Book Review: "This Changes Everything"

Book cover for This Changes Everything.

Green Community Connections will host a discussion of this book at 7 p.m. Wednesday, August 12, at the Oak Park Public Library. This group is already at capacity, but if you are interested in being on the waiting list or attending another book discussion for this book, please RSVP here.

By David Holmquist

It has been nearly a year since the publication of Naomi Klein’s best-selling book “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate”. It was released on September 16, 2014, just five days before the People’s Climate March in New York City, at which a gathering of 400,000 people demonstrated their frustration over the lack of action on climate change mitigation. The backdrop was a climate summit called by United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon for September 23, at which the heads of state or government from over 100 countries were to convene in New York to discuss proposed commitments to emissions reductions and to climate finance through the UN Green Climate Fund. These were to form the basis of an “ambitious and universal climate agreement” to be finalized at the 21st Conference of the Parties (COP21) in Paris in December of 2015.

The concern that had brought out that huge crowd in New York had been haunting Ms. Klein for a number of years, particularly since the birth of her son, Toma, in 2012. It had prompted her to ask, in the opening pages of her book, “… what is wrong with us? What is really preventing us from putting out the fire that is threatening to burn down our collective house?” She went on to pose a possible answer that forms the central premise of the book:

I think the answer is far more simple than many have led us to believe: we have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been trying to find a way out of this crisis. We are stuck because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe—and would benefit the vast majority—are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets.

Klein then weaves an incredibly rich story around the climate change issue, covering the inner dynamics of climate denialism, the corrupting influence of money on policymaking, the sunlight of social movements, the evolution of the “big green” environmental NGOs, the economics of resource extraction, the small but crucial victories of “Blockadia” and the disruptive politics of civil disobedience and divestment, the power of renewable energy and the folly of climate engineering, the courage and wisdom of indigenous cultures, the sheer beauty of never-ordinary people striving for health, balance and dignity. Throughout the book the conflict between capitalism and the climate is presented as both a deeply rooted social and political problem and as a momentous opportunity for positive transformation and emancipation.

The core argument of “This Changes Everything” revolves around the convergence of the climate change issue with a history that Klein analyzed in her previous book, “The Shock Doctrine” (2007). In 1988, the climate scientist James Hansen, then head of NASA’s Goddard Space Center, told a Congressional committee that he was confident that carbon dioxide emissions were directly linked to atmospheric warming, and that they posed a threat requiring immediate action. The issue was, for a moment, front and center in the media and in Congress. That same year the United States and Canada signed a free trade agreement which was to evolve into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). This marked the beginning of the legal framework that enabled the deregulatory agenda of neoliberal globalization (a framework that now appears to be on its way to being strengthened and broadened by way of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership). In 1989 the Berlin Wall came down, and Anglo-American capitalism declared itself triumphant. The result has been a massive concentration of capital in monopoly enterprises, particularly the fossil fuel companies.

So just when it became apparent that we needed to reign in greenhouse gas emissions, the idea of restricting the economy in any way became a complete non-starter. Klein contends that in the late 1980s we might have addressed the emissions problem with annual reductions of around two percent in the developing countries. Instead, in the wake of capital’s triumph, global emissions have increased by over 60 percent in the years since 1990.North America has embarked on a “fossil fuel frenzy.” We need to be making large investments in infrastructure, and we’re investing in the wrong places. We’re proposing pipelines and export terminals for coal and natural gas when we need to be building renewable energy infrastructure. So now, the solutions are all radical. Klein leans heavily on the arguments of climate scientist Kevin Anderson of Britain’s Tyndall Center for Climate Change Research, who says that the developing countries must immediately begin to reduce emissions by 8-10 percent per year in order to avoid catastrophic climate change. To do so, we must reduce our consumption and redefine what we consider economic success, that is, we must change everything.

Global climate justice is also a major theme of “This Changes Everything.” Klein attributes her journalistic turn toward the issue of climate change to a meeting she had in 2009 with the Bolivian ambassador to the World Trade Organization, Angélica Navarro Llanos, who spoke to her about “climate debt,” drawing a connection between the history of Western industrialization and colonialism and the current uneven state of development between the developed and developing countries. Climate change will complicate any effort to overcome this legacy and genuinely lift huge numbers of people from poverty. On the other hand, Klein realized, the funding of mitigation and resilience strategies could become the catalyst for providing basic services—such as clean water, sanitation and renewable electricity—to the developing world. This goes hand-in-hand with the strategic opportunity it affords us in the developed world to reclaim our political systems from corporate domination, revive local economies, revitalize public infrastructure, and replace our industrialized food systems.

If these ideas sound familiar, it may be because you’ve been hearing them in the recent public discussion of Pope Francis’ encyclical On Care for Our Common Home, Laudato Si’. There is a striking alignment between the substance of these two critiques, particularly regarding the excesses of consumer-driven financialized capitalism, the role of business and markets in climate policy, indigenous cultural sovereignty, and the responsibility of the developed world to pay the debt created by their past polluting practices. Ms. Klein gave a presentation in early July in the Vatican conference “People and Planet First.” She was invited by Cardinal Peter Turkson of Ghana, who has been designated by Pope Francis to lead the church’s encyclical outreach. In a recent interview, she talked about her initial reaction to the invitation. She said that she reminded them—twice—that she was a “secular Jewish feminist,” and asked if they were certain they wanted her to participate. They were, and she did.

"This Changes Everything" is much more than a book about climate change and social movements. It is a framework for understanding our recent past and the centuries-old historical process of industrial globalization, informed by a deep appreciation for the human need to be adapted to place and to nature. Fulfilling that need requires “… a humility that is the antithesis of damming a river, blasting bedrock for gas, or harnessing the power of the atom.” This is the sensibility that will save the planet.