It has been argued that two of the major virtues of capitalism are that it is highly adaptive and, secondly, that entrepreneurs and other actors in capitalist economies even finds ways of adapting to ruinous conditions and turning them to their advantage (i.e. they are often adept at finding and seizing new opportunities in a crisis). I was reminded of these arguments when reading Windfall by McKenzie Funk. In this book he aims to “document present-day preparations for a warmer world, to observe what was happening rather than theorize about what could happen (p. 8). He asks “what are we doing about climate change?” (p. 10) and, to a large extent, his journalistic impulse is to follow the money.
The book opens with a glitzy roadshow put on by Deutsche Bank to advertise its new climate change-focussed investment funds. For instance, Funk observed at one of these events held in New York “Deutsche Bank-branded ice sculptures, models dressed as snow bunnies, bottled water from Iceland, faux snow blown down from the roof of a Versace store, thirty tons of more realistic snow created by a wood chipper and a freezer truck full of ice blocks, and two pro snowboarders who would later complain that nobody has built them a proper jump” (p. 2). Funk swiftly moves to a discussion with Deutche Bank’s chief climate strategist who told him that he read the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth study as a schoolboy and this influenced his recent move into climate strategy. This style of detailed observation, anecdotes and occasional dark humour is maintained throughout.
One implicit theme of the book is betting on failure. Or as Funk puts it: “the warmer the world … the bigger the windfall” (p. 3), such as if your firm benefits from a warmer world (e.g. by being better able to access natural resources) or provides services that help to manage climate impacts.
The first part of the book, “The Melt”, focusses on the consequences of melting ice sheets and glaciers. Chapters address the opening up of the Northwest Passage, territorial claims and increasing plays to explore the Arctic for oil and expand oil production; new mining and other natural resource opportunities in Greenland – which have emerged due to climate change – and the Greenland independence movement; and the melting European Alps, fake snow industry and development of more sophisticated indoor skiing facilities and even indoor snowboarding tournaments. Funk also reports on Israeli engineers developing new water production technologies.
The second part, “The Drought”, discusses changes to the planet’s hydrology, rainfall patterns and fire risk. A fascinating chapter documents the growth of private firefighting units in California which are hired by insurance firms to protect the homes of the wealthy from wildfires and, on the evidence presented at least, are no substitute for existing firefighting services. The next chapter discusses moves by finance firms into the water sector, such as water-focussed hedge funds and water rights plays. The two following chapters focus on Africa, detailing farmland “grabs” in South Sudan (with climate change pushing farming to higher latitudes) and efforts to limit desertification.
The final part, “The Deluge”, addresses future rising sea levels, surging rivers and related issues such as storm surges and flooding. The Chapter on the ‘Great Wall of India’ details India’s efforts to build the world’s biggest border fence to keep out Bangladeshis, which is a boon for construction firms. The impact of rising sea levels on migration, cities, and low lying islands is explored. This chapter introduces a new breed of Dutch entrepreneur selling seawall, artificial island, and new floating infrastructure solutions. The final two chapters deal with emerging technologies – genetically modified mosquitoes that have been specifically engineered to address dengue fever (the yellow-fever mosquito is the primary carrier), and another looking at the patenting of geoengineering concepts.
In the epilogue, “Magical Thinking”, Funk suggests that the most magical assumption is that “our growing belief in climate change will lead to a real effort to stop it” (p. 285). He writes:
“as I discovered in Canada and Greenland and Sudan and Seattle and all over the globe, that is not automatically true. We are noting that in this new world, there is new oil to find. There is new cropland to farm. There are new machines to be built…” (p. 285)
Some of the book reminded me of Naomi Klein’s book on “disaster capitalism”, in particular the chapters on private firefighting units for the rich and new opportunities for construction firms in erecting physical barriers to migration (e.g. the Great Wall of India). However, overall, Funk is more nuanced in his arguments and observations than Klein. For instance he writes that:
“There is something crass about profiting off disaster, certainly, but there is nothing fundamentally wrong with it. I did not write this book to take aim at honest businessmen like Mark Fulton [Deutsche Bank’s chief climate change strategist], Phil Heilberg [a libertarian former AIG staff member who is involved in farmland deals in central Africa], and Luke Alphey [a genetics professor turned entrepreneur who invented genetic technologies – new genetically modified mosquitoes – for controlling Dengue fever] or at good soldiers like Sergeant Strong and Minik Kleist. If they are vilified because readers have not fully grappled with the landscape in which they live, the landscape in which we all live, then I have failed to describe it well enough” (p. 288).
He goes on to observe that “the hardest truth about climate change is that it is not equally bad for everyone”, arguing that “environmental campaigners shy away from the fact that some people will see upsides to climate change” (p. 288) and arguing for greater recognition of these aspects.
One of the valuable aspects of this book is that it makes visible some important emerging trends, some of which are directly related to climate change and some of which are indirectly related or more peripheral. It vividly indicates both the adaptiveness of capitalism and points to some of the darker sides of capitalism particularly if it is inadequately regulated. It points to the importance of maintaining well-resourced public services in a warming world – a timely message.
However, Windfall doesn’t convincingly establish that global warming is a booming business. All the book really does is outline emerging signals of change which suggest that efforts to deal with the impacts of climate change could, in particular, be a booming business in the future.
Given that there appear to be few signals of the collapse of capitalism in the foreseeable future it is important to both observe emerging responses to climate change in capitalist economic systems and to consider how these could evolve in ways that either enhance or hamper efforts to mitigate climate risks. Although Windfall is limited in scope – being more the product of journalistic observation and reportage, than penetrating scholarly analysis – it is a very thought-provoking and worthwhile read.