Why the capitalist class has gone green

Our rulers promote eco-austerity to disguise their own failure to improve living standards.

Fraser Myers

Fraser Myers
Staff writer

Topics Politics UK USA World

It has become something of a running joke that every year, the international political and business elites hop in their private jets to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland to discuss… climate change. Last year, some 1,500 jets were taken to the usually sleepy Swiss ski village. At the same event, broadcaster Sir David Attenborough was interviewed by His Royal Highness Prince William.

Donald Trump may have put a fly in the ointment by using his Davos address to denounce the ‘prophets of doom’ of the environmental movement, rejecting their ‘predictions of the apocalypse’. But climate change nevertheless remained at the top of the agenda, and this time the world’s super-rich and powerful were given a stern telling-off by Greta Thunberg. The organisers at Davos have asked all delegates to go carbon-neutral by 2050.

Trump was essentially correct to say the gloomsters have got it wrong in the past when predicting ‘overpopulation’, ‘mass starvation’ and the ‘end of oil’. But one thing he got very wrong – and he is far from alone in this – was his assertion that the climate agitators who want to ‘destroy the economy’ are somehow ‘radical socialists’. A cursory glance at the super-rich delegates around the room should have put paid to any notion that there is something radical or socialist about the environmental movement. Environmental activists were not only protesting outside the World Economic Forum, but many were also invited inside, including delegates from Extinction Rebellion.

And this is nothing new. The World Economic Forum began in 1971, but has been discussing the ‘climate emergency’ since only its third annual meeting in 1973. Aurelio Pecci was an Italian industrialist who founded the influential Club of Rome think-tank, which includes among its members businessmen, heads of state and former heads of state from every continent, high-ranking civil servants, scientists and economists. Pecci was invited to Davos to deliver a speech on the Club of Rome’s report, The Limits to Growth, which argued that global economic growth would soon become environmentally unsustainable. The Limits to Growth later became the best-selling book on environmentalism ever printed.

Companies have long been keen to brand themselves as sustainable and eco-friendly, even those which sell fossil fuels. BP Amoco rebranded as Beyond Petroleum in the year 2000. Canadian research firm Corporate Knights – the self-professed ‘voice of clean capitalism’ – recently produced its 16th annual ranking of the 100 most sustainable companies with over $1 billion in revenue. In first and third place were former oil companies Ørsted and Neste respectively.

In recent weeks, Goldman Sachs has announced that it will no longer invest in Arctic oil or coal-power stations. Larry Fink, head of BlackRock, the world’s largest money manager with $7 trillion worth of holdings, recently defined climate change as the world’s biggest threat to profit. BlackRock says it will invest in more sustainable companies. These moves are partly a result of pressure from some institutional investors who are more sensitive to politics than most bankers. The Government Pension Investment Fund of Japan – the world’s largest pool of retirement savings – pulled $1.5 trillion out of BlackRock, citing environmental and social concerns. It is estimated that around $12 trillion worth of institutional investment has been ‘divested’ from coal.

But the reason the capitalist class has embraced environmentalism goes far beyond branding. Even the potential of some money drying up (and pots of state money appearing for clean energy) are not the biggest factors. Most significant is the capitalist class’s loss of faith in itself and in its ability to grow the economy and raise living standards. It has been clear for the past 40 years that while global growth has transformed the lives of billions in the global South, growth in the West has been depressed. Low productivity growth, low investment and low wage growth, especially when compared with the postwar boom, have become depressing features of all the major Western economies. These problems were exacerbated by the 2008 crash. The capitalist class has not been delivering the goods for a very long time – and they know it. As Politico reported from Davos last year, ‘the global winners here in Switzerland aren’t so sure they’re up to the task of running the world anymore’.

Environmentalism, however, offers a way out. As George Monbiot memorably described it, environmentalism is a ‘campaign for austerity’. Environmentalists urge us to think of less as more and of ‘small as beautiful’. In short, to lower our expectations and our collective horizons. Environmentalism denigrates progressive aspirations for a world of abundance as ‘unsustainable’. To be well-fed, well-travelled and even to have children invites condemnation in the topsy-turvy world of environmentalism.

Climate-change activists have made carbon dioxide public enemy No1. But CO2 emissions are really just a proxy for industrial development. The fact that African countries produce less CO2 is indicative of their lower levels of development than the West – and the dreadful poverty this entails for many of their inhabitants. In Britain, the Conservative government celebrates a 38 per cent reduction in carbon emissions since 1990. But while energy efficiency has improved enormously, a still significant amount of emissions reductions is down to deindustrialisation. While Britain’s economy has grown overall, you don’t need to be a Ken Loach aficionado to understand the destructiveness that the closure of factories and mines has had on certain communities.

