We are ‘greening’ ourselves to extinction

Apocalypse investors are pushing fake climate solutions on us that are making climate change worse.

Partially burned and standing trees called snags loom over a site where researchers from the John T. Harrington Forestry Research Center are conducting reforestation experiments at Deer Lake Mesa in Cimarron, New Mexico, U.S., August 17, 2021. Picture taken August 17, 2021. REUTERS/Adria Malcolm
Partially burned and standing trees called snags loom over a site where researchers from the John T Harrington Forestry Research Center are conducting reforestation experiments at Deer Lake Mesa in Cimarron, New Mexico on August 17, 2021 [File: Reuters/Adria Malcolm]

More than a decade ago, investment experts James Altucher and Douglas Sease wrote a book for the Wall Street Journal called Investing in the Apocalypse. They argued that the end of the world is a profitable opportunity for those who know how to “fade the fear”, as everyone else panics. They maintained that when disaster strikes, investors should approach it with the rationale that “no matter how bad things seem, they really aren’t that bad”.

Well before the COVID-19 pandemic, they advised investing in big pharmaceutical companies as a strategy to reap dividends from global pandemics. They also encouraged putting money into renewable energy systems while ramping up oil production.

Today, it seems many have followed Althucher and Sease’s advice. Under the guise of taking action on the pandemic, billions of dollars have been poured into big pharma, instead of public health and policies aimed at preventing another global outbreak. The supposed energy transition that has been undertaken has seen renewable energy production expanded, but there has been no indication that oil and gas are being substituted and ultimately phased out.

What is worse, governments and corporations have teamed up to turn the apocalypse into a money-making opportunity. They have rushed to put forward false solutions to the climate crisis: from the push to replace fuel-engine vehicles with electric ones, to so-called climate-smart agriculture, to protected areas for nature conservation and massive tree planting projects for carbon offsets.

All this trickery is called “greening” and it is designed to profit off of climate fears, not stop climate change. While guaranteeing high returns, this deception is tantamount to the genocide of the hundreds of millions of people who will perish from the effects of climate change within the next century because things are that bad.

‘Firefighters with flamethrowers’

That is how climate writer Keton Joshi describes the world’s biggest polluters proposing climate solutions. Indeed, what governments and corporations have pushed for in terms of climate action in the past few years are policies that only make the situation worse.

Take carbon offsets – the epitome of “greening”. Acting as real-life “Pass GO and Collect $200” tickets, they allow some of the biggest climate criminals to go on polluting by engaging in a charade of tree-planting schemes. The logic behind them is that we cannot stop our greenhouse gas emissions immediately because that would “hurt the economy”, so we can instead plant trees that will absorb them and grow the economy through carbon markets – a supposed win-win situation.

But this fallacy has been repeatedly exposed. For one, the organisations that are supposed to certify that indeed enough tree-planting has taken place do not have the tools to verify that the declared emissions will definitely be absorbed. Another problem is that many offsetting activities do not actually offset anything.

A recent investigation into the world’s largest carbon standard found that 94 percent of its rainforest offset credits did not actually contribute to carbon reduction. Worse still, it exaggerated the threat to forests included in its projects, while its conservation activities – which yielded some of these credits – involved serious human rights violations, including forced evictions and home demolitions of local people.

Even if some of these carbon offset schemes do make a difference in the short term through forest conservation or reforestation, given our current climate reality characterised by ever-worsening forest fires, they can easily just burn to dust and contribute to the greenhouse gas problem. One recent study, for example, found that since 2015, close to 7 million tonnes of carbon was released from wildfires in six forest projects that are part of California’s carbon trading system.

Then there is the fatal confusion between efficiency and ecology. We are being duped to believe that buying more “energy efficient” or “green” products can save the planet. Whether it is a new electric car, an “eco-friendly” condo, a paper straw instead of a plastic straw, or a solar-powered turtle-shaped mega yacht – all are branded as ecological solutions because they are supposedly more energy or materially efficient than the standard alternative.

What often hides behind these “green” labels is the large carbon footprint their production generates. Furthermore, “greened” technological solutions often just shift the environmental damage they do to another sector or a distant location.

For example, the growing electric vehicle industry may help reduce carbon emissions but it will also cause a massive jump in the demand for lithium and other minerals. Scientists are already warning about the grave environmental impact the rush for mining lithium may have, including water pollution and loss, toxic waste spills, biodiversity loss and soil contamination.

Apart from making climate change worse, these “solutions” also disproportionately harm marginalised groups and Indigenous peoples, as UN special rapporteur Tendayi Achiume has recently warned. Not only are the impacts of ecological collapse felt more severely by those who encounter racism on a daily basis, but the extraction of minerals needed for “smart” technologies and renewable energy exposes these same people to pollution, violence and displacement.

The argument that “green” solutions provide jobs also rests on weak foundations, especially if the quality of work is considered. As the ILO has pointed out, a large share of employment for the so-called “nature-based solutions” is informal, low-wage, temporary, and exposed to risks, such as unsafe working conditions, child labour and lack of social security.

