Environmental Politics Review of Climate Change, Capitalism and Corporations

Book Review: Climate Change, Capitalism, and Corporations. Processes of Creative Self-Destruction by Christopher Wright and Daniel Nyberg, Environmental Politics, doi: 10.1080/09644016.2017.1345376

Nathan Lemphers, Department of Political Science, University of Toronto

‘Business as usual’ is no longer an option. In this book, Christopher Wright and Daniel Nyberg probe the roots of the climate crisis and reveal the intractable relationship that capitalism has with the degradation of the environment. Publishing one year after Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything, Wright and Nyberg echo the sobering refrain that the problem with climate change is not emissions but capitalism.

The authors do not mince words as they outline the perils of neoliberal capitalism. They lay bare the contradictions of our current economic system and present a radical critique of the current approach to addressing climate change. Wright and Nyberg assert that this approach is highly and intentionally constrained so that corporate interests remain the central consideration and profit-seeking is not compromised. They attest that corporate constructions of climate change are myths that protect destructive corporate behaviour from any serious challenge and that successfully shape the broader political and social context in which companies operate.

Their argument is broad and draws from a variety of academic fields: environmental sociology, critical social theory, organizational studies, political economy and management. Using data gathered primarily from corporate documents and interviews with employees of Australian corporations, Wright and Nyberg construct a conceptual framework to explain the processes that shape how corporations engage with a host of actors, from employees and customers to the media, governments and the public. By focusing on corporate practices, policies and strategies, they examine how corporations socially construct risk, influence political debates, appear to compromise but always win, constrain the identities of employees and define correct emotional responses to climate change.

Many of the individual findings in the book are not novel but draw from established criticisms of ecological modernization. For example, technological innovation and efficiency gains do not slow the treadmills of production and consumption but rather enable further unsustainable demands on the planet. The authors challenge corporate greening as often futile and at times insincere attempts to change inherently unsustainable corporate behaviour. As alternatives, they advocate the decommodification of nature and reassert local and democratic responses to climate change. Taken as a package and situated across many, often disparate, academic literatures, Wright and Nyberg assemble both a noteworthy contribution and a compelling argument.

This approachable book provides additional grist for academics, activists and policy practitioners seeking a more scholarly slant on Klein’s latest book. Critics of neoliberal capitalism and corporate greenwashing, and fans of no-growth and steady-state economics will relish the authors’ call to ‘know thy enemy’. Wright and Nyberg argue that meaningful responses to climate change, if they are to be part of a Polanyian double movement, must be fully aware of the perils of our current economic system and the hegemonic role of corporations. Close reading of this book will inject valuable system-level insights for those whose work focuses on the state, the firm or the consumer.

Despite their broad remit, novel empirical evidence to support the book’s argument was based nearly exclusively on Australian corporations and their employees but, citing other studies, the authors also bring in evidence from Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States. The similarities of these countries raise questions about just how broadly this argument can be extended to other countries/economies, such as Germany, Brazil, India or South Africa. Notwithstanding broad conclusions about capitalism as an economic system and corporations as type of organization, a comparable look at more diverse manifestations of capitalism and corporate responses to climate change may yield additional and more persuasive insights.

At the end of their book, Wright and Nyberg offer six alternative movements to spur people’s imaginations for change. Ranging from biocentrism to carbon democracy, these alternatives provide a window of hope after a rather bleak analysis. Yet this is a rather under-theorized hope. What is the role of the state and existing social and political institutions in these alternative futures? How will social movements overcome the well-documented hegemony of corporations? These essential questions remain for other scholars, activists and practitioners.

What Wright and Nyberg do achieve is an insightful analysis on the limits of capitalism and corporations to prevent or manage the damage from climate change. If humanity is to avoid self-destruction, a new economic order must be imagined and realized.

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