The Climate Movement Needs to Get Radical, but What Does that Mean?
A Delayed Review of This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate by Naomi Klein
It’s been over a year since Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate was published to generally favorable, and sometimes ecstatic, reviews. Why write about it at this late date? If the purpose of a book review is to advise readers whether they should add a new line to their to-read list, there’s not much point. But I think Klein’s book and its reception have important implications, most of them unpleasant, for the state of the left in the United States and deserves a close reading for that reason.
Klein takes many stands in this book (several on some pages), and it’s impossible to summarize all of them. As we’ll see, it’s even difficult to sum up her central argument, since she contradicts it liberally. In my view, the central thread of this book is not analytical (hypotheses about the causes and cures of the climate crisis) but associative and evangelical. By the first, I mean that she interprets the politics of climate change as a battle between two forces, one good and the other evil, and much of the book is devoted to sorting people into these two categories. (There is virtually no ambiguity or overlap between them.) By the second, I have in mind the notion that what divides the villains from the heroes is their respective consciousnesses. If the battle is still in doubt, it’s because true ideas have not yet triumphed over faulty and wicked ones, so politics is fundamentally a matter of conversion. To be blunt, readers who pick up Klein’s book hoping to learn something about the impact of capitalism on the climate crisis will be disappointed, since by “capitalism” Klein means capitalist thinking.
Specifically, the villains are first of all the fossil fuel corporations who peddle dirty energy and reap rapacious profits. Next in line are the political supporters of neoliberal capitalism, who deny or belittle the risk of climate change because of their attachments to free markets and a minimal public sphere. The rich and powerful everywhere are also enemies of saving the planet because they oppress the rest of us through their admiration for colonialism and capitalism, and all forms of oppression are ultimately connected. At the root of it all are two ideological enemies. One is the attachment to economic growth and the notion that increased consumption should be the goal of individuals and society. The other she calls “extractivism”, whose hazy definition I will discuss later, but appears to refer to attitudes that are disrespectful to nature.
The heroes she admires are those who have fought governments and fossil fuel companies on the front lines of Blockadia, a name she gives to the string of protests against mines, wells, pipelines, rail lines and the rest of the hydrocarbon infrastructure. At the forefront are indigenous people whose struggle for self-determination meshes with the fight against carbon energy. And on the idea front, there is a virtuous philosophy counterposed to the evils of growth, one that emphasizes localization, community, and caring for one another. Everything in the book follows from these fundamental ethical commitments.
No doubt the centrality of moral judgment goes a long way toward explaining the popularity of This Changes Everything. Movements need an ethical compass, and this book is never shy about who to blame for our problems and who to turn to for solutions. It captures the zeitgeist superbly, striking all the right political notes: anti-oppression, decentralization, spiritual attunement, equality. Readers are likely to love this book if they already share the values it’s built on. Whether moral positioning is a sufficient basis for a successful social movement is less clear, however.
War of Ideas
So if the problem is not capitalism but capitalist thinking, what exactly are those insidious thoughts? I counted four: adherence to the Washington Consensus (free markets, deregulation, privatization), “extractivism”, the pursuit of economic growth, and globalization. This is an inexact science, of course, and your list may be a little longer or shorter than mine, but these cover most of her particulars:
1. Washington Consensus. This is essentially the same as neoliberalism, the doctrine that dominated elite policy-making in Washington in the 1980s and 90s and was disseminated, often coercively, around the world. It’s a familiar target for Klein, since it was the subject of her previous book, The Shock Doctrine. She is right that its timing coincided with the emergence of climate change as a central economic and political issue, and also that climate denialism has been strongest in the Anglophone countries and among the political circles most associated with the free market faith. Two correctives are in order, however. First, significant action against carbon emissions is not at loggerheads with neoliberalism, since both carbon taxes and cap-and-trade programs are compatible with a free-market outlook; see for example Greg Mankiw’s writings on the need for a “Pigou Club”. Indeed, one of the central contradictions of Klein’s book is that she inveighs against markets at every opportunity, yet she heartily endorses a carbon tax, whose effect relies entirely on price changes. (But a carbon tax for Klein appears to be essentially a moral proposition, a way to express society’s condemnation of fossil fuel companies, not a practical instrument for altering economic incentives.) Second, it should be noted that, at a global level, the sway of the Washington Consensus ended, depending on how you periodize these things, either in the late 1990s in the wake of the East Asian financial crisis or in the late 00s after the 2008 crash. It is true that Europe, due to the outsized influence of Germany, has been a laggard in this respect, but most mainstream economists, including those who work for the IMF, have been open in their opposition to the eurozone’s paleo-orthodoxy.
