Book Review | “The Value of a Whale: On the Illusions of Green Capitalism” by Adrienne Buller

Book Review by Noel Corkery

In 2019 International the Monetary Fund (IMF) researchers calculated that the value of a single great whale in the wild was US$2million. That figure represents the monetary contribution that a single whale makes over its lifetime to eco-tourism and the value of the 33 tonnes of carbon dioxide that it would sequester. The IMF valuation was used to support a business case for more investment in the conservation of whales.  

Monetising nature in this way is increasingly promoted as a solution to conserving and managing nature. In ‘The Value of a Whale’ the author Adrienne Buller refers to this approach as ‘green capitalism’ and presents a compelling case that it is largely an illusion not a solution. ‘Green capitalism’ is described as an attempt to address the global environmental and climate crisis by creating a new market mechanism for the accumulation of assets while minimising disruption to the current market-centric global economic system.

As director of research for the London-based think tank Common Wealth, Buller’s work is focused on the relationships between the global financial system and the current environmental and climate crisis. Understanding these relationships is essential for landscape architects and related professionals to achieve effective outcomes in their efforts to protect, restore and sustainably manage natural environments. This book can help them make informed decisions regarding their involvement in projects that may be classified as ‘green capitalism’.

Rather than consider the global economy from the perspective of supporting life, and recognising the ways in which the market-centric economic system drives the climate and environmental crisis, there is growing willingness to evaluate every proposal in the language and imperatives of markets, finance, property rights or profits. Although this market-centric economic system is a human construct, it is widely accepted as a natural law that is beyond challenge or consideration of alternatives. But the author provides a valuable explanation of how the current capitalist economic system has created and continues to compound the global environmental and climate crisis. While effective and fundamental changes to the current economic system need to be identified and implemented, the goal of the author in writing the book was to answer the question, ‘how has the world come to the situation where we find ourselves confronted by an environmental and climate catastrophe.’ By answering this question, possible solutions may become apparent.

The author had two primary aims in writing the book. First is to bring together the ideas, policies, and relevant actors that make up the prevailing response to the environmental and climate crisis, in a single publication. In doing so she argues that these factors all suffer from a particular set of biases and serve a particular set of interests. The second aim is to examine how these ideas and policies are self-defeating in attempting to manage the existential threat posed by climate change and collapsing ecosystems. Buller contends that at best the ideas and policies underpinning ‘green capitalism’ are a distraction from finding effective responses, but at worst they are actively undermining the fight for a global future that provides both ecological stability and social justice.

Buller starts by interrogating the basic assumptions, rules and frameworks that guide mainstream market-centric economic thinking. She then examines the environmental policies and programmes adopted by many of the world’s most powerful political and economic institutions, and governments, which are focused on carbon pricing/trading and offsetting. By applying these mechanisms to address the environmental and climate crisis, the role of governments is supressed and generally confined to facilitating the market system.

A powerful but rapidly evolving force in the design and implementation of the ‘green capitalist’ programme is the asset management industry; a historically distinct combination of incentives, governing logics, and mechanisms driving the vast and highly concentrated asset management industry. The scale and concentration of this industry is indicated by the fact that two asset management firms, BlackRock and Vanguard, are responsible for a pool of assets worth US$20 trillion. This is enough to purchase all the shares in every corporation listed on the London Stock Exchange, more than three times over. The power associated with this scale of assets allows these and other large asset managers to strongly influence the policies and programs of governments in the USA, EU and other governments around the world to ensure they align with their own interests.

The increasingly central role of the asset management industry in policymaking and the practice of ‘sustainable finance’ is a key aspect of ‘green capitalism’. Buller notes that the sites of power shaping ‘green capitalism’ are primarily located in Global North governments, firms, NGO’s and Northern-dominated international institutions that include the IMF and the World Trade Organisation. In addition, most international finance and exchange is governed by legal systems of just two jurisdictions, namely the State of New York and England, where most of the world’s powerful financial and legal firms are located. The author notes that it is largely in these centres that the programme of ‘green capitalism’ is being defined and legally encoded.  

The institutions and systems that govern the international economic system undermine not only effective action to confront the environmental and climate crisis, but also prevents justice in being achieved in doing so. The results of this unjust system are addressed in a United Nations news report in 2019, which observed; “We produce every day more than enough food to feed everyone on Earth, yet each year over 1 million tonnes is left to waste, as an estimated 800 million live in hunger and ‘chronic malnourishment’.”

