A review of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything

I have another piece up at Ricochet: a review of Naomi Klein’s big book on climate change, This Changes Everything. It’s friendly but critical, looking at what the book’s themes of austerity, the local and extractivism mean for how we build politics against climate change. I’ve included it in full below…

Naomi Klein’s big book on climate change, This Changes Everything, is at once an extensive catalogue of climate change failures and a passionate defence of budding shoots of resistance. Much more than just an up-to-date account of where we are and how we got here, it is also a meditation on how to move forward — one that needs to be critically examined.

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A litany of failures

Klein has a real knack for taking a tangle of scattered events and disparate characters and shaping them into a compelling narrative. The book flows easily, deftly weaving together threads of analysis and journalism. Although Klein begins the book in the maw of the lion, at a conference put on by the far-right Heartland Institute, which opposes climate change tooth and nail, her targets are not only the climate deniers.

She is at her best debunking the feel-good but unsuccessful attempts to deal with climate change from deep within the current system. From greenwashing billionaires such as Richard Branson to big green groups cutting deals with fossil fuel giants or geoengineering advocates ultimately looking for the Hail Mary response to unchecked emissions, Klein has no illusions about the dim potential for business as usual with a green twist. The juxtaposition, at one point in the book, of a sombre geoengineering conference and a raucous Audi corporate meeting separated by a wall is almost too perfect. “The reckless experiments the people in our room are attempting to rationalize are really about allowing the car people in the next room to keep their party going,” writes Klein.

These are some of the best parts of the book. Klein skewers the profound hypocrisy and blindness of false solutions that are still heavily implicated in the capitalist system, which she says is at the bottom of the inability to deal seriously with the climate crisis. But while bursting illusions is an important part of the battle, Klein also has very clear and particular ideas about how we should respond to climate change. 

By examining three fault lines that run throughout Klein’s book, my hope is to add to debate on the most important question of all: strategy.

Abundance and austerity

One thread that runs through This Changes Everything is that of excess — and not just the well-known excess fossil fuels being burned and producing excess greenhouse gases, or even the excess confidence of those like Branson and the geoengineers, but a general excess of stuff that we are consuming. Klein blankly says that we need to reduce consumption.

The catch here is defining the “we” who are overconsuming. Klein makes no qualms about the fact that she belongs to the very top of the global distribution that has to “return to a lifestyle similar to the one we had in the 1970s.” The question is who else must do this.

Clearly the people of the Global South should not pay for any excesses that have contributed to climate change, as their participation in them has been, until very recently, minimal. The basic problem for the South is, in fact, severe underconsumption, whether from necessities like foodstuffs to basic technologies like indoor plumbing, simple time-saving innovations like washing machines, all the way to communications technology and advanced medicine. Klein acknowledges vast global inequalities and fully incorporates the unequal responsibility for climate change, as a climate debt to be repaid, into her analysis. At times, however, she comes too close to romanticizing a mythical simpler past and lumping further technological development in with a caricature of early Enlightenment science.

And it’s not just about the Global South. Incomes across much of the Global North have been stagnant for decades, notably in the United States, where the median household income after accounting for inflation has barely increased in 40 years, and consumption has actually flatlined for most. We may have iPhones, but many of us are still stuck in the 1970s. 

Stagnation for many amid disproportionate growing incomes for the wealthy and rapidly rising carbon emissions raises the big question of economic growth  one that is especially important as austerity has become the guiding economic program of many governments around the world in bad times and also good. To simply propose de-growth, as Klein sometimes does, may be too quick and even dangerous given the pervasiveness of austerity. Behind the growth/de-growth binary are fundamental questions about what is growing and for whom, and how is it measured.

An undue focus on shared austerity in the name of the climate has implications for political strategy. It’s true that people pull together in acute disasters as Klein describes, most notably in the returning theme of New York City after Superstorm Sandy. Yet broader, lasting organizing is much easier with some level of material comfort that gives people the time and security to participate in social movements. Such comfort, of course, should not and need not be bought at the expense of intense ecological harm. This is the lesson of the 1970s: radical demands that put our economic system into question, as Klein wants to do with her book, flourished in the US and Europe only after two decades of post-war prosperity for workers. And it was the intense austerity of those such as Reagan and Thatcher that helped shut these movements down. 

Large-scale and local

Today’s distance from the Cold War has allowed for an immense breath of fresh air in Klein’s work: an unabashed return to the notion of planning. This is a welcome and important aspect of the book. Given the way climate change affects us all, and the best answers provided by elites who ostensibly believe in climate change ask us to trust in the same market solutions that have failed before, some form of democratic control over the economy sounds downright refreshing. Democracy is the answer to technocracy.

Getting down to the details, however, the picture Klein presents can be too simple. She argues for a very decentralized form of planning, where small-scale and local institutions are most important. Setting up another binary, she states that “real capitalists don’t plan.” But as the economic historian Karl Polanyi wrote in his 1944 opus, The Great Transformation, the free market was planned. It took a lot of conscious effort to create a market system that only appears to be spontaneous.

To add to the mix, capitalist firms hide within themselves a whole sphere of planning. The likes of GE or Walmart are enormous organizations that operate internally according to top-down plans — and they do this well. The problem is that the current end goal of all this planning is to realize the largest possible profit or maintain a high stock price. There is no reason, however, that these goals couldn’t be different and decided democratically. In Klein’s critique of corporatism and state bureaucracies, the bogeyman should be the technocracy that controls organizations for private ends rather than the size of the organizations.