2. Extractivism. This term, used as an epithet throughout the second half of the book, seems to be derived from the notion of extractive-based economies centered on logging and mining. The US west, for instance, is generally seen as slowly transitioning from a base in extraction to one in services and related activities similar to what is seen in other high income regions. So what’s the difference between extraction and extractivism? It’s difficult to say. Klein sometimes seems to be aware that most human activities have an element of extraction connected to them, so that zero removal of resources, even temporarily, is hardly a viable program. The closest she comes to a definition is on p. 169:
Extractivism is a nonreciprocal, dominance-based relationship with the earth, one purely of taking. It is the opposite of stewardship, which involves taking but also taking care that regeneration and future life continue….It is also the reduction of human beings either into labor to be brutally extracted, pushed beyond limits, or, alternatively, into social burden, problems to be locked out at borders and locked away in prisons or reservations.
In a sense, extractivism is another name for the sum of all sins, the despoliation of nature and the oppression of people in all their forms. The language is moral and speaks to ill intent: dominance-based, purely of taking, brutally extracted, pushed, locked out, locked away. Thus specific practices are either included or excluded from extractivism based on a moral calculus; injustice is not a consequence of extractivism but its central constituent. Of course, by constructing her category this way, Klein is engaged in defining, not explaining. The folding of all crimes against nature and fellow humans into one all-encompassing notion also produces the problem of how to think about situations in which some depredations are taking place but not others. Were the Khmer Rouge extractivist? They certainly treated people purely as objects to be exploited, but their modus operandi were fashionably low-tech. On the other hand, what about Norway? Their wealth is based on the extraction of North Sea petroleum, but they are a paragon of liberalism and tolerance, maintaining a generous welfare state and leading the world in per capita funding of international aid. Norway also adheres to the Hartwick rule by squirreling away its oil royalties into a fund to remunerate future generations. Is Norway extractivist? Whatever your answer, the oil they pump does no less damage to future prospects of averting catastrophic climate change than the oil of, say, Saudi Arabia.
Economic growth. Klein strongly endorses the view that the climate crisis is a reflection of a conceptual error at the heart of modern economic thinking, that “unlimited” economic growth can take place on a finite planet. We must wean ourselves from this attachment to growth, she says, in order to do what really must be done. In saying this, she is expressing a widely-held position among radical environmentalists.
It would not be an exaggeration to label this position the New Malthusianism. The old variety, which held “unlimited” population growth to be the enemy, is now fortunately out of bounds, thanks mainly to the critique coming from feminism which rightly understood it to view women essentially as reproductive machines that needed to be turned off. The same logic, such as it is, now appears as an assault on GDP, not demographic, growth. At its heart is the same vision of human beings as organisms like any other, subject to the same rules regarding exponential growth and carrying capacity. It is obviously a compelling vision to many people, so powerful that it pushes aside rather obvious counterarguments.
First, it ought to be clear that economic measurements incorporate quality—value—and not just quantity. In fact, the standard assumption of economists and historians is that growth in value comes to dominate growth in “stuff” as economies develop over time. If anything, transgressing environmental constraints should convince us to speed up this transition, substituting design and skill for raw materials and shifting more consumption to life-enhancing services. (As a teacher, I am predisposed to think that the service I offer is one of these.)
Second, the arithmetic of solving the carbon problem by “degrowthing” our economy doesn’t work. As a rule of thumb, the US, to do its share of carbon reduction, should begin immediately to reduce its emissions by at least 8% per year, year after year. The economic contraction following the financial collapse of 2008 cost the economy about 5% of its GDP. So how many such “great recessions” will it take to get our carbon house in order?
Third, how are we supposed to engineer degrowth? Do we pass a law against starting or expanding businesses? Against borrowing or lending money? The only politically-directed form of degrowth we have experienced is austerity, which has certainly done the job in southern Europe, but probably not in the way Klein would want to emulate.
