by Evan Engering
The latest book of Naomi Klein, the influential Toronto-based journalist, author and activist, may live up to its ambitious title “This Changes Everything”. In it, Klein turns her thorough, eye-opening brand of investigative journalism to the topic of climate change. The book is a surprising achievement for a mainstream author. Her call for a new grassroots movement to rise up and defeat neo-liberalism and halt climate change has been publicized on television and in book stores across Canada and around the world.
Klein provides an insightful synopsis of the environmental movement. She shows how many of the grassroots protest organizers of the 1970’s morphed into a layer of institutionalized green bureaucrats. She exposes how these people and groups traded off their willingness to confront exploitative industries for the power and prestige associated with the business class, claiming that they would reform it from the inside. This took the form of measly pro-market mechanisms, like the trade in carbon credits. She explains how we got to where we are today in environmental politics, particularly with the rise of anti-scientific climate change denial in the United States.
Klein’s investigation into climate politics reveals the necessity of systemic economic change. She shares alarming anecdotes. One involves the Nature Conservancy stating it had no choice but to allow drilling for oil on it’s own nature reserves. She exposes the myth of environmental salvation being delivered by green corporations and billionaire philanthropists. A prominent example is Richard Branson. His Virgin airlines release tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, notwithstanding his empty promise to shift to renewable energy. Her revelations highlight how futile it is to try to fight climate change without fighting the capitalist establishment that created it.
Klein also illustrates how dire the struggle for climate justice is for the Global South. She shows how rising sea levels are reaching crisis levels for those living on coastlines and islands, where poverty and environmental strife combine to create a crushing burden on the victims of First World consumerism and wasteful overproducation of useless things. She also reveals the global injustice that developing countries face in terms of economic goals. After centuries of exploitation by imperialism, many of them want to enjoy the high level of industrial sophistication of the dominant countries, but face pressure not to industrialize in the same unsustainable way. In this way, even the environmental movement (in it’s current inadequacy) perpetuates the inequality of the global divide between rich and poor countries. The rulers of the rich countries refuse to fund the sustainable development of the latter, even after robbing them for their own development for so long.
There are victims of climate injustice in North America too. Klein talks about the struggles indigenous peoples in Canada and the United States against resource extraction companies and the national governments that serve them. The destruction of their lands, such as by the infamous Alberta tar sands development, underscores the continuity of centuries of white colonialist oppression of First Nations people.
Most importantly, Klein presents the compelling argument that the fight for climate justice will be won not by supporting “greener” industries or tougher legislation, but by social movements lead by the disenfranchised, including indigenous groups, poor and racialized communities, and especially the Global South. Klein describes meeting activists who have taken direct action against extraction companies in the “Blockadia”, anti-fracking, and other social movements. She emphasizes the necessity of linking all these struggles together in a unified movement against neo-liberalism and climate change.
In the end, unfortunately, Klein does not present a vision of the future post-climate change society. The crux of her argument, that climate change can be defeated only by an all-encompassing movement from the disempowered, is not incorrect. The problem lies in what kind of programme and leadership this movement requires, what it should aim for, and how it will succeed.
Part of crafting a solution is properly identifying the root of the problem. Even though capitalism is singled out in the title, it is disappointing to find it hyphenated throughout the book: free market-capitalism, unregulated-capitalism, etc. This is a common reflex of reformists – to give this rotten economic system an escape clause: call for an end to the current era of capitalism in order to return to the illusory “good ol’ days” capitalism.
Thus, despite all the evidence condemning the capitalist system and it’s propensity to plunder the environment for private gain, she stops short of bringing the reader to the logical conclusion: that a new mode of production is needed to stave off catastrophe and build a better world. Instead of advocating a revolutionary perspective, she dismisses it with a caricature – a “violent vanguardist revolution” that nobody wants. She points to the abolition of slavery as an example of when a massive, morally repugnant system was dismantled, while leaving the capitalist mode of production intact. But, as the American Civil War demonstrated, the ruling class rarely surrenders its ‘right’ to exploit without a fight. The subtitle of Klein’s book, “Capitalism vs. the Climate”, alludes to a fight. Klein seems to forget though, that this is a final match. There can be only one winner.