Imagining Our Dark and Stormy Future: Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything“

Protestors at the People's Climate March in New York City, September 21, 2014. (Photo: Matt Surrusco / Truthout)Protestors at the People’s Climate March in New York City, September 21, 2014. (Photo: Matt Surrusco / Truthout)Naomi Klein, author of the groundbreaking books, No Logo and The Shock Doctrine, is back with a new groundbreaking work, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. The book resets the debate over global warming by focusing on how it is integrally related to the current economic system that spans the globe. Contribute to Truthout and receive this vitally important work. Click here now.

If Naomi Klein did not exist, we would have to invent her.

With her new book on climate change, This Changes Everything, she lays out a nearly bullet-proof argument, not only about what we have to do to save ourselves, but also – perhaps more essentially – about why it’s reasonable to believe that we might in fact do these things. Others – including Bill McKibben and Paul Gilding – have covered similar territory, but with all due respect to both of them, the more optimistic portions of their books have never been so persuasive to this particular worried reader.(1)

If you generally avoid reading about climate change (out of paralysis, fear or grief), read this book. If you do read about it, but feel overwhelmed and unsure that there’s any hope, or what hope would even look like in the context of a biosphere in crisis, read this book. If you think climate change is something you can think about later – after getting even with the mortgage or the credit cards, maybe, or when you’re not working so much, or when the kids are older, read this book. And if, like me, you ran clean out of the ability to distance yourself from this issue years ago, and you plunged into climate activism of one sort or another (though the fear and grief have not gone away), then you, especially, should read this book.

“Forget everything you think you know about global warming. The really inconvenient truth is that it’s not about carbon – it’s about capitalism.”

It’s no secret to most people who follow the news that the science is about as dire as it can be: Life as we know it has, at best, decades left on its clock (and that’s for the lucky ones in wealthy countries). To most people who follow the news carefully (and trust the scientific method), that’s been clear for a longish while. To those of us who have been helplessly in love with the natural world all our lives – never losing a child’s wonder at its beauties, familiar and strange – it has always been a painful as well as a profoundly regenerative love because it’s been clear for a long time how badly we as a species have behaved, even when we meant well.

What hasn’t been clear is how we might emerge from this catastrophe.

On my review copy of the book, the first two sentences on the back are “Forget everything you think you know about global warming. The really inconvenient truth is that it’s not about carbon – it’s about capitalism.” This provocation may turn off a lot of people who would appreciate the book itself: While capitalism is without question one of the roots of both our climate predicament and our failure to work our way out of it so far, the crisis also actually is about the carbon, just as lung cancer is about the smoking, not just the forces that conspired to encourage us to smoke (the essential difference, of course, is that smoking is not necessary to partaking in the modern world, and using fossil fuel still is; nevertheless, the focus on root causes must go hand in hand with a focus on the actual, immediate cause). But Klein isn’t an ideologue, and she takes no prisoners from right or left – especially the environmental left – in her assessment of why we haven’t managed to change course, though we’ve known about the dangers of climate change for decades. (For really depressing reading, see this 1969 New York Times article on climate change, which is franker and more scientific than the vast majority of what they’ve printed since.)

Klein’s even-tempered assault on capitalism has two parts (her assault on socialism and communism consists mostly of the first of these two) – first, that its “extractivist” worldview (in which the planet’s mountain ecosystems have no value other than the “lumber” and coal within them, for example – never mind that they provide vast amounts of oxygen and water filtration for us, let alone their sui generis value) has so distanced us from the natural world (and so commodified it) that we’ve entirely lost sight of our deeply dependent and symbiotic relationship with it. And second, that “a belief system that vilifies collective action and declares war on all corporate regulation and all things public simply cannot be reconciled with a problem that demands collective action on an unprecedented scale and a dramatic reining in of the market forces that are largely responsible for creating and deepening the crisis.” (p. 41)

The business models of neither Louis Vuitton nor Walmart are compatible with life on earth, and we can be attached to a worldview that insists that they are, or we can save our sorry selves: We can’t have it both ways. The irony is, as Klein makes abundantly clear, the climate change “deniers” are much more aware of this fact than most of the rest of us; knowing that an understanding of the likely arc of climate change will subvert everything they’ve fought for (low taxes, nonexistent or toothless regulation, a world in which low, low prices trump even the most baseline attention to the natural world or human rights), they’ve fought shamelessly, and all too effectively, to undermine or eviscerate that understanding.

