Oct 8, 2019
26 Min read time
Pluto Press, $27 (paper)
In 2001 the economist George Reisman gave the annual Ludwig von Mises Memorial Lecture entitled “Environmentalism in the Light of Mises and Menger” at Auburn University in Alabama. A protégé of Mises—a leading Austrian School economist—he provided a telling early indication of how neoliberals understood atmospheric politics.
Speaking with a forked tongue, Reisman discussed hypothetical responses to climate change in the same breath that he denied that there was proof for ozone depletion and global warming. He began with the proposition that both were best seen as “equivalent” to “acts of nature” because they were “not being caused by the actions of individual human beings,” but rather by “the combined effect of the actions of several billion people”—in other words, by industrial capitalism. In this formulation he crystallizes a central feature of the neoliberal imagination, the conceit that the market is less a social institution than a force of nature.
Reisman then rules out a state response to the crisis, appealing to Mises’s “enormous spirit of individualism,” according to which “only individuals think and only individuals act.” Since no one individual or firm is solely responsible for degrading the environment, he reasons, no individual should be “punished” by “government controls.” The “appropriate response,” instead, is for individuals “deal with nature to their own maximum individual advantage”—while respecting private property, of course—even though vast swathes of the Earth might become “uninhabitable.” Catastrophe on such a scale would be “too great a problem for government bureaucrats to handle. . . . But it would certainly not be too great a problem for tens and hundr of millions of free, thinking individuals living under capitalism to solve.”
Over the last two decades the neoliberal framework has evolved far beyond this sketch. As the heterodox economist Philip Mirowski explains in Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste (2013), neoliberal efforts to defeat the movement to confront climate change now form a robust set of interlocking policies. The first line of defense is denial, and a great deal of money has been spent on that front. The total sums are difficult to calculate given how the operation is shrouded in secrecy, but between 2003 and 2010 conservative foundations certainly directed more than half a billion dollars to organizations dedicated to climate denial. Since the Paris agreement of 2015, Big Oil alone has spent a billion dollars fighting climate change legislation.
Then there are the flawed cap-and-trade programs that have done very little to restrict emissions (consider the EU’s feckless Emissions Trading System). And in the end, all these policies appear to be no more than stopgaps meant to buy time until the permanent solution, geoengineering. In Mirowski’s estimation, this set of technologies, especially solar radiation management, is “the final neoliberal fallback” because it “derives from the core neoliberal doctrine that entrepreneurs, unleashed to exploit acts of creative destruction, will eventually innovate market solutions to address dire economic problems.” In the face of this concerted neoliberal strategy of delay and deflection, the environmental movement has thus far failed to implement a cohesive framework for action, offering instead only a patchwork of reactive, piecemeal policies, such blocking certain fossil fuel infrastructure or championing cap-and-trade (as in the unsuccessful 2009 Waxman-Markey bill).
It is not as if there has been a drought of environmentally minded scholarship. Indeed, the last decade has seen a deluge of new works in this genre. Timothy Mitchell’s Carbon Democracy (2011) makes a creative and influential argument that links labor history to different energy regimes. In a more Marxist and historical vein, Andreas Malm examines the first energy transition from water-power to coal during the 1830s in Fossil Capital (2016) to argue that capitalists have long used fossil fuels as weapons in the history of class struggle. While renewable energy sources restrict production temporally and geographically, fossil fuels offer no such constraint leaving capital free to pack up and leave should workers grow unruly. To see the nefarious origins and contemporary implications of geoengineering, one can turn to Clive Hamilton’s Earthmasters (2013) or the report by the Heinrich Böll Foundation (a close affiliate of the German Green Party), The Big Bad Fix: The Case Against Geoengineering (2017).
