“We’ll go down in history as the first society that wouldn’t save itself because it wasn’t cost-effective.” Often attributed to Kurt Vonnegut, sometimes to Donella Meadows, it’s one of those quotes that’s so good, it seems to have multiple claims of ancestry.

Wherever it came from and however accurately it may have described the blinkered bookkeepers, Akshat Rathi wants you to know it’s not true anymore. “It’s now cheaper to save the world than destroy it,” he declares at the opening of his new book, Climate Capitalism: Winning the Race to Zero Emissions and Solving the Crisis of Our Age.

Rathi’s book might be described as a series of case studies highlighting progress against climate pollution, but it’s equally a compelling collection of stories — some household names but many of them people we should know about and probably didn’t.

But we’d better deal with the title first. It’s certain to raise some hackles. You’ll be familiar with Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. A book whose subtitle is echoed on placards at climate protests worldwide — Capitalism vs. the Climate.

Rathi wades into that debate without disputing the role of unfettered capitalism in warming the planet. “No denying that,” he writes, but we have less than three decades to transform civilization’s energy system and the agricultural system that feeds us in our billions. Climate change “cannot be addressed by the same form of uncontrolled capitalism,” Rathi argues. “At the same time, reforming capitalism might be the only practical way to get to zero emissions so quickly.”

It’s an argument you’ve likely heard before. But you’re unlikely to have run across such a wide-ranging case, nor such an honest account of the complexity behind the innovations spanning the globe.

Rathi is an unusually well-positioned tour guide and storyteller. An impressive career as a science journalist, he’s now focused on the intersection between energy and climate for Bloomberg (where he writes and podcasts the splendidly titled Zero). He has a PhD in organic chemistry from the University of Oxford and a degree in chemical engineering from the Institute of Chemical Technology in Mumbai. He works for one of the world’s premier business outlets. But the complexities of climate capitalism snare him, too. He struggled for months to get his parents’ solar panels hooked to the grid at their home in Nashik, India. You can only imagine how the normies fare.

There’s a whole genre of techno-optimism out there and you probably know the script — solar panel prices have plummeted, and presto, the fossil fuel age is doomed. Climate Capitalism is, refreshingly, not one of those books.

We meet a farmer staving off desperation over his aridifying land in India by contracting with solar companies. And we’re invited into corner offices in China where companies are churning out EVs and batteries at mind-boggling scale. But we also trundle through stories of frustrating, noble failure and, most commonly, complex tales where progress emerged from a muddle of factors.

If changing the course of a major global industry seems out of reach, you might take heart from the students at Tvind high school in Jutland, Denmark, who built the world’s largest wind turbine in 1978, writes Chris Hatch @zerocarbon

Even the most successful stories show that multiple actors have to interact constructively. There isn’t “one solution or one route that will get us out of this mess,” Rathi concludes. Instead, he distills the three major actors down to “technology, policy and people — that are continually shaped by money, power and politics.”

And so, we follow Farhana Yamin, lawyer, lead author of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports and an architect of global climate agreements, as she joins street protests and superglues her hands to Shell’s office (there may be hope for capitalism in Rathi’s telling but it’s gonna need a push).

And we roll back time to identify the crucial factors in Bryony Worthington’s campaign to land the U.K.’s standard-setting Climate Change Act — just this week, it was reported the U.K. has cut its emissions by more than half, to the lowest level since 1879.

We’ve all heard about Tesla, of course, and probably more than enough from Elon Musk. But the name Wan Gang is not widely known in the West. “It is the lesser known of the two who has had the bigger impact,” Rathi reckons. And it’s quite a story: sent away for “re-education” as a teenager under Mao, Wan got into university after the death of The Great Leader. Later, a PhD in internal combustion engines in Germany and eventually back home to drive government policy and disrupt the global industry for those same combustion vehicles. OPEC complacently assumed there would be less than five million EVs in the world by 2040 — that milestone whizzed by four years ago and the organization now worries there might be over 500 million vehicles not burning its petroleum.

If changing the course of a major global industry seems out of reach, you might take heart from the students at Tvind high school in Jutland, Denmark. With their teachers and some engineering help, they built the world’s largest wind turbine in 1978. It’s still operating today, powering about 500 homes. More consequentially, Tvindkraft directly inspired the era of modern wind power. In retrospect, you can trace a path from those teenagers to the world’s leading offshore wind company — Ørsted — the company formerly known as DONG (Danish Oil and Natural Gas). Ørsted, in turn, played an important role in that big drop in U.K. carbon pollution, supplying enough power for six million British homes.

“We now live in a two-track world,” writes Rathi. “As long as we keep emitting billions of tons of carbon dioxide, the world will see continued climate extremes leading to the loss of lives and livelihoods. That things keep getting worse, however should not hide the fact that the scale of climate action is also growing.”

Whoever it was that coined that “not cost-effective” phrase, they would surely have relished Rathi’s poop story. In the mid-1800s, London hadn’t built a sewer system. The city was the seat of empire and also “a most head-and-stomach distending” place, according to Charles Dickens. Finally came The Great Stink of 1858. So awful that Queen Victoria and her court abandoned the city. The government finally dug up the streets and built sewers.

It’s estimated to have cost about two per cent of GDP, according to a professor at Columbia University. Far less than the looming impacts of climate change. “No one questioned whether that was worth it.”

Chris Hatch writes Canada's National Observer's celebrated Sunday newsletter, Zero Carbon. Chris is the former executive director of Rainforest Action Network as well as the former executive editor at Canada's National Observer. He is now a columnist at National Observer and writes the acclaimed Sunday newsletter, Zero Carbon.

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Sure nice to read positive articles. Especially when Canadian Right Leaning Fraser Institute just published article that their evidence shows no worry, there is not enough evidence about Global Warming! And these folks are Poilievre's best friends

I fail to see how marginal projects and the ceaseless histrionics around how "solar is cheaper than fossil fuels" has true bearing on global emissions (whose growth in fossil fuel use has consistently outpaced the growth in renewable energy). Narratives saying anything along the lines of "things are starting to turn" need to be automatically subjected to a higher degree of scrutiny, because they're starting off on a fundamentally questionable basis.

The only credible way to contend with a work like Climate Capitalism is through severe critique, as it is yet another piece of propaganda from someone who hasn't taken the "there is no alternative" blinders off yet.

Come on, Mr. Hatch, you're almost there. Instead of giving undue airtime to capitalism's apologists, write about Kohei Saito or Jason Hickel, THAT'S where the interesting (and physically plausible) solutions are.