Actually, I think hostility to economic growth is a moral position that expresses values, not a proposition that is intended to lead to laws or policies. This came to me in a flash when, after many pages of anti-growth rhetoric, Klein rhapsodized over how many new jobs would be created in the transition to a green economy. GDP would go down because growth is bad (and you can’t have it in a finite world), but jobs would go up because we care for our communities and want everyone to have a decent livelihood. On rational grounds it’s gibberish, but the moral logic is clear enough. Similarly, Klein takes a strong stand against immoral overconsumption: we should reduce the size of the economy by eliminating all the greedy and self-indulgent consumption that stands in the way of social justice and climate sanity. No doubt there is an element of truth in this, and many of us would benefit by taking a close look at what we spend our money on. But how do we know where to draw the line? When I drive my car to a trailhead in order to go on a hike and indulge my appreciation for the natural world, am I overconsuming? And if I stay at home and just stare at pictures of nature on the internet, will it help minimize climate change? The reality is that none of us is in a position to answer this question; it is too complex and interconnected with the billions of choices that everyone else is making. This is why you can’t save the world one consumer at a time. Moreover, if a large swath of the population really does undergo a conversion and suddenly reduces its spending, we would lose a corresponding number of jobs, since one person’s spending is another’s income. The only conclusion I can draw is that Klein’s critique of consumption, like her hostility to large GDP numbers, is a form of moral affiliation, identifying what she approves and disapproves, and not a basis for actually figuring out what to do.
(Note: it is quite true, in my opinion, that serious efforts to reduce carbon emissions will also impinge on economic growth. This is the case not because economic growth is bad—far from it—but because its trajectory for the past two centuries has been based on the widespread use of fossil fuels. Transition will be difficult and costly. This is not something to be celebrated but minimized and, to the extent possible, counteracted with other economic measures.)
Globalization. Count Klein among the supporters for all things local. She likes small business but opposes multinational corporations. She’s against global trade and for local self-sufficiency. She looks to local communities to provide the wisdom and energy to defeat extractivism, not national or international bureaucracies. Truly understanding climate change, she says, means being immersed in your immediate world so you know when a flower blooms or a migrant bird arrives a few days earlier in spring. Meanwhile, the proponents of globalization, like the WTO and the drafters of the various trade promotion agreements, have created rules that make key pieces of the energy transition illegal.
Here as in the other conceptual areas there are contradictions. Klein is against globalization but in favor of much freer migration, although surely this has the potential to disrupt local communities on both the fleeing and host ends more than any other single measure. (I share her position on this issue.) She also favors international solidarity between movements, but as her own personal case illustrates, this is greatly enhanced by international travel and communication. Nor I’m sure would she be in favor of the energy-intensive production methods of yesterday, like massive greenhouse operations in northern countries to supply winter produce, in place of more efficient global production systems. The burning of fossil fuels in conjunction with international shipping contributes about 2.5% of global carbon emissions. No doubt this can and should be reduced, but under any conceivable scenario reduced shipping will have a minuscule impact on whether the world meets or surpasses its carbon targets.
It’s worse than this, however. In many policy arenas localization obstructs action on climate change, and the serious measures we need are logically in opposition to it. To take one example, the bottleneck holding up Germany’s energy transition is the local control exercised by small communities between the North Sea, where big wind farms are planned, and the large population centers to the south. These communities don’t want massive power lines crossing their land, and the legal structure of the German Federal Republic gives them lots of leverage. Meanwhile, within the EU the biggest impediment to reducing the use of coal comes from countries like Poland that defend their mining sectors, just as legislators from Kentucky and Wyoming are obstacles to action on carbon emissions in the US.
The deeper point, however, is that stringent carbon policy unavoidably requires a strengthening of central power against local communities. Whether through carbon taxes or cap-and-trade, such policies, if they are serious, will greatly increase the price of fossil fuels; that’s their purpose, after all. This means, however, there will be large economic benefits to anyone who can bypass such controls, whether by local resistance, stealth or obtaining legislative carve-outs. The only way to make these policies effective is by refusing to allow for local exceptions and then enforcing them rigorously with monitoring and penalties. That’s what it will take to keep the fossil fuels in the ground. If this isn’t immediately obvious, think about the much less stringent taxes currently applied to tobacco products. Contraband tobacco is an immense, multibillion dollar enterprise, an entire underground sector of the global economy. It is allowed to flourish because of corruption and, frankly, because the benefits of a draconian crackdown may not exceed the costs. But no such laxity can be permitted with fossil fuels, and so top-down enforcement is essential. In this sense, localization and adhering to global carbon budgets are antithetical.
