The People’s Climate March The People’s Climate March. Photograph: Marienna Pope-Weidemann

The urgency of action on climate change is undeniable, but Green Capitalism: Why It Can’t Work, shows clearly why capitalism is the problem, argues Marienna Pope-Weidemann

Green Capitalism

Daniel Tanuro, Green Capitalism: Why It Can’t Work (Merlin 2013), 224pp.


The impossible is happening. The People’s Climate March was a global day of action of historic proportions. Over 30,000 people took to the streets in London. New York City hosted the biggest climate march ever, with religious and labour leaders coming together with scientists, environmentalists and 400,000 people. People protested in 166 countries demanding system change. Even the Rockerfellers are divesting from fossil fuels. In Paris just over a year from now, the UN will be holding its Climate Change Conference, widely considered by experts to be our last chance to reach a radical and binding agreement on carbon emissions before planetary catastrophe becomes unavoidable. So if there was ever a movement whose moment had come, it’s this one and it’s now.

Yet much like the system it challenges, this is a movement filled with contradictions, which Daniel Tanuro, a revolutionary Belgian agriculturalist, deconstructs in his book, Green Capitalism: Why It Can’t Work. Is it a movement against capitalism, or a movement within it? We live in a world where Coca-Cola, a corporation which hires thugs to murder trade unionists in Latin America and systematically steals drinking water from India’s poor, can be considered a legitimate partner to ‘save the polar bears’ with WWF; where Unilever, one of the world’s most powerful corporations and leading food monopoly with an atrocious labour and environmental record, ends up sponsoring the People’s Climate March. Tanuro argues that the way we think of these questions will determine not only the success of the movement against climate change, but the international socialist movement as well. 

The scale of the problem

The birth of capitalism and the rise of the oil economy have created a global system with enormous productive power. But it is a system characterised by blind competition on one hand and extensive monopolies and centralisation on the other. The American Dream of pointless over-production, which offers thirty kinds of smartphone all designed to break down but can’t allocate the resources to keep our local libraries and hospitals open – has been globalised, and they call it ‘economic growth’.

CO2 emissions, driven primarily by deforestation (at a rate of around 36 football fields per minute) and the burning of fossil fuels, have reached deadly levels. Tanuro’s book gives a concise review of the science of climate change (pp.22-41). The world’s leading scientific authority, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) maintains with 95% certainty that, notwithstanding radical change, the next century will see a rise in temperatures between 1.1-6.4°C. Even by more conservative estimates, this will flood major cities and change the world forever. This impacts our access to fresh water, food production, human health, coastal zones and ecosystem biodiversity, which is crucial to our survival (p.36).

The danger is real, immanent and almost too big to comprehend. For twenty years the science has been ignored while campaigners work to wrestle concessions from a political system held hostage by big business – and with an annual profit of at least €1,325 billion per year (equivalent to the GDP of France), there’s no business bigger than the hydrocarbon business. Corporations have bought off scientists, journalists and politicians left, right and centre (p.20). They’ve used every means at their disposal to stunt the development of renewable technologies and stifle the debate (pp.44-5). Tanuro recounts how in the 1970s the US Senate had to reveal that General Motors, Standard Oil and the car manufacturer, Firestone, collaborated to destroy the rail, tram and trolley-bus networks for 45 American cities to extend the market for their products (p.49). As leading climate scientist James Hansen put it to the US congress, ‘CEOs of fossil energy companies know what they are doing… [they] should be tried for high crimes against humanity and nature’ (p.48).

And it’s no good holding on for ‘peak oil’, either. To avert disaster, 80% of known (and owned) reserves must be left in the ground and carbon emissions, which are still rising, must be down 50-80% by 2050 (IPCC 2007).

‘In comparison with this carbon bubble, the property bubble which caused the failure of Lehman Brothers in 2008 appears almost a joke because the companies concerned – Shell, BP, Exxon, for example – are the pillars of global capitalism. More powerful than governments, they will do anything and everything in their power to prevent the destruction of their capital’ (p.112).

The market cannot save us

All solutions are viewed through the lens of, and ultimately nullified by, the demands of commercial viability. Tanuro’s book is an expert deconstruction of the arguments for market-based solutions to climate change.Without a thorough understanding of capitalism, it’s hard to understand how things got so bad. We see the battle between cost efficiency and actual efficiency being played everywhere. The result, to quote Ban Ki-Moon, who seems to grasp the consequence if not the cause, is that ‘we have our feet glued to the acceleratorand are hurtling towards the abyss.’

