By James Wallace Harris, Monday, March 2, 2015
The most political perceptive woman of our times is not Hilary Clinton, Angela Merkel or Elizabeth Warren, it’s Naomi Klein. Klein is a journalist, but her new book This Changes Everything synthesizes economics, environmentalism and politics into a holistic statement that should define the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. It probably won’t, but it should. Many reviewers have compared This Changes Everything to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. The environmental insight is only part of this book, Klein’s observations on capitalism are as large as those made by Adam Smith, Karl Marx and Thomas Piketty.
Klein has set forth the hypothesis that free market capitalism is the driving force of climate change, and she provides plenty of evidence for her case. But the scope of her book goes well beyond environmentalism, capitalism and politics, into a deep existential and spiritual challenge. This Changes Everything can be seen as a holy book defining a new moral paradigm.
This Changes Everything in thirteen chapters describes the dynamic scope of the problem. We admire The Greatest Generation for their response to the Depression and World War II. Solving climate change is a greater task than solving a worldwide economic meltdown and will cause more suffering than a war that killed sixty million people. Our generation needs to be greater than the Greatest Generation, and we’re shirking the job. To avoid environmental, social and economic catastrophes that climate change will bring, all seven billion of us must transform our lives. We need leaders far more inspiring than Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, and tragically we’re not finding them. Instead we have people who are fighting with all their might to maintain the status quo. Climate change will change everything, whether we solve the problem, or not. All of humanity is jumping off a cliff, and to deal with climate change is to learn how to make a parachute in free fall – pretending it’s not happening is pretending hitting the ground isn’t in your future.
Climate change is already happening and has been since the beginning of the industrial revolution. We can’t stop its current momentum, at best, we can only put on the brakes, and slow things down. Climate change is only the tip of the iceberg! The impact of free market capitalism fuel by industrialization and technology, is transforming the entire biosphere, destroying the atmosphere, oceans and land, causing the sixth great extinction event.
Naomi Klein spent five years writing This Changes Everything and covers a staggering amount of data and issues. It has over sixty pages of fine print notes. It’s not an easy book to digest, except that each of the thirteen chapters coalesces around a single important concept. Even then, each chapter has evidence to weigh that stretched my mind beyond what I can comprehend. Klein writes clearly, and works hard to help us digest the facts, but reading this book is a commitment. It took me weeks to read. I’d do a chapter at a time, and sometimes I’d go days just thinking about ideas from that one chapter. The problems she presented are like Zen Koans.
The first five chapters describes the economic problems of climate change. The next three covers the failures of the current solutions. The final five chapters explores new solutions that are struggling to emerge. There are many surprises along the way. I feel Klein has convinced me why conservatives have chosen to deny climate change. And she convinced me that the extractive industries for gas, oil and coal have no intention of leaving trillions of dollars in the ground. She also proves why politicians have been no help, and probably won’t be, but even more depressing, she explains how many environmental groups have been coopted, and are failing to meet the challenge.
The first eight chapters are bleak. After reading them I thought the best solution was to go find a quiet retirement community away from all the action, move there, and turn off the news. It’s the last five chapters that offer hope, where Klein offers new paths to explore, but none of those paths will be easy to hike. Essentially, we all need to go through a metamorphosis of how we look at living on this planet. It will be a transformation like moving from hunting and gathering life, to agrarian life, or agrarian living to industrial living. There’s a reason why this book is called This Changes Everything.
Ultimately it comes down to: Do you stay and fight, or run and hide. Klein proves that it’s not just the conservatives that are climate change deniers.
11 thoughts on “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs Climate Change by Naomi Klein”
Traveling in Russia a few years ago, I was speaking with a history professor from University of Moscow. I asked her, “Every community in Russia has a memorial to the twenty million Russians who were killed in WW2. Is there a memorial to the forty million who were killed by communists?”
She answered, “We not have an uncertain future, we have an uncertain past. Every week, we find mass graves of those victims. All we can do is mark the location. Every school child reads Solschenizyn, that will be the only memorial I ever live to see.”
Jim, these people were shot starved and worked to death, and you know why. The elites were installing a new socio-economic-political system.
Scientists have ever been as immodest as Ms. Klein: journalist.
And this is where you find spiritual challenge?
Take a trip. You really need to get out.
Read the book Billy. We can change the system without bloodshed – if you’re afraid of such horrors why work to avoid social chaos? Not changing the system will bring out another century of social upheaval. I doubt we will seriously try to change, so you’ll get your way. It’s pretty obvious that the majority of people want to keep doing what they’ve always been doing. Staying the course means we’ll hit the iceberg, so remember that was your choice.
