The Market Will Not Save Us: Review of The Value of a Whale by Adrienne Buller

The Market Will Not Save Us: Review of The Value of a Whale: On the Illusions of Green Capitalism by Adrienne Buller

Chad A. Hines

Under Review:
The Value of a Whale: On the Illusions of Green Capitalism. Adrienne Buller. Manchester University Press, October 4 2022.

If you were trapped in a burning building, you wouldn’t waste time arguing about the font on the exit sign. 

In the same way, talking about the stylistic merits of The Value of a Whale, when the content may be necessary for human survival, feels disingenuous. Adrienne Buller’s unflinching dissection of how prevailing ideas about market-based solutions to the climate and biodiversity crisis are “at best…a distraction for which we have no time,” and “at worst…are actively sabotaging the desperate fight for a future that can offer both justice and ecological stability” is critical for anyone interested in developing a deeper understanding of the fatal limitations of current political and financial paradigms. 

As an argument, The Value of a Whale is utterly convincing, and thoroughly damning of the institutional and cultural forces it targets. Its factual analysis identifies and eviscerates the flawed assumptions and cynical illusions behind the recent turn to “sustainable finance.” Buller highlights the inefficacy and injustice of carbon markets and other hand-waving schemes to offset biodiversity loss and ecological impacts. The Value of a Whale also tracks the growth of index-funds and monolithic asset management firms that insulate such solutions from public accountability, and ultimately points to the ways that our global monetary system still perpetuates neo-colonialism under the guise of environmental policy.

At the level of style, one wonders if Buller does not cede too much of her own (and the reader’s) energy to the stultifying language of her enemy, by fighting them on their own terms. A reader unused to financial writing might find themselves wishing for firm linguistic footing outside of the slippery terms of industry. One wonders if writing about the immense costs to human and non-human life is served by the prevalent re-use of such acronyms (all found on a single page) as VSL (Value of a Statistical Life), GDP (Gross Domestic Product), SCC (Social Cost of Carbon), and IAMs (Integrated Assessment Models), the meanings of which don’t seem to merit the effort of unpacking. 

Which isn’t to say that direct, reality-based language doesn’t grow wild among the more cultured, rationalized crop of words that market forces have demanded, like surviving patches of old growth forest. “…Green capitalist solutions,” Buller writes, “seek to transfer the complex, ethically and socially fraught, and inherently political questions represented by ecological crisis from democratically contestable terrain to the private authority of markets, with outcomes ultimately driven by the self-interest of rational actors motivated by profit”. Elsewhere, we find: “…‘green’ or ‘ethical’ investing can be far better understood as  means through which the wealthy and those with financial assets can bet on the likelihood of a greener economy, rather than contribute to bringing that economy into being.”

If we are trapped in a burning building, governments and the financial institutions that have captured them aren’t necessarily interested in finding an exit, but in profitably speculating, in the short-term, on the desire of others to escape. The most efficient way to benefit from the fire is not actually avoiding incendiary death, but in opportunistically marketing well-lettered but ultimately meaningless exit signs. 

Buller does not claim to know where the exit to the burning building is. The argument of The Value of a Whale ends in showing that the direction indicated by green capital, to “transfer the governance of a common and public good to private, profit-motivated authority, while using public investing capacity to guarantee investors’ profits”, does not and cannot lead to safety. The exit strategy of asset managers and investment firms does not point to a liveable or equitable future, rather one where a regime of unbridled accumulation can continue, the risks to their portfolios posed by planetary collapse underwritten by public funds.

Global markets are unable to imagine a viable solution to the climate crisis, marred and distorted as they are by “US dollar supremacy; unsustainable and unjust debt burdens for the poorest; privileges extended among a club of powerful peers; and the prioritization of private interests”. As Buller points out, any such solution “must contribute to necessarily radical shifts in the distributions of wealth, consumption and power in the global economy”: precisely the risk existing structures are desperate to avoid. A radical re-imagining of power structures, capable of tilting markets away from ecocide, can only be spoken, one suspects, in the languages of the oppressed. Couching a critique solely in the dead-pan style internal to communiques of Wall Street and Washington seems like a tacit admission that it is the same obscene minority of power-brokers who alone might be agents of substantive change.  

Despite the difficulty of escaping the traps and limits of institutionalized language, The Value of a Whale does, with its prose, what green capitalism has failed to do with its market based solutions, which is to bring the abstract layer of description and representation (words and numbers) closer to the shared biological emergency the planet is facing. The fire is proven to be far beyond the scope of the ineffectual extinguishers offered by “sustainable” finance. Buller’s insightful and powerful book  doesn’t show us where the exit from the burning building is, but clearly proves where the exit is not.

Chad A. Hines is a writer, copy editor, and mandolin player with a PhD in 19th century U.S. literature from the University of Iowa. He is currently teaching kids how to code games online and publishing interactive fiction on the blockchain, while living at an ecovillage in northeast Missouri. You can find him on Twitter.

Transparency Statement

This review was commissioned by internal pitch; the review author is an ARB editor. It was edited by Jake Casella Brookins and copyedited by Misha Grifka Wander. ARB arranged a review copy from the publisher.

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