Capitalism versus climate: which side are you on?

| Apr 30, 2015

By Tom Mayer
Professor Emeritus, University of Colorado

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate by Naomi Klein is probably the most important book ever written about our environment. It truthfully portrays the grim climate crisis we collectively face, a crisis which could threaten the continuation of human life on this planet. It also confronts, with unrelenting honesty, the daunting social revolution necessary to avoid the most catastrophic effects of climate change. This Changes Everything is a memorable and compelling if rather harrowing book. It is prodigiously researched, comprehensive in scope, eloquently written, and – notwithstanding its ominous subject – fundamentally hopeful. Klein artfully combines up-to-date scientific information and astute political analysis with sometimes painful personal experience.

This Changes Everything has four main messages.

  • First: climate change is real, caused by human activities, and globally devastating in its potential impact.
  • Second: growth oriented, deregulated, privatizing, neoliberal capitalism cannot prevent calamitous climate change.
  • Third: the situation is not impossible. If we can endure a social transformation on the scale of abolishing slavery, and if we can generate a global mobilization of human effort like that in World War Two, then our world can escape the worst consequences of climate change.
  • Fourth: a successful effort to mitigate climate change can vastly improve human society. The emerging societies would almost necessarily be more egalitarian, cooperative, unified, and sustainable.

The subtitle of this book – Capitalism vs. the Climate – is a bit misleading. Klein presents a powerful critique of neoliberal capitalism and all its variants. She remains agnostic, however, about whether a radically different form of capitalism could produce the profound transformations required to save human civilization. History has thrown up many versions of capitalism. Whether a non-growth, non-hierarchical, accumulation controlled, ecology respecting variant of capitalism is possible remains at least uncertain. The political temper of This Changes Everything is indicated by this quotation:

“[O]ur economic system and our planetary system are now at war. Or, more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life. What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature.” (p. 21)

The author attributes denial of climate change not mainly to ignorance, but to accurate assessment of the massive social transformation needed to address the problem realistically. Conservatives often have a more credible appraisal of the necessary changes than do liberals who may rest content with grossly inadequate programs such as recycling.

Klein is highly critical of organizations she refers to as “Big Green”. These are the well-funded traditional environmental associations such as Nature Conservancy, Environmental Defense Fund, and National Resource Defense Council that endorse the capitalist establishment. Instead of fighting the corporations responsible for soaring carbon emissions, Big Green has effectively merged with them.

smokestacks-mayerMany receive funding from Shell, BP, Walmart, Monsanto, and the like. Big Green has championed natural gas and fracking as an alternative to coal while minimizing methane emissions and other problems associated with hydraulic fracturing. Big Green generally opposes government regulation of corporations and (like some of their corporate donors) recommend complex, ineffectual, and easily manipulated carbon trading schemes.

Klein draws hope and inspiration from “Blockadia”. This is the rapidly growing international grass roots movement opposing destructive extraction of resources from the earth. Growth oriented capitalism inevitably creates “sacrifice zones”, territories largely poisoned in the name of progress. Blockadia movements first arose within these sacrifice zones. Klein portrays many such movements including those from a seaside Greek village, a Romanian farming community, herders of Inner Mongolia, First Nation communities in Canada, the forests of New South Wales (Australia), the Ogoni people in the Niger Delta of Nigeria, and the “Cowboy and Indian alliance” combating the Keystone XL pipeline in Western USA.

Blockadia movements are significant to Klein both because they often effectively resist activities that cause climate change and, perhaps more importantly, because they contain the DNA of a post- capitalist society. These movements foster deepened democracy, enhanced community spirit, egalitarian ideas, and mobilization of women. They demonstrate the power of collective action and the critical fact that, when part of an energized collectivity, people willingly take actions and make sacrifices unthinkable for isolated individuals.

How should humanity cope with the global climate crisis? This Changes Everything implies an approach based upon three overlapping stages. The first stage involves a vast extension of Blockadia. We must build worldwide social movements, with grassroots leadership, determined to resist the destruction of our collective environment. Without such movements, our situation is truly hopeless. “Only mass movements can save us”, says Klein in her concluding chapter.

The second stage, premised on the success of the first, emphasizes environmental policy. This stage would include: (a) implementation of the principle that “polluters pay” through a substantial carbon tax and related measures; (b) increased taxation of the rich funding a complete transition to renewable energy in 40 years or less through massive government investment; (c) creation of a comprehensive social safety net with guaranteed minimal income for everyone; (d) locally controlled public energy systems (Klein discusses the Boulder initiative, pp. 98-9); and (e) greatly expanded public transportation with local production of food and other commodities.

The third stage in the effort to cope with the climate crisis underscores institutional change. Here the emphasis is on reconstructing democracy; redistributing wealth both nationally and globally; environmentally oriented economic planning for a no growth economy; rebuilding community life and the public sphere; and changing cultural values in favor of interdependence rather than individualism and cooperation rather than hierarchy. Can these profound institutional changes happen within a capitalist system of any sort? I am extremely doubtful. However, I also expected capitalism to collapse or decline precipitously within the 20th century. The profit oriented private ownership system, I must grudgingly admit, is far more resilient than I thought.

This book reminds me of a statement made by the famous psychiatrist Robert Lifton about nuclear weapons: “The degree of numbing of everyday life necessary for individual comfort is at odds with the degree of tension, or even anxiety that must accompany the awareness necessary for collective survival.” If you can tolerate the anxiety associated with knowing the truth about climate change, and if you are determined to do something real for collective survival, then This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate is a must read.

Tom Mayer is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Colorado Boulder. A shortened version of this article appeared in the Daily Camera.

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