Naomi Klein bares the limitations of her liberal environmentalism

Roger Annis

Aug 4, 2018 - Naomi Klein has published a lengthy critique of an important feature essay appearing in the New York Times Magazine on August 1, 2018: Losing Earth: The decade we almost stopped climate changeby Nathaniel Rich, with photos and video by George Steinmetz. Klein’s commentary on the Times magazine article is published on August 3 in The Intercept, where she is a regular columnist.

Indian ragpicker at municipal waste dump in Dimapur, India on World Earth Day, 2013 (Getty Images, on Ecomaps)

The Times essay argues that the world lost the battle against global warming during the years of the 1980s, a time when scientists began loudly warning of a global warming emergency requiring immediate and radical action to lower greenhouse gas emissions. Klein correctly argues against the central tenet of the essay—that “human nature” was to blame for the failure to respond to the now-evident emergency. Intercept editors placed the word ‘capitalism’ in the title of Klein’s critique: Capitalism killed our climate momentum, not ‘human nature’. But Klein dismisses the compelling argument against capitalism in her very critique.

Klein writes, “But simply blaming capitalism isn’t enough. It is absolutely true that the drive for endless growth and profits stands squarely opposed to the imperative for a rapid transition off fossil fuels…” This is followed by “But we have to be honest that autocratic industrial socialism has also been a disaster for the environment, as evidenced most dramatically by the fact that carbon emissions briefly plummeted when the economies of the former Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s.”

But who in the world argues today that the authoritarian socialist countries of the Soviet Union, eastern Europe of China provide an example for countering the global warming emergency (though importantly, scientists in the Soviet Union were always in advance of their Western counterparts in understanding the danger)? It’s a bogus argument that, as her very article shows, actually dismisses socialism as a path forward.

By ‘socialism’, we are speaking of a planned, social economy operating under democratic, citizen control in which the expansion imperative of outmoded capitalism is constrained and eventually eliminated.

Klein goes on to attack one of the few socialist experiments taking place in the world: “And as I wrote in [her 2014 book] This Changes Everything, Venezuela’s petro-populism has continued this toxic tradition into the present day, with disastrous results.” Here, Venezuela, a country ravaged and underdeveloped by imperialism for several centuries, is supposed to be the standard bearer of the fight against global warming. Yes, the Bolivarian Revolution underway in Venezuela since the late 1990s should be faulted for not reducing the country’s dependence on fossil fuel exports. But Klein’s article lets the imperialist countries of North America, western Europe and the Asia-Pacific (Japan and Australia) off the hook. Those countries are the prime guilty parties, not the countries of the global south and not the long-passed authoritarian socialist countries.

So what is Naomi Klein’s alternative to the ‘capitalism’ identified in her article title? She offers the ‘novel’ but lame phrase ‘democratic eco-socialism’ and goes on to write, “Countries with a strong democratic socialist tradition — like Denmark, Sweden, and Uruguay — have some of the most visionary environmental policies in the world. From this we can conclude that socialism isn’t necessarily ecological, but that a new form of democratic eco-socialism, with the humility to learn from Indigenous teachings about the duties to future generations and the interconnection of all of life, appears to be humanity’s best shot at collective survival.”

Denmark and Sweden? These are militarized countries that happen to be in the forefront of imperialism’s new cold war against Russia and China. Denmark is a direct partner in the ongoing U.S.  wars being waged in the Middle East. Sweden is a major armaments producer. Both countries are experiencing the rise of extreme-right movements (though not to the degree as that in Ukraine). The rise of the far-right in Europe is a direct consequence of the aggressive, imperialist foreign policies of NATO, a fact that escapes nearly every left-wing writer on the subject.

Denmark is a significant fossil fuel producer and exporter. It is heavily dependent on fossil fuels for the operations of its capitalist and imperialist economy. Sweden, another middle imperialist power, derives more than 35 per cent of its energy from nuclear power. Both countries are examples of the madcap, expansion dynamic of capitalism which is taking the world to ruin. Sweden’s IKEA corporation could serve as trophy symbol of this productivist and consumerist expansion.

In her article, Klein targets “neoliberalism” and “unregulated capitalism” as the source of the global warming emergency”. According to her, the problem can be traced to the onset of “neoliberalism” beginning around 1980. This fits with her argument that the militarized, imperialist countries of Denmark and Sweden offer a path forward for humanity. But it is capitalism per se, not its episodic variants, that is to blame.

None of what Klein writes in this latest article is new. She has long held up the Scandinavian countries as leaders in combatting climate change. Similarly, she has favorably cited the militarized and fossil fuel-soaked Germany as an environmental leader. What may be new are the discussions and published responses to Klein’s article by her fellow liberal environmentalists and by the eco-utopians of the ecosocialist school of thought. We shall see.

Ever since the publication of This Change Everything, ecosocialists have had nothing but praise for Klein’s misleading ideas in which she posits a social democratic, green capitalism (otherwise known as ‘democratic socialism’ become ‘democratic eco-socialism’) as a path of salvation from the global warming emergency. One reason for this commonality of ideas is that Klein and the ecosocialists take little or no account of the extreme danger to a warming world of imperialist war and militarism. (They also share a dismissal of the urgency of radically reducing all the productivist waste and excess common to present-day capitalism.)

Imperialist war and militarism as well as the rise of social and national inequalities are insurmountable barriers to mitigating the worst of the global warming emergency now fully washing over the world. There will be no mitigation of global warming and its harsh consequences if the expansion dynamic of capitalism is not curtailed and eventually eliminated. That can only be done by an informed and mobilized global population, using the levers of political power to refashion human civilization. Our common goal must be the creation of a planned, social economy providing meaningful human development while respecting humanity’s utter dependence on a healthy natural environment.

[1] ‘Neoliberalism’ is the nonsensical term used by most Western leftists and by liberal academia in the West to describe the rise of globalized capitalism beginning the mid-1970s.