Monday, October 13, 2014

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books 

“THIS CHANGES EVERYTHING – Capitalism vs. the Climate” by Naomi Klein (Penguin/ Allen Lane, $NZ37)

            The essential argument of Canadian journalist Naomi Klein’s latest hefty volume is very simple.
Naomi Klein tells us that evidence for the human impact upon climate change is overwhelming, that climate change is catastrophic and will have drastic effects on the nature of human life on this planet, and that only concerted, world-wide, cross-national, collectivist and governmental action will halt or reverse current climate trends and put the planet back on the path of habitability.
But, says Naomi Klein, the current economic system is totally opposed to concerted, world-wide, cross-national, collectivist and governmental action. The unregulated capitalism of free trade agreements, “globalisation”, privatisation, deregulation and corporatism is diametrically opposed to both the public interest of collectivist action and the larger powers that governments would need to carry through necessary eco-friendly changes. Ever since the collapse of Communism, neoliberal ideologues have triumphed with the notion that the “only alternative” to their preferred free market globalisation is extreme left-wing tyranny. Therefore any attempts to genuinely regulate the harmful use of fossil fuels are decried as a limitation on democratic freedoms and an insidious plot by the Hard Left. Green is the new Red and those who call for governmental intervention to restore the environment are just a new breed of Stalinists trying to inflate the state’s powers.
The subtitle to This Changes Everything is Capitalism vs. the Climate, which should be self-explanatory.
Klein divides her long volume (466 pages of text before 100 pages of endnotes and index) into three long sections.
Part One, “Bad Timing”, sets out to show how the triumph of neoliberalism came at just the wrong time, for it was exactly the moment when the threat of anthropogenic climate change and global warming, driven by the use of fossil fuels, was becoming most evident. Prior to the collapse of Soviet Communism, Western liberal and capitalist democracies were quite prepared to take the type of governmental action that solved social problems. With the neoliberal brand of capitalism triumphing, however, any interventions in “the market” were shunned and therefore any attempts to regulate extractive industries in the cause of environmental stability became impossible. After pointing out that as recently as the 1970s, Richard Nixon was willing to introduce wage and price controls, she continues:
 But by the 1980s, the battle of ideas waged out of the same Washington think tanks that now deny climate change had successfully managed to equate the very idea of industrial planning with Stalin’s five-year plans. Real capitalists don’t plan, these ideological warriors insisted – they unleash the power of the profit motive and let the market, in its infinite wisdom, create the best possible society for all.” (p.125)
In this first section, Naomi Klein also chronicles the negative effects of free trade deals, whereby multinational corporations are able to prevent local communities from regulating their own industries or acting in the interests of their own environment. She discusses the sham of “carbon credits”, by which global carbon emissions are not one wit lessened, but entrepreneurs are able to make big money by shuffling “credits” for them around the world. And she notes how many think tanks, which claim to have scientific evidence to deny climate change, are in fact bankrolled by the oil or natural gas industries.
Part Two, “Magical Thinking”, deals with what Klein sees as the illusory “cures” for the world’s environmental crisis – the ones that lead nowhere. First, there is the problem of what she calls “Big Green” – those environmental agencies and pressure groups who thought that they could woo big business off global pollution by doing deals with, and making concessions to, extractive industries in the name of “partnership” and peaceful progress. In every instance, argues Klein, this simply has not worked. Corporations enjoy using conservation-friendly images for public relations, but never concede their prime purpose of making a profit. When profit-making clashes with environmental projects, it is the environmental projects that are ditched. Klein gives a long litany of “Big Green” groups that have unwittingly ended up as drumbeaters for further drilling, fracking and emissions rather than less. Second, there is the delusion that some friendly billionaire, who makes the right ecological noises, will bankroll a real environmental movement. Somebody like Bill Gates or Richard Branson. But again, this always leads to no more than photo opportunities and broken promises. Klein speaks of supposedly “green” billionaires like Branson, Gates and T. Boone Pickens who “put a firewall between mouth and money” (p.236). Third, there is the delusion of “eco-engineering” – the notion that climate change can be halted or reversed by new technologies – something to suck the carbon out of the atmosphere, for example, or to turn down the heat of the sun. But this delusion serves only to give extractive industries a pretext to continue with business as usual, and as yet no planet-saving technology either exists or is on track to be invented.
