So now we know that global temperature in February and March shattered a century-long record – and by the greatest margin ever seen. Annual heat records are fallling like ninepins, with 2015 demolishing the record set in 2014 for the hottest year seen, in data stretching back to 1850, while the UK Met Office expects 2016 to set a new record.
Prof Michael Mann, climate scientist at Penn State University in the US, was shocked by the data, saying it is ‘a reminder of how perilously close we now are to permanently crossing into dangerous territory. It underscores the urgency of reducing global carbon emissions.’
It’s a year now since the Guardian published two lengthy extracts from Naomi Klein’s enormously important book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus the Climate, to kick off their Keep it in the Ground campaign. Since then I’ve read Klein’s book in its entirety. It is probably the most important book published so far this century; as the New York Times observed:
This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate is a book of such ambition and consequence that it is almost unreviewable, the most momentous and contentious environmental book since Silent Spring.
The book, plus the powerful and inspiring film based on it which I watched last night, continues to send shock waves around the world. This week Canada has been convulsed with debates over the bold and radical Leap Manifesto which takes its name from the title of the last chapter in Klein’s book and dares to call for ‘a Canada based on caring for the Earth and one another.’
Echoing Klein’s book and film, The Leap Manifesto declares that climate change is not just an existential threat, but an opportunity to transform Canada for the better. Produced by a broad coalition of trade unionists, Indigenous leaders and environmentalists, migrant rights activists, food policy experts, and anti-poverty campaigners, the Manifesto declares:
We could live in a country powered entirely by renewable energy, woven together by accessible public transit, in which the jobs and opportunities of this transition are designed to systematically eliminate racial and gender inequality. Caring for one another and caring for the planet could be the economy’s fastest growing sectors. Many more people could have higher wage jobs with fewer work hours, leaving us ample time to enjoy our loved ones and flourish in our communities.
In essence, the message of This Changes Everything is this: it is capitalism, not carbon, that is the real problem. Climate change, argues Klein, isn’t just another ‘issue’ to add to the list of things to worry about: it’s no less than a ‘civilizational wake-up call’ telling us that we need an entirely new economic model.
In her narration for the film version, Naomi Klein puts it like this:
What if human nature isn’t the problem? What if greenhouse gases aren’t even the problem? What if, instead, it’s the story we’ve been telling ourselves for 400 years?
She means, of course, the story that capitalism is the only system able to deliver rising living standards, technological advance and economic growth. In her book, she describes how she came to realise the ‘unavoidable truth’ that capitalism is ultimately incompatible with tackling climate change. Ironically, this was while attending the annual conference of the Heartland Institute, a gathering of those dedicated to denying the overwhelming scientific consensus that human activity is warming the planet.
As she listened to one speaker after another rant that environmental regulation would destroy capitalism she realised that they were right. The essential elements of capitalism – prioritisation of profit above all else, the constant pursuit of economic growth with the need to constantly expand and find new markets, and the externalisation of social and environmental costs – are incompatible with a sustainable society. Dealing with climate change, if we’re honest with ourselves, therefore means transforming everything about the way we live on this planet.
Listening to the speakers at the Heartland Institute denounce climate change activists as Marxists out to destroy the capitalist system, Klein realised that what lies behind climate change denial among hardcore conservatives is that they have come to understand that as soon as it’s accepted that climate change is real, they will lose the central ideological battle of our time: ‘whether we need to plan and manage our societies to reflect our goals and values, or whether that task can be left to the magic of the market.’
In short, the needs of the planet are in direct contradiction to the requirements of global capitalism:
Our economic system and our planetary system are now at war. Or, more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life. What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature.
Klein devotes a major part of her book to methodically exposing how two decades have been wasted as free market ideology permeated the policies of the ‘Big Green’ environmental groups, some of which entered into dubious partnerships with fossil fuel companies, accepted corporate funding, and began to push corporate solutions, such as promoting gas as a transition fuel. She explores the failure of market mechanisms (such as flawed carbon trading schemes) or techno-fixes alone to solve the problem.
Klein concludes that it is futile to keep trying to frame climate policies so that they will be palatable to big business. Market solutions have failed; instead, we need to implement long-term planning, strict regulation of business, more taxation, more government spending and return key privatised infrastructure to public control.
My mind keeps coming back to the question: what is wrong with us? What is really preventing us from putting out the fire that is threatening to burn down our collective house? I think the answer is far more simple than many have led us to believe: we have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis. We are stuck because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe—and would benefit the vast majority—are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets.
