Green Capitalism Will Never Succeed in Tackling Climate Breakdown

by Leon Sealey-Huggins

13 December 2020

Aerial view of deforestation.
Photo: Banna Farsai. Design: Bronte Dow.

The scale of climate breakdown is unfathomable. At present, the future holds repeated devastating droughts, flooding and storms. The cost of inaction will be unprecedented displacement, death and destruction.

Faced with such a horizon, there exists a temptation within climate politics to accede to whatever actions appear necessary – ‘whatever it takes’ – given the existentially high stakes. It is in this vein that appeals to cut emissions at all costs lead the stage. But a blinkered focus on reducing carbon emissions misdirects us from the social relations which fuel them.

The coming wave of ‘green capitalism’ is what underlies proposals to transform the UK into a ‘wind superpower’, which are presented unironically alongside ideas like repurposing the UK’s decaying fossil fuel infrastructure as offshore detention facilities for asylum seekers. Such suggestions presume it is possible to foreclose the extant crisis simply by greening the fortress: akin to fitting low-energy light bulbs into the searchlights of guard towers, all powered by renewable electricity. This is the cynical logic of the tech-bro billionaires now banned from buying property for bunkers in ‘neutral’ New Zealand. It is untenable as a vision for how we cope with the coming collapse.

Green capitalist approaches will always fail to grasp the root causes of climate breakdown because they do not address the violent injustices of inequality. The two are fundamentally inseparable. It is precisely because those who hoard power and resources refuse to countenance even the most modest redistribution that we are careering towards climate crisis. The redistribution of resources is a non-negotiable precondition for any meaningfully enduring response to climate breakdown, and failing to acknowledge it risks simply displacing the climate crisis onto other socially and ecologically destructive arenas. The geographer David Harvey, and others, have written about how the response to one crisis under capitalism often stores up future crises, as was the case with the provision of cheap credit in response to the crisis of overproduction in the 1980s, which ultimately led to the 2008 crash. The risk for the near future is that attempts to fix the current socio-ecological crisis will do the same. In the rush for the minerals required to power a green transition toward electric cars, for example, an apparent solution to carbon emissions from cars is on one hand hastening conflict in areas where materials are extracted, and on the other furthering humans’ encroachment into the forest homes of, among other life forms, coronavirus-hosting bats.

Instead, climate breakdown needs to be understood as a consequence of global systems of exploitation and exchange with origins in the violent and extractive colonial processes that made the modern world. Any global response will only address these root causes if and when it also includes measures to address racial capitalism as the structuring logic of contemporary societies. Otherwise, calls for compromise in the effort to combat climate catastrophe risk opening the door to even more exploitative social formations. That is not to say we should never support compromise, rather to argue we cannot shy away from political conflict if we are to explicitly address the root causes of climate breakdown, which necessarily means challenging the ownership and power structures inherited from colonialism.

As such, responses to climate breakdown need to include and foreground the tackling of unjust forms of social organisation. Any ‘green new deal’ worth our attention must have this foundational principle. If responses to climate breakdown do not counter unjust forms of social organisation, they will fail because they are merely displacing one crisis onto another. Yet while it is increasingly easy to garner support for ditching fossil fuels, questions remain over how we build locally for the globally transformative visions we require. I would contend that being successful means building grassroots power, and in doing so, nurturing expansive understandings of climate breakdown as a means to building popular support for what ‘global green new deals’ must look like if they are to meet the scale of challenges that are unfolding.

It’s much easier to point to examples of efforts that have fallen short in this regard, such as reductive claims that it is possible or desirable to be ‘beyond the politics’ of climate breakdown. This kind of claim forecloses the possibilities of winning people over to the radical changes required in the face of breakdown, and does so because it misrepresents climate as an issue separate from the many other issues impacting people’s daily lives, such as fuel poverty, overwork or unemployment.

On the other hand, there are groups who have successfully insisted upon understandings of climate breakdown as inseparable from other degrading effects of our perverse systems of social organisation. These include migration, gender justice and wealth hoarding, to name a few. By basing our collective organising around these more expansive framings that identify the harm of climate breakdown as stemming from capitalist social relations, we are better placed to advocate for much more fundamental shifts in how societies are organised, going beyond renewable energy-powered detention centres, towards properly democratic patterns of ownership globally that will support the right of prospective climate migrants to stay, through measures to protect their homes, rather than having to flee. The facts of locked-in climate breakdown mean there will be fundamental shifts either way, but being honest about this allows us to advocate for progressive transformation.

The easy co-option of a green new deal rhetoric – without transformative policies to back it up – is instructive here. The fact you can have both the lesser party of US fossil capital, the Democrats, and, here in the UK, the Conservatives – whose most recent manifesto was actually authored by a fossil fuel industry lobbyist – both cloaking their proposals in the framing of green new deals should give us pause. In both the US and UK, current ‘environmental’ approaches risk further unleashing the impacts of climate change in a globally disproportionate way.

Policies that do not disaggregate actions in terms of capacity to contribute and susceptibility to harm, at either a local or global level, will fail to capture the support necessary from the constituents whose support is essential for securing change. Only by properly understanding climate breakdown as stemming from the same systems of social organisation that breed poverty and hunger can we generate measures to overhaul those social relations, rather than demanding that already stretched communities give up what few luxuries they have. It will be the case that over-consumption, especially in the Global North, must be curbed. But I would wager this becomes a much more appealing prospect if we are also proposing reduced working hours and greater control over the decisions that directly affect people. We can look to France, and the example of the gilets jaunes, for evidence of how communities will resist environmental provisions where they do not meaningfully go beyond the simple denial of resource consumption.

If we recognise that climate breakdown is a consequence of the prevailing systems of social organisation, then we can rightly identify coping strategies that also deal with people’s more immediate concerns. We have ahead of us the unenviable task of the endless slog of collective organising at the grassroots to build the constituent power to overturn the broken systems. Thus it ever was. But green capitalism will inevitably fail in its smoke and mirrors act, leaving nothing but guns and walls in reserve. Instead we must insist upon visions of society so rich in their production of human meaning and in the distribution of benefits that we will carry the masses with us.

Leon Sealey-Huggins is an assistant professor of global sustainable development at the University of Warwick and author of a forthcoming Common Wealth report on ideas about the global green new deal.

  • The Climate Focus is part of Novara Media’s Decade Project, an inquiry into the defining issues of the 2020s. The Decade Project is generously supported by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation (London Office).

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