This scholarship has achieved real results, enriching our understanding of the way previous energy transitions were predicated on the dynamics of class struggle and the materiality of the energy systems themselves. We now have a better idea of the history of geoengineering and what it will likely mean for the future. Yet these works represent only the start of intellectual work in these areas. Environmental history lacks an overarching, consensus narrative for the last two centuries, and the environmental movement still does not have a plan for what to do when things get rough. Two recent books—Simon Pirani’s Burning Up and Holly Jean Buck’s After Geoengineering—hint, though, that the movement is at last starting to offer strategic thinking commensurate with the crisis at hand. They reveal how the environmental movement must thoroughly understand neoliberalism to avoid underestimating it as an adversary—or, worse, falling for its charms.
• • •
As a researcher at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, Pirani might sound like yet another energy analyst, but what sets him apart is his approach, for there aren’t many dyed-in-the-wool Marxists in this line of work. A former member of the Trotskyist Workers Revolutionary Party, Pirani has traded on his close acquaintance with Russia to have a second career as a researcher of its methane industry. He has also worked as a journalist and penned books on the Russian revolution and contemporary politics during the Putin era. Burning Up represents the convergence of his parallel professions: it is a history of fossil fuels couched in a Marxist armature. To explain his aim for the book, he quotes the economic historian Adam Tooze, who in 2016 called for “a history that shows how consumption and production became tied together in an expanding feedback loop of ever greater economic and material scope.” Pirani hopes “this book is a step on that path,” but he is too modest. He has written an ambitious history of fossil fuels.
Where planning ensures equal access to energy systems, private firms not only serve only those who can pay, but also encourage profitable profligate consumption.
Burning Up is a dense technical treatise of a sprawling subject, but one can tease out a few overarching themes. Most prominent is the contrast between planned and market-based energy systems. Planning offers certain efficiencies, and nowhere is this clearer than cogeneration, which Pirani analyzes in great detail. Rather than letting “waste” heat from industrial production simply dissipate, for example, cogeneration systems pipe it to neighboring buildings.
This technique increases energy efficiency dramatically to 58 percent, compared to the 37 percent achieved by conventional electrical production. In some cases cogenerations systems can even reach 80 percent efficiency. In 1975 cogeneration accounted for 42 percent of urban heating in the Soviet Union and slightly less in Scandinavia, but only 4 percent in the United States. U.S. electricity firms saw cogeneration as a threat to their bottom line, so they refused to give factories access to the grid. After the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, cogeneration networks were left to rot as privatization separated electrical and heating markets.
The efficiency of cogeneration is so impressive that one can find praise for it even in the pages of the neoliberal periodical, the Journal of Political Economy. In Marshall Goldman’s essay “Externalities and the Race for Economic Growth in the USSR” (1972), which otherwise excoriated the Soviets for their environmental record, he acknowledged that cogeneration infrastructure was an exceptional success of “planned policy for conservation” that had no counterpart in the United States.
In a similar ode to the virtues of planning, Pirani demonstrates that only the state has proven able to achieve electrification in the countryside. The Soviet Union and especially China have exemplary records in this regard and quickly achieved high rates of penetration despite the countries’ low per capita wealth. The unique success of the Chinese state is apparent in comparison to India, as the two started out with electrical industries of similar scope when they achieved independence in the late 1940s. Now, however, only one million Chinese citizens are without power, compared to 237 million Indians (and that number is likely an underestimate), after the privatization schemes of the 1990s did little to help the poor. In both rich and poor countries, the private sector has had a poor record in rural electrification because most households are simply too poor and dispersed to be worth any firm’s bother.
Entrepreneurs such as Samuel Insull of Chicago, the public utilities magnate, preferred urban clients as the foundation of their private electrical empires. Despite the great wealth of the United States, only 10 percent of rural households were hooked up to the grid during the 1920s. It was only when Insull’s tangle of holding companies collapsed during the Great Depression—forcing him to flee the country in disgrace—that the state finally stepped in. The Rural Electrification Agency during the so-called Second New Deal in the latter half of the 1930s supported small co-operatives and behemoths such as the Tennessee Valley Authority to complete the task that the private sector had barely begun.
