By Naomi Klein. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014, $30.
Our economic system is at war with the laws of Nature, says Naomi Klein in summing up the thesis of her impressive work, This Changes Everything; Capitalism vs. the Climate.
The Greek gods, if they were watching modern humankind, might get malicious pleasure from observing the pickle we’ve got ourselves into. Some might chuckle at the poor timing of the revelation by 97 percent of our climate scientists that we are headed for carbon-induced disaster. In earlier times we might have been able to rally ourselves to reduce our addition of greenhouse gases into our common atmosphere, as nations rallied their citizens in World Wars I and II. Unfortunately this scientific understanding arrives in a time of Neoliberal economic ideology—the belief that only the market, and definitely not the state, should be empowered to deal with economic issues. This ideology, in its current form only some thirty years old, is crippling our ability to take collective action to deal with the existential threat of climate change.
That is the core of Naomi Klein’s thesis in her well-researched work. Unlike the Greek gods, she is driven by compassion, the motivation to show us a way out of this bind. We know what the problem is; we know how to solve it through collective government action; alas, we also know that over the last thirty years we have given away to corporations the tools that we could use. Now those oversized corporations are too busy doing what they are designed to do (making money) to save our planet, and our nominally democratic governments are too weak or too indebted to corporate big money to take back the power to act. Citizens seem powerless.
As activist and campaigner, Klein sets the bar high: Not only must we save the planet from catastrophic change, but our method must result in justice and fair distribution of wealth for all peoples—an inversion of current ideology. Now we emphasize competition (each person or corporation for himself), greed as a positive force, and the idea that we can indefinitely expand our economy by extracting more, consuming more, and polluting more. Those practices must change if the planet is to remain habitable.
Neoliberal ideology gained dominance in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, who sought to diminish the state in favor of the market, giving more votes to money than to citizens. State regulation would be diminished, capital would reign supreme, the state would wither, and the services that it had provided would be provided by private enterprise.
The new strength of corporations led to free trade agreements, which were also free capital agreements for global corporations. In 1995 the World Trade Organization was created to ensure, among other things, that capital and corporations would have a level playing field, regardless of the public interests of the nations (democratic or not) bound by these agreements.
These new arrangements enabled corporations and their capital to move easily from one country to another. As a result, most manufacturing of consumer goods was transferred to Third World countries, notably China and other cheap labor nations, thus preserving our consumer frenzy in the richer developed world. The power required for manufacturing and transporting raw materials and finished goods came from cheap carbon—coal and oil—which added to the carbon dioxide being dumped into our atmosphere.
Obviously we need to slow our emissions by leaving much of the carbon in the ground while we develop clean energy. However, voluntarily leaving some oil in the ground is not possible within the existing system. A powerful carbon extraction company must maintain a level of production sufficient to pay dividends to its shareholders. Less known outside the investment community is the fact that if an oil company lacks equivalent, new, unexploited reserves, its stock loses value as an investment. Since no one would want to buy out the existing stockholders, economic grief would befall those who grease the wheels of governments. Thus any competent carbon company must continuously exploit dirtier oil, pursue riskier explorations (think Arctic drilling) to maintain its inventory and the value of its shares. Only an external force stronger than the corporations could change this situation with regulations or taxes. No such institution now exists.
What is to be done? Ms. Klein investigates a series of answers. Deny the problem? The extreme right has done a fine job, with the aid of oil money, in debunking the 97% consensus of climate scientists, so that climate protection is a hard battle, and even now the Republicans could adopt denial as a platform policy. For most of us, denial is no option. The passion of true deniers, Klein argues, is based on the fear that, if real, climate change “changes everything.” More common is a feeling of resignation, that nothing can be done, so let’s enjoy the scenery as the planet dies, or if you are richer, let’s carry on as usual and hope that some of us will survive.
Klein evaluates the prospect that “green” billionaires, Branson, Bill Gates, or Bloomberg—smart men with a declared interest—may find a solution. Looking at their track records, she concludes that they are too much part of the system to be able to change anything basic.
Big Green has become well known and many, like Friends of the Earth, Greenpeace, Food and Water Watch and 350.org, have been true to the challenge. Shockingly, others have sold out to big oil, urging “cooperative” solutions, ignoring the fundamental conflict. Klein singles out Nature Conservancy, which actually got into the oil business on Texan land donated to them by oil giant Mobil as a preserve to save the endangered Attwater prairie chicken. The Conservancy continued to pursue oil revenue even after they were publicly exposed. The birds are now probably extinct and the Conservancy carries on as the largest environmental organization in the world. Several others also invest in carbon stocks and accept support, directly or indirectly, from the fossil fuel industry, unknown to unsuspecting donors like ourselves.
Some claim that natural gas from fracking will provide a cleaner carbon bridge to the new renewables.
But such claims ignore the amount of methane released (84 times worse than CO2), and the pollution of waterways and aquifers in the processing. Further, cheap carbon will discourage costlier renewables that have had such great success in Germany and Denmark.
Waste and accidents have discredited the nuclear industry as an answer to carbon overload.
Klein also reviews climate engineering and finds a lot of technical geeks who seem oblivious to larger social and economic considerations. Seeding the stratosphere with reflective sulphur crystals would diminish the heat coming from the sun, reduce the effectiveness of solar panels, probably cause massive chaos with weather systems, and leave large areas (preferably the southern hemisphere) parched.
With geo-engineering we would have continuing license to push carbon into the atmosphere and when, if ever, we stopped the artificial control, we would have a perfectly fine hothouse. Only a dreamer would believe that we would use that time to reduce our carbon profligacy. Rather, we would sigh with relief and carry on as usual, hoping for another delusional solution.
This catalog of magic solutions that cannot work left me feeling depressed. Klein is not. She is hopeful that the seriousness of the crisis will cause ordinary people to take back their rights from the corporations and their government lackeys, change the system, and create a just and sustainable world.
With carbon emissions up by 57 percent since the UN climate convention was signed in 1992, it is clear that some new approach is essential.
So how is this to be done? Klein pins her hope on the ongoing running battles which she calls “Blockadia” and is manifest in citizens actions like Idle No More, anti-pipeline demonstrations, forest blockades, airport expansions, divestment drives, and thousands of other local actions taking place around the globe against aggressive extractivism, wanton waste, and pollution. Many of us already belong to some of these groups. One day, she argues, the basic problem of climate disaster will catch the public mood of anxiety, fear, and justified anger, and through coordination of our existing social action groups, lead to a general uprising that will change the system definitively. The movement will be as mysterious as the Arab Spring, but its transnational force will, we hope, fare better in its outcome.
A summary review such as this does not do justice to a work of such detailed scholarly analysis. It’s a good read. You will be impressed.
Successfully winning the battle against carbon is a long shot, but so was the abolition of slavery or the legal changes that followed the US civil rights campaign. And the stakes are even higher: We leave carbon in the ground and save our atmosphere or we destroy our planet.
So be ready; the saving revolution may be launched at any moment by a storm or a famine, and when our “take back our planet” movement starts, call out your local action group, your union, your colleagues, your friends, and give it your best try. If we can all get it together at the right time we might take back our governments and change everything. Klein offers hope for justice and sustainability in a new world order.
Reviewed by Ron Shirtliff, a retired Ryerson University professor and member of Peace Magazine’s editorial board.