activism books climate change

Book review: This changes everything, by Naomi Klein

this changes everythingAfter her previous books on consumerism and disaster capitalism, the transformative ‘this’ of Naomi Klein’s latest book is climate change. It will change everything, either by changing the planet, or by us changing society and the economy in radical ways.

There are no get out of jail free cards, Klein argues – no new dawn of green capitalism, no enlightened billionaires, and no miracle technologies. These hopes are all rooted in the idea that if can tweak a few things here and there, we can carry on as usual. The science suggests something else: that we have very little time, and no option but radical emissions cuts. And that puts us on a collision course with the fossil-fuel driven growth economy. Hence the book’s subtitle, ‘Capitalism vs the climate’.

We’ve known about climate change for long enough to have done something about it. The reason we haven’t is pretty simple. “We have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology of the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis.”

What sorts of things are we talking about? Regulation, for a start, particularly limits to CO2 emissions. Public spending is another, as climate change requires major infrastructure investment at a time when politicians are doing everything to reduce spending. Taxing high energy consumption, or trying to reign in fossil fuel companies, all these things are against the principles of free market capitalism. Growth is another one. “What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion.”

This is bad timing, Klein argues. Climate change began to really bite at the very peak of free market ideology, effectively ruling out all the most important things we could be doing to stop it. Ultimately, “a destabilised climate is the cost of deregulated, global capitalism, its unintended yet unavoidable consequence.”

If we’re going to stop runaway warming, we will need to change society and the economy profoundly. And that’s no bad thing, the book suggests. In the process, we may be able to do a lot of things that really improve people’s lives, reduce inequality, and breathe new life into our democracy.

But that sort of change won’t come from government, where the free market ideology holds sway. Neither will it come from business. It will have to come from the grassroots. “It really is the case that we are on our own and any credible source of hope in this crisis will have to come from below”

That’s where Klein sees hope, and the latter half of the book describes the varied movements tackling fossil fuel companies and creating sustainable alternatives. They include the divestment movement I mentioned last week, indigenous communities opposing mining on their land, or subversive energy projects like Repower Balcombe.

One of the interesting arguments here is that our economic model based on resource extraction has always needed ‘sacrifice zones’ – places out of sight and out of mind where the destruction didn’t matter and the people were powerless. As depletion forces us towards more extreme forms of energy, those sacrifice zones are on the move. The Keystone XL pipeline has brought together a diverse range of ordinary Americans, united in their opposition. Fracking has been the same in Britain, as fossil fuels are no longer something that come from far away. All of a sudden, the communities of the Niger Delta and the middle class citizens of Southern England have a common cause against fossil fuels. This new energy reality is creating a new dynamic in the climate change debate, and a real grassroots movement is emerging.

That’s an encouraging thought, except that as Klein herself admits, popular movements have no track record of systemic change on the scale we’re talking about. Where there have been gains, they are almost always social or legal rather than economic. So is salvation through the grassroots any more likely than a techno-fix or a miracle? I don’t know. The difference is that the movement is proactive, it is something we can do. It’s a way of taking responsibility and doing what we can.

Like all Naomi Klein’s writing, This Changes Everything is polemical and often provocative. Because she is defiantly anti-corporate, there is no room for business being part of the solution. For reasons that aren’t adequately explained, only public spending can finance the transition as far as she’s concerned. I don’t think it’s that simple, and while I believe grassroots action is vital, we’ll be needing corporations on board too. And billionaires, and any breakthrough technology that shows any glimmer of promise. I think our best hopes lie in an ‘all of the above’ strategy.

Still, This Changes Everything is written with a passion that’s hard to ignore, and I hope it breathes some new energy into a climate movement that maybe, just maybe, can get it together before we’re out of time.



    1. That’s a long review – I confess I’ve skimmed it rather than read it thoroughly, but they make some good points. Naomi Klein is vociferously anti-globalization and anti-industry in a way that is unhelpful, as I mentioned in my own review. She’s also against nuclear on principle, and the book doesn’t discuss it the way it could. Her big solution of ‘blockadia’ protest movements is inadequate on its own and as unlikely to succeed as anything else, as I also mentioned. They’re right about those things.

      However, it’s worth noting that the Breakthrough Institute is singled out for specific criticism in the book (page 57). Not extensively – they get a couple of sentences, whereas Richard Branson gets most of a chapter – but they do have an interest in discrediting the book for that reason. So they are exaggerating their criticisms somewhat, and defending their own pro-nuclear, pro-growth positions rather than reviewing the book properly. This is far from objective and therefore not such a ‘good take down review’. That’s fine, but they really should be more clear what they’re doing. Instead, they’ve not only neglected to mention that this is a defense against Naomi Klein, but expanded her importance to make it them against ‘the left’ in its entirety! Seriously, Klein is a radical voice – she really doesn’t speak for the entire ‘left’ as they suppose, and it’s thoroughly disingenuous to review the book as if she does.

      I have nothing against the Breakthrough Institute, by the way. I don’t agree with everything they say, but I’m on their mailing list and I value their (usually) well-argued perspective.

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