Many environmentalists decided to be less confrontational, and to speak more about “partnering” with business . . . and then got had. Roundly.

They know what the threat means, in other words, and it’s high time we joined them in that knowledge. We have two choices – A, we can fundamentally change our relationship to the natural world (primarily, our consumerism), or B, we can disintegrate into a Mad Max future, in which we hang on as long as possible to our “way of life” while the rest of the world suffers profoundly (until we do, too). That’s it. Which will you choose?

Another irony that Klein makes painfully clear is that for a not inconsiderable period of time, milder responses would have worked. If we had – say, in the 1980s – cut subsidies to fossil fuel companies, while investing heavily in clean energy and subsidizing clean-energy choices in the developing world (thus allowing them to leapfrog dirty energy entirely, while still growing and modernizing), we would not be in as acute a crisis now. And we knew enough to do that, and it was clearly what morality demanded, because we’d been using dirty energy to grow ever since the Industrial Revolution; nearly everything about our “success” has been enabled by the crutch of cheap fossil fuels (not to mention slavery and near-slavery), so it’s plainly not reasonable to expect other countries not to follow us down this path unless we’re willing to help substantially.

Klein makes a strong case for the fact that instead – enamored of Reagan-era business-centered policies – many environmentalists decided to be less confrontational, and to speak more about “partnering” with business . . . and then got had. Roundly.

Ironically – again – this resulted in where we are now, which demands vastly more powerful changes to the system than would have been necessary in 1980.

“You know your government has failed when your grandma starts to riot.”

Last fall, Klein caught some flak for a Salon interview in which she conflated tragically flawed choices by the Environmental Defense Fund and the Nature Conservancy with an overall “denialism” by big environmental groups regarding the political repercussions of climate change. At the time, I was so irritated by this that I didn’t bother to read the Salonarticle (I only read the Joe Romm rebuttal): mea culpa. But if her frustration made her paint with too broad a brush, and if her disdain for cap-and-trade made her a little less even-handed than she might have been, those flaws seem greatly tempered in the book, and her essential point is inarguable: Fundamental changes in our systems are necessary if we are to save ourselves. Period. (Romm says that consumerism “is not something amenable to legislation.” The fact that he places more faith in profound changes to our very psyches – which he admits will come only when we are “desperate” – than in our ability to moderate consumer choices by not privileging cost and profit above all, says rather a lot about who actually has more faith in the system.)

And yet: Klein believes that we can save ourselves – and after reading her, you may well agree. Even if you don’t, the possibility is so inspiring that it seems well worth fighting for, given that our other option is to watch the world descend into ever more tragedy, along with ever more xenophobia, militarization and “disaster capitalism” in the face of recurring catastrophes and their resulting refugees.

Why does she believe this? In no small part, because of the number, energy and large-heartedness of the anti-extraction movements that have sprung up both continent-wide and worldwide – movements often focused on the local catastrophes inherent in fossil fuel extraction, but also keenly aware of the climate consequences of the same (I came to this, as to many things, backwards – scared out of my political remove by the climate crisis, I then learned a great deal about extraction’s costs to frontline communities). These movements, while sometimes small, are filled with deeply resolute people who have never before done anything like what they’re now perfectly willing to do: “I’ve never considered myself a bunny hugger,” Klein quotes one rancher in the anti-Keystone XL fight as saying, “but I guess if that’s what I’ve got to be called now, I’m OK with it” (p. 313). “You know your government has failed when your grandma starts to riot,” (p. 303) is the text below one photograph she describes of an elderly Romanian activist in a babushka. The beauty of the internet, Klein makes clear, is that even when these fights are small or in remote places, people can and do learn from one another and take comfort from the knowledge that their struggles are part of a much larger picture – and all of these people are very clear that picture is nothing less than the struggle for survival. This kind of sudden awakening is not a new phenomenon, she reminds us: “During extraordinary historical moments – both World Wars, the aftermath of the Great Depression, or the peak of the civil rights era – the usual categories dividing ‘activists’ and ‘regular people’ became meaningless, because the project of changing society was so deeply woven into the project of life.” (p. 459)

“Some of the most marginalized people in my country – many of them . . . survivors of the intergenerational trauma that forcibly placed Indigenous children in Church-run schools where abuse was rampant – are taking on some of the wealthiest and most powerful forces on the planet.”