Carbon trading is a prime example. The distribution of carbon credits (legal rights to CO2 emissions) has been shaped by the need to protect profitable, competitive industries. While hospitals and universities are given insufficient quotas and obliged to buy credit, in 2005 the European steel industry made a tidy €480 million by outsourcing production and selling their surplus CO2. UK energy companies have made an extra £800 million and passed the costs onto individual consumers(p.79). The system does more to build the ‘eco-industry sector’ than to combat climate change, but it does make money while giving governments a little eco-friendly legitimacy (p.84).

Perhaps worst of all, the price on carbon emissions is ‘too small to discourage polluters … but big enough to annoy those impoverished by neoliberalism’ (p.115). The IPCC estimates the cost of carbon emissions would have to be five times higher to be an effective deterrent. In the current system, this would only lead to corporations passing the cost onto consumers, plunging millions more into fuel poverty, and costing lives. ‘[Such a policy] by gambling on the price of fossil fuels without previously creating the conditions for reducing their use, and by increasing exemptions for business, shows its true nature – it is another transfer of wealth to large capitalist undertakings’(p.68).

The profit motive continues to favour fossil fuels and when advocating alternatives, selects the worst. The production of biofuels is deeply inefficient and destructive.

‘The logic of production for profit leads to the production of ethanol and biodiesel for those who can pay. Their demands are given priority over the basic human right to food, over the rights of indigenous communities, over health (many populations are threatened by the extensive use of pesticides) and over the protection of the environment’

Then we have nuclear power, an increasingly divisive topic for the green movement. Putting aside the question of public safety, powerfully highlighted by the Fukushima disaster and unresolvable in a capitalist system that will cut corners wherever it can afford to, nuclear energy is an inadequate solution. Tanuro concludes: ‘renewable energy sources and nuclear power obey two completely different and opposing strategies for implementation – decentralisation and maximum efficiency in the case of renewables, ultra-centralisation and waste in the case of nuclear power’ (pp.106-7).

Whether it is more pragmatic to tackle capitalism or to ignore it will be determined by whether it is possible for climate constraints to be respected following strategies determined by commercial potential. In a word, the answer is no.A meaningful transition to renewable energy will require not only massive public investment but an entirely new energy system (p.83):

‘In a word, while the current system is governed by the partial logic of cost effectiveness, calculated installation by installation in a context of competition, its successor will have to favour global thermodynamic efficiency, which will mean planning independently of costs, in a context of cooperation’ (p.70).

As inconvenient a truth as it might be, solving  the problem is not possible in an economy dominated by corporations whose ‘logic is to profit from the catastrophes in the South to increase their stranglehold on the resources of the planet and extend it to new domains’ (p.119). We saw when the poor were left to fend for themselves during Hurricane Katrina, how ill-equipped the market system is to protect even ‘the Western poor’. In fact New Orleans’ budget for sea wall maintenance was cut from 2003 to finance the War on Terror, during which they were receiving a sixth of the funds they requested (p.99). Separating the hurricane from its political context is impossible, and there is a lesson in that.

The Copenhagen Summit of 2009 was the final straw for many. The world watched as the emphasis slid from stopping global warming to funding ‘adaptation’ – grants and loans extended mostly by the countries responsible for past and present global warming, to those most endangered by it. Funding determined is determined not by need, of course, but by openness to ‘clean’ investments from Northern multinationals. The delegate from Tuvalu famously equated the funds with Judas’ thirty pieces of silver (p.97). While Western leaders have the gall to offer IMF loans parcelled in neoliberal conditions to help poorer countries pursue ‘sustainable development’, it is their developed capitalist economies which are overwhelmingly responsible for climate change, both historically and today. This, Tanuro says simply, is ‘a mass crime against hundreds of millions of human beings whose responsibility for the emission of greenhouse gasses is negligible – indeed, close to zero’ (p.98).

The great green wash

‘The cause [of the ecological crisis] is not human agency, nor humanity in general, but a particular type of historically and socially determined human activity. Earlier societies are not responsible for global warming and neither are those who continue with alternative modes of production in the present day’ (p.41).

For Tanuro, ecological arguments which ignore this will never compel people to act on the scale needed for real change because consumerism and over-production is only half the story. The under-development of the global South and the relative deprivation of the poor the world over, are as much products of the capitalist system as consumerism and over-production. As Tanuro writes:

‘No previous society has been driven by that desire for profit which leads the possessors of capital to accumulate more in order to produce more and sell more while continually creating new needs… What we call the ecological crisis is more a historic crisis of the relationship between humanity and its environment. Its basic cause is over-production which leads to over-consumption on the one hand and growing poverty and under-consumption on the other’ (p.43).

