Book Review: This Changes Everything, by Naomi Klein

This excellent book review is re-posted with permission from the site of a PhD student colleague.  His site has many other posts as insightful as this one below…

A passage in Naomi Klein’s new climate manfesto, entitled This Changes Everything, stood out to me:

The southeastern [Indian] state of Andhra Pradesh has been the site of several iconic struggles, like one in the village of Kakarapalli, surrounded by rice patties and coconut groves, where local residents can be seen staffing a semipermanent checkpoint under a baobab tree at the entrance to town. The encampment chokes off the only road leading to a half-built power plant where construction was halted amidst protests in 2011. In nearby Sompeta, another power plant proposal was stopped by a breakthrough alliance of urban middle-class professionals and subsistence farmers and fishers who united to protect the nearby wetlands

Richard Branson tossed a globe around at a climate change-related press event. Naomi Klein argues that this image is illustrative of the fundamental political problems of climate change: We think we’re in charge of the Earth.

If you’re a bleeding-heart lefty like me, then that quote probably makes you very happy. After all, it ticks all the boxes: Pastoralism, nonviolent direct action, organized peasants, and a vaguely anarchist makeshift checkpoint set up under a tree. This, and other passages in This Changes Everything make climate activism seem like the culmination of all that the left has been working towards for decades. That, in fact, is precisely Klein’s argument: Climate change might be terrifying, but we can solve the problem with the same movements and policies that, by a convenient coincidence, fit exactly with the movements and policies that Klein already supports.

In case you haven’t detected it yet, I should say at this point that I’m somewhat skeptical of this thesis.

It’s not that Klein is wrong. Not exactly. Her argument can be broken down into two premises: Firstly, that climate change cannot be addressed without also changing the neoliberal economic order which prevails around the world today; and secondly, that existing left-wing movements already provide a template for how to create a low-carbon society. Klein’s argument in favour of the first proposition is entirely convincing. One chapter points out how international agreements to deal with climate change constantly run up against the free trade agenda. Another demonstrates how “green billionaires” such as Richard Branson are basically useless: at the end of the day, capitalism being what it is, they have to prioritize their investors over the climate. The first half of the book has a radical premise, but it is extremely well-supported by a unique synthesis of recent environmental history.

But once Klein is finished tearing down old systems, she devotes about a third of the book to building up an alternative. And this is where the problems emerge: Klein abandons the critical approach she applies to the prevailing right-wing order, giving the left-wing largely sympathetic treatment where the climate is concerned. Rather than taking up the difficult soul-searching that will be required to adopt even left-wing movements to the challenge of climate, Klein instead simply presents a series of tropes that have been staples of the left-wing echo chamber for decades. This approach isn’t always off the mark; it’s unsurprising that those who have been fighting against neoliberalism for three decades will have at least some of the answers when it comes to averting the harm it does to the climate. And Klein does indeed point to some promising movements for change. Her account of the role of indigenous movements in stopping pipelines and fracking is particularly compelling, particularly as she draws links between these and other kinds of on-the-ground resistance efforts.

But even in this case, she seems to have half-forgotten about climate change. In many of the cases she cites, the resistance is primarily motivated by concern about the local effects of the fossil fuel industries: Water tables poisoned by fracking, mountaintops destroyed by coal mining, and coastlines threatened by oil tankers. These are very real and pressing concerns, and we should support people fighting back against these harmful effects of the fossil fuel industry. But Klein leaves a very important question unanswered: If these impacts on the local environment are somehow mitigated, then can we still count on this kind of local resistance purely for the sake of the climate? If fracking is made healthier, coal mining is made less destructive, and fossil fuel transportation by ship and pipeline is made safer, then can we expect these movements to stick around purely for the sake of the climate? Perhaps there is an argument to be made that we can, but Klein doesn’t make it.