The exception to the urban/rural divide could be found in countries dedicated to extractive industries. South Africa’s mining firms created their own ambitious electrical infrastructure to dig deeper mines and sift through uprooted mountains for flecks of gold. By 1920 South African mining firms were able to generate as much electricity as London, Birmingham, and Sheffield combined, but this did not alter capitalism’s poor record of providing electricity to the poor; the homes of the miners remained unconnected to this state-of-the-art network. As Pirani observes, “the Orlando power station [in Soweto], commissioned in 1943, supplied the mines but not the township around it: pylons from it, dwarfing un-electrifed shacks beneath, became symbolic.”
Where planning can ensure equal access to energy systems, private firms not only serve only those who can pay, but also encourage profitable profligate consumption. A century ago, Pirani notes, “air conditioning manufacturers battled furiously with engineers, and New York state regulators, who argued that schools would serve their pupils’ health better with fresh air from open windows than conditioned air.” The car industry was perhaps the worst example in terms of promoting waste for private gain. Pirani quotes a lobbyist from 1939 who identified city-dwellers who “refuse to own cars” as “the greatest untapped field of potential customers” and declared that “cities must be remade” and that road builders should “dream of gashing our way ruthlessly through built-up sections of over-crowded cities.”
The car companies’ conspiracy against public transportation is now well known, thanks especially to Barry Commoner’s description of it in The Poverty of Power (1976), but Pirani recounts in excruciating detail how firms bought out streetcar companies, ripped up tracks, and demanded contracts with local transit companies to prohibit the purchase of electric vehicles. The result has been a new breed of cities of an unprecedented scale. Comparing Atlanta to Barcelona, two cities of similar populations, Pirani discovers that “the greatest distance between two points in Atlanta’s city area is 137 km, compared to 37 km in Barcelona; the proportion of trips made on foot is 20 percent in Barcelona; in Atlanta it is too small to be recorded.”
More than any other commodity, cars prove Pirani’s assertion that when individuals consume fossil fuels, “they do so in the context of social and economic systems over which they may have little control.”
Although the examples of cogeneration, rural electrification, and pedestrian-friendly city planning seem to hint at a stark dichotomy between the state and the market, in some industries there has been a close embrace. This is most manifest in the case of the car industry, especially in the United States. In addition to the eye-watering sums of direct state subsidies to fossil fuel firms, ranging from tax breaks to free government research, another “gigantic stimulation” has been “road transport subsidies, usually in the form of government support for building roads and parking spaces in preference to the transport infrastructure.”
It is not just that such infrastructure is rarely included in the tally of fossil fuel subsidies; this problem is so under-researched that the full scale of such corporate welfare is unknown. The Eastern Bloc again was an exception, with its well-developed public transportation systems and low car density, but they have embarked on the U.S. route since the 1990s. More than any other commodity, cars prove Pirani’s assertion that when individuals consume fossil fuels, “they do so in the context of social and economic systems over which they may have little control,” and that “production and consumption in the global economy have a symbiotic relationship, determined ultimately by relations of wealth and power in the economy.”
In addition to the imperative of pursuing and trapping customers, energy systems are distorted by capital’s drive to reduce labor costs. De-skilling workers and mechanizing production can lead to an extraordinary waste of resources. A recent study from the University of Cambridge found that steel and aluminum producers used sheet metal when less energy-intensive materials would have sufficed (e.g., bars, beams, or wire) because of an effort to reduce labor inputs. Astonishingly, “the researchers concluded the total potential energy savings from ‘practically achievable design changes’ to the most energy-hungry technological system—building design, vehicles and industrial systems—amounted to 73 percent of global primary energy use.” Such practices extend to the fossil fuel industry itself. Coal mining, for instance, has largely shifted from subterranean manual labor to mechanized strip-mining operations, leading to astonishing productivity gains (“in the USA, from 1 tonne per work shift in 1900 to 3.5 tonnes per labor hour in 2003”). The waste in this case is the extreme damage to local environments, from decapitated mountains to mountains of slag.