It is those classes and nations with the least control over climate change that will be worst affected by it. Even a 2°C rise in temperatures will flood countries throughout the global South and create a global refugee crisis. Cereal production in 65 countries, home to more than half the population of the developing world, could drop by 16% (p.31). The standardisation of agriculture, driven by the profit motive, has in a century eliminated three quarters of all cultivated plants (p.36). Masses of people will starve.

Nature may ‘not discriminate’, but capitalism does – so regardless of responsibility it will be the poor hit first and hardest. This applies most drastically to the global South but also to the consequences of a yawning wealth gap everywhere. In 2004 the British government’s Office of Science and Technology produced its report, Future Flooding, which predicted up to 3.6 million Britons at risk of severe flooding by 2080 thanks to rising sea levels and rainfall. ‘Socially disadvantaged people will be most adversely affected’ admits, because ‘the poor are less able to take out insurance against floods or to pay for the damage’ (p.33).

This reality is not accommodated by what we might call the Doctrine of General Responsibility, popularised by environmentalists like Hans Jonas, who laid the blame for climate change at the feet of technological progress and consumerism. Tanuro’s review of this school of thought is scathing, and he points out that the green movement has adopted many of its most problematic assumptions. His basic point is that if you can avoid driving to work, you should – but moderating individual behaviour cannot be the rallying cry for the climate. Firstly, because it alienates people. “Just consume less!” is not a clarion call that will rouse those millions living in a competitive, consumerist society, but have to work two jobs just to avoid having to choose between eating and heating their homes. Particularly not when the carnival of consumption and waste at the top of society has just rolled right over its own global financial crisis and wastes resources at an industrial scale. It is an argument utterly insensitive to the realities of working-class life.

Secondly, it cannot hope to substitute for speaking out against the structural wastage of our production and energy systems, which play the overwhelming and decisive role in shaping the future of the planet (p.52). Capitalist competition eradicated almost all traditional uses of renewable energy for the sake of standardising production to accelerate the accumulation of capital. Yet it is our capacity as human beings consciously to alter the way we reproduce our existence that makes change possible.

The inconvenient truth is this: individual changes to how we live and travel and consume count for nothing unless the system changes too. And pretending otherwise has crippled the campaign to stop climate change. Articulated in that way, the case ‘becomes essentially a personal matter of ethics, moderation, humility, even asceticism. Class, social inequality, capitalist lobbies and power structures disappear from the stage as if by magic, in favour of making individuals feel guilty’ (p.52). This is the same neoliberal political culture which lies at the root of the shame the poor are made to feel when they’re driven into food banks in their thousands. It individualises social problems. And well it might, because it has a lot to answer for: among them an 80% increase in global emissions since 1970 . To the extent it has adopted it, environmental politics have been held back by such rhetoric, which scapegoats the poor while protecting the sensibilities of wealthy benefactors like Coca-Cola and Unilever.

Capitalism and climate change

But obfuscating the power of wealth and class in the question of climate change divides the movement, creates confusion, and naturalises climate change. It is not natural law, for example, that productivity or population growth threatens the environment. The fifteenth-century discovery that some plants act as a ‘green fertiliser’, for instance, increased consumption (reducing hunger) while also decreasing deforestation, as less land became sufficient to meet local needs (p.41).

 Reactionary arguments from the likes of Jeffrey Sachs about population exceeding the ‘carrying capacity’ of the earth are a direct result of this refusal to look capitalism in the eye. Non-coercive population reduction strategies such as improving women’s living standards, education and access to contraception have proved successful and should be valued on many counts. But demographic change is slow, and the need to curb our carbon emissions is immediate. In that context, what is worrying is when these arguments ‘seem to find it easier to challenge the right of part of humanity to exist than to challenge capitalism’ (p.17).

This is the tone of discussion in the halls of power, Tanuro reminds us, citing one Pentagon report that predicts with Europe submerged and the US and Australia ‘fortresses’ of self-sufficiency, starvation and disease in the rest of the world will, thankfully, re-balance our population with carrying capacity (p.100). Tanuro argues, not against the concept of ‘carrying capacity’ but points out it is subjective and the power to define it is acutely political. Furthermore, is determined by how we live, not in the first instance by how many people live.

‘Billions of human beings suffering from famine today are in rural areas, and could be perfectly capable of meeting their own needs and those of their families. The factors which prevent this are that they have no access to land and that they are crushed by competition from agri-business’ (p.122).

