Changing everything?

Over the last week I’ve been reading Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything. It has been published now, one presumes, to link in with the major climate summit to be held in New York next Tuesday at which Ban Ki-Moon hopes various nations will set out bold new policy proposals which can form part of a binding climate treaty at the Nov/Dec 2015 Paris conference. Preceding that, and perhaps more relevant to Klein’s argument, are the mass Climate Marches round the world that happened this weekend.

Klein’s book is the fruit of five years’ research, travel and interview with a wide variety of those interested in the climate, ranging from mainstream climate scientists and activists through numerous concerned groups to time spent with the climate-denial Heartland Institute. From this, she has come to various significant conclusions:

Firstly, choosing to do nothing (and she sees it as an active choice) will transform our world, largely for the worse:

We know that if we continue on our current path of allowing emissions to rise year after year, climate change will change everything about our world. Major cities will very likely drown, ancient cultures will be swallowed by the seas, and there is a very high chance that our children will spend a great deal of their lives fleeing and recovering from vicious storms and extreme droughts.

In response to this, we need to make radical changes to the way we live, and urgently. And unfortunately, on top of all the many other reasons climate change action is difficult, the crisis has come at an unusually bad time: Klein notes that the period around 1990 when climate change first became widely known was also the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall and Soviet-style communism, when neo-liberal capitalism won out as the dominant politico-economic ideology, so much so that anything else became inconceivable. It was also a period of increased free trade, for instance seeing the formation of NAFTA and the takeoff of globalisation.

This style of capitalism Klein sees as incompatible with any form of environmentalism. She defines its relationship with both planet and people as “extractivism”, which

 … is a nonreciprocal, dominance-based relationship with the earth, one purely of taking. It is the opposite of stewardship, which involves taking but also taking care that regeneration and future life continue. Extractivism is the mentality of the mountaintop remover and the old-growth clear-cutter. It is the reduction of life into objects for the use of others, giving them no integrity or value of their own–turning living complex ecosystems into “natural resources,” mountains into “overburden” (as the mining industry terms the forests, rocks, and streams that get in the way of its bulldozers). It is also the reduction of human beings either into labor to be brutally extracted, pushed beyond limits, or, alternatively, into social burden, problems to be locked out at borders and locked away in prisons…

This isn’t totally a product of the last twenty-five years: both industrialisation and colonialism depended on similar principles, but both its scale and the severity of its effects have expanded massively recently.

Action on climate change therefore cannot be separated from action to reform our socio-economic system, and here the climate denialists have a point when they claim global warming is “anti-American” or takes away our freedom. The right wing thought they could enjoy their victory over all other forms of economics, but their window of opportunity has proved to be very small indeed.

[They have a] deep fear that if the free market system really has set in motion physical and chemical processes that, if allowed to continue unchecked, threaten large parts of humanity at an existential level, then their entire crusade to morally redeem capitalism has been for naught. With stakes like these, clearly greed is not so very good after all. And that is what is behind the abrupt rise in climate change denial among hardcore conservatives: they have come to understand that as soon as they admit that climate change is real, they will lose the central ideological battle of our time–whether we need to plan and manage our societies to reflect our goals and values, or whether that task can be left to the magic of the market.

In fact, despite their pseudo-scientific bluster, climate denialists probably have a better handle on the situation than many “moderate” climate groups who are trying, but generally failing, to change things through gradual action inside the system. That strategy worked well in the more environment-friendly times of the 1960s and 1970s (between Silent Spring and Ronald Reagan) but not since. Amongst other problems, it fell foul of the principle that humans do not, and cannot, take complete control of Planet Earth: the doctrine of “dominion”.

There is extensive critique of many environmental organisations and individuals for both their rhetoric and relationships. Some are funded directly or indirectly by fossil fuel companies and other polluters. Others either water down or over-palatise their message:

Moreover, in the name of reaching across the aisle, green groups are constantly “reframing” climate action so that it is about pretty much anything other than preventing catastrophic warming to protect life on earth.

So what needs to happen? First, environmentalism needs to be linked to fundamental economic reform. We need to argue for an end to neo-liberalism, an end to unrestrained economic growth, and an end to extreme economic inequality. The last is needed both on moral grounds, including that people who have benefitted from long-term environmental pollution should pay for it, and also on the practical grounds that the poor have enough on their plate already and cannot be obliged to pay for their own climate adaptation too.

I agree with the point in general, and her criticism of some business leaders: an analysis of Richard Branson’s failure to keep up to his promises gets an entire chapter. However, I fear she seems blind  to the positive action at least some businesses are taking. Some positive notice of what small local businesses and those with more progressive outlooks are doing would be appreciated. And although multinationals are certainly not doing what they could, I’m not sure all their claims can be dismissed as greenwash. To take one example, a submission by over 300 big firms calling for a meaningful carbon price seems to have at least some merit! Klein argues we should push for whatever culture change we should get: I’d say that that applies equally inside the business world.

Secondly, we need to organise mass and local movements with the passion to want change but, importantly, a clear vision for what change is needed. Various case studies are included, but two are worth noting: both in continental Europe and the USA, local groups have succeeded in getting small-scale renewable electricity generation off the ground where large national or multinational companies have failed or night tried. Secondly are some partnerships between campaigners and indigenous peoples in North America. The latter have a far clearer sense of an appropriate relationship with their local environment, and often legal treaties giving them use of it (including clean water). Wider groups can assist with asserting these rights, and together – under Klein’s umbrella term of Blockadia – they have won some victories against fossil fuel extraction or transport.

It is this vision which Klein thinks should be taken wider. Most positive social transformations recently have been underpinned by a mass movement which is both willing to stand up against something wrong and provide a viable alternative – for instance the US Civil Rights Movement. Today we have several example of mass movements that have failed through lack of vision (notably Occupy), and plenty of thinkers who might be right but fail to recruit support from the masses.

Putting the two together can provide protest movements that not only oppose but provide “regenerative” solutions. And they need to be economically literate, while not purely (neoclassically) economic: they have to also assert the intrinsic value of life and our world.

Indeed a great deal of the work of deep social change involves having debates during which new stories can be told to replace the ones that have failed us. Because if we are to have any hope of making the kind of civilizational leap required of this fateful decade, we will need to start believing, once again, that humanity is not hopelessly selfish and greedy–the image ceaselessly sold to us by everything from reality shows to neoclassical economics.

Klein would no doubt approve of the climate marches this weekend as an attempt to establish and build this sort of mass movement. But I think she would see it as only part of the picture: we should not go home and think “job done” but both continue to push, and also discuss in our communities the kind of regenerative society we want to build.

It is here where a potential link can be made with religious involvement. Klein doesn’t mention faith groups, but there are some helpful parallels. At their best, religions bring about improved standards of life for all, and a “regenerative” approach to creation is what underlies the second creation ordinance to Adam: to “work and care for the garden” (Gen 2:15). And the principle of both opposing what is wrong and providing a new positive vision is one familiar to us from the prophetic literature.

As can hopefully be seen from the above, this is a helpful and inspiring book which sums up a wide field with some new insights I haven’t seen as clearly expressed elsewhere, notably her summary of the climate denial movement. With a few caveats, this book deserves the widespread notice it will no doubt receive on the back of Klein’s previous two well-known books. And I hope environmental movements will take the message they need to from it and be more successful in their transformative activities.


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