As before, I think Klein is staking out a moral stance on localization, which is why the logical difficulties don’t trouble her. She favors a spiritual and aesthetic connection to nature, one which is intrinsically place-based. She is also attached to small-group, face-to-face democracy as a political ideal. I can certainly understand this, although I think there is something to be said for making a distinction between what you like and what works for the goals you are trying to achieve. Nevertheless, I am also disturbed by localism as a purely aspirational ideal. Perhaps this can be conveyed by pausing for a moment to take note of Klein’s denunciation of “rootlessness”. I will be honest and admit I felt a jolt when I saw this word, which forms the first part of the Nazi epithet for Jews, “rootless cosmopolitans”. To her credit, Klein has no use for the blood part of blood and soil, but what about the soil? It is important to recall that Nazi ideology drew on German nature philosophy, which played a role in the emergence of ecology as a scientific discipline and inspired movements for organic agriculture, healthy workplaces and similar measures. The community of the soil was seen to be connected culturally and ecologically, and one should not allow such unity to be disrupted by outsiders who lacked the rootedness of the locals. Of course, I am not accusing today’s localizers of being proto-fascists, but it is important to think carefully about the ethical implications of idealizing the unity of small groups sharing a common history with the land. There are virtues to being rooted and virtues to wandering freely and crossing cultures and borders. This wider view has a long history on the left, particularly in circles skeptical of the cross-class demands of nationalism; more recently it was reflected in the movement that labeled itself alter- rather than anti-globalization. By casting it in this context, I am suggesting that the unreflected attachment to all things local on the part of the movement Klein represents is consequential and one-sided.
Of course, while This Changes Everything rails against the evils of capitalist thinking, it also waves the flag for what it sees as the righteous alternative. This antithesis is to be found in Blockadia, and the final third of the book, in fact, is largely given over to a narrative of protest tourism as Klein races from one hotspot to the next. Much of this reportage is enlightening; we learn a lot about the protest leaders Klein befriends, their motives and beliefs. For Klein, Blockadia is everything that neoliberal capitalism isn’t: It is locally based, enlisting the participation of entire communities brought together by the impending destruction of their shared environment. It spurns excessive consumption and materialism, drawing sustenance instead from the beauty of the natural world and the cooperation of neighbors. It rejects extractivism and envisions a future of small-scale agriculture and crafts, living lightly on the earth. Of course, it is opposed to free market philosophy through its embrace of the public sphere and its willingness to put limits on what distant multinational corporations are allowed to do. Klein is blunt: investing in standard politics and placing your faith in national, top-down policies is at best a distraction from the real work of fomenting these new points of protest. This wave of resistance is all that can save us: it will grow and intensify until fossil fuels become a thing of the past, overcome by a new, cooperative, sustainable way of life.
And here as well one does not have to dig very deep to uncover gaps and moments of sheer hand-waving. Yes, these are vivid examples of resistance, but how much fossil fuel extraction around the world is not being resisted? Do some of these movements split their communities rather than unite them—and do they sometimes lose due to lack of support? And what are the limits of protest as a strategy for economic, social and political transformation? Klein describes the visions of her Blockadistas, but creating a new world is generally a lot more difficult than saying no to the one in front of you. As you would expect by now, I understand her long paean to Blockadia as an expression of moral affiliation: good is invested in these people as evil is invested in the corporations and corrupt politicians, and the future of the planet hangs on whether good can triumph over evil. Indeed, by questioning the political effectiveness of the Blockade Brigade, I may be exposing my own moral shortcomings.
I probably need to make my position clear at this point: I am not in any way disparaging local struggles against fossil fuel development or other ecologically harmful projects. Most if not all of these battles are important to wage, and I think direct action has a crucial role to play in building a movement strong enough to get the job done. I don’t doubt that many of the activists have shown immense courage and idealism in the heat of battle. What I do doubt are two propositions, that protest alone will be sufficient and that “our” side is more virtuous in an encompassing sense than theirs.
First, protest, however necessary, is intrinsically limited—always. It resists going backward but is of limited use in moving forward. Its practical exigencies, the adjustments and compromises that have to be made for protest to succeed in its specific context, can complicate wider solidarities just as readily as they can inspire them. Protesters often need to personalize their struggles (as Saul Alinsky advised), but getting a hated boss or politician canned is not the same thing as delegitimating a policy or an institution. Protest is inherently reactive, but long-lasting transformations are proactive. Protest must often compromise on some fronts in order to build unity on others. This does not devalue protest, but it indicates that protest alone is incomplete. In addition, obstructing individual fossil fuel projects is a particularly limited form of protest, since the logic of the marketplace ensures that other fuel deposits will be mined to replace the ones shut down by protesters. There is more than enough coal, oil and gas in deposits beyond the reach of Blockadia to meet the demand.
