Green Capitalism Explained & Criticized

We are new to the website where this interview is on offer, and appreciate its proclamation: “We cut through the noise. Of social media. And algorithmic distraction. We find the serious stuff. The stuff you miss. Every week. With human curators.” We are also new to the explainer and critic on a set of topics we often have had links to:


Adrienne Buller is Director of Research at the think tank Common Wealth, where she leads investigative projects about building a democratic economy. She previously researched the intersection of finance and the climate crisis at InfluenceMap, and has also written for The Guardian and the Financial Times, among other publications. Adrienne is the author of The Value of a Whale: On the Illusions of Green Capitalism, and co-author, with Mathew Lawrence, of Owning the Future: Power and Property in an Age of Crisis.

Green capitalism demands we filter our response to the climate crisis through the market; Adrienne picks apart everything wrong with this approach. But with carbon markets failing on their own terms, and ESGs serving no purpose more than profit-making, why has green capitalism generated more backlash on the right than the left? It comes down to politics. Calling out greenwashing won’t stop climate finance from minimizing risk, maximizing returns, and disregarding the common good. That’s why it’s imperative that we fight to govern our economic systems democratically.

What is green capitalism and what are its goals and aspirations? Who are its cheerleaders, both in terms of institutions and actual individuals?

At its core, green capitalism is about rendering our response to climate and ecological crisis into a form that is compliant with market-based mechanisms. That sounds very simple. That is fundamentally all it really is. But how it plays out is often messier than it sounds.

Green capitalism is about finding a way to wedge all of the complexity of addressing climate and ecological crisis through the prism of the market. That requires finding prices for things, whether carbon or other forms of natural capital, and finding ways to adjust our financial modeling. The market seeks to bring forward neutral arbitration between market actors in pursuit of profit, and then views this as somehow inherently aligned with positive outcomes like curbing emissions or addressing biodiversity loss.

My first experience with green capitalism came from working at a nonprofit that helped private financial firms optimize their role in the green transition. The sustainable finance industry was a window into this clear mindset about how to address climate and ecological crisis: by making small, market-led tweaks, and by resisting the supposed messiness of politics.

Its advocates are everywhere. The finance industry itself is, in my view, the vanguard of this idea. You’ve got champions like Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock, as the poster child. But it’s also present in all kinds of European climate governance. The EU’s Green Deal is an archetypal policy program of green capitalism. As is the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) in the US, which tries to crowd in market actors and find ways to make climate investments desirable for the private sector and its clients. It really is the predominant framework with which most policymakers, at least in the Global North, are forging ahead.

What is the primary driver behind its emergence? Is it the appearance of a new frontier of accumulation, which business will use to get richer off this tragedy? Or are green capitalists just trying to co-opt the more radical ways of tackling the climate emergency, making it more like a backroom deal in Davos to prevent people from blowing up pipelines?

Without getting too conspiratorial, I would say it’s a little bit of both. It’s a happy marriage of an array of capital’s interests. There is a recognition of the threat that the escalating climate crisis poses to capitalism – an unprecedented threat, especially in terms of capitalism’s ability to reproduce itself. But, at the same time, there is also the understanding that this is an incredible new domain for profit making – an understanding that is probably correct given the current systems.

To go back to the kingpins of finance, Larry Fink publishes an annual letter that, each year, presents climate change as an unprecedented opportunity for investors. He often uses some version of that phrase to talk about the crisis. So, that’s definitely one side of the coin.

Read the whole interview here.

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