Can the market save the climate? A reflection

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Written by: Christine Taylhardat
Photo Credits: Unsplash by Tania Malréchauffé

We hear time and again that we are in an emergency state with the climate. We are at this point because meaningful actions have been delayed and obstructed over years. This reflection connects capitalism to our current climate situation to try to understand the arguments and theories for and against capitalism’s ability to save us. The Capitalocence, for example, tells us about the interconnections between humans and power, and the economy and the environment (Hartley 2016). It provides a counter perspective from the Anthropocene, which if you are not familiar, is a term that conveys how humans in our current age have a significant level of influence on our environment. The Capitalocene extends this by stating that capitalism is embedded in a network and is part of creating the climate emergency. Basically, capitalism is not just an economic system. It is now a dominant way of thinking in our society. This shared ideology supports structures that have created climate change and maintained fossil fuels as society’s dominant energy source (Irwin et al. 2022).

Some research suggests that capitalism is the best way to resolve the climate crisis if it is adapted to focus on environmental protection. Certainly, this is the approach currently taken within political and public discourse; the dominant solution is to make capitalism “green” (Sweeney 2015). Basically, capitalism can serve sustainable infrastructure by making energy, materials, and land valuable to the economy. By changing the system, we can also shift societal values on resources. Studies that vouch for capitalism say that it is the best option for greening our society because market forces will allow for the necessary changes to take place (Mathews 2011). In many of these analyses however, problems such as greed and interests of policymakers are mere barriers to be addressed – not considered fundamental to the operation of the system.

One strategy for shifting to a “green” capitalism is through carbon markets, which are said to be key to climate action… and only feasible within capitalism (Markandya 2009). Basically, carbon markets profit from the trade of carbon emission allowances, privatizes emissions, and allows the market to act as a regulator (Fletcher 2012). But this approach still places the health of economies over that of the planet and is subject to manipulation.

Other arguments will say that the required innovation to solve the climate crisis can only be created through the capitalist spirit of competition (Bosch and Schmidt 2019). Why is capitalism the ideal system? Because creating an environment of crisis is ideal for sustainable innovation. Yet, why should crisis be an effective way for the system to function? And, if this is so, shouldn’t our society have mobilized to solve the climate crisis already?

These examples and others illustrate Naomi Klein’s concept of disaster capitalism (Fletcher 2012). This means that capitalism is structured to profit from the ecological disasters it has created. One key argument against climate capitalism is that even with system adaptations, capitalism allows a small portion of individuals to profit while the rest are exploited and left vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Continued economic growth is not compatible with sustainability, so within climate capitalism, attempts to address climate change will lead to worse effects at environmental and social dimensions (Böhm et al. 2012). The continued focus on climate capitalism and creation of a green market ultimately ignores alternative economic systems that could address several layers of the issue.

The green economy narrative takes advantage of the public’s environmental concerns to profit from growing markets while re-entrenching inequalities – also illustrating the inner workings of disaster capitalism (Parr 2012). Hearing all this feels hopeless. How can any one person, or even movement, stand up against capitalism?

Many readers might feel opposed to any system other than capitalism, perhaps even you are So, rather than convince you, let me just present some ideas.

First of all, high level and widespread change will take time. So, perhaps a form of green capitalism could be a framework of transition into other economic, cultural, and political systems that centre nature.

Further, it’s important to imagine beyond the capitalist mindset to allow us to better think about how society might function in the future (Büscher and Fletcher 2020). For example, traditional cultures, including Canada’s Indigenous peoples, have long-existing economic and cultural systems that elements of living alongside the environment and being its stewarts. Other similar ideas like convivial conservation refer to learning to live with nature and creating opportunities to relate to it beyond instrumental economic means (Büscher and Fletcher 2020). The economic system is transformed by promoting wealth and ownership redistribution and lessening the power and control of corporations in these sustainable changes. This alternative promotes cultural-level changes through values of reciprocity and care, and use of collective resources.

Finally, to perhaps give you some hope, current theory suggests that a postcapitalist world that focuses on equity, dignity, and solidarity can exist (Wainwright and Mann 2020). But to get there, we must challenge capitalism’s dominance and engage in transformative actions. If capitalism is a cultural and ideological system, then beginning to think beyond it is already an act of defiance: a challenge to the current system, and a belief that things can be better.



Böhm, Steffen, Maria Ceci Misoczky, and Sandra Moog. 2012. “Greening Capitalism? A Marxist Critique of Carbon Markets.” Organization Studies 33(11):1617–38. doi: 10.1177/0170840612463326.

Bosch, Stephan, and Matthias Schmidt. 2019. “Is the Post-Fossil Era Necessarily Post-Capitalistic? – The Robustness and Capabilities of Green Capitalism.” Ecological Economics 161:270–79. doi: 10.1016/j.ecolecon.2019.04.001.

Büscher, Bram, and Robert Fletcher. 2020. The Conservation Revolution: Radical Ideas for Saving Nature Beyond the Anthropocene. Verso Books.

Fletcher, Robert. 2012. “Capitalizing on Chaos: Climate Change and Disaster Capitalism*.” Ephemera 12(1/2):97–112.

Hartley, Daniel. 2016. “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, and the Problem of Culture.” P. 12 in Anthropocene or Capitalocene?: Nature, History, and the Crisis of Capitalism. PM Press.

Irwin, Randi, Vanessa Bowden, Daniel Nyberg, and Christopher Wright. 2022. “Making Green Extreme: Defending Fossil Fuel Hegemony through Citizen Exclusion.” Citizenship Studies 26(1):73–89. doi: 10.1080/13621025.2021.2011145.

Markandya, Anil. 2009. “Can Climate Change Be Reversed under Capitalism?” Development and Change 40(6):1139–52. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-7660.2009.01615.x.

Mathews, John A. 2011. “Naturalizing Capitalism: The next Great Transformation.” Futures 43(8):868–79. doi: 10.1016/j.futures.2011.06.011.

Parr, Adrian. 2012. “Climate Capitalism.” Pp. 8–21 in The Wrath of Capital: Neoliberalism and Climate Change. New York: Columbia University Press.

Sweeney, Sean. 2015. “Green Capitalism Won’t Work.” New Labor Forum 24(2):12–17. doi: 10.1177/1095796015579693.

Urry, John. 2011. Climate Change and Society. Polity.

Wainwright, Joel, and Geoff Mann. 2020. Climate Leviathan: A Political Theory of Our Planetary Future. Verso Books.


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