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Extracting ourselves from the extractivist mindset

Demonstrators participating in the People's Climate March. 21 September 2014. South Bend Voice via Wikimedia Commons

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate
By Naomi Klein
Simon &Schuster
576 pages

[An abbreviated version of this review appeared online at the Texas Observer site. 


Naomi Klein has written a brave book that not only confronts the calamity of climate destabilization but also examines the deep roots of the crisis in the perverse logic of capitalism and the dehumanizing values of the “extractivist” high-energy/high-technology world.

Klein’s courage comes not in her reporting on the science and politics—there we get the exhaustive research and intellectual rigor that are her trademark—but in her simple plea that we not only think about all this and commit to act, but feel it as well. Taking climate change seriously is not only about data and analysis but about anguish, and Klein is refreshingly candid about her own struggles with the grief that’s inevitable when we face the truth.

On the political front, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate takes on conservative climate-change deniers and the liberal climate-change minimizers. While both groups will no doubt accuse her of being alarmist, my only quibble runs in the opposite direction—Klein is too upbeat in her assessment of what is possible. But reasonable people can disagree on these hunches about where we’re heading. We’ll get to that after the science, economics, and social critique that are so urgently needed, and in those matters we are in good hands with This Changes Everything. The book, and a companion film directed by Avi Lewis planned for a 2015 release, should set the framework for an honest conversation about climate and culture, ecology and economics.

Klein emerged as a major journalist and activist with 1999’s No Logo, a critique of corporate ideology in a globalized era of branding, and solidified that position in 2007 with The Shock Doctrine’s analysis of “disaster capitalism.” Dubbed a leader of the “new New Left” by the New Yorker in a 2008 profile, Klein has been sketching the argument of This Changes Everything in articles since then, and the book is worth the wait.

[Disclosure: I am a member of activist groups that have hosted talks by Klein in Austin three times, and I’m listed in the acknowledgements as one of the many people with whom she has had conversations on these subjects.]

Klein starts with a blunt statement of the problem: “[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.” (21) Human survival requires a new economics, which explains why climate-change denial is strongest among conservatives. Klein points out that while deniers are wrong about science, “the right is right” when it says that climate change demands a full frontal assault on free-market ideology. The minimizers—often liberals, usually self-professed environmentalists—dream of technological fixes and peddle policy changes that don’t upset the status quo, such as the carbon-market shell game of cap-and-trade. Klein’s reproach: Trying to protect existing lifestyles through existing economics “is either dishonest or delusional because a way of life based on the promise of infinite growth cannot be protected, least of all exported to every corner of the globe.” (58)

Klein argues that efforts to cope with global warming must challenge neoliberalism (the uber-capitalist ideology, dominant the past four decades, that emphasizes privatization, deregulation, and cuts to public spending to reduce taxes). One problem is that neoliberal international trade agreements can be used to block climate policy that is designed to encourage local renewables as an illegal“restraint on trade” (while elites ignore the ways nations subsidize fossil fuels). Even more crippling is that this economic system doesn’t have a language to talk about reducing consumption. Instead, we get blather about green-consuming, which naïvely assumes we can solve the climate problem through buying ever-more efficient gadgets. Steadily rising carbon emissions reveal these “market-friendly” approaches as a dead-end, leading Klein to advocate a steady-state economy with selective de-growth—“growing the caring economy, shrinking the careless one.” (93)

Klein argues that people will accept a lower-energy world and reductions in consumption, but only with guarantees of fairness in the distribution of cutbacks. The necessary investment in services and infrastructure will require higher taxes, which should follow the principle that the polluter pays—tax burdens falling heaviest on fossil-fuel corporations and others dependent on those fuels, such as the weapons and auto industries. These basic steps are easy to outline and could gain wide support if people believed governments would spend increased revenues wisely.

But market ideology complicates the picture. Klein points out that the financial crisis created an opening for coordinated planning when the U.S. government bailed out the banks and auto companies. But instead of demands for people- and planet-centered changes, Obama toed the neoliberal line—government shouldn’t tell corporations what to do. The task for the left, Klein argues, is to demonstrate that “the real solutions to the climate crisis are also our best hope of building a much more stable and equitable economic system, one that strengthens and transforms the public sphere, generates plentiful, dignified work, and radically reins in corporate greed.” (125)

While not arguing for state ownership, Klein realizes that neoliberals will object to any policies that involve overt government planning, favor alternative energy sources, and create a fair playing field. But we should demand government programs. Such as? Community-controlled renewable energy, industrial planning with local sourcing and job protection, support for worker cooperatives, decentralized farming based on agroecology rather than industrial models—all are good places to start, she suggests.

