This is one of the most important books I’ve read for a long time. It’s authoritatively researched, absolutely ‘on the front line’ of the politics of climate change today, profound in its analysis of contemporary capitalism, and hugely impactful in terms of laying out the implications of that kind of analysis for the Left and for the Environment Movement. And that made it a somewhat uncomfortable read for me personally – for reasons I’ll explain later.
This isn’t really a blog or a book review. It’s just a download in response to a very provocative piece of work. Hence the extensive use of the author’s own words.
I’ve been aware for some time of today’s rather different pattern of protest against new oil, coal and gas developments. Our closest sight of this here in the UK were the protests at Balcombe in Sussex back in 2013. Balcombe is not exactly an epicentre of radical politics, but pretty much the whole community rose up in arms against the idea of a large fracking operation in their backyard. The involvement (arrest, trial and not guilty verdict) of Green Party MP Caroline Lucas may have obscured the reality that this was a ‘true blue community’ telling the merchants of fracking to sod off.
Naomi Klein sweeps around the world homing in on dozens of similar protests, from the Skouries Forest in Greece to Pungesti in Romania, from the Yasuni National Park in Ecuador to the Niger Delta in Ogoniland, from Richmond, California, to the badlands of Alberta. Each and every campaign is remarkable in itself; some have ended in triumph, but many haven’t. Each takes strength from the existence of the others, and though the numbers of people involved may still be small, the global impact grows by the day. Klein calls this phenomenon ‘Blockadia’. And Blockadia is at the heart of her feelings of hope for a better world:
‘Blockadia is not a specific location on a map, but rather a roving transnational conflict zone that is cropping up with increasing frequency and intensity wherever extractive projects are attempting to dig and drill, whether for open-pit mines, or gas fracking, or tar sands oil pipelines. What is clear is that fighting a giant extractive industry on your own can seem impossible, especially in a remote, sparsely populated location. But being part of a continent-wide, even global, movement that has the industry surrounded is a very different story. Blockadia is turning the tables, insisting that it is up to industry to prove that its methods are safe – and in the era of extreme energy that is something that simply cannot be done.’
One thing that took me by surprise was her record of the number of these campaigns that are being led by indigenous people. Her analysis shows that in countries like Canada, USA, Australia, up in the Arctic and in much of South America, ‘many of the planet’s largest and most dangerous unexploded carbon bombs lie beneath land and waters to which Indigenous people have legitimate legal claims.’ She doesn’t romanticise this, and acknowledges the painful reality that Big Oil’s money has often persuaded indigenous people to embrace the same extractivist horror story that we ourselves have. But the tide is now turning. Many of those deals have brought few lasting benefits to the communities involved, and there’s a deeper story at work here as a process of rediscovery within those indigenous cultures starts to reclaim lost ground:
‘Western culture has worked very hard to erase Indigenous cosmologies that call on the past and the future to interrogate present-day actions, with long-dead ancestors always present, alongside the generations yet to come. As Indigenous people have taken on leadership roles within this movement, these long-protected ways of seeing are spreading in a way that has not occurred for centuries. What is emerging, in fact, is a new kind of reproductive rights movement, one fighting not only for the reproductive rights of women, but for the reproductive rights of the planet as a whole – for the decapitated mountains, the drowned valleys, the clear-cut forests, the fracked water tables, the strip-mined hillsides, the poisoned rivers, the “cancer villages.” All of life has the right to renew, regenerate, and heal itself.’
Klein believes that these regenerative direct action campaigns will grow and grow. And that will inspire other kinds of climate-related campaigning, particularly the whole divestment movement. Klein argues that the number of institutions and philanthropic foundations that are choosing to become part of the divestment movement is increasing all the time, pulling their investments out of companies in fossil fuels and redirecting them into alternative energy stocks. As she says:
‘The main power of divestment is not that it financially harms Shell and Chevron in the short term, but that it erodes the social licence of fossil fuel companies, and builds pressure on politicians to introduce across-the-board emission reductions. Divestment is just the first stage of this delegitimization process, but it is already well under way.’
