Publication of a new Naomi Klein book is now presented as an event. The arrival of This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate is accompanied by a proclamation from the marketers at Random House that “once a decade, Naomi Klein writes a book that redefines its era.” In this installment, Klein presents us with the unnerving claim that a livable planet and market capitalism are inimical. The extraction-based imperatives of the capitalist system have already taken humanity to the brink of disaster, she reports, long past the point where half measures such as carbon taxes and global emissions agreements can save us. For Klein, humanity’s only hope is to retreat from capitalism’s growth addiction and devolve into communal, symbiotic relationships with the earth.
This Changes Everything is an ambitious but ultimately dangerous book that tackles so many strands of the -climate-capitalism debate that treatment of its claims and contradictions in this short space would be selective and unfair. (University of British Columbia professor and climate activist Mark Jaccard reviews it critically in the November issue of the Literary Review of Canada, and there is a thorough examination by environmental journalist Will Boisvert on the Breakthrough Institute’s site.) But what lingers after reading the book is the way Klein’s technical arguments against the current menu of climate policy measures are subsumed by her larger call for a revolution in values to topple our consumerist, extractivist ways.
This is Klein’s big idea: The climate change struggle isn’t really about keeping the temperature rises in check and carrying on with a better brand of capitalism. It is a moral war where victory is measured by changing the value systems of everyone on earth, in the process fixing everything from the legacies of colonialism to the excesses of consumerism.
There is a long list of those who stand in the way of revolution. No surprise that Klein regards big oil and other carbon industry corporations in satanic terms, but she pulls no punches in reporting on the failures of the establishment green lobby as well. She sneers at those who argue we can use technology to geo-engineer adaptation to a hotter planet, and she dismisses low-emission but large-scale solutions such as nuclear and hydro power as being outside her ideological box. Everyone disappoints her, except those prepared to take direct action against the system that is killing us — what she calls the “Blockadia” culture of indigenous peoples, climate activists, and others taking to public squares around the world over an array of local political causes and social justice issues.
Certain of its righteousness and determined to impose its morality, This Changes Everything therefore joins history’s shelf of utopian manifestos. Klein is enamoured of local will only when it agrees with her. Do local movements against wind turbines not count? What about those who support fracking on their land, because they see it as morally preferable to getting their power from scraping the top off a coal mountain in someone else’s backyard? What about those indigenous peoples of the global south who see energy extraction as an acceptable trade-off against poverty and disease? Energy choices throw up endless moral choices. They can’t be resolved by the coercion of a single vision.
Klein also notes that the risks of unchecked climate change put us on a tight timetable. We have a small window to tear down an entire economic system and rebuild. Since capitalism is unlikely to voluntarily retire, its fall is more likely to be the result of some unforeseen implosion. This in turn may bequeath a chaotic, Hobbesian aftermath in which it is hard to see happy communities coming together to erect wind and solar grids. The scramble to survive doesn’t lend itself to pastoral postcards. It can also look like the stripped forests and endemic hunger of North Korea.
It would be folly to argue that Klein’s premise of overthrowing capitalism is fantasy. No system lasts forever by default, and capitalism regularly shows an ability to be its own worst enemy. There was a time when the power of the Roman Catholic Church seemed unassailable and, as Klein points out, slavery was an entrenched institution until abolitionists and a civil war made it not so.
But reconciling the competing moral and human demands of energy use will require persuasion and cooperation. Klein sees ideological enemies everywhere, and in the process she dismisses the legions of those who, in good faith, seek workable solutions to our common problem. It is an absolutism that risks policy paralysis, at least, and authoritarianism, at worst. The climate change problem needs all the provacateurs it can get. Unfortunately, it also needs real-world answers.
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