Overall, the ‘climate emergency’ bolsters the business elite who can no longer justify its elevated position in society by pointing to better living standards.

Fraser Myers is a staff writer at spiked and host of the spiked podcast. Follow him on Twitter: @FraserMyers.

Picture by: Getty

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.


Gareth Edward KING

26th January 2020 at 12:09 pm

Wind power in Spain is a bad joke! It takes up enormous areas of public land (e.g. Bardenas, Ebro valley, Navarre) producing up to 28% of national energy output at a push. At the same time, it’s horrendously environmentally unfriendly; one plant in Navarre is reputed to massacre 800 Griffin Vultures annually! Of course, building these structural eye-sores involves using important quantities of cement which involves at the same time massive energy inputs from fossil fuels! (in Spain these are invariably imported). On top of these glaring contradictions, when the wind turbines are still (Spain especially in the NE isn’t particularly windy) energy needs have to be made up for from somewhere else, and this comes from France which sensibly provides for 80% of its energy requirements from nuclear fusion. It should come as no surprise that energy bills in Spain are probably the most expensive in Europe (not just the EU), and that isn’t helped with VAT at 21%!

Jeandarc Breon

23rd January 2020 at 3:30 pm

“CO2 emissions are really just a proxy for industrial development.” – Fraser Myers

But is it though?

Or are they really just a proxy for ‘cleaner, less polluting development’?

Is a state of the art off-shore windmill less industrial than a coal plant? Or a research project to improve the efficiency of photovoltaics less technological than research into new gas fields?

How does shale gas somehow represent optimistic progress but biomass burning represent anti-human limitation.

How does that work exactly, Fraser?

R Rodd

27th January 2020 at 1:29 pm

Because recyclables are more expensive. More expensive means less money to spend on other things = austerity.

Dodgy Geezer

23rd January 2020 at 3:10 pm

“Why the capitalist class has gone green…”

Um. There IS no ‘Capitalist Class’. That is just Marxist slang for ‘everyone who I think is better off than me’.

There are just people – trying to get on as best they can. The way most people get on is by becoming part of a group – so you may see yourself as a Postman, or a Company Director, or a Journalist, or an Academic, or a Celebrity. In all cases, if you do not conform to the group and do what is expected, you will be marginalised and eventually rejected.

Postmen who avoid delivering the mail do not succeed as Postmen. Celebrities who do not support the latest fashion do not succeed as celebrities, and Journalists who write about the wrong thing are rapidly let go….

That is why all these ‘movers and shakers’ all crowd together to outdo each other in Greenery, or Anti-racism, or Feminism…..

Jim Lawrie

23rd January 2020 at 11:13 am

The biggest admission of defeat was backing down in the face of opposition to nuclear power when what was needed was to advance the cause of technology.
The anti-nuclear lobby in Sweden managed to skewer a referendum with “No to Nuclear” the only option. This year, the 40th anniversary of that vote, Swedish nuclear power production is at an all time high, and The Swedes want more, because they have seen the limitations and paid the cost of renewables. Politicians in Sweden are at odds with the people on this issue. The people want technology, Greta disnae.

For all their pacifist pretence, the Swedish nuclear program, ab initio, had had an eye to weapons production.

Mark S

23rd January 2020 at 8:26 am

” . . . defined climate change as the world’s biggest threat to profit.”

That there is, pardon the pun, is the money quote ! CO2 is no more than a tool to con people into giving up their hopes, dreams, jobs, property and wealth.

Michael Lynch

22nd January 2020 at 10:31 pm

I reckon the only reason the filthy rich meet at Davos is for an update on the construction of the Super Arks (or luxuriously accommodated caves in the Alps) where they’ll all go and live if everything goes tits up!

steve moxon

22nd January 2020 at 10:22 pm

But it’s not trade (‘capitalism’, if you insist) that slows trade: it’s government imposition (some of which of course is necessary). A low flat tax economy grows fast.
‘Capitalism’ is a fancy word for trade, with lots of baggage from Marx. The railing against societal change caused by scaling up of trade is the basis of ‘anti-capitalism’, but it’s a measure of poor government not to better work with and channel changes in trading practices.
If the movers & shakers of ‘capitalism’ had sleepless nights over this, all they had to do was tow the ubiquitous fashionable hokey wokey line, albeit it’s actually contempt towards the folk on whose side ostensibly the whole shebang is supposed to be; and of which anthropogenic climate change is the apotheosis — a more abstract, general ‘hate the people’.
Isn’t this more the basis of why/how the ‘capitalist class’ has gone green.

Jonnie Henly

22nd January 2020 at 11:02 pm

It’s not slow trade that’s the issue though. As the article says, it’s: Low productivity growth, low investment and low wage growth.