There are two things that are driving this new combination of direct action campaigns and divestment movements. First, the science of climate change just gets grimmer and grimmer. Those who stay true to a denialist faith are either sunk deep in a slough of anti-scientific idiocy or are part of what Klein portrays as an all-too-aware right wing movement. Some of Klein’s most interesting analysis relates to her dissection of the denialist world. As she points out, while some may indeed be that stupid, many have long since given up denying the science itself: they’re just fighting for the maintenance of their political ideology:
‘So here’s my inconvenient truth: I think these hard-core ideologues understand the real significance of climate change better than most of the “warmists” in the political center, the ones who are still insisting that the response can be gradual and painless, and that we don’t need to go to war with anybody, including the fossil fuel companies.’
I’ll come back to all that!
And the second massive shift driving this new-style campaigning is that we now know we really can build a better world for the whole of humankind without fossil fuels than we can through our continued dependence on them. Klein doesn’t go into this in any great detail, but why should she? Every day another new study seems to pop up mapping out a route for different countries to a fossil-fuel-free world, way before 2050. Efficiency, renewables, storage, smart grids – I’ve been banging on about this for so long that I won’t weary you with it all over again. Suffice it to say that it’s all do-able. And do-able in the next decade.
So far so good. But This Changes Everything isn’t just another book about climate change and what to do about it. It’s primarily about climate change and the future of capitalism. And that’s why Naomi Klein’s earlier works (especially The Shock Doctrine) bring a new (and, for me, all too compelling) lens to bear on the same old endlessly reworked climate change schtick.
So let me try and summarise the basic case that Naomi Klein is using to explain why ‘this changes everything’. Accelerating climate change is the massive problem it is primarily because of the particularly vicious form of capitalism that has dominated the global economy for the last 40 years or so. That kind of neoliberal market fundamentalism has allowed extractivist industries to lay waste to the natural environment even as it is has enabled political and financial élites the world over both to enrich themselves at the expense of the common good and to entrench their own political powers – with the active connivance of today’s global media barons:
Worse yet, accelerating climate change will not – and cannot – be addressed by that same capitalist system, despite the existential threat it now poses to the whole of humankind. The principal power brokers of that capitalist system would rather see the full fury of runaway climate change unleashed than see its own ideological supremacy swept away:
‘We know that we are trapped within an economic system that has it backwards; it behaves as if there is no end to what is actually finite (clean water, fossil fuels, and the atmospheric space to absorb their emissions) while insisting that there are strict and immovable limits to what is actually quite flexible: the financial resources that human institutions manufacture, and that, if imagined differently, could build the kind of caring society we need.’
Conventional forms of political opposition (painfully represented by ‘reformist’ parties like the Labour Party here in the UK) are all but incapable of doing anything about that. Addressing climate change demands that we address the fundamental inequalities at the heart of our economy. As Naomi Klein says: ‘Because of lost decades, it’s time to turn this round now. Is it possible? Absolutely. Is it possible without challenging the fundamental logic of deregulated capitalism? Not a chance.’
At the same time, it means putting an end to the collective madness of seeking indefinite, exponential economic growth on a finite planet:
‘Any attempt to rise to the climate challenge will be fruitless unless it is understood as part of a much broader battle of world views, a process of rebuilding and reinventing the very idea of the collective, the communal, the commons, the civil, and the civic after so many decades of attack and neglect. We will need to start believing, once again, that humanity is not hopelessly selfish and greedy – the image ceaselessly sold to us by everything from reality shows to neo-classical economics.’
To be honest, it’s very hard not to agree with this logic. Just look at the terminal confusion of our political leaders who continue to characterise the debate as ‘climate change versus jobs and economic development’. And just look at the majority of business leaders (outside of the extractivist industries themselves) who can see we’re stuck in a zero sum game, but seem incapable of persuading their investors to help change the rules of that game.
Naomi Klein is particularly harsh about some of today’s so-called ‘green billionaires’, and indulges herself with a rather vicious attack on Richard Branson. No doubt I’m biased (as someone who’s worked with Richard on a number of his green initiatives), but the level of misrepresentation here is deeply regrettable. Whilst readily conceding that the very idea of ‘sustainable capitalism’ is full of contradictions, badging all green billionaires (including Branson, Bloomberg and Buffett) as wicked charlatans seems to be more about settling old scores than providing any kind of impartial analysis.
