Review: This changes everything: capitalism vs the climate

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This changes everything: capitalism vs the climate

Naomi Klein, Allen Lane 2014, 566pp, £20

The scientific consensus is clear and was restated at the start of November 2014 in a report from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: there is a ‘real and present threat to life and land’. If the world does not get carbon emissions under control to limit global warming to 2°C by 2017, our fossil fuel economy will ‘lock in’ extremely dangerous warming (p17). Without new constraints on fossil fuel emissions the earth is set to heat up by 4°C by the century’s end. In the words of earth scientist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, ‘the difference between two and four degrees is human civilisation’. We know what this means: war, famine, the fight over access to water, the privatisation of resources, and the military defence of privileges. Today there can be no doubt that the tragedies of Hurricane Sandy and the Haiyan Typhoon await all of us, in addition to the steady pollution of water and air, the economic destruction of communities, farmland and settlements by the invasion of big monopoly companies with giant machinery and accompanying shanty towns of itinerant workers in search of employment in the extractive industries.

This book is written as a personal testament. Indeed, the final chapter, ‘The right to regenerate: moving from extraction to renewal’ includes an account of Klein’s efforts to change her high-consumption, air-miles lifestyle in order to increase her own fertility and have a child.

Klein became absorbed by the threat of climate change after she met Angelica Navarro Llanos, Bolivia’s ambassador to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in April 2009. Navarro Llanos had recently given a speech at the United Nations in which she had demanded a ‘Marshall Plan for the Earth’ to mobilise financing and technological transfer to reduce the carbon emissions that threaten humanity while raising people’s quality of life. This was the moment at which Klein decided to apply her formidable research and reporting talents to discover all there is to know about climate change: the science, the political history, the deniers and the protesters. In many ways she succeeds and This changes everything is a comprehensive guide and sweeping account of the subject. But it is also a politically cowardly book because while Klein gives an account of the ruthless global destruction of multinational corporations she ignores the question of their relationship to capitalism. This is a fault that limits the reader’s understanding of the enemy and fails to explain why the world is constantly at war. James Petras explains the important con-nection. ‘The powerful 10 largest (US) oil companies have a net value of over $1.1 trillion dollars’. They ‘have invested in hundreds of sites in dozens of countries. They are not tied to a single location. They depend on the militarised imperial state to defend their global interests’. (James Petras, The Pentagon and Big Oil: militarism and capital accumulation, 30 October 2014, emphasis in original).

Because Klein analyses the many forms of capitalist greed, but shifts her gaze from the war-mongering imperialist states that shelter them, she evades the obvious conclusion that it is not just capitalists but capitalism that has to be overthrown and replaced by socialism.

It may be commercially wise on Klein’s part not to talk of socialism and the need for a planned economy but it removes the guts from her book. There is not a single reference to the achievements of Cuba, which is the only WWF-recognised sustainable economy in the world. She criticises Hugo Chavez and Venezuela for limited achievements in reducing carbon emissions and Evo Morales in Bolivia for failing to produce development plans that do not use fossil fuels. In contrast FRFI salutes these Bolivarian nations which stand at the forefront of resistance to imperialism and global economic domination in a determined effort to battle against the forces of private profit in favour of the needs of people. Despite this political limitation, This changes everything is an important source of information about the challenges of climate change. She has burrowed behind the facades and exposes the close links between ‘Big Green’ movements – the largest, best-funded and most mainstream environmental groups – and extractive (mining, quarrying, dredging, oil and gas) businesses.

The Heartland Institute is the leading US lobby organisation for extractive big business climate change deniers. The agenda of the corporations is to limit the control of both national and international legislation on pollution and emissions. This campaign is being fought under the banner of free enterprise and wealth creation with more dollars and more intensity than any US election campaign. Companies like Peabody Energy which is extending the world’s largest coalmine in Wyoming, US, say that there is no such thing as human-caused climate change. ‘We do not question climate change, it has been changing for as long as man has recorded history but far more understanding is required for any type of impacts of CO2’, says Viv Svec, senior vice president of corporate communications. The newly extended Powder River basin coalfield is on public land which means that President Obama could intervene to prevent future dirty fuel production. But like most world leaders he has little appetite to challenge corporate interests, despite a rise in emissions of about 57% since the UN climate convention on limitation was signed in 1992.

