This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs the Climate

Posted on: 21st November 2014  |
Author: Naomi Klein
Publication details: Simon & Schuster, 2014; 576 pages
ISBN: 9781451697384
Category: Social justice and environment
Tags: book, environment, climate change

The Canadian writer Naomi Klein has written another bestselling critique of unregulated capitalism, but this time from the point of view of climate change. This, despite having been advised by The Economist in an extraordinarily ad hominem attack, to ‘grow up’!

How do you persuade a world in the grip of a crisis which few want to face, weak leaders are desperately fudging and vested interests are relentlessly obfuscating, not only to look at it calmly but also to see it as an opportunity to grasp, in theological language, a kairos?

You do it with the tone of Klein’s writing. The Economist might like to paint her as a hysterical, left-wing, spoilt brat, but she writes a gentle but formidable jeremiad in a measured, self-deprecating and often funny style, all the while marshalling impressive quantities of research into clear, accessible form. This keeps the momentum of her argument moving steadily and convincingly along – even The Telegraph  reviewer liked it!

Klein crystallises out and confirms strongly many of the hunches of non-specialist observers. My own main hunch has been that if we are to survive climate change we will have to do everything at once rather than attack the problem piecemeal. This is not a crisis requiring just a bit of recycling on Saturday mornings, helpful as that is. It is more like World War II, when entire economies had to be transformed within weeks.

Unless we change the consumerist way we live, Klein argues, and the unregulated way we ‘run’ our economy, we are in for huge climate trouble. Business as usual with just some technological tweaking and adjusting of the market machine, will take us charging past an average global temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius and into the catastrophic territory of 4-6 degrees, at which point, to use the phrase of climate scientist James Hansen, it’s ‘game over for the planet’. The right kind of technology will help, but there are no ‘silver bullets’. Things like geo-engineering are more of the same dangerous, nature-dominating paradigm.

However, Klein believes that with the right kind of visionary leadership, this crisis could be turned into a tremendous opportunity to solve many of our contemporary problems. Unfortunately, our leaders have failed us. When Messrs Bush and Blair were blundering about in Iraq (the results of which we see only too plainly today) they were wasting the planet’s precious time by failing to address the world’s real crisis.

Present world leadership is not spared criticism. Klein describes a heartrending scene in which a climate activist breaks down after the debacle of the Copenhagen climate summit. ‘I thought Obama understood’, he sobs. Well, Klein believes that he did and does understand but, like so many of us, has become so habituated to the notion of leaving business and the market to sort things out, he is incapable of taking the courageous, decisive action needed.

After the 2009 banking collapse and with the US auto industry in tatters, Obama had a golden opportunity to tackle climate-change. He could have done what he did – rescue the US banks and car industry – but with powerful conditions attached, ensuring that future investments would go into the creation of a green economy, green infrastructure and electric vehicles. But he missed his chance because, like the rest of us, he no longer has the imagination to envisage a world where the dog still wags the tail, i.e. where banks and business take their cue from governments for the service of the common good.

But the forces on the political left now have the opportunity to create some serious political momentum by rallying around the climate issue. Grass roots opposition to ‘extractivism’ – the heedless exploitation of natural resources without any thought for the long term ecological consequences and the human cost – is growing, especially as it affects more and more people, including the middle class who may suddenly find that the ground under their homes is being fracked. This has led to interesting new alliances, such as those between ranchers and indigenous people. The new political mood could not only tackle the crisis itself, but in the process restore a measure of social democracy to Western society, Klein believes.

However, she contrasts the left’s efforts unfavourably with what the right and their business allies have been doing – setting up think tanks, moving into the media, lobbying governments. The implacable determination to block the regulation of the fossil fuel industry is astonishing. Billions have been spent ensuring that fossil fuel companies can keep on drilling, digging and fracking for the remaining oil, coal and gas, even as the scientists tell us that if we extract it all, we will end up with five times as much CO2 in the atmosphere as the earth can safely absorb. She does not believe that the climate change deniers ‘know not what they do’. They do know, but do it anyway. Richard Branson incarnates the problem. His promised billions for new green technology have not come to much, but he has invested heavily in expanding heavy carbon-emitting divisions of his business such as Virgin Air.

Hence to prevent climate change we need ‘system change’, not just technological change. And to get system change we need a mindset change which exorcises the ‘extractivist’ economic orthodoxy of the last thirty years – ‘Grow or die’, and in order to do so, ‘Drill, baby drill’. We also need an economics that will provide employment and make it possible for the developing nations to pursue a cleaner path to development than Europe and the USA.

Several themes of Catholic Social Teaching are (unconsciously, I suspect) embedded in Klein’s analysis and proposed programme. For example, she praises the German Energiewende (energy transition) for the way it has enabled the localisation of power production – a good example of economic subsidiarity. Most of the proposals contributing to climate change mitigation, such as more public transport, are about the common good. She argues that ‘extractivism’ is ‘the opposite of stewardship’. But obviously the main goal of keeping the planet habitable for human life is one vast project for the common good, the ultimate stewardship project.

Some of the terms she coins ring Catholic Social Teaching bells. For example ‘sacrifice zones’: those areas of the globe which are sacrificed on the altar of our consumer economy – the islands being swamped by rising seas and the poor people poisoned by pollution. The option for the poor and their human dignity is implicit here.

The long and the short of Klein’s analysis is that humanity has dug itself into a hole by an unfettered, consumer-driven, ‘extractivist’ economic model. Unfortunately, we’re trying to get out of the hole by digging ever deeper. Al Gore’s ‘inconvenient truth’ was that climate change was real; Naomi Klein’s is that in order to address it, we have to ‘stop digging’.


An edited version of this review appeared in the Southern Cross newspaper in South Africa.

Reviewer: Chris Chatteris SJ


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