Book Club

The Chair read for you La Grande Adaptation – Climat, Capitalisme et Catastrophe by Romain Felli

Published on 29 July 2020
In this book published in 2016, the Swiss academic Romain Felli puts into perspective the foundations of the policy of adaptation to climate change by denouncing its instrumentalization by market logic, to the detriment of the most vulnerable. The book describes how the idea of adapting to climate change was mobilized – and implemented – as early as the 1970s, to enable the market to be extended to all areas of life. The following is not a complete summary of the author’s analysis but a presentation of elements deemed relevant by the reader.
Following an analytical framework largely derived from Marxist theory, Felli defends the thesis that the concept of adapting societies to climate change has been the default option for responding to climate disruption since the 1960s. At that time and until the 1980s, famines caused by natural disasters on populations largely dependent on agriculture were viewed from a mainly neo-Malthusian perspective. In other words, poor populations are the most vulnerable to climate change because they are too numerous and exert an exacerbated pressure on (otherwise finite) resources. At this time, the notion of human action on the climate is non-existent and climate disruption – when it is recognised – is understood as an “ordinary” external shock to society (i.e. in the same way as an economic shock). Society, in accordance with the economic system, must therefore adapt to it.

In the context of the Cold War, the emergence of the issue of climate change and the need for adaptation is therefore seen as a means of spreading the liberal economic system in Asian and African countries, housing the populations most vulnerable to climate change. Discussing this perspective, Felli denounces the instrumentalization of the notion of adaptation through neoliberal policies aimed at expanding the market by evading the structural causes of vulnerability. Indeed, the origins of food shocks (famines) are exclusively related to natural problems (droughts) rather than to the management of the public authorities in place and to societal organization. Hence, famine episodes are considered to be the result of a lack of adaptive capacity of the poorest populations caused by their exclusion from the market. The pre-existing socio-economic vulnerabilities of these populations are then largely neglected.

To illustrate his point, Felli discusses several examples. For him, the development of microfinance and microcredit is presented as a first tool for adapting to climate change in the South, allowing the extension of the liberal market. Using the example of the Indian province of Andhra Pradesh, Felli demonstrates that by imposing an increased search for productivity that neglects food-producing agriculture, microcredit increases dependence on the market, leading to the indebtedness and bankruptcy of small farmers. Aspiring to alleviate uncertainty and mutualise risks, micro-insurance projects run by multinationals also aim to take advantage of poverty and therefore have no interest in reducing vulnerability but in perpetuating it. From another point of view, to become profitable, the system can only lose the characteristics of its local operation – i.e. the subsidies that enable the poorest to participate and the negotiations with local actors – and increase the vulnerability of the poorest to price variations, since they are led to market their production. He thus concludes that by ignoring the economic and social conditions of the vulnerability of the poorest, new vulnerabilities are created, insidiously bringing the law of the market into the logic of adaptation to climate change.
Côme Billard, Research Fellow “Applying economic networks to the green transition: essays on diffusions and negotiations”
Romain Felli, La Grande Adaptation. Climat, Capitalisme et Catastrophe, Paris, Seuil, 2016, 292 p., 18€.