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This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs. The Climate

November 21, 2016

thischangeseverythingHere are the main points (at least, as I understand them) Naomi Klein makes in The Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs. The Climate:

  • “The right is right.” That is, right-wing free market climate change deniers are right to think that the social, political and economic changes required to avoid dumping disastrous quantities of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere in the coming decades would destroy capitalism as it exists today, and in particular, as it has evolved and grown over the past four decades.
  • Recent international trade agreements (e.g., NAFTA, WTO) pit “free trade” against action to deal with climate change, and give precedence to trade over protecting the environment.
  • The neoliberal privatization of the public sector in recent decades must be reversed if societies are to reduce and eliminate the burning of fossil fuels.
  • It’s not enough for governments to regulate and “incentivize” the private sector. The governmental powers of “planning and banning”—setting explicit goals, issuing mandatory orders—must be brought to bear if greenhouse gas emissions are to be eliminated in the next 1-2 generations.
  • There is an urgent need for humanity to move “beyond extractivism” and towards at ethic—and economics—that recognizes and respects the limits of the natural world (which includes homo sapiens).

Klein identifies and dismantles several kinds of “magical thinking” that have not and will not save the day. They include:

  • The belief that major environmental organizations (“Big Green”) could “partner” effectively with major corporations (“Big Business”) and together use their resources and expertise to avert climate change.
  • The belief that “green billionaires” (e.g., Richard Branson, Michael Bloomberg, Bill Gates) will, by mobilizing their talents, their relationships, and their billions of dollars, lead us to technological breakthroughs and a carbon-free economy.
  • The belief that geoengineering techniques (such as blocking some of the sun’s radiation by injecting sulfate particles into the atmosphere, or “seeding” the oceans with iron) will prevent—or at least, delay—climate change.

Finally, Klein identifies the signs of hope she found in her several years of globe-hopping to the frontlines of the battle between fossil fuel companies and the growing climate change movement.

  • As the work of extracting coal, oil and gas from the earth becomes increasingly difficult and expensive, the side effects on local communities grow. This has led to the growth of what Klein calls “Blockadia”, the communities around the world most directly affected by techniques such as tar sands extraction, fracking, deepwater drilling, and mountaintop removal. The citizens of Blockadia are growing in number, power, and victories as, for example, oil companies in Alberta can’t win approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, or of their plans to ship oil out of British Columbia.
  • The increased use of by climate change activists of local democracies and divestment campaigns—the willingness and ability of organized people and organized money to slowly but steadily reduce the power and legitimacy of fossil fuel companies.
  • The moral and (especially) legal powers of Indigenous peoples—particularly when those powers are backed by wealthier and more numerous allies—to defend their ancient rights to land and water against the pollution that accompanies extractive industries.
  • The growing example and economic power of investments (“don’t just divest; reinvest”) in clean energy technologies, not only replacing fossil fuels, but also creating jobs and an alternative economic future.
  • Moving “from extraction to renewal” by focusing on the “right to regenerate”: the absolute importance of acting in ways that insure the ability of species of all kinds—from plants to amphibians to humans—to regenerate and reproduce, by blocking and ending actions and processes that interrupt that process (as, for example, DDT did by weakening the shells of bird eggs).

This Changes Everything is in many ways an organizer’s book. Lots of great personal and communal stories tied with policy and issue discussions, and constant references back to the fundamental questions of power, justice and morality. The reader ends the book with more, not fewer, ideas and inspiration for how to act effectively in the face of the multiple crises presented by the earth’s fossil fuel-driven changing climate.

No book can address every question it raises—and Klein’s addresses more than most—but just for the record, here are three issues I wish she had wrestled with more fully:

Poverty: I wish Klein had included more about the rise in incomes for the world’s poorest residents in recent decades. For example, in 1990 60% of East Asians lived in extreme poverty, with incomes under $2/day. Now, according to the World Bank, only 3.5% do. That’s a remarkable—even stunning—accomplishment.

Extreme poverty is shrinking not only on a percentage basis (from 35% to 11% in just 23 years), but also on an absolute scale (from 1.8 billion to 800 million) even as global population continues to rise.

If, as Klein argues, capitalism has been the more-or-less unchallenged economic ideology/organizing system since the collapse of the Soviet bloc, then its critics have to reckon with its apparent success in raising over 1 billion people out of extreme poverty in less than a generation.

Technology: Klein is generally critical of technology, or at least, of those who see great promise in technological advances as a way out of our dependence on fossil fuels. But one of the promising advances of recent years is the rapidity with which technological breakthroughs are helping to make solar, wind and other carbon-free (or mostly carbon-free) power generating systems competitive with coal, oil and gas.

Yes, there are enormous carbon (and other) savings that can and should be made (and made quickly) by wealthy people and societies living more simply and efficiently. But even the most ecologically sensitive national economies require power on a scale that requires more (not less) advanced technologies in order to achieve the goal of zero carbon emissions.

Scale: Finally, there’s the issue of scale. Klein has a clear preference for decentralized and localized economic and political systems, and that preference has much to recommend it.

But on a planet with over 7 billion people (rising to 11 billion by 2100), there are limits to how small-scale human societies can be. Here’s a thought experiment:

Right now the world’s population density is roughly 35 people/square mile.  Or, in other words, the world is like Kansas. Now, add another 4 billion people in the next three generations. We’d need well over 1,000 states the size of Kansas to keep global population densities where they are now.

Of course, that’s not going to happen. As sea levels rise, we’ll have less land not more. Most likely we’ll have more cities, and more people living in cities.  To accommodate the growing world population, by 2100 we’ll need 4,000 new cities the size of Dallas or San José. Or 400 new cities the size of Jakarta, Sao Paolo, Cairo or London.

The point being: if we’re going to decentralize and localize our economic, political and social systems, it won’t be a way to avoid large-scale human activity, but rather as a way to organize and deal with large-scale human activity.

These, however, are merely debates within the circle of those who already persuaded that climate change is one of the great challenges (if not the greatest) humanity faces in the 21st century. With This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein has performed a notable service towards meeting that challenge.


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