Governments also need to “remember how to say no,” Klein says, especially to energy projects such as the “terra-deforming” tar sands mines of Alberta, which climate scientist James Hansen has warned will mean “game over” for the climate. Beyond the insanity of the project on ecological grounds, there is something profane about this extraction of “extreme energy,” which Klein captures in a phrase: “The earth, skinned alive.” (139)

Impediments to serious climate policy are everywhere, of course. The fossil-fuel companies’ primary assets are fossil fuels, meaning those companies’fiduciary responsibility to shareholders “virtually guarantees the planet will cook.” Citing Bill McKibben’s widely circulated 2012 Rolling Stone article on the“terrifying new math” of climate change, Klein reminds us that the energy companies would have to forgo 80 percent of their proven reserves if we are to control runaway climate change, meaning “the very thing we must do to avert catastrophe—stop digging—is the very thing these companies cannot contemplate without initiating their own demise.” (148) The legalized bribery allowed by our campaign funding system gives those companies powerful tools to block political change.

Klein argues that the way to fight this is not by claiming “climate trumps all other issues” but building a movement that advocates “system change not climate change” and ties ecological sustainability to economic changes that benefit ordinary people. Along with specific projects, she suggests we go deeper and face our “profound disconnection from our surroundings and one another.” That problem didn’t begin in the Reagan administration but with the industrial revolution: “[T]he roots of the climate crisis date back to core civilizational myths on which post-Enlightenment Western culture is founded—myths about humanity’s duty to dominate a natural world that is believed to be at once limitless and entirely controllable.” (159) It’s time, she says, to go beyond extractivism—defined as “a nonreciprocal, dominance-based relationship with the earth, one of purely taking,” the opposite of stewardship. (169)

Don’t expect much help from mainstream environmental groups such as the Nature Conservancy. While all mainstream social movements face difficult decisions about what funding to accept, Klein critiques the Nature Conservancy for continuing to allow, and profit from, oil drilling on land it received as a gift from Mobil Oil, what became the Texas City Prairie Preserve near Galveston Bay. Hitting the top of the hypocrisy scale, the Nature Conservancy has even allowed drilling near the nesting area of the Attwater prairie chicken, which it was supposed to protect from extinction. Groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund also have taken the corporate-friendly road; by helping limit debate to technical fixes not system change, they divert attention from consumption and consumerism.

Klein also places little hope in the“enlightened billionaires” who have expressed interest in environmental protection, such as Warren Buffett, Tom Steyer, Bill Gates, or—heaven help us—T. Boone Pickens. Klein goes into detail about how Virgin Airlines’ Richard Branson has consistently gone back on promises to go green, while touting decidedly non-green ideas such as Virgin Galactic’s space tourism.

Could there be anything crazier than expecting rich people to save us? How about combining an adolescent yearning for superhero stories with a fundamentalist faith in technology, which gives us geo-engineering, the project of “dimming the sun.”

While not endorsed by most climate scientists,“Solar Radiation Management” is promoted by “the Geoclique,” which Klein describes as a group“crammed with overconfident men prone to complimenting each other on their fearsome brainpower.” (267) These fantastical projects, which would pump sulfate aerosols into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight back into space and slow warming, offer the kind of techno-fix that our culture finds so tempting, no matter what the risks. Klein points out the obvious lesson: “[I]f the danger of climate change is sufficiently grave and imminent for governments to be considering science-fiction solutions, isn’t it also grave and imminent enough for them to consider just plain science-based solutions.” (283)

After diagnosing the problem and rejecting the“solutions” that have failed, or promise to fail even more dramatically, Klein devotes the rest of the book to stories of more hopeful social justice/climate organizing. From Greek activists’ resistance to corporate plans for copper and gold mines in the Skouries forest to opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline in North America—with reminders of longstanding campaigns such as the Nigerians in Ogoniland working to save their land and culture from destructive drilling—Klein offers accounts of the roving transnational movement dubbed “Blockadia,”people demanding ecological responsibility and real democracy. Indigenous people are leading way, such as the Idle No More coalition in Canada, with poor and non-white communities everywhere defying stereotypes of what environmentalists look like, such as the organizing to resist expansion of a Chevron refinery in Richmond, CA.

