Naomi Klein, Canadian author of the bestseller “The Shock Doctrine,” has done the environmental movement a great service by writing this new book. It is a masterful examination of the ways in which climate change is impacting our political and economic systems, and of the way forward to solving this worldwide existential crisis.
She states that, “…our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life. What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion.” She notes that, “Climate change isn’t an ‘issue’ to add to the list…. It is a civilizational wake-up call. A powerful message-spoken in the language of fires, floods, droughts, and extinctions-telling us we need an entirely new economic model and a new way of sharing the planet.”
Consistently using language accessible to the non-scientist, Ms. Klein gives us a view into the various strategies that have been and are being tried by many environmental movements and organizations. She dissects the false claims of the climate deniers, but also trains her fire on those who want to tackle climate change solutions but limit their efforts and critiques to staying within the capitalist system.
She delves into and exposes various capitalist schemes to profit from the transition to clean energy, ruthlessly criticizing those who deal with climate change by admitting that climate change is a real problem while acting in such a way as to force us to wait to actually tackle it. She also takes on those who willfully spread confusion and delay while fossil fuel companies continue to profit from their ability to pollute our common, shared atmosphere.
Klein is not an academic observer, standing outside the fray and commenting from afar. She is an activist, a member of the board of 350.org, a journalist who has traveled the world interviewing grassroots activists, CEOs of major corporations and of major environmental organizations, and attending and reporting on conferences of right-wing opponents of climate change action as well as advocates of geo-engineering “solutions” to the greenhouse effect.
The first chapter in the book, “The Right is Right: the Revolutionary Power of Climate Change,” is based on an article she wrote for The Nation magazine several years ago, about a conference of climate change deniers. She notes that conservatives “have come to understand that as soon as they admit that climate change is real, they will lose the central ideological battle of our time-whether we need to plan and manage our societies to reflect our goals and values, or whether that task can be left to the magic of the market.” She claims that the right understands better than the left how fundamental the challenge of climate change is, to capitalism and to market fundamentalism.
She writes that, “Conservatives have managed to stall and roll back climate action amidst economic crisis by making climate about economics-about the need to protect growth and jobs during difficult times (and they are always difficult). Progressives can easily do the same: by showing that the real solutions to the climate crisis are also our best hope of building a much more stable and equitable economic system.”
Klein quotes Yotam Marom, an organizer with Occupy Wall Street, who wrote, “The fight for the climate isn’t a separate movement, it’s both a challenge and an opportunity for all of our movements. We don’t need to become climate activists, we are climate activists.”
Klein exhibits a deep understanding of the international range of both the problems caused by climate change and of the many kinds of struggles to try to fix the problem, and describes some of the many struggles going on to address the impacts on workers, farmers, indigenous peoples, and on urban and rural populations. In particular, she details many local struggles against various development efforts which would make the crisis worse, using examples from Nigeria, Brazil, the Pacific Northwest, Australia, France, Quebec, Montana, and elsewhere.
She notes the historic impact of slavery, imperialism and colonialism, and the ways they still affect international economics: “As a direct result of these centuries of serial thefts-of land, labor, and atmospheric space-developing countries today are squeezed between the impacts of global warming, made worse by persistent poverty, and by their need to alleviate that poverty….” She goes on: “They cannot break this deadlock without help, and that help can only come from those countries and corporations that grew wealthy, in large part, as a result of this illegitimate appropriation.” But she also points out that, “…having been denied the opportunity to choke the atmosphere in the past does not grant anyone the right to choke it today.” She calls for a new development path, in the interests of the people of both the former colonial powers and those in the developing world.
Addressing climate change, according to Klein, “requires heavy-duty interventions: sweeping bans on polluting activities, deep subsidies for green alternatives, pricey penalties for violations, new taxes, new public works programs, reversals of privatizations….” Such a program “has a lot less to do with the mechanics of solar power than (with) the specifics of human power-specifically whether there can be a shift away from corporations and toward communities….” This leads her to the conclusion “…that there is still time to avoid catastrophic warming, but not within the rules of capitalism as they are currently constructed. Which is surely the best argument there has ever been for changing those rules.” She states “Climate change pits what the planet needs to maintain stability against what our economic model needs to sustain itself.”
While in most cases directing her sharpest critiques directly at the system, Klein occasionally lapses into language that blames all of us, or at least the residents of the developed capitalist economies, as “beneficiaries” of fossil fuel extraction. She says, “…the solution to global warming is not to fix the world, it is to fix ourselves.” Elsewhere, she makes clear that the fossil fuel corporations and those who profit from the system as presently constituted are the obstacle to the change needed to protect the environment for sustained human life.
In my opinion, she gets a bit too “meta” when she says that that the root of the problem is not just capitalism, but “extractivism,” which places humans above nature, as its conquerors. This critique, while true in a general sense, can be used to let corporations off the hook, since the “real problem” is thus identified as faulty philosophy. She says that, “…rather than a society of grave robbers, we need to become a society of life amplifiers….” This takes us away, just a little, from her arguments elsewhere that a broad-based coalition is being built, a “…robust coalition of unions, immigrants, students, environmentalists, and everyone else whose dreams were getting crushed by the crashing economic model….”