One of the greatest strengths of Burning Up is its global perspective. Certain dates in the history of climate change science may be familiar to U.S. readers, such as 1958, when Charles Keeling began measuring CO2 particulates from the Mauna Loa Observatory, or 1988, when James Hansen testified in Congress during a heat wave. Pirani, however, stresses the importance of other milestones, including the extraction of 400,000-year-old ice cores from the Soviet’s Vostok base in Antarctica in the 1990s, as well as the meeting in the Austrian town of Villach in 1985, when the UN Environmental Program, the World Meteorological Organization, and the International Council of Scientific Unions warned the world of the threat of global warming. Throughout Burning Up, Pirani conscientiously extends his comparative history of fossil fuels to nations of the Global South such as Nigeria, South Africa, India, and Brazil.
One can quibble with a few points of his interpretation. Although the Soviet Union provides insights into the virtues of planning an energy-system, it would have been helpful if Pirani had delved deeper into the flaws of that model too. He could have drawn on the work of Robert Allen, the polymathic economic historian, who argued that Soviet energy use per unit of GDP was double the OECD rate because of wastefulness in heavy industry. Also, Pirani attributes the economic crisis of the 1970s to powerful unions who squeezed profit rates, but this cannot explain why the high rates of economic growth of the Trente Glorieuse never returned to rich countries even after labor movements had been crushed. Robert Brenner argues in The Economics of Global Turbulence (1998) that the roots of the “Long Downturn” lie instead in the over-capitalization of the manufacturing sector due to the entrance of new competitors such as West Germany and Japan in the 1960s and China in the 2000s. Furthermore, it is odd for Pirani to endorse the ecological economics of Herman Daly. It makes little sense for a Marxist to argue—as Daly does—that economic growth is an “ideology,” as if profit is a matter of opinion rather than a structural necessity for capitalist social reproduction. Moreover, Daly espouses a strange blend of Malthusian and neoliberal solutions, such as a cap-and-trade program for the right to have children. Pirani, who makes his distaste for neoliberalism and Malthusianism evident enough, should look for inspiration elsewhere.
• • •
For her part, Holly Jean Buck reduces the problem of climate change to a matter of watts per square meter. The sun’s rays on average warm the earth about 180 W/m2, but over the last three centuries carbon pollution has increased this by 2.29 W/m2. Solar geoengineering, Buck says, is just “an effort to change this math.” In fact, existing aerosol pollution already masks the full extent of global warming by perhaps as much as a degree centigrade—things could be much worse than we think! Solar radiation management (SRM)—technologies for reflecting sunlight back into space before it warms the planet—would turn this accident into policy. SRM is not the only way to geoengineer the planet, though, and After Geoengineering guides the reader through the latest research on an array of options to tinker with the global thermostat.
Like Pirani, Buck has an atypical resume for an energy specialist, having been a creative writing teacher, a “geospatial technician,” and a foreign affairs analyst before writing her dissertation on environmental technologies at Cornell University. One can discern the imprint of all these experiences in the book, especially in the way it intersperses slivers of science fiction set in exotic locales between technical chapters on the latest developments in geoengineering. The purpose of these sections is to allow the reader to imagine what a geoengineered future might look like.
Moreover, Buck attempts to articulate a vision of geoengineering consistent with other progressive aims. As she explains, there is an “abyss” between optimists who lack “historical awareness of how technology has developed in and through contexts that are often exploitative, unequal and even violent” and pessimists who have a “deep understanding of colonialism, imperialism, and the historical evolution of capitalism” but reject technical solutions to climate change. Precariously, she tries to straddle the abyss, to reconcile geoengineering with justice. While sympathetic to groups such as Sunrise and Extinction Rebellion, she criticizes the “cognitive gap between the demand for [carbon] drawdown and the scale of industrial acuity required to accomplish it,” and thus After Geoengineering is meant to present a more hard-nosed account than what one usually finds in the Green New Deal corpus.
