The Power of Crazy Ideas: A review of Naomi Klein’s ‘This Changes Everything’

A review of This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, by Naomi Klein (Simon and Schuster, 2014), 576 pgs.

Review first published at TeleSUR

Sources of misery in the world are difficult to rank, but any short list would have to include inequality, war, and environmental degradation. People who are concerned about inequality and war have historically been called leftists. Those who are concerned about the planet have been called environmentalists. Over the decades, they have distrusted one another, and synthesis has been elusive.

Environmentalists have argued that waiting for “the revolution” in order to try to save species from extinction, or prevent the planet from boiling over because of climate change, is denying the urgency of environmental problems. They have argued that, given the urgency of environmental problems, we have to use whatever mechanisms are available to us, from high-tech solutions to market mechanisms, to rich philanthropists. They point to spectacular environmental failures by the communist governments of China and Russia, as well as to numerous failures by left-leaning social democratic governments. They note how worker’s unions, who try to preserve work and jobs, can campaign to do so at the expense of nature.

On the other side, leftists see environmentalists as willing to displace people from their lands in order to preserve species against human influence and create biological reserves that are, in theory, inaccessible to anyone, but in practice, are usually accessible to elite tourists and scientists. They see environmentalists as willing to accept compromises with elites in ways that ultimately compromise not only left, but also environmental values. They view the concerns of humans as primary, and other species as a much more distant concern, which many environmentalists do not understand.

Some of the views environmentalists and leftists hold about one another are true, others are caricatures, and still others might be true now but could potentially change through dialogue and common action. Such a dialogue is urgent, since the planet, and the people, have the same enemy.

Naomi Klein’s new book This Changes Everything is a step towards such a synthesis. It is interesting that the synthesis came from a writer of the left who spent years studying and working with the environmental movement, and becoming a part of it. Though Klein’s personal journey to meeting and joining the environmental movement, is described in the book, it is fundamentally an analysis and synthesis of the problem of climate change as a problem for social movements (or, in other words, as a problem for leftists).

Klein’s method of writing, which was followed in her previous book, The Shock Doctrine, is to carefully study the words and ideas of those in power, and then to travel the world and see what people are doing, learning from the analyses of movements that are contesting state and private power and combining them, revealing connections that, for those heavily involved in local struggles, can be hard to see. The result, in this book as in The Shock Doctrine, is to reveal a common enemy, to reveal common methods that the enemy uses, and to share methods of resistance that might prove promising.

In The Shock Doctrine, Klein described how the most vicious neoliberal doctrines were thought of as crazy ideas in the decades following WWII. The neoliberals persisted with their crazy ideas, and today we are all living under their heel. In the same spirit, This Changes Everything starts with an analysis of some of the crazy ideas of this moment, presented at right-wing climate-denying conferences which she attended and reports on. The deniers, Klein notes, deny the science of climate change because they don’t like its implications: that in order to prevent environmental catastrophe, societies will have to make massive changes to the economic system, a system that is serving the deniers and their funders very well. Klein argues that in their recognition that deep changes in the direction of equality would be needed to stabilize the climate, the right-wing deniers are not wrong. Indeed, they grasp something that many in the environmental movement fail to grasp: that economic changes deep enough to stabilize the climate are too deep to leave existing inequalities completely intact. In order to tackle climate change, Klein argues, we have to return to many of the social-democratic, Keynesian policies that are so despised by neoliberals: economic planning, regulation, progressive taxation, and redistribution, led by democratic governments playing a major role in the economy, with active movements pressuring them.

To recap: the book observes that the reason for climate denial is not that the political right lacks an understanding of the facts and the science, but instead that they deny the facts because they recognize better than most what the facts actually mean. Building on this observation, This Changes Everything proceeds to try to help readers in the environmental movement discard some bad ideas that have plagued the discussion of solutions to climate change.

The first illusion to discard is that the environment is an issue that unites the wealthy and the poor, an issue that transcends inequality.

