Greenwashing Capitalism Won’t Heal the Planet

As the world moves deeper into the climate crisis, too many of the official solutions to slow global warming and transition to a decarbonized society stop short of stating the obvious: our economic system is broken and must be replaced. Capitalism is incompatible with life on Earth. This irrefutable truth is something we all know deep down, whether we can bear to admit it or not.

The level of denial that we are all guilty of, to greater or lesser degrees, along with the fallacy of TINA (There Is No Alternative) that many are wedded to and many more are resigned to, have brought our species to the brink of extinction. We have been so conditioned into believing we can do no better than capitalism that the idea of ditching this rotten system can feel inconceivable — even though plenty of us hate it, even though it hurts us and our society, even though it is burning up the planet.

Instead, there is a strongly held view that we can make fixes to the current system and somehow, we will be OK. This gives us a lifeline that we badly need, a compromise in which we can have our cake and eat it: We hold on to the current system while also preventing the end of the human race.

The desire for this to be possible is understandable. After all, having to move away from everything familiar is daunting. The unknown is a cold and scary place, change is uncomfortable and intimidating, and many of us would rather it did not have to happen.

That said, something more deliberate and conscious than basic human trepidation is at work here ensuring we cling to this fantasy of compromise, and that is the tiny group of elites who own and control the system, who benefit greatly from the system, who are choosing to ignore the dangers posed by the system.

The Herculean efforts of the elites to maintain the status quo have made our economic system incredibly adaptable and resilient. Events and conditions that would kill off most things only cause capitalism to evolve and morph into something even stronger. It is persistent, it survives at all costs and, despite its deadliness, that kind of constant is appealing and comforting to us as humans.

This goes some way to explaining why we have allowed global warming to get to this critical point even though we have known for at least 50 years that human activity, especially economic activity, has been threatening the ability of the planet to sustain human life.

The compromise position, in which we have our cake and eat it, is everywhere. Governments, political leaders and policy-makers at every level — from local authorities to regions and nations, and international bodies like the European Union and the United Nations — have all manner of visions, charters, strategies and plans, as well as departments, action units and dedicated teams for tackling the climate crisis without disrupting capitalism.

Beware of Misleading Language

On examination, the official documents produced are oddly similar in language and purpose, regardless of what country you care to look at. They are often very long, peppered with eye-catching graphics and crammed with aspiration and positivity. The content and terminology used is largely inoffensive and on the face of it, reasonable.

So, what then is the problem?

To begin answering that, it is useful to analyze the trends that are observable in these documents.

Generally, they concede that we must take better care of the planet, reduce carbon emissions and waste, and increase energy efficiency and reuse of materials. And the word “sustainability” takes on magical properties: prefix it to any word and that word is instantly climate-friendly.

“Climate change,” “adaptation” or “mitigation” are commonly used in these policies but rarely is there any reference to “global warming,” “crisis” or “emergency.” Always, the environment is subservient to the economy, something to be protected for the sake of the economy and its needs. Therefore, climate change is an economic risk or threat that must be managed like any other economic risk or threat.

Nowhere do the analyses conceive of an economy not driven by profit or based on continuous growth and GDP. The best they might do is argue that economic growth can be balanced with environmental protection through “green growth” or “clean growth.” Some even suggest that tackling climate change can be an opportunity to spur economic growth. If economic sustainability is mentioned at all, it is within the context of sustainable growth — surely an oxymoron — and of remaining competitive inside the global free market. Not a syllable is given to the notion that for the Global North, there must be degrowth. Or that for the Global South there must be economic development that allows those countries to break free of Western-imposed poverty and reach fair living standards while avoiding growth and more destruction of the Earth — that’s tricky but not impossible when we remove the profit motive.

Mainstream solutions depend on technology to save the day, and as such, advise that public money must be directed toward innovation, research and development (R&D). They include expensive high-tech solutions for many environmental problems, favoring them over low- or no-tech natural solutions and ignoring the environmental impact of the development, production and distribution of the “savior tech.” The reason for this is clear. High-tech solutions would be enormously lucrative for corporations; natural solutions would be so much cheaper and could be implemented by individuals and local communities, cutting out corporations altogether. What good would that be for profit margins and private pockets?

