Naomi Klein’s Climate Manifesto
by Matthew Rothschild
This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate
By Naomi Klein
Simon & Schuster. $30. 566 pages.
Here is the long-awaited book on climate change by one of the leading lights of the left. Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine (my pick for the most important book of the last decade), is back with another urgent work.
In This Changes Everything, she not only synthesizes the science on global climate change in accessible language and highlights the horrific hazards. She also gets right to the roots of the crisis, and then tells us what needs to be done about it.
This book is no downer, though, for she has her ear to the ground, and she has picked up on all the rumblings at the grassroots—all the little and not-so-little acts of resistance and regeneration that offer hope in the here and now.
She argues that the climate crisis represents a “historic opportunity” to change the world for the better. It “could become a galvanizing force for humanity, leaving us all not just safer from extreme weather, but with societies that are safer and fairer in all kinds of other ways as well.”
And for the left, she argues, it’s practically a godsend.
“It could be the best argument progressives ever had,” she writes, “to demand the rebuilding and reviving of local economies; to block harmful free trade deals and rewrite old ones; to invest in starving public infrastructure like mass transit and affordable housing; to take back ownership of essential services like energy and water; to remake our sick agricultural system into something much healthier; to open borders to migrants whose displacement is linked to climate impacts; to finally respect indigenous land rights—all of which would help to end grotesque levels of inequality within our nations and between them.”
She pins much of the crisis on runaway capitalism, and the ideology that justifies it.
“We have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism,” she writes. “We are stuck because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe . . . are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets.”
She pinpoints the media’s complicity, noting that even as the climate crisis has accelerated, the coverage has diminished.
“In 2007, the three major U.S. networks—CBS, NBC, and ABC—ran 147 stories on climate change,” she writes. “In 2011, the networks ran just fourteen stories on the subject.”
Often in the book, she laments “the bad timing” that we’ve got: This latest version of capitalism, and the ideology that justifies together it, has unfortunately arrived at the same time as the climate crisis. “Market fundamentalism has,” she writes, “from the very first moments, systematically sabotaged our collective response to climate change, a threat that came knocking just as the ideology was reaching its zenith.”
Once you deregulate corporations and defund and privatize the public sector, you elevate the folks that are causing the problem while tying the hands of those who are in the best position to do something about it.
She digs deeper. It’s not just this version of capitalism that is the source of the problem. It’s “the fundamental imperative at the heart of our economic model: grow or die,” she writes. And it’s also what she calls the “extractivist mentality”—the biblical idea that humans have dominion over the Earth, that it is ours to exploit.
“The climate crisis challenges not only capitalism, but the underlying civilizational narratives,” she writes.
For the left and the environmental movement, Klein offers several criticisms.
First, we shouldn’t shy away from the ideological fight. “The green movement’s mantra that climate is not about left and right but ‘right and wrong’ has gotten us nowhere,” she says. Second, she says several of the Big Green groups have compromised themselves hopelessly. The two she criticizes the most are the Nature Conservancy and the Environmental Defense Fund. The Nature Conservancy actually operates an oil well on land it said it was protecting for the endangered Attwater’s prairie chicken, which is no longer there anymore. And the Environmental Defense Fund has made alliances with oil and gas companies and has vigorously promoted cap-and-trade policies.
She also criticizes environmental groups for taking money either directly or indirectly from the very polluters themselves.
“Most big conservation groups did not have policies prohibiting them from investing their endowments in fossil fuel companies,” she writes. “The hypocrisy is staggering.”
Third, she criticizes lifestyle environmentalists. It’s not enough, she writes, to “meditate and shop at farmers’ markets and stop driving—but forget trying to actually change the systems that are making the crisis inevitable because that’s too much ‘bad energy’ and it will never work.”
On the flip side, she has begrudgingly come around to the view that protest itself is insufficient.
“Saying no is not enough,” she writes. “If opposition movements are to do more than burn bright and then burn out, they will need a comprehensive vision for what should emerge in the place of our failing system, as well as serious political strategies for how to achieve these goals.”
In an apparent reference to the Occupy movement, which she praises in several places, especially for its work after Hurricane Sandy, Klein acknowledges her impatience. “The fetish for structurelessness, the rebellion against any kind of institutionalization,” she warns, “is not a luxury today’s transformative movements can afford.”
So where does she find hope? All over the place, actually.
“This is a movement of many movements,” she writes, and “it is beginning to shake the fossil fuel industry to the core.”
She applauds the work of the college divestment movement, spearheaded by Bill McKibben and 350.org (she sits on the board of that group).
She hails the resistance to new mining projects, wherever they arise. These activists are “the new climate warriors,” she says in a chapter entitled “Blockadia.”
“Resistance to high-risk extreme extraction is building a global, grassroots, and broad-based network,” she writes. “It is primarily driven by a desire for a deeper form of democracy, one that provides communities with real control over those resources that are most critical to collective survival—the health of the water, air, and soil. In the process, these place-based stands are stopping real climate crimes in progress.”
She cites protests in a tourist town in Greece, a forest in Canada, a village in Romania. From Inner Mongolia to the Amazon, from the Arctic Circle to the Keystone Pipeline, she follows the trail of protest.
“The collective response to the climate crisis,” she writes, “is changing from something that primarily takes place in closed-door policy and lobbying meetings into something alive and unpredictable and very much in the streets (and mountains, and farmers’ fields, and forests).”
These are not isolated acts, but interconnected ones, she argues, and that is empowering. “Fighting a giant extractive industry on your own can seem impossible, especially in a remote, sparsely populated location,” she writes. “But being part of a continent-wide, even global, movement that has the industry surrounded is a very different story.”
And she tallies the victories so far. “Activists have won fracking bans or moratoria in dozens of cities and towns and in much larger territories, too,” she said. “Alongside France, countries with moratoria include Bulgaria, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic.” Costa Rica, she adds, banned new open-pit mining in 2010. Even China, she says, is taking steps to address the costs of pollution.
Klein also finds hope in the efforts by indigenous people and their allies to insist on their treaty rights and to fend off the mining companies. Indigenous rights, she writes, “may now represent the most powerful barriers protecting all of us from a future of climate chaos.”
Along the way, she debunks three examples of what she calls “magical thinking”: that the free market itself will come up with the solution to the climate crisis; that billionaires will lead the way; and that scientists, through something called “geoengineering,” can alter that Earth’s atmosphere in such a way as to save us all.
For Klein, there are no shortcuts, no saviors. “Only mass social movements can save us now,” she writes. They are already under way, she reassures us, adding: “There is just enough time.”
But it’s not just about fighting one mining company here, and one oil company there.
“Any attempt to rise to the climate challenge will be fruitless,” she writes, “unless it is understood as part of a much broader battle of world views, 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 the attack and neglect.”
This is a powerful, profound, and compelling book. It’s easy to read, and at times it’s intensely personal, as when Klein discusses her own struggle with infertility in a chapter entitled “The Right to Regenerate.”
Her warmth and groundedness offer an appealing complement to her deep analysis.
I came away from this book, as I trust you will, with renewed hope that we can yet save the planet.
Matthew Rothschild is the senior editor of The Progressive