Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


How environmental destruction became a business opportunity

Christopher Wright, Daniel Nyberg

Man grabbing environment with a city on his back.

The Paris climate talks later this month are seen as humanity’s last chance to meaningfully respond to climate change. Business is a key player here, both as a major producer of greenhouse gas emissions and as a potential saviour through technological and market innovation. Yet, as the recent corporate scandals at VW and Exxon highlight, businesses have often played a double-game in their responses to the environment. How then to make sense of the mixed messages from corporations on climate change?

In our new book, Climate Change, Capitalism and Corporations: Processes of Creative Self-Destruction, we explore the role of corporations within the climate crisis. While many global businesses promote a message of “action” and “leadership”, we argue that this ignores the deeper problem 0f how corporate capitalism is locked into a cycle of promoting ever more creative ways of exploiting nature and destroying a habitable climate.

Innovating environmental destruction

The last two centuries of economic development have relied upon fossil fuel based energy. While this has unleashed unprecedented economic growth and prosperity it has also come at a massive environmental cost. Through the escalating use of fossil fuels and the diminution of forests and carbon sinks, we have changed the very chemistry of the atmosphere and oceans with catastrophic consequences. Despite the warning from climate scientists, politicians and business have doubled-down on our fossil fuel bet. Indeed, our economies are now reliant upon ever-more ingenious ways of exploiting the Earth’s fossil fuel reserves and consuming the life-support systems we rely on for survival. This is evident in the rush by some of the world’s largest companies to embrace deep-water and Arctic oil drillingtar-sands processing, new mega-coalmines, and the “fracking” of shale and coal-seam gas. These examples highlight both the inventive genius of corporate capitalism, and the blindness of industry and government to the ecological catastrophe they are fashioning.

Incorporating critique

Our book shows how large corporations obscure the link between endless economic growth and worsening environmental destruction by reinventing “business as usual” as a perfectly normal and ecologically sound process.

For instance, through the narrative of “green capitalism”, corporations and the market are portrayed as the best means of responding to the climate crisis. As Virgin CEO Richard Branson has proclaimed “our only hope to stop climate change is for industry to make money from it.” In this corporate imaginary, “green” products and services, increased “eco-efficiency”, and the ingenuity and technological mastery of business entrepreneurship will save us from catastrophe. Such a vision promises to address climate change while continuing the current global expansion of consumption.

Corporations also engage in the political debate over climate change by framing it as a topic of partisan debate. This involves lobbying and corporate political activity which obstructs more meaningful proposals for emissions reductions. Here, citizens are enrolled as constituents in corporate campaigns, and as consumers and “ecopreneurs” in the quest for “green consumption”.

In proposing that corporate initiatives are enough, such a vision also fits well within neoliberalism – the dominant economic and political system of our time. Alternatives, such as state regulation and mandatory restrictions on fossil fuel use, are viewed as counterproductive and even harmful. Echoing Fredric Jameson, “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”.

Business as usual

Such is the supremacy of our current capitalist imagery that it exacts a powerful grip on our thinking and actions. This is why the alternative to “business as usual” is much harder to imagine and much easier to dismiss – what critics so often characterise as going back to living in caves or a return to the “dark ages”.

Ultimately, the “success” or otherwise of the Paris climate talks is unlikely to challenge the fundamental dynamics underlying the climate crisis. Dramatic decarbonisation based around limits upon consumption, economic growth, and corporate influence are not open for discussion. Rather, global elites have framed the response around an accentuation of these trends.

Until this changes, the dominance of corporate capitalism will ensure the continued unravelling of our once habitable climate.


About The Authors

Christopher Wright

Christopher Wright is Professor of Organisational Studies at the University of Sydney Business School. He has researched and published widely in the areas of management knowledge d...

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Daniel Nyberg

Daniel Nyberg is Professor of Management at Newcastle Business School, Australia, and an Honorary Professor at the University of Sydney. His research focuses on political activitie...

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