Planetary Emergency: On green capitalism, the revolution of the last generation and the temptations of protectionist technocracy

On green capitalism, the revolution of the last generation and the temptations of protectionist technocracy

Climate change is taking an increasing toll. The natural disaster figures for 2022 are dominated by events that, according to the latest research findings, are more intense or are occurring more frequently. In some cases, both trends apply. Another alarming aspect we witness time and again is that natural disasters hit people in poorer countries especially hard.”

Thomas Blunck

Member of the Board of Management of Münchner Rückversicherungs-Gesellschaft, 2022,

Climate protection is only possible if we abolish capitalism.” Ulrike Herrmann 2022, 10f.

What worries me most is our inability to work together as a multilateral society in the face of this global crisis...We have a choice. Either we act together or we commit suicide together” António Guterres 2022, antonio-guterres-warns-against-collective-suicide-a-fa4b9ca3-b245-44ec-a73f-24866d284423

Planetary Emergency: On green capitalism, the revolution of the last generation and the temptations of protectionist technocracy

Our planetary predicament is by now largely common sense: politics and industry ignoring the Paris climate targets1, exploding armament figures and growing warlike conflicts over influence and resources, pandemics, inflation and imploding infrastructures (housing, education, health, old-age care), poverty in the global south and the rising numbers of people forced to migrate – all this and much more is what marks this multi-crisis.

As I write this text, fierce battles are taking place around Lützerath – a small village occupied by hundreds of activists who want to stop the energy company RWE from being allowed to dig it away after all, following a Brown New Deal with the red-green-yellow government, in order to unlock volumes of coal that are not2 needed. It is a mystery as to how the Paris target of 1.5 degrees, which is binding under international law, is to be met on this basis. The energy company RWE certainly also wants to remove Lützerath, which has been inhabited by activists for two years now,3 as a disruptive hotspot of the climate movement – yet after the violent eviction enforced by 1,500 police officers, Lützerath has at the same time become an international symbol in the fight against climate change and for the failure of politics. Just a short time before, the first report by the government-appointed council of climate change experts made clear that Germany – one of the largest consumers of CO2 – has again failed to meet its climate targets (ERK 2022; see also Agora Energiewende 2023). In view of these and similar developments, concern about climate change and doubts about the benefits of economic growth and capitalism, innovation and technology (solutionism) are growing. For example, the think tank Agora Energiewende writes: “Around four out of five Germans state that they are already feeling the effects of the climate crisis in their daily lives (79 percent, EIB 2022). A similarly large majority is concerned about the consequences of the climate crisis (78 percent, More In Common 2022a). In line with these results, an overwhelming majority of 82 percent of Germans see a great or very great need for action on climate protection (Infratest dimap 2022)” (Agora Energiewende 2022, 79). While mainstream media and conservative politicians attempt to criminalise the activists as ‘climate terrorists’.

Not least, the inability of politics to take appropriate climate protection measures once again reinforces the impression for many people that the (even rudimentary democratic) representation of their interests is not guaranteed4 – as is the case with many other issues: from old-age provision, peace, poverty, the health system, etc. This doubt is growing not least in the face of an increasingly populist and aggressive (post-)democracy with tendencies towards autocracy, polarisation and uniformity of opinion. Just think of the criticism of so-called ‘covidiots’ and ‘Putin-enthusiasts’ – and now of ‘climate terrorists’: people who dare not to follow the (media) majority opinion in a democracy, who develop other forms of community in solidarity and demand compliance with internationally binding5 goals through non-violent civil resistance. It is more than a crisis of parliamentarism when a technically highly equipped state takes action against these climate activists with ever tighter police laws in order to protect the profit interests of the energy companies and ignore the Paris targets.6

There is a right gluing in the wrong’7 (Peng! 2022)

And some hope can be found in that more and more people around the world are opposing governments and demanding immediate action to meet climate targets in order to prevent the climate tipping points from being breached. For many, this is about a comprehensive social, economic and ecological transformation that should be more than green(-washed) capitalism. In other words: ‘System Change Not Climate Change’. For many people, it is becoming increasingly clear that the immanent growth logic of capitalism8 – together with the exploitative, patriarchal and racist power relations associated with it – is one of the most main causes of the climate catastrophe.9 Especially with a view to the global south, there are increasingly frequent calls for transitional justice10 for those who emit little CO2 but suffer most from climate change.

Yet politicians continue to rely on the so-called Green New Deal – ultimately on the continuation of business as usual with the help of green hydrogen, vague hopes for nuclear fusion and as yet non-existent good storage solutions for solar and wind energy. Business and conservative politics predict a rapid solution to these problems, of course. In the 1970s and 80s, too, they promised an early solution for the safe storage of nuclear waste. We’re still waiting for it today.