The emerging green capitalism policy programme, in which nature is treated as a financial asset and GDP growth is used as the primary measure of economic health of national economies, operates in a global economy marred by social, power and wealth inequality, and a natural world whose complexity is not fully understood and cannot be effectively priced and traded.

The profound inequalities in both wealth and power within the global economy will need to be addressed if the global environmental crisis is to be effectively confronted. It remains critical to address this inequality in spite of the well-resourced campaign supported by many corporations, lobbyists and politicians to discredit and dismiss this view of the crisis.

A fundamental question raised by Buller is whether it is reasonable and realistic to think that the same market-centric capitalist economic system, which has been the primary cause of the environmental and climate crisis, can also be the solution through the adoption of ‘green capitalism’? Given the evidence presented in this book and many other reports, the answer is clearly no.

The available evidence indicates that addressing the environmental and climate crisis requires effective downsizing of economic production and consumption in the wealthiest countries that comprise the Northern economies. This is an uncomfortable idea for many of us who currently enjoy the benefits of constant GDP growth. But we need to acknowledge that the current market-centric economic system fails to provide to the majority of the global population, particularly in the Southern economies with adequate food, water, health care, education, and basic material security. So, what are the possible ways forward to create a healthy, equitable and sustainable future for the planet and humanity?

The first step is to understand how we have come to the current environmental and climate crisis in which we now find ourselves. With this knowledge we need to critically challenge the market-centric solution of green capitalism that is being promoted by many corporations, government policy makers and politicians.

Possible ways forward could involve reinstating the leadership role of governments to set environmental standards and establish and enforce a strong framework of regulation in which economic activity can operate. The emphasis needs to be on effectiveness and equity not just the idea of efficiency promoted by free market proponents. To be effective the responsible government authorities need to be well resourced in terms of budgets as well as the capability and commitment of their officers.

Direct investment by governments will be needed to provide the services, infrastructure and governance required to effectively address the environmental and climate crisis. Governments can also use the tax system to encourage investment that will establish a decarbonised economy, restore and protect ecosystems and achieve more equitable societies.

Government authorities, corporations and individuals, are responsible for the management of vast natural assets. Valuing these for the purpose of assets management can play an effective role in ensuring that adequate funding is available to sustainably manage and maintain them. This would be similar to the way funding is provided for maintenance and replacement of ‘hard infrastructure’ through asset management. However, this essentially an accounting procedure, and is fundamentally different to attempting to use a market system to determine the value of nature through market mechanisms such as trading carbon credits and biodiversity off-sets.

The current belief in perpetual economic growth and the use of GDP as the measure of national economic health will need to be replaced with a more comprehensive set of values criteria that includes consideration of the interests of all stakeholders, not simply shareholders. These stakeholders include those people who provide labour, investors, owners of property, volunteers, those who rely on social support, as well as the natural environment, which is essential for economic activity to take place.

This book is comprehensive, highly researched, deeply considered and well written. It makes a major contribution to the critical debate about how we can effectively address the environmental and climate crisis, and move forward to build a healthy, equitable and sustainable future for the planet and humankind. It provides a clear understanding of the market-centric economic system in which landscape planning, design and management take place. It also provides a valuable insight in to ‘green capitalism’ and its shortcomings.

*Noel Corkery  is a Founding Director of the Landscape Foundation of Australia, past National President of the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects, Registered Landscape Architect and Chair of the Restoration Decade Alliance Government Policy Working Group.

Adrienne Buller is a Senior Fellow at Common Wealth, a progressive UK-based think tank focussed on building a democratic economy. Her research and writing have featured in the Guardian, Financial Times, Bloomberg and New Statesman. She is co-author of Owning the Future (Verso, 2022).

The Value of a Whale On the Illusions of Green Capitalism

Manchester University Press, 2022
ISBN: 9781526162632

About Damian Holmes 3312 Articles
Damian Holmes is the Founder and Editor of World Landscape Architecture (WLA). He is a registered landscape architect (AILA) working in international design practice in Australia. Damian founded WLA in 2007 to provide a website for landscape architects written by landscape architects. Connect on Linkedin at https://www.linkedin.com/in/damianholmes/