Plurality logo

to support independent and ad-free ecological thinking

4 ways to think about the economy

to support independent and ad-free ecological thinking

Big questions: Economics

What actually happens in the economy? And how do our representations of the economy influence the way we try to solve the problems that we have identified? Are there alternatives to this dominant neoliberal paradigm, which isn’t working? These key questions will be answered here.

New Zealanders have just elected a new Government for the next three years, led by the National Party. As Toby Boraman remarked on The Conversation and RNZ, “Labour out, National in – either way, neoliberalism wins again.” The orthodox and dominant economic thinking in New Zealand has for some time been neoliberalism. In 2021, Branko Marcetic wrote an article for the Jacobin entitled, “The New Zealand “Socialists” Who Govern Like Neoliberals” with exactly the same message: New Zealand’s political parties, and the economists that support them, might claim to wear different colours, but underneath they’re exactly the same.

This isn’t the case everywhere in the world, although dominant economic, scientific, and technical thinking is becoming more prevalent in many countries. Markets, competition, free trade, and cut backs vs spending are not the only way to look at the economy. Nor are they the only instruments a government has at its disposal to respond in times of need.

Market exchange
Image: Grab on Unsplash

Liberal economists and financial markets

In 21st century western societies, economists are constantly making predictions and analysing the forces of the market, in order to determine what our lives will be like. You would be justified in thinking that these market forces, in particular the financial markets, are the direct determinants of the wellbeing of our citizens.

This is only partially the case. Whilst financial markets have become some sort of ruling deity for governments and businesses, where every decision is calculated so as to not displease these markets, they are not the only way to look at the relations between people in a society. I’m sure you’ve heard yourself referred to as a consumer, and those companies who make the things you buy as producers. You exchange money and goods with them inside a market, and this forms the basis of the relationships you have, besides those with your family members, as an adult in society. There are, however, other relationships going on, and other exchanges being made, which are also economic in nature, but which are not best carried out in this model of a free market.

New Zealand suffers from a hegemony of orthodox liberal market economists. All Finance Ministers believe almost the same things about the economy: as demonstrated by the two articles linked above. What differs is the extent to which they want to intervene through social subsidies and Government spending (and therefore in taxation, too). Left leaning parties tax to redistribute some of the wealth; right-leaning parties reduce taxes to let the market decide. But, the major players of the economy, the belief in the market, the possibility that the market will make corrections, and GDP as the holy-grail are common amongst all of these economists.

man trading on stock markets
Image: Adam Nowakowski on Unsplash

For many, many years, the Government has talked about poverty, illiteracy, a housing crisis… and none of these issues have been resolved. Looking at the child poverty statistics released by StatsNZ, many of the indicators have barely changed since 2007. This shows the limitations both of the economic instruments being used, and the representation that politicians and economists are using to understand the problem. As we will see, there is more than one way to look at the economy, and the exchange relations that are going on between people each and every day.

The ecological crisis is yet another crisis that will almost certainly bring our current economic system to its knees. Based on our collective ability to act in the face of current problems, which seems very limited, it is rational to be worried that we won’t be able to confront this crisis either. If we’ve been largely unsuccessful at responding to the social crises of the early 21st century, the ones coming up will be even worse, as it becomes harder to produce fruit and vegetables, more and more property is destroyed by climate disasters, and social relations and mental health decline further.

Image: The Daily Blog

The four representations

Gilles Raveaud, in his book Les Disputes des Economistes (the Disputes of Economists, 2013), refers to four main representations of the economy. These are:

  1. The market, for liberal economists
  2. The circuit of money flows, for Keynesian economists
  3. The place of power struggles, for Marxist economists
  4. A part of nature, subject to its limits, for ecological economists.

Each approach points towards a different way of looking at the economy. There are problems with each theory, there are benefits to each theory. But they are just that: theories that attempt to explain the world. The world in which we live constantly changes, so we cannot believe that one model will always be the true representation of reality. Raveaud’s analysis is particularly useful to see the differences between economic theories. The economic representations below synthesise his book.

You're reading an article on, a site dedicated to understanding the ecological crisis. All our articles are free, without advertising. To stay up to date with what we publish, enter your email address below.

Discover the economic representations below.

Liberal Economics

Liberal Economics

For liberal economists, all economic mechanisms such as labour, health, education, and welfare, are viewed as markets. The goal for these liberal economists is to increase competition within these markets, which will drive down prices and increase the quality of the goods and services provided. Government plays a small role, because the markets know how to regulate themselves.


Adam Smith, Scottish economist in the 18th century and author of “The Wealth of Nations,” believed that wealth was created through exchange. As individuals, we must sell our labour, in order to be able to buy the things that we need. We do so in a market for labour, just as there are markets for fruit and vegetables, meat, technological devices, and construction services. The market, for Smith, is a place of freedom, creativity, and autonomy for each person, and the market is like the social cement between individuals. Our social agreements are not based on emotions or tribal organisations, but rather on the free exchange of goods, services, and labour.

Sweet potato for sale. Image: Juno Jo on Unsplash

Markets are regulated, according to the liberal economists, by something called the price mechanism. The price of a particular good, for example one kilo of kumara, is determined through negotiations between buyers and sellers. If the price of kumara is set at $1 per kilo, everyone will want to buy some, and the supermarket will sell out by 11am. All the people in the afternoon will not be able to buy kumara. On the other hand, if kumara is $10 per kilo, there will still be some left at the end of the day, because only a few people wanted to buy it at that price. The seller sets the price, and the consumer responds, and in a movement like this, they find the best price where the greatest number of people can buy kumara at the highest price for the seller.


Is this price, established through ‘feedback’ between shoppers and the supermarkets, fair? Liberal economists would say yes. If the market determines that the price should be $7 per kilo, some people will miss out. These people are happy, according to liberal economists, because they preferred not to buy kumara – they made the choice not to. Everyone is content, because everyone made the choice of what they would buy, based on how much money they had to spend. But, this price is only fair if all the shoppers are there to negotiate with the kumara growers, which is never the case. Likewise, the shoppers must know about all the other supermarkets selling kumara, too, before making a fair choice. They might be selling it cheaper elsewhere, but we rarely shop around all the stores before deciding what to buy.


In good times, this price regulation seems alright: we get lower prices and better quality due to competition; people are all choosing what they want from an open and fair market. However, as we are feeling now with the 2023 cost of living crisis, and have felt for some time, in periods of crisis, people are not happy about the choices they are forced to make. Likewise, good and bad choices become polarised, especially in the case of markets for education and hospitals – some hospitals are labelled ‘good’, and others, ‘bad’ or ‘dangerous.’ In times of crisis, it is impossible to find the ideal point where shoppers and suppliers are happy, at the right price.

Keynesian Economics

Keynesian Economics

John Maynard Keynes realised that in times of crisis, the market could not work by itself to sort things out. During the Great Depression of the 1930’s, Keynes challenged the viewpoint which said that people selling their labour (workers) and people buying that labour (entrepreneurs) would end up balancing out such that all those people who wanted a job would have one. Instead, unsold goods and unemployed people are not the exception, but the norm of market economics. Left to its own devices, the market will self-destruct. Therefore, we need certain powers of direction for the market, so that it goes in the right direction.


Instead of looking at the economy in terms of markets, Keynes thinks it’s better to look at it like a circuit. In this circuit, money flows between people all the time. Money has no value of itself, but because we all believe in its value, money holds importance and meaning. When banks lend people money, despite the fact that they might only have $100 in their vault, they can lend around 10 times that much – $1000 – to someone wanting a loan. At no moment in this transaction is money actually used – the loan involves moving numbers from one ledger (that of the bank), to another (that of the borrower). This system works if there aren’t too many loans, and if not everyone wants their money at the same time.

Circular flow diagram. Image: United States Government on Wikicommons.

Entrepreneurs are rational people for Keynes, and it is their movement of money which constitutes the greatest activity in the economy. When entrepreneurs reduce their prices, they are able to sell more. But in order to keep lowering their prices, they either have to reduce their wages, or their profit margins. This leads to unemployment, and very easily, a negative spiral can start, where prices reduce, wages reduce, unemployment increases, and the market cannot find a solution.


Another actor is needed in order to correct this problem, according to Keynes. These actors take the form of institutions: either the government, or the central bank (the Reserve Bank in New Zealand). The central bank can change the interest rate, which will either increase or decrease spending. When money becomes more expensive, people spend less of it, and vice-versa. But, with this option, we can very easily end up with inflation: when the price of everything increases.


On the other hand, the Government can also act by spending money in the economy, in the form of construction projects, welfare payments, health and education, subsidies, and more. This money will then flow through the economy, and enable wages to increase again. However, there are leaks to this circuit of money that Keynes has imagined. Companies can choose to save the money they are given by the Government, instead of spending it. Some consumers will spend this money on goods from other countries, so the money leaves the country and is not seen again. This strategy also increases public debt, the amount of money that the Government has borrowed.


During the COVID crisis, these two strategies were used by the Government and the Reserve Bank to manipulate the economy, because the market by itself was not able to regulate itself. The Government spent a lot of money during the crisis, giving it mostly to businesses, so they could stay alive despite not trading. But, this spending led to inflation, as all the prices increased. As a result, the Reserve Bank increased the price of money, the interest rate, which meant that it became more expensive to borrow money, and spending will therefore decrease again. This decrease in spending, otherwise called inflationary pressure, is felt most severely by the lower and middle classes of the economy. It becomes noticeably more expensive to just buy basic goods, especially when wages are not increasing.


The problem with Keynesian policies is that they increase public debt, and they very often don’t work well unless there is a coordinated approach or strategy at a higher level, because of the leaks in the circuit. What we have seen, however, is that there are power imbalances in the economy which are not able to be addressed by the market, or by Keynesian institutions.

Marxist Economics

Marxist Economics

When the buyers and sellers have decided on a price for kumara, some people will miss out because the price is too high. Liberal economists justify this, saying that these people, on low incomes, are happy with not having any kumara, because they decided not to buy any. Karl Marx, a major thinker in 19th century political economy, and analyst of capitalism, argued that liberal economists are just justifying the impoverishment of low-income earners. Marx was a key thinker in the development of socialism, and what we know today as worker’s parties such as the Labour Party.


According the Marx, the economy is the place where power struggles play out. In the capitalist economy, a limited number of people own the means of production, which are the factories, office blocks, machines, agricultural land, etc. The rest of the population are workers who are forced to sell their labour to these few, in order to live their lives. Because there are always unemployed people on the labour market, wages very often do not increase: if a worker wants to be paid more, the company can fire them, and instead hire another person who is willing to be paid less. Wages are therefore fixed by the market, and not in terms of the value produced by a particular employee in their work.

Union protester
Image: Manny Becerra on Unsplash

The capitalist, the one who owns the means of production, buys the right to use the labour of a worker for a whole day, by paying them a wage. This work therefore belongs to the capitalist, and not to the person who did the work. For example, someone working as a data analyst does not own any of the data analysis that they do. This person spends their entire day producing things that will not belong to them. In this way, workers are exploited, because they are not able to obtain the value created by the work that they do. Instead, the company sells the data analysis and pockets the profits, for example.


Marx disagrees with Adam Smith, who we read about before. Smith believed that wealth was created through exchange, but Marx believed that it is violence that creates wealth. The domination of one person or resource by another is what leads to this person becoming rich. For example, it was through stealing land, slavery, and the expropriation of villagers that the British Empire was able to amass power and wealth in the 18th and 19th centuries.


The global economy is, according to this analysis, not to everyone’s advantage. What ends up happening is that some people control a lot of the machines, land and buildings necessary to produce goods and services, and these people are concentrated in wealthy countries like the United States. Multi-national companies like Apple, Toyota, Nestle, etc. capture most of the value added, and the workers, often in Asia, of these companies, see almost nothing of what the company rakes in when they sell their goods. The market is, for Marx, hierarchical and a place of domination, and not a place of freedom and expression as Smith believed.


For liberal economists, freedom is about being able to possess, to exchange, and to sell things. Democracy is therefore about being free to do these things in the market, without much intervention by a government or external actor. However, in a capitalist regime motivated by profits, socialists argue that there will be too many cars, robots, televisions and soft drinks, and not enough social housing, schools and hospitals. These public goods, such as health and education, need to be provided by the Government, so that all citizens are assured a quality education and healthcare regime, no matter their position or actions within the market.


In the early 21st century, many previously state-owned services were sold off to private buyers, with the idea that increased competition would improve the quality of services provided. However, this was often to the detriment to the employees of these companies, as well as services often being cut, reduced, or unreliable, such as what happened with the rail network in the United Kingdom. Sometimes, the private market suppliers collude – they make an agreement to keep prices high – and this is in their interests, rather than in the interests of the people consuming the service. This has been shown to be the case with electricity markets in Europe, with petrol markets, and more.


Today however, the market for goods and services is not the largest or most dominant economic market. That would be the financial market. In the 1970’s, the financial markets were opened, and currency exchanges were no longer made at fixed rates. Buying, selling, and lending on the financial markets increased dramatically. Whereas previously, paying people a salary meant that you were guaranteeing that they could buy your goods, now, this is no longer the case. Wages are a cost, rather than a guarantee of consumption, and therefore, they must be reduced as much as possible. The money that is used to buy things and to invest, in large part comes from these financial markets, and not from the sale of goods and services.


In the end, according to Marx, the exploitation of workers is what will cause the demise of capitalism. This is because the only way to make profits is through taking the added value of the work that employees perform. Value is created through labour, and exploiting this labour for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many. At a certain point, however, these workers can no longer buy the goods and services that they are busy producing, because they no longer have enough money for them: most of it is concentrated at the top. Capitalists can do nothing about this: they are forced, by competition, to keep making a profit, by reducing the prices and selling more, or by reducing the costs of production (the price of labour, the wages). This leads to overproduction, and so food and other goods are wasted and destroyed because they are not sold. People go hungry and starve, yet companies are overproducing the things they need to survive.


This situation, to Marx, is completely absurd. He believed, therefore, that capitalism is a very inefficient economic system, and should be replaced by something else, or strongly domesticated. If Smith believed in no intervention in the economy, and Keynes believed in some intervention, Marx believed in a lot of intervention, or just removing the whole system. Smith’s economy based on free association between people is criticised by Marx, instead believing that the economy is based on relationships of domination between people. Both economists believed that economic growth is a good thing, however.

Environmental Economics

Environmental Economics

However, as industrial economies began to produce more and more waste, and it became evident that human beings were having a strongly negative impact on their environment, the dogma of economic growth began to be brought into question. Karl Polyani was an environmental economist, and author of “The Great Transformation.” He saw the economy as a system of work embedded within nature and our environment. Polyani was against the idea that the economy should be organised or thought of in terms of markets and exchange relations. The idea that a market could regulate itself, and that prices would be established fairly by the market, was ludicrous.


The result of this market thinking is that all spheres of human life have been absorbed by market economics, replacing relationships of care and solidarity by the exchange of money for services offered. The exchange relation is the most risky and unstable, according to Polyani, because there is no underlying principle guiding behaviour. Each person is therefore pushed to fight for their own self, and becomes egotistical and self-interested.

Image: Shane Rounce on Unsplash

For Polyani, labour, land, and money are not goods that can be commodified and bought and sold in a market. Labour is just the work of human beings, land is that upon which human societies exist, and money is a creation of the central bank. None of these things were created to be sold in a market: they are the very fabric of the economy itself. Whereas Marx believed that the power struggle between the capitalists and the workers was the source of the problem and its solution, Polyani believes that it will be the recognition of the needs of the society and its relationships that will bring an end to the domination by exchange relations.


Exchange relations are not the only way of organising a society, according to Polyani. We also have relations based on reciprocity, and on redistribution. Reciprocity considers the other as equal to oneself, and therefore seeks to give in equal terms for what is taken. Redistribution requires a central authority which will take the resources from some people, and give them to others, so that each person is considered equal. Market-based relations treat human beings as instruments, as a means to obtain what one wants, rather than having a value in themselves. The solution, therefore, is to restrict or reduce the exchange relations that we have in our lives.


The dogma of economic growth is another aspect of economic thinking which Polyani strongly criticises. Whilst strong economic growth led to huge gains in the standard of living for many Western countries, this growth also created major social and environmental problems. These include pollution, reduction in working conditions, people becoming more individualised and an increase in violence, the production of useless and quickly obsolete goods, advertising everywhere, without limits, and more. Economic growth is measured in terms of the increase in GDP, the gross domestic product, which is the sum of the value of all the goods and services produced in a country within a certain time period. However, this measure doesn’t take into account the social and volunteer work that produces value, nor does it account for the environmental impacts of economic activity. GDP also isn’t able to measure inequalities in a society, yet takes into account ‘bad’ activities – GDP increases when more people are buying paracetamol, whether they really need this or not. It is therefore severely limited in what it can measure. Using a very limited measure of value as the single most important determinant of the ‘health’ of the economy, is, therefore, quite restrictive.


Despite this, most economists today, liberal economists, are searching for continuous economic growth, believing that this will lead to better lives for all people. In fact, GDP increases produce greater satisfaction up to a point, at which happiness no longer increases in the same way, despite increasing GDP. The United Nation’s World Happiness Report demonstrates this. You can read more about how happiness is challenging GDP as a measure of health in this article on The Conversation.


Nicolas Georgescu-Roegen, a 20th century economist and mathematician, believed that economic value was not created through markets or exchange, or even through labour, but through the natural resources which are taken and transformed. The current economic system takes natural resources with value, and spits out waste, with no value. Using the laws of thermodynamics, Georgescu-Rogen explains how humanity, and the economy as the transformation of natural resources, cannot continue to grow infinitely. Endless economic growth is not possible, with the materials and resources we have on earth. He points out that it is as if human beings decided to have a brief but exciting existence on planet Earth: each car we produce means fewer human lives will be possible in the future.


