Book Review: This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate

this_changes_everything

by Naomi Klein: Simon & Schuster, 2014

Review by Daphne Lawless (Fightback Auckland / Tāmaki Makarau)

It’s quite depressing to note how long the facts have been out there that capitalism is – literally and figuratively – eating up the only planet we have. Scientists were telling US President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 that the emissions of industrial civilisation could dangerously heat the planet, a “greenhouse effect” which NASA scientist James Hansen made a household word with his testimony to the US Congress in 1988.

But even at that stage, it became clear that the mega-corporates who were then beginning the process of neoliberal globalization did not see this as a priority. British comedian Ben Elton’s novel Stark, which came out in the previous year, envisaged the mega-rich building a spaceship to abandon a doomed planet. Almost 30 years later, all that has happened is that the question has become more urgent, as shown in the latest book by Canadian activist Naomi Klein.

Klein presents her book as an expose of:

“the power and ideological roadblocks that have so far prevented [technological solutions to climate problems] from taking hold on anything close to the scale required… a shift that challenges not only capitalism, but also the building blocks of materialism that preceded modern capitalism”.

The central argument of Klein’s book is not only that climate change is an existential crisis for human civilisation, but that it is also the key link for a new movement which can challenge the era of neoliberal globalized capitalism. She argues that, since the end of the slave trade, all subsequent social movements have been defused by granting legal and social demands for equality while increasing economic equality:

“These economic demands… represent nothing less than the unfinished business of the most powerful liberation movements of the past two centuries…Climate change does not need some shiny new movement… where others failed; climate change can be the force… that will bring together all of these still living movements”.

This review will argue that, in this latest book, Klein’s main contribution to the movement is to show clearly that the struggle for social justice and post-capitalist economics goes hand-in-glove with not only the “eco-socialist” programme for a post-extractive economics, but the defence of the traditional rights and resources of Indigenous people. She even touches on feminist issues, given Western culture’s history of using metaphors for technological process which suggest the forcible violation of “Mother Nature”.

Sacrifice zones

One of Klein’s strengths is in coining pithy phrases to encapsulate vital issues for the movement to grasp. Her previous books have given us phrases like “disaster capitalism” and “the shock doctrine”; this book gives us not only “extreme extraction”, but “sacrifice zones”. The latter are “places that, to their extractors, somehow don’t count and can therefore be poisoned, drained or otherwise destroyed” – landscapes sacrificed to big energy projects like hydro-dams or open-cast mines, for example.

Crucially, the lifeworlds of ethnic minorities or Indigenous people have also been considered “sacrifice zones” for big energy. We are not only talking about outright genocide and theft to grab Indigenous lands and fisheries, but slower processes of cultural genocide or even literal poisoning – such as the Aamjiwnaang people of southern Canada, who suffered a catastrophic drop in the number of boy babies after petrochemical plants opened on their ancestral land. Though Klein doesn’t go into it, you could argue that the same is true of all working-class communities under capitalism, whose lives are valued less. To give an example, the working-class suburb of Newton in Auckland was dug up almost entirely to build the Central Motorway Junction, its inhabitants exiled to the southern fringe of the urban area.

Klein effectively links “extractivism” – “a non-reciprocal, dominance-based relationship with the earth” – to the exploitation of not only natural resources, but the exploitation, oppression, enslavement and genocide of various kinds of human being. As she puts it in relation to the Chinese “economic miracle”:

“The same logic that is willing to work labourers to the bone for pennies a day will burn mountains of dirty coal while spending next to nothing on pollution controls… our own corporations… with full participation from China’s autocratic rulers, turned the Pearl River Delta into their carbon-spewing Special Economic Zone, with the goods going straight onto container ships headed for our superstores.”

She gives us the cautionary tale of Nauru, the Pacific island which almost literally ate itself to death. 90% of the island was dug up for its phosphate deposits, sold as fertilizer to rich countries. The country drove fast cars and ate imported food for decades. When the phosphate ran out, leaving a mostly uninhabitable island, an increasingly panicked government lost most of the resource profits in a real estate scam, set itself up as a tax haven for money laundering, and finally rented itself out as a prison camp for Australia’s barbaric refugee policy.

The main legacy of Nauru’s resource wealth is the highest rate of Type 2 diabetes in the world. As Klein notes, this is a timely warning for left-wing governments in South America such as Venezuela or Bolivia, which are still reliant on fossil fuels. Continuing these exploitative, extractive relationships will both engender corruption in the short term and leave these countries without a long-term future. It also shows the obsolescence of older “productivist” forms of socialist thought which also dreamed of Promethean dominance of nature and electricity too cheap to meter.

