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On Klein’s ‘This Changes Everything’: the need for serious thought on capitalism and climate

Naomi Klein’s new book is paradoxically both wonderful and slightly disappointing:  wonderful because it is so well written, because it is a clear and radical indictment of our present frankly suicidal economic system and, above all, as a rallying call for protest against the corporate agenda which is driving climate chaos.  However it is disappointing in its conclusion, which deflects questions of precise understanding of the social change necessary to combat climate change.

Criticism is perhaps to some extent inappropriate; after all, who else but Klein can write so persuasively about climate change without over-simplification?  There is also a danger that criticism can be used to close down discussion – critics attack books, which then discourages readers from even reading them in the first place.  I don’t want to put any potential reader off reading Klein’s book but instead they need to read it more and more deeply.

The thesis: climate change as result of neo-liberalism

Naomi Klein is a Canadian activist and writer, whose previous books, including No Logo and The Shock Doctrine, examine how corporations increasingly control the world we live in.  Klein’s books shows that the economic and political orthodoxy is neo-liberal rather than market-based.  Thus while politicians and academics over recent decades have advocated a Hayekian view that markets are better than planning, the reality is that rather than promoting free markets, governments increasingly aid large corporations.

Klein extends her analysis to show that climate change is largely a product of a corporate-driven neo-liberal system.  She suggests, in a particularly well-argued chapter, that while the arguments of climate change deniers are nonsense, their motives must be understood.  The present economic system relies on ever-increasing economic growth and the extraction of scarce resources; the climate deniers know that climate change challenges this logic.  We cannot tackle climate change without re-engineering our economic and social system, so those who defend the present system are in denial about the reality of climate change.

Klein notes that cleaning up the economic system is possible – she cites the example of Denmark where renewable energy is fast creating a carbon-neutral energy generation future.  She notes that from organic agriculture to cheap public transport, there are means for providing a prosperous future without devastating the environment.  For energy corporations, cheap, clean, decentralized sources of power are a threat to profits rather than an opportunity.  She is also clear that climate change is already a threat and we are very close to a number of very dangerous tipping points.

A “problem–cause–solution” approach

She examines the claims that a green capitalism is possible, with particular emphasis on the failings of Richard Branson.  The billionaire Branson loudly proclaimed his support for a carbon neutral future but his projects to promote carbon free biofuels have largely failed and he has continued to expand his network of airlines.  Air travel is of course one of the fastest sources of greenhouse gas emissions leading to climate change.

Klein argues, convincingly, that we need an economy that puts long-term human needs above short-term profit.  She traces a history of environmental exploitation back to philosophical attitudes developed by thinkers such as Francis Bacon, that see nature as a resource to exploit for human gain.  She advocates a deeply ecological economics that sees humanity as part of nature and the rest of life as a ‘source,’ not a resource to be exploited.

Her approach is deeply political as well as ecological.  She notes that positive social change is unlikely without pressure from social movements.  History is made by the multitude when we get militant, take to the streets and protest.  She is scathing about many environmental NGOs that she feels have compromised with corporations and other elite forces.  Like her earlier books, there is straightforward narrative structure.  A problem is identified, a cause of the problem presented and a solution proposed.  The problem is climate change, the cause is corporations, and the solution is a protest movement.

Looking deeper: are social movements enough?

On the whole I agree with her narrative but I think we need to look further if we are to develop effective movements that create change.  The need for social movement mobilisation too easily becomes a slogan rather than a nuanced solution.  Perhaps I am too demanding but political change is THE question for me and this is a question that we constantly have to work upon.  Klein makes it too easy. I may be perverse in asking for something more open, but social change surely is the issue, and we all – including Klein – need a greater focus on how such transformation can be achieved. Mobilisation is necessary but a call for social movement mobilisation is not enough; why do social movements win or lose, and which strategies and tactics are most effective?  There is a rich academic literature on social movements much orientated to these practical and vital issues, but this literature is largely ignored in Klein’s book.

There are other criticisms.  I agree with her assault on capitalism as an economic system but developing alternatives to capitalism, while possible, demands far more detailed debate.  Klein stresses not just regulation but the need for economic alternatives beyond the market and the state, praising the institution of the commons.  However, while we now know that democratic collective ownership can often work well, the precise mechanism and culture demands discussion.  The work of Elinor Ostrom, the first women to win a Nobel Prize (strictly speaking the Swedish Bank prize) in economics, for her investigation of the commons, is entirely missing from Klein’s text.  Ostrom examined in detail why commons worked and why sometimes they failed.  She looked at the practical nuts and bolts of why and how cooperation and ecological stewardship work.  She was sceptical of sweeping claims and slogans.  We need Klein’s passion, analysis and even her rousing slogans but we need patient detail discussion of how we can make alternatives work.  The commons has huge potential but in societies based on corporate control, economic democracy will require not just a power struggle but a political economy of learning how to cooperate.

Klein concludes by challenging us as to how we answered when ‘History knocked on our door.’  History doesn’t knock – human beings make history but how we make it is an open and difficult question.  In short, Klein’s book filled me with enthusiasm but calls to action while necessary also require precise analysis if they are to succeed.  I am reminded of Spinoza and Ostrom, and other calm prophets of democracy, who tried to understand in ever greater detail how we can liberate ourselves.  Klein deserves to be read but we need to take her text as an inspiration to think more deeply and act as precisely as possible.

 

Review: Naomi Klein – This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. Climate. Allen Lane. 2014.

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