‘Productivism’ on the other hand – production for its own sake, for profit – prevails in this world because capitalism is a system based on accumulation. In such a system, greater labour productivity will only ever mean more production, and the expansion of markets and manufacture of needs to meet it. This is an inevitable consequence of private ownership in a capitalist system. The system can only reduce production by periodic crisis of over-production – the 2009 recession reduced global emissions by 3% but at an unacceptable social cost. As the renowned economist Joseph Schumpeter observed: ‘A stationary capitalism is a contradiction in terms’ (p.74). We cannot obtain meaningful environmental regulation within capitalism for the same reason we can’t achieve meaningful financial regulation. As Marx wrote in his Critique of Political Economy, ‘capital cannot abide a limit’ and will always seek to circumvent or transcend it in pursuit of greater profits.

While Tanuro credits zero-growth theorists, who argue for an end to population and economic growth, with being far ahead of the Left in highlighting the need to produce and consume in line with natural limits, but points out that there are both progressive and right-wing proponents. Zero-growth is not a social project, just a quantitative constraint, and too often those who focus on it display a counterproductive disinterest in transitional, so-called ‘consumerist’ struggles for better pay and conditions, while underplaying the prevalence of under-consumption, putting it at odds with the labour movement. As a consequence,

‘on the one hand, this movement will be more or less confined to developed countries (where it does not take into account the unsatisfied needs of millions of victims of unemployment, exclusion and casualization.) On the other hand, in the absence of structural changes, individual actions can only result in an ascetic lifestyle, which indeed is not very “contagious”’ (p.132).

Tanuro asserts that from a socialist perspective, simply ‘capping’ growth is insufficient; in building a mass movement, we must instead draw all sections of society into a collective struggle to re-define what society means by ‘economic progress’ (p.135).

The political battle between cost efficiency and actual efficiency is the mirror-image of Marx’s distinction between use-value (actual usefulness in terms of meeting human needs) and exchange-value (the market value of goods and services). Tanuro points out that in capitalism, exchange-value – from which comes profit – is ‘the aim and measure of everything’, and that this restricts the realm of possibility to the realm of ‘cost-efficiency’ for the powerful (p.110) and identifies productivism as intrinsic to this law of value.

Tanuro, foreshadowing Naomi Klein’s new book, puts the case that climate change is the best illustration of where the capitalist system is heading; the best case for questioning the law of value at its heart. Any kind of reconciliation with the climate would require the abandonment of $20 trillion existing fossil fuel infrastructure, localisation and reduced production and working hours and a massive equalisation of wealth – all entirely opposed to the interests of the capitalist system. For this reason only a ‘society of associated producers’, a socialist society, would be able to move beyond the regime of commodity production (p.14) to identify, and hopefully protect, that which is priceless.

The red-green revolution

‘No project for emancipation that does not take into account the constraints of its natural limits can be valid’ (p.123). Reconciling and re-adjusting itself to the ecological crisis is thus an urgent task for the Left. In terms of policy Tanuro’s eco-socialist manifesto is intuitive to many progressives: smash the energy monopolies and collectivise their assets; democratic planning at all levels of transition; radical extension of the public sector, especially in research, transport, housing and basic services; a global adaptation fund under the control of social movements in the South; abolishing corporate intellectual property rights to facilitate truly sustainable development worldwide; and a managed transition from fossil fuel and extractive industries which took care of workers in those sectors (pp.124-5).

The world cannot sustain further development on the basis of fossil fuels, but for the South to bypass that stage a huge transfer of wealth and appropriate technologies is essential (p.71). The UNDP estimates that such a strategy would require an $86 billion per year wealth transfer from North to South, and capital flows are still moving in the opposite direction. That corporate monopolies of intellectual property rights have been allowed to obstruct this transition which would save millions of lives is a supreme indictment of the free-market system.

For Tanuro, eco-socialism is about opening ‘a fundamental debate in society’ about how we use our natural and human resources intelligently, to maximise well-being and minimise pollution, promote public health, education and democratic participation. Far from promoting an individual ethic of austerity, his vision is of a world where ‘associated producers would learn again to rationally regulate their relationship with Nature… [this world] would be an infinitely more meaningful, less stressed, less hurried – in a word, richer’ (p.74).

With the working class the first and worst affected and oppressed groups at the sharp end worldwide, (p.33) these are struggles in which organised labour and the radical left have a natural place. Yet in the North at least, there is a disconnect, and a dismissive attitude on both sides of the divide weakens each. Tanuro warns against what he describes as a tendency on the Left to believe in ‘salvation through catastrophe’ or defer questions about the environment until “after the revolution”’ (p.96). He maintains that ‘a response that takes the offensive in regard to the question of quality and standard of living, is more appropriate than the defensive response common on the Left. It is a matter of taking the bull by the horns, to dare to say that, generally speaking, producing, transporting and consuming less has become a necessary condition for a better life’ (p.73).

