Review: Environmental disaster and the need to change everything

“This Changes Everything: capitalism vs the climate”, by Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein’s latest book is a search for radical responses to the existential threat from climate change. In it, she identifies capitalism as the cause of the crisis. While not clearly advocating socialist change, it is an important and influential contribution to the debate. BILL HOPWOOD reviews.

This Changes Everything: capitalism vs the climate

By Naomi Klein

Published by Allen Lane, 2014, £20

Naomi Klein’s book is a welcome and much needed addition to the debates on how to tackle global warming. Klein not only outlines its enormous threat to humanity. She shows the need for a fundamental change of strategy to avoid disaster and instead seize the opportunity to "dramatically improve lives, close the gap between rich and poor, create huge numbers of good jobs" and have a healthy planet to live on.

To see climate change as an opportunity will seem weird to many mainstream environmentalists who are demoralised as, after over 30 years of talk, the greenhouse gas emissions driving global warming continue to increase. Some are turning to desperate and dangerous ideas, such as nuclear power and geo-engineering, while others are toying with the need for an eco-dictatorship. What Klein does so well is point out that the failure to address global warming is due to using the wrong strategies and especially not attacking the root cause of this and many of the other ills of the planet – capitalism. Klein states: "Our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth including human life. Only one of these set of rules can change, and it’s not the laws of nature".

Klein argues that global warming can only be defeated by an international mass movement that links the provision of good jobs and public services with the environment. To do this the movement must break with the rules of capitalism. This may be understood clearly by socialists. However, this book will take this debate to a much wider audience and increase the interest in the socialist alternative to global environmental catastrophe and human suffering. Klein uses strong, well-researched evidence alongside the stories of people and meetings, which are alarming or moving, inspiring or frightening. They all help to make her case.

Capitalism exploits the ecosystems of the planet and people to make its profits. Mountains and forests become ‘overburden’ to be removed to get at tar sands or coal. Humans are reduced to labour "to be brutally extracted" or excluded from society. Governments have trillions of dollars to bail out the banks but no money for green jobs or the public services to protect from and deal with the impacts of global warming.

Neo-liberalism has increased the damage to the environment and social wellbeing. It has weakened the powers of civil society and governments to control, at least partly, the actions of corporations. Energy suppliers have been privatised so no longer have any regard for social or environmental issues. Neo-liberal ideology has captured almost all politicians so regulations or controls on corporations have been torn up. Agreements, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), are used to smash rules to protect the environment and jobs.

Big Green and the big corporations

Klein states the inconvenient truth that the support of Al Gore and the big environmental groups was vital to the introduction of NAFTA. She criticises the failing strategies of many of the main US environmental groups – Big Green, she calls them – which work with Washington politicians and the major corporations, including some with the worst environmental records. Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, the Conservation Fund, WWF and the Environmental Defense Fund all have links, including donations and board members, with major energy companies, Walmart and other corporations driving climate change.

This sleeping with the enemy means only advocating policies that produce a profit – such as carbon markets, light-touch regulation, consumer guilt, and fracked gas as a ‘bridge fuel’. All of these have made things worse and delayed implementing the necessary and existing solutions. Cap-and-trade and offsets are a big scam to make corporations richer and, if anything, do more harm than good to the environment.

A graphic illustration of the toothless nature of the international talk is that fossil fuel companies have identified carbon deposits, not yet extracted, of 2,795 gigatons of carbon which is on their books, worth $27 trillion. This is five times the maximum amount of carbon that scientists say can be burnt by 2050 if warming is to stay below 2°C, the temperature at which the climate crosses a tipping point to disaster. The companies, as ExxonMobil stated, are confident that restrictive climate policies are "highly unlikely", and are "confident that none of our hydrocarbon reserves are now or will become ‘stranded’ [unrealizable]". The energy industry is increasing the production of fossil fuels from ever more dangerous and environmentally damaging sources: deep water, the Arctic, tar sands, fracking – what Klein calls "extreme energy". Much of this extraction has little or no regulation.

The chapter on geo-engineering is scary. Ideas being seriously considered include putting iron in the oceans to increase carbon absorption by marine organisms, putting mirrors in the sky or on the ground to reflect back sunlight, or constantly injecting particles into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight and add to cloud cover. The risks with all of these are immense and, once in place, how could they be reversed?

Climate change is due to more carbon in the atmosphere. The answer is to stop pouring out carbon. Geo-engineering does not tackle the problem. It would add another climate change in the hope of masking global warming. Fundamentally, these measures would continue to treat the planet and all its life as an inert thing to be manipulated. The solution is not to ‘fix’ the world. It is to change the social and economic system that is making the only home we have unfit for us to live on.

