Book Review: ‘This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate’
Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, is a call to arms in the global fight to reduce carbon emissions. Her manifesto appeared only days before hundreds of thousands marched in New York City to press for more resolute action by political leaders. But for Klein, the crisis is more centrally about the rapacity of capitalism itself. She dramatically calls for a reset to the modern way of life, not only in our political economy, but also in our “extractive” mindset that plunders nature and spoils the environment. Failing that, eco-disaster awaits. The stakes couldn’t be higher.
This Changes Everything offers ample scientific evidence about a potentially bleak, carbon-choked future; Klein is a skilled journalist and knows how to marshal facts and stories for maximum effect. But while the flagging carbon reduction movement certainly needs a boost, her book suffers from several critical shortcomings that cause her to ignore potential solutions and undermine the usefulness of her work.
First, Klein’s indictment of capitalism is too sweeping. It’s not at all clear that the problem is capitalism writ large, but rather America’s “Wall Street”-style capitalism. In several short passages, Klein praises Germany, Sweden, and Denmark for their leadership in reducing carbon emissions. Yet these are capitalist countries which, as I point out in my book Europe’s Promise, practice a “social capitalism” that is quite different from the U.S. version. They have done far more to figure out how to harness the powerful economic engine of capitalism to create a broad prosperity while reducing the negative effects on the environment. These nations have their share of challenges, but if the goal is carbon reduction, environmental protection, and reducing economic inequality, they are beacons. Klein doesn’t explore this potential nearly enough.
And if capitalism is the problem, how then does she account for the environmental catastrophes under the centrally planned economies of Mao’s China and the Soviet Union? She doesn’t. This failure to discriminate among capitalisms is a mistake Klein also made in her book The Shock Doctrine. Books like The Seven Cultures of Capitalism are illuminating in that regard, but Klein has never shown much patience for such nuance and complexity.
Klein hedges her anti-capitalist critique by changing the culprit to “extractive economies” and multinational corporations that plunder the Earth to line the pockets of a global elite. But what about modern consumers who have benefited from these extractive economies? There are 7 billion people on the planet, heading toward 8 billion. Many developing nations have managed to reduce poverty dramatically and create a rising standard of living by copying the developed (yes, capitalist) world. India’s environment minister says bluntly, “India’s first task is eradication of poverty. Twenty percent of our population doesn’t have access to electricity.” He insists that the United States, the world’s largest historic carbon polluter, and other developed countries need to take the lead on cutting emissions. How many of the developing world’s multitudes would Klein sacrifice?
It would be more accurate to describe the crisis as a clash between the expanding demands of humankind and the limits of a finite world. To be sure, many elites hog scarce resources and create outrageous political obstacles to boost their profits. But carbon pollution and other eco-challenges are the result of too many people — not only global elites — consuming too much. From a climate change perspective, we have met the enemy, and it is us.
Having misidentified capitalism as the primary climate culprit, Klein does not attempt to outline anything like an alternative economic system. Instead she puts her hopes in three major strategies for reining in fossil fuel production and consumption: a small but (she hopes) growing protest movement; a campaign to support native treaty rights, which are often located in some of the rural areas where the extraction is occurring; and a movement to encourage or force institutions and wealthy individuals to divest from fossil fuel investment and reinvest in alternative energies and other pro-environment initiatives. Klein is at her most original and moving when she writes about the native peoples she has met on the front lines of defending their villages, homes, and lands from the greedy corporations and complicit government regulators. Klein combines these relatively small, disparate movements and gives that resistance a name: Blockadia. She holds out hope that Blockadia activists can make climate change a moral issue, much as abolitionists did for slavery.
It makes for a lovely picture of the people rising up, yet one can’t help but think that Klein is exaggerating the potential of this grassroots movement. As someone who has organized numerous protests as well as civil disobedience actions, I fully understand their tactical importance. At some point, however, the protests must translate into policy and laws, if only because protesters eventually go home and get on with their lives. The opposition knows this and often waits out the protests.
Case in point: Klein’s first bestselling book, No Logo, appeared after the huge WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. The protests were exciting and riveted the nation. But the impact was short-lived and resulted in very little policy or regulation change; within ten years the United States suffered the greatest economic collapse since the Great Depression because of poor economic policies. Likewise, the inspiring Occupy movement failed to articulate any core demands that could translate into ongoing organized activism and policy changes. Protest that fails to result at some point in better policy or laws becomes a missed opportunity.