Says Klein “If geoengineering has anything going for it, it is that it slots perfectly into our most hackneyed cultural narrative, the one in which so many of us have been indoctrinated by organised religion and the rest of us have absorbed from pretty much every Hollywood action movie ever made. It’s the one that tells us that, at the very last minute, some of us (the ones that matter) are going to be saved. And since our secular religion is technology, it won’t be God that saves us but Bill Gates and his gang of super-geniuses at Intellectual Ventures. We hear versions of this narrative every time a commercial comes on about how coal is on the verge of becoming ‘clean’, about how the carbon produced by the tar sands will soon be sucked out of the air and buried deep underground, and now, about how the mighty sun will be turned down as if it were nothing more than a chandelier on a dimmer. And if one of the current batch of schemes doesn’t work, the same story tells us that something else will surely arrive in the nick of time. We are, after all, the super-species, the chosen ones, the God Species. We will triumph in the end because triumphing is what we do.” (p.289)
Finally, in Part Three, “Starting Anyway”, Naomi Klein champions what she calls “Blockadia” – local initiatives to directly confront, blockade and halt drilling, fracking, pipelines and all the other paraphernalia and activities of extractive industries. She also champions concerted pressure on governments to dis-invest in extractive industries. Much of this third section is taken up with her praise for indigenous peoples who have a more symbiotic relationship with nature than industrialised economies have. It also becomes very personal when, in the second-to-last chapter, she talks about her infertility and struggles to conceive a child without miscarriage, and how eventually she came to see the promotion of life itself as being threatened by climate change. That this third section is called “Starting Anyway” signals that she knows the solutions she proposes are incomplete ones. There will, she believes, be no reprieve for our climate until concerted government action is taken, and until the so-called developed world gets over its culture of crass consumerism, learns to live without unnecessary luxuries and coexists in harmony with the Earth.
Wittily, she has already signalled this theme much earlier in the book where, ironically, she attributes to the climate-change-denial lobby at least some intelligence. She writes:
The free market capitalism of the last three decades has put the emphasis particularly on consumption and trade. But as we remake our economies to stay within our global carbon budget, we need to see less consumption (except among the poor), less trade (as we relocalise our economies), and less private investment in producing for excessive consumption. These reductions would be offset by increased government spending, and increased public and private investment in in the infrastructure and alternatives needed to reduce our emissions to zero. Implicit in all this is a great deal more redistribution, so that more of us can live comfortably within the planet’s capacity.
Which is precisely why, when climate change deniers claim that global warming is a plot to redistribute wealth, it’s not (only) because they are paranoid. It’s also because they are paying attention.” (pp.92-93)
As you will have noted, I have so far not written a review of this book. I have merely served you a summary of it.
Most obviously This Changes Everything is a polemic. That I find myself agreeing with Naomi Klein more often than not does not blind me to the book’s weaknesses. First, and most obvious, it is far, far too long.  Klein indulges in a great deal of repetition and does tend to hammer home the same point by giving multiple examples in detail, where many of them could have been flagged more concisely. While I enjoyed her outbursts of wit, and her impassioned and committed tone, I did find it a real trudge to read it through to the end, especially as she had stated her overall thesis so clearly at the beginning. I also suspect that, given the book’s excessive length, it will be read mainly by those who are already committed to the cause she espouses, although doubtless this will not stop it from being a major bestseller as her earlier No Logo and The Shock Doctrine were.
So concerned is she to expose the sins of neoliberal capitalism (in which respect I have no quarrels with her), I think she does underplay the ecological sins of the old Hard Left, which was so intent on industrial development that it gave not a toss for the environment. True, at pp.176-182 she does have a section called “The Extractivist Left” in which she decries the ecological disasters created by Mao and Stalin and others, but this brief section, in my opinion, lets those regimes off too lightly.
Having said this, though, and despite the trudge that reading this book eventually became, it is a lively read and gave me many pieces of objective information that were news to me. It matters not at all that, as a Canadian, she devotes a disproportionate of her examples to Canadian cases of indigenous and local people opposing large violations of their environment (like exploitation of the Alberta tar pits). They will do as well as those of other nations.