In fact, we have a lot to learn from large organizations that take advantage of efficiencies internally according to plans: not least that they can provide more products and better wages and other conditions for the same inputs. We cannot retreat into the local and avoid the large. Klein gives the example of industries with large players such as auto or finance that were at the mercy of the state after the last financial crisis. These could have been socialized and transformed to serve democratic ends with their large scale kept intact. Their scale would have helped: think of the screaming needs for large-scale green infrastructure and large-scale investment in climate mitigation. The enormous obstacles to such a transformation were, as Klein often rightly says, political, not technical.

Yet it is possible for solutions at the local level to backfire, to decentralize back to the neoliberalism Klein wants to escape. Take the German energy transition that she uses as an example throughout This Changes Everything. Klein holds it up as a model of small, interconnected producers, some of them local power companies that have been taken over by municipal governments. These are the success stories.

At the same time, however, Germany’s greenhouse gas emissions have actually gone up in the past few years as a result of the push to shut down nuclear plants, which Klein acknowledges. But she is silent on another side of the transition. First, remember that Germany can pride itself on its modern, integrated energy transmission and distribution grid, which enables its alternative energy experiments, the outcome of large-scale planning. The transition has led to the creation of large numbers of small, private renewable energy producers who take advantage of this grid, and the state has guaranteed it will buy electricity from them at prices that cannot fall below very high thresholds. All producers, big and small, are buying equipment from large conglomerates who also participate in the benefits of subsidized high energy prices. German households, on the other hand, are left with soaring energy bills. This side of the famed transition starts to sound much more like another neoliberal experiment that relies on state support to redistribute resources in the wrong direction.

The neoliberal model like this one offers the familiar refrain of “disruption” advocated by the tech industry. In short, building new collective projects requires democratic control that happens on the local level, but the bigger picture needs to be kept in mind. In the long term, it may be easier to build a movement of citizens for more democratic control of larger-scale public works than try to “out-disrupt” the neoliberals who have mastered the terrain of dispersed, private solutions.

Polanyi is useful here again. He called land and labour “fictitious commodities” that had no place on markets, but noted that there were different ways they had been defended from the market. He pointed out that defence of land can quickly turn into reaction, a defence of conservative values that can ultimately lead to a defence of the market itself. The opposite of a large, high-carbon fossil fuel project is not necessarily a small-scale, local project; it can be a large, sustainable project in public hands.

Klein is absolutely right that we need more democracy and more planning, but each of these can take shape across a range of scales, with the local being one element that need not and should not supersede others. 

Capitalism and extractivism

Finally, there is the big challenge posed in the subtitle of the book: capitalism versus the climate. In many ways, however, the main –ism at the heart of This Changes Everything is not capitalism. It is what Klein calls extractivism: a “dominance-based relationship with the earth, one of purely taking,” which is “the opposite of stewardship.”

On the one hand, the focus on extractivism is welcome. We don’t need more theories divining the next crisis of capitalism (whatever the cause) just around the corner; recall the old jab that the left has successfully predicted 20 of last 10 economic crises. Extractivism focuses attention on how technology has been used under capitalism and the long-term disconnect between the current model of energy-intensive capitalist growth and existing ecological boundaries.

This framing is part of an old conflict about the legacy of the Enlightenment. The problem is that Klein interprets the Industrial Revolution as the promise of liberation from nature, and thus a promise that has been broken by nature itself — nature putting us in our place. This differs from a more long-standing interpretation that sees the Industrial Revolution instead as the promise of liberation from toil and exploitation, a promise broken by capitalism.

Klein rightly articulates that our environment is outside our full control, but she underplays the extent to which we can shape it. We are not masters of the earth, nor are we mere stewards of a place beyond our remaking through reciprocal relationships.

At the end of the book, Klein recounts a visit to a salmon hatchery near the place she lived while writing the book. It turned out that the salmon she had seen on hikes were being aided by human intervention. “It’s a partnership of sorts between the fish, the forest, and the people who share this special piece of the world,” she writes. And that’s just it. We cannot return to a mythical nature any more than we can leave mass society. What we can do is change our relationships between each other as well as between ourselves and our environment.

Neither the economy nor nature are independent stand-alones. The economy is made and remade in our everyday social relationships: some of us work, while others decide what is worked on; some have access to any good under the sun, while others barely scrape by. Similarly, nature is never separate from our interactions with it. It is certainly possible to imagine a “swirling web of connections” that can exploit people and “expand infinitely,” as Klein lyrically describes capitalism, but that does not treat the natural world as its waste dump. Capitalism has outfoxed us before.

Human life, and life in general, is based on cycles of growth, raising again the question: growth of what? The growth of human creativity, for example, could be nearly boundless for all intents and purposes. The good news is that we are intentional creatures; that is, we have goals and find ways to reach them. The real puzzle is how to sustain social growth within ecological boundaries, not how to stop growth. Beyond a focus on the local, the austere and the extractive, there are question of ownership, planning and end goals. How do we turn the broken promises over the use and distribution of the fruits of human ingenuity into a common wealth?

A question of strategy

The major issue remains one of strategy. Klein understands this. She weaves a compelling story of strategic failures — from co-opting billionaires to co-opted big green — and provides very concrete ideas for the way forward. I’ve tried to complicate some of the dichotomies on which these ideas rely. A focus on austerity and the local can be co-opted into serving the neoliberal variety of capitalism already well entrenched today.

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