These organizers understand what neoliberal ideologues can’t seem to fathom: The demands of the economy can be changed, but the natural world will not adjust to our needs. Each struggle is different, but around the world activists want to abandon “risk assessment” (which typically leads to elites risking the health of others) in favor of the “precautionary principle,” which demands evidence that a chemical or industrial process is safe before approval. Not all these campaigns have won, but Klein points out that this activism creates uncertainty, which investors don’t like, that can slow down the machine and buy more time.

The strength of this part of the book is Klein’s descriptions of small-scale projects, such as Henry Red Cloud’s work teaching solar energy systems to young people on the Pine Ridge reservation, one of those “transformative yeses” that has to come along with the many “nos” of the climate struggle. At the same time, she goes big-picture, explaining how “climate debt” reparations could rebalance global inequality, all part of “the most powerful level for change, in the Global South as in the Global North: the emergence of positive, practical, and concrete alternatives to dirty development that do not ask people to choose between higher living standards and toxic extraction.” (413)

This Changes Everything takes an interesting turn at this point, with Klein reflecting on her own fertility—miscarriages, a short-lived interaction with a fertility clinic, and the birth of a child—to explore the limits of our living world. The chapter is brave—any woman writing about such matters risks being dismissed as overly emotional (“See, it was in the end all about her ovaries and babies”). But Klein realizes that ignoring the intense emotions kicked up by the subject only contributes to the culture’s profound dissociation; the struggle for ecological sanity is intellectual, political, moral, and deeply emotional. Klein is not naïvely calling for the end of all extraction, but rather “the end of the extractivist mindset—of taking without caretaking, of treating land and people as resources to deplete rather than as complex entities with rights to a dignified existence based on renewal and regeneration.” (447) At both the personal and the planetary level, we renew and regenerate, or we die.

Klein argues that hope lies not with a new climate movement but with a coming together of all the living movements to pursue “the unfinished business of liberation,” (459) which will come into view when awareness and political engagement aren’t only for activists but become part of everyday life. Win or lose any specific campaign in any one place, we can create the friction that wears down the dominant culture’s denial. In five years working on the book, Klein reports that these movements are growing and new policies are pointing us in the right direction.

I’m with Klein’s analysis all the way, until the last half-dozen pages. “There is just enough time,” (459) she writes, and we have more than enough green technology and green plans. Things may not look bright now, but we have to be ready for the “moments when the impossible seems suddenly possible” to be “harnessed not only to denounce the world as it is, and build fleeting pockets of liberated space. It must be the catalyst to actually build the world that will keep us all safe. The stakes are simply too high, and time too short, to settle for anything less.” (466)

My reading of the previous 400-plus pages, and everything I know from my own study of the issues, tells me that there is not enough time to build the world that will keep us all safe, and that we have to start preparing to settle for something less. This isn’t a nihilistic argument for giving in or giving up, but rather a good-faith assessment of what has already been lost and the limits of what might be saved. The death spiral set in motion by fossil-fueled capitalism can’t magically be reversed, and the extractivist mindset is deeply set in not only the 1% but in most of the population of the developed world.

No one has magic powers of prediction, but my best guess is that a decent human future—if there is to be a future—will be in low-energy societies with a greatly reduced human population. Most of the infrastructure of modern life will disappear, given that no combination of renewable-energy technologies can come close to replacing the concentrated energy of fossil fuels, and that the collapse of our dense-energy-dependent infrastructure is proceeding far faster than the building of alternatives. Klein touches on the other problems, often related to climate, such as dramatic changes in the hydrological cycle, ongoing soil erosion and contamination, and declines in biodiversity. Put all that bad news together, and we are not facing simply a climate crisis or a set of definable environmental problems, but what my late friend Jim Koplin called “multiple, cascading ecological crises.”

Klein is right to advise that we should grieve, and get to work. The question is how we understand that work. We need to let go of the world as we know it, accept that what is coming will test our basic humanity, and commit to constructing a saving remnant. We have to confront not just conservative climate-change deniers and liberal minimizers, but also our own desire to believe that we can solve problems because we want to solve them.

The challenge as I see it: Can we continue to exhibit the best of human nature knowing that we will lose? Can we act with hope knowing there is no hope? It may be that in the coming decades, that will be the central test of our humanity, individually and collectively.

On questions that take us beyond evidence and reason—decisions we make based on imperfect knowledge in a complex world—reasonable people can disagree, and we should not fear those disagreements. Whatever a reader’s hunch on where we are heading, This Changes Everything clarifies the nature of the crises we face and Naomi Klein provides a model for how to face the crises honestly and productively.

Photo: Demonstrators participating in the People's Climate March 21 September 2014. South Bend Voice via Wikimedia Commons.

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