Klein also clearly exposes the fraudulent nature of the “emissions trading schemes”, which serve mainly as a means by which Western countries can “export” their emissions to China or India; enriching those countries’ ruling elites while turning the poorer areas into sacrifice zones. The crucial issue is that on these markets, emissions are counted where they are produced and not where the goods produced are consumed, and international transport emissions are not counted at all. This lets Western consumerism off the hook for both the products it buys from polluting industry in the developing countries, and for the coal and other fossil fuels it exports there.

The global economy is increasingly a unity, as is global ecology; pollution and resource exhaustion respect borders no more than capital does. Klein ruthlessly exposes “emissions trading” as a shell-game where responsibility for emissions is simply passed between different capitalist states, and which is rife with fraud; such as “carbon offsets” which means that emissions don’t go down at all, or oil companies in the Nigerian delta demanding carbon credits for not pointlessly burning natural gas.

Denial and dimming the sun

Klein goes into the belly of the beast, not only to show the impact of global climate change on ordinary people’s lives, but to show the extent that the ruling classes are engaged in deep-down denial of it. She explains:

“We have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism… The actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe… are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets.”

In her first chapter, she braves a conference of the climate-denying Heartland Institute, where “talking points [are] tested [which] will jam the comment sections beneath every article and YouTube video”. In an echo of Cameron Slater’s “Dirty Politics”, Klein explains the climate deniers’ message not to just twist the argument, but to destroy discourse altogether:

“the goal was never just to spread doubt but to spread fear – to send a clear message that saying anything at all about climate change was a sure-fire way to find your inbox and comment threads jammed with a toxic strain of vitriol.”

The Heartlanders, Klein argues, “did not become engaged with climate issues because they found flaws in the scientific facts. Rather, they became alarmed about the economic and political implications of those facts and set out to disprove them.” Paradoxically, Klein argues, the Heartlanders are precisely right in their linking of climate disaster with capitalist freedom itself – whereas there the mainstream green movement, with its neither left-nor-right slogan, has been in denial.

Another form of denial is “magical thinking” – admitting that climate change is a real problem, but believing in technological fixes which will make everything okay without requiring any sacrifice from the privileged. A conference on “geoengineering” at Chicherly Hall in England has rich donors such as Bill Gates listening intently as excited scientists talk up their projects for “safe” nuclear power, simulated volcanic explosions or giant mirrors to literally block out the sun.

This may sound like a plot line from an old Simpsons episode – or, when they start talking about orbital colonies or Martian terraforming, the plotline of Elton’s Stark come to life. But it proves that fiction, if anything, underestimates the depravity of the global ruling class, and their irrational belief that “inconvenient truths” such as climate change can be simply ignored out of existence. As Klein puts it:

“It is always easier to deny reality than to allow our worldview to be shattered, a fact that was as true of die-hard Stalinists at the time of the purges as it is of libertarian climate deniers today…For the fossil fuel companies and their paid champions, anything is preferable to regulating ExxonMobil, including attempting to regulate the sun.”

Klein points out again and again that it is the neoliberal free trade agenda – and even capitalism’s logic of endless growth itself, which predates the neoliberal/globalized era – which is simply incompatible with the kind of serious action which is now necessary. There is no argument against state intervention in the economy if it is a question of the very habitability of the planet, which runs counter to 40 years of neoliberal reforms. And so the corporate denialists, according to Klein, want:

“not action to prevent climate chaos but rather policies that would safeguard or even increase their profits no matter the weather… Their dominance-based worldview provides them with the intellectual tools to write off huge swathes of humanity, and indeed, to rationalise profiting from the meltdown.”

Even when individual billionaires are convinced by the case for climate action – such as Richard Branson, who made a big deal out of “Gaia Capitalism” – when they come up against the logic of the market and profit maximisation, these ideals are put aside as too difficult. Branson offered a $25 million prize to anyone who could develop sustainable sources of jet fuel; but he never considered for a moment that actually cutting back the expansion of Virgin Air’s services might be an option.

Big Green

It’s not just the big corporates in denial. Our habit of making black humour about impending signs of the apocalypse, Klein argues, is another “way of looking away”, as is a kind of defensive misanthropy:

“Somewhere within each of us dwells a belief in [neoliberalism]’s– that we are nothing but selfish, greedy, self-gratification machines… convinc[ing] us that we are not just incapable of self-preservation but fundamentally not worth saving.”

Another is the middle-class urban liberal lifestyle option:

“Meditate and shop at farmer’s markets and stop driving – but forget trying to actually change the systems that are making the crisis inevitable… many of these lifestyle changes are indeed part of the solution, but we still have one eye tightly shut.”

Klein is bitingly precise that “dropping out and planting vegetables is not an option for this generation. The fossil fuels runaway train is coming for us one way or another.”

