Book Review: This Should Change Us

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[To close out this American holiday weekend, we welcome our own columnist Rhyd Wildermuth to share a review of the book This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein.Tomorrow we return to our regular Wild Hunt schedule. ]

Review: This Changes Everything–Capitalism vs. The Climate,by Naomi Klein (Simon &Schuster, 2014, 566 pages)

Journalist and author Naomi Klein may be known to some of you through her previous works, including her creedal call against corporate branding No Logo and her ponderous and depressing book, The Shock Doctrine, which discusses the political games played by corporations and governments in order to ram through neo-Liberal, anti-democratic policies.

In This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, Klein has done something very few journalists, policy makers, or even environmentalists have been willing to do for the last few decades. She reconnects environmental devastation and the warming planet back to capitalism itself.

The last 25 years have seen, what started out as a critique, all the logics of profit taking, extraction, and private property become untethered from their foundations, and instead become an attempt to treat symptoms caused by destructive human behaviors, rather than the cause itself. Instead of demanding an end to economies based on greed, oil, and the destruction of people and land, environmentalism, at least as far as both the public consciousness and the major environmental NGO’s portray, is now about composting, recycling, and buying the right sort of shoe, car or light bulb, rather than about anything that might actually inconvenience the wealthy.

But why does addressing capitalism even matter? And why have the last two-and-a-half decades seen a shift from cause-based solutions to a symptomatic approach?

According to Klein, the answer’s simple. Connecting capitalism to climate change unveils an awful consequence. She writes:

The only kind of contraction our current system can manage is a brutal crashing, in which the most vulnerable will suffer most of all.

So we are left with a stark choice: allow climate disruption to change everything about our world, or change pretty much everything about our economy to avoid that fate. But we need to be very clear: because of our decades of collective denial, no gradual, incremental options are now available to us.

…By posing climate change as a battle between capitalism and the planet, I am not saying anything that we don’t already know. The battle is already under way, but right now capitalism is winning hands down. It wins every time the need for economic growth is used as an excuse for putting off climate action yet again, or for breaking emission reduction commitments already made. (p 21-22)

More “inconvenient” than Al Gore ever let on, the only way to stop this is not just to change our habits, but to radically alter the very system by which we live.

Our Leaders Have Betrayed Us

If capitalism is responsible for the behaviors which cause climate change, than climate deniers and right-wing ‘think tanks’ are technically correct in some of their estimations. Many of them repeatedly warn about the consequences of the environmental movements’ attacks on Capitalist economies. In one of her first chapters, Klein posits that much of the vitriol lobbed at environmentalists as being out to ‘destroy the American way of life’ are quite correct, or would be if the “Big Green” groups were honest about the problem.

But why haven’t they been? Naomi Klein devotes several chapters to the treachery of modern environmental groups, such as the Nature Conservancy (which drills for oil on some of its land in Texas) or the Environmental Defense Fund (which financed and pushed studies to cast doubt on the dangers of Hydraulic Fracturing, or “Fracking”).

Reading Klein’s journalistic extractions of such assimilation and collusions, which began in the 1980’s is quite difficult, but not because of her writing.  Rather, one wants to throw the book across the room repeatedly at these points; or, better yet, throw it at the ones who’ve taken so much money from the fossil fuel industry while telling individuals that they should switch their lights off more often.

Concurrent with the rise of neo-liberal, free-trade polices in the 1980’s and 90’s, particularly pushed by the Democratic Party in the United States (President Bill Clinton signed both NAFTA and the WTO treaty into law), major environmental groups shifted their tactics from urging less consumption and extraction to cheer-leading so-called “Green Capitalism.

Green Capitalism, Klein notes, shifted the responsibility from large polluters and the systems which favored them to individuals, advocating for personal consumption changes over systemic changes. She writes:

It would be one thing if, while individuals were being asked to voluntarily “green” the minutiae of their lives, the Big Green NGO’s had simultaneously gone after the big polluters, demanding they they match our individual small cuts in carbon emissions with large-scale, industry-wide reductions. And some did. But many of the most influential green groups did precisely the opposite. Not only did they help develop complex financial mechanisms to allow these corporations to keep emitting, they also actively campaigned to expand the market for one of the three main fossil fuels. (p.213)

No Longer Playing By the Rules of the Rich

But a large question remains: Why did the “Big Green NGO’s” betray us?

Klein’s answer is pretty clear–capitalism, and specifically the massive-scale implications of capitalism’s connection to climate change. Besides those with the most money are doing the most polluting. and “Big Green” gets its money from them.

In page after brutal page, Klein unknots each connection between climate change and our economic activities. While Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth, did much to raise awareness of the issues of human-caused climate change, it did little to address precisely how much of our human activities would need to change in order to stop the damage those activities have caused. The actual “inconvenience” of that truth is staggering, but only if one is heavily invested in keeping Capitalism around. Klein says:

Climate change pits what the planet needs to maintain stability against what our economic model needs to sustain itself.  But since that economic model is failing the vast majority of the people on the planet on multiple fronts, that might not be such a bad thing. (p. 155)

Climate justice and social justice are related, and she devotes an entire chapter to “exclusion zones,” or places of great poverty with little political power to resist, and the particularly heavy burden rising seas, droughts, floods, and stronger storms will have on the people who have contributed almost none of the carbon pollution which has caused this.  Addressing climate change also means addressing the capitalist system which favors small groups of rich people over the teeming masses of poor throughout the world. In essence, it’s a revolutionary moment and one for which even the U.S. government is preparing.

