When confronted with critiques of the true cost of coal, the coal industry and their friends in governments often refer to technological advances that allow for emission reductions, compensatory activities (so-called offsets) like tree planting, or investments in ‘renewable’ energy alongside coal-powered electricity generation. Such magic bullets include the promise of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS, see chapter 9.2), conversion of power plants to gas and biomass (chapter 9.4), or even future plans of geo- or climate engineering, the large-scale manipulation of the global climate through technologies that deflect sunlight away from the earth or dissolve minerals to remove CO2 from the atmosphere.
These promises and illusions are used to justify a continuation of ‘business as usual’ in the face of environmental collapse – in expectation of continued profits. Technology is never ‘neutral’ and is shaped by the society and economic system it is developed in. Technology is far more likely to receive investment and achieve widespread adoption under capitalism if it can produce more profit for capitalists, or more control for governments. Science and technology will certainly be part of any solution, but without accompanying economic and political changes they would very likely be used to increase the exploitation and inequality in our society.
In other words – painting capitalism ‘green’ does nothing to challenge the underlying neo-colonial power relations, the white supremacy, the patriarchy, or the multiple ecological crises that business-as-usual is based on. It does not address the racist violence inherent in state systems and its borders, or the inequalities that are integral to capitalism. If the subjugation and exploitation of humans and the earth is solar powered, does it make it any better? Green capitalism hopes to replace fossil fuels with so-called renewables (see chapter 9.5), whilst leaving the overall system intact. Although this might help in the short term, it does not address the exploitation of nature, mass extinction, and the production for profit rather than need – the current system will go unchallenged.
Even if green capitalism can help us in the short term, the next ecological crisis will always be just around the corner, and the racialised and patriarchal oppression will go unchallenged. In fact, the provision of cheap and plentiful renewable energy systems could hasten consumption of other resources as energy ceases to be the limiting factor.
Yet, ever more politicians are now calling for ‘green growth’ or Green New Deals, and many NGOs and consumer groups are asking people to ‘shop sustainably’ to solve the ecological crises we face.
The idea of ‘offsetting’ illustrates this paradox. Offsetting is based on the illusion that one can compensate for one’s environmental impact (such as flying, or burning coal) by paying for the planting of trees, or the preservation of nature elsewhere – usually in the Global South, where land and labour are cheaper.
This emphasis on lifestyle change allows wealthy people to shop or fly guilt-free and feel like they’re ‘doing their bit’ whilst continuing to overconsume.
This means that without forgetting our individual role in this, addressing the system, as such, is key to address the root causes of the ecological crises and social inequalities we are facing. An overhaul of our energy and production systems embedded in a radically different economic and political system can allow us to use technology without wrecking the environment.
We need to fight for alternative ways of relating to one another and to our natural environment, based on solidarity and cooperation, and with technologies that challenge prevailing power relations and are grounded in principles of DIY, recycling, and upcycling, and for use, not profit.