping green capitalism remain primarily within Northern governments, firms, non-governmental organisations, and Northern-dominated international institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization. Moreover, most international finance and exchange is governed by the legal systems of just two jurisdictions, New York State and England, whose respective capitols play host to most of the world’s powerful financial and legal firms. It is, therefore, to a large extent within these two sites that the programme of green capitalism is being defined and legally encoded, and where efforts to contest it should, at least for the time being, be directed.
In the fifth chapter, the horizon is extended beyond Wall Street and the City of London to the global level of finance and exchange, exploring how the institutions and systems that govern the international economic sphere presently undermine not only effective action to confront ecological crisis but also, critically, the ability to secure justice in doing so. As this chapter argues, confronting profound inequalities in both wealth and power within the global economy is neither optional nor a distraction from the challenge at hand, as efforts to do so are often described. To the contrary, doing so is a question of both justice and material necessity.
The final chapter highlights how the emerging green capitalist policy programme – from nature as a financial asset to the untenability of ‘decoupled’ growth – comes up at every turn against the physical constraints of a global economy marred by inequality, and a natural world whose complexity cannot be efficiently priced and traded nor converted to terms compliant with optimising financial risk profiles.
The book concludes with an exercise in imagination – an attempt to look beyond the constraints within which we have been needlessly confined. The shape of what comes next is not fixed. Evidence confirming that we have the ability to sustainably support a thriving quality of life for everyone on this Earth, and then some, continues to mount – provided we can accept that present distributions of consumption, wealth and waste are not only unjust, but also untenable. The relations of economic power that shape and scar our world constitute a formidable opponent, cemented firmly by the law and its bedfellow, the threat of enforcement, which are wielded overwhelmingly in favour of the interests of capital. However, if there is hope to be found in this unyielding concrete, it is that every part of it is something we have made, and can therefore remake. Political institutions and systems are inherently contestable and subject to change. It is eminently possible to build an economy that supports thriving life rather than supplanting it. It is also far from guaranteed.