‘The biggest land grab in history’

Nature conservation has also fallen prey to the “greening” deception. For years now, large conservation organisations and their corporate sponsors have been pushing the idea that large swaths of land and forests need to be fenced off so we can protect biodiversity and help mitigate the effects of climate change.

Like the carbon offset schemes, this policy is just another way to enable big polluters to continue to pollute by saying: “We are doing something for the planet.” It also enables some – particularly in the tourism and construction sectors – to benefit from the so-called “nature” tourism in which the wealthy pay big money to access fenced-off parks and “experience” pristine nature while staying at luxury real estate projects.

And just like other “greening” strategies, this type of nature conservation results in major human injustices. Indigenous peoples from around the world have suffered evictions, dispossession and even killings as they have been forced from their lands to make way for nature conservation projects.

In the Republic of the Congo, the Indigenous Baka people have been brutally oppressed by the guards of a conservation project supported by the UNDP, WWF, the EU, the US and logging and palm oil companies. A UNDP investigation found that members of the community were routinely beaten, some imprisoned, tortured or raped.

In the neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo, the guards of a national park funded by the US and German governments have also engaged in violent attacks on the Indigenous Batwa people living in its territory. A 2022 report by Minority Rights has produced evidence that at least 20 members of the community have been killed and at least 15 women raped during forced eviction campaigns.

There are countless horror stories like these ones; according to estimates, some 14 million people have been evicted in this manner in Africa alone. That is why the news that a new conservation scheme was approved at the UN conference on biodiversity (COP15) held in Montreal in December was met with much dismay by Indigenous people across the world.

The new Global Biodiversity Framework – also called the 30×30 target – aims to turn 30 percent of the planet into protected areas by 2030. In a letter to COP15 participants, Indigenous peoples stated that the policy “may be the biggest land grab in history and further threaten the physical and cultural survival of Indigenous people worldwide”.

Given that Indigenous peoples reside on territories that hold 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity, it is certain that Indigenous-held land will fall within the 30×30 plan. Evicting them from land they have lived in since time immemorial is hardly an ecological solution.

A much better solution would be addressing the biggest cause of biodiversity loss: industrial-scale farming. It destroys the soil, increases desertification, releases huge amounts of greenhouse gases and is linked to deforestation.

30×30 would not curb the damage industrial-scale farming does. If the economic model that enables it does not change, it may even worsen its impact. Restricting land use may raise food prices, artificially inflate the value of land, and encourage further overuse of chemicals and harmful crop and livestock breeding practices to increase production. This would have devastating consequences for smallholder farmers who produce more than 30 percent of the world’s food and tend to use more sustainable practices than industrial farms.

Reparative justice, not ‘greening’

Perhaps the biggest problem with apocalypse investing and its “greening” deception is that they dominate the global conversation on climate change and biodiversity at official forums (such as COP15) and are presented to the public as “making progress” on environmental issues.

We also have people like billionaire Bill Gates who say they are “very optimistic” about the future. Of course, they are! Since 2020, the top 1 percent has collected nearly two-thirds of all new wealth, as the world has faced a deadly pandemic and massive climate-change-related disasters.

The optimism of the wealthy and the fake climate solutions pushed on us are quite effective in convincing people that climate change will be tackled. That is because they provide reassurance that we will not have to give up the comforts we enjoy and because they also give us, the consumers, “a choice” – to go “green” or not. Indeed, we can now choose between a renewable or an oil-powered turtle-shaped mega yacht.

Making the “green” choice then leaves us satisfied that we are “doing something” about climate change. But driving an electric car, putting your organic produce in a tote bag and turning down your heating or air-conditioner by one degree is not going to save the planet. Let’s have the courage to face this fact.

What would make a difference is developing mass transport and substantially reducing car ownership; closing coal mines and ending oil and gas exploration; promoting decentralised and community-managed renewable energy systems; doing away with industrial-scale monoculture farming; and supporting smallholder and Indigenous-led agroecological systems that have been shown to enhance nutrition, biodiversity and quality of life.

Of course, the system we have in place now favours apocalypse investors, who would do everything in their power to resist real climate action. That is why, as Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, has eloquently pointed out, “we can’t save the world by playing by the rules because the rules have to be changed”.

We need to confront the manipulation of false solutions, discredit them, and move on to changing rules premised on profiting from apocalypse.

Reparative justice is one approach to changing the current system. Embracing reparative justice means giving power back to the people to invest in the needs of their communities by supporting autonomous organisation and mutual aid efforts for affordable housing, food production, energy, and transport systems.

Reparative justice for reducing carbon emissions means demanding that those companies and governments historically responsible for climate change pay for the damage they have caused. Present and future victims of climate change should get to collectively decide how these reparations are to be spent.

Reparative justice also means supporting agroecological practice and restoring diverse food-growing cultures that have been erased or lost due to industrial monoculture farming.

Reparative justice also means that biodiversity loss would be tackled by guaranteeing the status of Indigenous people as stewards of their land and empowering them to protect it based on their knowledge, spiritual wisdom and traditions.

Achieving all this will not be easy and we will have to face the power of governments and corporations – the apocalypse investors. But through human solidarity and collective action, we can fight back and invest in our survival.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.