Other reviewers have suggested that This Changes Everything is not going to win any new converts to the climate movement. Klein is upfront that she blames 30 years of inaction in large part on the mainstream of the climate movement itself, and its attempts to disguise the essential conflict between capitalist economics and climate science. Her real ideological battle is against what she calls “Big Green” – the kind of people who surrendered to the neoliberal ideological offensive, who argue that “market logic and ecological limits” can be reconciled, who wish to “coddle conservatives” by appealing to patriotism or big-ticket technological solutions. These people, she suggests, do not realise the

“direct and compelling relationship between the dominance of the values that are intimately tied to triumphant capitalism and … anti-environment views and behaviours”.

One biting section of her book discusses the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), one of the biggest milestones in the early neoliberal era. She points out that something like 80% of the US environmental movement of the time was won over to support this agreement, being fobbed off with toothless side-agreements. This may be one of the reasons why “Big Green” prefers not to draw attention to its complicity setting up the very neoliberal regime which allows big powers to sabotage one another’s renewable energy schemes by appealing to the various trade courts. Another may be that Al Gore, now among the biggest players in Big Green, was the US Vice-President who presided over NAFTA’s enactment.

Most shockingly, Big Green goes along with the logic of “sacrifice zones” (and thus lesser classes of human being) by supporting the alienation of Indigenous lands to create “carbon sinks” from which Indigenous people’s traditional activities are excluded. Klein describes these “green human rights abuses” as “a cost-benefit analysis that it’s easier to cordon off a forest inhabited by politically weak people in a poor country than to stop politically powerful corporate emitters in rich countries.” It’s no coincidence that the dimming-the-sun projects of the geo-engineers would probably cause massive droughts in Africa and southern India, to save the Global North’s climate.

Klein’s argument that “less consumption”, rather than simply “green consumption” – reversing the consumption boom of the 1980s provoked by the first wave of neoliberal globalisation – is simply necessary is, therefore, also completely counter to the logic of the market economy. The Values Party, New Zealand’s pioneering green party of the 1970s, called for Zero Economic Growth; but this would mean nothing but recession and misery for ordinary people under a capitalist economy. Klein shows that the only time that emissions have ever gone down under industrial capitalism is during severe recessions; even the massive collapse of the post-Stalinist economies only brought emissions down by 5%, less than the 8% which science suggests we need year on year even to slow global warming down.

But still our rulers appear to have learned nothing, with the US having made sure that even lip service to climate realities was taken out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA). Klein convincingly makes the case that as long as market liberalism is the consensus of both Big Green and the globe’s power élites, the necessary action is simply inconceivable. As she herself points out: “when climate deniers argue that global warming is a plot to redistribute wealth, it’s not (only) because they are paranoid. It’s because they’ve been paying attention.”

Indigenous lead the way

Klein gives a great account of what must happen to protect a future for human civilisation – selective degrowth; reversing privatisation of electricity and water; an expansion of public, non-profit and caregiving economies; a shift from industrial agriculture to “agroecology” worldwide; and an end to “shitty jobs” made possible by a Universal Basic Income. But can we get there from here?

Part of her answer is found in the chapters she devotes to the pivotal role played by Indigenous peoples in climate struggle. She explains how – particularly in North and South America – Indigenous people have been spurred into combatting “extreme extraction” (open cast mining, fracking, new coal ports) by the imperatives of defending their traditional lands and fisheries. One example of this happening in Aotearoa/New Zealand has been the opposition by Northland Māori to the Norwegian state-owned oil company, Statoil, exploring the Cape Reinga basin.

This is made all the more vital by the fact that, once fossil fuels get a foothold in a particular area, they wreck the local lifeworld to the point where other ways of living become impossible. Areas based on fossil fuel economies, as Klein puts it, are “the ultimate in rootlessness” – Wild West-type situations, like the mining industry in Australia, where people only go to earn enough money to get out of there, and whose hyper-masculine culture encourages a massive sex-work industry.

Crucially, she also argues that globalization has meant that the entire planet has become a “sacrifice zone”. Fracking, for example, has spread to the rich countries of Western Europe. Significantly, when previously privileged communities find the lifeworlds threatened by extractivism, they too can rise in revolt, and even stand in solidarity with the oppressed. For example, when the Mi’kmaq people of eastern Canada first stood up for their historic fisheries 15 years ago, there was a huge racist backlash among white fishermen. But now, Mi’kmaq and white people stand together against Texan companies attempting to frack their water sources.

Similarly, when frackers came to the south of France, whose inhabitants prize themselves on their climate and the individuality and uniqueness of their local food products, the resulting outcry managed to have fracking banned in the entire country. And the privileged people of Auckland’s inner-eastern suburbs were able to stop the Eastern Motorway project of 2004 (and unseat right-wing mayor John Banks) where the people of Newton failed.

