This Changes Everything – Capitalism vs the Climate by Naomi Klein: Review

This 450-page book (not including references) took quite a while for me to get through, but I was very glad to have done so. Naomi Klein’s premise is similar to that held by many Feasta members: effective action on climate change requires radical change to the capitalist system, shifting it away from its current growth-based paradigm. She believes, moreover, that such action could have all kinds of positive repercussions in other challenging areas, such as economic instability and unemployment.

She begins by presenting some of the reasons why we have not only failed to cut emissions in the years since climate change was first identified as a serious problem, but we’ve actually seen them continue to increase. As you might expect, this makes for a rather long, complex and intimidating list of problems.

They include the failed international negotiations on climate change (she describes how one UK activist broke down in tears in reaction to Obama’s behaviour in Copenhagen), the false promise of geoengineering, the absurdly ineffective and corruption-prone EU emissions trading scheme, the not-remotely-Clean Development Mechanism, the role played by international trade organisations such as the WTO in consistently undermining green initiatives, the unwise decision by many of the bigger environmental NGOs to adopt corporate values and the apparent inability of billionaires like Richard Branson to keep their pledges to invest massively in green energy. Then there’s also fracking and shale oil to contend with.

Despite all this, Klein doesn’t believe we should despair. Rather, she argues that the past five years or so have seen many interesting and positive new developments. Of particular importance are the increasing number of localised protests against specific extraction projects, many spearheaded by indigenous people in different parts of the world.

Rather than viewing the dispersed nature of these protests as a weakness, Klein argues that they have considerable strength in their ability to simultaneously benefit from each other’s experiences and advice, and to base their action on their rootedness in a particular place. Thus, vastly different communities of Native American, rancher and fishing communities are collaborating to undermine the construction of oil pipelines and terminal ports over thousands of kilometres in North America, while Mongolian herders campaign against coal extraction and indigenous communities in Nigeria and Ecuador exchange advice on keeping the fossil fuel in their territories in the ground.

She does not think that we can achieve emissions cuts solely by means of localised action, however. Some sweeping legal changes will need to be made, including radical changes to the rules on international trade which are currently so distorted. But how could this be achieved?

Widespread popular pressure – a true mass movement – will need to play a big role, much bigger than popular pressure in favour of climate justice has done so far. But perhaps this is not so impossible a feat to achieve. Once the link between action on climate justice and other essentials such as clean water, strong local economies and stable employment is made clearer, this type of widespread pressure begins to seem plausible.

Indeed, clean water in a community watershed or the establishment of a basic income may end up being more of a direct rallying cry than emissions cuts. But those things could result in those emissions cuts just the same, along with an overall improvement in quality of life. And, as Klein points out, an even more important stimulus to action, perhaps, than clean water or basic income is love for a place – something that extractive industries can’t begin to be capable of.

I was a little disappointed not to see more mention of the commons as a central concept that could underpin effective action on climate change. At one point she even refers rather dismissively to ‘the commons” as ‘abstract’, but in fact the very concrete, practical measure she advocates, such as the above-mentioned campaigns for clear water and a basic income, are very much commons-based.

This lack of recognition of the centrality of commons-based thinking led to some other confusion. For example, she seems to argue in some sections of the book that specific emissions cuts need to be imposed by law, but doesn’t explain exactly how this would be achieved. She also advocates a carbon tax.

For some years however, Feasta climate group members have been expressing skepticism about carbon tax as a stand-alone measure for cutting emissions, since a tax wouldn’t actually enforce a cap on emissions. Even if fossil fuels became more expensive because of a carbon tax, those with the means to do so could continue to buy Hummers and the like and overall emissions could continue to rise.

We’ve instead advocated for a quota-based system for emissions cuts, as quotas would have the emissions cuts built directly into them and would also better reflect the fact that the atmosphere belongs to us all. (To be fair, Klein does briefly mention Cap and Dividend which is a quota-based proposal, but she doesn’t elaborate on the relationship between this and a carbon tax. You can read more about the technicalities of this and also a suggestion for how a carbon tax could work alongside an enforced cap on emissions at the Carbon Share website).

Klein also assumes in parts of the book that big government planning is the only way out of the climate crisis, but elsewhere she argues that decentralised, locally-based action such as community-owned renewable energy schemes is the most effective approach. This also seems inconsistent, though it could probably be clarified if the arguments were developed further (and you can find some practical suggestions for resolving the tension between top-down and bottom-up climate action in the Feasta climate group’s book Sharing for Survival: Restoring the Climate, the Commons and Society).

In the final section of the book she links climate change to reproductive health, pointing out that it’s often the youngest and most vulnerable of a species who are most strongly affected by environmental shocks. She writes evocatively here of her own problems with infertility. Apparently a better translation of ‘Buen Vivir’ (the name given to the indigenous movement to move away from a growth-based economy in Latin America) is actually ‘continuous rebirth’.

This made a lot of sense to me, but I’d follow the lead of Silvia Federici in her article in the book The Wealth of the Commons and extend Klein’s argument beyond the biological realm and into the economic one. In our growth-dependent industrialied economies, the task of caring for the vulnerable is far more complicated, exhausting and stressful than it needs to be. These economies’ long working and school hours, high competitive pressure, atomised communities and overall instability – not to speak of the slicing and dicing of freedom of movement because of the dominance of cars – amount to a continual betrayal of young childrens’ needs.

In what to me was the most interesting part of the book, near the end, Klein draws parallels between the climate action movement and the anti-slavery movement in the 18th and 19th centuries. Apparently, if emissions cuts were achieved in line with the 2-degree target, this would affect the profits of large corporations to about the same extent as the ending of slavery did back then. Of course, as she points out, the analogy is not perfect. However, she believes the type of discourse that Abolitionists used is worth thinking about carefully. They gradually shifted from using pragmatic arguments (eg that slavery ends up costing the slave owners more than they earn from the slaves) to using moral ones (slavery is morally unjustifiable and repugnant).

Climate activists, she believes, need to take a similarly clear moral stance. And as she writes, ‘the climate movement has yet to find its full moral voice on the world stage, but it is most certainly clearing its throat’.

Let’s hope it develops a fine, expressive vocal technique – and quickly.

[note: Minor edit to wording made on October 27 2014 to correct the translation of Buen Vivir and clarify the description of the behaviour of large environmental NGOs. Another edit on November 9 to clarify the section on carbon tax vs quotas.]

Note: Feasta is a forum for exchanging ideas. By posting on its site Feasta agrees that the ideas expressed by authors are worthy of consideration. However, there is no one ‘Feasta line’. The views of the article do not necessarily represent the views of all Feasta members. 

One Reply to “This Changes Everything – Capitalism vs the Climate by Naomi Klein: Review”

Comments are closed.