This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate
By Naomi Klein. Knopf Canada, 576 pp, hardcover
Naomi Klein’s latest bestseller, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate, is a big, wide-ranging book that is already changing how the world understands the climate crisis. It made me feel more optimistic about the chances of turning things around, and better equipped to decide where to direct my energy. Anyone who is truly interested in positive change and human survival should invest the time needed to read it carefully.
One of the most compelling themes is the societal denial preventing proportionate responses to the climate and ocean-acidification crises. Klein starts off on a personal note describing how she was until recently a climate denier herself:
“I denied climate change for longer than I care to admit. I knew it was happening, sure. Not like Donald Trump and the Tea Partiers going on about how the continued existence of winter proves it’s all a hoax....I told myself the science was too complicated and that the environmentalists were dealing with it. And I continued to behave as if there was nothing wrong with the shiny card in my wallet attesting to my ‘elite’ frequent flyer status.”
Klein does not waste much time on the outright deniers of climate science who are now a marginal fringe group in most of the world. Instead, she focuses on much more widespread and dangerous forms of what is coming to be called ‘soft climate denial’, and suggests ways to build a climate-justice movement capable of overcoming this malaise.
Like many other authors Klein documents that global warming (and the ocean acidification that is already killing oysters and other shellfish in the Salish Sea) is a very serious crisis. But unlike many mainstream environmentalists she argues that that effective action to deal with this crisis will require profound and difficult changes, rather than easy changes that will barely be noticed.
More importantly, Klein does not pray or beg for political leaders to recognize and declare this crisis and thereby make decisive action possible. Instead she asserts that “we need not be spectators in all this: politicians aren’t the only ones with the power to declare a crisis. Mass movements of regular people can declare one too.”
The recent actions on Burnaby Mountain against the Kinder Morgan oilsands pipeline, where over a hundred people were arrested, is local example of how this emergency is being declared from the grassroots.
According to Klein, the grassroots climate-justice movement is already well on the way to having the climate crisis recognized in a way that revokes the social licence for fossil-fuel expansion. This has been achieved partly through local struggles, such as mountaintop-removal coal mining in Appalachia, where climate was initially not the primary issue.
These initially local struggles against destructive projects have merged into "Blockadia"—a powerful movement with grassroots base and a strong focus on climate justice. The movement for divestment from fossil fuels, modeled on the movement against South African apartheid, is described an organic offshoot of this movement grounded in grassroots direct-action groups.
Importantly, Klein suggests that this grassroots base gives the movement staying power that big, top-down organizations can’t match. There is no head office to decide to shelve the climate campaign when the going gets tough, or to water it down in the hopes of achieving insignificant "wins" to satisfy big funders. Also covered is the checkered history of climate work by big environmental nongovernmental organizations (ENGOs) before the emergence of a strong grassroots climate-justice movement.
The split in large U.S. ENGOs between North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) supporters and opponents is a crucial incident that Klein describes in detail. The Environmental Defense Fund, National Resources Defense Fund, World Wildlife Fund, and other top-down groups sabotaged the fragile global commitment to effective climate action by supporting NAFTA. On the other side Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, and the Sierra Club along with many grassroots environmental groups opposed NAFTA, but were not strong enough to stop it. The grassroots climate justice movement needs to figure out which groups are worth working with, which ones we can only hope to frighten away from selling out with grassroots power, and which ones are just corporate fronts.
The "everything" that changes with the declaration of a climate crisis includes the power to roll back corporate rights pacts, including NAFTA, that block effective climate action. Klein argues that the climate justice movement must organize to sweep away these deeply embedded features of present-day capitalism to avoid truly catastrophic consequences, and states that this would be a good thing in many ways.
Klein agrees with what many environmentalists have been saying for decades: that infinite growth of extraction and consumption on a finite planet is both a recipe for disaster and a defining dogma of present-day capitalism. The difference is that Klein has outlined a vision for the kind of grassroots movement that can declare a climate emergency, really challenge the dogma of growth for its own sake, and make a better world possible along the way.