And one of those old scores is the whole area of geoengineering. Klein (and many others like her) see geoengineering as the last, worst endeavour of a small group of techno-fixing supremacists (as in ‘asserting our supremacy over the natural world’) and deluded neoliberal ideologues to maintain the old order – with a lot of money to throw around indulging these delusions. What she describes as the ‘Geoclique’ should indeed be a cause for huge concern:
‘The earth is not our prisoner, our patient, our machine, or, indeed, our monster. It is our entire world. And the solution to global warming is not to fix the world; it is to fix ourselves. Because geoengineering will certainly monsterize the planet as nothing experienced in human history. We also know how that system will deal with the reality of serial, climate-related disasters: with profiteering and escalating barbarism to segregate the losers from the winners.’
I couldn’t agree more. But unfortunately, Klein’s account of the geo-engineering story is more than a little undermined by the fact that she focusses almost exclusively on technologies that seek to manage the amount of sunlight reaching the Earth (so-called Solar Radiation Management – or SRM), and says very little about technologies and land-use strategies designed to get a lot more CO2 down out of the atmosphere than can be achieved solely through today’s natural cycles – often called ‘Carbon Dioxide Removal’ or CDR.
And the truth of it is that apart from that crazy Geoclique (which definitely doesn’t include Richard Branson) everybody hates the idea of geo-engineering – it’s a worst case Plan Z if Plans A to Y all fail. But unfortunately, given how late we’ve left it, all of those Plans might well fail – as in not be sufficient to ensure that we can maintain a stable climate without further interventions to reduce levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. At that point, the near-insane arrogance of the SRM lobby will need to be ruthlessly constrained, even as we acknowledge the need to start investing in CDR. A complicated mix.
And that’s exactly what Richard Branson’s Virgin Earth Challenge is all about: creating a prize of $25m for the first entrepreneur who can successfully demonstrate a feasible method of removing ‘significant volumes of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere each year for at least ten years’. The Prize hasn’t yet been awarded simply because nobody’s been able to meet the strict criteria, not because (in Naomi Klein’s hugely cynical view) the Prize has been ‘repurposed’ as a justification for business-as-usual dependence on fossil fuels. And it absolutely doesn’t make out that geoengineering offers any kind of alternative to prioritising rapid and urgent decarbonisation.
That was more or less the position I came to myself, in The World We Made, a fictional account of the world in 2050, where the realisation dawns in the early 2020s that we’re simply going to have to draw down billions of tonnes of CO2 out of the atmosphere, by additional means of one kind or another, if we’re to avoid runaway climate change. Nothing to celebrate in that, and the cost to humankind will undoubtedly be grievous. But better that than simply allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by the kind of warming that would ensue if we didn’t undertake such measures.
Interestingly, Naomi Klein would appear to believe it may not yet be that bad, and certainly does not subscribe to any kind of ‘Dark Mountain’ tendencies – as in people who believe that it’s all too late. Though she describes this as ‘Decade Zero’, it’s definitely not too late in her book. One of the chapters is entitled ‘Just Enough Time for the Impossible’. And what makes the impossible possible is the gathering power of resistance in Blockadia:
‘The power of this ferocious love is what the resource companies and their advocates in government inevitably underestimate, precisely because no amount of money can extinguish it. When what is being fought for is an identity, a culture, a beloved place that people are determined to pass on to their grandchildren, and that their ancestors may have paid for with great sacrifice, there’s nothing companies can offer as a bargaining chip.’
That, in itself, would clearly not be sufficient. But radiating out from these epicentres of resistance, Naomi Klein draws up a vision of much larger social movements beginning to kick in:
‘Only mass social movements can save us now. This means laying out a vision of the world that competes directly with today’s vision, one that resonates with the majority of people on the planet because it is true: that we are not apart from nature but of it. That acting collectively for a greater good is not suspect, and that such common projects of mutual aid are responsible for our species’ greatest accomplishments. That greed must be disciplined and tempered by both rule and example. That poverty amidst plenty is unconscionable.’