Second, there is a world of difference between being on the side of a more virtuous, humane or ethical policy and being a more virtuous human being. The case that reducing fossil fuel use is morally superior to not reducing it is overwhelming, but people are people with all their wonders and faults. I see no reason to assume that activists for Blockadia or any other cause are, on average, morally superior to those who oppose them as complete, head-to-toe human beings. Unless evidence is presented to the contrary, it is safe to assume that they are about the same in the way they treat those closest to them, their susceptibility to the corruptions of wealth and power, or their moral reasoning on issues unrelated to their protests. It’s difficult to understate the importance of this point. Failure to recognize it has been devastating to left movements from their earliest origins in the Middle Ages to last week. It means that rule by “us” is not a solution to the problem of democracy, and that powerful structural constraints are needed on “our” freedom as well as theirs. I understand the sentimental logic that causes us to elevate fighters for noble causes to the status of exemplary, morally superior people, but it’s a mistake. It is especially ugly when the comparison comes down to just ourself, on the side of the angels, versus someone we encounter who is not (yet) on our side, as in the Prius driver who thinks the person behind the wheel of a big SUV is a climate criminal. On every level, from the politically pragmatic to the karmic, this is a terrible posture to adopt. Am I mistaken in sensing it in Klein’s encomiums to the heroes of Blockadia?
Standards of Evidence
I don’t expect the same standards for argumentation in a popular political manifesto as an academic tome (where I am also frequently disappointed), but even so, This Changes Everything is startling in its casual relationship to logic and evidence. It is also startling that this point has not been made by other reviewers, a matter of some importance I will take up later.
The starting point has to be the astronomical claim-to-evidence ratio in this book. Almost every page bristles with claims about what is true and why—not just one or two but in many instances one or two per sentence. The majority of such claims are not backed up at all; they are simply asserted. No doubt Klein thinks they are common knowledge, but I’m more on her side than not, and I found few to be indisputable, especially when stated as broad generalities. When Klein does present evidence, more often than not it consists of a quotation from or reference to a particular expert source. In the areas I’m familiar with, which overlaps large parts of the material, it is obvious that sources were cherrypicked, drawn selectively from a much larger and more diverse pool. Sometimes I agreed with the source she cited, sometimes not, but it always rankled that she regarded a single, selected citation as constituting sufficient evidence for her views.
But there is also a problem with the way she quotes her sources. In general, her method is to present the expert’s conclusion but not the reason for it. In this way she asks the reader to accept the expert’s authority, which is not exactly an invitation to critical thinking. Such appeals to authority are even less justified when they are selected on the basis of agreement, especially when their credentials are limited. (Many of the sources Klein cites have no training in the areas they opine on and work for advocacy groups. This doesn’t mean they are wrong—of course not—but it suggests that bowing before authority is even less warranted in such cases.)
Along with selected authorities we encounter selected cases; in fact, the evidentiary structure of the book, such as it is, rests entirely on a string of examples from which generalizations are drawn with no other basis. If an early philosopher of science (Francis Bacon) makes sexist remarks about controlling nature, it shows that science is based on patriarchy and domination. If an indigenous group opposes fossil fuel development in one location it means that all indigenous people are enemies of extractivism everywhere, and there is never a tension between indigenous rights and climate protection. If she documents that the World Bank promoted a project that violated human rights and increased carbon emissions in some country, it demonstrates that everything the Bank does is an affront to human decency. Shell Oil’s profits declined sharply one quarter, so it means that fossil fuel companies have underestimated the power of Blockadia and are vulnerable to defeat. And so on. I don’t expect to see a comprehensive mass of research, but there isn’t a single table in the entire book that demonstrates that a generality actually holds in the light of the evidence pro and con. The entire argument, beginning to end, is to be taken on faith.
I was also struck by the degree of innumeracy I encountered in the book, and even more by the absence of any notice of it on the part of the many reviewers I looked at prior to writing this. I get the impression that care in using quantitative information is not regarded as holding much importance by the politically engaged community. Here I want to make it clear I am not demanding that Klein assemble mountains of statistical data or use sophisticated techniques in crunching them. What’s at stake is much more basic: knowing what numbers mean and how to interpret them in practical contexts. Specifically: (1) Klein uses “big” numbers, measured in the millions and billions, without denominators that relate them to comparisons that can make sense of them. We hear how how many millions of dollars are spent on something, but not what proportion of total spending it is or whether it is more or less than what is spent on something else. We don’t get orders of magnitude or rankings of factors. Numbers just come out of nowhere and return to the void. (2) She gives us lots of percentage increases without any sense of the base from which the increase arose and making it impossible to add up contributions from multiple sources. (3) There is a general absence of quantitative reasonableness in making claims. Here is one example: in the course of discussing the need for large investments in renewable energy to replace fossil fuels, Klein writes “….the resources for this just transition must ultimately come from the state, collected from the profits of the fossil fuel companies….” (p. 401) Again, as an ethical proposition, I understand what she is saying: investing in green energy is good and should be financed, while profiting from fossil fuels is bad and should be taxed. Since the goodness of the first is on the same order as the badness of the second, arrange the financing accordingly. Surely, however, size matters. The investment budget is measured in the trillions of dollars, while fossil fuel profits (as she showed in her two quarters of Shell data) are a tiny fraction of this. The first goal of quantitative thinking is to acquire a sense of how big various things are in relation to one another.