Clean, green jobs

Often, environmentalists state that we have to ‘save the planet’ and, therefore, do not have time for social issues. Klein argues that, as capitalism is destroying the climate and failing the vast majority of people on the planet, there is the need and the opportunity for a plan to tackle both. The ‘jobs versus the environment’ claim is a lie, put up by big business to divide opposition to its rule. A programme to heal the planet could provide millions of good jobs.

In contrast to the 30 wasted years of Big Green’s strategies, there is a growing mass movement of resistance to energy extraction and climate change. These movements around the world are cause for confidence about the future. Environmentalists, workers, indigenous people and social and economic justice activists linking together can consolidate and spread these struggles. Real progressive changes – ending slavery, workers’ rights, fighting discrimination – have always come from mass movements, not from lobbying corporations and politicians.

Many in struggle are poor, workers and indigenous people. They need jobs as well as clean water, air and soil. It is not realistic or moral to ask them to sacrifice for the planet. Big energy companies can wave bundles of cash as incentives to accept a mine, oil well or fracking rig. Workers would obviously prefer to have clean, safe jobs rather than working in the dangerous and unhealthy energy business, and indigenous peoples would rather have clean land than a reservation contaminated with oil or with the mountain tops removed.

However, if the only choice is no jobs, to go hungry and not be able to feed children, or dirty jobs, many people will reluctantly accept the latter. The fight for jobs and economic justice are an essential part of the fight for the climate. Climate change will only be stopped with a good jobs programme. At the core is the need to fight capitalism and put forward positive alternatives. "The only people who will be truly empowered to say no to dirty development over the long term are people who see real, hopeful alternatives".

Klein is aware that huge changes are needed to the world’s political and economic system. She reflects on other big progressive changes, such as civil rights, but recognises that many of these movements changed legal rights rather than economic inequality. The civil rights movement never won the good jobs, housing and education that people were fighting for. Movements that did change economic power which she considers include the abolition of slavery, the huge gains won by the massive wave of unionisation after the depression of the 1930s, and the Popular Unity government of Salvador Allende in Chile, tragically crushed by a military coup in 1973. However, none of these struggles abolished capitalism.

The root of the problem

While Klein is excellent at critiquing capitalism, especially neo-liberalism, at times it is unclear what she means by capitalism. Is it only neo-liberalism, all capitalism, or something wider, which she calls ‘extractivism’? Let us be clear: it is capitalism in all its guises, with the roots of problems going back to all class-based societies. Klein also draws back from talking about a socialist alternative. Realistically, the only way the steps she proposes can be realised are by replacing capitalism with the cooperative, collective stewardship of land and resources, with benefits shared among people: a socialist world.

Perhaps Klein’s unwillingness to talk about socialism is because she is unfamiliar with the Marxist criticism of Stalinism. She talks of "authoritarian socialism" in reference to the Soviet Union. That is a contradiction in terms. Socialism cannot exist without a vibrant, healthy democracy. The Soviet Union under Stalin and after was not democratic. Stalinist, bureaucratic planning was not based on an understanding of either the environment or a Marxist awareness of the deep connection between human wellbeing and nature.

Klein refers to Karl Marx once, quoting him on "capitalism’s ‘irreparable rift’ with ‘the natural laws of life itself’". Yet, Marx and Friedrich Engels wrote at length on the environment. One of their key understandings was that humans are part of, and dependent on, nature. "Thus at every step we are reminded that we by no means rule over nature like a conqueror over a foreign people, like someone standing outside nature – but that we, with flesh, blood and brain, belong to nature, and exist in its midst, and that all our mastery of it consists in the fact that we have the advantage over all other creatures of being able to learn its laws and apply them correctly". (Engels, The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man, 1876)

Klein makes a parallel point: "Living non-extractively does not mean that extraction does not happen: all living things must take from nature to survive. But it does mean the end of the extractivist mindset – of taking without caretaking, of treating land and people as resources to deplete rather than as complex entities with rights to a dignified existence based on renewal and regeneration". She writes of the need to protect soil fertility. In Capital, Volume One, written in 1867, Marx wrote that capitalist agricultural techniques were "simultaneously undermining the original sources of all wealth – the soil and the worker". Responding to a problem with another technological fix, rather than addressing the root of the problem, whether using industrial fertilizer to deal with soil depletion or geo-engineering the climate, are built into capitalism.

The reluctance to name the alternative to a human and environment-devouring capitalism weakens the book and weakens the movement to build the alternative. To overthrow capitalism will need a mass movement around the world and a clear understanding of the enemy and what to put in its place: a socialist society which values the earth, its biodiversity and humanity. When earth is freed from the death cell prison of capitalism, the skills, knowledge and imagination of humanity, the accumulated tools and resources of centuries of work, the boundless energy of the sun, and the fertility and diversity of life, will allow a world of full human development in harmony with a flourishing planet.

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