Tanuro also calls upon the Left to take seriously this perception of socialism as a super-productivist or otherwise ‘un-ecological’ tradition, and face up to the appalling environmental record of China and the USSR. This is part of a legacy of state-capitalism and the on-going cost of Stalin’s horrifying pursuit of ‘socialism in one country’ which brought the USSR in line with the global norm of productivism (p.129). But distance from that history is not enough; an alternative vision must be projected.

At the same time, Tanuro defends Marx from those who write him off as a productivist. Marx wrote in Capital on the importance of looking ‘after the earth like a good father looks after his family’ (p.137). He was acutely aware of the importance of finite resources which, in fact, he identified as the very basis of capitalist accumulation. (Put simply, you can’t monopolise and control an infinite resource.) He was aware of the necessary balance between the ‘realm of freedom’ and that of necessity, so for him, the ‘only possible freedom’ lay in the ‘rational management’ of the exchange between humanity and its environment (p.137). While Tanuro criticises Marx for paying insufficient attention to the politics of energy systems (pp.138-9) and falls short of concluding, as John Bellamy-Foster has done, that ecology is ‘at the heart’ of Marxism, he asserts that it can be and that at this moment in our history, that it must be.


In 1938 Leon Trotsky, referring to the rise of fascism in Europe, concluded his Transitional Programme with this:

‘The objective prerequisites [for socialist revolution]… have not only ‘ripened’; they have begun to get somewhat rotten. Without a socialist revolution, in the next historical period at that, a catastrophe threatens the whole culture of mankind’

For Tanuro, those words apply for climate change today. He writes that today, ‘the only possible socialism … is a focused expression of the fight against the exploitation of human labour and the destruction of natural resources by capitalism – from now on these two strands are indivisible’ (p.143).

There is a dialectical relationship between political and objective reality. Today’s objective knowledge about climate change tells us much about what in the future will make up our lived experience. The growth of productive forces has become the growth of destructive forces. At this moment it becomes imperative that the green movement and the Left become intelligible to one another. Until that happens the natural conditions that could sustain a world without want, are being lost at breath-taking speed.

Decades of neoliberalism have normalised defeat for the young generation. Our task, as articulated by the Left, is to defend the gains of previous generations against more cuts and other losses. But to inspire the possibility of change we must articulate a new vision, and if socialism is to fulfil its promise to human welfare in the twenty-first century, ecological limits must be central to that (p.18). If it achieves nothing else, Paris 2015 will push climate change further into the public consciousness. It is already not as distant an issue as it once was, as the scale of the climate march testifies. And it will only come closer.

By adopting a position of ‘commodification for conservation’, those sections of the green movement which have quietly acquiesced to the great corporate green wash have given up their claim to the kind of ideological force mass movements need to be meaningful, so it is time for the Left to step up. Because the climate affects everything, from the labour market to the cost of living, is more than an ‘extra issue’ to be tacked onto our list of demands. As Naomi Klein put it in a talk on why unions need to join the fight, climate change ‘turbo-charges our existing demands and gives them a basis in hard science. It calls on us to be bold, to get ambitious, to win this time because we really cannot afford any more losses.’

The Left has historically, rightly been cautious of politics dictated by science and has little enthusiasm for a future in which capitalist class is supplanted (or more likely, buttressed) by a scientific elite which determines quotas for reproduction and immigration, creating in the best case scenario a steady and ‘sustainable society’ … where there are still exploiters and exploited, frontiers, expulsions, police and army in the service of the wealthy, etc’ (p.132). But the Left cannot respond to the attempts of capitalism to co-opt the movement by abandoning the issue altogether. We did not do so over civil rights, the anti-war movement or the struggle for social welfare. And people cannot be protected unless the planet is preserved.

The common complaint on the right, largely in the US, that climate change is a ‘socialist conspiracy’ reflects a basic awareness in halls of power that there is a natural alliance here. The Left must take back the narrative of climate change and re-articulate it in a way which not only makes the connection between climate justice and social justice, but recognises that these two struggles are one. Critically, this will re-orientate the movement against climate change away from the summit meetings which will never lead us forward, to the rest of society: those living the costs of climate change who still hold the key to progress in their hands.

Marienna Pope-Weidemann

Marienna is a socialist writer and campaigner who studied Politics & International Development at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She is a leading organiser of the Student Assembly Against Austerity. She currently works as a filmmaker for the Islam Channel.