17 Nov 2014
Naomi Klein’s ‘This Changes Everything’: a review
Reading a Naomi Klein book is always a deeply absorbing experience. In a sense, the sheer size of them means you have no choice other than to be absorbed (This Changes Everything runs to almost 600 pages). Her two previous masterworks, No Logo and The Shock Doctrine were mind-altering and life-changing for me. This Changes Everything is Klein’s climate change book. It is a powerful, deeply felt, painstakingly-researched book which takes the reader on an incredible journey and makes a radical yet common-sense case. So why is it that by the end I felt underwhelmed?
There is much about the book that is fantastic. She brilliantly unpicks the complexities of our headlong plunge into climate chaos. She destroys the “austerity or extraction” myth, reframing it as “poverty or poisoning”. She sets out the passionate case that:
“climate change is, in fact, a massive job creator, as well as a community rebuilder, and a source of hope in moments when hope is a scarce commodity indeed”.
She identifies capitalism, in particular our current what she calls “extractivist” version, as the central driver of the crisis, but argues that climate change should be the rallying call around which the alternative is built. We’ve tried it the neo-liberals’ way for the last 20 years, she says, and “the soaring emissions speak for themselves”.
We meet the climate denying Heartland Institute, we meet scientists proposing geoengineering (mirrors in space, sulphur pumped into the upper atmosphere, iron filings in the sea etc) and the billionaires claiming to be doing something about it while doing very little (this is not a book Richard Branson will be giving to many people this Christmas). She looks into the right wing mindset behind much of this, writing:
“You would think that turning down the sun for every person on earth is a more intrusive form of big government than asking citizens to change their light bulbs. But that is to miss the point: for the fossil fuel companies and their paid champions, anything is preferable to regulating ExxonMobil, including attempts to regulate the sun”.
She takes the reader deep into the heart of the movements around the world who are doing something about it. We hear about the divestment movement that is spreading with such urgency through universities and other organisations. Her response to the criticism that it will just lead to the sold shares being picked up by other people?
“This misses the power of the strategy: every time students, professors, and faith leaders make the case for divestment, they are chipping away at the social licence with which these companies operate”.
We meet communities mobilising to fight fracking, oil extraction, pipelines and mountaintop removal around the world. We meet ordinary people of all ages standing up and putting their bodies on the line to keep the carbon in the ground and to protect their air, water and future. To me, it felt like this is where Klein feels most comfortable as a writer, reporting on demonstrations on mountainsides, blockades and the politics of resistance.
So why my reluctance to give what is, in so many ways a brilliant book, 10 out of 10? Firstly, I’m not sure how many people actually read books this big any more. It’s a sad reality that less and less people read anything of any length, given the kicking the internet has given most of our attention spans. I was reading this book on the train, and the guy sat next to me told me, almost apologetically, “I haven’t read a book for 3 years!”
Klein has stated that she wrote this book for people who don’t read books about climate change. I would be hugely surprised if any such people read this book. Surely to encourage them to read a book on climate change, making it 564 pages long with no pictures isn’t the smartest place to start? I struggled, and I read this stuff all the time.
Secondly, I had to wait until page 397 for her to write:
“…there is no more potent weapon in the battle against fossil fuels than the creation of real alternatives. Just the glimpse of another kind of economy can be enough to energise the fight against the old one”.
Those words came like water in the desert at that point. I was three quarters of the way through the book, and struggling. We get a paragraph or two on Transition (which feels about 4 years out of date and behind what is actually happening, an occupational hazard of a book that takes 5 years to write), and then we’re back into how to fight fossil fuel companies again.
The stories of native peoples in the US and Canada standing up to fossil fuel companies are inspiring stuff. But this leads to my third problem with it. The subtitle of the book is ‘Capitalism vs the Climate’, yet what I didn’t find here was a reasoned and robust alternative to capitalism. We get a strong dose of what it won’t be like, the many ways in which the current system is deeply flawed. But what might the alternative look like? We are told that a 100% renewable economy is entirely possible, as is a low carbon food system, a transport system fit for a low carbon world and so on.
None of that will come as news to anyone involved in Transition. But what is the alternative economic model to underpin it? Is it an adaptation of capitalism, or something else? We don’t get that, and that feels like a big thing that is missing. This isn’t a problem unique to Klein, a spectrum of different models exists, from Steady State models, to green growth models to complete localisation approaches. Although Transition’s REconomy work is a tool for local economic regeneration, it isn’t a new economic model, although it would form part of one. But the question of what an economic Plan B would look like goes largely unanswered.
By the time I reached page 417, I felt drained, exhausted. I had reached saturation point: “not another story about why fossil fuel companies are the bad guys, please!” We were convinced of that within the first 10 pages. She falls into the classic rational deficit strategy, i.e. if you give people enough depressing information they will respond. But it is clear now that that usually doesn’t work. Appealing to values is also really important. Writing in Transition Free Press, Tom Crompton of Common Cause (whose work is mentioned in this book) wrote:
“An understanding of values … points to the importance of not getting hung up on the issues (energy insecurity or climate change, for example). Rather, any group working for social change would do well to free itself from a narrow issues-focus and ask in more free-ranging terms: “What are the issues that matter most to the people whom we most need to engage?” and then, crucially, “How do we campaign and communicate on these more resonant issues in a way that connects with intrinsic values?”