As is to be expected, energy features heavily in all of these mainstream policy proposals for confronting the climate crisis. Many policy makers talk of renewable energy sources, such as wind, solar and hydro as you might expect. But they are often fond of other “alternative” or “clean” energy sources which are not always sustainable or renewable. For example, they promote biofuels like biogas from landfill and gasification plants and biomass from energy crops, not to mention nuclear energy and more spending on research into nuclear fusion. And nearly always, the players in energy provision are the big corporations and polluters, not ordinary people or community-owned energy projects. The documents support building large power stations for the centralized grid. Distributed micro-provision is rarely an option. These proposals continue to put faith in fossil fuels, such as coal and gas with extractive mining and fracking, with reassurances that their carbon emissions can be offset through carbon capture, usage and storage (CCUS) technologies. CCUS is still largely in the R&D stage and will require more billions in investment. But it is the carbon capture method of choice, preferred over simpler, cheaper, natural options, such as biological carbon sequestering created through forestry, seaweed and soil. Again, the simple options don’t offer many opportunities for the elites to exploit the situation and make money. And all the while, the fossil fuel and nuclear industries continue to be subsidized to the tune of billions per year, globally.

When it comes to dealing with waste, official reports tend to favor waste-to-energy or energy-from-waste: a neat win-win solution, it is argued, which deals with the problem of waste while simultaneously providing a source of renewable energy. What is not to like about that? Well, for a start, waste-to-energy is not renewable energy, and as a waste management method, it is environmentally harmful and destructive. It amounts to little more than burying, burning or heating waste usually in large, centralized plants. It also ignores the fact that large amounts of the waste generated are a direct result of the capitalist policies of overconsumption, built-in obsolescence, and the obsession with embalming everything in plastic. There is scarcely a word about putting responsibility on corporations, building products that last, reducing packaging, or using alternatives to plastic packaging that can be reused or recycled. And never is the most obvious solution suggested: reducing excessive, luxury consumption. Much better to keep producing too much waste and then just turning it into energy. Bet you can guess which approach is the most profitable for the waste management industry.

When agriculture is discussed in governmental policies, the emphasis tends to be on agri-food and industrialized farming, eschewing suggestions for the deindustrialization of farming or reducing meat intake or food waste. Nor is there a possibility of moving away from the use of artificial fertilizers, pesticides and animal and plant breeding technology toward more organic, less harmful and cheaper farming practices that do not rely on fossil fuels and chemicals.

Transport strategies talk of electric cars and public transport fleets and of manufacturing more fuel-efficient vehicles, but never of limiting the number of cars produced. Aviation options are also directed toward greater efficiency in both fuel and aircraft. At the governmental level, there is rarely acceptance that the days of on-demand flights for tourism, personal and business purposes have to end, or that the policy of free market globalization, with its excessive and unnecessary exports and trade miles, is ridiculous.

The Existing Financial Sector Has to Be Dismantled

One of the more egregious proposals favored by politicians centers on how climate mitigation and a just transition to decarbonization can be financed. This goes by many names, including green investment, responsible investment, green finance and green bonds, although ultimately, these are simply camouflage for finding new ways to make profits for the usual suspects. The viewpoint of official documents is that current financial institutions can remain intact and at the same time come to our rescue by redirecting money to green investment options. Governments, central banks and decision-makers who support green finance point out that these new investments must be made attractive for investors. That is code for giving investors monetary, tax and regulatory incentives. Naturally, the investors in question are the corporates, the elites and some of the biggest carbon polluters on the planet.

Average people see disaster and panic or worry about their welfare, the welfare of their loved ones and the welfare of the world around them. For the elites, disaster, whether natural or humanmade, is an opportunity to turn a buck. The COVID-19 pandemic is the latest example of this very behavior. On the one hand, wealthy people and corporations have created billions in new wealth and benefited from public contracts to deal with the pandemic, as well as tax savings, tax refunds and government monetary programs aimed at boosting the economy. On the other hand, they have forced employees to continue working or made them return to work under unsafe conditions. The wealthy elites will invest in green projects if they think they can amass more of that other green — money. They will not invest in anything that does not guarantee maximum return. The financial system exists to support that.

Financing the just transition through existing financial institutions is a fundamentally flawed policy. These institutions are responsible for extracting money from the productive economy and ensuring it gravitates toward a small minority of the world’s population to be put to use making them richer. As a result, gross wealth and income inequalities are entrenched and the hegemony of corporations and elites is maintained. The financial crash of 2008 happened because of the unfettered greed and excesses of this system and since then, little has changed. It continues to stockpile vast wealth and the entire sector remains highly unregulated, so much so that many predict we are heading for another crash on the same scale as 2008 or worse.