When debates over geoengineering took off in the 1990s, carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technologies were discussed in the same breath as the more audacious intervention of SRM. In the following decade the two were prized apart to escape SRM’s bad press, and a major PR effort was undertaken by fossil fuel firms and states alike to tout CCS’s benefits. Tellingly, a major shift occurred when the United States and Saudi Arabia prompted the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to produce a special report on the technology in 2005. Governments and firms promised to spend billions on CCS research and infrastructure, but little of it has materialized. CCS was simply uncompetitive without a high carbon price (i.e., $200 per tonne) as an equalizer. The coup de grace for “clean coal” came when cheap fracked methane flooded markets near the end of the noughties. For a while MIT’s Institute for the Study of CCS compiled a list of “Cancelled and Inactive Projects,” but the institute itself closed down in 2016. After Geoengineering signals a return to the status quo ante by coupling CCS with SRM. One wonders whether it is with the intent to make SRM seem innocuous by associating it with the less ambitious CCS.
At times, the sheer strangeness of geoengineering makes it hard to distinguish the real from the sci-fi in After Geoengineering. Buck giddily surveys one real-world efficiency-optimizing solution after another. One project funded by the U.S. military aims to grow seaweed—to be used as food and livestock feed (seaweed-fed cows belch less methane), or burned as bioenergy—with automated submarine elevators that bring kelp up to the surface during the day for sunlight and then plunge them to the nutrient-rich ocean depths at night. “Drone submarines,” Buck explains, “would tow these kelp farms to new waters, communicating with harvesters by satellite, which would save labor costs.” If seaweed bioenergy were paired with CCS to become a BECCS project—Bio-Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage, the new darling of the IPCC—it could also reduce atmospheric carbon (by trapping it in kelp biomass).
Just as a lot of kelp will have to be burnt to make a dint in the stores of atmospheric carbon, the sheer scale of so-called “enhanced weathering”—another project Buck considers—is simply Olympian. Weathering, a part of the carbon cycle, is a natural form of carbon sequestration. Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere interacts with water to form carbonic acid, which then falls with to the earth in rain, dissolving exposed rock. The process releases compounds that flow to the oceans, where they are converted into carbon-containing rocks such as limestone buried at the bottom of the sea. Scientists have devised a way to enhance this natural process a thousandfold: rocks are dug up, crushed (to increase the surface area exposed to rain), and then dispersed on cropland or forests, or dumped into the sea.
To make any significant impact, though, such enhanced weathering would need to become a massive industry in its own right. Mountains kilometers tall, Buck acknowledges, would have to be dug up, crushed, scattered, and disposed of every year. She laments that there are few “obvious champions” for the technology, but it does quite closely fit the expertise of the mining industry. The De Beers Group, which still digs up mountains, has shown considerable interest in the idea; it could get some carbon credits for all that rock it exposes.
Surprisingly, Buck is less open-minded about large-scale afforestation and reforestation. Planting new trees or letting old forests recover is safe, low-tech, and could be implemented immediately. In the long-run it could sequester gigatonnes of carbon. It would require a lot of land, though, some of which would inevitably include large swathes of pasture (because that is the greatest single category of land-use). It would thus pit activists and planners against the livestock industry and, if successfully implemented, require billions of people to reduce how much meat and dairy they eat.
