A Powerful Call to Action

A review of This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein (Simon & Schuster 2014)

In May of 2012 I attended a weekend Climate Leaders’ Workshop that was hosted locally by Tucson Climate Action Network (TUCAN) and sponsored by 350.org. Young and energetic trainers led forty attendees through group exercises on topics ranging from campaign planning and story-telling to working with the media and engaging with allies. The workshop gave us information about strategy and tactics, but there was actually very little said about the science of climate change, other than a brief description of how 350.org got its name. (As their website says, “…to preserve a livable planet, scientists tell us we must reduce the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere from its current level of 400 parts per million to below 350 ppm,” though in 2012 the level of CO2 was closer to 393 ppm.) There was also very little talk about larger political movements.

Fast forward to 2014 and the September 21 People’s Climate March in New York City. Perhaps because the march coincided with a United Nations Climate Summit and was too big to ignore, the New York Times reported extensively on this convergence of activists from all over the world. The Times gave a crowd estimate of 310,000 and posted a slideshow and video online that showed how diverse the march actually was. In addition, over 2,500 solidarity events took place around the world that day, and here in Tucson, 250 activists from groups that included 350.org, TUCAN, and Occupy Tucson also marched and rallied. Though many organizations, both locally and internationally, worked in coalition to make the People’s Climate March possible, 350.org played a major role in organizing and facilitating this event. Afterward they declared it to be “[t]he largest climate march in history,” and it seems that this organization has found a sweet spot with regard to climate activism.

Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate — already a New York Times bestseller – displays an urgent activist tone similar to that of 350.org (and in fact Klein is on their board of directors). Published just days before the People’s Climate March, the book is focused on how climate change threatens the well-being of people all over the planet, how free market capitalism and globalization worsen the crisis, and what activists have been doing to try to save the planet. The book is also a significant elaboration of Klein’s earlier work. In her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine, she described the ways that the neoliberal capitalist order takes advantage of crises to double down on its consolidation of power, and in This Changes Everything, she theorizes that things could be different in the case of the climate crisis. In the book’s introduction, Klein says, “Rather than the ultimate expression of the shock doctrine – a frenzy of new resource grabs and repression – climate change can be a People’s Shock, a blow from below. It can disperse power into the hands of the many rather than consolidating it into the hands of the few… And where right-wing shock doctors exploit emergencies (both real and imagined) to push through policies that make us even more crisis prone, the kinds of transformations discussed in these pages would do the exact opposite… and would leave us with both a more habitable climate than the one we are headed for and a far more just economy than the one we have right now.” But, Klein says, “All we have to do is nothing” to assure that CO2 emissions will rise, cities will drown, storms and droughts will worsen, and climate change “will change everything about our world.”

In the first section of the book, “Bad Timing,” Klein tells us it’s no wonder there are so many right-wing climate deniers. She says the right is right in the sense that it would be “intellectually cataclysmic” for right-wing ideologues to acknowledge climate change and would mean they would have to turn away from privatization, deregulation, cuts to government spending, and free trade deals. But what about the rest of us? What kinds of changes should we demand if we are convinced that climate change is real and our economic system needs to change? Citing works like Tim Jackson’s Prosperity Without Growth, Klein suggests that we need to pursue “selective degrowth” and “support those parts of our economies that are already low-carbon and therefore do not need to contract,” such as “the public sector, co-ops, local businesses, nonprofits.” Earlier in the book she says, “I’m convinced that climate change represents a historic opportunity… on the scale of the New Deal but far more transformative and just.” She adds that, as we bring down our emissions levels we will also be able to bring forward policies that improve lives, create jobs, and close the widening gap between rich and poor. She discusses ways we might go about “growing the caring economy, shrinking the careless one.” Klein says this could in turn lead to shorter working hours and the call for a guaranteed annual income, which “…discourages shitty work (and wasteful consumption).” And much of the first section of the book addresses the question of how we can stop using fossil fuels and transition to renewables in a fair and equitable way, both in this country and around the world. What’s not so clear is how Klein thinks this will end the neoliberal capitalist order she says is pushing us to the brink of disaster.

In the second section of the book, “Magical Thinking,” Klein debunks some approaches to the problem of climate change that keep us in the realm of business as usual. She begins by looking at the environmental groups she calls Big Green, by which she means green groups with a lot of corporate backing such as Conservation International, the Nature Conservancy, and WWF (originally the World Wildlife Fund). Though she aims her harshest criticism at the Nature Conservancy (which actually drilled for oil on its Texas City Prairie Preserve, once home to endangered Attwater’s prairie chickens), she says that Big Green groups have done little to help solve the problem of climate change because they “consistently, and aggressively, pushed responses that are the least burdensome, and often directly beneficial, to the largest greenhouse gas emitters on the planet – even when the policies come at the direct expense of communities fighting to keep fossil fuels in the ground.” In this section she also examines the solutions proposed by “messiah” billionaires like Richard Branson, T. Boone Pickens, and Bill Gates, who either fail to deliver the money and assistance they promise (e.g., Branson promised that by 2016 he would invest $3 billion from his transportation businesses in the fight against global warming and now says he can’t meet that promise) or want a quick end-run around the problem via geoengineering (e.g., Gates is a key investor in the development of the technology geoengineering will require). Next, Klein gives an extended description of a meeting of the Royal Society, Britain’s prestigious academy of science, where she listens to scientists as they debate the merits of geoengineering. She concludes that geoengineering is an example of how climate change could be exploited by shock doctors if “in the desperation of a true crisis all kinds of sensible opposition melt away and all manner of high-risk behaviors seem temporarily acceptable.”

