The Observer Review: Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate
Naomi Klein has written a brave book that not only confronts the calamity of climate destabilization, but also examines the crisis’ deep roots in the perverse logic of capitalism and the dehumanizing values underpinning “extractivist” energy and technology.
Klein’s courage shows not in her reporting—there we get the research and rigor that are her trademarks—but in her plea that we not only think about the crisis and commit to act, but that we feel it as well. Facing climate change is not just a matter of data and analysis, but of anguish. Klein is candid about her own struggle with the grief that accompanies truth.
Klein starts with a blunt statement of the problem: “[O]ur economic system and our planetary system are now at war. Or, more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life.” Klein admits that while deniers are wrong about the science, “the right is right” when it describes climate-change activism as an assault on free-market ideology. Climate-change minimizers, on the other hand—often self-professed liberal environmentalists—place their faith in technological and policy fixes that won’t upset the status quo, such as cap-and-trade carbon management. That strategy, Klein writes, “is either dishonest or delusional because a way of life based on the promise of infinite growth cannot be protected, least of all exported to every corner of the globe.”
Klein argues that efforts to cope with global warming must challenge neoliberalism (the uber-capitalist ideology, dominant these past four decades, that emphasizes privatization, deregulation and cuts to public spending). This economic system has no language to describe reducing consumption, just blather about “green” consumption, based on a naïve assumption that we can solve the climate problem by buying ever-more-efficient gadgets. Steadily rising carbon emissions reveal such “market-friendly” approaches as dead ends, leading Klein to advocate a steady-state economy with selective de-growth, an approach she describes as “growing the caring economy, shrinking the careless one.”
People will accept reduced consumption and a lower-energy world, Klein argues, but only if the cutbacks are equitable. The necessary investments will require higher taxes on everyone but the poor, following the polluter-pays principle, with burdens falling heaviest on fossil-fuel corporations and the weapons and auto industries.
But market ideology complicates that picture. As Klein notes, the financial crisis created an opportunity for coordinated planning via the government’s bailout of banks and auto companies. But instead of implementing people- and planet-centered changes, Obama toed the neoliberal line that government shouldn’t tell corporations what to do. The task for the left, Klein argues, is to demonstrate that “real solutions to the climate crisis are also our best hope of building a much more stable and equitable economic system, one that strengthens and transforms the public sphere, generates plentiful, dignified work, and radically reins in corporate greed.”
Klein realizes that neoliberals will object to any policy that involves overt government planning, favors alternative energy sources, and creates a fair playing field. We should nonetheless demand, she suggests, government programs such as community-controlled renewable energy, industrial planning based on local sourcing and job protection, support for worker cooperatives, and decentralized nonindustrial farming based on agroecology.
Governments also need to “remember how to say no,” Klein says, especially to energy projects such as the “terra-deforming” tar sands mines of Alberta, which climate scientist James Hansen has warned will mean “game over” for the climate, and which Klein captures in a phrase: “The earth, skinned alive.”
Impediments to serious climate policy are everywhere, of course. The fossil-fuel companies’ fiduciary responsibility to shareholders, Klein writes, “virtually guarantees the planet will cook.” Citing Bill McKibben’s widely circulated 2012 Rolling Stone article on the “terrifying new math” of climate change, Klein reminds us that energy companies would have to forgo 80 percent of their proven reserves if we are to avoid runaway climate change: “The very thing we must do to avert catastrophe—stop digging—is the very thing these companies cannot contemplate without initiating their own demise.” The legalized bribery allowed by our campaign finance system gives such companies powerful tools for blocking political change.
Klein argues that the way to fight back is by building a movement that advocates “system change not climate change” and tying ecological sustainability to economic changes that benefit ordinary people. Such changes will have to address not just climate change, but humankind’s “profound disconnection from our surroundings and one another.” That problem, Klein writes, “date[s] back to core civilizational myths on which post-Enlightenment Western culture is founded—myths about humanity’s duty to dominate a natural world that is believed to be at once limitless and entirely controllable.”
It’s time, Klein says, to go beyond extractivism, that “nonreciprocal, dominance-based relationship with the earth, one of purely taking.”
But don’t expect much help from mainstream environmental groups such as the Nature Conservancy, which Klein critiques for continuing to allow, and for profiting from, oil drilling on land it received as a gift from the Mobil Oil Company. That land became the Texas City Prairie Preserve, where the Nature Conservancy has allowed drilling near the nesting areas of the Attwater’s prairie chicken, which the preserve was supposed to help protect from extinction.
Klein also places little hope in environmentally-invested “enlightened billionaires” such as Warren Buffett, Tom Steyer, Bill Gates or—heaven help us—T. Boone Pickens.
Could there be anything crazier than expecting rich people to save us? How about combining an adolescent yearning for superhero stories with a fundamentalist faith in technology? While not endorsed by most climate scientists, “Solar Radiation Management” is promoted by “the Geoclique,” which Klein describes as a group “crammed with overconfident men prone to complimenting each other on their fearsome brainpower.” Geo-engineering projects would pump sulfate aerosols into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight back into space, “dimming the sun” and slowing warming. Klein points out the obvious lesson of such fantastical pursuits: “[I]f the danger of climate change is sufficiently grave and imminent for governments to be considering science-fiction solutions, isn’t it also grave and imminent enough for them to consider just plain science-based solutions?”
Having diagnosed the problem and rejected bound-to-fail “solutions,” Klein devotes the rest of the book to more hopeful stories of social justice and climate-issue organizing, offering accounts of the roving transnational movement dubbed “Blockadia”—people demanding ecological responsibility and real democracy. Indigenous people are leading the way, including the Idle No More coalition in Canada, with poor and non-white communities everywhere defying stereotypes of what environmentalists look like.
These organizers understand what neoliberal ideologues can’t seem to fathom: The economy can be changed, but the natural world will not adjust to our needs. Around the world, activists are leading the charge away from a “risk assessment” decision-making model in favor of the “precautionary principle,” which demands evidence of safety before approval. Not all of these campaigns have been successful, but Klein notes that activism creates uncertainty—which investors don’t like—and so can buy time.
This Changes Everything takes an interesting turn at this point, with Klein reflecting on her miscarriages, an abbreviated interaction with a fertility clinic, and the birth of a child as a means of exploring the limits of our living world. A woman writing about such matters risks being dismissed as emotional, but Klein realizes that ignoring emotion only contributes to the culture’s profound dissociation from the prerogatives of biological life.
The struggle for ecological sanity is intellectual, political, moral and deeply emotional. Klein does not call for an end to all extraction, but for “the end of the extractivist mindset—of taking without caretaking, of treating land and people as resources to deplete rather than as complex entities with rights to a dignified existence based on renewal and regeneration.”
At both the personal and the planetary level, she suggests, we renew and regenerate, or we die.
Disclosure: Robert Jensen is a member of activist groups that have hosted three Austin talks by Klein, and is listed in the acknowledgements of This Changes Everything.