Indeed, Klein reveals that the camp of private interest has been so successful that it has co-opted Big Green groups into accepting funding and collusion with extractive multinational companies like Shell. Nature Conservancy, one of the world’s leading conservation organisations, even operates an oil well in one of its nature reserves, while the World Wildlife Fund (UK) supports ‘research into geo-engineering (fracking) in order to find out what is possible’. The Ford Foundation, which part-financed a film accompanying This changes everything, and supports the Environmental Defence Fund and Natural Resources Defence Council, owned nearly $14m in Shell and BP stocks alone in 2013 together with multi-million dollars of stock in Norway’s Statoil. Klein also exposes the international carbon trade credit system which has turned into a caricature of itself and resulted in some manufacturers producing more potent greenhouse gases just in order to get paid to reduce them. An entire invisible global trade by carbon credit NGO ‘cowboys’ includes scams by which the forested land areas of poor people are claimed as carbon offsets and monetised.

Klein gives an account of a conference on climate change: convened by the Royal Society in March 2011 at Chicheley Hall, in Buckinghamshire, this was a presentation of a variety of Solar Radiation Management schemes. These are grandiose projects to ‘dim the sun’ and cool the globe. Proposals include: space mirrors to deflect the sun; ‘cloud brightening’ by seawater spraying; and the release of sulphate aerosols into the stratosphere, to bring down the temperature. The arrogance of this technocratic elitism has nothing to do with science and everything to do with ‘future management’ banking funds and ‘concerned’ billionaires like Bill Gates and Richard Branson.

The bourgeois debate on climate change often takes the form of asking ‘What is fair?’ The rights of developing countries to expand production and economic growth, particularly Brazil, Russia, India and China, are asserted against the industrialised world. Indeed the latest UN report attempts to reassure world markets that moves on climate change ‘need not derail growth’ (Financial Times 3 November 2014). Such reassurance promotes a static view of the movement of capital and ignores the driving need of dominant capital to expand continually. Monopoly control of production and resources will continue to grow. No fairness will emerge from the current system even were carbon taxes, subsidies and tax breaks to be introduced on the basis of ‘the polluter pays’.

Strategies for alternatives to the current use of fossil fuels with their filthy emissions that are warming and drying up the planet are many and all are discussed in Klein’s book. Some promote the use of solar and wind-generated power, and some even champion nuclear generation, as the way forward for clean energy. Yet others see the answer in population reduction (neo-Malthusians) or the downsizing of personal consumption, which is the choice most favoured by the middle class who refuse to acknowledge the huge systemic injustices of global capitalism. Massive hunger, homelessness, poverty and avoidable death from disease continue globally, including among the populations of the developed countries like the US. Only a consistent anti-capitalist position can explain why the mass production of goods that destroy the planet exists alongside continued want for the most basic necessities of life.

Fourteen years ago FRFI reviewed Naomi Klein’s first best-selling book No Logo under the heading ‘People against multinational corporations’, (FRFI 154, April/May 2000). She described the sophisticated marketing techniques and the social engineering that lie behind the brands and logos of consumerism and the sweatshop exploitation that makes mass production so profitable. On a note of high enthusiasm for Klein’s ‘inspirational’ work, the review welcomed the growth of the anti-sweatshop boycott movement, subvertising and the activities of Reclaim the Streets in support of the striking Liverpool Dockers. This high tide of activism has largely abated leaving the fightback against the multinationals to those political groups who continue to campaign against the imperialist domination of the rich nations over the world’s poor which is the basis of multinational exploitation.

In This changes everything, Klein names the current resistance to the multinational corporations, particularly the extractive industries, ‘Blockadia’. Mass mobilisations to prevent the robbery of natural resources are taking place in the North American ‘First Nation’ homelands, the Niger Delta and the Amazon. Such movements bring together indigenous people and sections of the poor working class who have lost jobs, homes and rights.

Naomi Klein importantly observes that those in struggle against the depredations of multinational companies, the ‘Blockadia activists’, always develop community views on what is possible and necessary for a productive and well-balanced life. However, there is also a desperate need for a consistent movement that will protect those in struggle from defeat and persecution. Despite all her breathless enthusiasm for ‘Blockadia’ Naomi Klein herself recognises this need. She says:

‘I have, in the past, strongly defended the right of young movements to their amorphous structures – whether that means rejecting identifiable leadership or eschewing programmatic demands. And there is no question that old political habits and structures must be reinvented to reflect new realities, as well as past failures. But I confess that the last five years immersed in climate science have left me impatient. As many are coming to realise, the fetish for structurelessness, the rebellion against any kind of institutionalisation, is not a luxury today’s transformative movements can afford.’ (p158)

Perhaps this is an apology for past indifference or hostility to political organisation but it still falls far short of what ought to have been included in this book in order to make all the hard work worthwhile – the need for an anti-capitalist movement. To a large extent the Heartland Institute is correct to say that the demand to control climate change is a ‘socialist plot’ that has ‘much to do with shackling capitalism and transforming the American way of life in the interest of global wealth redistribution’.

Susan Davidson