As Klein points out, when it comes to fossil fuel companies, it’s not even a free market: they receive $775 billion to $1 trillion in annual global subsidies, but pay nothing for the privilege of treating the atmosphere as a free waste dump.
So we are left with a stark choice: allow climate disruption to change everything about our world, or change pretty much everything about our economy to avoid that fate. But we need to be very clear: because of our decades of collective denial, no gradual, incremental options are now available to us.
All this leads Klein to the second stage of her argument, illustrated in both book and film by a series of case studies from around the world: that the climate crisis could serve as an opportunity for widespread democratic action and be a catalyst for positive change. It could be, she asserts, ‘the best argument progressives ever had’ to build a fair and just society. The climate crisis could create what she calls a ‘people’s shock’, using the opportunity to disperse power, extend democracy and redistribute wealth.
Just as in the book, the film version of This Changes Everything focusses on movements that offer real solutions to the climate crisis. Klein takes us on a tour of Blockadia, a roving transnational zone of resistance that can be found wherever communities are opposing extractive processes. There, she asserts, ‘resistance to high-risk extreme extraction is building a global, grassroots, and broad-based network the likes of which the environmental movement has rarely seen’.
Increasingly, communities find themselves in ‘sacrifice zones’, as their land, water and communities become externalities in the process of capitalist profit-making. Blockadia has has spread as increasingly dangerous and dirty extractive techniques such as fracking have resulted in communities uniting to fight back to protect their land and water.
The film opens in Alberta where First Nation activists are leading a coalition to stop the largest industrial project on Earth: the Tar Sands Gigaproject. In Northern Alberta over 20 corporations are involved in extracting oil from the tar sands, a process in which the industry strips all the trees, plants, and critical habitat (called ‘over-burden’) and pollutes rivers and lakes.
With examples drawn from across the world – Greece, China, India, Lancashire – Klein highlights community resistance movements which have built diverse alliances that embrace farmers, traditional conservatives, and First Nations peoples, whose claims to land rights might be one of the most powerful tools against fossil fuel extraction.
The evidence from both book and film is that the global climate justice movement is spreading (as can also be seen simply by following the Changes Everything Twitter feed). So, for example, since the mid-1990s, environmental protests have been growing in China rapidly in response to problems such as increased air pollution it the cities – and they’ve had an effect, with Beijing about to close its last coal-fired power station, and China emerging as the world’s biggest producer of solar panels.
Klein also highlights how local administrations have forged ahead where national governments have stalled. For example, in Germany (which has made one of the most radical energy transitions in the world, with over 30% of its energy now generated from renewables), hundreds of cities have voted to buy back their energy grids from corporations, and now produce and deliver their own energy, often through cooperatives. This didn’t happen as a result of national government policy, but as a consequence of the popular movement against nuclear power.
Interestingly, Klein compares the resistance in Blockadia to the movement for the abolition of slavery which forced ruling elites to relinquish practices that were still extraordinarily profitable, much as fossil fuel extraction is today. In ‘The New Abolitionism’, Christopher Hayes wrote in The Nation:
The climate justice movement is demanding that an existing set of political and economic interests be forced to say goodbye to trillions of dollars of wealth. It is impossible to point to any precedent other than abolition. […] It is an audacious demand, and those making it should be clear-eyed about just what they’re asking. They should also recognize that, like the abolitionists of yore, their task may be as much instigation and disruption as it is persuasion. There is no way around conflict with this much money on the line, no available solution that makes everyone happy.
While Naomi Klein contends that there is still time to avoid catastrophic warming, ‘but not within the rules of capitalism as they are currently constructed’, other commentators on the green left have been weighing in, too, with critiques of neoliberalism. Bill McKibben has, for instance, described it as a philosophy that promotes a high-consumption, carbon-hungry system that encourages trade agreements hostile to environmental protection and workers’ rights. Last week, George Monbiot wrote a column for the Guardian in which he berated neoliberalism as ‘the ideology at the root of all our problems’:
Neoliberalism … has played a major role in a remarkable variety of crises: the financial meltdown of 2007‑8, the offshoring of wealth and power, of which the Panama Papers offer us merely a glimpse, the slow collapse of public health and education, resurgent child poverty … the collapse of ecosystems. But we respond to these crises as if they emerge in isolation, apparently unaware that they have all been either catalysed or exacerbated by the same coherent philosophy.