“Environmentalists spoke of climate change as a great equalizer, the one issue that affected everyone, rich or poor,” writes Klein on page 52. “Yet all signs are that it is doing precisely the opposite, stratifying us further … divided between those whose wealth offers them a not insignificant measure of protection from ferocious weather … and those left to the mercy of increasingly dysfunctional states.”

But there are many others. Reviewing the record of environmental organizations making alliances with corporations, This Changes Everything finds that compromises beget compromises. The most dramatic example is the story of the extinction of the prairie chicken, whose breeding grounds, after being gifted to the Nature Conservancy, were destroyed by drilling by the Nature Conservancy. This Changes Everything also discards the current fashionable idea that philanthropists can stabilize the climate at the last minute.

The cautionary tale in this section is the story of Richard Branson of Virgin Airlines, who saw the light after watching Al Gore’s powerpoint presentation and proceeded to make grand promises and then to do absolutely nothing of any use for the climate, expanding his highly pollutant industries in the meantime. The brief and completely ineffectual history of cap-and-trade, carbon markets, and other climate market mechanisms that created speculative markets while emissions continued to increase, is also reviewed in the book.

The most terrifying section, however, is a crazy idea that is still sitting on the shelf. However, it’s inclusion in the book is more than merited in order to help inoculate readers before it becomes more prominent, as it likely will: the idea of manipulating the atmosphere directly, spraying toxins into the atmosphere on an ongoing basis to reduce sunlight reaching the earth, instead of trying to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. The risks of this lunacy (it would be insulting to call it a strategy) are catastrophic, and the potential benefits would be extremely unequal. The book notes that, when presented with geoengineering-type solutions to climate change, right-wingers who would ordinarily deny climate change are more inclined to believe in it — another piece of evidence that it is the implications that are really being denied, rather than the facts.

Geoengineering is only one of the high-tech bad ideas that are currently on offer to environmentalists. Bioengineering, carbon-capture and storage, ocean “fertilization,” and, of course, nuclear power as an alternative, are all put forward by one or another environmentalist as possible solutions. Because nuclear is an existing technology and perhaps the least crazy of the options, Klein handles it quite gently, advocating a gradual phase out of nuclear power; “prioritizing fossil fuels for cuts because the next decade is so critical,” she writes on page 138, proposing “a moratorium on new nuclear facilities a decommisioning of the oldest plans and then a full nuclear phase-out once renewables had decisively displaced fossil fuels.”

I agree with her conclusions here, but I believe that nuclear advocacy by environmentalists has been another diversion that has lost us precious time, like the others discussed in the middle section of This Changes Everything.

The problem with all of the bad ideas presented in the middle of the book is that they take for granted the world-view criticized in the book’s first section, a world-view that, following anti-mining activists, Klein summarizes as extractivism. In the third and final section of the book, Klein showcases many examples of resistance to extractivism from all over the world, including Canada, Greece, India, Nigeria, and many other places. Those who are fighting against the destruction of ecosystems, the basis of life where they live, are having to do so without institutional support and find themselves having to build their own systems of community and of survival, drawing on old traditions and on new experiments. In Greece, some of these activists used the term Blockadia, which Klein suggests could be seen as the changing, dynamic network of people resisting extractivism anywhere in the world. This section is a breath of fresh air (atmosphere pun intended). Where most environmental books present packages of policies, technologies, or laws, Klein presents the voices of people who are fighting for the lands and communities they live in and love.

The conclusion of the book is in her own voice, and returns to the Shock Doctrine parable of crazy ideas sitting on the shelf.

“Any attempt to rise to the climate challenge will be fruitless unless it is understood as part of a much broader battle of worldviews, a process of rebuilding and reinventing the very idea of the collective, the communal, the commons, the civil, and the civic after so many decades of attack and neglect,” she writes on page 460.

After so many decades of neoliberalism, the ideas presented in This Changes Everything are the crazy ones. Read them, and when the opportunity arises, as it will, reach for them, and not for geoengineering, nukes, philanthrocapitalists, and climate markets.

Author: Justin Podur

Ecology. Environmental Science. Political Science. Anti-imperialism. Political fiction. Teach at York U's FES. Author. Writer at ZNet, TeleSUR, AlterNet, Ricochet, and the Independent Media Institute.