Book Review: “The Value of a Whale” — Green Capitalism and the Limits of Market-Based Solutions
By Thomas Peterson
In this valuable book, Adrienne Buller assesses the efficacy of leading market-based efforts to address climate change and nature loss and contends that they have largely failed.
The Value of a Whale: On the Illusions of Green Capitalism by Adrienne Buller. Manchester University Press, 386 pages, $18.95.
Adrienne Buller’s The Value of a Whale: On the Illusions of Green Capitalism is an illuminating and wide-ranging interrogation of the shortcomings of market-driven responses to our climate and ecological crises. She deftly explains how a number of wonky quantitative models and market-based “solutions” — from William Nordhaus’s Dynamic Integrated Climate-Economy (DICE) models to so-called biodiversity offsets — fail to provide any meaningful insights or remedies in the face of the unpredictability of the climate system and the unquantifiability of earth’s ecosystems. This disconnect is aptly illustrated in the anecdote from which the book derives its title: a research team at the IMF has recently priced great whales at $2 million each, owing to their bodily carbon sequestration capacity and their ecotourism value. This sounds awfully nice, but it doesn’t seem to be doing much to counteract a precipitous decline in whale populations.
By synthesizing complicated interactions between the world of finance and the world of climate policy, Buller makes an important contribution to the public discourse. While each passing month brings a profusion of new books exploring the dangers of the climate crisis and outlining potential solutions, the role of financial institutions like the world’s largest asset management firms, the World Bank, and the IMF, in shaping the global response to climate change remains poorly understood by the general public. This book offers a necessary corrective to that gap in popular attention, while also interrogating a rogues’ gallery of ill-advised market-based approaches to emissions reduction and conservation. Buller persuasively tackles fictive and sometimes actively harmful offsets, touches on the limits of sustainable investing, and provides incisive commentary on the stultifying impact of international investment treaties on climate policy, particularly in the Global South.
Most significant, however, is Buller’s adamant and well-argued rejection of the idea that market-based solutions are preferable to government regulation in achieving desired environmental outcomes. The argument for market-based solutions over command-and-control government interventions is predicated on the idea that the market is more efficient. But Buller argues that the solutions that are effective in addressing existential crises like climate change and biodiversity collapse are of far greater importance than their efficiency. Buller then assesses the efficacy of leading market-based efforts to address climate change and nature loss and contends that they have largely failed: annual global greenhouse gas emissions continue to increase, and critical ecological tipping points, like the disappearance of the Amazon rain forest and the collapse of the Thwaites Glacier, draw ever closer.
In grouping together these failed attempts to address our environmental crises through the market, Buller is “naming an adversary” — “green capitalism.” Although many of Buller’s criticisms of green capitalist ideas are well founded, the book too readily discounts the positive contributions of market-based efforts to mitigate the environmental damage done by our capitalist economic system.
The last few years have seen substantial growth in the number of environmental advocacy organizations that are working to improve the climate practices of corporations using the levers of finance, in addition to (or sometimes instead of) regulatory action. And for good reason: the majority of the world’s largest economic entities are corporations, not governments. The extreme concentration of power in corporate hands seems unlikely to change any time soon — much as we might wish it would. A dramatic transformation in the global economic system will not occur soon enough to meet ambitious — and crucial — greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets.
Instead, many NGOs and activists have realized that investors and financial institutions must be pressed to use the leverage that they have over corporate polluters to push them to reduce emissions faster than governments will make them do. Buller seems to characterize this exercise as futile, arguing for a wholesale rejection of green capitalist solutions. While she attempts to deflect criticisms of her rejection of all market-based solutions, she offers little in the way of alternatives for achieving the near-term changes that are necessary for mitigating ecological catastrophe. In fact, she explicitly abstains from offering solutions.
Buller is dismissive of the potential positive influence of ESG, or investing that incorporates data about environmental, social, and corporate governance-related risks. She argues that a green transition led by the world’s largest asset managers — BlackRock, Vanguard, and State Street, which together control 25% of the average publicly traded American corporations — is unlikely to result in a significantly more just and sustainable society. She points out that the climate-related goals of these firms are dedicated to enacting climate policies that minimize financial risks borne by the private sector (in other words, governments should assume the risks instead), create new investment opportunities, and ensure that asset prices grow in the aggregate. These goals seem unlikely to align with the interests of the vast majority of people on earth, let alone those of other species. However, Buller appears to accept this as reason enough to dismiss broader efforts to bolster investor pressure on companies in the service of environmental goals.
Buller’s description of a shareholder resolution calling on Procter & Gamble to take action on deforestation in its supply chains missed the mark in a way that happened to be immediately apparent to me. I am intimately familiar with this resolution because I led a year of negotiations with Procter & Gamble following the vote of support it received from the company’s shareholders, including BlackRock, Vanguard, and State Street. Buller criticizes the resolution for asking the world’s largest consumer goods maker to report on whether it could increase efforts at eliminating deforestation, rather than simply asking the firm to do so. If she had dug a little deeper, she would have found that at the time this resolution was submitted, the Securities and Exchange Commission allowed companies to ignore resolutions that asked for specific action (e.g., eliminate deforestation), rather than disclosure, thereby escaping a shareholder vote. The resolution was worded to exert the maximum pressure allowed on Procter & Gamble. It has been reasonably effective: in the two years since that shareholder vote, the world’s largest consumer goods company has made substantial improvements to its palm oil and wood sourcing policies. This example, while minor in the scheme of the book, is illustrative of a lack of nuance in Buller’s often trenchant analysis.
Would the world be better off if its most powerful financial institutions didn’t support improved climate policies at the companies in their portfolios? Vanguard, the world’s second largest asset manager, recently abandoned the Net Zero Asset Managers initiative and the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero, both of which are subject to well-deserved criticism in The Value of a Whale. In spite of the failings of these green capitalist initiatives, the world will likely be better off if Vanguard tries to decarbonize its investment portfolio than if it doesn’t. Buller offers necessary critiques of the shortcomings of green capitalism but misses the mark by describing it as an adversary. Capitalism is certainly an adversary in the fight against environmental catastrophe, but I have to think that the green version of it (however much its verdancy might be overstated) improves our chances for a habitable climate, at least in the absence of immediate and effective alternatives.
Thomas Peterson works in nonprofit shareholder advocacy, leveraging investor influence to press corporations to reduce their emissions and eliminate deforestation from their supply chains. He has previously worked in grassroots environmental advocacy and as a theater director, and written about artistic responses to climate change.