1.5 degrees, the end of the history of progress – and a new revolution?

Unlike in the 1970s, today our faith in progress and technology is fragile. Trust in a purely technocratic solution to political and ecological questions has vanished, not least in view of the accelerating ‘risk society’ (Beck) with its nuclear catastrophes – from Chernobyl, Sellafield and Fukushima through to the Ukrainian nuclear power plants as targets, the devastating consequences of uranium mining in countries such as Kazakhstan or Niger. But for many critics, the fight for the 1.5 degree target is also associated with the hope for a way of life that is in solidarity with people and nature: ‘We are experiencing a revolution for life. For almost ten years now, a new type of protest has been emerging. This protest is neither a revival of the social revolutions of a good hundred years ago nor just a continuation of the civil rights movements that lasted for over fifty years. The new forms of resistance start from a mobilisation for lives that are acutely threatened and fight for the prospect of shared lives granted in common and organised in solidarity.’ (Redecker 2020, 10f.)

But (how) will we manage this transition from a profit-oriented capitalism – which can count humans and nature only as resources – to new forms of international cooperation that facilitate a radical transformation of the fossil-fuel-driven ways of life and work of the global north, the radical reduction of greenhouse gases, a fair and solidarity-based economy and a decent and dignified life for all?

Ulrike Herrmann, journalist and qualified business economist, is rightly critical: “In the climate debate it is constantly suggested that we already have the solution and that only the political will is lacking. But in fact, so far there is no concept of how to end capitalism peacefully.” (Herrmann 2022, 14f.) After her tour de force through the history of capitalism in her book ‘Das Ende des Kapitalismus’, she proposes a model that, in her opinion, was the only one suitable for this radical restructuring because it had already proven itself once historically: the English War Economy of 1939-1945. Faced with the threat of Nazi Germany, England had to build up an extensive war industry at lightning speed, with the utmost effort. This was achieved through a state-directed planned economy. Industry was not privatised, but the state specified what was to be produced. Consumption of the basics of life was rationed then – and should be rationed today – for all people equally – to free up resources for the desired goal and to make a united effort possible, because “climate protection only has a chance if everyone is equally burdened.” (Herrmann 2022, 249) Which would currently mean: “each inhabitant of the Earth should not emit more than one tonne of CO2. Nevertheless, there would be plenty of room for Malawi to develop, because its inhabitants currently emit an average of only 100 kilograms of carbon dioxide per year. The global north would have to do without – and there above all the wealthy” (Herrmann 2022, 249) – who are now no longer allowed to consume 117 tonnes of CO2. But Herrmann also reassures us: there would still be holidays, restaurant visits, smartphones and books – but just no air travel, individual transport or excessive meat consumption (Herrmann 2022, 250).
A far more conservative model for achieving the climate goals to break “with the self-purpose of capital accumulation” (Staab 2022, 197) is proposed by sociologist Philipp Staab. He recommends a cybernetic-state or ‘protective technocracy’ (Staab 2022, 178ff). For him, the “possibilities of mastering the corresponding problems through further democratisation” (Staab 2022, 178) are limited and he argues for a “strategic depoliticisation of certain questions and areas” (Staab 2022, 180). For him, it is about “new technology- and expertise-supported governance formats (...). Digital control technologies ... [are intended to make] it possible to assess and process complex danger situations ... and thus ultimately hold out the prospect of new modes of social coordination (...) ...” (Staab 2022, 182f.) Artificial intelligences – data-based algorithms – are intended to support human decision-makers – and replace them in the long term. Even if accidents and losses of freedom will occur in the process (Staab 2022, 184), in this way the “depoliticised management of social self-preservation” (ibid.) and a relief from heroic self- and world-shaping beyond old progress narratives would be possible.
Given the impressive social and political power of the young climate activists, I am surprised to see an old cybernetic fantasy of omnipotence like the Chilean Cybersyn project being taken out of the mothballs of technological history in order to solve our current problems. Algorithms are not – as claimed here – ‘self-initiated’. They can be tuned for optimisation, but that is something else. Danger assessments by algorithms do not configure themselves. There is a broad body of research in science & technology, critical data and algorithm studies
11 that has for a long time now not only indicated that specific values and worldviews are inscribed in technology. And that algorithms often exhibit a systematic bias – which is something different from an accident, i.e. a single error, which can then lead to an arbitrary loss of freedom. For many areas (justice, evaluation, credit score, etc.) there are not only numerous examples of systematic exclusion of women, PoC, but also of the production of inequality because important questions such as those about social power relations were not asked, the decisive parameters were set incorrectly, contextuality was disregarded and responsibility was not a central criterion in the design of the algorithms.12

But what is possibly of greater importance: it is major high-tech companies that are having many of these algorithms written / modelled on the basis of their specific interests, and it is so far primarily white young male people with corresponding specific worldviews and interests who have been formulating these algorithms. And we have huge data corpora that have been co-configured by these algorithms. Try typing the term ‘CEO’ into an image search engine: you will see almost exclusively men. The algorithm might then make its predictive recommendations on this basis.