Klein has the essential insight that the climate struggle is a class struggle, as shown in her analysis of Heartland Institute propaganda:

“Even climate action at home looks suspiciously like socialism to them; all the calls for high-density affordable housing and brand-new public transit are obviously just ways to give backdoor subsidies to the undeserving poor.”

Unfortunately, she doesn’t expand on the question of how exactly the “undeserving poor” who don’t happen to be living on top of carbon bombs, or in picturesque places which might gain the sympathy of the privileged classes, can fight back.

Bad timing?

Klein argues that the climate movement suffered from “bad timing” – that it was unfortunate that climate change became an issue at the same time as the fall of the USSR and its satellite states. Klein argues that “right wing ideologues in Washington seized on this moment of global flux to crush all political competition”. Her argument seems to be that the struggle has to be an ideological one above all. She argues repeatedly for the decisive role of “right-wing think-tanks”, first in establishing the overwhelming neoliberal consensus of the 1990s, and since then in defending it against the urgent needs of the planet’s climate.

But neoliberalism – with its “Three Pillars” that Klein lists of privatisation, deregulation and low taxes – wasn’t simply a policy choice. It was a policy response to restore capitalist profits after the 1970s oil crisis. Crucially, the main reason the USSR fell (despite its even more extreme despoliation of the environment) was because the bureaucratic Stalinist system had no similar way to cut costs and increase consumption of its products. China, however, is proof that Stalinist bureaucratic authoritarianism works well with neoliberal, consumerist market economics.

Given that neoliberalism won because it was useful to the interests of the capitalist classes, the reason it still exists – and still strangles the climate movement – is that it continues to be useful to our rulers. Simply put, the right-wing think-tanks like the Heartland Institute which Klein identifies as the bogeypersons poisoning the “meme pool” are tools of class interest.

This ties in, interestingly, with the recent movement in Aotearoa/NZ to create a “left-wing think tank”. But an ideological struggle in isolation is doomed to failure; even a political one will be easily side-tracked. At the basis of ideological and political struggle has to be a basis in a new economic power – and where will that come from? The growing importance of the developing world might be part of this, particularly in the sense of challenging the stranglehold of various trade agreements, and demands for reparation for the “climate debt” of the Global North.

Klein is at her most convincing when she talks about the power of indigenous people protecting their treaty rights, as “many of the planet’s largest and most dangerous unexploded carbon bombs lie beneath lands and waters to which Indigenous peoples have legitimate legal claims”. She’s absolutely right that white radicals who encourage Indigenous people to resist the temptations of selling out their lands and fisheries to fossil-fuel corporates must suggest and even create feasible economic alternatives by which those peoples can improve their lot in life.

But what counter-power and alternative economy is available to the urban working masses? The last paragraph in her book promotes Greece’s SYRIZA party as a source of hope, after the disappointment of the Obama administration. But just like Obama, but when it gained power, SYRIZA quickly buckled under to the demands of finance capital, since there was no other alternative available within “the system”.

Conclusion

This Changes Everything makes it clear that the titans of the global economy are not only stunningly uninterested in the supposedly global issue of ecological sustainability, but are gambling that when the disaster hits, it won’t hit them: “Those involved feel free to engage in these high-stakes gambles because they believe that they and theirs will be protected from the ravages in question, at least for another generation or so.” Klein’s no-holds-barred exposé shows that Ben Elton’s vision of the mega-rich abandoning the planet (and the majority of its people) to its fate is all too plausible.

Her precise process for building an ideological, cultural and political movement which can overcome global capitalism and save the ecology can be critiqued as somewhat incomplete – concentrating on the Indigenous people and developing nations of the periphery, rather than the working masses of the urban core. But her clarity that climate change is not the only issue for the social issue, but the key issue which opens the door to all the other issues, is absolutely vital.

Particularly in Aotearoa/New Zealand, the need for the tauiwi social justice movements to take Māori struggles and Māori ways of knowing seriously is vitally urgent. Klein shows that there is no socialist or post-capitalist future which is not ecologically sustainable and which does not have indigenous struggle at its heart. The alternative is “climate-fuelled disaster capitalism”. We need to build a future which is not only resilient, but regenerative:

“Resilience – though certainly one of nature’s gifts, is a passive process, implying the ability to absorb blows and get back up. Regeneration, on the other hand, is active.”

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Comments

  1. anarkaytie says:

    Daphne, I love your analysis.
    I am about to completely piss off my Gend, Justice & environment lecturer by citing you in an essay.
    xxx love your work ;-)

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