Web Only / Features » September 19, 2014
Naomi Klein’s New Book Is a Manual for a Movement
This Changes Everything argues that only grassroots movements, not politicians or the 1%, can prevent climate disaster.
Naomi Klein's thesis is breathtakingly simple and radical: The structures of international capitalism, eternally committed to relentless economic growth, are not capable of addressing the climate crisis.
It is fitting that Naomi Klein’s latest work, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, was released this week in September. On Sunday, tens of thousands will pour into the streets of midtown Manhattan for the People’s Climate March. On the eve of yet another United Nations summit aimed at slashing global greenhouse gas emissions, the action could well be the single largest environmental demonstration in history.
This Changes Everything is not just another “call to action” to stop runaway global warming before it’s too late. We have seen plenty such pleas in the past. They’re often aimed at elites, the political and business leaders who’ve brought the planet to the brink of ecological collapse and who can, the logic goes, just as easily pull us back from the edge.
This hasn’t worked yet, and Klein’s new book is a product of this spectacular inaction. In it, she argues that only collective action from below—movements like the mass of workers and students marching in New York this weekend—can solve the climate crisis in a humane way.
Her thesis is breathtakingly simple and radical: The structures of international capitalism, eternally committed to relentless economic growth, are not capable of addressing the climate crisis. Only a more redistributive economic model geared toward meeting human needs rather than churning out profits—call that system whatever you want—is up for the task.
She makes this an easy conclusion to reach. As in her two previous works, No Logo and The Shock Doctrine, Klein excels at making radical demands seem so effortlessly logical and palatable.
Scientists and policy experts alike know the depth of our planetary predicament. In order to avoid the most cataclysmic effects of climate change, we need to make sure that temperatures don’t rise by more than two degrees Celsius above their pre-industrial average. (Unfortunately, temperatures have already skyrocketed 0.8 degrees past that point and are on track to blow past the two-degree limit in the coming decades).
The solution: The vast majority of known fossil fuel reserves need to stay in the ground, and we must immediately begin the transition to an economy powered by renewable sources of energy. Yet obviously, this isn’t even close to happening.
A common misconception is that the necessary technology just isn’t there yet. Not so, says Klein, citing the work of Stanford University Professor Mark Z. Jacobson. In 2009, the civil engineer and his co-author found that 100 percent of the world’s energy could be supplied by wind, water and solar resources, by as early as 2030. The primary obstacle to enacting such a transition is our economic model—one that answers to the fossil fuel industry and its champions in government, not ordinary people in line to bear the brunt of the crisis. “Our problem has a lot less to do with the mechanics of solar power than the politics of human power,” Klein writes.
Indeed, Klein is a master at unpacking myths and contradictions, wherever their origins lie on the political spectrum. Naturally, she bashes Big Oil and Big Gas for their sadistic, extraction-fueled fantasies of tearing up the planet until nothing comes out.
But she is equally as harsh on the collaborationists in the major environmentalist organizations—“Big Green,” who have tried cozying up to the planet’s pallbearers in industry and government for decades. (During her research, Klein made the stomach-churning discovery that the Nature Conservancy literally allows oil drilling on land it owns in Texas.)
In her view, environmentalists who think they can work hand in hand with the enemy are perhaps just as guilty as the polluters themselves. “Between [those] who recognize that climate change is a profound threat to our economic and social systems and therefore deny its scientific reality, and those who claim climate change requires only minor tweaks to business-as-usual and therefore allow themselves to believe in its reality, it’s not clear who is more deluded,” she writes.
This Changes Everything is not without faults. In spite of the book's general clarity in identifying the source of the climate crisis, the book suffers from moments of theoretical fogginess. Klein seems to use the terms “capitalism,” “free markets,” “neoliberalism” and “extractivism” almost interchangeably. They don’t all necessarily mean the same thing. One can imagine a society in which private employers mostly own the means of production, but are also held in check by a redistributive, ecologically-conscious state.
Will this kind of social democratic model do or must we go further to save the planet? These sorts of questions are left unanswered.
The book’s optimism is one of its strengths, but at times, Klein seems to overstate the power of the existing climate justice movement. She refers to the planet’s disparate anti-fossil fuel struggles—pockets of opposition to tar sands pipelines in Canada and mining projects in Greece, for instance—as “Blockadia.” This makes sense, and the term is welcome, since activists are ultimately fighting a common enemy in the fossil fuel industry. But not every one of these local struggles aims for an economically just, let alone anti-capitalist, society on the horizon.
For example, in February, I covered the now-abandoned Bluegrass Pipeline project, a Williams Energy and Boardwalk joint venture that would have shipped natural gas liquids from the shale fields of Pennsylvania and Ohio to refineries on the Gulf Coast. The pipeline was ultimately defeated by a wall of grassroots opposition in Kentucky. There were exceptions, but overall, the movement was deeply conservative. Few anti-pipeline advocates talked of alternative energy; fewer still of an alternative economic model. Some of the leading opponents included a 50-year-old thoroughbred trainer who lived on a 300-acre horse farm and a global warming-denying state senator driven by a fierce loyalty to protecting private property.
“Our opinion is they can’t get across Kentucky without using eminent domain,” Republican Sen. Jimmy Higdon told me in an interview at the time. “We just want to make sure if a landowner says no, that no means no.”
NIMBY-inflected elements continue to haunt some of the United States’ other anti-fossil fuel struggles, such as the fracking battles in rural Colorado and New York. This is not to say that a more progressive, more powerful “Blockadia” is not possible. Potent radically-minded environmental coalitions are, in fact, emerging across the globe. But much work remains to be done.
In her conclusion, Klein references French psychiatrist Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of The Earth, a groundbreaking call for national liberation and post-colonial utopia. Fanon’s 1961 work is one of those exceedingly rare paradigm-shifting texts; at a time of massive colonial upheaval and transition, it served as a kind of intellectual field manual for a generation of revolutionaries grappling with their position in history. This Changes Everything, as the self-referential title suggests, could very well be one of those books. That will depend on the strength of the movement.
Cole Stangler writes about labor and the environment. His reporting has also appeared in The Nation, VICE, The New Republic and International Business Times. He lives in Paris, France. He can be reached at cole[at]inthesetimes.com. Follow him @colestangler.