Or, as they put it later on, Britain’s economy may be growing, but many people don’t see the benefits of that.

A government that does little to adapt to the changes capitalism brings to society is indeed a poor one, but it’s also one that is reluctant to intervene to achieve that.

steve moxon

23rd January 2020 at 7:04 am

Agreed (that’s a first), though slow trade and low productivity are two sides of the same coin.
The problem is the wrong kinds of government intervention. Governments have to intervene, but as well as tapping commerce for the cash to pay for necessary infrastructure, they need, on the one hand, to get out of the way of trade (in particular by slashing red tape), and, on the other, to take proactive steps to facilitate it — sometimes major effort to instigate, support or defend new sectors (not least protectionism while new tech gets scaled up). The astonishing performance of Hong Kong under Northcote seems to be a lesson still in need of being learnt.

Ven Oods

23rd January 2020 at 7:29 am

“all they had to do was tow the ubiquitous fashionable hokey wokey line”
I’d rather they toe the line, since I’ve never visualised them as hard-working like those Volga barge-tuggers.

steve moxon

23rd January 2020 at 7:44 am

Yes, I’d never looked into the expression and somehow always thought it was ‘tow’!

Michael Green

22nd January 2020 at 9:51 pm

Yes, once more we have an elite class telling us can’t have any more, and with a new eco-ideology to justify it.

Jim Lawrie

22nd January 2020 at 9:10 pm

Did you check that $12 trillion figure before referencing it? It’s $1,600 per person on the planet. 40yrs global production. The entire world coal industry is not worth anywhere near that much.
Also much of it is commitment to divest. If they all divest tomorrow, I’m in.

Ven Oods

23rd January 2020 at 7:31 am

I wondered about that figure, too. Looks like a whoopsy missed on the office read-through.

Chris Hanley

22nd January 2020 at 9:01 pm

“Our rulers promote eco-austerity to disguise their own failure to improve living standards”.
It is the supposedly CO2-limiting policies themselves and associated uncertainties that have stymied economic growth.
From the plutocrats’ point of view and to borrow a quote from Karl Kraus: ‘eco-austerity is itself the disease which it purports to be the cure’.

Dominic Straiton

22nd January 2020 at 8:13 pm

In the red wall of the north hardly anyone gives a toss for green nonsense. What they want is lower energy bills. As you come south this, funnily becomes less important. As Vagina Westwood moves north shouting against fracking that has transformed the US economy and produced millions of real jobs I am guessing this will to thrown into touch once the 2012 scare stories of armagedon are put to rest. In a nut shell anything that comes out of Greenpeace and friends of the earth is a lie. Oxfam has been keeping Africa poor and Brexit is going to put these quangos to the torch.

Ven Oods

23rd January 2020 at 7:38 am

We can only hope you’re correct in that prediction. But those quangos are filled with the sort of people that go to the same dinner parties and enjoy the same sinecures as all those politicians hope to do some day in the future. It will amount to killing a golden goose.

nick hunt

22nd January 2020 at 7:34 pm

The business elite are fighting climate change because they “can no longer justify their elevated position in society by pointing to better living standards”. As absolute poverty continues to decrease globally, and assuming a single factor can do the explanatory work, I’ll go for a less economic explanation: many people, especially those enjoying huge success relative to most working people, adopt good (green) causes because they want to stop feeling guilty. So they sign up and signal their virtue to inferior, uncaring plebs (the same people the evil rich exploit rather than employ, according to generations of leftist bigots).

Jim Lawrie

22nd January 2020 at 9:55 pm

The Spικεd cadre are still wedded to economic collapse theories of fifty years ago. Like the climate catastrophists, they have been saying for a long time that the end is nigh. But as you point out, standards of living insist, rather disappointingly, on constantly rising.

Dodgy Geezer

23rd January 2020 at 3:13 pm

“…But as you point out, standards of living insist, rather disappointingly, on constantly rising…”

The Left are always anxious to drag living standards down. People with low living standards are where their votes come from…

Jonnie Henly

22nd January 2020 at 10:56 pm

What are they feeling guilty about?

Are those “leftist bigots” correct?

Ven Oods

23rd January 2020 at 7:35 am

I tend toward your theory, Nick.
But it does assume a frightening level of self-deception on their part, if they can be surrounded by high achievers (read robber barons) like themselves and somehow really feel virtuous.

Tom Helme

22nd January 2020 at 6:41 pm

The HR department of most firms have become very sinister places.

William Murphy

23rd January 2020 at 9:38 am

The very name “Human Resources” has always struck me as highly creepy. As if human beings were just another replaceable, lifeless asset like machinery, fuel or raw materials.

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