Quit looking at the past. Think of the future. If I’m wrong, we’ll end up with a renewable energy system and a cleaner bio-system. If you’re wrong, we end up with a runaway environment that we can’t fix. Why would you be against conservation, efficiency, discipline, creating new technology, and a cleaner way of life?
Why embrace oil, gas and coal when there are alternatives? Why not protect the other species of the Earth? Why not want clean air and water? Why not want a sustainable future that can support thousands and thousands of future generations. Our current system based on extraction technologies is only workable for a few more generations, and it’s killing the planet. Why intentionally commit civilization suicide if you know there’s a way to rebuild civilization so it’s healthier and has great vitality for sustainability?
Remember your Mr. Spock, “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” This is especially sad, when the few only want to be incredibly wasteful. Is that the way of life you want to embrace? I’m an atheist, but I have enough spiritual insight to see the moral failure of the status quo. Living in environmental harmony with the Earth is the new abolitionist movement. But don’t worry Billy, few people will read Klein. It’s pretty obvious America has decided not to do anything about climate change. I’m just another Chicken Little, and who believes us chickens.
It sounds like a great book, Jim, but depressing. I’m well aware of the problems. That’s the easy part. What about the solutions?
We’re not going to change human nature. We’re not even going to get rid of faith-based thinking. So all we can do is tinker at the edges and hope that’s enough. (That might be fine in ordinary circumstances, if we weren’t changing the chemical composition of our own atmosphere.)
Meanwhile, you’ve got the economic elites of the world with a vested interest in the status quo. And you’ve got a political system – in this country, at least – where money calls the shots. Given that the primary function of our media is to make money, as with every other corporation, money calls the shots there, too.
And people seem to be very gullible – easy to scare, easy to anger, easy to lead around. Using fear, bigotry, and the unhappiness of declining living standards that their own policies create, right-wing politicians – well-funded by the wealthy – manipulate the gullible into voting against their own best interests.
It’s not that we can’t fight against these things. We can and will. It’s that we don’t have much time. Catastrophic climate change seems to be inevitable, at this point – not because we can’t do anything about it, but because we won’t.
The solution is to stop extracting oil, gas and coal from the Earth, and switch to renewable energy sources. Klein explores why that isn’t happening. Big extractive energy companies are actively fighting renewable energy technology. Not only do those same companies want to exploit every last acre of Earth, they don’t want anyone else offering an alternative.
It’s sad, but we’re following the same pattern I read out in Collapsed by Jarred Diamond, his history of all the dead civilizations that failed to avoid their fates.
What’s brilliant about this book is Klein’s analysis of the problem. She attacks liberals just as much as conservatives, and she’s especially hard on many famous environmental groups. We’re just not doing what we need to do, even though we need to do it.
Bill, I think you would especially like this book for her reporting and assessment.
Jim (May I call you Jim?), I’m not really sure where you’re making the jump from “We need to use different energy sources” to “We need to abolish private property and capitalism”. You say that the public’s lack of interest/concern about climate change proves the necessity of adopting a socialist economic system, but if anything, I’d argue the opposite; that the adoption of socialist policies by many leading environmentalists has damaged the movement’s credibility. That we need to switch to renewable sources of energy is a fact, that socialism has resulted in a complete and utter failure every time it has been attempted is also a fact. There is nothing inherently socialistic about environmentalism, and as long the environmental movement continues to ally itself with various socialist associations, it will never achieve the necessary support to make a positive difference in the world. The trouble is that many people support environmentalism, but few support socialism.
Also, I get the sense that you are a very logical, rational person from this blog, who is not afraid to face hard truths and rely on objective data when making a decision (i.e., whether or not to believe in God(s)). I would challenge you to find any socialist country which has a thriving economy (by socialist I don’t just mean big government programs, I mean that the means of production are controlled by the producers). Every variant of socialism ever tried has abysmally failed. There’s a reason the Christian Church is no longer socialist today (even though Jesus clearly supported the theory). Anarchism failed horrifically in the Spanish Civil War, Communism has been proven to be oppressive and unjust more times than you can count, and Democratic Socialism have devastated the economy of every country they have been tried in (i.e. Greece).
Socialism does not work even on a small scale. You mentioned elsewhere on this blog that you took part in some of the counter-cultural activities of the ’60s and ’70s (i.e., psychedelics). Surely you are familiar with the numerous failed communal living experiments of this era. (For example, Steven Gaskin commune “The Farm” — which also had to de-collectivize eventually).
Whether religious or atheist, small scale or large scale, or Anarchist, Communist, or Democratic, socialism ALWAYS fails.