Klein writes that native treaty rights “may now represent the most powerful barriers protecting all of us from a future of climate chaos,” since treaty rights potentially can tie up matters in court and halt the drilling rigs. Supporting native treaty rights is long overdue from an economic justice perspective and already has led to small victories. Yet there is nothing in the long, sad history of broken and ignored native treaty rights that inspires confidence that this will be a powerful weapon against the greedy extractors, or against all those in the middle class who cherish their fossil fuel-based standard of living. While this movement should be supported, I fear it will remain a fairly limited tool.
Klein herself occasionally seems to realize the limitation of these methods. She notes that they are stand-ins “until a shift in the political tides” makes more powerful policies a reality. Which brings me to the largest omission of Klein’s well-researched work. If the goal is carbon reduction, the primary culprit is the United States. While China emits as much total carbon, the United States is by far the largest per capita emitter of CO2 in the world. The average American emits twice as much carbon as the average European or Japanese for the same standard of living, and many times more than the average Chinese, Indian, Brazilian, or Russian. The average American uses twice as much electricity as the average European and our cars use 40 percent more fuel to go the same distance.
Back in 2008, when President Barack Obama was first elected, the nation seemed ready to shift its environmental policy. But Obama largely failed to deliver due to a filibuster-gone-wild Senate, which forced him to line up 60 votes (out of 100) to pass climate bills. When he arrived at the United Nation’s 2009 Copenhagen Summit without a mandate, China, India, and other developing countries had an excuse to do nothing, and the Europeans were jilted at the altar. But it’s not only the filibuster that paralyzed the U.S. government. In the 2012 elections, due to the archaic nature of our electoral system used to elect the U.S. House of Representatives, the Democrats won a majority of the nationwide vote yet the Republicans won a majority of House seats. Add to that a presidential election system in which close races are decided by a few battleground states, most notably Florida and Ohio, which are not the most carbon-friendly states, and the overriding importance of political reform in the United States becomes immediately apparent. Tragically, even when the national consensus is for lower carbon emissions, the political system has failed again and again to translate that sentiment into national policy.
Yet Klein has little to say about this breakdown of the U.S. political system. Perhaps one can excuse the Canadian Klein for misunderstanding the central role of U.S. political institutions, but Klein herself points out that even in her native Canada, the conservative, pro-tar sands government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper won a majority of winner-take-all seats with a mere 39.6 percent of the popular vote. The breakdown of political systems and democratic elections presents the gravest of situations, yet Klein never connects these dots to the need for political reform except in the most superficial way.
Indeed, Klein mostly downplays the importance of government policy altogether and so misses real opportunities. For example, we know that approximately 70 percent of carbon emissions in the U.S. come from urban areas. And urban areas are “blue” politically, where liberals and progressives tend to dominate on city councils and regulatory bodies. Just by enacting legislation from liberal city councils for comprehensive conservation and renewable energy, enormous strides can be made to rein in carbon. Unfortunately, the national environmental movement has failed to focus on cities, and so has Klein. Local efforts like Sonoma Clean Power and similar projects in nearly a dozen California cities, or the Seattle-based Climate Solutions’ “New Energy Cities” project, don’t rate a mention alongside the protestors she valorizes.
To her credit, Klein considers Germany’s remarkable shift to wind and solar power, but more details would have been helpful, particularly on the political factors within Germany that enabled that rapid transformation. If Klein had followed that trail, she would have discovered the importance of Germany’s political system. The use of proportional representation rather than the winner-take-all electoral system, public financing of campaigns, and universal voter registration allowed a vibrant Green Party to win representation in national and regional parliaments, become junior coalition partners in government, and exert an influence that the environmental movement in the United States has not been able to muster.
Klein believes we are running out of time (a view I tend to share), and she has little patience for the slow, incremental work of lobbying, lawmaking, and the like. She wants to reduce the supply of fossil fuels and shut down the greedy extractors but has little to say about the demand side of the equation, especially conservation, and what governments can or should do. Her rhetoric is that of the pamphleteer, which can be an important catalyst, but at 525 pages (including endnotes) her book is no pamphlet. While at times inspiring, most of the book treads over familiar ground that anyone who has read Bill McKibben, NASA’s James Hansen, the various Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, or has seen Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth already has heard. Klein herself seems to recognize this, writing in her acknowledgments that Bill McKibben “wrote most of this years ago.”
Still, the state of the carbon-reduction movement is so lacking in recent victories that even a flawed book with glaring omissions like this one might re-energize it. Because at the end of the day, our troubling climate future really does “change everything.” Which makes it even more of a pity that Klein’s book isn’t more focused and useful in this fight.
Steven Hill is a Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation and author of Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age (www.EuropesPromise.org) and 10 Steps to Repair American Democracy (www.10Steps.net). Follow him on Twitter @StevenHill1776