There is another type of economy which environmental economists propose. One part of this involves ‘de-growth,’ which is the idea that we must shrink the economic action occurring in the economy, or at least, no longer care about the idea of growth. Tim Jackson is a British economist who promotes this idea. Another pillar is a kind of “Green New Deal” which proposes government investment in renovating and insulating housing, converting fossil fuel electricity to renewables, developing public transport, sustainable agriculture, and more.


Finally, growing the social economy, or social enterprise, is another part of the solutions these economists propose. This means more people will have jobs that are meaningful, in which the value that they produce goes directly to people who need it, and each person in the value creation chain is valued equally. This social economy is not founded on the principle of competition, rather it is based on cooperation between self-organised individuals.

Explaining crisis

To review these theories, let’s think briefly about what they say about how crises come about.

According to liberal economists, intervention in the market is what causes problems. This is what ACT and National have been telling us for some time: the Government itself is the problem, it’s intervening where it should not which is causing problems.

The Keynesians and Marxists would say that this is not the case. In fact, the market economy is essentially unstable. Marxists want to control, regulate, or abolish financial markets, to solve these problems. Keynesians point towards making investments in the society to correct this instability.  

The environmental economists point to the instability and unsustainability of the current model of extraction and economic growth. It is this that causes crises: increases in the price of necessities such as petrol, food and housing make it more difficult for people to live. These increases are written into the code of the current economic order, and are therefore inevitable. Like the Marxists, we must change our economic system if we are to solve the problem.

Image: Towfiqu barbhuiya on Unsplash

To conclude...

Environmental economics is a field of study which is not widely accepted yet. Concepts like degrowth and a Green New Deal are not mainstream ideas, but remain with a few thinkers and economists, mostly in Europe and the United States.

New Zealand economists consist almost entirely of liberal economists, who believe that markets can and should run themselves. Neoliberal thinking is that which accepts some role of the state in providing certain services, and in arranging conditions of competition such that the market can operate. With this lack of economic diversity, it is easy to fall into the trap of these economists, and believe that the only solutions are the ones that they propose. Economics is not a science, but the use of human-generated representations in order to explain economic activity in societies.

As we have seen, there are other alternatives. There is also an enormous possibility to develop an environmental economics which rests upon principles from Tikanga Māori. The so-called “Māori economy” currently refers to economic activity carried out by Māori organisations, but if more Māori decided to become economists, and to develop their own representation of the flow of money and resources in the country, they could very easily develop their own economic theory.

Economic perspectives overview


Liberal Economics

Keynesian Economics

Marxist Economics

Environmental Economics

Main theorist

Adam Smith

John Maynard Keynes

Karl Marx

Karl Polyani, Nicolas Georgescu-Roegen

What is the economy?

The markets for goods and services

A circuit where money flows

The place of power struggles

Human activity embedded in nature

What produces value?

Exchanges of goods and services in the market

The flow of money through the circuit

Violence – domination/ exploitation of workers

Natural resources – land, plants, animals

Key problem to solve

Interventions which stop the market from self-regulating

The flows of money are not well distributed

Workers are dominated by capitalists and do not earn the value they produce

Market relations have commodified everything, and infinite growth is not possible


Make sure markets function by increasing competition and removing barriers

Intervene in the market with economic instruments – interest rate and govt spending

Abolish capitalism and allow workers to own means of production and receive value of their work

Develop the social economy, reinstate redistributive and reciprocal relations, degrowth, fix environmental problems and waste

Sharing knowledge is also a great gift.
Let others know about this article

It took more than 30 hours of research and writing to produce this article, which will always be open and free for everyone to read, without any advertising.

All our articles are freely accessible because we believe that everyone needs to be able to access to a source of coherent and easy to understand information on the ecological crisis. This challenge that confronts us all will only be properly addressed when we understand what the problems are and where they come from.

If you've learned something today, please consider donating, to help us produce more great articles and share this knowledge with a wider audience.


Our environment is more than a resource to be exploited. Human beings are not the ‘masters of nature,’ and cannot think they are managers of everything around them. Plurality is about finding a wealth of ideas to help us cope with the ecological crisis which we have to confront now, and in the coming decades. We all need to understand what is at stake, and create new ways of being in the world, new dreams for ourselves, that recognise this uncertain future.

Our network

On social media

We're part of the .eco network of organisations committed to support positive change for the planet.

Copyright © 2023


cartoon people planning construction

to support independent and ad-free ecological thinking


Shooting chemicals into the atmosphere to reflect the sun’s rays back into space, and adding them to clouds to make them brighter, are no longer part of our science-fiction imaginary. Geo-engineering, in its many forms, is gaining ground as a necessary and inevitable way to protect the earth and its inhabitants from the worst effects of climate change.

Geo-engineering is, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “A broad set of methods and technologies that aim to deliberately alter the climate system in order to alleviate the impacts of climate change..” Therefore, all the studies and research into ways that we can change the climate ourselves, to be protected from climate change, are projects of geo-engineering. This ranges from adding chemicals into clouds above the ocean to save the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, adding silver iodide into clouds on the Tibetan plain by the Chinese Government to modify rainfall patterns, carbon capture and storage systems in Iceland, and those researched in the UK and US (among many other countries), and at its most basic level, New Zealand’s planting of monoculture forests to capture carbon dioxide from the air.

cartoon people planning construction
Image: Vectorjuice on Freepik

Two forms of geo-engineering

There are two main ways of going about modifying the climate. Let’s call them the pump, and the thermostat.

water pump
Image: pch.vector on Freepik

The pump

The pump method refers to the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, in various ways. We try to pump the emissions that we have already created back into the ground, to store them there instead. This could be through ‘natural’ means like planting trees, or through technologies like Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). We do this to reduce the increasing concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere, which is one of the leading causes of climate change and the wider ecological crisis.

dial icon

The thermostat

The thermostat method tries to control the average temperature of the biosphere. Human activity is causing increasing temperatures in the atmosphere, which world governments have pledged to keep below an increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius. In order to reduce those temperatures, we can either make the earth’s surface shinier, so that the sun’s rays are reflected back into space, and are not absorbed by the ground here, or we can modify the atmosphere itself, so that it lets through less light from the sun, and therefore less heat energy.

The pros

There are many reasons why we might consider geo-engineering methods. If the world cannot reduce its carbon emissions before the worst effects are felt, which seems to be the case, it will need to find ways to protect life from the effects of these emissions. Geo-engineering is one way to buy us time to decarbonise, and achieve the net-zero targets that have been set. Another reason is that it is relatively cheap and easy to deploy some of these solutions, which, according to certain sectors in the economy, would be easier than decarbonising their industries. Geo-engineering also has support from a moral or ethical standpoint, with some people claiming we must do everything we can to stop the disastrous consequences of climate change. Major proponents of geo-engineering include Mark Zuckerberg (Meta), Bill Gates (Microsoft), and Elon Musk (Tesla, SpaceX, Twitter). Almost all researchers and funders of geo-engineering in the United States are white, middle-aged, and male.

The cons

Those who disagree with geo-engineering projects currently seem to outnumber those who are in favour of it, however there does appear to be some silent support among scientific, technical and economic communities. Arguments against geo-engineering point first and foremost to the risks involved in these projects. The ‘thermostat’ methods of geo-engineering could disrupt rainfall, including the Indian monsoon season, putting the lives of billions of people at risk. Furthermore, once you start injecting clouds or modifying the atmosphere, you cannot stop. Some models predict up to 800 years of continuous climate intervention to avoid a termination shock where world temperatures increase by around 4 degrees in 10 years, rather than 100 years. These projects require enormous amounts of energy, water, and in some cases mineral resources to run, which would have to be sustained through government changes, war, pandemic, and more. There is also no current way to regulate or govern the countries (and wealthy private individuals) who may start geo-engineering projects: anyone can, at present, add sulphur to the atmosphere, and this decision will impact not just one country, but the whole planet. Likewise, once one country begins, we may enter a war of the sky, where countries vie to control the modification of the atmosphere. Geo-engineering is also another reason for climate delay and inaction, allowing us to continue to emit and pollute. Solar geo-engineering would turn the sky white, having potential impacts on mental health worldwide. Finally, we don’t actually know what effect geo-engineering will have on a large scale: all we have are experiments and models. The side effects of any project, including carbon storage, could be much, much worse. Major detractors of geo-engineering include Andreas Malm (The Future is the Termination Shock), Naomi Klein (This Changes Everything), and Elizabeth Kolbert (Under a White Sky).

Image: translation from Socialter Special Issue on Geoengineering, Iss. 56, Feb-March 23

Who is geo-engineering?

Mark Zuckerberg supports a company attempting to genetically modify plants, such as rice, corn and wheat, so that they absorb more carbon dioxide (The Innovative Genomics Institute in San Francisco). Bill Gates supports the start-up Carbon Engineering, aiming to increase the amount of petrol extracted from wells through carbon capture and storage technology. Elon Musk’s foundation, XPrize, has allocated $100 million USD to the development of carbon capture technologies. The United States government in 2021 allocated $3.5 billion USD to create four hubs for carbon capture and storage. The Chinese government is involved in a project called the Celestial River, aiming to artificially increase the rainfall over the Tibetan plain. Governments in Australia, the UK, Thailand, France, India, United Arab Emirates, and Germany are also involved in geo-engineering projects and/or research at some level.

And New Zealand...

New Zealand is not currently involved in any technical geo-engineering projects, however natural geo-engineering is very much part of the country’s strategy. Using seaweed to sequester carbon is being researched and carried out. Likewise, planting trees (unfortunately usually monoculture forests) is a key part of the Government’s zero-carbon strategy for 2050, with the One Billion Trees Programme. The debate on geo-engineering in New Zealand seems to be almost dead, with the Government associating any mention of the word with conspiracy theory and false suggestions that storms such as Cyclone Gabrielle were man-made.

You're reading an article on, a site dedicated to understanding the ecological crisis. All our articles are free, without advertising. To stay up to date with what we publish, enter your email address below.

That's just the overview. Click on the topics below to learn more about geo-engineering.

Solar Radiation and Protection

Solar Radiation and Protection

Sweden’s Space Agency, along with backers and technicians from Harvard University in the United States, were preparing to launch the pilot project SCoPEx in the summer of 2021. This project would be one of the first experimental trials of solar radiation geo-engineering in the world. Until this point, researchers had only been able to use computer models to predict what might happen, and to design potential balloons to disperse aerosols into the stratosphere.

But, after protests from indigenous groups and climate activists, Sweden’s Space Agency called off the test, citing concerns over safety, and potential risks and hazards for the Earth’s atmosphere. Blocking the sun to fight climate change would have to remain a project within the computer models for some time to come.

SCoPEx project balloon

How does it work?

Solar radiation geo-engineering aims to inject aerosols into the upper part of the Earth’s atmosphere, the stratosphere, in order to block sunlight from reaching the Earth. Normally, a small amount of these compounds are found in the atmosphere, such as ozone, which protects the Earth’s inhabitants from excessive sunlight. By increasing the amount of these gases such as sulphur in the atmosphere, engineers hope to be able to stop the Earth from warming. This is because the radiation from the sun will be reflected back into space by the aerosols that we inject. The process is like a human-engineered, continuous volcanic eruption: when volcanoes erupt, they spew out large quantities of sulphur gases into the atmosphere. In 1991, Mt Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted, and 20 million tons of sulphur reduced global temperatures by 0.5 degrees Celsius for one year.

This is necessary because of the largely unsuccessful Kyoto Protocol, in which 147 parties, (governments), pledged to decrease emissions by individually agreed targets. We are already at 1.2 degrees of warming, and the Earth is projected to reach 1.5 degrees of warming by 2050, if not before.

The arguments

In 2006, Paul Crutzen, a scientist in Germany and the United States, published an article on stratospheric injections which broke the taboo on the topic amongst researchers. He argued that we needed to develop this technology, because it is a hugely effective way of reducing global temperatures almost immediately at relatively little cost. We needed solar radiation geo-engineering in our back pockets, if things go disastrously wrong, or if we are unable to decarbonise our economies in time. Geo-engineering is therefore the deus ex machina waiting in the wings, ready to save the planet when the time is right. It buys us time to decarbonise, and reinforces the fact that human beings are still the masters of their own destiny: innovation and technology will be able to save the day.

This position follows a technical and engineering logic: we have the technology available, we have the means, and it doesn’t cost too much, so why not develop it? Proponents believe that all technological means to fight climate change are good, if they are rationally used and controlled by world governments. Taking out 1-2% of sunlight would be enough to undo 2 centuries of fossil fuel combustion. The whole problem of climate change could go away, if we are able to design and operate this technical solution in a rational manner. And, according to David Keith in 2000, this whole process would be cheaper than climate mitigation and the reduction of emissions. $30 million USD would compensate one years’ global emissions. Proponents of solar geo-engineering now say that both emissions reductions and geo-engineering are necessary.

Andreas Malm, a Swedish researcher in climate and ecological politics, and a climate activist, wrote an article series in 2022 decrying the risks of solar radiation geo-engineering. The biggest risk with solar geo-engineering is what he terms “termination shock.” Once anyone in society – a business, a government, a wealthy private individual – starts putting aerosols into the atmosphere with the aim of reducing solar radiation on earth, the process must be continued or, theoretically, scaled down very slowly, otherwise the Earth’s temperatures will rebound incredibly quickly. To illustrate this, think about what happens when you try to fix a leak in a pipe under your kitchen sink. To stop water from going down into the pipe, you put the plug into the sink. Water builds up in the sink, but doesn’t flow down into the pipe, so you can fix it. It looks like there’s no leak any more, because you have stopped the flow of water. But, if for whatever reason, the plug is removed, dislodged, or faulty, lots of water will flow out into the pipes, making the leak worse. The same thing happens with the aerosols in the atmosphere. We can pretend that there is no longer any global warming, all the while increasing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. When we stop injecting aerosols, all of a sudden, the sun’s radiation would heat up the Earth by about 4 degrees in 10 years, rather than 100 years.

What reasons might cause us to stop or pause solar geo-engineering, once it was started? Another pandemic like COVID-19 might be cause to force people to stay home for months, meaning the operators and engineers of this technology couldn’t go to work, fix problems, and operate the planes or balloons that inject the aerosols. The workers could go on strike over low pay and high-risk conditions, or they could object to the risks or potential damage their job was doing to the world. China and the United States could begin a war to control the skies, each wishing to be the one determining how much of the aerosols were pumped out, and therefore how many tonnes of CO2 they could continue to emit. A rogue state could decide they wanted more, and start their own programme, meaning that the official programme of geo-engineering would need to immediately be scaled back, otherwise we could completely block out all sun light, and all living beings would die. There are numerous possible scenarios which would mean that this geo-engineering project would stop, and the effects of the termination shock would make themselves felt.

As a result of the termination shock, Malm says it would be like opening the door to a furnace on Earth. No species would be able to adapt itself to radical temperature increases in such as short space of time. Smith compares solar geo-engineering to morphine – it’s incredibly addictive, and once begun, it’s hard to stop.

Further, the modelling shows that solar geo-engineering would disrupt current climate systems, meaning the possible end to the Indian monsoon season, affecting the possibility of life for more than 2 billion people. The Earth’s overall climate would become more even – the tropics would overcool, and the poles would over-heat, according to the models. Some researchers, such as Holly Jean Buck, argue that this is a tool for equality and peace – if we all have the same climate conditions, how can we complain? I’m not entirely sure we would find anyone in the tropics who thought that their inequality with the West could be fixed by making the weather patterns of their region more like the United States and Europe…

Those who argue for solar geo-engineering make a big assumption, which Malm points out. They assume that the technology will be rolled out and managed in a rational, controlled, and pre-determined manner, and that it will remain this way for the up to 800 years of solar radiation blocking necessary to cool the Earth. But, if the world was rationally run, we would not need geo-engineering in the first place. The threats of global ecosystem collapse from the 1970’s would have been heeded, our economies decarbonised, and crisis avoided, well before getting to the point of needed to engineer the climate. Someone, somewhere, must steer the planet from harm just at the right time, with the right amount of action.

Would the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) be able to do that? Or perhaps the United Nations? Or the United States Government? Let’s ask another question: do states currently listen to and follow the directives of the IPCC? No, because again, if they did, emissions would be radically declining and we would not have crossed six of the nine planetary boundaries. We cannot expect such things to happen if we start geo-engineering, either.

Other risks include the fact that the sky will turn a milky-white colour, for the duration of the programme; disrupted climate systems across the globe; potential crop losses as a result of reduced sunlight for plants to grow; collapse of the rain systems across the globe; solar power plants producing less electricity; ozone depletion; air pollution and therefore human health consequences; more acid rain; the coagulation of sulphates in the atmosphere, and more. What’s more, climbing temperatures is one of the major reasons currently to decarbonise, and by masking this problem, we could lull ourselves into thinking that further carbon emissions are acceptable.

These effects sound just as bad, if not worse, than the effects of the climate change and global warming that solar radiation geoengineering is attempting to solve. It would seem the only rational question is, “why not just reduce our emissions?” It is a safe and effective way of responding to climate change. If done well, it will reduce inequalities, improve mental health, reduce waste, reduce habitat and species loss, and more.

Carbon Capture and Storage

Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)

The United Kingdom company Drax is promising to be part of a sustainable energy revolution in the UK. Instead of burning coal, Drax has reconverted its factories to burn biomass instead. Biomass is a fancy word for wood chips. Through a legal loophole, by burning wood instead of coal the company avoids its emissions being counted as part of the national emissions total. The UK, through Drax’s power, can reduce its emissions without actually reducing them.