Now I have to admit that it does all get a little bit wishy-washy at that point. This is not a carefully worked-through political manifesto; the details of how this particular manifestation of capitalism will be swept away are pretty hazy. We’re not even told whether it’s still capitalism per se, in all its multiple manifestations, that has to go, and we’re certainly not told (were that to be the case) what would replace it. Which allows a reader like me (who still believes, though somewhat more forlornly as each year passes, that there is a version of a market-based, for-profit economy that can deliver both justice and biophysical sustainability) to be swept along on the coat-tails of the ‘this changes everything’ hypothesis. Climate change could indeed be ‘the catalyst to attack inequality at its core, the basis for a “Marshall Plan” for the Earth’:
‘The task is to articulate not just an alternative set of policy proposals, but an alternative world view to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis – embedded in interdependence rather than hyper-individualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy. The climate movement has yet to find its full moral voice on the world stage, but it is most certainly clearing its throat.’
And that’s where it all gets more interesting – simply because Naomi Klein is quick to acknowledge that for such a transformation to take place, both the Left and the Environment Movement are going to have to transform themselves. She has some witheringly critical things to say about both. First as regards the Left:
‘It is a painful irony that while the Right is forever casting climate change as a Left-wing plot, most of the Leftists and the Liberals are still averting their eyes, having yet to grasp that climate science has handed them the most powerful argument against unfettered capitalism since William Blake’s “dark Satanic Mills” blackened England’s skies. By all rights, this reality should be filling progressive sails with conviction, lending new confidence to the demands for a more just economic model. And yet, when demonstrators are protesting the various failures of this system in Athens, Madrid, Istanbul and New York, climate change is too often little more than a footnote when it could be the coup de grâce.’
And could one possibly find a better example of this than the good old Labour Party here in the UK! Courtesy of Tony Blair and the ‘modernising zeal’ of Peter Mandelson, the Labour Party is still totally in thrall to the neoliberal, market fundamentalism of today’s political, financial and media élites. Ed Miliband may not be terribly comfortable to find himself in such a position, ideologically, but he seems utterly incapable of extricating himself from the moribund grip of Balls and Cooper. And in so doing, he’s missing out on the best possible way of restoring some sense of higher purpose to a political party that would otherwise appear to be in terminal decline:
‘The Left is going to have to quickly learn from the Right. Conservatives have managed to stall and roll back climate action amidst economic crisis by making climate about economics – about the pressing need to protect growth and jobs during difficult times. Progressives can easily do the same by showing that the real solutions to the climate crisis are also our best hope of building a much more stable and equitable economic system, one that strengthens and transforms the public sphere, generates plentiful, dignified work, and radically reins in corporate greed.’
So much for the Left – God help them! But Naomi Klein saves her most trenchant criticism for the Environment Movement – or, at least, for those parts of the Environment Movement that continue supping with the devils of an extractivist economy as if the story hadn’t changed irreversibly over the last few years.
The bad guys here are The Nature Conservancy (indeed, they’re the really bad guys!), Conservation International, EdF and the Sierra Club (before it repented); the good guys are Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the Rainforest Action Network and so on.
Some of her analysis here covers pretty old ground, revealed for the first time (with maximum impact and controversy) in Nordhaus and Shellenberger’s The Death of Environmentalism back in 2004. So far, This Changes Everything seems to have stirred rather less controversy in this area, though for me hers is an even more devastating critique.
What Naomi Klein sets out to demonstrate is a pattern of continuing collusion between Big Green and Big Pollution – particularly the oil and gas sector. Why, she asks, have those big conservation organisations persisted for so long in their advocacy of unconventional gas as a ‘transition fuel’; in their efforts to jam the ‘square peg of the climate crisis into the round hole of deregulated capitalism’; and in their demonstrable, incontrovertible failure to build a broader popular movement to take on the neoliberals and the climate deniers where it really hurts – in terms of jobs, prosperity, skills, entitlements and so on?
She’s particularly incensed about the collusion of these organisations on the whole issue of fracking:
And then there’s the additional but still startling hypocrisy of organisations with huge endowments continuing to invest in fossil fuels even as they ‘campaign’ against some of the pollution that the burning of these fossil fuels is causing. And beyond that, there’s their continuing failure to challenge the ‘grow or die’ orthodoxies of conventional economics, or to take any interest whatsoever in social justice.