This is particularly where Klein’s book is most hopeful. She devotes 157 pages of the book to tracing what she, and others, have named Blockadia, defined as the distributed network of protests bringing together disparate groups to fight fossil fuel companies, developers, and corporate interests who are intent on pillaging the land under our feet. While it’s not immediately apparent that protests against austerity and the destruction of a sacred ancestral forest in Greece are related to, let’s say, blockades against the Keystone XL pipeline by the Cowboy Indian alliance in America, Klein threads those events together seamlessly.

For her, these interconnected resistance movements are linked not just by their shared enemy, but also by a determination to revive the spirit of direct democracy. Klein writes:

The process of taking on the corporate-state power nexus that underpins the extractive economy is leading a great many people to face up to the underlying democratic crisis that has allowed multinationals to be the authors of the laws under which they operate….It is this corroded state of our political systems–as fossilized as as the fuel at the center of these battles–that is fast turning Blockadia into a grassroots pro-democracy movement.

…And yet the most jarring part of the grassroots anti-extraction uprising has been the rude realization that most communities do appear to lack this power; that outside forces–a far-off central government, working hand-in-glove with transnational companies–are simply imposing enormous health and safety risks on residents, even when that means overturning local laws. (p. 361)

This loss of faith in inherited leadership structures, and the betrayal of the movement by Big Green and those political parties claiming to be on the side of the planet provides fertile soil for a radical populist movement – one that unites both “left” and “right” as well as a myriad of peoples across ethnic, cultural, and national borders.

Nature’s Revolt

But another loss of faith is necessary before such a movement can be effective and affective: the notion that technological fixes can be found to patch up past damage so that we can keep on polluting. Even as a Luddite myself, I was not prepared for some of this, particularly the horrific problems with geo-engineering, which is adding sulfur into the atmosphere to mimic a volcanic eruption, or seeding the ocean with chemicals to reflect light or bacteria to reduce acidification, as a way to cool the planet.

Cyril Mann, "Dark Satanic Mills" 1920.

Cyril Mann, “Dark Satanic Mills” 1925  [Public Domain]

Throughout her book, Klein dashes every single hope, even my own, that we might be able to stop the damage done without too radically changing the world. Not only are technologies like geo-engineering untested, they are largely funded by billionaires, such as Bill Gates in particular, and come with further political problems. Artificially cooling the earth will cause droughts in some of the already poorest places, and flooding in others, which leads to the potential of a cooler United States and Europe causing suffering elsewhere.

She builds a narrative of human technology any Pagan familiar with “disenchantment” will find quite familiar. Men in the enlightenment, bloated with the certainty they could transcend natural limits, developed theories and technologies which would help them do just that. Francis Bacon, the founder of Empiricism, spoke of conquering the Earth as if by rape; James Watts, the inventor of the coal-fired steam engine, spoke of humanity’s final liberation from Nature. These fathers of Modernity get particular attention. Klein writes:

..these are the tools and the logic that created the crisis geoengineering is attempting to solve–not just the coal-burning factories and colonial steam ships, but Bacon’s twisted vision of the Earth as a prone woman and Watt’s triumphalism at having found her “weak side.”  Given this, does it really make sense to behave as if, with big enough brains and powerful enough computers, humans can master and control the climate crisis just as humans have been imagining they could master the natural world since the dawn of industrialization–digging, damming, drilling, dyking? (p. 266)

Modern Myths and Ancient Struggles

In reading this book I was struck with the strange irony of attempting to explain to Pagans why they should read a book linking capitalism to the destruction of the Earth, as if this were a new theory.

But it wasn’t always like this. Both environmentalism and the peculiar forms of modern Paganism birthed in the 1700’s always made links between the destruction of the earth and the industrialization that comes along with capitalist arrangements of society. Early Naturalists, the European Romantics, and early modern-Druid societies could physically see the link between coal-powered factories, the soot and smog choking the town and cities, and the poisoning of their rivers. When one considers Willam Blake’s assessment of the new industrialization of the British countryside (“those dark satanic mills”) and the Luddite rebellion (with their mysterious patron god/leader “King Ludd”), it’s easy to find a Pagan, anti-capitalist environmentalism.

The 1960’s saw these connections converge again. Environmentalism again became a critique of capitalism, rather than the conservationist hobby of rich white men in the American west. At the same time, Paganism seemed to arise into public consciousness with the embrace of Wicca and other forms of Witchcraft, all oriented towards a reverence for the earth and distrust of those who would destroy it.

Profit-motive was destroying the forests and killing the birds through chemicals like DDT. This much was a given to an environmentalist. And because Paganism revered the earth, it was against the profit-taking that destroyed the earth. That is, Paganism was largely Environmentalist and critical of Capitalism.

So what happened? Klein has written a near perfect call to war from a deeply Pagan perspective. Her last chapter, particularly, reads like the poetic musings of a Druid or Shaman, and yet she is not a Pagan.

How came we to the position we’re in now, where I’m a writer trying to explain to Pagans why they should care about capitalism? Or why I’m reviewing a book written by a non-Pagan journalist whose words are soaked in the very Pagan understanding that we’ve abandoned?

I can’t help but wonder if Paganism has undergone the same shifts as the major environmental movements, abandoning its innate critique of capitalism’s divorce from nature in favor of begging for recognition from the powerful. Perhaps at some point we understood the awful, world-changing implications of our thoughts and practices, and opted instead of the nicer, more polite, and toothless manner of creating the world we see is possible.

I’m glad that in Naomi Klein’s book, a non-Pagan journalist has called us back to our beliefs.