Drax claims that their wood chips are sustainably sourced from offcuts and sawdust in wood factories. This, however, as the New York Times has investigated, is not the case. Drax cuts down forests in the United States and Canada, some of which are primary growth forests (those that have never before been cut down for human use), and ships the trees to the United Kingdom to be burned at their plants. Drax are also researching Biomass Energy Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS), so that the carbon dioxide released from burning the wood chips is captured and stored in the earth, rather than released into the atmosphere. They hope to build two power stations by 2030, each capable of removing 8 million tonnes of CO2 per year. That’s equal to 1.6% of the UK’s national yearly emissions. As yet, however, despite calling their enterprise sustainable, they continue to cut down trees and burn them, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

This is just one example of how carbon capture and storage is being used in conjunction with other supposedly sustainable methods of energy generation to “reduce” carbon emissions in the world’s largest economies. The largest project of carbon storage is the Orca factory in Iceland, run by the Swiss company Climeworks. The factory currently occupies 1,700m2 of land, filled with fans to capture the carbon dioxide in the air. The gas is liquefied then stored one kilometre underground in basalt rock. The cost of this project sits at $15 million USD, and the factory currently sucks out 4,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year. That’s equivalent to three seconds of global emissions. Climeworks want to capture 1% of world emissions by 2025. Based on current progress, the dreams of millions of tonnes of CO2 being sequestered every year seem very, very far off.

Carbon turbines plant

How does it work?

There are two main methods of removing carbon: collecting carbon dioxide directly from chimneys (Carbon Capture and Storage, CCS), or sucking the gas out of the air (Direct Air Capture, DAC).

Capturing carbon directly from chimneys involves attaching a capturing device to the infrastructure already present, such as the wood burning factories of Drax in the UK. Then, the carbon dioxide is compressed, and needs to be stored somewhere deep in the earth where it is not going to be released.

Capturing carbon from the air involved hundreds of huge turbines, sucking in air and capturing the carbon dioxide as the air passes through. These turbines are constructed in an industrial cooling tower, which pumps water around to stop them from overheating. The carbon dioxide in the air is converted into potassium carbonate, through a reaction with potassium hydroxide sitting on thin plastic sheets within the turbines. These pellets of chemical salt undergo further chemical reactions to produce pure carbon dioxide.

Carbon Capture Plant diagram

Today, this technology is primarily used by petroleum companies. They extract carbon dioxide from the air, in order to pump it back into the oil wells and force the oil to the surface. They use the emissions of burning fossil fuels in order to extract more fossil fuels…

In a trial in Iceland with the first carbon being injected into the ground, the researchers on the CarbFix project realised that micro-organisms in the rocks were feeding on the carbon dioxide being injected, meaning that injection possibilities were considerably reduced. Now, instead of injecting the CO2 at 100 degrees Celsius, it’s injected at 250 degrees Celsius, killing off all microbes, and potential microorganisms in the rocks. It’s estimated that 60% of species living 1km into the earth’s surface are still unknown to humans, but this has not been factored into the plans or risks involved, as noted by those who are using the technology.

Another, more ‘natural’ method of carbon sequestration, is through using trees and other plants. New Zealand, like some other countries, has committed to planting 1 billion trees by 2028. When plants grow, they use the carbon dioxide in the air to make the organic molecules they need. These molecules of glucose are stored in the plant. The water that the plant absorbs is also taken up and converted into oxygen, which the plant releases. This process is called photosynthesis, which is part of the Earth’s carbon cycle. Therefore, trees such as the radiata pine tree are often used to capture and store carbon, because they require carbon dioxide to grow, therefore taking it out of the atmosphere. Often, the trees planted are not native trees to the area, and are planted with the idea that they will be cut down eventually. This means that we are not creating biodiverse native forests with habitats for other species; rather, we are engineering a human ‘forest’ for the sole purpose of sucking out carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

All other plants do this too – corn, wheat, and soy for example. Mark Zuckerberg supports research by the Innovative Genomics Institute, exploring how to genetically modify these crops, so that they absorb more carbon dioxide from the air: they want to make the process of photosynthesis go faster, and occur in greater quantities in the same plant. This gene-editing technology is called CRISPR, developed by Nobel prize winner Jennifer Doudna.

Using trees to suck up carbon

Image: United States Department of Agriculture

Using seaweed and the ocean

Kelp carbon cycle

The ocean is another large storehouse of carbon on the planet. So much so that the IPCC has written a paper in their 6th cycle of reporting on Ocean Carbon Storage. According to them, over the past 200 years the oceans have taken up 500Gt of CO2, whilst humanity has emitted 1,300Gt of emissions in the same period. Not all carbon dioxide goes into the atmosphere, therefore: quite a large proportion of it ends up in the ocean. Carbon dioxide can be injected into the ocean, or we can use plants such as kelp (seaweed) to the same effect. New Zealand firm Blue Carbon is researching this method, and hopes to more effective at sequestering carbon than its land-based alternative. A trial in South Korea showed that for one hectare of algae, 10 tonnes of CO2 were captured, per year. That’s an almost insignificant amount, less than the average emissions of one New Zealander in a year.

By adding fertilisers such as iron and nitrates into the ocean, we can encourage seaweed to grow faster, taking up more carbon dioxide. There are, once again, several risks with this method, including the destruction of all marine life through the de-oxygenation of areas of the ocean. Ocean acidification, warmer oceans, and disrupted current flows are also possible consequences. It is, however, possible for this process to occur somewhat naturally – that would involve returning sea life to pre-industrial levels (sustainable fisheries, elimination of ocean pollution, reduction of ocean acidification, and more).

The arguments

The arguments for Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), Direct Air Capture (DAC), and carbon sequestration through land or sea are very similar to the arguments in the case of solar radiation. We need more time to be able to decarbonise our economies; we have the technology available, so we should pour money into researching ways to make it commercially viable; and the fact that we should be fighting climate change “by any means necessary.” Geo-engineering projects allow Western societies to keep the status-quo lifestyle intact, and not make major changes to their dominant way of life and values. By allowing us to overshoot the target of 1.5 degrees, it permits emissions to continue for longer than they would otherwise be able. This current generation in power will not have to deal with the reality of climate change.

Capturing carbon from the air and from chimneys is seen as a much less risky way of geo-engineering than solar radiation and protection. It doesn’t involve disturbing ecosystems and climate patterns in quite the same way as injecting aerosols into the stratosphere. There is no risk of termination shock – any and all carbon captured and stored is a net benefit to the planet and humanity, and any that remains will be the cause of global warming – which we are currently facing. No added consequences will be felt.

The problem with all these technologies is that they require large amounts of energy, materials such as rare earth metals, and water, to be able to run. Each CCS plant requires around 6km2 of land space, and 30km of air-sucking machinery. To remove 1 trillion tonnes of CO2 (we have emitted 1.3 trillion tonnes since industrial times) would require land twice the size of India, or the whole of the land mass of Australia. That means large amounts of land would need to be reconverted to carbon capture plants, throughout the world. Land that could be reforested, used for farming, or housing, would have large turbines installed to capture and collect the carbon. In terms of water use, to capture and store just the yearly emissions of the United States, 130 billion tonnes of water would be necessary, each year. Estimates for the costs of such endeavours could be up to $570 trillion USD this century.

The technology for carbon capture and storage is currently being used in large part by oil companies to increase the yields of their oil wells, by injecting carbon dioxide that they have captured from the air. CCS is a way to increase profitability from oil deposits where the oil is difficult to extract. It’s hard to see carbon capture and storage as something other than a profit-seeking initiative by the companies who engage in it. As will be discussed in more detail in the Carbon Markets section, the first company who can capture and store 1 tonne of carbon dioxide for less money than the price of one tonne of carbon on the carbon market, has themselves a way of making immense profits. Perhaps that is why it is often not governments investing in this technology, but private individuals such as Elon Musk and Bill Gates.

In the case of biofuels, and Biomass Energy Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS), growing large plantations of monoculture forests requires a very large amount of land. Were this to be taken up large-scale, land would be required both for agriculture and food, and energy. A fire, storm or flood that wipes out food crops and monoculture biomass forests would deprive a community of both electricity and food. Plants and animals that previously lived in areas devoted to monoculture forests would lose their habitat, and would be threatened with extinction. Even “marginal land” is not completely devoid of life. Further, if biofuel becomes more profitable to grow than food, there is nothing to protect people from farmers who convert their agricultural farms into forests to earn more, resulting in potential food shortages.

For the methods that use living organisms to sequester carbon, such as radiata pine trees on land and kelp in the oceans, these methods are not without their risks. All trees require time to sequester carbon from the air into the soil: this is not a process that happens immediately. Further, native biodiverse long-growth forests are much better in the long run at sequestering carbon than monoculture pine forests. They also support other living beings in diverse ecosystems, in a permanent way. If the land where these trees are grown is subsequently tilled or ploughed, much of the sequestered carbon will be released back into the atmosphere. The other oceanic option, growing kelp, risks massive de-oxygenation of areas of the sea, where it becomes impossible for any other marine life to live.

Money, Carbon Markets, and Investors

Money, Carbon Markets, and Investors

Why are world governments not funding geo-engineering projects at the same scale as private wealthy individuals? Who are the proponents of geo-engineering, and why are they advocating for it? Where is the money flowing, and who stands to benefit from geo-engineering projects? An important part of ecological analysis is to consider flows of capital, both material capital and money. Let’s dig into these questions.

More power, more money

Bill Gates has put $8 million USD into solar radiation management and direct carbon capture technologies. Elon Musk has allocated $100 million USD to carbon capture technologies. The Chan-Zuckerberg Foundation has given $11 million USD to genetically modify plants to increase their photosynthesis capabilities. Meanwhile, the United States Government in 2019 authorised only $4 million to be spent in geo-engineering research. In 2021, a 300-page report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine in the United States, “Reflecting Sunlight,” for the first time recommended a coordinated national research programme to explore geo-engineering possibilities. Governments and think tanks around the world seem to be showing little interest in geo-engineering. New Zealand’s Government seems scared of the very use of the word, associating anyone who talks about it with conspiracy theory. A look through the Official Information Act requests demonstrates this.

To think that people such as Gates and Musk are simply benevolent and compassionate human beings looking after the welfare of the rest of the planet would be quite naïve. Surely they cannot have realised the colossal destructive impact that their empires have had on this planet, and are now repenting by paying us back with the invention of technologies to save the world. If they really did recognise the threat, they certainly would not be taking private jets around the planet, and would probably have wound up their businesses with interests in fossil fuels (most of them).

More likely, therefore, is that they are proposing geo-engineering because it is a way for them to keep the capital – in the form of wealth and power – that they have accumulated through a capitalist economic structure. They have a direct interest in keeping this fossil-fuel dominated way of life alive: it brings them more money and means they are powerful people.

These elites will retain their power because geo-engineering enables them to mask the true effects of increased carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Without solar radiation reflecting light back, world temperatures will increase by more than 1.5 degrees in at most 20 years. With it, however, world temperatures can be kept at an acceptable level. “Climate change” can be averted, never mind the other consequences. Their dream of a techno-rational empire, where science and technology are able to solve all of the problems of humanity, is one step closer to proving itself as the only way forward. Such an empire, of course, will not be controlled by world governments or organisations, like the United Nations; rather, it will be owned and run by private enterprise: the enterprises of Musk and Gates.

Image: Financial Times UK

How will these wealthy individuals make money through geo-engineering the planet? The answer lies in the global carbon markets. In New Zealand, we have set up an emissions trading scheme (ETS) which puts a price on each tonne of carbon emitted. Companies can purchase the right to emit carbon into the atmosphere, and land owners or carbon extraction companies can sell credits to these companies, because they are storing carbon in the ground.

The first company or person who can store carbon for less money than it costs to emit one tonne of carbon enters into a very beneficial position: they can make others pay, through the carbon market, for them to store carbon in the ground, and make a profit.

For example, if it costs a company $100 to store 1 tonne of carbon in the ground, and the price of carbon on the carbon market is $200, for every tonne of carbon they store using their technology, they make 100%, or $100. A company with one plant that stores 8 million tonnes a year would, in this model, make $800 million a year.

The whole idea behind the carbon market is that the price of carbon will increase, so that net emissions will decrease. There is no future projection, in the long run, in which the price of carbon decreases, because that would mean more carbon emitted into the atmosphere, which is what the scheme is trying to regulate. It’s like investing in something with guaranteed returns.

Example: Make Sunsets

Make Sunsets, a start-up in the United States, is selling “cooling credits” at $17 USD each. These aren’t just for companies, but also individuals who want to invest in geo-engineering. Apparently, one cooling credit equals 1 gram of sulphur dioxide released, which will offset the warming effect of 1 ton of carbon dioxide for one year. This incredibly easy maths seems too easy to be true, and may in fact just be clever marketing more than accurate science. What’s more, individuals like you and me could offset our 15 tonne-per-year average emissions by paying $255 a year. Set and forget, monthly subscriptions are possible: the site looks just like any other online site where you could buy a coffee machine or a pair of shoes. We could just pay the money and wash all our sins away, and forget about any responsibility we have towards ecological destruction.

Their website’s FAQ has the following question: “I would like you to stop doing this.”

Their (quite arrogant) response is: “And we would like an equitable future with breathable air and no wet bulb events for generations to come. Convince us there’s a more feasible way to buy us the time to get there and we’ll stop. We’ll happily debate anyone on this, just confirm an audience of at least 200 people and we’ll find the time to try and convince you. 😉” As of May 2023, they have completed 20 flights for 96 customers. If they had $50 billion USD a year, they could offset the effects of all man-made emissions. They want more time for other people to do the work of decarbonisation, and because their actions are not regulated, they can deploy sulphur into the air, and make money from doing so. When the cooling credits were launched, they were $10 each in 2022. As time goes on, their cooling credits increase in price (now at $17), whilst the cost for deployment decreases as more people buy credits. Costs decrease, price increases, and the company makes a lot of money.

What they do not do, however, is take any responsibility for the consequences of their projects. They do not plan to donate any money to people affected by the deployment of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere. Such a thing is too hard to prove, and no research could be conducted (and likely wouldn’t be financed in the first place): was it global warming’s fault or Make Sunset’s fault? All responsibility lies outside the company, and externalities are recognised but financially and legally ignored.

Make Sunsets is just one part of a host of companies and individuals financing carbon removal and solar radiation projects. A similar bet is being placed by Drax in the UK: burning wood chips is carbon neutral. If they can store the carbon actually released from burning the chips, then they have a net carbon-negative business. As well as selling energy, they make money through selling carbon offsets on the carbon market. The more trees they burn, the more they can sell on the carbon market.

Make Sunsets logo
Make Sunsets website screen capture
Image: Make Sunsets website

The perpetrators of the problem are the ones that stand to benefit the most from geo-engineering projects. These companies are using investment money and promising returns on investment just like any other investment in Apple or Microsoft or SpaceX. The global carbon capture and storage market could reach $4 trillion USD by 2050, according to estimations by Exxon Mobil, a petroleum company.

In the end, investing in carbon capture technology is an investment in one’s own wealth, not in the future of the planet. Such an beneficial outcome for the planet is not even guaranteed, and comes with incredible risks: none of which will be paid for or recognised by the investors, who will have made their financial returns, and moved on to financing space villages, after destroying the climate system on planet Earth.

Further Reading
  • Kolbert, Elizabeth. (2022) Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future. Crown Publishing.
    Kolbert looks at the ways that human civilisation manages the environment, and the future of this management through geo-engineering.
  • Morton, Oliver. (2017) The Planet Remade: How Geoengineering Could Change the World. Princeton University Press.
    An account of the reasons for geoengineering to take place, and the necessity to continue researching this. The book explores the history, politics, and science of geoengineering.
  • Malm, Andreas. (2022) The Future Is the Termination Shock: On the Antinomies and Psychopathologies of Geoengineering. Part One and Part Two. In Historical Materialism 30.4, 3–53.
    Malm discusses the rational-optimist viewpoint towards the world in this article series. He strongly criticises geoengineering movements from all sides.
  • Science for the People. (2018). Summer Special Issue: Geoengineering.
    Science for the People break down all the viewpoints on geo-engineering in the United States context, with a variety of articles by different contributors on the topic.
  • New Zealand Productivity Commission. (2018) Low Emissions Economy.
    The Productivity Commission discuss the ways in which New Zealand can transition to a low emissions economy. Discussed here are natural means of geo-engineering, namely, reforestation and carbon capture through tree planting and carbon credits (ETS).
  • Official Information Act requests on geoengineering in New Zealand, on (here, question by Chris McCashin), shows the extent to which the Government deny any knowledge of or involvement with geoengineering. Also, in the comments on this page, you can see how a reasonable request is taken up by those supporting conspiracy and misinformation, who demand the Government be held to account for inaccurate responses.  

Sharing knowledge is also a great gift.
Let others know about this article

It took more than 60 hours of research and writing to produce this article, which will always be open and free for everyone to read, without any advertising.

All our articles are freely accessible because we believe that everyone needs to be able to access to a source of coherent and easy to understand information on the ecological crisis. This challenge that confronts us all will only be properly addressed when we understand what the problems are and where they come from.

If you've learned something today, please consider donating, to help us produce more great articles and share this knowledge with a wider audience.


Our environment is more than a resource to be exploited. Human beings are not the ‘masters of nature,’ and cannot think they are managers of everything around them. Plurality is about finding a wealth of ideas to help us cope with the ecological crisis which we have to confront now, and in the coming decades. We all need to understand what is at stake, and create new ways of being in the world, new dreams for ourselves, that recognise this uncertain future.

Our network

On social media

We're part of the .eco network of organisations committed to support positive change for the planet.

Copyright © 2023

What is deep ecology?

to support independent and ad-free ecological thinking

Jacques Lawinski

Jacques Lawinski

PhD candidate in philosophy and ecology at Université Paris VIII, visiting researcher in Lesvos, Greece. A writer, an activist, and an avid walker, I explore the planet and what it means to relate to nature, finding new, ecological ways of being.

Perspectives in political ecology series

The aim of this series of articles is to delve into the different perspectives in political ecology. It is absolutely not the case that there is only one way to address climate change. There are, in fact, many! More technology, carbon removal, and business as usual is but one way of confronting the crisis, and this approach misses the mark in so many ways. Read on to discover what deep ecology is, who its founders were, and whether we see many deep ecology movements amongst climate activists today.


The basic definition

The term deep ecology was coined by Arne Naess in 1973, with his article, “The Shallow and the Deep, Long-Range Ecology Movement. A summary.” Naess sought to point out the difference between certain ecological movements which viewed problems in silos, and believed that each could be treated with technical fixes and economic policies; and those which sought deeper systemic or structural change in spiritual and social systems.

