The Great Adaptation: Climate, Capitalism and Catastrophe

By Romain Felli
Published by Verso, 2021, RRP £14.99, £12.00 at Bookbuster

Review by Tim Barton

The last few decades, from the 1987 UN Brundtland Report onwards, saw an increasingly globalist agenda on fighting climate change. This paralleled an increasing globalisation of ‘neoliberalism’. Felli takes pains to itemise the degree to which these two trends are intertwined. The terms of debate generally seem to embrace ‘business as usual’ for as long as possible, using ‘the market’ to create an adaptive and flexible economy, then shifting to a ‘modified business as usual’ model. Under the latter, necessary changes must be led by profiteers, so technologies rolled out to decrease greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants must be corporate, imposed from above by the rich, and geared to capitalist gain.

There is not only a great deal wrong with this way of ‘combatting’ climate change and environmental degradation, there is also a great deal wrong with Felli’s methodology and ideology. Whilst we need to critique and attack corporate capitalist carve-ups of supposed ‘solutions’ to the crises we face, simply taking the traditional leftist path toward the issues leaves a great many questions unanswered. Once again, the ‘social ecology’ philosophies represented by, for example, Murray Bookchin, offer several ways to create more flexible community-based lines of attack, like decentralisation, appropriate and small-scale technologies, and relatively direct democratic forms wedded to socially and economically just ‘constitutions’. The spirit of Brundtland supports this, whilst its actual suggested solutions have been ideologically tainted by western state and corporate powers.

There are numerous issues Felli leaves problematically blocking the search for real solutions, often characterised by a polarised attitude to other, generally false, oppositions. Thus he typically fails to accept that unsavoury issues raised by the currently most powerful global actors may address real material issues. For example, issues around carrying capacity are ‘disallowed’ in discussion if ‘population pressures’ are mooted. However, whilst redistribution and a bit of belt-tightening can resolve some of the problems, anyone not ideologically blinded can see how the contemporary human-ecology nexus is, regardless of whose ‘fault’ it is, genuinely leading to a synergistic ecological systems crash, with population carrying-capacity already plummeting.

To give another example, Felli also pretty much dismisses the 1972 Limits to Growth report as he sees the MIT computer technology behind it as being
“a product of the Cold War”, leaving the casual reader thinking all it dealt with was population and greenhouse gasses (it goes far further). Since almost all technologies since at least 1940 have been a product of wartime economies and the 44-year face-off between the West and the Soviet Union, if he were honest about this he would likely have no technological or institutional tools available to fight with.

The same polarising attitude applies to his overall attitude to the West, as ex-colonial powers with the Global South as its victims. Post-colonial studies and critical theory can be much more nuanced, although sadly are often not. Nonetheless, Felli is pretty good on the market and climate action; on American and European capital’s need to somehow make commodified economic opportunity out of the rapidly increasing number of ‘environmental refugees’, regardless of longer-term damage; and on the idiocy of ‘last ditch’ ‘solutions’ such as geoengineering. His sucker
punch astutely highlights how contemporary ‘capitalist’ attempts to ‘deal with’ the coming emergency are way too little, way too late, and deeply misguided.

Despite his strident language, he very clearly concludes ‘if global warming is not rapidly brought under control, any talk of adaptation to it is pointless’. His last chapter could have been expanded at greater length, where despite his simplistic opposing of ‘state’ to ‘corporation’, he clearly touches on exactly the more ‘left-green-anarchist’ tendencies in the Global South opposition movements that need placing centre stage.

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