There is similar disinterest in economic understanding. Perhaps the most egregious example is an argument Klein apparently drew from Herman Daly and Josh Farley. She notes the national income identity
Y = C + I + G + NX
where Y is national income, C is total consumption, I total private investment, G government purchases of goods and services and NX net exports. (The equal sign should actually be an identity since the relationship is definitional, but this slip is common even among high-level economists, so I will let it pass.) It arises in the course of a discussion on the desirability of reducing the size of the economy, denoted by Y. Not wanting to dent I or G, Klein suggests that consumers cut back to reduce C, and then she adds that NX can be diminished by having less international trade. Alas, this is wrong, since net exports is simply the difference between exports and imports, and its size can go up even as the volume of trade, measured by either exports, imports or (as is commonly done) their sum, goes down. Of greater importance is the observation that the accumulation of carbon in the atmosphere is a global problem, and if you think that this requires global GDP to fall, trade, as reflected in the national income identity, is irrelevant, since the global sum of each nation’s trade surplus or deficit has to equal zero. An error of this sort is diagnostic: it demonstrates that an understanding of basic economic concepts is not regarded as relevant to the intellectual task of the book.
A similar error, this time having to do with the understanding of what international trade rules mean in practice, occurs in Chapter 3, where Klein trains her guns on globalization. She begins with the story of Italian solar panel firm that had to shut down its Ontario plant because the WTO ruled against a regulation instituted by the province that required businesses benefitting from public energy incentives to purchase only locally produced equipment. Klein then interprets this as an interference with feed-in tariffs, as if there is some reason why such incentives depend on panels not being imported. She then switches to Denmark to (rightly) praise its system of locally owned renewable energy coops which she claims are at risk because of WTO interference. Of course, the Danish coops don’t produce their own hardware, which is typically imported. The entire discussion is incoherent unless, as seems to be the case, Klein is confused between the local generation of electric power and the local sourcing of power generating equipment. It seems too basic to be misunderstood, but so was the confusion between the level of trade and the level of trade surpluses or deficits.
There are many smaller factual errors, but it would be piling on to bring them up. What matters is the nature of these errors and what they say about the value Klein and her research team attach to getting the economics right. I did not see corresponding errors in the natural science of climate change; presumably they think accuracy on that front is worth the effort.
A final mention should be made of the book’s rhetorical strategy. Quite obviously, it’s very rhetorical! Emotive language is everywhere, turning arguments that ought to be assessed factually into tests of righteousness. For instance, a general assault is launched on the industrial revolution, tying it to environmental destruction, colonialism and the misery endured by labor. These are complex claims, to all of which historians would give mixed verdicts. Industrialization did cause immense pollution and other problems in England, but urban environments slowly improved over the course of the nineteenth century due to public health reforms driven by expanding scientific knowledge. Colonialism predates the industrial revolution by about two centuries; industrialization provided Europeans with tools to intensify colonial exploitation but also enabled opponents of colonialism to resist and eventually overthrow it. As for the conditions experienced by workers, the historical verdict is largely in: the well-being of the English working class remained roughly constant during the first century of the industrial revolution and then steadily improved. It didn’t fall, interestingly, not because mill owners weren’t ruthless in pursuing profits—they were—but because the pre-industrial rural conditions from which workers migrated were so appalling. But these empirical subtleties are pushed aside with language that denounces industrialization for its sins against nature and humanity, implying that doubt equals apologetics.
This is enough criticism. What matters is not how strong a book This Changes Everything is; it has inspired some readers and annoyed others, and nothing I write will alter the proportions. The issues I have raised pose broader questions for the recent evolution of left wing movements, however, and this is what matters. I will argue that three lessons can be learned from this book and its reception.
1. Large parts of the left reject the notion of progress. The claim that science and its application to production have provided large benefits to much of the human race is now seen as a defense of exploitation and privilege. This is a central theme that runs through Klein’s book as she takes on Francis Bacon and James Watt, the desirability of economic growth and the process of globalization. It explains why she thinks indigenous people, with cultures unsullied by the drive to control nature, are the born leaders of the movement against extractivism. It also explains her attachment to all things small and local, even defending artisanal mining as superior to the industrial variety (p. 447), an otherwise absurd proposition. (Klein should visit some artisanal mines in low income parts of the world.)