Klein frequently says that people should not have to choose between poverty and pollution, and in the third section of the book, “Starting Anyway,” she gives many concrete examples of struggles that address both economic and environmental justice. This section is the heart and soul of the book, and this is where you can read about movements which receive little attention from the mainstream media, as well as solutions that come from the grassroots. Here are a few examples:

• Klein describes a 2010 visit to the Northern Cheyenne Reservation where she witnesses the high unemployment (up to 62%) that forces people to choose between the health of their traditional lands and the offers of jobs and social programs from coal mining companies like Arch and Peabody. Then she describes going back in 2011 and watching Lakota (Sioux) entrepreneur Henry Red Cloud teach a group of Northern Cheyenne to install solar heaters as part of a program which cuts heating costs and creates jobs. Red Cloud says solar also fits more harmoniously with Native peoples’ way of life because renewables “demand that we adapt ourselves to the rhythms of natural systems.”

• She cites as an example of resistance to extractive industries the city of Richmond, California, where Chevron has a huge refinery and where local residents have experienced many health and safety problems as a result of that refinery. Klein describes Richmond as “[p]redominantly African American and Latino,… a rough-edged, working-class pocket amidst the relentless tech-fuelled gentrification of the Bay Area,” and she says that in 2009 community members successfully blocked Chevron’s plan to expand its refinery so it could process heavier crudes, such as the bitumen from the tar sands. Klein also cites the solar co-ops employing growing numbers of workers in Richmond, “who might otherwise see no option besides the Chevron refinery.” [News update: Since Klein’s book was published, voters in Richmond rejected Chevron’s attempt to influence the local election, even though the oil giant spent more than $3 million on a slate of pro-Chevron candidates. According to one estimate, this failed effort cost Chevron $72 per voter.]

• She discusses the example of Yasuní National Park in Ecuador, which sits on 850 million barrels of crude oil worth $7 billion. In 2006 the environmental group Acción Ecológica put forward a proposal that the international community compensate Ecuador for not drilling in Yasuní, and in 2007 Rafael Correa, the President of Ecuador, championed that proposal. But contributions from the developed world did not arrive, and in 2013 Correa announced he would allow drilling. Correa’s decision, according to Klein, “…opened a new Blockadia front: protesters opposing drilling have already faced arrests and rubber bullets and, in the absence of a political solution, Indigenous groups are likely to resist extraction with their bodies.” (Klein defines Blockadia as “a roving transnational conflict zone that is cropping up with increasing frequency and intensity wherever extractive projects are attempting to dig and drill…”)

While I was writing this review, a friend asked me what Klein has to say about how third world countries can “move toward effective and more sustainable development without furthering global warming and [without becoming] victims of efforts to address climate change.” I would say that this is one of Klein’s most important concerns, though her specific point of view on development can be gleaned from the following quote from a chapter called “Beyond Extractivism”: “Huge hydrodams in Brazil, highways through sensitive areas in Bolivia, and oil drilling in the Ecuadorian Amazon have all become internal flashpoints. Yes, the wealth is better distributed, particularly among the urban poor, but outside the cities, the ways of life of Indigenous peoples and peasants are still being endangered without their consent, and they are still being made landless by ecosystem destruction. What is needed, writes Bolivian environmentalist Patricia Molina, is a new definition of development, ‘so that the goal is the elimination of poverty, and not of the poor.’”

Klein often returns to the argument laid out by Bolivia’s climate negotiator, Angélica Navarro Llano, in Geneva in 2009, which Klein says helped her see how climate change “could be the catalyst to attack inequality at its core…” Climate change results from cumulative emissions over 200 years, and the countries that have been powering economic development with fossil fuels since the Industrial Revolution have “done far more to cause temperatures to rise than those that just got in on the globalization game in the last couple of decades.” Therefore, the notion of climate justice implies that “…since the entire world would reap the benefits of keeping… carbon  in the ground…, it is unfair to expect Ecuador, as a poor country whose people had contributed little to the climate crisis, to shoulder the economic burden for giving up those petrodollars. Instead, that burden should be shared between Ecuador and the highly industrialized countries most responsible for the atmospheric buildup of CO2.” How to accomplish this goal, since it will not come easily from governments or corporations, is the business of activists, which is why Klein gives serious attention to struggles and solutions from around the world. It’s why Klein spends so much time in This Changes Everything addressing the “shifting geography of protest” from the point of view of climate justice.

If you’re looking for a book on the science behind climate change or on ways that capitalism can be defeated, This Changes Everything will not really satisfy. But if you are planning to make a contribution to the movement for climate justice, Klein’s book is a powerful call to action.

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