Shallow ecology, therefore, is a particular approach to the ecological crisis which identifies particular problems, and proposes technological or instrumental solutions to these problems. For example, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a problem, and we can solve this through carbon capture technologies which will be developed to take the carbon out. We don’t look at the production systems that cause this carbon dioxide to be in the atmosphere, or the other, related problems. Many of the environmental policies that we see today from governments across the world take a shallow ecology approach to the crisis: we can keep going, and keep growing, we just need small modifications to stop the worst parts of our production and consumption.

Deep ecology, on the other hand, does take all these problems as being interconnected in one large web. For Naess, deep ecology also comes with certain commitments relating to the order and structure of beings in the world, and a certain ethical view, too.

The two main traits of deep ecology are the following:

  • A belief in the fundamental importance of self-realisation. This means that each human should be able to set and achieve their goals and develop themselves as they see fit in any society. Deep ecology extends this to include all living beings, too. Therefore, all bears, birds, fish, snakes, spiders, wasps and more, should be able to flourish on earth, all at the same time as humans are.
  • The belief that human beings are not at the centre of the universe (a rejection of anthropocentrism). Ecocentrism is the position that all forms of life are important because they are alive on this planet, and this gives them the rights to live in ways that allow them to flourish. All life forms, and a diversity of life forms, are valuable in their own right. This means that human beings are no longer the masters of nature, the possessors of nature, nor do they have any divine or supreme right to the use of natural resources. The idea that human beings are at the top of the evolutionary pyramid is arbitrary, and this view poses that there is a web, a net, or a fabric of relations, in which the human being is just one part.

Deep ecology says that the reason that we are going wrong is because we have badly evaluated the place that we as human beings occupy in nature. If we are to confront the challenges we face, we have to re-evaluate this, and change our perspective on who we are as human beings in, and with, nature.

Furthermore, Naess posits that a view of cooperation, rather than competition, should be had towards species in nature. He writes, “live and let live is much better than Either you or me.” He also notes that nature, and ecological systems, are complex, but not complicated. This implies a division of labour, not a fragmentation of labour in the way beings work together. Finally, Naess advocates for decentralisation and localisation, so that structures can be developed that reflect the local landscape and ecology in which the human beings live.

The leading theoreticians of deep ecology

Already mentioned is Arne Naess (1912-2009), who was a Norwegian philosopher and writer on environmental issues. He was the youngest person to be appointed full professor at the University of Oslo in 1939, and was the only philosophy professor in the country at the time. He also was a prolific mountaineer, and engaged in several protest actions throughout his life to prevent the destruction of the environment.

Naess created an 8-point platform upon which a deep ecology movement could be founded, with fellow American environmentalist George Sessions, in 1984. These eight points are:

  1. The well-being and flourishing of human and nonhuman life on Earth have value in themselves…. These values are independent of the usefulness of the nonhuman world for human purposes.
  2. Richness and diversity…contribute to the realization of these values and are also values in themselves.
  3. Humans have no right to reduce this richness and diversity except to satisfy vital needs.
  4. Present human interference with the nonhuman world is excessive, and the situation is rapidly worsening.
  5. The flourishing of human life and cultures is compatible with a substantial decrease of the human population. The flourishing of nonhuman life requires such a decrease.
  6. Policies must therefore be changed…[to] affect basic economic, technological, and ideological structures.…
  7. The ideological change is mainly that of appreciating life quality…rather than adhering to an increasingly higher standard of living.…
  8. Those who subscribe to the foregoing points have an obligation directly or indirectly to participate in the attempt to implement the necessary changes.

Warwick Fox (b. 1954), an Australian-British environmentalist and Professor at the University of Lancashire in the UK, is another key thinker in developing the deep ecology movement from the ethical point of view. For a decade beginning in 1984, he worked to primarily on deep ecology, before shifting away from this to consider environmental ethics more globally. “Toward a Transpersonal Ecology: Developing New Foundations for Environmentalism” is his main work on deep ecology, where he writes that deep ecology has three main ideas:

  1. The development of a non-anthropocentric or ecocentric worldview,
  2. The idea that we should ask deep questions about our relationship with the natural world, and what this means, and
  3. The importance of cultivating a wider relationship with different forms of life around us.

Aldo Leopold (1887-1948) was another key thinker, or source of inspiration for the deep ecology movement. He is often not cited as a deep ecologist, because of some key differences in his thinking, despite their belonging to deep ecology at first glance. He was one of the ‘fathers’ of the ecological consciousness in the United States, as well as the environmental ethics movements.

Leopold believed that instead of each individual being able to realise his or her own goals in life, the community or group was more important. The community was prioritised over the individual, and should be so in our thinking and policy decisions regarding our relationship to nature.

Leopold also fought for the idea that we do not only have rights to certain resources, but also responsibilities towards nature. He believed that we shouldn’t be giving people money to fulfill their responsibilities towards the natural world; rather, their mere existence on this planet meant that they have the duty to fulfill these obligations.

Central to the thinking of all these people is an idea of egalitarianism amongst all living beings. Human beings cease to be the master species on earth, and instead, all forms of life have equal value and importance on earth. Likewise, they all encourage us to reflect on our relationship with nature, and propose that we should relate more to nature, sometimes in a spiritual way, other times in a metaphorical way.

Earth First, founded by David Foreman (1946-2022) and some of his friends in the southwestern United States, is perhaps the most radical example of a deep ecology movement. Their widely referenced belief was that human beings are parasites on the planet, and should be placed last, rather than first, in the hierarchy of species. This anti-human thinking was too much for many humans who believe in the human race at least to some degree. These radical ecologists refuse to go to commissions or talk to politicians, instead preferring eco-terrorism, protests, blockages, and other radical means to stop environmental destruction. There are now chapters of Earth First in many countries across the globe.

Image: the Earth First! logo.

You're reading an article on, a site dedicated to understanding the ecological crisis. All our articles are free, without advertising. To stay up to date with what we publish, enter your email address below.

Critiques of the deep ecology movement

On a theoretical level, one of the main problems with deep ecology is that we always end up back in an anthropocentric worldview, no matter how hard we try.

Take for example, the belief that all life has value on earth, and all species are intrinsically important. This idea of value requires an evaluator – someone or thing who can decide what has value on Earth and what does not. This evaluator could only be a human being, because value is a human concept. Despite all life being equally important, there is still one species who is deciding this fact and enacting its consequences.

Furthermore, deep ecology is often charged with being anti-humanist, or worse, anti-human. Humanism is the view that the human being is at the centre of thought in the world, and values the development of human qualities, the love of humanity, the fight against oppression, and more. Humanism constructs a vision of the ideal human, and, by definition, this human is not-nature. Humanism implies anthropocentrism, one of the main things that deep ecology seeks to challenge. Therefore, many deep ecologists are do not mind being anti-humanist, because it is this very thinking, they believe, that has caused the problems in the first place.

Deep-ecology is also sometimes referred to as being fascist, which is a mistaken view, but does have some truth to it. Critiques often talk about the fact that the Nazis in Germany liked writing about nature, and fantasised about their relationship with nature, and therefore that the deep ecology movement is somehow related to National Socialism in Germany. This is incorrect. However, what deep ecology could lead to is a form of ecological totalitarianism, whereby the efficiency of the ecosystem, or the rights of all beings, are taken administratively to be the highest goal, with other things such as human needs, or culture, becoming unimportant to a particular politician. This is not inherent to the deep ecology view; rather a possible manifestation of deep ecology that should be avoided. Arne Naess is rather anti-fascist and anti-totalitarian: he asks that each human being search for the meaning of their own life, and that the possibilities be afforded to them to be able to do so.

Deep ecologists also sometimes discuss the problem of population and the overconsumption of resources. Each year, human beings consume more and more resources, at a faster rate, and therefore consume more than one planet’s worth of resources per year to meet their supposed needs. Deep ecologists like Naess as well as other ecologists such as James Lovelock (the Gaia theorist) have supported a reduction of the human population. The optimal human population, according to them, sits somewhere between 100 million and 500 million. The problem with this, however, is that there is no ethical or morally justifiable way of reducing the human population without imposing some kind of rule on who can, and who cannot, have children.

Finally, the deep ecology perspective is often situated in religious or ideological contexts. People such as American Joanna Macey mix Buddhism and deep ecology to advocate for a return to nature and the natural world. There is something spiritual about the deep ecology movement, and the changing relationship that this movement advocates between humans and nature often forces us to think in spiritual or somewhat imaginary ways. For some, this approach works and is necessary; for others more scientistic in nature, this is another criticism of deep ecology.

In summary

The deep ecology perspective, and the movement that accompanies it, seeks to challenge the position of the human being in nature. Instead of being on top of the hierarchy, or standing outside of nature, human beings are embedded in the natural fabric that makes up nature, and are but one species in this fabric. Rights to resources are to be accorded to all living beings, and not just to human beings.

Deep ecology has challenged how we relate with nature, and has promoted an awareness of all other life forms on the planet. It proposes radical political changes, like giving rights to all living beings, which in practice seem, at least at this stage, quite difficult to implement.

Sharing knowledge is also a great gift.
Let others know about this article

It took more than 30 hours of research and writing to produce this article, which will always be open and free for everyone to read, without any advertising.

All our articles are freely accessible because we believe that everyone needs to be able to access to a source of coherent and easy to understand information on the ecological crisis. This challenge that confronts us all will only be properly addressed when we understand what the problems are and where they come from.

If you've learned something today, please consider donating, to help us produce more great articles and share this knowledge with a wider audience.


Our environment is more than a resource to be exploited. Human beings are not the ‘masters of nature,’ and cannot think they are managers of everything around them. Plurality is about finding a wealth of ideas to help us cope with the ecological crisis which we have to confront now, and in the coming decades. We all need to understand what is at stake, and create new ways of being in the world, new dreams for ourselves, that recognise this uncertain future.

Our network

On social media

We're part of the .eco network of organisations committed to support positive change for the planet.

Copyright © 2023

The Ultimate Guide to Greenwashing

eco-friendly packaging

to support independent and ad-free ecological thinking

Jacques Lawinski

Jacques Lawinski

PhD candidate in philosophy and ecology at Université Paris VIII, visiting researcher in Lesvos, Greece. A writer, an activist, and an avid walker, I explore the planet and what it means to relate to nature, finding new, ecological ways of being.

Greenwashing is incredibly problematic for the environment, consumers, and the ecological movement as a whole. Not only is it irresponsible and unethical, it values profit and brand image over real impact.


We are in an economic market where brands, businesses, organisations, causes, and the government, all feel as though they must become virtuous – they must stand for something, promote or explain something, and act towards some social, economic, climate-related or other goal. Businesses need to be seen to be doing good, which often means that they also need to be seen to be good – to be virtuous. Whether big companies should be the promoters of virtue in our societies is another discussion altogether, but here we will focus on the virtue of being eco-friendly, which so many companies now claim to be.

Let’s start off by recognising a simple but sobering truth: the most eco-friendly product is the one you don’t buy. Every time you ‘consume’ something – whether it is eco-friendly natural organic dishwashing liquid, plastic wrap for your lunchtime sandwiches, or a new energy efficient toaster because the one you’ve got ‘seems old’, you are using resources which were grown or produced using fossil fuels, transported around the country or the world, set on shelves with lighting, heating or cooling systems, and eventually sold to you. If you had decided not to make that purchase, no resources would have been consumed. This is the basis of ecological sobriety in consumerism – only purchasing things that we really need, and when we do make purchases, knowing exactly what it is that we are purchasing.

All advertising is an attempt to get you to leave this realisation of non-consumption, and incite you to purchase something – whether you actually need it or not. Advertising creates desires, and then shows you how the particular product or service involved will meet this new desire. Therefore, to some extent, all advertising is taking you away from an eco-friendly standpoint, because it creates desires which you then fulfill by consuming things, which is not eco-friendly.

Some advertising, however, is not merely informative about the particular product. Labels are a good example of informative advertising: we can see the amount of CO2 emitted in the production of a good, we can see how energy efficient it is, we can see the ingredients in a food item: this helps us decide which product to purchase. Other advertising seeks to convince us that the brand is good, the company is virtuous, is looking after the planet, is concerned with its workers’ rights and health, etc. This advertising can be informative, but very often it is suggestive, making claims and associations which are only partly true.

Let’s take the example of Vanish stain remover products. Recently, the company has been advertising on television that huge amounts of textiles are going to landfill each year (link to the international version of the ad, the above is the NZ version). The company sees this part of the advertisement as a commitment to informing the public about the ecological impact of their actions. It’s advertising brownie points because they’re “showing” they “care” about waste. It also creates emotions: we don’t want to be wasteful, we want to save the planet, etc. We’re now more open to receiving their message.

The second part of the advert suggests that by using Vanish products, you can remove the stains from your clothes and stop them from going to landfill. Let’s think about this: when you last stained your white t-shirt, did you immediately think to just throw it out and buy another one? I asked around, and no-one I talked to said that this would be their first response. They would either just wear it stained, they would buy a stain remover when they’re at the supermarket next, they would upcycle the t-shirt and use it for something else, or they would give it away. Vanish seem to think that a large proportion of the textiles (not just clothes, remember) going to landfill go there because they have a stain on them that could have been removed with their stain removal liquid. This is nonsense.

Not only are Vanish trying to appear as if they care for the environment, they are also trying to make you feel bad for throwing away so many clothes which could have been cleaned with their products (which, most likely, you don’t even do in the first place). When you see the advertisement, you’ll either just ignore it, or you might think next time you’re in the supermarket looking for a stain remover that Vanish was the brand that was concerned with the environment, so you choose this one to ‘feel better’ about your consumption decisions. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Most Vanish products contain surfactants, which are highly toxic to aquatic life. Furthermore, the synthetic chemicals in Vanish products such as phosphates cause toxic algae to grow in waterways, starving all other life of oxygen and eventually killing the whole ecosystem. Their products are, therefore, far from ‘eco-friendly,’ and they might pretend to care about waste, but they certainly don’t care about the environment if they sell products which enter the water system and kill whole ecosystems.

This is greenwashing. The company have in this case made a true claim – washing your clothes keeps them from going to landfill – but it is so far removed from the everyday behaviours of most people that it just becomes ridiculous. Further, in order to divert attention away from the harmful effects of the chemicals in their products, they are talking about textile waste to appear as if they are virtuous and care about the environment. They forget that each time someone purchases a BOTTLE of their product, this bottle becomes waste, which in most cases in New Zealand, is unfortunately not recycled. So, they really aren’t contributing to the waste problem in any positive way. In the end, most people who see the advertisement will either ignore it, label it as greenwashing, or unfortunately think that Vanish really do care about the environment.

Why is greenwashing a problem?

Greenwashing is therefore any advertising or advertising message which leads a person to erroneously believe in the real ecological qualities of a product or service, or in the reality of the production process, lifecycle, sustainable development of the company, or any other ‘environmental action’ or commitment performed by the company.

Greenwashing is harmful to the ecological movement, to the consumer, and to the environment:

  1. Greenwashing means that consumers lose trust in companies, and this has a harmful impact on the companies who are actually engaged in climate-friendly practices, regenerative agriculture, and other engagements.
  2. Greenwashing has the opposite effect on the real state of the environment: if we believe that we are acting and we’re not, then the state of ecosystems and the pollution in the environment is just going to get worse.
  3. Greenwashing prevents real solutions from being developed and rolled out on a large scale: because we believe that we are already solving the large ecological issues through consumer behaviours which change very little, we stop innovating and stop trying to implement solutions that might have a larger real impact.
  4. Greenwashing makes us believe that we’re being eco-friendly, it makes us feel good, when in fact we are not having any real, measurable positive impact on the environment in our consumption choices. It also makes us feel like we’re already doing our part, when in fact we should and could be doing so much more.
  5. Greenwashing often diverts attention away from more problematic parts of a company, towards small and insignificant gestures, e.g. a petrol station selling organic coffee. What’s really important is forgotten.

You're reading an article on, a site dedicated to understanding the ecological crisis. All our articles are free, without advertising. To stay up to date with what we publish, enter your email address below.

What laws are in place to stop greenwashing?

In New Zealand, like in the United States, there is a Fair Trading Act which is managed by the Commerce Commission, but no clear anti-greenwashing law. The NZ Environmental Claims Guidelines for companies say that “All traders, large and small, must make sure their environmental claims are substantiated, truthful, and not misleading to avoid breaching the Fair Trading Act 1986.” This is the same for any other claim made by a company. The guidelines focus on information-based claims, rather than suggestive or value-based marketing which tries to position a whole brand as ecological. Information based claims are scientific and fairly easy to prove or disprove, but are often not the basis for adverts that commit greenwashing. These guidelines are non-binding and interpretative – they are not law.

Moreover, companies must have reasonable grounds to make their claims. “‘Reasonable grounds’ means having evidence, research, test results or similar credible information to demonstrate a solid factual foundation for the claim being made,” according to the Guidelines. In the case of ecological and climate-based research, this is incredibly difficult, however. Just as we saw with smoking and cigarette-consumption studies by cigarette companies who aimed to spread doubt among the population regarding the negative impacts of smoking; it is equally possible to find a scientist to “prove” that your product or service is “good for the environment” – because what you measure and how you measure it matters. The book Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik M Conway investigated this ‘doubt production’. We won’t discuss this in depth here, but a good example of this is the case of emissions and food products, and what we choose to measure these products against. A study can legitimately claim that eating pork is better than eating beef in terms of emissions. However, they haven’t compared all food types, and all the alternatives: eating vegetables, legumes, tofu, etc. is even better than pork and has a significantly lower impact than any meat source, but this doesn’t help someone trying to sell pork. Picking and choosing the measurement and comparison standards is a real practice for finding ‘scientific’ evidence for the ‘eco-friendliness’ of products.