It should not be controversial to say that science and economic development have come at great cost. They arose at a time when empire and autocracy were the norm and largely adapted to it, as they have largely adapted to postcolonial and semi-democratic conditions. Deforestation on a large scale accompanied the intensification of agriculture, and we now also know that the fossil fuel basis on which development occurred was a dead-end path. But surely the human gains were extraordinary. Life expectancy, perhaps the single best measure of living standards, has more than doubled almost everywhere. A much higher percentage of the human race lives comfortably than ever before. The technological and intellectual resources that make Klein’s book and my critique of it possible are beyond valuation. The crime against indigenous people is not that they were robbed of a static future in which they would live forever in the conditions of 1491 (or whenever), but that they were prevented from freely finding their own paths, drawing on their heritage, to progress and a better life.
It is bizarre that a large portion of the left would now regard pre-scientific and pre-industrial modes of life as superior. Worse, it is political suicide. Whatever the denizens of Blockadia may think (and I suspect they harbor a range of views about the nature of progress), the vast majority of every country on earth wants economic prosperity and the benefits promised by science. They may well underestimate the risks and drawbacks, but a movement with any hope of political success has to respect these goals. I will grant that large portions of This Changes Everything adopts the position I’m advocating, but large portions don’t.
2. The cultural turn has gone too far. Of course, the deciphering of discourses has much to recommend it; all social action takes place in a context of meanings—shared, contested or both. It’s remarkable, however, that a high profile book that claims to be about radical social change, and which has won widespread approval across the leftward half of the political spectrum, could sidestep any sustained consideration of wealth and power altogether.
Why have governments failed to act to counter the threat of catastrophic climate change? Is it solely because of faulty thinking, or could it be that there exists a gross imbalance of power in every modern capitalist country, such that business interests are firmly in control? What institutions wield this power and what methods do they use? Crucially, how can those who struggle for democratic collective action contest this power? What types of organizations can be effective? What structural changes should be prioritized to rebalance power and enable rational solutions to overriding problems like climate change? I wouldn’t fault Klein for failing to provide answers—who has? What is astonishing, however, is that the questions are never posed, not even in passing. What does it mean to espouse radical politics and never take up the issue of power?
But a second absence is even more telling. At various points Klein refers to the need for a price to be placed on carbon; it clearly is not her main interest, since she devotes no space at all to the political struggle required to achieve this, but she recognizes it is an important part of the story. What’s missing, however, is any serious consideration of how much money this will be, out of whose pockets it will be extracted and to whose pockets it will be transferred. I cannot emphasize how extraordinary it is for a book to be ostensibly about capitalism but pay so little attention to money.
The reality is that carbon revenues will be immense. If even approximately sufficient global action is undertaken, the sums will be in the trillions of dollars. And despite Klein’s moral calculus, the actual, real-life operation of carbon pricing will guarantee that it is the public at large—everyone who purchases a good or service with a carbon energy component—that will pay it. This is visible in gasoline taxes today, which consumers pay at the pump; a carbon price, whether it is engineered by a tax or a cap on permits, will be the same sort of tax writ very, very large. Such a tax will be regressive, and lower income people will effectively be taxed at a higher rate.
This is potentially catastrophic on multiple levels. It is intolerable from a social justice perspective in an age of rampaging inequality. It would also be impossible to disguise from voters, making it difficult to impossible to get majority support for a stiff carbon price. Klein blithely recommends using this new source of revenue to finance green investments, but she doesn’t inquire whose money is being spent, nor does she consider that, in practice, governments will simply shift a lot of the investments they would have made anyway over to this new revenue spigot, freeing up more money for their other pet projects. The one word that sums up Klein’s attitude toward this trillion-dollar question is uninterested.
Of course, there are ways to turn around the economics of carbon pricing. The money can be returned to the public on an equal per capita basis, which would have the effect of turning an otherwise regressive transfer system into a progressive, inequality-reducing one. Given the amount of money at stake, this will require a massive political mobilization, but it is worth fighting for. To repeat, however, the purpose of bringing up this issue is not to proselytize for a different system of carbon pricing, but simply to point out the glaring incongruity of an ostensibly radical, anti-capitalist book (a rather long one at that) which ignores the single most important principle for how things work in a capitalist society: follow the money!