Another problem is that while Klein spends a good deal of her book excoriating the established environmental movement for its collaboration with industry, she falls hook, line and sinker for some of the cultural baggage that has been holding environmentalists back. Environmentalism, she argues, should be low-tech, democratic, and rooted in the need to protect local ecosystems. Klein makes an absurd comparison between view of conservation inspired by images like Earthrise and the Pale Blue Dot, and the image of Richard Branson holding up a big inflatable globe, as if he’s “in charge” (a favourite term of Klein’s) of the entire planet. If your environmentalism is inspired by an enterprise as technocratic of the space program, Klein argues, then you’re doing it wrong. Much better to fight to protect the lower-case earth: the ground beneath your feet. Klein’s stretched comparison between her own fertility struggles and the struggles of the planet to bring forth life reaffirm this view when she heavily implies that the naturopath she visited was far more effective in helping her become pregnant than the more traditional fertility doctors she had previously tried.

Klein’s fertility treatment is her own business, of course. But when combined with her thoughts about the Pale Blue Dot, it becomes clear that Klein’s book is based firmly in 1970s environmentalism, which was at its heart a reaction to industrial technocracy. This led to a deep distrust of scientists and engineers in favour of a personal, even spiritual engagement with nature. And forty-four years after the first Earth Day, Klein is pushing the same basic narrative, in which science and technology are primarily part of the problem rather than the solution. I bet you can guess what Klein thinks of nuclear power.

The thing is that nothing is that simple. Yes, technology has been poisoning the planet on a large-scale since the nineteenth century, and scientists and engineers have often done more harm than good. But this is not the 1970s, and many of the scientists now sounding the alarm about the climate are part of the kind of large, bureaucratic scientific institution that makes hippy environmentalism so uncomfortable. The engineers developing wind turbines, electric cars, and new kinds of bike infrastructure are also often very establishment figures, many of whom probably lack any kind of spiritual connection to nature. But we need all hands on deck to address the climate crisis. Yes, we need to challenge the prevailing economic order as well as our own rates of consumption. But we also need to leverage every single sustainable alternative we can get our hands on, regardless of whether it is centralized, local, high-tech, low-tech, socialistic, or capitalist. Because the climate doesn’t care about our political and economic preferences.

I don’t really mind if environmentalists prefer to see the planet as a space-ship, a goddess, a super-organism, or even a resource to be exploited, so long as that worldview is mobilized into a willingness to fight. But Klein’s distrust of scientific diagnoses and technological solutions is dangerous. The planet may well need its equivalent of naturopathic doctors who are capable of looking at it holistically and proposing low-tech solutions that take advantage of existing environmental processes. And it certainly needs dedicated activists ready to put their bodies on the line in the fight against fossil fuel companies. But the Earth also needs something more like traditional medicine: lab-coated scientists who use satellites, computer algorithms, and advanced chemistry to diagnose its problems, as well as ambitious engineers who can prescribe high-tech solutions. We need all of the above.

Anybody who has read more than a few posts in this blog can tell that I’m pretty left-wing. And that means that, naturally, I think that left-wing thought is a better approximation of reality than right-wing thought, including the centre-right consensus of the current economic paradigm. But it’s hubristic to think that any political ideology, which is an imperfect product of political alliances and historical contingencies, provides the perfect analysis of or solution to climate change, which is bigger than any political debate. Klein is probably right that right-wing ideology is inseparable from the practices that are causing climate change. But just because we on the left are more sympathetic to the problem, it doesn’t mean that we, too, won’t have to make political sacrifices. Real action on the climate demands that we seriously reconsider our positions on things like gentrification and technocracy. We need to fit our concern for the oppressed into the harsh facts of climate change, and find ways to help them that don’t make the problem worse. This difficult task is what Klein misses in her book.

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Was print format from 2012 to 13. Now web only. All things climate and resilience in (Greater) Manchester.
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13 Responses to Book Review: This Changes Everything, by Naomi Klein

  1. Dave Bishop says:

    My perception is that many on the traditional Left still think that the environment is irrelevant or of little importance compared to the class struggle, economic inequalities etc. I suspect that if you pressed a traditional left-winger for her/his opinion on the environment she/he would tell you that it is really only of concern to a few ‘middle class’ (traditional lefty put-down) bird watchers.

