Klein's most important book says capitalism's climate crisis a chance for change

October 10, 2014
The take-home message from Klein is that 'we can’t sit this one out, not [just] because we have too much to lose, but because

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate
By Naomi Klein
Simon & Shulster, 2014

Award-winning author and activist Naomi Klein, who wrote The Shock Doctrine and No Logo, is back with her long-awaited new release: This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate.

Now, she is taking on the biggest issue of our time ― climate change, and exploring the implications of the climate crisis for social change today and into the future.

This book may be her most important to date. As she explains: “Climate change isn’t an ‘issue’ to add to the list of things to worry about … it’s a civilizational wake-up call … telling us that we need an entirely new economic model.”

This Changes Everything is thorough, detailed and obviously well researched. It brims with fully referenced statistics, anecdotes, stories and examples from around the world. This makes it a highly useful reference book for climate change activists, as there is very little in the way of climate science, solutions and movements that is not addressed.

It is also surprisingly accessible for people of all stages of knowledge and experience in relation to climate change action. It doesn’t assume too much prior knowledge, but also delves into issues in depth. This means it is at once a great introduction for those new to this area, and a must-read for all weathered climate activists and progressives alike.

The first key message to take from the book is that it is capitalism, not carbon, that is the real problem. Klein addresses the perplexing question ― despite our leaders being fully aware of the danger of climate change for decades and having had plenty of opportunities to act, why do emissions around the world continue to skyrocket?

Her straightforward answer is: “We have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis.”

The unavoidable truth is that the key characteristics of the capitalist system are ultimately incompatible with creating a sustainable society. These include the prioritisation of profit above all else, the need to constantly expand and find new markets and the externalisation of social and environmental costs.

In short, the needs of the climate are in direct contradiction to the needs of our current economic model. As Klein points out, “only one of these set of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature”.

This might not be as bad news as it sounds, Klein says. Given that the current system is comprehensively failing most people on this planet, changing it to address the climate crisis could be the best chance we’ve ever had of creating a better world.

Indeed, the structural, economic and social changes needed to address the climate crisis could simultaneously address many of society’s ills and inequalities.

Of course, the ruling class will try to use this situation to further entrench inequality and uneven control, as they have done in response to countless natural disasters, as Klein outlines in The Shock Doctrine. But we can also flip this around and create what she calls a “people’s shock”, using the opportunity to disperse power, extend democracy and redistribute wealth.

The climate crisis could serve as a wake-up call for widespread democratic action and be a catalyst for positive change. It could be “the best argument progressives ever had” to build a fair and just society.

But before we can do this, we have to stop being in denial about what it will take to solve the climate crisis ― and stop peddling false “pragmatic” solutions.

Therefore, the book explores the inability of “market mechanisms”, or “techno-fixes” alone to solve the problem.

It exposes the inherent flaws of carbon trading schemes. These embed the right to pollute and allow fossil fuel companies to profit from selling permits, while avoiding emissions cuts, often by exploiting dodgy carbon offset programs in developing countries.

The book also exposes dubious partnerships between some of the Big Green groups and fossil fuel companies. A clear pattern emerges here; when environmental groups accept corporate funding, they start to push corporate solutions, such as promoting gas as a transition fuel.

Klein draws the conclusion that we cannot get away with trying to reframe climate action as something more palatable to the elites, by proposing change that those responsible for the crisis won’t feel threatened by.

This implies a need to break free of market fundamentalism and implement long-term planning, strict regulation of business, more taxation, more government spending and reversals of privatisation to return key infrastructure to public control.

It also requires us to change our view of our relationship to the Earth as one of domination and control over nature. In reality, the Earth supports us; but only when we look after it.

We have a lot to learn from indigenous peoples around the world, who have long implemented principles of being custodians of the Earth, and a reciprocal relationship that involves taking but also giving back and taking care.

The third part of the book is dedicated to exploring real solutions to the climate crisis, many of which are already under way. Klein makes the assertion that “only mass movements can save us now”. We are introduced to the concept of “blockadia”, a roving conflict zone that can be found wherever communities are opposing extractive processes.

This has been spurred recently by the growth of increasingly dangerous and dirty extractive techniques, such as “fracking”. These have resulted in communities uniting to fight back to protect their land and water.

This comes as increasingly more people find themselves in “sacrifice zones”, as their land, water and communities become externalities of capitalist profit-making.

Klein asserts that “resistance to high-risk extreme extraction is building a global, grassroots, and broad-based network the likes of which the environmental movement has rarely seen”.

Importantly, it requires building diverse alliances, including with farmers, traditional conservatives, and First Nations peoples, whose claims to land rights might be one of the most powerful tools against fossil fuel extraction.

It is great to see a couple of inspiring examples of this taking place in Australia right now, mentioned in the book. These are the ongoing blockade of the Maules Creek coal mine in Leard State Forest in northern New South Wales, and the campaign to oppose dredging and new coal ports in the Great Barrier Reef.

Another useful strategy that the book explores is the global fossil fuels divestment campaign. This is playing a crucial role in removing the social licence of fossil fuel companies and giving the climate movement a clear enemy.

It also looks at examples of cities and towns around the world that are literally “taking the power back”, by putting energy utilities back into public and community hands, directly challenging neoliberal orthodoxy, and reaping impressive results.

Importantly, Klein emphasises the need for the climate movement to defend and connect a diverse range of seemingly disparate struggles that are already expressing the values we’ll need to combat climate change: collectivism, solidarity and justice.

Because after all, “the logic that would cut pensions, food stamps and health care before increasing taxes on the rich is the same logic that would blast the bedrock of the earth to get the last vapours of gas … before making the shift to renewable energy”.

There is no doubt that the reality of the climate crisis is incredibly daunting and scary. But This Changes Everything provides some real hope that we can use this impending crisis to build a better world, and that it is possible.

There is plenty of evidence that free market ideology is losing its persuasive power among the general population, and no shortage of signs of hope that the tide is changing.

The take-home message from Klein is that “we can’t sit this one out, not [just] because we have too much to lose, but because we have too much to gain … for a great many people, climate action is their best hope for a better present, and a future far more exciting than anything else currently on offer”.

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