Green Capitalism: Why It Can't Work

Reviewed by: Gideon Forman
Green Capitalism: why it can't work by Daniel Tanuro

Green Capitalism: Why It Can't Work \ Daniel Tanuro

It seems clear that capitalism as currently practiced contributes to the planet’s destruction but Daniel Tanuro – who calls himself a “qualified agricultural engineer and a Marxist” – wants to go further and argue that capitalism in any form (present or future) would lay waste to nature. The subtitle of his new book is carefully chosen: the claim is not just that “green capitalism” doesn’t work but that, in principle, it can’t work. 

Tanuro’s thinking is often compelling. He begins with the axiom that capitalism is always committed to profit making and that this necessitates the replacement of workers by machines. But new machines imply greater production of goods, increased energy use and economic growth – which are unsustainable in a world desperate for emission cuts. This growth argument seems to me very strong. Tanuro writes: “Productivism is inherent in capitalism. The system’s bulimic consumption of energy derives from its logic of unlimited accumulation, which is the main cause of the ecological crisis and the climate crisis.”   

In addition to rampant production of GHGs, the profit-first ideology also leads to monoculture farming, deforestation and the large-scale use of corn for ethanol – all of which threaten Earth’s life-systems. (Fertilizer from American cornfields contributes to the Gulf of Mexico’s dead zone.)  And when this ideology responds to environmental problems it tends to offer “non-structural measures,” not the overhaul that’s needed: it addresses global warming by planting carbon-absorbing trees rather than insulating homes and preventing emissions.  

Capitalism inevitably shuts down questions that might offer nature a measure of protection.

Tanuro shows that capitalism inevitably shuts down questions that might offer nature a measure of protection. For example, he makes the excellent point that when proposing a new technology we need to ask, “What chance will we have to change course if it turns out that we were mistaken?” To defend the environment, we need to inquire whether we can free ourselves from a technology if it ends up being harmful. But of course capitalism doesn’t want to embrace this caution. So we become locked into things like nuclear energy whose waste will be with us for hundreds of thousands of years.

Some of Tanuro’s claims are less convincing. He suggests competition between capitalists drives overproduction and is therefore detrimental to the environment. This certainly happens in some cases – competition between airlines, for instance, fosters new routes and thus a bigger carbon footprint – but I’m not convinced competition is always problematic. What about renewable energy companies vying to produce the best solar panel or wind turbine? What about insulation firms trying to offer the most effective home retrofit? Surely in these cases competition might lead to products and services that are ecologically beneficial.   

Tanuro also argues that the transition to renewable power can only happen if rich capitalist nations reduce their energy use. But these nations have no interest in cutting consumption so, according to him, capitalism can never give up fossil fuel. But a report by Mark Jacobson and Mark Delucchi in Scientific American suggests that by the year 2030 renewables could power the world – even if energy use increases.  Jacobson and Delucchi write: “Supplies of wind and solar energy on accessible land dwarf the energy consumed by people around the globe.” So Tanuro’s belief that capitalism is intrinsically wedded to fossils seems false. If the scientists are correct the whole planet could soon be run on renewables and that includes all for-profit enterprise. Given that the cost of renewables is dropping precipitously this proposition is increasingly persuasive.

Tanuro slams capitalism’s pricing of carbon because he believes it won’t cut GHG emissions fast enough.

Tanuro slams capitalism’s pricing of carbon because he believes it won’t cut GHG emissions fast enough to meet the IPCC’s requisite 25 per cent to 40 per cent reduction targets by 2020. There may be truth in this but his general dismissal of market mechanisms feels like overkill. These mechanisms can sometimes slash pollution. Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman has written: “experience suggests that market-based emission controls work. Our recent history with acid rain shows as much.” Krugman doesn’t claim the market (in this case cap-and-trade) eliminated acid rain entirely, but it did reduce U.S. power plants’ sulfur dioxide output by almost 50 per cent.

At points Tanuro sounds like a 19th century ideologue. He opposes Belgium’s policy of incentives for people who put up photovoltaics because the practice generates private profit. I’d argue properly sited renewable energy contributes to planetary health so those who invest in it should make money; virtuous action deserves reward. 

In the end, Tanuro offers a mixture of dogma, nuance and insight. A stern critic of profit, he also sees that socialist nations can be “disastrous” for the environment. He doesn’t capture all of capitalism’s complexity but beautifully articulates its central problem: “global capitalism recognizes no limits.”  

Reviewer Information

Gideon Forman is a long time peace and environmental activist.

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