3. The left has adapted to powerlessness. This Changes Everything practically exudes triumphalism, especially in the final hundred pages or so. Vibrant, righteous movements are springing up everywhere, we are told, and through their proliferation they will change the world.
Except, of course, they won’t. They do not have the means to change the world to something different, only to obstruct the bits of the existing world they can get their bodies in front of. That is important to do, and it can play a crucial role in a larger movement to contest power—if that movement can come into existence. If no larger movement arises, the local fires will be put out one by one. A radical political vision cannot abjure politics, and it is politics which is missing from Klein.
Here it is necessary to step back and consider the historical context. In the English-speaking world, and to a lesser extent in other wealthy, capitalist countries, the past several decades have seen profound defeat and demobilization on the left. In no country is there a mass political party with a program to transform the existing political economic order into something else. Unions, where they have any clout at all, have been fighting a rearguard struggle to retain as many of the gains of former times as they can. Of course, there have also been substantial victories for racial, gender and other social equalities and a general drift toward less authoritarian cultural norms. But the core institutions of wealth and power are more firmly entrenched now than they have been in generations, and the left as a political force is hardly noticeable.
How have those who still identify with the left coped with this epoch of powerlessness? There are many answers, but all of them express some form of disengagement. For instance, redefining politics as the performance of moral virtue rather than the contest for power can provide consolation when political avenues appear to be blocked. Activities of this sort are evaluated according to how expressive they are—how good they make us feel—rather than any objective criterion of effectiveness in achieving concrete goals or altering the balance of political forces. This is how I would interpret Blockadia, for instance, in the absence of a broader movement that includes both direct action and political contestation: Klein can devote page after page to how righteous these activists are without any attention to whether they have had or have any prospect of having an impact on carbon emissions. Their very activism constitutes its own victory, which is convenient if the more conventional sort of victory is believed to be out of reach. (It is bad form to even bring this up: why, some will ask, am I dwelling on the negative with so much positive energy to celebrate?)
Another response is to collapse social change into personal choices over lifestyle and philosophy. If you believe that the threat of climate change can be defeated by a shift to more modest consumption habits and rejection of the false intellectual gods of globalization and economic growth, one individual at a time, then each moment of conversion constitutes its own little victory. The reader of Klein’s book, feeling a sense of unity with that consciousness and its program to downshift consumption, can experience this victory first hand. This is very gratifying, and it reinforces the message that powerlessness in conventional terms is irrelevant, since the change we are part of is at a deeper level than governments and their laws or corporations and their assets. After all, what can be more subversive than thinking new thoughts?
One of Klein’s favorite adaptations is the conflation of wishes and operative political programs. Again and again she holds up statements of intent—protect Mother Earth, treat all people equally, respect all cultures, live simple, natural, local lives—as if they were proposals whose implementation would have these outcomes. It’s all ends and no means. This is a double convenience: first it eliminates the need to be factual and analytical about programs, since announcing the goal is sufficient unto itself, and second, it evades the disconcerting problem of how to deal with the daunting political challenge of getting such programs (if they even exist) enacted and enforced. I believe the treatment of goals as if they were programs is the underlying reason for the sloppiness of this book on matters of economics and law. Klein can say we should finance a large green investment program by taxing fossil fuel profits, or we should simultaneously shrink the economy and increase the number of jobs, because in the end it doesn’t matter whether these or other recommendations could actually prove functional in the real world. The truth lies in the rightness of the demand, not the means of fulfilling it. But this too is an adaptation to powerlessness.
To close, I wish to emphasize that this critique is ultimately not directed at a single individual. On the contrary, even if we consider only this one book, it is clear that its writing was a team effort; the long acknowledgments section identifies both paid assistants and an army of internal reviewers. But what I find diagnostic is the warm reception it received from virtually every media outlet on the English-speaking left. This suggests that Klein is moving with the political tide and not against it, and that the problems that seemed obvious to me were either invisible to her reviewers or regarded as too insignificant to bring up. The view that capitalism is a style of thinking, progress is a myth, and political contestation is irrelevant to “true” social change belongs not just to this one book but to all the commentators who found nothing to criticize. That’s the real problem.
About the Author
Peter Dorman is a faculty member in political economy at the Evergreen State College. He has published on a variety of topics in labor, public health, international development, international political economy and the intersection of economics and social theory. He is the author of Markets and Mortality: Economics, Dangerous Work and the Value of Human Life and a pair of introductory textbooks, Microeconomics: A Fresh Start and Macroeconomics: A Fresh Start. A book on climate change will be published next year. Dorman is also a regular contributor to the EconoSpeak blog.