Naomi Klein. This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs.
the Climate. Simon & Schuster, 2015, 566 pages.
When over 300,000 people marched in the streets of Manhattan in the largest demonstration calling for action against climate change, Naomi Klein was there too. Not only marching, but racing across town to speak at multiple events, gathering support, winning new activists to the struggle, and arming those already involved with powerful arguments to do the same. Klein writes books for movements. Her first book, No Logo, was crucial reading for the global justice movement at the turn of the century. And who better to write on the world-wide disaster of climate change than the author of The Shock Doctrine. Her account of “disaster capitalism” was a bestseller in the era of an expanding US empire and a collapsing domestic economy that deftly wove history, economics, and political economy together to explain the then current moment. The book was a touchstone for the anti-war and Occupy movements. In 2009, Klein began research for what would become her latest work, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. Completing a trilogy for the social movements of the past fifteen years, Klein gives us a picture of the disastrous world we face and those working to create a different path. This Changes Everything takes the reader through a history lesson of climate change and the activists who have been organizing to stop it. This is not just a book of history however. Klein spends an equal amount of time sifting through current policy debates and advocacy while arguing that humanity is going to have to reckon with our economic system in order to halt climate change.
Her premise is an internationalist one, a recognition that most climate change activists have embraced as central to this fight. Seeing the Earth as home, rather than the narrowing confines of a nation-state, Klein nonetheless recognizes the importance of people’s connection to the places they live at a local level. People often have strong emotional feeling for the landscapes where they spend their lives. More concretely, they recognize the centrality of maintaining clean water sources and generally healthy environments to sustain themselves and their community. In an interview with The Indypendent before the climate march, Klein said that she saw a “coming together of economic justice movements and a new sort of kick-ass grassroots anti-extractivism movement. When people are fighting fracking” she continued, “or they’re fighting a big pipeline, generally they’re not driven by concerns about climate, they’re driven by a love of place. Often the protection of water is the primary motivation, as well as concerns about the health of their kids.” This is an argument that’s been made about the labor movements’ relationship to the environmental movement. Often, concern over health issues in a workplace is how union and non-union workers establish a relationship to the environmental movement. They are also often pulled into organizing that forces them to confront the ways in which capitalism functions and exploits both labor and nature in the name of profit.
Klein begins her book with a provocative chapter titled, “The Right is Right,” and by the end of it you know you’re in for a ride that is going to be illuminating and fearless in its truth telling. Klein pulls no punches. Her premise is fairly simple. The right-wing denies climate change and claims that it is used as a cover to institute radical changes in government spending and increased regulation, and ultimately for an end to capitalism. Meanwhile the liberals recognize climate change as a real problem but claim that through a series of reforms, capitalism and the planet can coexist. Klein is clear that capitalism is the target. The “This” in her title is not only climate change, it is also quite clearly capitalism.
This Changes Everything is full of the history of climate science and the movements that have been built to respond to the growing crisis. Klein writes to arm the movement with useful history. Her exposure of the false solutions promoted by what she dubs “sideshow billionaires” – those who promote “green products” and venture capital schemes to save the planet – are both damning and entertaining to read. Klein uses the failure of Richard Branson’s much touted “Earth Challenge,” in which the eccentric billionaire offered a prize of $25 million USD for the creation of a carbon-neutral fuel. In addition, he pledged to plunge $3 billion USD of his fortune into the development of a carbon-neutral fuel to clean up his polluting Virgin Atlantic airline. Branson’s prize, which has yet to be awarded, and his pledge, which has yet to be fulfilled, are clear examples of Klein’s argument that capitalism can’t solve the problem created by its very existence. Instead of cutting emissions, Branson’s airline business has expanded and in the process so too have its carbon emissions. Klein gives similar if less entertaining examples of such arrogance, including Michael Bloomberg’s financial market machinations to boost his returns on fossil fuel investments, and the nuclear energy start-up and geoengineering schemes of Bill Gates.
Gates isn’t pioneering this field however. Plans for the deliberate modification of the climate date back at least to the Johnson administration and include many of the same mad scientists involved in Reagans boondoggle “Star Wars” missile defense program. From the geoengineering fantasies of LBJ we end up at the Obama presidency. We learn that as chief scientist for BP, Steven Koonin convened a formal scientific gathering of geoengineers that issued a report on a decade-long project on climate modification, before becoming undersecretary for science in Obama’s Department of Energy.
Klein moves beyond more recent history and shows how the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment argued for a “completely knowable and controllable earth.” The Industrial Revolution severed human connection to natural processes which had everything to do with concentrating labor in large cities to create a regularly available pool of labor. Not only this, but Klein argues that this era also saw the creation of environmental sacrifice zones in the mining of coal and dumping of waste. As Klein notes, “these prices were seen as worth paying in exchange for coal’s intoxicating promise of freedom from the physical world – a freedom that unleashed industrial capitalism’s full force to dominate both workers and other cultures.” James Watt’s steam engine and Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations were unveiled in the same year. Capitalism and fossil fuel industrialization went hand-in-hand.
