If you think long enough about it, Climate Pledge Arena stops looking like a sports/concert venue and starts looking like an existential threat. By which I mean, if we peel back the layers and look at the pledge behind the Climate Pledge—a smarmy, hyper-corporate response to the climate crisis that tries to legitimize itself through hockey games and Coldplay concerts—then we can see that the beliefs undergirding the arena’s namesake might eventually kill us.
Co-launched and co-named by Amazon, the Climate Pledge revolves around “green” investments and net-zero promises by some of the world’s largest businesses. Projects like it, in which Fortune 500 companies pinky promise to do better and stop wrecking the planet, hold serious sway in halls of power as a way to prevent ecological and civilizational collapse. Seattleites don’t exactly ~*swoon*~ over Amazon-founded projects; so what is it about the Climate Pledge, and green capitalism writ large, that give it legs and muscle, not to mention a sports complex?
Researcher Adrienne Buller diagnoses and critiques the intricate web of technocrat-wonky initiatives that make up “green capitalism” in her recent book, The Value of a Whale: On the Illusions of Green Capitalism. Green capitalism is an umbrella term encapsulating a patchwork of market-based responses to climate change—think cap-and-trade schemes, carbon offsets, carbon taxes, and “sustainable” investment portfolios. Supporters of these strategies present themselves as “the adults in the room.” They advocate for a mindful capitalism in which environmental damages are written into the cost of goods and services. Part of this logic submits that once the true cost of climate loss is literally accounted for in our economic systems, then businesses and consumers alike have an apolitical incentive to opt for eco-friendlier things—solar power over coal power, for instance—or to consume less.
But as an aggregate, Buller argues, green capitalism “is an effort to address environmental catastrophe through new paths to accumulation while minimizing disruption to our current economic systems and modes of living,” regardless of whether these efforts actually live up to their expectations or, worse, do further damage in the process. And, more importantly, these measures won’t save us from doom in time: They distract us from more accelerated and centralized strategies that can decarbonize our economies before it’s too late. Efficiency be damned.
The greater Seattle area is rife with dodgy green-capitalist initiatives that bolster Buller’s core theses. Heading east runs us into the territory of a recently abandoned green-capitalist scheme in the Snoqualmie Tribe Ancestral Forest. In late September, the Tribe pulled out of an agreement with Forterra, a land-conservation nonprofit, claiming that Forterra had tokenized them in order to secure USDA grant money and bankroll a shoddy “sustainable timber” project that, in reality, would have harvested five times as much timber on Ancestral Forest land as would have been ecologically responsible. A schlep over to Medina, meanwhile, brings us to the pulpit of local oligarch Bill Gates, who guns for investments in new technologies like eco-friendlier concrete manufacturing as a way to prevent apocalypse, and has played the long game to write climate-change legislation in his image. (It’s worth noting, Buller says, that Gates’s most recent book mentions the word “innovation” 90 times but doesn’t mention “inequality” once.)
Buller explicitly names notable PNW sites as canaries in the coal mine, such as the vast swathes of land in Oregon’s Klamath East forest that burned in last year’s Bootleg Fire. Much of the destroyed landscape was privately managed and set aside as designated carbon offsets for Microsoft and BP. Despite the company’s zealous interest in boosting fossil-fuel production through cloud computing, Microsoft can, like other corporations, buy pieces of nature to bill itself as carbon neutral and environmentally friendly while doing little to mitigate the long-term effects of their core operations.
“Not content to try and unpick the dubious assumptions and, often, practices underlying those schemes, the Bootleg Fire instead sent these claims toward carbon neutrality quite literally up in smoke,” Bueller writes. “I envy it at that.”
In part, though, carbon offsets are useful PR and political fodder because of the dubious assumptions at their core. The carbon-offset industry is largely unregulated and unstandardized, letting companies buying them aggrandize the stated effects of their token measures. Part of French gas giant Total’s $600,000 “offset” for 17 million dollars worth of natural gas, for example, didn’t go to planting new trees, but instead went to volunteers in Zimbabwe clearing underbrush; Total then valued the carbon offset according to a far-flung scenario in which underbrush-clearing had saved the entire forest from a wildfire. Not how math works! The US-based Nature Conservancy has even gotten away with “doing nothing at all” as a carbon-offsetting measure and profiteering scheme, selling offset credits for land that was already under its management, and for which it didn’t install any new protection measures.
These examples may inspire us to think of green capitalism as merely a fraudulent enterprise. That Amazon spent an estimated $300 million to $400 million on branding a stadium in the Climate Pledge’s honor instead of funneling that money toward ecological efforts definitely feels like an Herbalife redux! The shoddy accounting work and legal troubles plaguing the space further encourage that framing, too.
But it might be more constructive to approach green capitalism as an ideology—or, donning a little Protestant hat, to think about green capitalism in religious terms. Throughout The Value of a Whale, Buller refers to the “beliefs,” “commandments,” and “myths” sustaining green capitalism. To name one: A neoliberal faith in the global economy’s inherent complexity and limitlessness, which makes it incapable of being effectively regulated by governments. Pairing that with neoliberalism’s approach to the environment, which says ecological systems can and must be effectively measured and quantified, births a dizzying tautology. This line of thinking sees market-based regulation for the environment as better than direct political regulation, despite the former’s reliance upon a massive ecosystem of businesses and services and arbitrators to keep itself in check. Needing, in other words, more regulation than direct regulation does. A world-building nebula of cognitive dissonance helping destroy our current world.
Which brings us to the eponymous whale. Buller describes how researchers at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) hoped to incentivize whale-conservation efforts by assigning a monetary value to all the great whales living on Earth. Their tabulations value each whale at $2 million due to their role as carbon-sequestering devices (they capture 33 tons of CO2 over their lifetimes) and their utility as cash cows for eco-tourism. The researchers concluded that pouring money into whale conservation may be more fruitful for humankind than doing so for other carbon-capturing strategies: All the great whales combined are worth at least $1 trillion, and they can offer a promising and efficient return on investment.
What does this calculus do? Do we really believe that the 73 orcas, the lowest number in 46 years, who grace the Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia coasts are worth specifically $146 million—just a fraction, supposedly, of Climate Pledge Arena’s appraised branding value? And what does that apples-to-apples farce accomplish? Rather than evangelize the sanctity of life, or contemplate the lethal effects of colonialism and capitalism, these researchers and the worldview they espouse assign a bottom dollar to every living thing as, supposedly, a way to keep ecological systems humming for our wellbeing. “Plugging variables into a spreadsheet to evaluate the cost-benefit of saving a species like you would a hostile takeover is a tough equivalence to take seriously,” Buller concludes.
It’s easy to knee-jerk minimize The Value of a Whale as a naysaying treatise lacking concrete solutions. Buller, anticipating such a call for “constructive critique,” accepts that her work isn’t hoping to stop global doom by drafting its own regulatory mechanisms. But acknowledging inadequacy is an invaluable first step. Green capitalism has been hoping to bamboozle the public into a catastrophic decline, presenting the market as the preeminent balm for our ecological ills. Accepting that businesses do little more than submit marketing copy supporting the corporate right to emit encourages a pivot away from their bells and whistles. Looking elsewhere tells us to raise red flags when dam removals are contemplated in monetary terms or when landmark climate-change policy secures Joe Manchin’s approval because of its deflationary effects. Shirking “adults in the room” bullshit and affirming political will in the image of people without MBAs can set us on a less disastrous course.