Green capitalism: a dangerous fiction

September 23, 2011

In recent debates around solutions to the climate crisis, several ideas hold the largest share of government support and media coverage. These include: green consumerism, carbon offsetting, carbon taxes, carbon trading, geo-engineering and carbon capture and storage.

But do these “solutions” take, as their frame of reference, the full extent of the problem? Here are some reasons to be doubtful.

Green consumerism is one variation of the argument whereby “your dollar is your vote”.

It assumes that the choices of individual, ethical consumers will significantly change the conduct of big business.

However, it is often the case that the environmentally friendly claims of these “eco-products” are vastly overstated.

As long as profit is the sole focus for corporations, any claims to the “greenness” of their products should be met with suspicion.

The phenomenon of “greenwashing” is now well known. But more important is that, despite the claims economists make about “consumer sovereignty” in the market, consumers do not determine production. Largely, it’s production that governs individual consumer behaviour.

Green consumerism may be capable of mitigating some environmental impacts of some products, but it does nothing to change the overall scale at which resources are used up. Considering that the planet is currently being used at 150% its capacity this is a critical concern.

As has been pointed out by radical philosopher Slavoj Zizek, green consumerism functions to deprive people of their ability to act on their recognition of the extent of the climate crisis. Instead, it provides them with an easy, guilt-assuaging quick-fix.

The related “solution” of carbon offsetting is even more problematic. First of all, offsets allows high-emitting industries to carry on without making big changes to their production, precisely at the point when the world should be stopping all emissions.

Also, carbon offset companies can give no guarantee that their permits represent real emissions cuts.

In their recent book, What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism, Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster point out that one of the most popular carbon offsets involves Chinese companies that are paid millions of dollars to destroy a gas called HFC-23.

The gas, which is about 1000 times worse for the climate than carbon dioxide, is used in refrigerators.

However, Magdoff and Foster said “there is evidence that some plants in China have been producing more refrigerant than they can sell in order to have more HFC-23 that they can be paid to destroy”.

In 2009, 59% of all offsets credited under Europe’s emissions trading scheme were based on destroying HFC-23.

A carbon tax is not necessarily something to oppose in principle. The one Australia is likely to receive in the near future is another matter: it will still see emissions rise for decades to come.

To make a serious difference, a carbon tax would need to be absolutely resolute in its task and not make concessions to polluting industries — a very difficult feat given the power corporations wield over government.

It would also have to find a way around companies merely passing on the tax to consumers through price hikes — something all too easy under monopoly capitalism.

On the other hand, environmentalists should oppose carbon trading on principle. For instance, the European emissions trading has allowed Europe’s most polluting corporations to make billions of euros without cutting pollution.

Governments have used the existence of carbon trading schemes as an excuse to not fund renewable energy or other green measures directly.

The general idea behind most proposals for carbon taxes and carbon trading is to internalise what mainstream economists call “externalities” — that is, the social and environmental costs of capitalist production that corporations do not pay for.

The argument is that if prices can be made to include the environmental costs of an industry (such as pollution), the industry will look to reduce these costs to stay competitive.

In theory, by “internalising the externalities” these carbon markets are supposed to drive investment to more eco-friendly industries and practices.

Magdoff and Foster make a simple, but persuasive argument against this idea.

They say: “The contradictions and complexities of actually implementing a new way to price commodities, in a system in which the profit is the only god, and power rests in the hands of people who have no interest in doing this, makes all of this an insurmountable task.”

They quote the Marxist geographer David Harvey, who said, “if capitalism is forced to internalise” all of the social and environmental costs it generates “it will go out of business. That is the simple truth.”

The more radical solutions of geoengineering are perhaps the most problematic of all green capitalist proposals.

Supporters of geoengineering tend to assume that things will go on the way they are now, that endless growth and environmental destruction will not be stopped in time.

Rather than try to change the social system so it accords with natural limits, geoengineering proposes to change the natural conditions of the planet so it accords with capitalism’s needs.

Geoengineering proposals include loading the stratosphere with tonnes of sulphur dioxide to cool the planet or dumping tiny iron filings in the ocean to increase its capacity to absorb carbon dioxide.