Most of all, she speaks eloquently about the First Nations and Native American Idle No More movement, and the way in which embattled indigenous communities have led the rest of us on these issues. Klein meets, for example (in an off-grid trailer in the woods), with three of the leaders of a tar sands lawsuit in northern Alberta (one of whom is elderly, and one of whom is unwell). “I knew the Beaver Lake Cree were in a David and Goliath struggle. But on that endless summer evening, I suddenly understood what this meant: some of the most marginalized people in my country – many of them . . . survivors of the intergenerational trauma that forcibly placed Indigenous children in Church-run schools where abuse was rampant – are taking on some of the wealthiest and most powerful forces on the planet. Their heroic battles are not just their people’s best chance of a healthy future; if court challenges like the Beaver Lake’s can succeed in halting tar sands expansion, they could very well be the best chance for the rest of us to continue enjoying a climate that is hospitable to human life. That is a huge burden to bear and that these communities are bearing it with shockingly little support from the rest of us is an unspeakable social injustice.” (p. 379) (emphasis mine)

In the interests of space, I find myself leaving out much (horrifying or inspiring) that I was sure I’d include. For example, in a chapter on why “green” billionaires won’t save us, Bill Gates’ funny-if-it-weren’t-so-painful comparison of himself to those who invented fire, which, along with the other follies of the boys’ club of billionaires who did much more than their share of getting us into this mess (and who now want us to believe they have the solutions to get us out), make it very clear that ruthlessness and intelligence are not the same thing, and that even if some of these people possess both (in which case we might be wise to refine our definition of “intelligence”), that combination is not going to be effective at bringing our economic system back into balance with the planet in the way that it was effective for running a highly profitable company while utterly ignoring the fact that we live on a planet (except insofar as it offers some really cool materials). Additionally, Klein is moving on the subject of water, especially as it relates to fracking: The fundamental need for clean water is at the root of many anti-extraction struggles.

“In the hot and stormy future we have already made inevitable through our past emissions, an unshakable belief in the equal rights of all people and a capacity for deep compassion will be the only things standing between civilization and barbarism.”

But while there is much that is outrageous or instructive that is inevitably missing here (one of many reasons you should read the book), above all it seems important to stress its moral core. Klein is very clear about what isn’t still possible – we’re not getting out of this anymore, no matter what we do. But her response to that reality is neither nihilism nor a false cheer nor even elegy; it’s a deep belief in the capacity of people to act from their best selves, and in the power of solidarity. “In the hot and stormy future we have already made inevitable through our past emissions,” she writes, “an unshakable belief in the equal rights of all people and a capacity for deep compassion will be the only things standing between civilization and barbarism.” (p. 462). Most of us, I suspect, know this in our bones – it’s one of the reasons we’re so afraid of this crisis, with its very real threats of famine, drought and unthinkable numbers of refugees.

Perhaps most importantly, Klein is persuasive that win or lose, our efforts to shift the world enough to save ourselves (and much else) are morally and spiritually regenerative, and that we must reimagine the narrative of the possible, and write a new ending to the half-finished liberation movements of abolition, civil rights, feminism and indigenous sovereignty, which were always as much about economic justice as about voting rights, and that in attempting to do so, we discover (or rediscover) our own values. My take on the climate work that I do has long been, basically, that this is how I want to go down: trying to do the right thing, however hopeless it seems – fighting, in a way, for the continued existence of a single homely species or two among the millions that are disappearing. The beauty of this book is that suddenly, imagining a different world – tragically diminished in some ways, yes, but deeply inspiring in others – doesn’t seem quite so much like an act of fantasy.

Footnote

1. In fairness to both of them – whom I know a little, and admire a great deal – I’m also reading this book after three years of grassroots activism, inspired in no small part by their books (sometimes I think I’d hardly get out of bed in the morning, but for Bill McKibben’s example). Being involved with people who are selflessly and relentlessly focused on saving the world changes a perspective considerably: You can continue to believe we’re in deep trouble, and quite likely not up to the challenge, but you can’t really believe, anymore – at least not with the same conviction – that we’re no damn good.