This Changes Everything
Review of the book by Naomi Klein
It took me a long time to read Naomi Klein’s latest book, published in 2014. Basically, a lot of the material was so depressing that I could only take in so much at a time, and yet it was also deeply encouraging. Naomi Kline has been a leading writer and activist on climate change and the problems of capitalism for many years, and this book shines light in all the dark places she has come across, and that is a lot of places.
Here we see close up the waters of the gulf and Mississippi delta degraded by the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster; we follow the pipeline, fracking and tar oil battles and spills across the US and Canada; we witness the horrific social and environmental degradation and corruption in the Niger delta, and so on and on… We see how democratic politics has been undermined across the world by the corporate interests intent on continuing this plunder.
Why has climate change “never received the crisis treatment from our leaders, despite the fact that it carries the risk of destroying lives on a vastly greater scale than collapsed banks or collapsed buildings”?
Klein’s diagnosis is clear:
“A destabilized climate is the cost of deregulated, global capitalism, its unintended, yet unavoidable consequence…”
Essentially she suggests that the neoliberal consensus with its three pillars — privatization of the public sphere, deregulation of the corporate sector, and the lowering of taxes, paid for with cuts to public spending — is incompatible with the actions necessary to bring emissions to safe levels. Corporate interests have systematically exploited this situation, funding the movement of climate change denial and ramming through policies that enrich a small elite. The situation has also been the excuse for crackdowns on civil liberties and human rights violations.
Politicians and regulators have not been up to the job, even “systematically failing to conduct basic research, and silencing experts who are properly tasked to investigate health and environmental concerns”, so that they can suggest that all is well with the oil industry. “The failure of our political leaders to even attempt to ensure a safe future for us represents a crisis of legitimacy of almost unfathomable proportions.”
At some point Klein became aware that what suffered most from chemical overload in the environment was the foetus and the young, and the worst effects of disasters such as Deepwater Horizon may be felt many years later because it was the young fauna that were most affected. There are moving parallels in the book with her own experiences of failing and then succeeding in having her own child.
“More than three quarters of the mass-produced chemicals in the United States have never been tested for their impacts on fetuses or children… it was only once humans came up with the lethal concept of the earth as an inert machine and man its engineer, that some began to forget the duty to protect and promote the natural cycles of regeneration on which we all depend.”
But there are also signs of hope. Klein describes how indigenous movements have marshalled across North America and elsewhere to successfully resist the depradation of their lands. She invents the concept of Blockadia to describe these bottom-up initiatives to block further extraction of fossil fuels.
“What is clear is that fighting a giant extractive industry on your own can seem impossible, especially in a remote, sparsely populated location. But being part of a continent-wide, even global, movement that has the industry surrounded is a very different story… Blockadia is turning the tables, insisting that it is up to industry to prove that its methods are safe…”
Fossil fuels have always required what Klein calls ‘sacrifice zones’, such as the Niger delta or the Alberta tar sands, where the unfortunate inhabitants of particular areas are sacrificed so that others may have their fuels. Most people, including the middle classes, were not affected.
But “… the extractive industries have broken that unspoken bargain… the sacrifice zones have gotten a great deal larger, swallowing ever more territory and putting many people who thought they were safe at risk… Fracking, tar sands pipelines, coal trains, and export terminals are being proposed in many parts of the world where a clear majority of the population has made its opposition unmistakable…”
This is mobilising people as never before, and governments need to respond.
“… if governments are unwilling to live up to their international (and domestic) responsibilities, then movements of people have to step into that leadership vacuum and find ways to change the power equation.”
Klein finds positive evidence in the liberation movements of the past few centuries. The situation on fossil fuels is very similar to that before slavery was abolished – the vested financial interests were eventually forced to change, or bought off.
A similar level of change was achieved by the labor movement in the aftermath of the Great Depression— the massive wave of unionization that forced owners to share more wealth with their workers, and helped create a context for social programs like Social Security and unemployment insurance [this is a US perspective].
There is ‘unfinished business’ with most of the powerful liberation movements of the past two centuries, from civil rights to feminism to indigenous sovereignty, which are very much related to the climate movement.
Klein suggests that “… climate change can be the force— the grand push— that will bring together all of these still living movements.”
Finally, we are reminded that humankind cannot win the battle against nature that it has appeared to be engaged in. The solutions must involve working in sympathy with nature:
“The notion that we could separate ourselves from nature, that we did not need to be in perpetual partnership with the earth around us, is, after all, a relatively new concept, even in the West.”
At the end of the day, “Mother Nature bats last.”
Should you read it?
This book is certainly not easy to read, and you may not agree with some of Klein’s analysis – many will see her anti-corporate position as too extreme. But you will be better prepared for the battles to come – a generational change in values is no easy task.