Naomi Klein has made a career critiquing the effects of global capital and consumerism. Her 2000 book “No Logo” looked at the exploitation of workers by large multinationals, including Nike; her follow-up, “The Shock Doctrine” (2007), examined the ways in which corporations benefit from disasters, wars and other upheavals, often with the assistance of policy initiatives. These books have led to the Canadian-born Klein being called “the most visible and influential figure on the American left.”
For Klein, the tensions between individual freedom, individual rights and the primacy of the political-corporate complex exist in something of a crisis state. Nowhere is this more true than when it comes to climate change, the subject of her new book, “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate,” which argues, in the starkest terms imaginable, that we as a culture have reached a tipping point.
“Slavery wasn’t a crisis for British and America elites,” Klein writes, “until abolitionism turned it into one. Racial discrimination wasn’t a crisis until the civil rights movement turned it into one. Sex discrimination wasn’t a crisis until feminism turned it into one. Apartheid wasn’t a crisis until the anti-apartheid movement turned it into one.”
The implication is that climate change is at a similar come-to-Jesus moment, with projections that we are on track for a whopping 6 degrees Celsius of planetary warming by century’s end. (As a point of reference, Klein explains that a 2 degree Celsius increase “converts to an increase of 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit.”)
This is, Klein insists, “the equivalent of every alarm in your house going off simultaneously. And then every alarm on your street going off as well, one by one.” It’s an arresting image — "[a]nd yet,” she continues, “rather than responding with alarm and doing everything in our power to change course, humanity is, quite consciously, continuing down the wrong road.... What is wrong with us?”
What is wrong with us, indeed? “This Changes Everything” seeks to frame some answers to this question, while also suggesting potential strategies.
The book follows a broad narrative, defining an overlapping set of problems (politics, corporate money, the rise of climate disasters such as Hurricane Sandy), then moving through a critique of false solutions (the alliance of environmentalism and business, the dubious effects of geoengineering) before concluding with a discussion of activism, particularly divestment and Indigenous rights.
Klein is not naïve about the issues. “To state the obvious,” she avers, “it would be incredibly difficult to persuade governments in almost every country in the world to implement the kinds of redistributive climate mechanisms I have outlined. But we should be clear about the nature of the challenge: it is not that ‘we’ are broke or that we lack options. It is that our political class is utterly unwilling to go where the money is (unless it’s for a campaign contribution), and the corporate class is dead set against paying its fair share.” Without doubt, she’s right about that, as she illustrates in her account of the collapse of the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit, which she blames on Barack Obama, although the governments of India and particularly China certainly played a role.
At the same time, there is, in places, a disconnect between her idealism and her realism, what she thinks ought to happen and what she recognizes likely will.
This is most glaring in her suggestions for large-scale policy mitigation, which can seem simplistic, relying on notions of fairness (climate debt, for instance, in which developed nations, which have been polluting for longer, take more responsibility for controlling their emissions) that corporate culture does not share.
More effective are her portrayals of grass-roots resistance — the efforts of the Northern Cheyenne to prevent coal mining on their Montana reservation, for instance, or of villagers in Greece’s Skouries forest to oppose “a massive open-pit gold and copper mine.”
As heartening as this is, however, it’s just a drop in the bucket, in a world where preservation has always taken a back seat to greed. “In virtually every country,” Klein writes, “the political class accepts the premise that it is not the place of government to tell large corporations what they can and cannot do, even when public health and welfare — indeed the habitability of our shared home — are clearly at stake. The guiding ethos of light-touch regulation, and more often active deregulation, has taken an enormous toll in every sector.... It has also blocked commonsense responses to the climate crisis at every turn.”
In that sense, she is arguing for a new way of thinking, of interacting with the planet, one that has a lot to do with those in power but also trickles down to all of us. The key is sacrifice, to which we’re hardly immune; during World War II, rationing was pervasive in the service of the greater good.
Not only that, Klein observes acidly, but "[w]e sacrifice our pensions, our hard-won labor rights, our arts and after-school programs. We send our kids to learn in ever more crowded classrooms, led by ever more harried teachers. We accept that we have to pay dramatically more for the destructive energy sources that power our transportation and our lives.... We accept that a public university education should result in a debt that will take half a lifetime to pay off.”
And yet, what do we do about it? For Klein, we have no choice but to hold governments and corporations responsible. We’re starting to see more of that — consider the $18-billion in fines BP may face after a ruling by U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier last week — but justice moves slowly, and time is not on our side. “The International Energy Agency,” she notes, “warns that if we do not get our emissions under control by a rather terrifying 2017, our fossil fuel economy will ‘lock-in’ extremely dangerous warming.”
And then? The scary truth is that the planet doesn’t need us, that the planet will adapt.
“When we marvel at that blue marble in all its delicacy and frailty,” Klein cautions, “and resolve to save the planet, we cast ourselves in a very specific role. That role is of a parent, the parent of the earth. But the opposite is the case. It is we humans who are fragile and vulnerable and the earth that is hearty and powerful, and holds us in its hands. In pragmatic terms, our challenge is less to save the earth from ourselves and more to save ourselves from an earth that, if pushed too far, has ample power to rock, burn, and shake us off completely.”
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This Changes Everything
Capitalism vs. the Climate
Simon & Schuster: 534 pp., $30