    • And there are some in the environmental movement who think that unions are unnecessary etc.
      Frankly the species has created a complexity in its social and technical systems that have been “wonderful” for a while, but stored up long term consequences. Those bills are almost due…
      Good review, innit?!

    • Jonathan Atkinson says:

      Agreed Dave – as you can see by recent developments at Manchester City Council.

      It’s a shame people can’t realise that the same forces within capitalism that lead to the exploitation of workers by a small elite lead to the exploitation of nature by capital – they are simply different effects of the same system.

  2. Dave Bishop says:

    It is a good review, Marc. I don’t think that I could have summed up such a long and complex book so succinctly and perceptively. Congratulations to the reviewer!

  3. I have not read the book but the reviewer has done a decent critique.
    On the matter of the failures of the left-wing, the English Green Party, is a good example. At the 2010 Spring conference, Tim Jackson (Prosperity without Growth), gave a talk on what was needed to prevent climate change and bring about equality. As well as stating it would take bravery for a political party, to state that we needed a reduction in consumption. He pointed out that in reality, there was no difference between Capitalists and Socialists. They both wanted to continue consuming more, but the Socialists would share it out more equally. Of course, the Green Party choice to ignore his advice, it did not sit well with their middle-class socialist ideology.
    Sometime later, I was at an event, where someone from South America talked about the Peasant’s Movement (I have do not have my notes on hand for their actual movements name). Someone asked them what help the unions had been? He basically stated, they had not been a help at all, but a hindrance. At this point, I notice a Green Party member and union representative at Manchester City Council, left in a huff. I think the Green movement in the UK can learn a lot from the South American and Spanish movements.
    Marx was a philosopher who plagiarized other European Socialists work, producing contradictory messages, whilst being funded by a Capitalist who did nothing what so ever for his own workforce. And it is this kind of nonsense (Marxism), a number of Green Party members, is the ideology they think the party should follow. Is it any wonder, the majority of people do not take them seriously?

  4. Jonathan Atkinson says:

    I’d agree with Falsum in that the elements of the green movement that reject technology out of hand in favour of a fuzzy green spiritualism or primitivist rejection of all technology are shortsighted. However, if a block rejection of all technology is wrong so is the converse, a blanket acceptance of all technology as long as it helps solve climate change.

    The question posed in the article is apposite here: what if coal could be extracted cleanly but still generated carbon emissions? Would local people still oppose it? Well how about the opposite, what if coal could be burnt cleanly (which in reality it can’t!) but it’s extraction still disrupted local environments and communities.

    The fact is there are more complexities to resource extraction than the purely climate related ones. Take the coal example: who is extracting the coal, why are they doing it, who profits from it’s extraction and sale, how are the companies who own the mine structured, who regulates the safety of workers on site, how are local people compensated, how is the land remediated?

    In essence technology can be good and/or bad, it’s about the wider political, economic and cultural context within which it is developed and deployed. And yes, we do need to take a political stand on these things.

    So technology solutions may or may not be appropriate. If they are user-scale, empower and enable people, can be shown to be relatively safe, are low carbon and are socially useful – great. If they benefit the profits of a few, exploit users, are risky and generate carbon – boo!

    In reality these thing are more complex, less black and white. But there are frameworks that help us interrogate these complexities, including the open source and Creative Commons movement, hack labs, Fab Labs and the maker economy, user-centred design, etc, etc!

    So, for me, yes, it’s wrong to slate all technology or blindly accept all technology. Politics is highly politicised and it’s time to engage in that politics.

  5. Dave Bishop says:

    Yes, Jonathon, I agree that rejection of all technology is wrong but I think that some people go further and reject science as well; they are not the same thing! Technology usually arises out of scientific discoveries, and can be useful or harmful, but science is neutral.
    I find it fascinating that we are living through the Sixth Extinction event and that it is being studied, in meticulous detail, by representatives of the causal agent (i.e. human scientists)!