New Zealand also have a Broadcasting Standards Authority (BSA), and an Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). I emailed the BSA to ask about greenwashing and their response was: “Since the BSA complaints process only covers programmes that have already been broadcast, we can’t look at programmes that haven’t been on yet, or stop content from airing.” They can only do something if someone has said something that breaks the code, AND if someone reports it. The responsibility is therefore on the watcher or viewer to report content that breaches standards, and not on the producer of the content. Furthermore, there appears to be very little grounds for recourse on greenwashing or irresponsible discussions of the climate in the media with the BSA: it’s simply not something they are concerned about.

I also emailed the ASA, who to date have not responded. In 2019 they removed the Environmental Advertising Code, in favour of a broad Advertising Standards Code, which includes only two clauses regarding the environment, both of which relate to factual claims, and not to advertising in its more broad sense of making connections between ideas, values and engagements, and the products that a company sells. The main way in which greenwashing occurs lies outside the code, and therefore many complaints would likely not be upheld.

The UK’s ASA recently cracked down on greenwashing, pulling several commercials from air including a Persil washing powder advertisement which is still broadcast in New Zealand.  A similar phenomenon seems to be occurring in the United States, with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) purportedly working on much tougher greenwashing legislation and a crackdown on greenwashing in ESG reporting. The United States also have an Environmental Claims Guidance, but again this is not enshrined in law, it is just a guide for companies.

In France, new legislation has been passed in the 2021 Climate and Resilience Law to specifically target greenwashing and give new regulatory powers and punishment mechanisms to enforce the law. This law added ‘environmental impact’ to the list of ways in which allegations, indications and presentations of products can be deemed false and misleading. They also added that the ‘environmental engagements’ of the company making the claim could also be considered misleading or false, and therefore warrant punishment. This change focuses specifically on impact and engagements of the companies in question, rather than simply on the factual claims about the composition of their products. It now means that greenwashing can be more effectively policed, and there are clear ways in which companies can be brought to task over misleading and false advertising.

France also changed the punishment for greenwashing campaigns, which is different to simply breaking their equivalent of the Fair Trading Act. Not only is there a fine, which is 80% of the spending on the advertising campaign, but the company must also inform its customers and media base of the incorrect advertising, and, for 30 days following the infraction, put a notice on their website indicating that they have breached the law regarding environmental claims for their product. This enables all consumers to be made aware that what they may have heard is indeed ‘a load of rubbish.’ For any company concerned with brand image, being forced to admit you have been making false claims should be enough of a deterrent to stop major greenwashing infractions before they occur.

In France, and many European countries, it is also forbidden to write “biodegradable” (everything is biodegradable, this is a natural process which takes between a few hours and several million years to be completed…) or “respectful of the environment” or any other equivalent on the packaging of products. Why? Because these things are “obviously confusing and/or too global for the consumer.” Lawmakers know that these general and meaningless statements may attract people looking for more eco-friendly products, but they lack any specific meaning when it comes to what these words and labels refer to.

In New Zealand, therefore, there would seem to be no binding legislation against greenwashing, no active attempts on the part of the Advertising Standards Authority as in the UK to crack down on greenwashing, and no specific punishments or deterrents to greenwashing. We must be quite happy in this ignorance, believing that we are doing a lot to help the environment, rather than facing the reality that our per-capita carbon emissions are consistently in the top 10 in the OECD (that’s really, really, bad).

Cardboard box with biodegradable label
Biodegradable packaging is great, but all packaging is biodegradable - that's how nature works. Image: Marcell Viragh on Unsplash

How to identify greenwashing

There are some key characteristics of greenwashing that are commonly found in adverts that make claims about the environment. Some of these are from Mathieu Jahnich, a writer for BonPote, a French environmentalist site, who has worked in greenwashing regulation for many years.

  1. Negative environmental behaviours are trivialised, or positive ones are knocked down. E.g. negative images of public transport in a car commercial.
  2. Disproportionate claims, hyperboles, and grand language are used. E.g. “this vehicle is ecological” or “responsible production” or “we care for the planet” or “better for the environment.” Basically anything that refers to a very large commitment which almost certainly isn’t true.
  3. Lack of proof, lack of precision, or an unclear message. E.g., “eco-friendly packaging,” when we have no idea what eco-friendly packaging might be, and no criteria to assess whether this is true or not.
  4. Association between the environment and something which is not essential or not the main product of that company, e.g., petrol stations selling organic coffee to make you forget that you are purchasing fossil fuels, and no, organic coffee won’t make up for that.
  5. Visual or auditory associations with nature. If the advertising includes landscapes, trees, nature, and anything related to the environment to make connections with their product, e.g. Toyota advertising their cars driving through natural landscapes, claiming they are developing better futures.

How to combat greenwashing

Greenwashing is not only bad for the environment, it’s also bad for the whole ecological movement. It means that people believe they’re undertaking meaningful actions when they’re not, which undermines efforts to change things on a systematic level. We cannot effectively respond to the ecological crisis simply through buying more eco-friendly products; we need transformative changes at a societal level, as the IPBES’ Biodiversity and IPCC’s Climate Change reports highlight.

Here are some ways in which we can act in order to reduce or stop greenwashing:

  1. Campaign for your local environmental organisation to put more pressure on the Government to stop or ban greenwashing. There are a lot of organisations out there with a connection to Government agencies and to people who are more able to change the way our systems run. By creating anti-greenwashing campaigns, and making anti-greenwashing law one of the pillars of your environmental movement, you will be helping the integrity of the ecological movement as a whole, helping consumers to make more informed choices, and keeping companies honest and responsible for their actions. Stopping greenwashing is a really effective and easy to implement policy, and can be built upon with environmental impact reporting, carbon emissions reporting, and biodiversity/ecological impact reporting too. All these things help people make informed choices and make sure that what we do has a real impact.
  2. Denounce greenwashing on social media. The worst nightmare of any company is bad publicity. When you point out the greenwashing publicly on social media, these companies are forced to respond and to retract or defend their actions. It also helps make other people aware that they are being misled, which hopefully will mean they adopt a more critical attitude towards greenwashing in the future.
  3. Learn about greenwashing and then stop making greenwashing claims, if you work in advertising, marketing, public relations, communications, or any other forward-facing department in your company. Refuse to work for companies who just want to make it look like they’re doing good without actually having anything to back this up. Require more of your clients if they are seeking to talk about nature, organic ingredients, biodiversity, waste, environmental impact, carbon footprint, etc. If you’re a student in marketing, communications, copywriting, or a similar domain, learn more about greenwashing and about environmental claims, so that you don’t go on to create adverts that greenwash audiences.
  4. Think about what you’re seeing if you see nature in an advertisement, or hear about the environmental impact or the eco-friendliness of a product or service. Ask yourself, how is it possible that they can make this claim? Is there any evidence to back this up? What are they actually selling and does the advert relate to this or is it trying to improve the ‘brand image’?

Right now, the burden of proof and the responsibility lies with the members of the public who have to report these adverts for any investigation to be made. I propose that we reverse the burden of proof and put it back on the companies who are producing these advertisements: in order for your advertisement to be broadcast, if you wish to talk about the environment, nature, ecology, biodiversity, waste, organic/natural components/ingredients, etc., in your advertising, then you must submit, with your advertisement, an analysis of your claims and the proof that lies behind them, as well as a consideration of the ecological impact of the whole company and production process, if the ad is not product-specific. This will then be assessed by a jury before the broadcasting company can broadcast any advertising. This way, companies will be made responsible for their claims before the advertising can reach a public audience. If this were the case, I’m sure we would see a lot less greenwashing, and more responsible company publicities and reporting.


Mathieu Jahnich, who has worked to regulate and assess greenwashing for more than 10 years, writes that the work of lawyers checking content before diffusion is very effective at reducing greenwashing in France. Yet, the control of adverts is very often still optional in France, and this means that often adverts are not checked and therefore are released without any verification of the message involved. New Zealand has no such control measures in place, yet due to its small size, it surely wouldn’t be too difficult to set up a regulatory body for this role.

As is the case in France, we should also ban the use of ‘biodegradable’ and other such meaningless terms which seek to sell products without any meaningful foundation. Other such measures could be adding compulsory disclaimers on products which are short-life or single use, alerting consumers to their high environmental impact; disclaimers on products where a local alternative is available that the same product can be found with lower emissions elsewhere; notices on all physical promotional material like flyers reminding people to recycle them rather than littering (this already happens in some cases); compulsory ecological impact tables on the packaging of all products, like the nutritional information labels on food products, and more.


Greenwashing is a real issue and a hindrance to the ecological movement and to our efforts to change our societies to respond to the ecological crisis that is developing. Unfortunately, most people are unaware of the extent to which greenwashing occurs, and often those who are developing greenwashing advertising are not aware of the nature of the claims they are making, and the impact that they really have. It’s a problem that is quite easily solved through better regulation and more awareness and knowledge of the ecological crisis, which is why sites like are incredibly important.

Sharing knowledge is also a great gift.
Let others know about this article

It took more than 30 hours of research and writing to produce this article, which will always be open and free for everyone to read, without any advertising.

All our articles are freely accessible because we believe that everyone needs to be able to access to a source of coherent and easy to understand information on the ecological crisis. This challenge that confronts us all will only be properly addressed when we understand what the problems are and where they come from.

If you've learned something today, please consider donating, to help us produce more great articles and share this knowledge with a wider audience.


Our environment is more than a resource to be exploited. Human beings are not the ‘masters of nature,’ and cannot think they are managers of everything around them. Plurality is about finding a wealth of ideas to help us cope with the ecological crisis which we have to confront now, and in the coming decades. We all need to understand what is at stake, and create new ways of being in the world, new dreams for ourselves, that recognise this uncertain future.

Our network

On social media

We're part of the .eco network of organisations committed to support positive change for the planet.

Copyright © 2023

A new way to think of entrepreneurship

to support independent and ad-free ecological thinking

Jacques Lawinski

Jacques Lawinski

PhD candidate in philosophy and ecology at Université Paris VIII, visiting researcher in Lesvos, Greece. A writer, an activist, and an avid walker, I explore the planet and what it means to relate to nature, finding new, ecological ways of being.

Entrepreneurship doesn’t have to be about making lots of money. It can be ecological, too, and exist in ways that support the ecological transition, rather than continue to degrade the resources of the Earth.


What is entrepreneurship?

Entrepreneurship and the role of entrepreneurs in our society has increased significantly in the past decade, with much Government policy and resources being given to drive innovation, encourage people to become entrepreneurs, and therefore to drive the growth and competitiveness of the economy. The European Union has identified entrepreneurship as a key focus point of its growth strategy, yet cites the perception and recognition of entrepreneurs as being one of the barriers to boosting entrepreneurship on the continent. In New Zealand, a similar view of entrepreneurship is held, with then-minister Steven Joyce saying in 2016 that entrepreneurs “lead and grow the businesses that generate employment and deliver considerable export revenues for New Zealand.”

For the larger society, we need entrepreneurs for economic growth, and to make sure that our people are employed. Entrepreneurs create the businesses that enable us to make this happen. For entrepreneurs, their motivations likely lie elsewhere, with growth and revenue sometimes only the by-product of their motivation and skillset to solve a problem or change something.

New Zealand’s leading entrepreneurship education organisation, Young Enterprise, don’t seem to say what entrepreneurship is on their website, but they do claim that their programmes “inspire people to discover their potential in business and in life.” Entrepreneurs would seem to be those people who have discovered or realised their potential in either or both business and life. The Stanford Online site has a page entitled, What is Entrepreneurship? where they note that entrepreneurs are those who, by themselves or with others, “strike out on an original path to create a new business.” Entrepreneurs are people who create businesses, then. Oberlo who come up upon searching the question say the same thing, but add that modern entrepreneurship is also about solving big world problems “like bringing about social change.” Wikipedia say that entrepreneurship is “the creation or extraction of economic value,” “and is generally viewed as change.” They then also add that entrepreneurs create businesses, and like the other sites, note that entrepreneurs bear the most risk and also potentially gain the greatest reward.

Does entrepreneurship really have the impact that these leaders advocate for? In 2008, two Dutch researchers undertook a meta-study (reviewing other studies) of empirical evidence to see what the impact on entrepreneurs is on the society and the economy, compared to non-entrepreneurs. They concluded that entrepreneurs create more employment relative to their size (often small businesses, self-employed, etc.), but in doing so they reduce the stability of the labour market, meaning that job creation is more volatile and less predictable. Entrepreneurs were found to pay lower wages, offer fewer benefits, and create jobs in lower levels of the economy compared with their non-entrepreneur counterparts like large well-established organisations. However, employees seem more satisfied with their jobs as or with entrepreneurs, compared to at other companies.

Entrepreneurs also produce fewer new products and new technologies, and apply for fewer new patents than non-entrepreneurial companies. This means that entrepreneurs are not in fact more innovative, however their innovations are generally of higher quality than others. In terms of productivity, entrepreneurs are not at all very productive. And finally, regarding utility, most entrepreneurs would earn more in a wage job, because average entrepreneurial income data is skewed by some very, very large earners at the top of the scale. Despite all these things, the authors note that entrepreneurs have other, non-tangible benefits to being an entrepreneur, otherwise they would be “irrational, optimistic, or risk-seeking.” These are the classic benefits of being one’s own boss, choosing when to work, doing something which they believe makes a difference, among other reasons.

These understandings of entrepreneurship seem to be very focused on business, and on the economic outcomes of entrepreneurship for the society. Entrepreneurship is intimately tied with business, and one must, if one is an entrepreneur, have a business. Having a business means making money, and extracting value.

Young Enterprise UK teaches enterprise, as well as entrepreneurship, with a more general take on what this looks like: “Enterprise education provides young people with the skills, competencies and mindset to make the most of everyday opportunities and challenges. Being enterprising is something which can be applied to all aspects of life and work – identifying and initiating opportunities as well as adapting your response to situations.” They focus more on the skills involved in being enterprising, and seem to encourage students to apply these to any situation.

The entrepreneurship competencies or skills are well defined in many different areas. The European Union created EntreComp, a framework showing the entrepreneurship toolbox, and they share this transversal definition of entrepreneurship: “value creation in any sphere of life.” There are three competence areas, ideas and opportunities, resources, and into action, and they note that entrepreneurship is one of eight key competences for lifelong learning. They support the definition proposed by the Danish Foundation for Entrepreneurship & Young Enterprise: “Entrepreneurship is when you act upon opportunities and ideas and transform them into value for others. The value that is created can be financial, cultural, or social.”

entrepreneur sitting on a hill looking into the distance
Entrepreneurs and ecology: do they go together? Image: Tobias Tullius on Unsplash

An ecological critique of entrepreneurship

Economic growth cannot continue to rule our societies, if we are to confront the ecological crisis. We cannot continue to seek profit, we cannot continue to extract as much value from natural resources as we can, and we cannot make decisions purely based on financial and economic return. This has been highlighted by many intergovernmental research bodies, including the IPCC, the IPBES, and more. Entrepreneurship, therefore, in its narrow definition as “starting a business” would seem to be at odds with ecological action.

If we want more entrepreneurs, as Steven Joyce said at the beginning, to create more revenue and keep people employed, then we would be thinking very narrowly, if entrepreneurship is about creating value for others. Just how valuable is economic growth and revenue when we are facing the extinction of thousands of incredibly important species for the maintenance of life on Earth? Currently we are face-to-face with an ecological crisis, and economic growth is at odds with this.

All is not lost for the entrepreneur, however. He or she can and should continue to exist, but the challenge is to find a way to decouple the link between entrepreneurship on the one hand, and business, money, profit, and supposed individual freedom on the other. Having complete control over your life might be great, but at the expense of the planet and the livelihoods of other people, is not so great. If entrepreneurs can demonstrate and use their skills in different ways, with a different mindset, then they could become the key players of the ecological transition that is needed in our societies.

But just what might an ecological entrepreneur look like?

Ecological economics

A group of European and American scientists got together when they realised that their research had interesting conclusions for each other. These were not just a group of biologists, or economists, but actually a mix of the two: the economists saw that the biologists had something to say about the nature of the economy, and of entrepreneurship.

This work is being carried out by people such as Giuseppe Longo, Roger Koppl, Stuart Kauffman, Teppo Felin, and more. Their award-winning paper, Economics for a Creative World, outlines the possibilities for a new way of viewing entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs keep the same skills, but their function and goal in the economy changes.

They propose both a theory of value in the economy, and a theory of entrepreneurship, or a theory of the evolution of the economy through the actions and services of entrepreneurs. In this new way of thinking, the greatest value is created for humanity when we find ways to move ourselves to a new state of society – be it with an invention like writing, the iPhone, or recycling. The entrepreneur is the person who enables this change, by combining resources in new ways. Just as the ant who goes a little further than the other ones might discover a new food source to keep his ant colony alive longer than the neighbouring colony, the entrepreneur makes and shares their solutions or discoveries to make progress as humanity. This is an evolutionary mechanism, and the authors of this idea have looked at how organisms evolve, and realised that as human beings, we in fact evolve in our economy in the same way.

The starting point of this research is the observation that the economic system is not a causal system. This means that there are no dynamic laws of economics. A consumer can always choose to act in irrational and unpredictable ways, and whole groups of consumers can do this, defying the commonly held beliefs in neoclassical economic principles. The ‘rational man’ of neoclassical economics doesn’t exist, and has been proven dead for decades.

Neoclassical economics views the market, and the economy, in the same way that Newtonian physics views the world. Everything is controlled and governed by laws that determine predictable outcomes for each and every action, and this all happens in a closed system. This is a mechanistic viewpoint, which relies on principles of cause and effect for action to happen and be explained. Viewing the economy in this way means that economists create laws and models to predict what will happen, and explain what is happening. These models very rarely explain the complexity of a situation, and, as we see again and again, are often wrong.

