The profit motive is not a proper basis to run a society much less save the planet, says author Adrienne Buller.

IN 2019 the economists at the International Monetary Fund crunched the numbers and decided, in their infinite wisdom, that each great whale swimming in our oceans was 'worth' $US2million. The IMF estimate was based on the value of whales to ecotourism and their ability to remove carbon from the atmosphere or carbon sequestration as it is known. Wrote the IMF:

'The carbon capture potential of whales is truly startling. Whales accumulate carbon in their bodies during their long lives. When they die, they sink to the bottom of the ocean; each great whale sequesters 33 tons of CO2 on average, taking that carbon out of the atmosphere for centuries. A tree, meanwhile, absorbs only up to 48 pounds of CO2 a year.'

It was a clumsy attempt by the IMF to convince the markets to value the world's wildlife. But it highlighted to author Adrienne Buller the dangerous fantasy of an 'environmentally friendly capitalism' and which she pulls apart in her book The Value of a Whale: On The Illusions of Green Capitalism.

'For me, it captures everything about green capitalism that is both seductive in an intuitive sense and then also deeply problematic in a practical sense. On the one hand, there’s this intuitive appeal to the idea that the reason that we destroy nature is because we don’t value it within our economic system, so we need to find a way to do that. It’s the idea that if we can just make governments or the corporate sector appreciate the role that elements of nature, like a whale, have in things they care about—money, a stable economy, etc.—then that can be a solution. Trying to make a whale compliant with market-based logic is how most governments are trying to approach the climate crisis, and I think it captures the absurd and brutal way that economics engages with nature. Plus, I just love whales.'

Buller says that the corporate sector has gone from climate change denialism to lobbying governments on the basis that climate change can be effectively tackled without upsetting the economic status quo and without hindering vested interests that benefit from that status quo. 

'The corporate sector and financial firms have realised overt climate denialism and obstruction is not a viable strategy, so they’re slowly transitioning toward trying to shape and control climate policy. At the heart of green capitalism is an effort to defend and minimise disruption to existing economic systems, broad distributions of wealth and power, and institutions amidst the profound challenges posed by the ecological crisis.' 

She observes that the supporters of green capitalism seek assurances that no action taken to avert the possibility of catastrophic ecological damage will damage ‘the economy’. And, second, they seek new opportunities to make profit through what is euphemistically described as ‘green growth’. It is what our own corporate-friendly Climate Change Minister James Shaw likes to describe as the 'new opportunities' for profit open to corporates that are prepared to 'adapt' to climate change.  And, of course, there are the added 'incentives' of government funding and subsidies.

Carbon offsetting is perhaps the main market-led 'solution' to climate change. Buller says it simply opens up a new profit-making private industry without ever threatening the economic status quo: 

'In contrast to, for instance, moving away from private car ownership to mass transit as a climate solution, the green capitalist framework is more about making sure we can transition to electric vehicles when we’re moving away from fossil-fuel-driven cars so that private companies can keep profiting.'

She also points out the irony that the impact of climate change has damaged carbon offsetting policies: 'A lot of carbon offsets based around reforestation have actually gone up in flames in climate-related wildfires in North America.'

There are no 'right policies' as far as green capitalism is concerned, says Buller. In the conclusion to her book she writes: 'At best green capital solutions are a deadly distraction from the urgent task of actually slowing, reversing, and adapting to climate and ecological crises. At worst, they are actively undermining our ability to do so.'

'The argument I make is that green capitalism is a contradiction in terms. Because it’s predicated on systems and dynamics that are not reconcilable with a sustainable planet, whether that is the idea of constant and unending growth entirely decoupled from material resource use or the fact we’ve sustained Western lifestyles off the exploitation of invisible people and places around the world. Eventually you run out of cheap labour to exploit, you run out of land to use for offsets and you run out of resources to exploit for all of us to have our own shiny new electric vehicle. Green capitalism, in short, is its own form of denial.'

Still in her late twenties, Adrienne Buller has been described as one of a new generation of transatlantic socialist thinkers and activists and she has been favourably compared to her Canadian compatriot Naomi Klein. She moved to the UK in 2017 and subsequently became co-director of the campaign group Labour for a Green New Deal. She says she was attracted to socialism because of its 'much more honest conception of freedom around our collective emancipation, rather than my freedom necessarily being reliant on the exploitation of others.'

She agrees, in the most basic terms, that it must be system change instead of climate change and that such an approach demands that social, political and ethical questions be resolved democratically.

'They should have everyone's input rather than being left up to the interests and whims of whichever actors happen to have the most power within the marketplace. Markets tend to reproduce and reflect existing distributions of power, if not exacerbate them, which is something that we have seen in the US and the UK over the past 40 or so years as there have been fewer and fewer limitations on market exchange and the power of capital.'

The Value of a Whale is published by the Manchester University Press


  1. Thank you for this.

    We need more honesty, not less.

    I feel afraid of what the green movement has become. Calls for active, systemic suppression of free speech chill me to the bone, especially with its carrion-cry of 'to save the very planet'.

    So many will buy-in. The working class will have no choice to rise with our very survival at stake. We were always going to be the 'empty eaters' in this framing of the problem.

    There is no option on the horizon that allows humanity to maintain consumer-madness. The wealthy will simply ramp-up their sacrificing of the poor.

    We can never trust the greatest beneficiaries of a problem to dictate a solution - or to control the narrative about it.


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