This Changes Everything

By Bryan Walker 06/10/2014

Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate places the battle against climate change firmly in the context of the struggle for social justice. Fighting climate change means reordering the ways our economies are structured. The pillars of the reigning economic paradigm – privatisation, deregulation and lower taxation paid for by cuts to public spending cannot serve us for this purpose. Public spending, on the scale of a Marshall Plan for the earth, and robust public institutions are required.

Klein is no friend to neo-liberal capitalism quite apart from the climate issue, but she considers climate change adds existential urgency to her political and economic concerns. The Heartland Institute, whose sixth international conference she attended, is right, she suggests, to see climate change as a threat to the ideology they exist to defend. Her report of that conference, incidentally, is a fascinating account of the twisted logic which is common discourse in such gatherings.Klein points to the cognitive dissonance in which we are trapped:

“… a crisis we have been studiously ignoring is hitting us in the face— and yet we are doubling down on the stuff that is causing the crisis in the first place.”

What keeps us stuck in this position is that the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe and benefit most of us “present an extreme threat to the elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process and most of our major media outlets”.

In her patient and exhaustive fashion Klein explores the corporate logic that drives major and powerful companies to continue to build reserves of fossil fuels way past the point at which their burning spells disaster for humanity. She writes of the fiduciary responsibility to shareholders which “virtually guarantees that the planet will cook”, a metaphor justified by her book’s careful anchorage to climate science.

Free trade agreements, often triumphs of corporate globalisation, can prove inimical to efforts to curb climate change, whether through the increases in carbon dioxide emissions they result in or through the legal avenues they provide to prevent national action on climate change. Klein provides an example from her own province of Ontario where buy-local provisions supporting a solar company were judged illegal by the WTO making it likely that the company will close.

Reasonable in tone but devastating in effect Klein deals with a range of seemingly laudable efforts to tackle climate change which founder on their closeness to neo-liberal capitalism. Several of America’s large environmental organisations are faulted in this respect. The billionaire supporters of climate action typified by Richard Branson fall sadly short of what they appear to promise.

Politicians seem unable to extricate themselves from entanglement with the prevailing economic ideology. Klein reports on the 2009 UN climate summit conference as evidence of this, sharing Sally Wentrobe’s painful realisation that our “leaders are not looking after us…we are not cared for at the level of our very survival.”   While I was writing this review local evidence of political dereliction was yet again apparent as our Energy Minister assured a petroleum conference that continuing exploration for oil and gas in New Zealand waters would be strongly supported by the newly re-elected government and he offered anodyne assurances for the future of fossil fuels.

Can anything rescue us? Certainly not geo-engineering of the type Klein hears canvassed at a conference on the topic she attended. She sees a cure worse than the disease and the risk of genocidal “sacrifice zones” as a by-product of sun-dimming proposals.

Our best hope rests with the resistance of people’s movements to the carbon extraction frenzy of the corporate elites. Klein dwells on many such efforts in the realm she calls Blockadia, talking with people in places where energetic attempts are being made to prevent planned extractive operations. It’s the world of activism, “alive and unpredictable and very much in the streets (and mountains and farmers’ fields and forests)”. The precautionary principle holds sway here, not the cool risk assessment approach which purports to balance the dangers of climate change against the claimed negative effects of action on economic growth.

The fossil fuel divestment movement emerged from Blockadia-style attempts to stop carbon extraction at its source. On its wider scale it puts the whole industry on trial as “rogue actors whose continued economic viability rests on radical climate destabilisation”.

Indigenous groups battling against the assaults of extractive industries receive respectful and sympathetic attention from Klein, who dwells on their ready recognition of the natural world as a nurturer of life rather than an object of exploitation. She also draws attention to the ways in which Indigenous rights, if aggressively pursued through the courts and through direct action, may help protect us all from climate chaos.

Klein’s vision is ultimately  a moral one. She seeks

“an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis— embedded in interdependence rather than hyper-individualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy.”

We need this not only to create a political context to drastically lower emissions but also to help us through the disasters now unavoidable, where respect for human rights and deep compassion will be all that stands between civilisation and barbarism.

But does all the principled opposition, and the moral aspiration of more cooperative communities amount to a real force in the face of the rampaging destruction which unfettered capitalism wreaks?  Klein points to mass movements which have prevailed against powerful economic interests in the past.  The abolition of slavery presents one such case. She points out that slavery only became a problem for British and American elites when the abolition movement turned it into one, and that abolition succeeded in spite of the strong economic interests dependent on the profits from slavery. She quotes journalist Chris Hayes: “the climate justice movement is demanding that an existing set of political and economic interests be forced to say goodbye to trillions of dollars of wealth”, a situation for which he sees slavery abolition as the only precedent.

Klein’s book is ambitious in scope and rigorous in discussion. Its narratives are based on much travel and careful research. Its conclusions are thoughtful and often striking in their cogent expression. Her acknowledgments to her research staff and other helpers confirm the concerted effort that has been expended in producing the book.

It’s certainly a book worth writing. Corporate bodies whose activities threaten the very foundation of ordinary people’s lives need to be exposed. So do politicians who are hypnotised by the short term benefits of extractive economies and blind to the catastrophic longer term consequences. People who do battle with the corporate and political juggernaut of climate disaster need to be celebrated and encouraged. Klein does these things well. Her book is a notable contribution to the tough struggle for a sane political response to the climate crisis.