The Value of a Whale: On the Illusions of Green Capitalism
Whales and valuing nature
Whales are beautiful, mysterious creatures. People spend lots of money to watch them splash and burp from a cruise ship deck (not great for the whales, by the way). Whales also capture more CO2 over their lifetimes than trees, per pound. So how much is one worth?
The IMF says $2 million, based on what their economists know about ecotourism and carbon sequestration. Are they right? In The Value of a Whale, Buller, a researcher at a progressive British think tank, dives deep into this question and the mechanics behind green capitalism’s cornerstone project, carbon offsets. She asks a powerful question: in the face of climate catastrophe, is green capitalism really the best we can do?
One of our other recent book reports was a love letter to marine mammals. Like Alexis Pauline Gumbs, Adrienne Buller is fascinated by whales and what our relationships with them tell about the human story. We’ve hunted them for meat and for the fatty oil that has allowed us to light lamps, grease machinery, and fertilize crops. Now, “they occupy the spreadsheets of researchers at the IMF… [and] they wash up on beaches with bellies full of plastic waste in banal confirmation of our mastery over the last wild places.”
Green capitalism and quantifying nature
Buller defines green capitalism as: “an effort to address environmental catastrophe through new paths to accumulation while minimising disruption to our current economic systems and modes of living, irrespective of whether the actions taken actually lessen the damage they claim to or cause other harms in the process.” Basically, it’s how to make money from not rocking the boat.
It’s easy to say polluters should be held account for the damage they’ve done to our environment. But how do we quantify the damage? Acknowledging that it’s really not possible to parcel something as nebulous as the environment into discrete pieces, Buller walks us through some of the ways price tags are put on nature:
- Stated preferences: people are directly asked how much they would pay for something
- Revealed preferences: the difference in prices people are willing to pay for a house, or a trip to, two different areas. For example, if the two areas have different levels of air pollution but are otherwise equal, you can deduce the value “lost” by the pollution
- Opportunity cost as a proxy: how much is a natural resource (like a plot of land) worth on the market as farmland or something else?
“These might sound ludicrously simplistic. However, they are widely used: the stated preference method was, notoriously, a basis for determining the value of damages from the 198g Exxon Valdez oil spill.”
The last time you bought a flight, were you asked if you wanted to offset your carbon emissions for just a few dollars? Have you been confused by ads from airlines that claim ambitious “net zero” or “carbon neutral” plans despite continuing to spew pollutants into the atmosphere?
These sound too good to be true… and they are. Offsets are dubiously calculated, completely unregulated as an industry, and so far not proven to meaningfully reduce pollution. Plus, it plays out along colonial lines: offshoring problems to the global south so northern economies don’t have to ask the hard questions about our lifestyles in order to actually support decarbonisation, ecological resilience, or justice and equality for all of humanity.
Forest management is a popular option for offsetting: a polluter basically pays someone not to cut down trees, or to plant them, so the CO2 that the trees capture can be used to balance out CO2 pollution elsewhere, from other activity. But we have to ask:
- Where are the trees planted? Who enjoys the benefit of the clean air the trees help make? Do locals have access to enjoy it responsibly? Was the land previously used for something else important, like providing food to locals?
- What is the specific threat to this “protected” forested area? Are you just paying wealthy landowners to do nothing with their land?
- Which kinds of trees? Monocultural areas are known to be more vulnerable to pests, diseases, and wildfires than areas with high levels of biodiversity.
- What time-scale was used to estimate the CO2 “sunk”? If it takes a century for the trees to absorb the carbon pollution you’ve emitted, balance is achieved if you only do that activity once every 100 years.
- Does this whole system work? Scientific literature on its efficacy is scant, and Buller shares the results of a meta-study that shows that the EU’s Emissions Trading System has only reduced emissions by an unimpressive 0-2%.
Carbon pricing, “cap and trade” systems
By capping the output of a polluter (a country, company, or individual) through regulation, we incentivise them to minimize emissions. “Cap and trade” systems work by allowing polluters are over their limit to buy allowances from polluters within their limit. Allowing the invisible hand of the market to price carbon pollution is certainly efficient, but it doesn’t figure who should cut where, and in what order. Those things are important. And is the public and corporate carbon accounting bureaucracy to manage all this any simpler or more effective than direct regulation?
Buller says no, making the case that these schemes are just more ways for the Global North to maintain its power. By not posing a threat to the current system as it, billionaires, major corporations, and the politicians they help elect can get behind “cap and trade” as a cosmetic policy with the added bonus that it’s fodder for greenwashing their brands. At best, these systems are a distraction, and at worst, they are yet another way to make profit for the unequal benefit of the few, at the environmental expense of everyone.
“In California, the uniform carbon price enforced by its cap-and-trade scheme has led to uneven and unjust distribution of emissions reductions, with reductions in some areas contributing to a relative increase in emissions and associated pollutants in areas populated predominantly by communities of colour.”
Buller argues carbon credits should be a later piece of the effort; more important to get right first are institutional things like electricity grids and transportation. Building renewable energy infrastructure and investing in public transportation are more durable and just ways to tip the pollution scale. Let’s focus on policy that gets us there.
Green capitalism, what’s it good for?
Green capitalism, like all capitalisms, is an exercise in externalising. The emergence of the market for carbon offsets (and other things sold as “green”, like “bio-fuel”) has already sparked crises in food chains and Indigenous land rights in the Global South. The United States has emitted a fifth of all global emissions, but enjoys the wealth and geological serendipity to mitigate the effects of global warming and avoid its worst effects. Buller argues this is correlation, not coincidence: “the affluent, largely white world owes its relative safety in the face of environmental catastrophe to generations of enslavement, exploitation and economic extraction from other places and people.“
Conclusion and our takeaway: Remember our goals
Buller reminds us that everything is subjective; economics as policy is just as political as everything else in statecraft. We’re convinced that we can imagine more than green capitalism by being intentional, thoughtful, and fair with how we define “value” and “growth”. We will no longer be lulled by too-easy “carbon offsets” and be mindful about keeping our eyes on what’s important. We keep coming back to The Doughnut Model, created by the pioneering economist Kate Raworth, as a goalpost for providing for all within planetary means.
The book was good - we definitely recommend it. If you are curious about “green capitalism” and carbon offsets, this is an excellent deep dive. Her writing is dense and we felt a bit like Alexis with our highlighter because we needed a lot of time to chew through it. In combination with The Climate Book, this book has completely changed how we think about, and evaluate climate mitigation through offsets and reforestation.
She’s clear from the beginning that presenting alternative climate mitigation solutions was out of scope for the book. So we’d love to read more in that direction - let us know if you have a book with exciting new climate policy solutions!