For these researchers – both biologists and economists – the economy is not a causal system, algorithms cannot be used, and we cannot predict or pre-state what will happen in a particular case. Instead, economic dynamics are creative, much like evolution. In evolutionary biology, random traits appear, which just so happen to be better at dealing with certain stresses put on a particular organism, and this is what helps these organisms survive over other ones. The economy is a bit similar: creativity, innovation, and random inventions are what shape and define the progress that the economy makes. Before Apple, we did not predict based on “current trends” or “current laws” that there would be a product, the iPhone, that would change the way we interact with each other. But it has.

If we think of the economy in terms of one central square, there are many, many possible ways of putting resources together which lead people to a new square, slightly outside of the current one. There are infinitely many possible combinations of things, ideas, resources, which constitute inventions, which could change the way people do things. This is the evolutionary logic of the economy: we make new things, and therefore evolve. For example, think about the uses of a screwdriver: there are millions of possible uses, many where the screwdriver is useful but ineffective. We could use it to make holes in paper, we could use it to write in the sand, and we could also use it as a radio antenna. In 1800, we had screwdrivers but not radio transmission, so we could have never predicted this use of the screwdriver at that time. However, through more developments and combinations, we arrived at a point where this became a possible use for the screwdriver.

Therefore, we cannot accurately predict or model what happens in the economic space, with enough certainty. We can observe tendencies and behaviours, but these are not accurate predictions nor are they laws, because as we have seen what shapes the evolution of, or changes in the economic space is creativity and novelty – the combination of current things to make new things which lead the economic space in another direction. Past innovations, like screwdrivers, did not cause new inventions, like radio antennae, to be invented. They enabled them, but they did not cause them.

The economic space is therefore changing all the time. People are inventing things, buying things, combining things, and selling things at an incredible rate. Trying to model or predict within this is near impossible.

Statistics and modelling of the economy means that we close off our economic system to this novelty and creativity, because we do not allow for or account for the possibility of an unpredicted and unpredictable change or invention. The more open a system, the greater the wealth of this system, because of greater diversity, and greater possible avenues of evolution, just as a system of insects in the biosphere.

ant colony
The best ants are entrepreneurs too: they help the survival of the colony by finding new food sources or places to live - moving the ant colony from one possible space to another. Image: Prince Patel on Unsplash

You're reading an article on, a site dedicated to understanding the ecological crisis. All our articles are free, without advertising. To stay up to date with what we publish, enter your email address below.​

Ecological entrepreneurs

Taking this new vision of the economy into account, the ecological entrepreneur is someone who is able to spot an opportunity to move from one economic state to another: someone who combines resources, or knows of an idea from somewhere else, and who successfully moves from the general frame or way of doing things, into one which conforms with his product, service, or solution. This does not necessarily involve the buying and selling of solutions, nor does it have to respond to a practical problem, which is often taught in entrepreneurship education. Rather, the entrepreneur spots an opportunity for a new way of doing something, and is able to share this way with enough other people to move the group towards the adoption of this new way.

Entrepreneurs can act in and with community groups, organisations, businesses, and society at large. There is nothing which says that entrepreneurs must bring about change on a societal level, or disrupt a whole market and ‘ecosystem’ of businesses. Opportunities are present everywhere, and the skills required to identify these and take action upon them are applicable in various situations.

According to these scientists, the most successful innovations are “non-algorithmic responses to new possibilities.” The entrepreneur is able to identify a possibility, and create a way to get us from where we are now, to a state in which that possibility is the normal. An algorithm could give us a thousand ways to use copper, for example, but the entrepreneur is creative about his use of resources, and develops unpredictable solutions. This is a new way of thinking about innovation.

The entrepreneur is therefore decoupled from business, money, and profit. They are someone who spots an opportunity, invents in a creative way to move towards that possibility, and enables transformation in order to make that a reality. We no longer value entrepreneurs because of their gains in economic value, productivity, and employment, but because they enable societies to innovate, solve problems, and move beyond their current position.

Societies that can innovate and change are more resilient because they are better able to adapt. The entrepreneur becomes a useful force in the ecological transition because they have the key skills needed to develop ideas, spot opportunities, and make necessary transformations to stop the ecological destruction we are now causing. The only competency to add to the EntreComp framework is therefore ecological knowledge: for this new way of ecological entrepreneurs, they must know about the impact of their change on social, environmental, and subjective or psychological levels.

Let’s look at a brief example. A lot of energy is wasted in boiling more water than is needed for a cup of tea, when we fill the kettle and only use some of what we boiled. We could create a cup-measure, we could create a kettle with marks on the side for the number of cups, or, we could create something which sticks in people’s minds, which means they use their tea cup to measure the water first, before boiling the jug. The best solution to this problem involves no extra resources – it is simply a procedural, and behavioural change. The successful ecological entrepreneur therefore figures out a way to encourage this behavioural change, and transforms the society to adopt this behaviour. He or she knows that selling a product to put next to your existing kettle to measure water would generate money, but would also be an incredible waste of water, when a simple behavioural solution would suffice. He or she is able to take a risk on a zero-resource solution, and is effective at getting others to adopt his solution.

The question that arises here is how we value and compensate such entrepreneurs. They won’t necessarily be making huge amounts of money – the entrepreneurs’ dream is, and remains, for many, a dream. As the meta-study at the beginning points out, most entrepreneurs would earn more in wage employment than they are earning as an entrepreneur. But if they are following this new model of entrepreneurship, selling products people don’t need is only one possible way of being an entrepreneur. Those who have a sense of responsibility, or a moral attitude towards our flora and fauna, can dream of being entrepreneurs, just in a different sense. Responsibility for the environment means avoiding the idea that we need to extract more, sell more, and create more value, and trading this for the idea of innovation and creativity to help us move to new spaces and new ways of doing things. We need to find ways to reward the ‘enablers’ who are developing ideas, and connect them with the more practical entrepreneurs who know how to change or transform. These new and ecological entrepreneurs are not necessarily straight out of business school, either. They are to be found in research centres, in practical and community organisations, or the most ‘random’ places – because these people intimately know the systems they are working with or against, and are best poised to creatively help us out of trouble.

The benefits of an ecological entrepreneurship

Western societies are facing incredibly difficult challenges at social, economic, health, environmental, technological, and governmental levels. Promoting the idea that entrepreneurs will help us out of this mess through innovations which they sell on the market is a very narrow way of thinking. More money, more growth, more GDP, more waste, and more consumption will not solve these issues. They are much deeper and structural than could be solved through money alone.

Promoting a vision of ecological entrepreneurship enables people to imagine ways in which they could improve their surroundings and communities, and make that into a life project which we now call ‘work.’ Ecological entrepreneurs won’t work solo on projects – they will often need teams of people with various knowledge bases to help them implement their transformations. This possibility, this vision, of entrepreneurship, is a mobilising and active way of thinking about entrepreneurship, rather than a predetermined and algorithmic method that we normally see. True non-algorithmic solutions can only come about when we let our citizens know that they can viably seek to transform systems, and do this as a means for life. The question of funding does and will continue to exist, but any Government looking for innovation I think has a duty to support truly innovative solutions from ecological entrepreneurs. Venture capitalists will not necessarily get any financial benefit from innovative behavioural changes, but perhaps their focus will shift to more philanthropic causes if ecological entrepreneurship became a ‘Big Thing’. That is, if these funding sources and financial institutions are really concerned about the crises that we are facing, and failing to deal with.

To sum up in four points

  • The current everyday definition of entrepreneurship is one where a person comes up with an idea, develops this idea, takes it to market, and then sells and markets this item for a profit as a business.
  • Instead, we could look at entrepreneurs as having three successive roles: spotting an alternative possibility outside of our current way of life, making that behaviour, way of thinking, or solution a reality, and then maintaining it such the old possibility becomes everyday life.
  • Thinking like this means that entrepreneurs do not need to create and sell products or services in the market. Entrepreneurship becomes a notion uncoupled from capitalistic relations, and we can now undertake entrepreneurial projects in many different, ecological, and democratic ways. Entrepreneurs are the evolutionary enablers of the human economy.
  • This is ecological thinking because we can promote a vision of entrepreneurship which is not destructive towards the environment, nor towards our social relations. We are aware of the impact that the idea has, and word business does not appear in the definition. Profit is completely up to the person.

Sharing knowledge is also a great gift.
Let others know about this article

It took more than 30 hours of research and writing to produce this article, which will always be open and free for everyone to read, without any advertising.

All our articles are freely accessible because we believe that everyone needs to be able to access to a source of coherent and easy to understand information on the ecological crisis. This challenge that confronts us all will only be properly addressed when we understand what the problems are and where they come from.

If you've learned something today, please consider donating, to help us produce more great articles and share this knowledge with a wider audience.


Our environment is more than a resource to be exploited. Human beings are not the ‘masters of nature,’ and cannot think they are managers of everything around them. Plurality is about finding a wealth of ideas to help us cope with the ecological crisis which we have to confront now, and in the coming decades. We all need to understand what is at stake, and create new ways of being in the world, new dreams for ourselves, that recognise this uncertain future.

Our network

On social media

We're part of the .eco network of organisations committed to support positive change for the planet.

Copyright © 2023

The circular economy

Recycle icon

to support independent and ad-free ecological thinking

Jacques Lawinski

Jacques Lawinski

PhD candidate in philosophy and ecology at Université Paris VIII, visiting researcher in Lesvos, Greece. A writer, an activist, and an avid walker, I explore the planet and what it means to relate to nature, finding new, ecological ways of being.

A miraculous solution to stop waste production and lead sustainable lives, or a grand delusion which doesn’t actually work, and simply justifies keeping the status-quo approach?


The idea of a circular economy is not a new one. Waste and the offcuts of human activity have been used and reused for millennia – and the old saying “one person’s waste is another’s treasure” has continued to circulate in our everyday language to resurrect this idea. In the third decade of the 21st century, however, we are beginning to see the circular economy becoming a larger-scale project both in business and government, who claim that this is the solution we need to be able to transform our economies to combat climate change and the wider ecological problem.

At its most simple, the circular economy is an exchange of goods and services in which waste is minimised, and things are recycled and reused as much as possible. Think of it like glass bottle recycling, but on a massive scale. Our phones, washing machines, t-shirts and sports shoes should all become a bit like the glass bottles: recycled and transformed into other products that we can use again.

On the face of it, this might seem like a great model for the economy. After all, we know that waste is becoming a major problem for many countries across the world, as we consume more and more goods made of synthesised materials such as plastics, cotton and polyester mix clothing, electronic devices, and more. A zero-waste economy, therefore, would seem to solve the problem we are having with waste and pollution, and help us to reduce our environmental impact.

However, as we will see, this is a nice idea that simply doesn’t work in the biosphere. The assumptions used by proponents of the circular economy are often misguided and uninformed, meaning they go against fundamental principles of life on Earth. And from an economic point of view, the circular economy is based on a very big hypothetical statement – a very big IF – that as we are seeing, is proving not to be the case.

Let’s delve into the circular economy, to see what lies behind this big idea. We’ll start with the arguments from those who support the circular economy, and then look at the critiques.

In support of a circular economy

The New Zealand Government seems to have also adopted the idea of a circular economy, ōhanga āmiomio, along with much larger international bodies like the European Union, as a way of managing waste, saving money, and encouraging jobs and innovation.

New Zealand also has various organisations working in what they call an “ecosystem” (we’ll think about that terminology later!) of circularity, including and XLabs. There is also Āmiomio Aotearoa at the University of Waikato, with around 50 researchers looking at the circular economy.

Their main point of reference is the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, an organisation set up by scientist Ellen MacArthur to promote the circular economy on a global scale. On the site, we see that there are three key pillars to the circular economy:

  1. Design out waste and pollution. This means that we create a zero-waste economy. We are no longer polluting rivers and streams, no longer emitting large amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases without compensating for our emissions, and we are certainly not sending large truckloads of materials to landfill or incineration.
  2. Keep products and materials in use at their highest value. Everything that we extract is used, all materials are reused and recycled, and nothing is simply left and abandoned as an unusable resource. An old pair of shoes could be made into a sports ball and a t-shirt; a broken table could become a fence…
  3. Regenerate natural systems. This is through the use of renewable energy sources like hydro power, solar power, wind energy, etc., as well as actions taken to actively restore unproductive soil, polluted rivers, and take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

These three principles, according to the Foundation, are inspired by nature, and by natural cycles. Nature works in a complete loop, apparently, and materials are constantly recycled and put to a new use.

Image: The Ellen MacArthur Foundation

The Foundation has designed the above butterfly diagram to explain how the circular economy works. We see that we minimise both the inputs into the system, and the outputs or waste that comes out of the system. We also see that both natural cycles in the biosphere in green, and human-created cycles in the technosphere, or the economy, in blue, are part of our circular economic system.

The economic arguments

The circular economy aims to “gradually decouple economic growth from virgin resource inputs.” (Ellen MacArthur Foundation). This means that they want economic growth to become independent from the natural resources that flow around the economy. In essence, the economy can grow and continue growing whilst we are on a planet with limited resources. How do they think that is possible?

The answer comes from Nobel-prize winning economist Robert Solow. He gave a conference lecture entitled “The Economics of Resources or the Resources of Economics” in 1974, laying out his ideas on resources. According to Solow, the reason why we have economic growth is not because of more capital, or more labour inputs. Capital and labour are considered the two factors of production in neoclassical economics, which determine the nature of our production systems. Instead, economic growth is due to technical improvements – the economy grows because we become more efficient at exploiting resources and more powerful in our technological capacities. We can get more done in less time, spending less money doing it.

In the case of the market for natural resources, Solow writes that, “If flows and stocks have been beautifully coordinated through the operations of future markets or a planning board, the last ton produced will also be the last ton in the ground. The resource will be exhausted at the instant that it has priced itself out of the market.” This exhaustion of the resource – meaning that we’ve used every last drop of oil in the ground, for example – is not a problem for Solow. This is because the market will know that we are approaching extinction, and begin to develop technologies that are able to replace this natural resource. As the natural resource becomes scarcer, it will become more expensive. In turn, the synthetic resource will become cheaper, and more widely used. The “invisible hand” of the market, or a central planning board, will govern all of this such that we can just keep going, despite having used all the oil, coal, gas, rare metals, wood, etc.

Diggers mining the side of a hill
Image: Dominik Vanyi on Unsplash

Here’s the key quotation in full, that you will often see cited in discussions of Solow’s economics:

If it is very easy to substitute other factors for natural resources, then there is in principle no “problem.” The world can, in effect, get along without natural resources, so exhaustion is just an event, not a catastrophe. If, on the other hand, real output per unit of resources is effectively bounded—cannot exceed some upper limit of productivity which is in turn not too far from where we are now—then catastrophe is unavoidable.”

Therefore, because technology will help us to replace natural resources, we don’t need to be worried about running out. The economy can and will continue to grow because growth doesn’t depend on material inputs, but on technological advances.

Solow assumes that we can replace natural resources by technological resources as perfect substitutes. If this is not possible, Solow knows that we are heading towards unavoidable catastrophe. Many accounts of his economic viewpoint will only provide the first half of this quote. We should keep in mind that Solow was not ignorant towards what he was proposing, and the consequences if it turned out not to be true.

Finally, let’s think again about the benefits of the circular economic model. If we’re not producing waste, then we will no longer be polluting local ecosystems, nor the biosphere in general. This will have a positive effect on the environment: ecosystems will be able to regenerate, less greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will stop global warming, and more. Additionally, when materials are reused and recycled, rather than simply purchased again, we require people and skills in order to undertake these repairs and manage the recycling systems. This will create jobs in the economy, and stimulate innovation in order to find new, cost-effective, efficient ways of reusing and recycling materials in the economy.

You're reading an article on, a site dedicated to understanding the ecological crisis. All our articles are free, without advertising. To stay up to date with what we publish, enter your email address below.

Critiques of the circular economy: Back to reality

If we were living in a bubble outside of this Universe, the circular economy would be wonderful. The problem is, we’re on planet Earth. The economy doesn’t exist outside of the chemical and physical laws that govern our universe. We human beings don’t live outside of these natural cycles either. Let’s see why the idea of a circular economy is just an illusion. Reading these critiques, we should be worried that the circular economy is gaining so much ground as a real project to be implemented. As Keith Skene from the Biosphere Research Institute in the UK wrote in 2017, “almost all of the principles underpinning the circular economy have the potential to destabilise the biosphere if they are applied in the real world.”

Spiral unfolding in nature
Circles or spirals? Image: Bogomil Mihaylov on Unsplash

Circles don't grow

Have you ever seen a closed cycle that, by itself, gets larger and larger? I certainly haven’t. If we really had a circular economy, the same things would be going round and round, being transformed and retransformed again and again. This, however, doesn’t equate to growth as we were promised. The only way to achieve that growth would be to think of the economy as a spiral, going round and round, but at the same time accumulating more and more so that the spiral grows bigger as time goes on. On the metaphorical level, a circular economy in which growth happens is not possible: circles don’t grow. Machines and technology might become more efficient, but they need more and more energy to run, and they require some material resources to be produced in the first place.

The supporters of the circular economy claim that this circularity is influenced and inspired by nature, and natural systems. According to them, nature is a zero-waste system, and so we should try to mimic nature and do the same. They believe that the Earth, and therefore the biosphere, is a closed system in which energy in the form of matter circulates constantly. Skene writes of this idea of nature: “Referencing nature is any attempt to justify zero waste, eco-efficiency, optimisation or circularity is, at best, misleading. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

In fact, the biosphere is an open system. This means that it requires inputs, and has outputs. The largest input into the biosphere is solar energy coming from the sun. Life in the biosphere tends towards increasing complexity. As the biosphere becomes more complex, more and more sunlight energy is required from the sun for this system to be maintained, and to increase again in complexity. This natural system is not efficient, either. The biosphere converts free energy into waste energy – that’s what life is and does here on planet Earth. Nature, in fact, is hugely wasteful. It most certainly isn’t optimised, either. In complex situations, fast recycling is favoured over durability, sustainability, optimisation and use of resources, and many other supposedly natural variables. You will not find an ‘optimised’ natural system.

