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This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate

by Naomi Klein
Simon & Schuster, NY, NY, 2014
576 pp. Trade, $30.00
ISBN: 978-1-4516-9738-4.

Reviewed by George Gessert


Climate change entered mainstream consciousness in 1988, when James Hansen, then director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, testified before the U.S. Congress. He warned that human activities were heating earth's atmosphere and that this phenomenon could have extremely serious consequences.

Hansen believed that if policy makers were presented with solid evidence of anthropogenic climate change, they would rein in emissions. However, this has not happened even though the evidence has become overwhelming - and visceral. In the quarter century since 1988 there have been devastating droughts, changes in the oceans, and terrible storms, floods, and forest fires. These are previews of what is to come; yet only a few countries, notably Denmark and Germany, have responded in ways even remotely commensurate with the threat. As for international action, the record from Kyoto on is almost entirely of failure.

What accounts for so much failure? Are there alternatives? Naomi Klein grapples with these questions in This Changes Everything. According to her, failure to deal with climate change is due largely to the global economic system. Its fundamental imperative is economic growth, which requires an expanding supply of energy. Only fossil fuels are cheap and abundant enough to meet the system's needs. Long-term consequences of fossil fuel use, including the most ruinous, are secondary to growth and immediate profits. As a result, we live in the midst of a massive slow-motion collision between corporate capitalism and the biosphere.

The consensus among policy makers is that we must cap global temperature rise at two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial conditions. Some scientists think that the two-degree figure is too high; however, beyond two degrees feedback effects are likely to take things out of human hands and put hundreds of millions or even billions of lives at risk - what James Lovelock calls "the cull." As of 2014 the rise was 0.74 degrees, with further rise certain even if we add no more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. To stop at two degrees, fossil fuels must be quickly phased out. Since the market system will not allow this, we move toward collapse. An alternative is to deliberately change the economic system. Some combination of collapse and economic change may also occur.

Klein punctures certain common illusions. Benevolent billionaires will not save us, nor should we expect technological solutions. We already have the basic technologies we need to bring climate change to a halt. What we lack, especially in North America, is the political will to use them. She considers geo-engineering an especially dangerous illusion. Its implementation could heighten disaster yet is a fix neo-liberals may favor because it might allow the current economic system to persist a little longer.

Klein finds hope in diverse groups and actions, especially those that actively resist fossil fuel extraction and transportation. Blockadia, as she calls this movement, is global, decentralized, and linked by social media. Many of the groups she writes about have core values influenced by indigenous cultures, and share a vision of decentralized power and sustainable energy.

Can any grassroots movement that challenges fossil fuel dependency succeed against the massive power and inertia of the global economic system? Unlikely things have happened before, so we shouldn't dismiss the possibility out of hand. Blockadia's strength is that it brings together extremely diverse people and interests - ranchers, indigenous peoples, students, urban professionals, the rural poor, and religious leaders, among others. They find common ground in shared needs such as for clean air and water, which tend to suffer collateral damage in the vicinities of fracking sites and oil pipelines. Klein envisions such efforts leading toward a climate-focused "movement of movements" that brings together social justice, environmental, anti-colonial, and reform groups. She believes that in the crises sure to come a vision of decentralized power and sustainable energy stands a chance of being realized.

This Changes Everything is heavily footnoted but intended for general readers.  It has made it to the New York Times best seller list, a sign of the times that, so far, few reviewers have challenged Klein's analysis of capitalism. However, the book has sparked controversy. Elizabeth Kolbert, in a review that appeared in The New York Review of Books, accused Klein of being naively optimistic. Kolbert considers people, but especially Americans, too attached to the comforts of consumer culture to make the "really significant - and politically unpopular - changes ... that meaningful climate action requires." In other words, corporate capitalism is broadly popular because it delivers prosperity. To seriously rein in greenhouse gas emissions, the vast majority of Americans, and people in all of the world's wealthier countries, must consume considerably less than they do today. Long-term scarcity could become a central fact of economic life. Klein acknowledges such prospects, yet insists that poverty can be conquered in the process of dealing with climate.

Klein's sympathies are with the left, which is shakily positioned to address climate change. The left, which emerged in the 19th century, when ecological consciousness was still in its early infancy, considers the fundamental ethical issue facing humanity to be the just distribution of wealth and power. Again and again Klein refers to this widely held belief. Its limitation is that it does not take non-human nature fully into account. Much of the left shares with corporate capitalism and the right the ancient faith that humankind is separate from nature or its rightful ruler. Whatever else non-human nature may be - savage, female, restorative, cruel, material, sublime - it is fundamentally a repository of resources to serve our needs.

By way of contrast, the indigenous cultures to which Klein often refers see humans as inseparable from much larger natural forces that make our lives possible. This implies reciprocity between humans and non-humans, and certainty that in the end non-human nature will always win. Klein considers such values correctives to the traditional left. However, she does not examine in detail how this would work, or say what it might mean with respect to our lives, material or otherwise. We do not have a Karl Marx or Martin Luther King of climate change, so are left knowing only that we need a new culture based on "reciprocity" and "sustainability," whatever forms they may take. We do not know how to create this culture beyond focusing on small, local projects. Yet Klein remains hopeful.

Her hopefulness is not always convincing, but she speaks to common experience. My sense is that in America today a mix of denial, despair, and absurd hope about climate is so widespread as to constitute the norm. We cannot know the future, so Klein is ethically and strategically right to offer whatever hope she honestly can. However, I think that her book, strong as it is, would have been stronger still had she given fuller expression to despair. To voice it is not to embrace it or be defeated by it. Her vision implies that we live in an historical moment when genuine hope is alienating because it calls into question everything we do. Despair is much more comfortable. It does not ask us to change, and we won't be punished for our failure. Ruin is somewhere else and in the future. We need to give climate despair its due because it will not go away. The only thing worse than despair is despair unexpressed.

Last Updated 5th Feb 2015

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