“Change now, before the climate changes everything.” In her latest book This Changes Everything. Capitalism vs. the Climate Naomi Klein describes exceptionally sharply the urgency of the shift necessary to save life on earth. Her well-documented and persuasive message can be seen as the much-needed answer to a series of economic crises and ecological disasters the world has faced in recent decades. In addition, Klein’s book shows that from its inception the ecological movement has missed the opportunity to give the green programme a more solid base.
When by the end of the 1980s the Dutch Communist Party merged with some other left-wing and ecological parties to form Groen Links (the Green Left), Ina Brouwer, the last Communist Party leader, was asked how communists felt about ecology and the environment. Brouwer replied by pointing out that the communist movement came into being in reaction to resistance against all forms of abuse. For a long time it particularly resisted the exploitation of workers and abuses in the colonies. Later feminists added the exploitation of women to the list. But the struggle against the exploitation of the earth was in line with original communist ideology. The earth is collective property and it must not be sacrificed to private short-term interests at the expense of the community.
“It turns out that the exploitation of workers and the exploitation of the planet go hand in hand,” Naomi Klein writes so many years later. It is a message which has insufficiently penetrated into the ecological movement. Still discussions are held about the priorities, whereby the terms ‘Green’ and ‘social’ are juxtaposed or even opposed. So far, however, the movement has insufficiently placed the common source of social injustice and the destruction of the environment to the fore.
Looking back one might say that this is a missed opportunity for the green movement. The biggest assault the ecological system has had to endure in recent decades and the inevitable climate change we are facing now are the results of the globalisation of the economy. It took place in the same period when the green movement established itself as a political alternative, the 1980s and 1990s. In those years the Greens, however, positioned themselves alongside worldwide capitalism with its neoliberal ideology instead of opposing it. They neglected the power and influence of their main foe.
In her book Klein illustrates keenly how the globalisation of the economy contributes to climate change. The vast increase in production and particularly in the mobility of people and products demands a growing amount of fuel, first and foremost of course the already available fossil fuels of oil and natural gas, which can be mined easily. Capitalist laws also apply in the supply of energy: oil and natural gas must be extracted at little cost. It is the backdrop of the exploitation of the safety and health of Nigerians living near Shell’s oil fields, the extraction of farmland in Indonesia and Latin America in favour of bio-fuels, the disruption of Indian communities in Canada and the US for the mining of tar sand and shale gas, which are being transported through miles and miles of pipelines and similarly of the disregard for many years of the safety of the inhabitants of the Dutch province of Groningen living on Dutch natural gas reserves. Subsequently emissions of carbon dioxide by industrial plants and vehicles rise to unprecedented levels, causing global warming and climate change. Extreme weather conditions are causing both periods of drought and flooding. People are driven from their homes. Massive migration cannot be stopped. Klein’s book reads as an in-depth background programme to all the world news of the last two or three decades. The relationship between all these processes is persuasive. It makes little sense to pull one string if you want to change anything. It is high time for thorough interventions in the system.
My reading of Klein’s analyses is that if the Green movement is to play a role in this process, it will have to change too. The interrelationship between the plundering of the earth and the exploitation of people requires a much more principled and more consistent struggle against the capitalist system than we have seen in recent decades. I draw four more lessons from Klein’s impressive book.
1. An individual change in behaviour is good, but not enough
By tradition, the ecological movement is known for its lofty moralistic claims. Reform the world, start with yourself. Consume less, don’t travel by car, travel by plane as little as possible, insulate your home, have solar panels installed on your roof, buy organic food, don’t eat meat, protect the animals, in short an appeal for the reduction of the ‘ecological footprint’ and an incentive for small-scaleness. The Flemish green party used to be called Agalev, an acronym meaning ‘to live differently’. But the world cannot get rid of its addiction to fossil fuels by measures which individual, well-meaning Europeans are willing to take privately for their conscience’s sake. The addiction process, inseparably linked with neo-liberalism and global capitalism, will have to be stopped by interventions in the system itself. Curb financial capital, impose strict conditions on global trade, keep multi-nationals to green and social objectives.
2. Don’t just trust new technologies
In the ecological movement the use of alternative, energy saving or fossil free means has always been an important aim. Wind turbines, solar panels, insulation materials, bicycles, electric cars, energy-saving appliances, sustainable manufacturing techniques: our expectations are too high. They are means that can only break through with great difficulty in a world which hasn’t yet embraced sustainability. Why do these new techniques fail to be successful, why does their introduction take so long? Why for example are there no hydrogen cars yet? Klein argues that the ecological movement wrongly puts too much trust in the business world.
Companies have to compete anyhow and make a profit and particularly the multinationals are prisoners of a system which doesn’t allow them to give priority to green objectives. The failure of the trade in emissions, the trading rights on CO2 emissions, which were to have led to a decrease in CO2 emissions, has shown that capitalist laws are at odds with the ambitions to counter climate change.
3. Climate change goes beyond the nation state
Despite the fact that all the world understands that climate change doesn’t stop at national borders, politicians, including those in green parties, keep operating locally or nationally. Both the EU and the UN are circuses of nations. In addition, economies flourish across national borders. China is being pressed to take part in the reduction of CO2 emissions. But such a reduction, Klein explains, occurs for a large part at the expense of the production and transport of all kinds of useless things which find a ready market in Europe and America. In Latin America parts of the jungle serve as compensation for American and European companies who emit too much CO2. Forests earmarked for compensation can count on protection, “but actually they have become an extension piece of a polluting power station on the other side of the world, linked to imperceptible financial transactions.”
All of this occurs beyond the range of individual countries. In many cases nation states are impeding powers for the realisation of effective measures, like the plan by Euro MP Bas Eickhout for a network of wind turbines in the North Sea.
4. Challenge the system
What can we do to stop climate change? If the causes of ecological disasters are structural, inseparably linked to the prevailing economic system addicted to fossil energy, will there be solutions within capitalism’s reach?
Unlike Marx in his day and age, Naomi Klein doesn’t preach all-out revolution. She places her hope in a political about-turn by the resistance of groups which don’t want to have their land and their lives stolen from them by all-devouring oil companies. Take the struggle against the Keystone XL Pipeline for the transportation from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico of crude extracted from tar sand, which was put on hold temporarily owing to a veto by president Obama. And the struggle in the Netherlands, where the inhabitants of Groningen campaign against the reckless natural gas mining policy of the government in The Hague.
But in addition to supporting similar pressure groups Klein calls on green politicians to look for measures which may provoke the system, inciting it to change. To give just one example: small-scale, local energy cooperatives producing solar energy or wind power are at odds with the current system in which multinationals and government bureaucracies control the supply of energy top-down. In order to come up with real alternatives critical of the system, green politicians will have to abandon the pragmatism which has made them part of the system.
This article was foriginally published on the Dutch blog Sargasso.