The Environmental Necessity for Alternatives to Growth

Book cover of Naomi Klein's "This Changes Everything:Review of Naomi Klein’s, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, Simon & Schuster, 2014.

It is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism. (Jameson 2003:73)

Known for her acidic bestsellers over the past twenty years, few globalization authors are more widely read than Naomi Klein. In her recent book, The Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, Klein shifts her attention to climate change and the failed economic models responsible for environmental degradation.

Klein argues that pro-business ethics, in their many forms, are at the philosophical roots of many widely-known global warming “solutions,” and she holds that attempting to solve the climate crisis through market ingenuity will not avert climatic disasters.

Over thirteen chapters and nearly 500 pages, Klein establishes looming environmental crises as a mandate for collective action on a necessarily tight timeline. She frames the breaching of planetary tipping points as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to address raging inequality, create a huge number of jobs, and rebuild public infrastructure.

The challenge, for Klein, is that free market ideals do not support widespread investment in clean or sustainable technologies. In Klein’s estimation, responding to climate change is not necessarily a sacrifice, but it does entail asking hard questions and making tough decisions—especially for those benefiting from the environmentally devastating economic policies currently in place.

One of the book’s key strengths is its handling of many relevant topics pertaining to fundamental policy changes that go beyond neoliberalism (the promotion of economic growth and risk taking). Climate change is a multifaceted problem, and Klein dwells on several proposals for (in)action—including climate change skepticism, protests, and divestment in fossil fuels.

Accordingly, readers with varying interests will welcome different portions of the book. Those studying contemporary politics and climate change denial will likely be most interested in Part 1: “Bad Timing.” This five-chapter segment describes the critical moment environmental action has entered, and outlines the social and political challenges that must be addressed in order to prevent further warming. While this is a general motif for Klein, it is most seriously engaged in Part 1.

Ecological-Marxist readers will gravitate towards Part 2, “Magical Thinking,” due to its sharp dismissal of the unwarranted optimism in tech-savvy billionaires and technological fixes to save humanity. Of geoengineering approaches, which are massive technological undertakings to change the biosphere into a human-controlled thermostat, she powerfully states: “If we sign on to this plan and call it stewardship, we effectively give up on the prospect of ever being healthy again. The earth—our life support system—would itself be put on life support…” (p. 279).

Readers interested in social movements, civil society actors, and climate change awareness will welcome Part 3, “Starting Anyway.” Here, Klein covers the newfound importance of civil disobedience and the role indigenous people play in preventing fossil fuel interests from destroying ecosystems. Unlike some environmental literature that unsatisfactorily touches on many different themes, even advanced readers should be satisfied with this book’s coverage.

At its core, This Changes Everything is essentially a critique of market-based approaches to climate change. Klein contends that deriving solutions from “growth-at-all-cost” ideologies will create a dangerous dependency on market ingenuity that needs to be reexamined.

For Klein, if ecological modernization (the development of environmental actions aiming to stretch the planet’s carrying capacity through market ingenuity and innovative technological solutions in order to continue economic development) remains the standard approach to reduce global warming, then environmental limits will continue to be breached. Furthermore, since neoliberalism remains the political status quo of many nations, the sphere of civil society and environmental movements are the last line of defense against irreparable environmental damage.

Neoliberal policies, Klein argues, have exacerbated anthropogenic climate change and provide no serious answer for environmental concerns:

The guiding ethos of light-touch regulation, and more often of active deregulation, has taken an enormous toll… It has also blocked commonsense responses to the climate crisis at every turn—sometimes explicitly, when regulations that would keep carbon in the ground are rejected outright, but mostly implicitly, when those kinds of regulations are not even proposed in the first place, and so-called market solutions are favored for tasks to which they are wholly unequipped. (p. 142)

Paramount for Klein is the theme of resistance. Klein focuses on two opposing types of resistance: some groups resist government action on climate change, others resist the commitment to fossil fuels and pollution-based industries.

This first form of resistance is the opposition posed by climate change skeptics, who fear that “policies to combat global warming were actually an attack on middle-class American capitalism” (p. 31). It is the form that resides in mainstream debates on climate change action, and is particularly salient among climate science deniers within the political Right:

…conservatives are inherent system justifiers and therefore bridle before facts that call the dominant economic system into question… today there is a significant cohort of voters in many countries who care passionately, even obsessively, about climate change. What they care about, however, is exposing it as a “hoax” being perpetrated by liberals to force them to change their lightbulbs, live in Soviet-style tenements, and surrender their SUVs. (p. 37)

Klein couches her discussion of optimism in technological fixes and geoengineering within this larger theme of denial or climate change inaction. This form of resistance is connected to a phrase that Klein frequently employs, extractivism, which describes economies founded on the removal of raw materials and relying on finite resources and hydrocarbons. She regularly calls attention to powerful fossil fuel interests to highlight the dominance of this economic model. Suffice it to say, the extractivist wave of resistance is against climate change action, and has the perspective of protecting economic growth at the expensive of worsening environmental problems.

The second form of resistance Klein discusses is decidedly anti-establishment. She describes those resisting extractivism—protesters, environmental organizations, and citizens uniting against the fossil fuel industry—as Blockadia, which includes all the members of the global anti-extraction movement.

In addition to the outcries over the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, protests against fracking, and the recent trend of divestment in fossil fuel corporations, Klein frames the current demonstrations against the TransCanada Keystone XL Pipeline and the associated extraction of Alberta tar sands as collective actions conducted by Blockadia. For the amorphous members of Blockadia, extractivism is responsible for one seemingly unmitigated disaster after another, and Klein uses these movements to illustrate that extractivism is no longer a given. Fossil fuel companies will have an increasingly difficult time maintaining precedence over the rights of local communities or the well-being of ecosystems.

The anti-extraction movement provides a number of reasons to be optimistic in the ability to protect ecosystems and the rights of environmentally-conscious land owners. According to Klein: “The companies at the centers of these battles are still trying to figure out what hit them” (p. 302). Klein employs the tension between extractivists, who generally resist climate change action and investment in renewables, and Blockadia, who resist the perpetual reliance on carbon emissions and resource depletion, as a consistent and effective organizational device throughout the book.

With its various criticisms and bold writing, this magisterial work will unquestionably be an important addition to the bookshelves of a readership as diverse as its subject matter. Klein has incorporated countless dramatic, memorable passages that perfectly capture brilliant and complicated points. In the end, Klein covers a wide range of topics associated with climate change, and probes the connections between sustainability, environmental economics, globalization, social movements, climate skepticism, and geoengineering.

On the heels of Thomas Piketty’s hugely successful Capital in the Twenty-First Century, (2014) Klein’s book could also spark intense discussions among audiences interested in economics and globalization, although for different reasons. Countless academic and mainstream debates have used Piketty’s seminal work as a launching pad for discussing the ramifications of a future dominated by economic inequality, largely driven by inherited wealth.

Klein’s book can potentially stimulate public dialogue on the future of extractivism, the strengths of Blockadia, and the problems linked with justifying of the economic status quo.This Changes Everything is a robust condemnation of many dangerous mentalities, priorities, and policies driven by various forms of climate change denial. Klein’s work is a dramatic and well-written policy critique; broad audiences interested in environmental studies and globalization will greatly appreciate this piece’s content and readability.

 

REFERENCES

Jameson, Fredric. 2003. “Future City.” New Left Review 21: 65–79.

Piketty, Thomas. 2014. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.