I was one of the hundreds of thousands filling the streets of New York for the People’s Climate March, September 21, 2014. I was there with a dozen students from my freshman composition course, in which we are reading and writing about climate change and what we can do about it. One thing they wanted to do was march – something only a couple of these eighteen-year-olds had done before. So I procured a university van, found sleeping space at a Quaker Meeting House, and drove us to the Big Apple. (Another fifty Pitt students chartered a bus to get there.) In the van we had Naomi Klein’s new book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, which is the central text for our course, though I can’t claim it got much attention during the trip: the students spent more time chatting, napping, texting, DJ-ing, and singing along than studying.
Klein is far from alone in pointing out that unless we transition rapidly from reliance on fossil fuels to renewable energy, our planet and our lives are imperiled by atmospheric warming, ice melting, oceans acidifying and rising, resource depletion, and extreme weather events resulting in floods, fires, and droughts. Scientists, writers, and actors from James Hansen to Bill McKibben to Leonardo DiCaprio have made this case with conviction. We also know, as Klein carefully explains, that it is technically and economically feasible to supply 100% of the world’s energy needs with water, wind, and solar power by 2030, if we had the necessary political will and collective vision to mitigate carbon emissions and avert catastrophe.
What is new and powerful in Klein’s project is indicated in its subtitle, Capitalism vs the Climate. She unfolds the essential contradiction between capitalism’s imperative for ever-increasing extraction of resources and consumption of goods and the climate’s requirement that we give up digging, drilling, and burning, and learn to live on less. This entails not just alternative energy but a deep ideological and structural change, away from the dominant “free market fundamentalism” of our era. This is, as she puts it, “the revolutionary power of climate change.”
In making this case, Klein addresses the “bad timing” whereby the climate crisis — which requires a collective response from an informed public and national governments — has emerged in the era when ascendant neoliberalism has undone government regulation, privatized the public sphere, promoted personal greed, subverted democratic processes, and, for good measure, mounted a massive disinformation campaign about the effects of globalized capitalism on the climate. She argues for the role of government in “planning and banning,” and in reviving public ownership and local power generation. But she also makes clear that moving “beyond extractivism” – an economic system based on removing ever more raw materials from the earth – to a system based on stewardship and shared resources requires not just policy and legal changes but “confronting the climate denier within”: our overindulgence in the goods capitalism delivers. We need to accept and promote “degrowth.”
While “degrowth” is the prescription for affluent industrialized nations, vast swaths of the world’s population already have less of the food, clean water, and energy they need to live on. Many of the poorest nations are also on the front lines of the climate catastrophe, having contributed least to the carbon emissions that are causing it. “Climate justice,” then, implies class justice: supporting efforts at development, especially in the global South, that meet local needs sustainably and equitably, rather than following the “pollute first / clean up later” model of the industrialized North (and most recently China) with its severe inequalities in wealth and life-chances. Klein argues that the prime culprits in overheating the planet should make payments, generated through carbon taxes and other redistributive schemes, to the poorer nations most affected. Payments to keep their carbon in the ground could be invested locally in sustainable agriculture and renewable energy and in preparing for the climate disasters headed their way. In all of these initiatives “the overriding principle must be to address the twin crises of inequality and climate change at the same time.”
I hope This Changes Everything takes its place alongside Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-first Century as one of the key books of the decade, since it illuminates the other side of the capitalist coin brilliantly – not only its generation of ever-increasing extremes of wealth and poverty, but also its depletion of the earth’s “carrying capacity” for human and all other species. Reading her provides a powerful experience of connecting the dots, getting the full picture of what we’re up against and the full scope of the necessary and possible transformation.
In making her case for this [re]evolutionary transition, Klein critiques the false hope represented by several “green” trends: the alliance of some environmental groups with corporations to get them to change their ways, the intervention of green billionaires whose bottom line always trumps their environmental leanings, and delusional geoengineering schemes for seeding the oceans, blocking the sun, and such. Real hope comes from the resistance of front-line peoples across the transnational climate conflict zone she calls “Blockadia,” as well as from from divest-and-invest campaigns, and the many alternative economic and energy projects she outlines, from Nigeria to Bolivia to Germany to the tribal lands of US and Canadian indigenous people.
Her account of these campaigns and initiatives is a pleasure to read. Klein tells stories and explains complex issues with the lucidity of the best non-fiction authors, combined with the passion of a muckraking journalist. She is an impeccable researcher, but she is willing to be a visionary also, claiming the right to “dream in public” – as she shows many other people doing in the book. For instance, in oil-soaked Louisiana where coastline is rapidly succumbing to ocean rise, Anne Rolfes, founder of the environmental justice Louisiana Bucket Brigade, says: “There once was an institution in this part of the world that had economic, social, political control, and people thought it couldn’t be beat. But slavery was brought down, and the oil industry can be, too.”
Klein argues ultimately that it will take a mass social movement to achieve the twin goals of averting climate catastrophe and living on the planet more equitably. She concludes that Abolitionism provides the closest model for the struggle we need to be about, precisely because of the depth and scope of the economic, social, and political changes required and the intense resistance to be expected from those with most to lose. The ideology of extractivism relies on a relationship of ownership and exploitation of the earth and its resources which mirrors slavery’s relationship to the subjugated human body and its labor. I don’t know how many of us chanting in the streets of New York — “What do we want? Climate Justice! When do we want it? Now!” — quite grasped that we are engaged in what Klein calls the “unfinished business of liberation.”
But my students, carrying their homemade signs and surrounded by a mass of wildly diverse peers on the march, sensed they were part of something powerful and hopeful. Here’s a sampling of their written comments about it:
- “While we were marching with 311,000 other people through the streets of NYC, our collective power seemed immense.”
- “I have never seen such unity, passion, and energy in such a quantity.”
- “People from all over the world came together to fight for what they love, for what we all have in common.”
- “The People’s Climate March is only the beginning in my eyes. If change does not happen soon, the people of this Earth will continue to speak out and take action.”
In that struggle, I’m glad they have a book that provides the critical analysis and the models of change we need in this “decade zero” for the climate.