In many places Klein highlights the role of indigenous communities in fighting for environmental justice and in offering a different paradigm of how to live with the earth. These communities have played an important role, particularly in offering stiff resistance to many efforts to expand mining and drilling into their traditional lands. She quotes Ecuadorian biologist Esperanza Martínez, who asks, “Why should we sacrifice new areas if fossil fuels should not be extracted in the first place?” Klein discusses such new forms of popular movements as the Cowboy and Indian Alliance and Idle No More, and spends many pages explaining victories small and large in struggles on climate change and energy transformation that we don’t often hear about.
She promotes civil disobedience as one key way resistance is expressed, repeatedly calling it “Blockadia.” She doesn’t fall into the trap that Chris Hedges leaps into in his recent essay claiming that those who organize civil disobedience are the only hope for the planet, confusing a sometimes effective tactic with the longer-range strategy the movement needs. But Klein does offer examples of civil disobedience as an expression of the deepest opposition to the system, stopping short of romanticizing such tactics, however, noting the brutality often imposed by a hyper-military response from governments beholden to fossil fuel interests.
Her strongest examples reflect the unity developing among indigenous tribes, environmentalists, ranchers, and others, who use civil disobedience alongside mass mobilizations, legal challenges, petitions, public campaigns, boycotts, and many other tactics.
The author’s main failing, in this reviewer’s opinion, is that while she sees the importance of bringing labor and unions into environmental coalitions, and explains well the connections between exploiting the earth, its resources, and human labor, she doesn’t seem to understand that, ultimately, the only force in society with the potential power to impose the kind of fundamental change needed is the working class.
Klein has spoken to a Canadian union convention, elucidating the stake labor has in the struggles over climate change, and the self-interest of workers in joining this movement, so she does see a role for labor, but misses that only the power of workers can force the economic system to change in basic ways.
Klein opines that, “…if governments are unwilling to live up to the international (and domestic) responsibilities, then movements of people have to step into that leadership vacuum and find ways to change the power equation.” But a mass movement without the power of organized workers will not be able to compel the kinds of changes necessary.
“A destabilized climate is the cost of deregulated, global capitalism, its unintended, yet unavoidable consequence,” Klein points out. “This connection between pollution and labor exploitation has been true since the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution.” Organized workers are not just another element of the broad coalition, they are the key force, whose participation or lack thereof will determine the outcome of the whole struggle.
Klein understands the need for positive programs to win workers and oppressed communities away from the cycle of dead-end choices now on offer. She writes that “…today’s climate movement does not have the luxury of simply saying no without simultaneously fighting for a series of transformative yeses-the building blocks of our next economy that can provide good clean jobs, as well as a social safety net that cushions the hardships for those inevitably suffering losses.” While encouraging the divestment movement which is challenging the fossil fuel industries, she also argues we need to reinvest in more human- and climate-centered programs.
“This Changes Everything” addresses many more issues, such as agro-ecology, fishery depletion and the effect of more acidic ocean water on developing shellfish, and the cooptation of some environmental organizations by corporations during the 1980s and ’90s, and brings in some of her personal challenges to show what is happening to people, both psychologically and physically.
Every single book on the environment can’t cover every issue deeply, and this book, while comprehensive in many ways, is no exception. Klein does not fully explore the connections between climate change and the whole range of environmental challenges facing humanity. Those challenges include declining agricultural yields, increased water stresses, the worldwide spread of persistent organic pollutants (“pops”) which affect the human reproductive system, to mention just a few. All these problems are linked, and all are made worse by climate change, another reason battles over greenhouse gas emissions are key elements bringing together many other environmental fights. And while Klein offers a stunning critique of capitalism, and points to various experiments and small-scale economic changes that are happening, she offers no economic blueprint for what to replace capitalism with.
In a book filled with explanations of the multiple environmental challenges and crises humanity faces, Klein’s outlook is a hopeful one. The concluding section is titled, “The Leap Year-Just Enough Time for the Impossible.” Her vision is of a broad movement engaged in changing economics, politics and culture in ways that lead to resiliency, and even more, to the regeneration of human life and the life of the natural world on which we depend for our very existence. She says that “…only mass social movements can save us now.” She goes on: “The only remaining variable [in whether we will face climate catastrophe] is whether some countervailing power will emerge to block the road, and simultaneously clear some alternate pathways to destinations that are safer. If that happens, well, it changes everything.”
Klein’s latest book, issued right before the giant People’s Climate March in New York City on September 21, is a significant contribution to the debate over climate change, a debate guaranteed to heat up as there are increasing impacts on the human-constructed world and the natural world on which it rests and depends. She clarifies for activists new and old that it is ultimately not just a matter of tinkering with our technology and regulatory practices: Climate change is a challenge to the capitalist system itself.
“This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate”
By Naomi Klein,
Simon and Schuster,
576 pages, list price $30.
Photo: Trash collectors are overwhelmed by the amount of rain and sewage soaked waste people have removed from their basements in the wake of last week’s floods in Metro Detroit. Elizabeth Conley/Detroit News/AP