    I also find it fascinating, and dismaying, that most of the world’s decision makers are not scientists. If they were, they would realise that the political ideologies, that they base their decisions on, are mainly ‘tinpot’ hypotheses, rarely supported by any evidence.The pernicious ideology of the neo-liberal free market is a good example.

    Other politicians appear to reject or ignore the science because it often tells them things that they don’t want to know (a key characteristic of powerful decision makers, down the ages, is the tendency to ignore things that they don’t want to know). I wasn’t surprised to learn that Owen Paterson, until recently the Tory Minister for the Environment (until he was ignominiously booted out – hurrah!), avoided meeting with his Chief Scientist, presumably because he might have learned someting that he didn’t want to know – namely that anthropogenic climate change is real!

    • Jonathan Atkinson says:

      I agree in one sense that politicians are illiterate in terms of science – ‘evidence-based policy making’ – what’s that?!

      I used to think that science was unbiased, when I studied environmental science we were taught that we were impartial and that our role was to document the destruction of the biosphere – one tutor had seen the subject of his life work made extinct and seemed to accept this with a sigh.

      But since leaving science I’ve realised that that is not the case. Science is as politicised as the rest of society, in terms of funding, social networks, publication, citing, 1st World/3rd World imperialism, etc etc.

      Kevin Anderson taught me that a scientist can and in fact should be politically engaged and can make a difference rather than just documenting the inevitable.

  6. Dave Bishop says:

    Hmmm! Isn’t that similar to the distinction between science and technology? Surely, a scientist must be dispassionate when gathering the data – but that data can then be used for political purposes? I would have thought that if you bring the politics in at the data gathering stage then you’re on the slippery slope down to the level of climate change denialism and creationism … aren’t you?

    • Jonathan Atkinson says:

      Unfortunately bias creeps in. So, some researchers don’t receive funding, some don’t get published, some aren’t cited by others, perhaps if their research isn’t politically acceptable. Then you have industry-backed research that gets buried if the results don’t suit. Sadly, all this means that ‘science’ is a contended idea rather than an objective practise.

      • Sam Gunsch says:

        http://www.nature.com/news/why-we-are-poles-apart-on-climate-change-1.11166

        Kahan excerpt: ‘If anything, social science suggests that citizens are culturally polarized because they are, in fact, too rational — at filtering out information that would drive a wedge between themselves and their peers.

        For members of the public, being right or wrong about climate- change science will have no impact. Nothing they do as individual consumers or as individual voters will meaningfully affect the risks posed by climate change. Yet the impact of taking a position that conflicts with their cultural group could be disastrous.”

        Seems to me that last sentence is the truism. The rest of his work is detailed and complex.
        But that last bit is probably in our genes, eh?
        Get tossed out of the cave. Starve on your own. Or the sabre-tooth gets you.

      • Sam Gunsch says:

        My two comments below were meant to be posted in the reverse order to what you see.

        Sorry for the confusion stemming from my Reply clicking mistake.

  7. Sam Gunsch says:

    excerpt: Sadly, all this means that ‘science’ is a contended idea rather than an objective practise.

    This Kahan guy (link below) makes a strong case, IMO, that contention that becomes politically dysfunctional for society’s governance systems, is mostly confined to science on issues that’ve been strongly politicized on partisan lines.

    http://www.nature.com/news/why-we-are-poles-apart-on-climate-change-1.11166

    As I read his work it turns on a truism, i.e. Individually it’s very costly to disagree with your tribe’s beliefs, and especially so, when those beliefs are widely understood as signifiers/emblems? of tribal membership.

    And so when a supportive view of the veracity of science findings on climate change became associated with the left or left-centre, then very few on the far right dare be openly supportive for fear of being ostracized. Climate doesn’t cost me much directly, as yet, but getting tossed from my gang sure does, of course.

    Most readers here no doubt will be aware that US Republican candidates who agree with climate science are now almost entirely unable to win a primary election because of the Tea Party forces blocking them.

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