I was interested in her early example of how capitalism readily adjusts to playing conservation games solely as a means of investment”
Communal forests around the world are being turned into privatised tree farms and preserves so their owners can collect something called ‘carbon credits’, a lucrative scam… There is a booming trade in ‘weather futures’, allowing companies and banks to gamble on changes in the weather as if deadly disasters were a game on a Vegas crap table (between 2005 and 2006 the weather derivatives market jumped nearly fivefold, from $9.7 billion to $42.5 billion). Global reinsurance companies are making billions in profits, in part by selling new kinds of protection schemes to developing countries that have done almost nothing to create the climate crisis, but whose infrastructure is intensely vulnerable to its impacts.” (pp.8-9)
I note her skewering of the notion that carbon emissions are lessening:
After a rare decline in 2009 due to the financial crisis, global emissions surged by a whopping 5.9 per cent in 2010 – the largest absolute increase since the Industrial Revolution.” (p.18)
I see her insistence that ecology and business are not a good mix, even if business seems to be actively concerned with producing alternative forms of energy:
It’s easy to mistake a thriving private market in green energy for a credible climate action plan, but, though related, they are not the same thing. It’s entirely possible to have a booming market in renewables [=renewable sources of energy], while a whole new generation of solar and wind entrepreneurs are growing very wealthy – and for our countries to still fall far short of lowering emissions in line with science in the brief time we have left. To be sure of hitting those tough targets, we need systems that are more reliable than boom-and-bust private markets.” [She then goes on to note that historically governments, rather than the private sectors, has done most to invest in renewable energy sources] (pp.100-101)
She is right to deploy irony when dealing with those who insist on little government control and regulation until such time as they themselves require state assistance:
During good times, it’s easy to deride ‘big government’ and talk about the inevitability of cutbacks. But during disasters, most everyone loses their free market religion and wants to know that the government has their backs. And if there is one thing we can be sure of, it’s that extreme weather events like Superstorm Sandy, Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, and the British floods – disasters that, combined, pummelled coastlines beyond recognition, ravaged millions of homes, and killed many thousands – are going to keep coming.” (p.107)
The extent to which corporations can attempt to bully nations because of free trade agreements is alarming:
As the anti-fossil fuel forces gain strength, extractive companies are beginning to fight back using a familiar tool: the investor protection provisions of free trade agreements.” [The example she gives is the major US company Lone Pine Resources threatening to sue Canada for $230 billion after the province of Quebec successfully banned fracking.] (p.358)
Finally, I endorse heartily her condemnation of the media culture of distraction and trivia, which has accustomed people to thinking only in the short term:
Climate change is… about the inescapable impacts of the actions of past generations not just on the present, but on generations in the future. These time frames are a language that has become foreign to a great many of us. Indeed Western culture has worked very hard to erase indigenous cosmologies that call on the past and the future to interrogate present-day actions, with long-dead ancestors always present, alongside the generations yet to come. In short, more bad timing. Just when we needed to slow down and notice the subtle changes in the natural world that are telling us that something is seriously amiss, we have sped up; just when we needed longer time horizons to see how the actions of our past [have an] impact [on] the prospects for our future, we entered into the never-ending feed of the perpetual now, slicing and dicing our attention spans as never before.” (p.159)
This is a lumpy, uneven, over-long and sometimes shrill book. But, if you can stay the course, it does the business it sets out to do.

New Zealand Footnote: For New Zealanders, it is very chastening to read (pp.161-169) Naomi Klain’s account of the recent history of Nauru as a microcosm for the dangers of extractivism.

Footnote on a footnote: I am sorry that Naomi Klein buries in a footnote (p.114) this piece if information: “The persistent positing of population control as a solution to climate change is a distraction and moral dead end. As [quoted] research makes clear, the most significant cause of rising emissions is not the reproductive behaviour of the poor but the consumer behaviours of the rich.” I wish she had given this argument more prominence.

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