Today, a hyper extractive and deregulated capitalism is causing even worse disaster. Rushing to leave Alaska in time to avoid paying extra taxes to the state, a Shell oil rig runs aground. Cutting staff from five to one to save money, an oil transporting train derails, exploding and killing dozens in Quebec. A similar derailment and spill occurred in the James River in Lynchburg, Virginia in April, 2014, and since the book’s publication another oil train derailed in West Virginia, spilling Bakkan crude oil into the Kanawha River. Disasters of this kind are likely to become only more common as deregulation and the search for greater profits continue. But Klein makes it clear that neoliberalism of this kind is but a particularly vicious form of capitalism. She groups the resistance to all of this under the name “Blockadia,” the movement to stop fossil fuel extraction in fracking, tar sands, mining, and other related industry. She traces the origins of “Blockadia” back to the struggle led by Ken Saro-Wiwa in Nigeria against oil spills and gas flaring by Shell Oil in the Niger delta.
This Changes Everything has been widely reviewed and given some confused interpretations. Rob Nixon, writing in the New York Times, argues that Klein doesn’t mean to indict capitalism per se, but that her “adversary is neoliberalism — the extreme capitalism that has birthed our era of extreme extraction. Klein is smart and pragmatic enough to shun the never-never land of capitalism’s global overthrow,” he writes. Meanwhile in the New York Review of Books, Elizabeth Kolbert characterizes Klein’s view as simply a call for “degrowth,” and claims that nobody can be won to less consumption in this world. Kolbert ignores Klein’s bigger argument that there are particular sections of the economy that need to be shrunk while other non-polluting sections should be expanded greatly.
While liberals try to appropriate her, change her argument, and then claim that they all agree, many on the Left criticize her for not singling-out capitalism clearly enough. It may be the liberal response, à la Nixon, which in turn has led radicals to fear that Klein doesn’t indict capitalism clearly enough (as if her subtitle is somehow unclear). If one reads Rob Nixon’s review and accepts that Klein is merely talking about a particular form of capitalism as the problem, then it is understandable why some on the Left might be compelled to criticize the book. But if one actually reads This Changes Everything, it becomes apparent that Klein is calling for a revolution to end capitalism. The criticisms that have reigned down from some on the Left for not talking about socialism, Marxism, and revolutionary change are seriously misplaced. In fact, Klein’s argument about the scale and substance of change needed is a radical one. The examples she gives as corollaries to the current fight against climate change are crucially connected to the economic system. Klein cities the movement for wages for housework and the civil rights movement as examples of the struggles that need to be waged. She goes further to suggest that the massive unionization organized during and after the Great Depression, and the subsequent government investment in public infrastructure are important precedents for change found in recent history.
Internationally, she holds up the anti-Apartheid struggle as a partial example before it capitulated on the economic front. Similarly, the anti-colonial struggles of the mid-twentieth century shook off the chains of political control only to find the economic chains still firmly in place. But her most useful example is the movement for the abolition of slavery that in fact was economic at its core. Fighting to end slavery was a battle against racism, and at the same time it was one to expropriate a wealthy and powerful ruling class of its capital. Klein notes that the estimated value of the enslaved at the time of emancipation in the United States works out to be about the same as the “value of carbon reserves that must be left in the ground worldwide” to stop run-away global climate change. The scale of the struggle against entrenched capital is made plain.
What she doesn’t do, and I would argue is perfectly valid and even a smart choice, is to talk about how that struggle played out. The long and bloody war to expropriate wealth was a revolution to end slave labor and institute a free labor system in the United States, and to finally and fully establish capitalist relations throughout the country. We need just such a revolution to institute a new system for organizing labor, one that is planned democratically, and able to take into account human and planetary needs. Klein quotes one of the most famous anti-colonialists, Franz Fanon. “What matters today, the issue which blocks the horizon, is the need for a redistribution of wealth,” writes Fanon in The Wretched of the Earth. He continues, “Humanity will have to address this question, no matter how devastating the consequences may be.” Fanon is famed for arguing that the violence of colonialism makes a non-violent undoing of that system impossible. Regardless of the exact nature of this struggle against capitalism, Klein is clear that the lesson to draw is that “when major shifts in the economic balance of power take place, they are invariably the result of extraordinary levels of social mobilization.”
Finally, people tend to turn away rather than confront this seemingly unstoppable collision between humanity and reality. But Klein is unshakable in her belief in humanity. “We have time and choices now,” she asserts. Her call for a movement like others of the past reinforces the idea that the world can be changed – politically, economically, and socially – but that it never happens easily. She is hopeful in a very sober way. In This Changes Everything, she argues that,
“When we….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.”
Last September, Klein argued in that interview in The Indypendent that “The People’s Climate March will be much more diverse and it’s going to be angrier than previous climate protests. That anger is a really important and powerful tool. So I think we’re going to see a different kind of climate movement…I think Seattle 1999 was a coming-out party for the global justice movement, and I think this will be a coming-out party of sorts for a new climate movement.” Klein’s predictions where this is concerned remain to be seen. Armed with her new book, those fighting to end climate change and to build a world that meets human needs (which includes a livable planet) will find that task a little lighter.