XLabs claim to be able to teach their participants about nature: they talk about “Mirroring nature to radically redesign the system for optimal resource use.” A zero-waste economy is simply a fiction. The mere fact that we, human beings, are biological creatures in the biosphere, means that we will continue creating waste for as long as we exist. The economy will continue producing waste, because this is how the universe functions. Optimisation and nature do not fit in the same world.

Humans and the biosphere: inputs and outputs

The third pillar of the circular economy is the idea that human economic activity can contribute to the regeneration of natural ecosystems, or at least keep these natural systems working at their highest utility and value. The diagram of the circular economy has two sides, depicting two cycles, which are interrelated, and which human beings would therefore need to manage and control, under the name of economics.

According to Mario Giampietro, at the University of Barcelona in Spain, and many other thermodynamic scientists, the circular economy takes no notice of the directions of material flows in the economy. They measure the flow of money, and therefore the flow of goods and services, but not natural resources, energy, water, and other elements which flow through the biosphere and interact with the technosphere (the sphere of human activity).

Natural cycles require absolutely enormous amounts of energy. Giampietro makes a revealing comparison: in 1999, human beings required 11 TW (terawatts) of energy for all their needs. Just for maintaining the water cycles around the Earth, the biosphere used 40,000 TW of solar energy in one year. When we look at the diagram of circular economy designed by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, we see natural cycles on the left and human cycles on the right. In actual fact, if these arrows and circles represent energy flows, the human cycles would be infinitesimally small in comparison with the natural cycles. Nature has huge amounts of energy coming into it from the sun, and huge amounts going out as waste, too. Such a model would lose all sense of ‘circularity’ that seems crucial to the idea of the circular economy. There is definitely not a closed system of nature as XLabs seem to promote – there are simply not enough energy sources on Earth for this to be possible.

Let’s also think about the flows of water. In Europe, it is estimated that 7,500kg of water per day is required for agricultural needs of one person. This doesn’t include urban water usage, or industrial water usage. Just the water used by plants and animals that sustain the life of this human. When water is not included in the economic calculations, 35% of the European economy is recycled. It seems possible that we can end up with a 100% recycled economy – a circular economy. When we include water, however, which is not recycled by us at all, but rather through natural systems, we end up with 0.005% of the economy which is circular. If we included energy flows, raw materials, and all the other natural cycles, we would end up at almost zero percent recycling rate. We create waste, in far greater quantities than we would ever be able to recycle what we use.

The attempts to remove inputs and outputs from the economy
The reworked image of the circular economy according to thermodynamics. Image: Mario Giampietro

The idea of the circular economy is to therefore cut out two central pillars of the biosphere – inputs of energy, and outputs from human waste back into the biosphere, as is shown here. This is nonsensical, akin to proposing to sell computers where the wires to charge the battery with are cut, and the wires to illuminate the screen are also cut. Inputs and outputs are avoided, so that the computer can function in a circular way. The company would be bankrupt before their product even went to market: nobody would even invest in their idea. Zero-waste, zero input circular economies are physically impossible.

Back to the economic argument

Remember that Robert Solow claimed that we could get along fine without natural resources, because technology would just replace out these resources with other goods? Let’s put that claim under the microscope. When we use all the rare earth metals, what will we make more solar panels with? More electric cars with? When we use all the fresh water, what will we drink and feed our plants with? When all the soils are destroyed, what will we grow our plants in? What will animals live off? Will technologies really be able to solve all these problems in the next 30 years?

We cannot live without natural resources. The economy cannot “get along without natural resources.” To grow plants we need soil, and the way soil regenerates is so complex that we are yet to understand it. What we know is that when we use ammonia and nitrogen-based fertilisers to optimise the soil over one or two growing cycles, we kill all life in the soil and it becomes dead and unproductive. We can’t get by without soil, and the only way to have healthy soil is to promote biodiversity on the land, and not to use technologies that make this soil more efficient, such as ploughs, and artificial or even ‘natural’ fertilisers. Further, we cannot ‘produce’ productive soil, the only soil that will be productive is that which is on the Earth and is there now. For a great first-person account of the impact that these technologies have on soil and the farming system, read English Pastoral by James Rebanks.

The international space station
The International Space Station. Image: NASA

We also cannot live without waste and without inputs of energy and resources. The International Space Station is perhaps the best example of human engineering of a standalone climate-controlled system, and even there, they still require food to be sent up, and eject waste out of the station regularly. We simply cannot replicate all the functions of the biosphere by ourselves.

Therefore, the only option left to us by Solow is a complete catastrophe. And that is where we are heading, and where we would continue to head, if we attempted to adopt the circular economy model as our national economic system.

Solow saw resources as being things like fossil fuels, and that’s understandable, given that in the 1970’s the discussions around global warming and the burning of fossil fuels were getting more heated, and alternative visions were being proposed. Solow sought to promote the idea that technology would get us through, and that we would be able to continue economic growth through using more technology. We wouldn’t have to change our institutions, our economic systems; our addiction to growth could carry on unharmed, because the market forces would sort us out. The very causes for the ecological crisis will in some future scenario enable us to confront our current problems. It’s like trying to treat a cut with a knife.

Solow did however know the other possibility: catastrophe. Supporters of the circular economy such as the Ellen MacArthur Foundation seem to have lost this nuance, however, taking the idea that we can grow and live without natural resources as an economic doctrine, rather than a conditional statement relying on assumptions about the market and about technology. They show no reflection on what ecology has taught us in the past 50 years: the world most definitely does have limits, and human beings must definitely stick within these limits unless they want to risk the future not only of themselves, but of many other life forms on Earth.

Additionally, the circular economy assumes that the natural cycles of the biosphere can be monetised and valued, and therefore quantifiably brought into the economic system. That’s why the biosphere features on their model of the economy. It is simply impossible to value the water cycle or the flow of nutrients or the processes of photosynthesis. Without these, life would not even exist, they are of innumerable value to all life on Earth. They also cannot be quantified and managed by economists, or the very best ecologists, either.

An ideological agenda of technological saviours

The circular economy seems to be yet another way of promoting a highly technical future, whereby economic doctrine such as prioritising growth above all else, and believing in the magic powers of market forces, are able to be preserved, whilst minor changes in product design and coordination are adopted, and large aspects of life are under technological surveillance and management.

If we think of the environmental debate as having two large narratives, which oppose each other, the circular economy is presented as a solution by one of these sides. The larger story informs us that technological progress will save us from ecosystem collapse and climate change, and that human control and management of the environment will enable ecosystems to restore themselves back to ‘original conditions of balance.’ This is the way that global institutions and many countries are heading. They do not change the ideology or doctrine of their systems, preferring to believe that one day, we will develop a magic technological solution to solve our problems. From then on, humans will be able to control the environment and keep the conditions of life stable for years, even millennia, to come.

Robert Solow believed the same thing – we would just invent our way out of resource depletion, because technology would simply adapt to replace natural resources with something else. The circular economy tells us that we will develop recycling technologies that will become ultra-efficient (much more efficient than nature ever could), that we will somehow be able to separate mixed materials like polyester and cotton in fabrics in order to reuse them, and that we will be able to get over the fact that many materials can only be recycled a limited number of times. For example, paper can only be recycled 7 times before the fibres become too short. What do we do with this paper, once it can no longer be recycled? Put it in the landfill to release methane, a known highly warming greenhouse gas? And where do we find new paper from once all the current paper has been recycled seven times? Believers in this narrative would tell us not to worry – either we will cut out paper use altogether, or we will find a way to recycle paper more than seven times… “you just have to believe, man!”

Graph showing the payback period of technologies

Even if we could find a technological solution, the resources required to put this into place would mean a sustained and notable increase in emissions and resource extraction until this infrastructure is built. Then, it is only after quite some time that we actually see the benefits of such technology. If, of course, it is not too late. The above image explains this.

The other part of this ideological standpoint is to believe that it is possible to control and manage the biosphere. Mario Giampietro’s comments on energy usage have already shown us that human beings are nowhere near capable of managing the water cycle on Earth, given that we only require 11TW per year, versus the 44,000TW needed for the water cycle. Global systems in the biosphere are simply too large and too complex, for human beings to even begin to try to manage.

Likewise, we do not know enough about these systems to pretend that we could decide how to manage them properly. We know that optimisation is not one of nature’s goals, and that natural processes are extremely wasteful. If we adopted circular economy logic of optimisation, efficiency, and zero-waste in ‘regenerating the environment’ we would not be creating something natural; rather we would be acting in ways entirely against the natural laws operating in the environment. If we tried to start adding nutrients into ecosystems which no longer have the same balance of life that they had before, we could simply make everything worse, destroying the new balance of life which has established in these places. We simply do not have enough knowledge about ecosystems to believe that our management and governance will be able to restore the environment to some romanticised previous state of balance and harmony. Read Giampietro’s article here for a more scientific explanation of this.

To sum up this position, here’s the argument in Giampietro’s (very technical) words: “The success of the term circular economy can be seen as an example of socially constructed ignorance in which folk tales are used to depoliticize the sustainability debate and to colonize the future through the endorsement of implausible socio-technical imaginaries.”

Refuting the three principles of the circular economy

  1. Design out waste and pollution. This is impossible and unnatural. Nature is incredibly wasteful, and human beings will never be zero-waste. We also cannot cut off the inputs of energy, food and nutrients into our economic system. Circularity is not possible within the biosphere. We cannot design a biosphere in which waste doesn’t occur – we are bound to nature’s laws.
  2. Keep products and materials in use at their highest value. Recycling is great, but consumes large amounts of energy, and portions of the material are lost every time we recycle. We cannot even begin to talk about managing or quantifying products and materials in the biosphere like water, nutrients and energy, which form half of the diagram of the circular economy. These are not maintained by natural systems at optimal conditions, and cannot be valued.
  3. Regenerate natural systems. To believe that we could regenerate natural systems would be to believe that we understand how these systems work. We simply do not have this knowledge. We cannot think that technological advances will enable us to intervene in natural processes that have been created over billions of years, nor can we expect to create a technological alternative to natural processes in the space of 20-30 years.

For a full academic summary of the critiques of the circular economy, and all the research that is being done into this idea, have a look at the paper by Hervé Corvellec, Alison F. Stowell, and Nils Johansson: Critiques of the circular economy.

To sum up: is the circular economy still valuable?

The circular economy is a great idea for architects, product designers, technological innovators, and those working in the design of goods for consumption. Reduction of waste and lower use of resources is fantastic and a necessary way for human societies to conform the ecological crisis. It is necessary for us to stop extracting more and more natural resources, and begin dealing with the enormous amounts of waste that we produce. Lower emissions are also a great and necessary step towards an ecological future.

The circular economy also draws attention to our current linear economic practices which are leading to ecosystem collapse and creating the wider ecological crisis. Ensuring that companies and individuals are aware of this linear system is an important part of ecological activism. However, companies should be aware that the circular economy is just a fictional model, to help us redesign parts of our productive systems, and not something to be taken as doctrine or a correct representation of reality. It also supports a growth-based vision, which ecologists have said for many years is incompatible with the fight against climate change.

The circular economy is not an economic model. It’s a set of principles for designers to follow. It does not describe reality, rather describes how resources might flow if we were to increase our recycling efforts. Even then, it does a poor job. The propositions of the circular economy, and its assumptions, are not those with which we must work, living on planet Earth. There are certain rules, limits, and an enormous amount of complexity still to be understood about the biosphere, that human beings have absolutely no control over.  

Finally, it’s not clear that the circular economy naturally finds an ally in mātauranga Māori either. Life and nature are about balance between two forces, two worlds. Balance and opposition are key concepts in Māori views on the world (look at Georgina Tuari-Stewart’s Māori Philosophy for more on this). Ranginui the sky father, and Papatuānuku the Earth mother, along with the other gods, keep the biosphere alive. Perhaps a better representation of the circularity of an economic model with growth as its founding principle is to be found in the spiral, takurangi, which features on the logo of Āmiomio Aotearoa. Even then, economic growth and hope in technological advances are absolutely not central to the commonly described Māori worldview.

What is clear is that we have to be aware of just what lies behind the big ideas proposed to “solve climate change” and “live better lives.” The circular economy won’t lead us to infinite growth, because infinite growth simply isn’t possible on a finite planet. If we believe in technology and technological advances, we might be willing to take a leap, and place our faith in the market to develop technical solutions, but we risk becoming overly hopeful and ignoring the reality that confronts us.

Sharing knowledge is also a great gift.
Let others know about this article

It took more than 30 hours of research and writing to produce this article, which will always be open and free for everyone to read, without any advertising.

All our articles are freely accessible because we believe that everyone needs to be able to access to a source of coherent and easy to understand information on the ecological crisis. This challenge that confronts us all will only be properly addressed when we understand what the problems are and where they come from.

If you've learned something today, please consider donating, to help us produce more great articles and share this knowledge with a wider audience.


Our environment is more than a resource to be exploited. Human beings are not the ‘masters of nature,’ and cannot think they are managers of everything around them. Plurality is about finding a wealth of ideas to help us cope with the ecological crisis which we have to confront now, and in the coming decades. We all need to understand what is at stake, and create new ways of being in the world, new dreams for ourselves, that recognise this uncertain future.

Our network

On social media

We're part of the .eco network of organisations committed to support positive change for the planet.

Copyright © 2023

Global Carbon Inequalities

Pollution from factories

to support independent and ad-free ecological thinking

Jacques Lawinski

Jacques Lawinski

PhD candidate in philosophy and ecology at Université Paris VIII, visiting researcher in Lesvos, Greece. A writer, an activist, and an avid walker, I explore the planet and what it means to relate to nature, finding new, ecological ways of being.

Carbon emissions are far from equal. Rich people seem to emit more than poor people, and rich countries more than poor ones. Just how bad are global carbon inequalities?


We often hear organisations in New Zealand asking for climate justice. The Fridays for Future movement started by Greta Thunberg and continued in New Zealand by some of our young people is but one example of a climate justice movement. One of the things that we can do to measure climate justice is to by looking at the different emissions of different sectors of the population.

New Zealand’s Government-supported climate action website,, seems to have misunderstood the whole idea of carbon emissions. In a colourful and celebratory picture, they declare that New Zealand has the fourth highest carbon emissions per capita in the OECD! That actually means, the fourth worst country among all the other rich countries!

Carbon emissions celebrated by NZ ministry
GenLess celebrating New Zealand's dismal ranking.

To help any wary readers of this Government site out, and for those of you interested in learning more about carbon emissions, here is an explanation of carbon emissions and how they can be compared to show the level of inequality in countries around the world.

How do we calculate carbon emissions per capita (per person)? This is done by measuring the total emissions of a particular country, including all greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide…), and determining the share of these emissions for each person in the country. Because some citizens are wealthier than others, they tend to emit a lot more than people who are less wealthy. This is for many reasons: sometimes these people believe they need to travel a lot and so have large transport emissions; other times they buy expensive and high-polluting items such as private jets; and most have high-consumption lifestyles which require large amounts of resources in order to sustain.

We make these measurements by figuring out the amount of all the greenhouse gases that we produce, and converting these into a carbon dioxide equivalent, CO2e. We have this equivalent because each gas warms the planet differently – methane for example is much stronger than carbon dioxide, meaning it warms the planet faster with the same amount of gas. (See this article from MIT to read more about this). This number is then expressed in tonnes, which is the mass of gases that we are producing over a given time frame.

The inequality aspect of this measure of carbon emissions is a way of determining the difference between those who are more wealthy, and therefore emit a lot, and those who are less wealthy, and therefore emit much less. The greater the inequality, the greater the difference between wealthy and less-wealthy populations.

Carbon Emissions in New Zealand

In New Zealand, things are quite bad. We have a very unequal distribution of carbon emissions. On average each New Zealander emits 15.18 tonnes of CO2e per year. To put that into perspective, if we are to stay within 1.5 degrees of warming, we can each emit 1.1 tonnes of CO2 equivalents per year. To stay within 2 degrees of warming, we can each emit 3.4 tonnes per year. Our annual emissions are therefore, on average, 5 times what they should be if we are to limit the impact of global warming on our planet. Why do we need to limit the warming of the planet? See the article here (coming soon).

In fact, the bottom 50% of income earners, so half of New Zealand’s population, only emit 8.2 tonnes of CO2e per year. However, the wealthiest 10% of New Zealanders emit 45.89 tonnes per year, and the top 1% emit a staggering 139.1 tonnes per year. This top 1% of the population use up the carbon budget of nearly 41 people, each year.

Is there something wrong with carbon inequality?

Imagine that we were on a ship. On this voyage we have enough food to sustain everyone on the ship for the whole trip, plus a little bit more. But, one of these people decides that he’s going to eat much more than his allocated share – enough for 41 people. He starts eating, and day by day the food supply decreases for the whole crew abord the ship.

Is there a problem here? There’s no contract saying that this person can only consume his portion of the food each day. He’s free to eat as much as he wants. But the more he eats, the more other people will starve.

Some people will respond to this by saying that on this ship, it’s a matter of survival of the fittest. This person is acting in his interests to eat as much as he can. After all, he’s allowed to, and if he loves food, then why should we stop him?

Others will respond that in fact this person’s actions are wrong. They are eating more than their fair share of food, and as a result, other people will go hungry in the future. By being on the boat, there is an implicit understanding between the people that they will each share the resources evenly, so that everyone will be nourished and healthy at the end of the voyage.

The problem comes when we ask, what shall we do with this person? Some will say – do nothing! There isn’t a problem, and we can sort out the other (malnourished) people later on. Others will say we should cut off the food supply of this person, because they have already consumed more than their own share for the whole trip. Others will argue for something in the middle.

Carbon emissions inequality is the same. For us to stay within 1.5 degrees of warming, each person is given a budget of 1.1 tonnes of CO2 equivalents per year. To stay within 2 degrees of warming, we can each emit 3.4 tonnes per year. Most of us in developed countries like New Zealand will be over these limits. Certain people however have decided that they are going to emit an enormous amount more than their fair share. Much, much more.