Though it figures in some of the emissions mitigation pathways studied in the IPCC’s recent report Global Warming of 1.5 ºC, Buck paints a mostly negative picture, pointing to some studies that suggest boreal forests, in particular, may do more harm than good. She also characterizes the scheme as a “social project” because it requires “defanging” the powerful meat and dairy industry and “cultural and behavioral change” to get people to eat less meat. Rather than reflecting on the advantages of rewilding and reversing the damage done by deforestation—as made brutally clear by the recent fires in the Amazon rainforest—she accepts the hypothesis that “earth’s lands are full and used,” and saves her enthusiasm for other solutions.
But given that the meat and dairy industry take up just over a quarter of the earth’s land surface—some four billion hectares—while contributing only a puny percentage of GDP, any truly committed effort to combat climate change must take it seriously. Changing eating habits is vastly easier than rebuilding cities and transportation infrastructure, let alone finding a sustainable way to make cement or smelt steel. Yet, Buck simply can’t imagine a meatless society, for even in her science fiction the characters eat chicken and tuna. She seems to have forgotten that the crew members of Star Trek are vegans.
It is the allure of action and results that leads Buck to the market for environmental salvation. For her, entrepreneurs are “visionary” and “disruptive,” leading the way out of the current impasse in climatic politics.
As for geoengineering, Buck contends that environmentalists who reject it out of hand are indulging in an “aesthetic luxury” (and eating meat is…?). She does go to great lengths to stress how concern for climate workers, ecosystems, and global justice must be priorities for any geoengineering effort. But she also applauds a meeting in Beijing in 2017, a sort of geoengineering Bandung Conference, where Chinese scientists invited colleagues from the Global South to work on an algorithm that could be used to operate a SRM program. She fails to anticipate that to many readers, perhaps the only thing more terrifying than SRM is SRM operated by AI—a true Skynet.
In Buck’s vision, “solar geoengineering would be done by states or not at all,” but this seems to be wishful thinking. One can easily imagine a corporation or a billionaire acting as a climate change vigilante. SRM is cheap, after all. For only a few hundred million dollars a year a company such as ExxonMobil could protect its billions in assets. (Geoengineers have discussed among themselves the so-called “Greenfinger,” a James Bond–esque villain who goes rogue.) And once SRM starts, we are stuck with it. As Buck notes, “most stratospheric aerosol scenarios last 200 years . . . and there’s probably no deployment scenario that’s less than a hundred years.” Even with workers’ rights and an international team of coders, geoengineering would mark a defeat for the environmental movement.
Despite engaging these critiques, Buck remains wedded to the idea, perhaps because of her fascination with the entrepreneurial scene surrounding it. “The socially conscious entrepreneur will play a vital role in the near term,” she declares. She is keen on Nori, a blockchain marketplace based on buying and trading of sequestered carbon—or as it describes itself, “a scalable incentive system to measure and verify soil carbon.” Buck hopes that such voluntary markets would eventually lead to compulsory ones. Perhaps. But despite her enthusiasm, it is hard to see how Nori would succeed where government cap-and-trade programs failed, for at least the latter had a cap.
Another valiant entrepreneur in Buck’s story is Russ George, who headed the carbon-trading start-up Planktos in the 2000s and organized the first geoengineering experiment in 2012 when he dumped iron filings into the ocean to actuate a bloom of phytoplankton. This was meant to feed the salmon in British Columbian waters and sequester carbon. Alas, it did not work and George’s offices were raided by the Canadian government in 2013 because of the illegality of the experiment. George’s client, the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation, fired him and complained that he had lied about his qualifications (an episode omitted from After Geoengineering). Nonetheless, Buck praises George as one of the entrepreneurs who are “rolling up their sleeves and playing around and doing.”
Buck warns progressives that entrepreneurs are the “wrong focus of critique.” Indeed, the entrepreneur earns more of her esteem than the scientist.