I would also ask you to consider the example of Elon Musk, founder of both Spacex and Tesla motors. Tesla is very quickly revolutionizing the electric car industry, surely an environmentally friendly goal if there ever was one. By switching to clean energy in our automobiles, we will make an enormous leap towards a brighter, cleaner future. Coincidentally, Musk is also revolutionizing rocketry with his plans for reusable rockets, which could bring the costs of space travel down by a hundred fold. These are both things which have happened not in spite of capitalism, but because of it. Even the very computer you typed this article on was produced by a capitalist system.
Sure, call me Jim.
First off, I wasn’t saying we need to jettison capitalism or private property, but free market capitalism. All the nations of the Earth of a certain population are evolving towards a blend of controlled capitalism and socialism. Whether you like it or not, the United States already is partially socialistic. And we don’t have true free market capitalism for a lot of markets already. Most of our economy is already regulated – we just need to regulate more, not less. A small government, with a population free to pursue libertarian ideals, and powered by the invisible hand of the free market is just not realistic. Government has to conscious, and not follow any unconscious forces.
I don’t think socialism is the failure you think it is. If we didn’t have social security, medicare, unemployment insurance, and other safety nets, our country would have collapsed into chaos long ago. We just have too many people, and not enough real jobs. And many of the jobs we do have are due to inefficiency. And more jobs will be lost to automation. Without socialism the streets of America would look like Calcutta.
I don’t think we have to worry about communism or complete state controlled socialism. The evolutionary trend is towards a blend of controlled capitalism and socialism. 100% free market capitalism fails, and so does 100% socialism. Society has to be individual oriented to work, so 100% socialism won’t work. But 100% individual driven system won’t work either. Communes never worked because they never had enough structure.
There’s a new book out called Sapiens, a history of our species, that talks about how population size effects social structures and governments. Small governments works fine with small populations. Conservatives want a U.S. government that matches the population we had in the 18th century.
And free markets can work if they don’t harm the system. For example, creative products such as art, music, theater, literature can be completely free market because they don’t pollute. The real problem with most free markets is they do pollute – in the widest sense of the word. Oil, gas and coal are convenient sources of portable energy, except they are horrible polluters. As long as the human population is expanding on a finite Earth, we have to be concerned with various forms of pollution.
Electric cars are great if they get their electricity from renewable energy. They are less wonderful if they get their electricity from coal plants. Yes, we need to switch to electric cars, but we also need to switch to renewable energy production. Is that so horrible? And we could phase out oil, gas and coal with taxes, to phase in renewable energy. And I bet, that’s the sticking point you and I will have.
I think capitalism will continue, but it has to be controlled capitalism. We have to say no to any business that is destructive to the Earth, people, plants, animals and the rest of the biosphere. We’re going to have to heavily regulate any extractive industry that destabilizes or poisons the biosphere, or creates negative effects in the social structure.
We’re both agreed about clean energy maybe – but our disagreement might be in how to get there. I’m quite certain the invisible hand of the marketplace won’t get us there. We need to tax all industries that pollute. My guess it will take a fairly big tax on oil, gas and coal to slow things down in time. Maybe start with 20% penalty, and increase it 5% per year.
Now, here’s where everything changes – not the end of capitalism – but the end of how we do things now. If we taxed polluting forms of energy, will it be practical to make furniture, toys, clothes, and other consumer products in China to ship to America? Will we be able to pursue such a wasteful lifestyle as we do now? Can you build 15,000 sq foot houses that are Earth friendly? Can we raise food with massive amounts of artificial fertilizer and pesticides?
We need to get very creative and reinvent most sources of economic activities. It is possible. But will we do it?
TAANSTFL —- Sure we need to have some social programs, but I wouldn’t really equate that as being anti-capitalist. But issues like climate change and the tobacco industry are the exception rather than the rule. It isn’t that there is anything inherently moral about capitalism, rather capitalism is more conducive to moral and American values (such as freedom of choice). Also:
Bill, I’m a bit curious about something you said above: “as long the environmental movement continues to ally itself with various socialist associations.”
With exactly which “socialist associations” is the environmental movement allying itself? It seems to me that the environmental movement allies itself with anyone who cares about protecting our environment. It certainly works with corporations every chance it gets. (Indeed, when it comes to America, I’m at a loss to identify any prominent “socialist associations” at all.)
Of course, there are multiple environmental groups with a variety of attitudes and targeted goals. Some of them are definitely left-wing, though certainly not all. But when it comes to global warming, environmental groups are mostly allied with science.
It just so happens that the right-wing in America is anti-science, but that does not have to be the case (and it never used to be – not to this extent, at least).
I would love to read this book as soon as I can get my hands on a copy. I didn’t do too well with No Logo, but certainly found what I read very interesting. Thank you for this insightful post