The financial system as we know it needs to be dismantled and replaced with one that is more democratic and just, that directs credit to socially useful investment. And in the meantime, we can allow it to play a role in tackling climate change, though not the role the mainstream climate reports propose. Rather than trying to coax and incentivize the elites into investing in the green revolution and hoping they will toss a few crumbs in our direction, we should level wealth inequality. We should force this small group of individuals to contribute to society the way the rest of us do and use the money recovered to finance the just transition to decarbonization: to finance renewable energy, mass transit, affordable and low-energy-intensive housing, living-wage employment, worker-owned cooperatives, affordable child care, and more. We should regain control of our own money, money held in savings and pensions that currently ends up being funneled into private profit-making investment vehicles. We should establish mutual and democratic banks and financial institutions. We should tighten financial and tax regulations to recoup the money accrued at the expense of the environment and of our labor, the trillions lost to tax avoidance, and the billions given away in subsidies and tax breaks.

But back to the question: What is the problem with the policies proposed by governments, political leaders and policy-makers?

Our Future Must Be One Without Economic Growth

So focused on serving the needs of the wealthy elites, most governments, political leaders and policy-makers are stuck in the certainty that “there is no alternative” and their plans lie at the core of that belief. The proposals support “business as usual” with a coat of greenwash and a nip and tuck here and there. They fail to recognize that economic growth is in direct conflict with decarbonization, slowing down global warming or redistributing wealth, and that we must eliminate or vastly reduce certain activities altogether.

It is time to expose the extreme fallacy behind mainstream policy positions regarding the climate crisis. Decarbonization that will slow global warming is going to require more than a few tweaks to the system and nods to green investment. It will demand that we jettison our current economic paradigm altogether and replace it with a more socialist, participatory and democratic paradigm that puts social and environmental needs at its center and massively redistributes wealth. We are only kidding ourselves if we think it can happen any other way.

Many millions of us have already come to this realization. Recent polls conducted in Britain, for example, showed that just 6 percent wanted to go back to the economy as it was before the COVID-19 pandemic and 82 percent wanted to prioritize health and well-being over economic growth. Grassroots activists and movements are busy creating and implementing the alternatives to the status quo. “Ordinary” people are light-years ahead of the governments and political leaders in taking these courageous steps.

Despite the heroic efforts of everyday people working at localized levels, there are three hard truths we must face. The first is that our governments and political leaders are a major barrier. They may be pathetic but they hold the levers of power, albeit on behalf of the elites. The second hard truth is that efforts at localized levels are insufficient. Solving the climate crisis will necessitate the end of capitalism and that necessitates action on a global scale through global coordination, planning and regulation. Both of these truths, therefore, make it critical for our governments and leaders to catch up and start working for and with us.

Some might argue that our task then is to speak truth to power. Thanks to the writing of one particular Collective 20 member (Noam Chomsky), that argument has been well and truly buried. Powerful people already know the truth, and most of their waking hours are spent trying to manipulate and hide it. Rather than naively believing that by showing governments and political leaders the error of their ways they would suddenly slap their foreheads in realization and thank us for enlightening them, we must instead pressure and coerce them into moving in the right direction. How might we do that? By raising the social costs to them and their wealthy masters — a subject explored in a previous Collective 20 article.

Of course, none of this is to suggest that the job of transitioning to a post-capitalist, post-carbon world should happen overnight, or by taking a slash-and-burn approach that rebuilds everything we know from ground zero. That might be tempting, but it would be traumatic and even short-sighted. Actually, it leads us to the third hard truth: Completely replacing capitalism with the more participatory socialist model alluded to in this article will take more time than we actually have to address global warming. That leaves us with no choice but to work with the materials available to us, however inadequate, and to see the transition for what a transition is, a “process or period of changing from one state or condition to another.” As such, we should find ourselves taking steps of progressive change which recognize and accept policies that may not be suitable for the world we ultimately desire but that will suffice as interim measures.

And as we move along the road to a post-capitalist, post-carbon world, we must be mindful of the pitfalls, and we must not allow our work or ourselves to be hijacked, sabotaged or seduced by those who have only their own selfish, short-term interests at heart.