We do not need ready-made algorithms that ‘learn themselves’, but a truly democratically secured decision on how we can and want to achieve the Paris goals. And the current development teaches us once again that you cannot simply let governments decide top-down, or self-learning algorithms. It is certainly not easy to find solutions here – however, the attempts of young climate activists to find new forms of solidarity, shared, careful living and cooperative decision-making should be an impetus to develop other models for real democracy. And precisely because we have little time, we have every reason to be open to new things. Ulrike Herrmann’s suggestion that we take our cue from the British wartime economy in the early 1940s may be a useful basis for now. But it also seems logical to me that its implementation will only succeed if we involve as many people as possible in the process and do not leave the job primarily up to the algorithms. The “governmentality that we term automated management” (Kitchin/Dodge 2011, 85f) is a central part of our problem – and not the solution.

Agora Energiewende (2023): Die Energiewende in Deutschland: Stand der Dinge 2022. Review of the main developments and outlook for 2023.

AlgorithmWatch and Bertelsmann Stiftung (2020) Automating Society Report 2020. Available at:

Balayn Agathe / Gürses Seda (2021) Beyond Debiasing: Regulating AI and its inequalities.

Blasberg, Anita (2022): Der Verlust. Warum nicht nur meiner Mutter das Vertrauen in unser Land abhanden kam. Frankfurt a.M.

Blunck, Thomas: Climate change and La Niña drive natural disaster losses 2022;

boyd danah / Crawford, Kate (2012) Critical Questions for Big Data. Information, Communication & Society 15(5). 662-679.

Grisard, Manuel (2022): Tagebau Garzweiler. In allen Szenarien wird die Kohle unter Lützerath nicht benötigt. In: luetzerath-nicht-benoetigt/

Expertenrat für Klimafragen (2022): Zweijahresgutachten 2022. Gutachten zu bisherigen Entwicklungen der Treibhausgasemissionen, Trends der Jahresemissionsmengen und Wirksamkeit von Maßnahmen (gemäß § 12 Abs. 4 Bundes-Klimaschutzgesetz). Hg. v. Expertenrat für Klimafragen (ERK). Online verfügbar unter:

Herrmann, Ulrike (2022) Das Ende des Kapitalismus. Köln

Kitchin, Rob / Dodge, Martin (2011): Code/Space. Software and Everyday Life. Cambridge / London

Moore, Jason W. (2019) Kapitalismus im Lebensnetz: Ökologie und die Akkumulation des Kapitals. Berlin

Peng!-Kollektiv (2022): Es gibt ein richtiges Kleben im Falschen. letzten-generation/

Staab, Philipp (2022): Anpassung. Leitmotiv der nächsten Gesellschaft. Berlin

Suchman, Lucy (1987): Situated Plans and Actions. The problem of human machine communication. Cambridge/New York

Taube, Magdalena (2022): Der ökologisch-ökonomische Komplex, grüner Kapitalismus und Übergangsgerechtigkeit; kapitalismus-und-uebergangsgerechtigkeit/

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) (2016): Paris Agreement.

von Redecker, Eva (2020): Revolution für das Leben. Philosophie der neuen Protestformen. Frankfurt

Weber, Jutta / Prietl, Bianca (2021): Artificial Intelligence in the Age of Technoscience. In: Anthony Elliott (ed.): Routledge Social Science Handbook of Artificial Intelligence. New York/London, 58-73

1 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change 2016

2 Grisard 2022

3 Ibid.

4 See, among others, Blasberg 2022 and the narrative interviews of students in Staab 2022.

5 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change 2016

6 Grisard 2022

7 Peng! collective 2022

8 See, among others, Moore 2019, Herrmann 2022

9 See, among others, von Redecker 2020, Moore 2019

10 This means “combining demands for a just transition with demands for environmental justice” (Taube 2022).

11 See, among others, boyd / Crawford 2012, Kitchin/Dodge 2011, Weber/ Prietl 2021, Suchman 1986

12 see, among others, AlgorithmWatch et al. 2020, Balayn et al. 2021, Weber/Prietl 2021