The distinguishing feature of the book This Changes Everything was its positive message in the face of what might seem to be overwhelming odds. In her conclusion, Naomi Klein spoke of us entering the Leap Years: years in which we have ‘just enough time to do the impossible’. She wrote:
When I despair of the prospects for change, I think back on some of what I have witnessed in the five years of writing this book. […] When I started this journey, most of the resistance movements standing in the way of the fossil fuel frenzy either did not exist or were a fraction of their current size. All were significantly more isolated from one another than they are today.
The film version picks up from there. Filmed over 211 days in nine countries and five continents over four years, and directed by Avi Lewis, the documentary presents seven powerful portraits of communities on the front lines, from Montana’s Powder River Basin to the Alberta Tar Sands, from the coast of South India to Beijing and beyond. The film delivers a powerful message by placing its emphasis on the marginalised people in the ‘sacrifice zones’ who are resisting the mighty force of neoliberalism.
The message is crisply summarised by Klein in her narration: ‘If you drink water and you breathe air this is about you.’ She says:
It requires us to change our view of our relationship to the Earth as one of domination and control over nature. In reality, the Earth supports us; but only when we look after it.
We must stop pretending we can control nature and start acting like we are nature. To me that doesn’t sound like a loss. It sounds like a homecoming.
Hearing that I was reminded of Touch the Earth, a beautiful book by T.C. McLuhan published in 1971, a collection of statements and writings by Native Americans from the 17th century onwards that tells the story of how the First Nations lost their land as a result of the lies and deceptions of the European settlers. One of the most striking things that emerges from this treasured book is the great gulf that seems to lie between the Native American and the Euro-American thought. The two peoples seem to have different ways of relating to the world:
Our land is more valuable than your money. It will last forever. As long as the sun shines and the water flows, this land will be here to give life…
– Blackfoot Native American leader, on being asked to sign a treaty ceding their land to settlers, 1870s
Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together.
All things connect.
– Chief Seattle, 1854
Reminds me of an old song by Butch Hancock, ‘Already Gone’:
You don’t know what you’re missing with your endless supplies
Of that infinite variety of the same old merchandise …
I asked my angel – if heaven was near
She said it’s closer than it looks
But you can’t get there from here …
Peabody and your government – got no respect for this earth
They wanna move the Indians again from the very land of their birth
They wanna move big mountain – and cut the coal out from under
They don’t know about sunshine – they never listen to thunder
You know who ‘they’ are – ah, but who are you?
To let them do this to a people – who’d never do this to you?
At the conclusion to her book, Naomi Klein offered this epigraph; the words are those of Martin Luther King, speaking in 1967:
We as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
She concludes the film by asking:
What if global warming isn’t just a crisis? What if it’s the best chance we’ll ever get to build a better world?
This Changes Everything: trailer
This Changes Everything: short film by Naomi Klein for Guardian
- This Changes Everything: website of the book and the film
- The Leap manifesto: website
- The New Abolitionism: Averting planetary disaster will mean forcing fossil fuel companies to give up at least $10 trillion in wealth (The Nation, 2014)
- Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math: Three simple numbers that add up to global catastrophe – and that make clear who the real enemy is: essay by Bill McKibben, Rolling Stone, 2012
- Keep It In The Ground: Guardian campaign
- Spring: sunshine and glory. But: What is wrong with us? (March 2015)
- Climate change: living with cognitive dissonance (December 2015)
- The last day of September (September 2014)
2 thoughts on “Hotter than ever: capitalism, the Leap Manifesto and This Changes Everything”
Trying to understand “economics”, I once asked a friend, “But why does “productivity” have to constantly go up? Can’t we just recycle and live only on what we need?” I see now his answer, which also made no sense to me, was based on capitalism as the only way for society to function. I did not believe that was true, and your article gives me hope that others feel that way that as well. You are right; our only chance for survival is to restructure the way we are living. (K)
Terrifying, infuriating yet optimistic… great article, Gerry. I recommend checking out this series of articles on Elon Musk/Tesla/Space X for a shot-in-the-arm of positivity: http://waitbutwhy.com/2015/05/elon-musk-the-worlds-raddest-man.html
On capitalism, my thoughts run along the following lines: like all economic schools of thought, it is fine and works ‘in theory’ (as does Communism). The problem is that, in practice, capitalism is rife with opportunities to be exploited, hence the gamed corrupt system of today, with subsidies for polluters and lower taxes if you can afford to pay someone to explore the loopholes.