Here we have one way of looking at climate justice. How do we make sure that each person has a similar degree of emissions, and how do we make sure that the ones who are emitting the most are the ones who bear the greatest consequences? Because, as we have seen, and will continue to see, it is always the least wealthy and most precarious people who bear the brunt of the effects of climate change.

Cruise ship in the sea
If we're on a boat with no further resources, what do we do if someone uses more than their fair share? Photo: Adam Gonzales

What about the rest of the world?

In 2022, the World Inequality Database released the World Inequality Report 2022. This report contains a section on carbon inequality across the world.

On average, each person on planet Earth emits 6.6 tonnes of CO2e per year. That’s less than half the average New Zealander.

The graph from the report below shows us the carbon inequality across the planet. The least wealthy 50% of the world’s population – some 4 billion people – only emit 1.6 tonnes each per year. They’re within the limit for the Earth’s warming to be kept below 2 degrees. The middle 40% are emitting 6.6 tonnes per year. The top 1% however are emitting 110 tonnes of CO2e per year. That’s the same as 68 people in the bottom 50% of the population.

Graph showing the global carbon inequalities
Global Carbon Inequality by group. Graph: World Inequality Report 2022

How does this compare throughout the world, when we look at different geographic regions?

Graph showing the emissions between income brackets internationally
Per Capita Carbon Inequality by group and region. Graph: World Inequality Report 2022

The closer the difference between the three bars, blue, green, and red, the more equal a particular region is when we talk about carbon inequality. When there is a massive difference between the bars, these regions are very unequal.

What we see here is that Europe is the most equal among the regions shown here, with the top 10% emitting only 6 times more than the bottom 50%. In most other regions, however, the top 10% emit around 10 times more CO2e than the bottom 50%, with the exception of Sub-Saharan Africa, where the top 10% emit 14 times more. Their top 10% only emit 7.3 tonnes each, however, compared with the top 10% of North Americans who emit 10 times that amount – 73 tonnes per year. Similarly, the poorest North Americans, on average, emit more than the richest people in Sub-Saharan Africa, and almost the same amount as the richest in South and South-East Asia.

Remember that in New Zealand, the top 10% emit 45.89 tonnes of CO2e per year, just over half that of a North American in the same wealth category.  

As we can see, the world is quite an unequal place when it comes to carbon emissions. When we think about the individual carbon budgets described above, some people have a lot more effort to put in than others, if we are to meet these goals.

Critiques of emissions policy and carbon calculations

This brings up the question of scale and impact in climate change policy. For example, limiting the flights that are made by private jet, or banning these flights entirely, will impact the carbon emissions of the wealthiest 10% of the population, and have almost no impact on the rest of the population – who, for a large part, have never even been in an aeroplane.

Actions that limit the emissions of the wealthiest of our populations often have a large impact on total emissions. Policies that limit the emissions of the least wealthy people, however, often have very little impact on total emissions. We should keep this in mind when considering carbon emission-related policies.

It’s also important to keep in mind that calculating true carbon emissions and carbon dioxide equivalents is almost impossible. On large scales, we can estimate a lot of things, but many small pieces of the equation are often left out. In order to calculate the emissions relating to the four carrots you bought at the supermarket last week, the quantities emitted are so tiny they often become simply ‘0’ in the overall calculation. This means that the emissions of your consumption are dramatically lower than they would be, had we taken absolutely everything into account (which is very, very complicated and difficult to properly measure).

Another problem with carbon calculations is what we include. Often New Zealanders’ emissions are referred to as being around 6 tonnes per person, per year. This is just carbon dioxide, and doesn’t take into account other greenhouse gases such as methane and nitrous oxide. You can see the difference on the Our World in Data page. The website uses an average total value of 7.7 tonnes per year, which is based on a calculation done in a research paper in released in 2014, which used data from 2007.

The figure used here, 15.18 tonnes per New Zealander, per year, includes these other greenhouse gases. Therefore, the emissions related to producing dairy and meat for export is included in the average emissions total of each and every New Zealander, because this is a collective emission due to our country’s production choices. Future Fit, for example, don’t use this higher figure, because it would involve emissions that don’t directly relate to your own choices. These collective emissions are almost impossible to reduce or remove without large scale change.

We should also remember that the debate on carbon emissions is only one part of the much larger ecological problem. We’re also acidifying the seas, destroying natural resources, losing biodiversity through more animals becoming extinct, degrading the quality of our water and soil, and more. Air pollution is part of the changes in weather and temperature that we are seeing. However, managing only our carbon emissions is insufficient to deal with the ecological problems that we are facing.

From a more methodological perspective, carbon emissions and carbon accounting can be a good thing, as a statistic. This measurement can bring our attention to inequalities, give us a rough guide of the impact of our production and consumption relative to other countries, and help us to see if we are going in the right direction with the actions we take. The numbers are also a good tool to get people motivated to reduce their score – and if through small changes, people are able to see their carbon emissions decreasing, they’re more likely to continue with these behaviours in the long term.

However, at the core of the directive to measure carbon emissions is the idea that nature and the environment are manageable resources, which can only take a certain amount of greenhouse gases before the balance is lost and life becomes threatened. This isn’t the case – for one, the environment cannot be managed and is not a quantifiable resource. Second, there is no limit beyond which the planet will be out of equilibrium. Nature doesn’t have equilibriums; rather, these are tools that ecologists use to understand the way that nature works. For more on these topics see this article (coming soon).

Looking for more?

Are you interested in knowing where you sit in terms of global wealth and income? The World Inequality Database have a handy calculator which can tell you both where you sit in New Zealand, as well as how you compare to other countries, and the rest of the world.

If you’re looking to get a rough idea of how your choices impact your total carbon emissions, you can calculate your carbon footprint at, and see how this relates to others in New Zealand, as well as what areas of your consumption are the biggest contributors to your score.

Sharing knowledge is also a great gift.
Let others know about this article

It took more than 30 hours of research and writing to produce this article, which will always be open and free for everyone to read, without any advertising.

All our articles are freely accessible because we believe that everyone needs to be able to access to a source of coherent and easy to understand information on the ecological crisis. This challenge that confronts us all will only be properly addressed when we understand what the problems are and where they come from.

If you've learned something today, please consider donating, to help us produce more great articles and share this knowledge with a wider audience.


Our environment is more than a resource to be exploited. Human beings are not the ‘masters of nature,’ and cannot think they are managers of everything around them. Plurality is about finding a wealth of ideas to help us cope with the ecological crisis which we have to confront now, and in the coming decades. We all need to understand what is at stake, and create new ways of being in the world, new dreams for ourselves, that recognise this uncertain future.

Our network

On social media

We're part of the .eco network of organisations committed to support positive change for the planet.

Copyright © 2023

What is Kaitiakitanga?

Forest with river and bridge

to support independent and ad-free ecological thinking

Jacques Lawinski

Jacques Lawinski

PhD candidate in philosophy and ecology at Université Paris VIII, visiting researcher in Lesvos, Greece. A writer, an activist, and an avid walker, I explore the planet and what it means to relate to nature, finding new, ecological ways of being.

We’ve seen kaitiakitanga used a lot recently, when we’re talking about the environment. But what does it really mean? And how can we use it in a way that is true to tikanga Māori?


In Aotearoa New Zealand, we seem to hear the word kaitiakitanga quite frequently in reference to sustainability and environmental management, especially since we have become more aware of the ecological problem (coming soon). But what is kaitiakitanga, and are we using it in the way it was intended by Māori, or has this concept been colonised by a certain view on the world, and lost its intended meaning?

The story of kaitiakitanga is traced back to the late 20th century, where the New Zealand Government and Māori began using the term in discussions over the lack of rangatiratanga, authority, that Māori had over the environment in the country. The development of the Resource Management Act (RMA) in 1991 cemented the use of this term in our judicial system.

The RMA defines kaitiakitanga as follows: “the exercise of guardianship by the tangata whenua of an area in accordance with tikanga Māori in relation to natural and physical resources; and includes the ethic of stewardship”.

Similarly, the Te Ara Encyclopaedia defines kaitiakitanga as “a way of managing the environment.” They continue, “Kaitiakitanga means guardianship, protection, preservation or sheltering.” Guardianship seems to be the main word that comes up when we have discussions about kaitiakitanga. We, as human beings, are (or should be) guardians of planet Earth. This means taking care of the planet, looking after it, deciding what is best for it, and steering it towards this state.

In a Stuff article about how kaitiakitanga could be relevant today, Jade Temepara echoes this idea, writing that kaitiakitanga is “a way of managing the environment, based on the Māori worldview.” We should, according to Temepara, be reducing our use of plastic, and making conscious shopping choices, to fulfil our role as guardians of the environment.

I recently picked up an issue of the Capital magazine, and whilst reading about Māori influences in contemporary architecture, the concept of kaitiakitanga rose its head. Whare Timu (Ngāti Kahungunu, Te Arawa, Ngāti Tūwharetoa) criticises how we translate and use the word. He says, “A guardian is a protector that stomps its foot and places its own ego in protecting something,” but kaitiakitanga, he explains, is about reciprocity. “If you want to take, you should be able to give back.”

Timu is right. When we are acting as guardians, we are deciding what is best for the environment, and imposing our will upon it, so that it will be able to conform to our wishes and needs. This way of thinking about caring for the planet is problematic. It places human beings at the centre of the world, and requires a dominating attitude towards the natural world. It is this mindset that has led to the ecological problem. We won’t resolve our relationship with nature through thinking in the same way.

Person picking up trash from the street
Is picking up rubbish what kaitiakitanga is all about? Photo: Denisse Leon

So, what does kaitiakitanga mean to Māori, and how did the term come to refer to another way of justifying the current, dominant “environmental management” worldview?

Reverend Maori Marsden writes in an article on kaitiakitanga that the original kaitiaki, or guardians, were not human beings at all; rather, they were the Gods. “The ancient ones (tawhito), the spiritual sons and daughters of Rangi(nui) and Papa(tuānuku) were the Kaitiaki or guardians. Tane was the Kaitiaki of the forest, Tangaroa of the sea, Rongo of herbs and root crops, Hinenui-i-te-pō of the portals of death and so on. Different tawhito had oversight of the various departments of nature. And whilst man could harvest those resources, they were duty bound to thank and propitiate the guardians of those resources.”

Do you see the shift in perspective here? Instead of imposing a human will on the Earth as Whare Timu told us about, in te ao Māori the gods were guardians of the environment. Their will was what determined how the environment would behave towards human beings, and it was only by showing respect, treating the natural world well and in accordance with custom, that she would in turn offer her bounty for human beings to harvest.

Marsden tells us that “the resources of the earth did not belong to man, rather, man belonged to the Earth.” We often hear that the common word for Earth, whenua, is the same as the word for placenta in te reo Māori. According to Māori, humans are born out of Papatuānuku, Mother Earth, and therefore can be seen as her children. Human beings, as coming from the Earth, could not lay claim to their own mother – rather, their mother laid claim to them, and offered them her “resources” in the form of nutrition for life.

In another article on the concept, Merata Kawharu writes that “kaitiakitanga is equally about the past and managing sets of relationships that transcend time and space: between atua ‘gods, spiritual beings’ and ancestors on one hand, and their living kaitiaki on the other.” As we can see, kaitiakitanga is not just about managing what we now call “resources.”

Kaitiakitanga refers to the relationship that Māori hold between themselves and their environment, which is like the relationship that we have with our own mother. Part of this relationship involves obligations towards our mothers, to keep them alive and healthy, and responsibilities to preserve her life-giving properties. In return, our mothers raise us, give us nutrients in both material, spiritual and knowledge-based ways, and allow us to flourish.

Perhaps the most obvious way that Māori enacted “resource management” to look after Papatuānuku was to declare rāhui, or bans, on particular areas of forest or sea, to allow these areas to regenerate. Tõhunga, or experts in noticing the states of particular resources, would alert the chief of the need for a rāhui to be put in place, and, after consultation, this ban would be effective for a certain period of time. In his article, Marsden tells us that this tõhunga would perform a ceremony so that the mauri, or vital life force, of the resource, would be asked to return. After this, the area would be left alone, for it to regenerate without human intervention.

We can see now that to understand kaitiakitanga, we need to make reference to many other concepts in te ao Māori. Kaitiakitanga isn’t about being a guardian of nature. It’s about maintaining a particular relationship between the environment and the community, which is based on bonds of kinship, and relationships of respect and care.

What happens when we disrespect this relationship with our Earth mother, as we are currently doing with pollution, over-consumption, the generation of waste, and the extraction of resources? Marsden puts it quite bluntly: “Man becomes a pillager, despoiler and rapist of his own mother.” The ecological problem, looking from the viewpoint of kaitiakitanga, is about human beings overstepping the boundaries of their relationship with the environment, not showing respect and care, and not giving back as we would give to our mothers in our human relationships.

A key part of kaitiakitanga is reciprocity, as Whare Timu drew our attention to earlier. When we think about managing resources, we don’t think of care, reciprocity, and giving. We think about how we can take in a way such that the resource will still be available for future generations (according to the definition of sustainability, for example). We think across generations, but not about our relationship with the environment itself.

Kaitiakitanga therefore isn’t about managing resources. It’s not a ‘way of managing the environment.’ We do not call our relationships with our birth mothers ‘resource management’, because our mothers are not resources, and our relationships with them are not managerial, but familial. Kaitiakitanga asks us to rethink our relationship with the environment by considering the environment, Mother Earth, as we consider our family relationships.

No fishing sign
Rāhui, or bans, were one way of managing resources. Photo: Unsplash

What happened to kaitiakitanga, that we should end up so far away from its intended meaning?

When we remove all the layers of meaning that we have just added to kaitiakitanga, we seem to be left with a fairly empty concept. One which refers to a romanticised way of looking at nature, and justifies the current rhetoric of “environmental governance” and “sustainable management” by pretending to apply a Māori lens to these words.

The two worlds couldn’t be further apart, however. What we commonly call the “Western view” in New Zealand, which is really one of United States capitalism and foreign relations, British jurisprudence, and a Judaeo-Christian morality, tells us that the environment is a resource, which can be measured, owned, divided, taken, and therefore dominated. We think about “resource management” because the same management techniques of control and direction from the business context can apparently be applied to nature itself.

In 1995, C.S. Holling analysed the impact of these so-called management strategies on populations of fish, cattle, trees, and water. He concluded that any attempt to manage ecological variables inexorably [leads] to less resilient ecosystems, more rigid management institutions, and more dependent societies. The very success of management […] set[s] the conditions for collapse.” In short, environmental management doesn’t work. Worse – it leads to the collapse of the whole ecosystem.

Māori therefore have good reason to doubt the rhetoric surrounding resource management. Maori Marsden writes that “Maori are extremely sceptical regarding the government’s resource management plans, its conservation policies and sustainable management efforts. Based as they are within a society driven by market considerations, conservation and sustainable management policies must eventually fail. So long as the prime values are based on economics, then the values implicit in sustainable management plans are diametrically opposed, and the latter must eventually succumb.”

Kaitiakitanga as another possible way forward seems to have lost its power, and been incorporated into this way of thinking. Merata Kawharu writes that “A problem has developed, where kaitiakitanga has become almost locked into meaning simply “guardianship” without understanding of (or in the case of the Crown, providing for) the wider obligations and rights it embraces.” Kaitiakitanga became a way to refer to the management of a particular environment that we owned individually, rather than, as in tikanga Māori, the relationship with environment as a whole. Kaitiakitanga doesn’t instruct us to look after only our portion of the river, but rather the whole river and its surroundings.

It would seem that kaitiakitanga has been appropriated for use in judicial and governmental contexts, where its full meaning is not understood. This so-called “colonisation” of the word has trickled down into everyday vocabulary, meaning that we end up with kaitiakitanga being translated as “guardianship,” and referred to as a “way of managing resources.” In the end, the consumerist attitude of reducing plastic use, recycling, and being an ‘ethical consumer’ has been mistaken for a way of modernising the concept of kaitiakitanga, when really, it’s just reinforcing a certain problematic worldview.

On the other hand, perhaps the popularisation of the concept has been beneficial, despite its lack of traditional meaning. By including kaitiakitanga in something like the Resource Management Act, Māori have found another justification and way of showing a loss of rangatiratanga (authority) over their lands. Claims against the Crown under the Treaty of Waitangi often make reference to how Māori can no longer exercise kaitiakitanga over their lands and the resources that these lands offer. Kaitiakitanga as a concept still allows us to see that there are two different worldviews at play, which are seeking reconciliation in Aotearoa New Zealand.

What could we do, now that we know more about kaitiakitanga, and how it has been used? Being careful with how we refer to this concept is important. Kaitiakitanga is about a fundamental relationship with Mother Earth, based on an ethic of care. It’s not really about consumer actions – though these might follow if we are living according to kaupapa Māori (Māori first principles).

One of the main places where kaitiakitanga is referred to is in the workplace. Next time you are discussing the environment and kaitiakitanga, instead of thinking about how you as an individual can take care of the environment, try thinking about how your community, society, or business relates with the environment. By recognising how we currently interact with the natural environment, we can begin to see the impact that we have on it, and also what we could be giving in return for the resources that it gives to us.

Sharing knowledge is also a great gift.
Let others know about this article

It took more than 30 hours of research and writing to produce this article, which will always be open and free for everyone to read, without any advertising.

All our articles are freely accessible because we believe that everyone needs to be able to access to a source of coherent and easy to understand information on the ecological crisis. This challenge that confronts us all will only be properly addressed when we understand what the problems are and where they come from.

If you've learned something today, please consider donating, to help us produce more great articles and share this knowledge with a wider audience.


Our environment is more than a resource to be exploited. Human beings are not the ‘masters of nature,’ and cannot think they are managers of everything around them. Plurality is about finding a wealth of ideas to help us cope with the ecological crisis which we have to confront now, and in the coming decades. We all need to understand what is at stake, and create new ways of being in the world, new dreams for ourselves, that recognise this uncertain future.

Our network

On social media

We're part of the .eco network of organisations committed to support positive change for the planet.

Copyright © 2023