Although there are occasional sparks, it feels to me that this approach of speaking directly to those values that will resonate across the political spectrum is somewhat lacking (at least, until the end of the book, as we shall see). She fails, it seems to me, to consider the impact on the reader of chapter after chapter of grim events, people, news and statistics. This is a surprise, given that in her brilliant Guardian Live interview she recently said, of Transition:
“The other thing that I think the Transition movement does really well is to create spaces for people to talk about the emotional side to this crisis … That it isn’t just an outer transition, but also we have to go through our own personal transformation, and that also involves expressing that grief. It’s something that the feminist movement has done well, and a lot of people in the Transition Town movement who are part of this Inner Transition piece of it, come out of the feminist movement, because there’s an understanding that if you’re going to collapse peoples’ world views, you have to stick around to pick up the pieces”.
Yet it isn’t until the penultimate chapter of the book, ‘The Right to Regenerate’, that Klein creates some space for herself to “talk about the emotional side to this crisis”. Before then it has been a relentless wave of dreadful people, ghastly things happening, and the climate science which is deeply, deeply troubling. In a very moving chapter she takes us through her numerous attempts to conceive a child, numerous miscarriages, and her own lifestyle and work patterns that were injurious to her, and potentially, to her fertility. We hear of her visits to communities so damaged by the pollution from oil and gas companies, and plastics manufacture, that fertility is being decimated.
She identifies as one of the worst side effects of the ‘extractivist’ approach, alongside climate change, as the impacts it has on fertility, and the ability of life to regenerate itself. She quotes Native American writer and educator Leanne Simpson, talking about her peoples’ teachings and governance structures: “our systems are designed to promote more life”. At this point in the book (page 442), I sat bolt upright for the first time. Here is the distinction. This is what we strive to do in Transition, and in so many other movements trying to sort this out by applying holistic thinking to problems caused by siloed institutions and linear thinking. We are all striving to create communities that create more life, rather than destroy it.
What I wish is that this was where Klein had started This Changes Everything. I would have so loved her to apply her passion, her visionary writing, her unrivalled power as a writer, to what is breaking through rather than what is breaking down (to borrow an expression from Positive News). If it’s a book written for people who don’t read books about climate change it needs a different approach, one I could only find in the last couple of chapters. In the Guardian Live interview she says:
“A lot of what we call apathy is just people not knowing how to deal with the overwhelming emotions. So you just push it away”.
My sense is that the relentless presenting of grim information, morally-bankrupt politicians and oil company executives, deranged geoengineering scientists, corrupt governance systems are something most people, on some level, already know about, as she suggests above. But as she says, people don’t know how to deal with it. This Changes Everything is heavy on numbing information, and sparse on suggestions about how to deal with it. George Marshall of COIN, in a blog sharing his thoughts on Klein’s book, wrote:
“Crucially – and where Klein’s book is surprisingly disengaged with the evidence base – we also need to have a plan for building the widespread public support necessary for getting there in the first place”.
I wondered if a better approach, and one that might have taken less of a toll on Klein personally, would have been to write a smaller, more easily-digestable book, built around the last two chapters. It would have been powerful, seminal, rousing, inspirational. As it is, I don’t know how many people would have made it that far into its abundance of pages. Klein is too valuable to this movement, and as a reader I got a clear sense in places of how much this book took out of her. It needn’t have. Less can be more.
Her comparisons at the end of the book between the battle to save the climate and the campaign to end slavery are very powerful. Abolition is the closest thing she can find historically to change on a huge scale that happened in a short time frame. It’s inspirational stuff. Her argument that climate change is the moment to push for everything that progressive movements have worked towards for hundreds of years is a persuasive one, and it was refreshing to see Owen Jones, one of few emergent voices on the Left but who has spoken little about climate change, chairing her Guardian Live event. Her argument that climate justice, social justice and ecological justice are the same thing, is timely and urgently needed. My only fear is how many people will make it that far.
My favourite bit came near the end of the book, and has powerful implications for Transition. It’s an important point, so I will quote it in full:
“Though these movements (that led to the end of slavery) all contained economic arguments as part of building their case for justice, they did not win by putting a monetary value on granting equal rights and freedoms. They won by asserting that those rights and freedoms were too valuable to be measured and were inherent to each of us. Similarly, there are plenty of solid economic arguments for moving beyond fossil fuels, as more and more patient investors are realising. And that’s worth pointing out. But we will not win the battle for a stable climate by trying to beat the bean counters at their own game – arguing, for instance, that it is more cost-effective to invest in emission reduction now than disaster response later. We will win by asserting that such calculations are morally monstrous, since they imply that there is an acceptable price for allowing entire countries to disappear, for leaving untold millions to die on parched land, for depriving today’s children of their right to live in a world teeming with the wonders and beauties of creation”.
It is an important reminder as we promote and discuss Transition, that the economic case, the REconomy side, is vital, but by also arguing that a low carbon future will meet our needs better, and that living in “a world teeming with the wonders and beauties of creation” resonates with everyone. It needs to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, in a good way. Although brilliant, insightful, powerful, timely and undoubtedly vitally-needed, This Changes Everything could have articulated that world far better, as an invitation, as a painting of what must inevitably define our future. George Marshall’s latest book, as captured in the talk he gave to launch it, offers a number of other, sometimes counter-intuitive, approaches to engage more widely around this issue.
I’ll leave the last word to the Beautiful Solutions section of the This Changes Everything website, which puts what feels missing from the book better than I have been able to above:
“Resistance is essential, but it’s not enough. As we fight the injustice around us, we also have to imagine — and create — the world we want. We have to build real alternatives in the here and now — alternatives that are not only living proof that things can be done differently, but that actively challenge, and eventually supplant, the power of the status quo”.