In the end, it is this allure of action and results that leads Buck to the market for environmental salvation. For her, entrepreneurs are “visionary” and “disruptive,” leading the way out of the current impasse in climatic politics. They are the ones getting things done—in her vision, the only ones who could. She warns progressives that entrepreneurs are the “wrong focus of critique.” Buck does warn that “zombified neoliberal capitalism” could fail to implement the needed technologies and that “workers and voters” might need to take matters upon themselves. But the entrepreneur earns more of her esteem than the scientist, who in her telling is a mere bureaucrat in a “big institutional laboratory.” Paraphrasing one of her interview subjects, Buck uncritically conveys the argument that “we are closing out an era that focused on scientific monitoring and scientific discovery. . . . now, we’re in an era of solution building, where entrepreneurs are needed to take a shot, to fail, to try things.” This encapsulates the neoliberalization of science as Mirowski lampoons it in his study Science-Mart: Privatizing American Science (2011):
Hierarchies are a temporary stopgap, the efficiency experts warn, but can never usurp the greatest information processor known to humanity: the Market. . . . If you really believe that academic kingpins in their ivy cocoons can efficiently run the scientific enterprise, then think again. The final destination of market reform is to let commercial considerations modularize, standardize, and spin off almost every aspect of the process of scientific research, and consequently erase all boundaries between professional and wage labor. No human being, and especially no scientist, can comprehend the dispersed complexity of knowledge better than the market itself.
At the horizon of climate catastrophe, the science-market dichotomy is collapsing from both ends; entrepreneurs not only have tried to replace scientists, but scientists have become entrepreneurs. David Keith, a prominent climate physicist at Harvard University, also runs the startup Carbon Engineering. As Mirowski noted in Never Let A Serious Crisis Go to Waste, it was not the environmental movement that prevented a planned geoengineering experiment in 2012, led by a consortium of UK universities. The SPICE project—Stratospheric Particle Injection for Climate Engineering)—was cancelled after it was revealed that two scientists had patented the technology beforehand without telling their collaborators. Global warming is a dire emergency, but it is also an opportunity to make a killing.
• • •
This brings us back to Reisman—his dark future of Mad Max capitalists blazing the trail forward in a heating world. (Incidentally, one of his latest books has the winning and all-caps title: MARXISM/SOCIALISM, A SOCIOPATHIC PHILOSOPHY CONCEIVED IN GROSS ERROR AND IGNORANCE, CULMINATING IN ECONOMIC CHAOS, ENSLAVEMENT, TERROR, AND MASS MURDER: A CONTRIBUTION TO ITS DEATH.) In this picture the entrepreneurs are our Kulturträger, carrying with them our hopes for civilization’s survival.
As both Burning Up and After Geoengineering make clear, we need a history of fossil fuels and a clear program to deal with the climate crisis. But we also need to understand neoliberal environmental thought so that we may inoculate ourselves against its enduring power. Like Pirani, whose account of economic growth holds out the promise of central planning as a solution, Buck believes that capitalists can be convinced to act responsibly. “Investors aren’t aware that carbon budgets exist, or what they mean for high-emission companies,” she writes, optimistically—as if all we must do is inform them. “We need to create comprehensible accounts of the risks to investors,” she concludes. But capitalists know very well what their interests are. That is why they are winning.
The capitalists know very well what their interests are. That is why they are winning.
Although Pirani is not as impressed by the whiz-bang of geoengineering as Buck is, he displays remarkably little interest in understanding the enemy. He dismisses neoliberal philosophy as little more than warmed-up arguments from Adam Smith and relies on David Harvey’s argument that neoliberalism is just crass class warfare.
But neoliberals are much more sophisticated than that, in part because theirs is less an economic theory than a totalizing epistemology. For all their trenchant analyses, critics of neoliberalism have enjoyed little success in dismantling the popular appeal of its central axiom—that market will always collect and process more information than any other institution, especially the state. Yet there is now very little time to devise a popular new metaphysics of political economy, let alone an effective response to global warming. As we scramble to preempt the death of the Great Barrier Reef or the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet, the geoengineers and the entrepreneurs will be there, waiting for us to beg for their help.
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