The problems with these ideas should be evident. The global ecosphere is intricate and interdependent. It’s impossible to predict the impacts of radically manipulating the Earth’s atmosphere or oceans.

The risks of experimenting with the planetary system are simply too great.

Furthermore, even if any of these strategies were to help with the climate problem, it would still do nothing for the other “planetary boundaries” that capitalism is pressing against, such as freshwater usage, chemical dispersion and biodiversity loss.

It’s essential we remain within all these planetary boundaries if human civilisation is to survive on this planet.

Another common technological fix to climate change proposed is carbon capture and storage — the idea that carbon pollution from coal- and gas-fired power stations can be captured before it is released into the atmosphere.

It suffers from some of the same problems as geoengineering. Even its biggest supporters have no answer to the question of how to safety store the captured gases. After years of research and funding the technology is not commercially available, and may never be.

All of these market-based, green capitalist “solutions” are also marked by a logic of denial.

The logic of denial is not the same as outright climate change denial. It is found whenever the real extent of the climate crisis is forgotten or repressed in favour of easier responses that don’t drastically disrupt the capitalist system.

These “solutions” also play an ideological role and help disorient people searching for answers.

In the past few decades, the green movement has split over support for various green capitalist solutions, precisely at a time when the scale of the crisis became more obvious, and when the real solutions, such as 100% renewable energy, became more achievable.

Solutions based on green consumerism encourage individual action, but real environmental gains will come from collective action in mass movements.

In the face of this whirlwind of false solutions, it’s important to uphold a few simple points:

• The extremity of our ecological problems should always be the starting point, not the ease of the solution.

• The profit motive is incapable of producing genuine solutions.

• Collective action, not individual choice, is the only thing capable of forcing the real solutions into the realm of the possible.


Sir: You write that supporters of carbon captue and storage have no answer to the question of how to safety store the captured gases. This in incorrect. CO2 is being safely stored underground in deep rock formations where it occupies the tiny pore spaces of the rocks. This occurs naturally in areas such as McElmo Dome in Colorado, and there is a close analog in the way oil and natural gas are stored undergound. In general, it takes an effort to extract oil and natural gas, and the same is true of CO2. Clearly, the earth is capable of storing these substances. Several fairly large engineered carbon storage projects including Sleiper in the north sea and In Salah in Algeria are currently storing CO2 underground. Thus far, the greatest risks posed by CO2 leakage occur naturally in areas of volcanic activity. These areas would not be suitable for an engineered CO2 storage project. However, given a site with appropriate geology, there is every reason to believe that CO2 will remain stored for extremely long periods - even permanently. Would this not be better for the environment than releasing it into the atmosphere? As to your assertion that the technology is not commercially available after years of research - this is partially true. However, the timeframe for commercial deployment has always been in the 2020s. It takes many years to bring a technology into commercial readiness, and we are now seeing multiple larger CO2 capture and storage demonstrations - evidence that research is playing off and should not be dimissed, as you have done.
There are two articles on the carbon-credit system, recently published by leading journals, that provide a good look at the difficulties of the system in India and mention some of the pitfalls mentioned in your article. Both articles are informed by a 2008 Wikileaks Cable out of Mumbai. The articles are: Carbon-Credits System Tarnished by WikiLeaks Revelation Go to: and Clean Energy Credits Tarnished by WikiLeaks Revelation Go to: I think you are right when you write that the only efficacious way to go is collective action. But that does mean to get the word out in a media world that largely refuses to see things unless they are told to see them by the corporations-government. And governments do not seem to have the will to make a change. In Canada, for example, publication of climate articles by professional scientists has been reduced by about 80% in the past few years by means of fiat issued from on high. Political thinking of that calibre stops things from smoothly working, as does constipation. Anyway, I am sure Australia has a similar problem. Our inability to take effective action worries me in an intense way. Then, when I read things like the following, it sometimes causes me to wince, and wonder if the global situation might actually be hopeless: MARINE ECOLOGY PROGRESS SERIES Mar Ecol Prog Ser Vol. 434: 251–266, 2011 doi: 10.3354/meps09214 Published July 28 (2011) Entitled: "Ongoing global biodiversity loss and the need to move beyond protected areas: a review of the technical and practical shortcomings of protected areas on land and sea" Anyway, thanks for a thought provoking post!

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