This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate
566 pp – £20
New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014
‘Our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life.’
Naomi Klein’s publishing history is littered with examples of blockbuster titles, each of which apparently defines a decade, at least for the Left. While I’m sure that she’s aware of her growing legacy, I would like to think that this book represents something of a snapshot of recent movements within environmental and left wing politics, and also a history of the failures of the environmental movement thus far.
Klein focuses on links between what is widely termed ‘extractivism’ and the nature of our current socio-economic predicament, neoliberal capitalism. While the social and political ramifications have been much discussed by the Left, Klein hopes to draw attention to how the current civilizational paradigm is defined by our extractive relationship with nature (which has been a prevalent theme in recent work on ecological science, geography, environmental psychology and post-colonial studies). This relationship and its ramifications feed into other discussions, such as feminism, post-colonialism and socialism, which have not been developed in the public realm. Indeed, the resulting climate change crisis poses an existential threat to our existence as a species, and paradoxically this is perhaps the best rallying cry available to the Left.
The challenge of climate change cannot be overstated, and it demands some radical solutions. According to the International Energy Agency, by 2017 we will be locked into 2 degrees of global warming. Beyond that point, the extreme weather events which we have alreadybegun to experience will make civilization as we know it increasingly untenable. Activists have thus taken to referring to this decade as ‘Decade Zero’. In fact, many organizations now believe that we are locked into 4 or 5 degrees of warming given current expansion rates for emissions. Despite the clear impacts this will have, many on the right have increasingly attacked climate science in a widespread phenomenon dubbed ‘Denialism’.
‘Denialism’, the attempt by libertarian groups to discredit climate science, is an all too comprehensible response to the 97% of climate scientists who are essentially alerting us to a problem which will fundamentally change our way of life. The Heartland Institute is one such Denialist group. It exists to attack climate science and climate change, and to deny the consequences that climate change is likely to bring about. This might appear reactionary to some, but the right wing has a particularly accurate grasp of the political settlement required to deal with such a crisis, and it involves much more intervention and management to shift us away from our high-consumption, extractivist paradigm. This is difficult for people ‘on the ground’ too, as the psychological effects of neoliberalism, including its constant attacks on the idea of solidarity and its propagation of an individualistic discourse, make it increasingly difficult for people to conceive of changing the system.
Understanding the failure of ‘Big Green’ organizations, such as the Nature Conservancy and the Environmental Defence Fund, to respond to the crisis adequately with the market-based responses which they advocate is crucial. The failure of these responses is rooted in their failure to address or circumvent the flaws of the capitalist system, as well as in the failure of the organizations which enact them to keep themselves economically separate from the extractive industries. Decades have been spent establishing carbon trading systems and regulatory procedures based on our current economic model, and extreme care is often taken to ensure that any proposals do not disturb the profit motive. These market based solutions have failed abysmally in reducing emissions. Klein argues that they are yet another form of denial. In this case, it is denial of the possibility of challenging the dominant market forces.
Another denial-based response to climate change is Geoengineering, which as Klein states, effectively amounts to using pollution as the solution to the problems that pollution has created. Geoengineering involves pumping substances such as sulphate aerosols into the atmosphere in order to block radiation from reaching the earth, thus compensating for climate change. The fatal flaw with these ‘test runs’ is that there is only one Earth, and computer models indicate that test runs may induce catastrophic regional weather patterns in areas with monsoon climates (mostly Africa and South Asia). Fossil fuel companies and noted ‘philanthropists’ such as Bill Gates and Richard Branson supply funding aimed at increasing the feasibility of many such projects, despite the possible consequences.
Problematically, this willingness to commit sacrifices in the name of continued profits and emissions is an essential function of fossil fuel capitalism. The fossil fuel industry’s share prices are often based on their ability to maintain reserves, which leads them into more unconventional extractive methods. There is a specifically spatial expression of the sacrificial logic in these unconventional methods, and this is demonstrated best by the effects of tar sands extraction, which requires the complete destruction of ecosystems over a wide area. These are referred to as ‘sacrifice zones’ – in other words, worthless spaces, used solely in order to enable extraction. Once investments have been made, it proves exceedingly difficult to stop extraction, and such momentum is reinforced by myriad free-trade deals and conventions enforced by the neoliberal state which, in effect, legally protect the profit motive.
This unequal relationship between the ‘West’ and underdeveloped countries, in the form of exploitation by transnational corporations, forces us to confront colonialism in its current (hyper)incarnation in the neoliberal, globalised world. Hope for the environmental movement (and for all of us) rests, according to Klein, on a conception of revolutionary change able to adequately challenge the economic order.
In the current economic climate, despair is easy and many view this as both a collective and an individual failure to realize change, and as a result accept the nihilistic neoliberal paradigm. Klein has a more redemptive view of such failures as simply “the unfinished business of liberation”. Precedents in history for change exist, in the Slavery Abolition movement, in the Civil Rights campaigns in the US and elsewhere, in the rafts of anti-pollution legislation passed in the ‘60s and 70’s, and in more localized examples of success such as the German and Danish transition to renewables.
Klein acknowledges that these examples are problematic, but notes that you do not need to look to history for a precedent, as change is happening under our noses. Klein recognises the successes of the global emergent phenomena known as ‘Blockadia’ in bringing diverse people together to fight (often bodily) large-scale violations of spatial democracy in the form of fossil fuel extraction. Organizations worldwide are also beginning to withdraw financial backing from fossil fuel companies, in an attempt to discredit and damage them. Large parts of Germany have recently voted to re-municipalize their energy grids, allowing them to profit from their networks of small-scale renewable energy production units. Native American tribes across the US and Canada are succeeding in building alliances comprising many groups, native and non-native, which are successfully opposing tar sands expansion, and in some cases demonstrating practical and cheaper alternatives in impoverished communities.
The links with Native American understandings of nature are illustrative, if possibly open to critique. When colonial agreements were signed with Native American groups, they guaranteed fishing rights or hunting rights, so that Natives could continue their cultural practices. When the fishing grounds were polluted, and the game driven away, Native Americans saw no problem with holding those responsible to account (despite varying legal success in doing so), as they realised that nature provided their way of life, which was under threat. On a larger scale, we are facing a similar situation. Our right to exist and to reproduce, as dependent on the finite Earth, is threatened by the increasing inability of the socio-economic paradigm to internalise limits to the profit motive.
This understanding of our situation may be criticised for being idealistic, but in actual fact this book is a tonic for the idealist. The nearly overwhelming deluge of evidence contained in the book threatens its structure in certain places, but Klein ultimately presents, if not a rallying cry, an act of revolutionary synthesis calling for the end of despairing apathy and fear.