Naomi Klein has done it again with her new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate. She challenges the existing ignorance and denial on climate change and administers her own form of shock doctrine on that all-consuming issue. I do find, however, that her complete reliance on the power of social movements to bring about needed and urgent change is flawed and incomplete.
By way of background, there is by now widespread scientific consensus that climate change is occurring as a result of human activity. Carbon emissions are being trapped in the atmosphere and warming the planet. If we do not reduce fossil fuel consumption, scientists say, the results will be catastrophic. In fact, the collapse of ice sheets and the ensuing rapid rise in sea levels has already begun.
There are vast proven fossil fuel reserves in the world, a good deal of it trapped in the sticky bitumen of the Canadian tar sands. According to Bill McKibben, the climate change activist behind a group called 350.org, 80 per cent of the oil, coal and gas on our planet must stay in the ground if we are to limit the future rise in global temperature to two degrees Celsius. Klein says that this is more of a political than a scientific target. Increasingly, scientists tell us that even a temperature increase of two degrees could be disastrous. Yet governments have found it impossible to take action that would attempt to limit the increase to that goal.
Negotiators from 196 countries finished a round of talks in Lima, Peru in December 2014, in contemplation of yet another round of talks in Paris in 2015. Climate change negotiations to curtail the emission of greenhouse gases began with the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 and have been going on ever since — but in the intervening 22 years emissions have continued to rise.
“What is wrong with us?” Klein asks, and that is the central question in her book. There are personal shortcomings to be sure (our own greed and denial) but Klein says the problems are systemic. “Our economic system and our planetary system are at war,” she says.
We have been pouring carbon into the atmosphere since the industrial revolution and the rapaciousness of capitalism has only grown more destructive with the development of ever more powerful technology. Communism was environmentally ruinous as well but it no longer reigns anywhere and has been replaced by oligarchic capitalism in Russia and authoritarian capitalism in China.
Tinkering won’t do
Klein rightly dismisses those who claim that the challenges posed by climate change can be met without major changes to the reigning economic system. She says that we have driven past that point on the planet’s freeway and that the only hope we have is to create massive economic and political change. We not only have to replace our sources of energy but we have to consume less of it.
Klein is pessimistic, even dismissive, about what she calls “fossilized democracies” and their ability to deliver the required change. She cites a Venezuelan political scientist as saying that we live in a post-democratic society where the interests of financial capital prevail over the democratic will of the people.
She believes that the best hope in curbing the destructive excesses of “extractivism” lies with the global popular movements. A good portion of her book is devoted to visiting and describing various grassroots actions which she calls “Blockadia”. These include First Nations in Alberta opposing tar sands extraction and others opposing natural gas fracking in New Brunswick, while student and faith groups are organizing campaigns of divestment from oil companies.
“None of this is a replacement for major policy changes that would regulate carbon reduction across the board,” she says. But she adds that the emergence of a networked, global movement means that when climate campaigners meet with politicians and polluters to negotiate there will be thousands of militants in the street to ramp up the pressure – “and that is very significant indeed.”
Writing the laws
Significant yes, but someone must actually write the new laws and enforce them just as they did during the New Deal in the U.S., a legislative example which Klein points to admiringly. For such a new deal to happen today, we need more than pressure exerted by the social movements; we also must have a renewed politics controlled by citizens and not special interests such as the carbon industry.
The new politics must be informed and prodded by diverse social movements. As important as they are, however, the sum of groups involved in Blockadia cannot, on their own, deliver the legislative and regulatory changes needed to avoid the calamitous future that unchecked climate change is already beginning to deliver.
I like the story told of FDR who when meeting with a groups of activists said, “I would be glad to implement the changes you are asking for, but I will need you and your followers to go out into the streets and demand that I do it.”
Militants in the streets can be ignored, ridiculed, arrested, etc. It seems to me that if we have to circumvent governments that have shown they will not do the job, our best option is to alter our consumer behaviour. They will leave the oil in the ground if we’re not buying it.
Then again, this would require mass buy-in from the population…and if we had that, we could replace those writing the laws.
Thank you Dennis for providing a succinct summary of Naomi Klein’s book!
I come from Alberta; I view the oilsands industry as rapacious, I see what Governor Jerry Brown is taking on with his water bond of $7.5 bn – clearly different views of how we live in the world today. And in China, the government is closing down industries, the air pollution so significant that vulnerable people are dying and they’re holding their government accountable. So, perhaps those of us inspired by John F. Kennedy’s famous call to service: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country” believe we have a unique opportunity and responsibility to meet the critical challenges of our time…
and we create platforms that are the basis of the next major economic opportunity.
The question goes back to you being you are in Ottawa and you have first hand experience with the world of Canadian politics, how these platforms can be built and change the legislative and regulatory changes needed to avoid the calamitous future!
Thanks, I look forward to your reply
Sharon Szmolyan, MBA
Thanks for your comment Sharon. I’ll ponder your questions and respond to you. Best wishes, dg
I’ve not read her book, but what you write fits what I know of her and from having heard her speak a number of times. I think we agree that we have a problem but the solutions and process remain controversial. We can no longer reverse global warming; we are long past that possibility. From my reading, most likely we need to plan for dealing with climate change, while we slowly wean ourself from fossil fuels, to slow it down.
Ms Klein has said, via a column, if I recall, that she did not choose socialism, she was born into it, very much like a religion (her characterization). Just like many believers in most religions, I would guess, the foundational beliefs are neither provable empirically nor is proof required. In Klein’s case, this translates into a foundational belief in socialism, which seems to require a kind of socialist solution to most problems in the world.
I would call myself a communitarian by choice, a position reasoned from a recognition that all people are not created equally capable of creating and living a prosperous life under a system based on rugged individualism. In short, I do expect changes in society to come about via the involvement of citizens because I see our country as a large community. Without each other, we have very little worth living for, it seems to me.
The difference, I think, between Klein’s and my own political philosophy is that I would seek, first, the betterment of society for all; I suspect that her first cause is socialism, betterment of society to follow from that. This is the same kind of motivation that can result in a vote for a clearly losing candidate, who would be perfect, were they able to win, while in the process allowing a vile candidate to win instead: the best is the enemy of the better.
And so the bottom line, for me, is that in the absence of a total revolution that would bring about massive change quickly (and not all of which I would necessarily find appealing), we need to work on continuous incremental improvements where we can, via coalitions, the ballot, and yes, protests, which can be important ingredients for sure. But in my experience, the people in power are rarely aware that protests are even taking place, no matter how large or prominent they may seem to you and me. And they very rarely result in wholesale revolutions.
I tend to agree with Jim Lang’s observation about Klein’s socialism. What we know from “really existing socialism” is that its environmental record was even worse than ours. They destroyed the Aral Sea, the largest fresh water body (except for Lake Superior), as an example of their single-minded drive for industrialization. I also agree with Dennis, that a thoroughly revitalized democracy is the key. But that is also the problem.