This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein
Reviewed by Derek Wall
Naomi Klein’s new book This Changes Everything is essential reading for socialists who seek to understand and respond to the politics of climate change. Naomi Klein, the Canadian-born daughter of parent who left the US because of the Vietnam War, has produced a series of books challenging neo-liberal globalisation and promoting anti-capitalism. Her book No Logo showed how working-class opposition to capitalism was still essential but noted that the working class was increasingly global and increasingly female. The Shock Doctrine examined how catastrophes, from the 1973 coup in Chile to Hurricane Katrina and the second Gulf War, were used to promote the needs of the rich and powerful. This Changes Everything argues that climate change is a product of capitalism and that to tackle rising CO2 emissions we need a new society. The central message of the book is that our present, market-based economy is at war with our environment.
Klein writes well. She is persuasive, easy to read and builds on her own experience to tell compelling stories. Her journalistic skills are supported by extensive referencing and theoretical awareness. Her books are models of how to present left politics. This Changes Everything can be read as an ‘everything you might want to know about climate change’ guide.
Klein’s opening argument is that the right are correct to recognise the threat that climate change policies pose to capitalism. After carefully rebutting the arguments of the climate change deniers, she notes that, far from being a product of ignorance, the assault on science is motivated by class interests. Tackling climate change requires challenging the market logic that dominates society at present; socialist solutions are required, so the right must deny the reality of climate change. However Klein is also clear that many of the solutions currently proposed and strategies developed are distorted by market logic. She is clear, for example, that the current global framework used at climate conferences such as the upcoming Paris summit in 2015 is based on carbon trading. Such trading, where carbon emissions are given a price and trade, has benefited banks and there have even been attempts to develop carbon trading hedge funds. However Klein shows that carbon trading has failed to reduce emissions.
She is also excellent in showing how the rhetoric of billionaires who claim to be indulging in climate change reducing charity, is empty, her key example being Virgin boss Richard Branson. Branson has, of course, been keen to expand air travel but his support for biofuel for flying has produced no useful results. Klein’s chapters on how large conservation NGOs have been co-opted by business, and how geo-engineering is being used to privatise the atmosphere, are also very useful.
Socialists will also be interested to read her suggestions for workable solutions to climate chaos. Capitalism for Klein wrecks the environment because of the drive for short-term profit. Typically, companies that have invested heavily in fossil fuels, whether producers such as big oil and coal companies, car manufactures or electricity generators, have an interest in protecting their investments. Collective solutions, from free public transport to community ownership of energy generation, cut against the logic of market societies. Climate change threatens capitalism, but climate change solutions threaten many capitalists more immediately. Without providing a utopian blueprint, Klein’s alternative to climate chaos is clearly socialist.
Her bridge to a society that works is also attractive in many ways to revolutionaries and others on the left. She has no faith in the electoral process, pressure groups or reform. Radical grassroots mobilisation is her inspiration. Her focus on indigenous movements such as Canada’s Idle No More and other movements against the tar sands is detailed and appealing.
Her comments on trade unions are positive but brief. The word ‘ecosocialism’ is absent and her comments on the left are lukewarm. There are a number of missing elements in her text and one is an engagement with other left accounts of climate change and green socialism. An enthusiasm for grassroots militant social movements is mirrored by an absence of more detailed strategic considerations including an estimation of the contribution of Marxism to social and ecological change.
Naomi Klein is aware of Marx and Engels’ interest in environmental issues and cites John Bellamy Foster’s book Marx’s Ecology. She notes various trade union projects to promote climate jobs, but largely ignores critical analysis of trade union and socialist responses to climate change. She is critical of the Latin American left governments in Ecuador, Boliva and Venezuela for continuing to rely on fossil fuels as their main exports and sources of tax revenue. While such criticism is appropriate she forgets the work of ALBA, the trade and solidarity bloc of Latin American left countries that has been doing important work on climate. The ALBA countries, particularly Bolivia, have been the most radical force at climate negotiations globally demanding emissions cuts. It is not easy to end economic dependence on fossil fuels but it is at least positive news that, ironically or not, oil-dependent countries like Venezuela aspire to a different kind of economic model and promote global action on climate. The contrast with Saudi Arabia or even the UK is obvious.
Cuba, a country that has managed to cut emissions and promote economic development, is also ignored. If there is one essential missing chapter in Klein’s book it is an account of their success in doing so. The rich history of green trade unionism is another omission. In the UK, low-level nuclear waste dumping at sea was ended after industrial action by the National Union of Seaman (now part of the RMT). During the 1980s the Australian Building Workers Union used green bans to protect conservation areas.
Klein’s book, while lively and vital reading, is thus incomplete. Nevertheless it is superior to other accounts that fail to move beyond individual consumer action and market mechanisms. So read, share, and be inspired by this book, but don’t take it as the final word on climate change and the need for a socialist response to environmental crises.
Derek Wall is International Coordinator of the Green Party of England and Wales