That well-worn cliché about the Green Movement – that it’s ‘neither Right nor Left’ – does indeed ring pretty hollow these days, even if it once made sense for the early Green Parties back in the 1980s. You only have to stand back for a moment, and think through what the Right stands for in today’s world, and it’s pretty clear that environmentalism without an equally compelling commitment to social justice lacks any real integrity.
For Klein, there are no half measures here. For anyone who’s worked with the oil and gas industry (as I have), her words are more than a little unforgiving. There was indeed a time – not so very long ago, as it happens – when I seriously persuaded myself that it was still just about possible for companies like Shell and BP to find some way of transitioning into ‘fully-integrated energy companies’, investing as much in renewables, storage and efficiency as in hydrocarbons, instead of reverting to what they are today: pure-play hydrocarbon dinosaurs.
That moment passed – in BP, with the departure of John Browne; in Shell, with the departure of Mark Moody-Stuart. I should have seen it then, but I still stuck with those two companies for a few years more.
Worse yet, since I find myself in the confessional, I cannot deny that I once felt some historical sympathy with the transition story so persuasively woven around unconventional gas - on the grounds that bringing such gas to market might have helped to ‘kill coal’ (there is some evidence to that effect, but not much), whilst proving itself to be the ‘least worst hydrocarbon option’. Well, fracked gas may still prove to be just that, but the evidence now demonstrates that the so-called ‘low-carbon benefits’ of fracked gas are so marginal (once the fugitive emissions of methane it gives rise to have been taken fully into account) as to invalidate any notional superiority on that score.
I no longer believe that today’s oil and gas majors are capable of adapting to the imperative of rapid decarbonisation, and I no longer have any faith at all in the ‘transition myth’ woven around unconventional gas.
These were harsh lessons for me personally, and re-examining them (under Naomi Klein’s appropriately forensic scrutiny), inevitably made me question the much broader path I’ve been on for the last 20 years, prioritising engagement with the business community across many, many different sectors. Have I perhaps been afflicted by equally debilitating illusions across the whole spectrum of a business-led approach to sustainability, promoting this as some kind of (albeit very inadequate) substitute for the kind of political leadership that seems to remain wholly unattainable?
On that particular score, do not look for any guidance from Naomi Klein! Indeed, This Changes Everything remains intractably ambivalent on the issue of business leadership. On the one hand, she rips into the ‘green billionaires’ with as much energy as she rips into the extractivist industries, essentially leaving the reader with the idea that all business and industry are incapable of real leadership. On the other hand, she implicitly recognises that we still need big business to drive investment in sectors like renewable energy, transport, waste management and so on, just as much as we need innovators and entrepreneurs. Whilst I would never expect Naomi Klein to endorse the idea of business as a ‘force for good’, I think she’s missing a trick by failing to recognise just how powerful the combination of progressive business leadership and radical civil society actors has already become.
For that reason, I find myself feeling even more strongly about where we now are in Forum for the Future: avoid all involvement in companies that extract and burn fossil fuels; work even more urgently to help our Partners in other sectors to decarbonise as radically and rapidly as possible – as the single most important facet of corporate sustainability; celebrate the kind of individual and corporate leadership that helps make this transition happen; and help bring the power of sustainable innovation to bear on every aspect of that incredibly challenging process. And never – never – leave out an equal emphasis on social justice.
If Naomi Klein is right (and I believe she is), the transition to an ultra-low carbon world is going to happen far faster than most people believe possible – and that’s pretty much the transition that I mapped out in The World We Made. There will still be compromises a-plenty along the way, but the imperatives about how best to advocate for a genuinely just and sustainable world are now clearer in my mind than ever before.
In conclusion, This Changes Everything hasn’t quite changed everything in my own working life! But it’s compelled an often uncomfortable but hugely constructive re-evaluation of the foundations on which that working life is built, and I can’t help but be grateful to Naomi Klein for that prompt.
So, read it. It’s a great book. See what it makes change for you!