Naomi Klein’s exhaustive, passionate This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (2014) is an inspiring call to action that exposes many myths associated with the climate debate. But it falls short.
Some ten years ago, Bolivia’s representative to a United Nations climate-change conference, Angelica Navarro Llanos, declared:
If we are to curb emissions in the next decade, we need a massive mobilization larger than any in history. We need a Marshall Plan for the Earth. This plan must mobilize financing and technology transfer on scales never seen before. It must get technology onto the ground in every country to ensure we reduce emissions while raising people’s quality of life. We have only a decade.
During that conference, Klein, author of No Logo and Shock Doctrine, met with Navarro Llanos. Klein says that meeting was “the precise moment when I stopped averting my eyes to the reality of climate change, or at least allowed my eyes to rest there for a good while.” That experience led her to write This Changes Everything.
Among the book’s many strong points, Klein debunks the notion that the “free market” is always the solution, reports on examples of newly emerging local economies that operate in harmony with the environment, vividly describes the threat posed by climate change, documents how Big Oil financed the denial campaign, reveals how large environmental organizations and trade agreements helped overheat the planet, describes effective local public power and other decentralized energy campaigns, and details how making polluters pay for pollution can help pay for a green transition.
Klein sees a mass climate movement as a “historic opportunity” to also “dramatically improve lives, close the gap between rich and poor, create huge numbers of good jobs, and reinvigorate democracy from the ground up.” She argues “the environmental crisis...neither trumps nor distracts from our most pressing political and economic causes: it supercharges each one of them with existential urgency.”
In echoing the call for “System Change, Not Climate Change,” Miya Yoshitani, executive director of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) asserts:
The climate justice fight here in the U.S. and around the world is...the fight for a new economy, a new energy system, a new democracy, a new relationship to the planet and to each other, for land, water, and food sovereignty, for Indigenous rights, for human rights and dignity for all people. When climate justice wins we win the world we want.
But Navarro Llanos’ ten-year deadline has arrived. No significant progress has been achieved. The battle to save Earth is in doubt. One reason may be certain weaknesses in the approach taken by Klein and others.
First, she fails to address personal change. She does speak in general terms about matters such as minimizing materialism. But she doesn’t delve into how culture relates to individual character. To nurture cultural and systemic change, personal change is essential.
The first epigraph at the front of the book illustrates the problem. It’s a quote from Rebecca Tarbotton, former Executive Director of the Rainforest Action Network, that reads:
We need to remember that the work of our time is bigger than climate change. We need to be setting our sights higher and deeper. What we’re really talking about, if we’re honest with ourselves, is transforming everything about the way we live on this planet.
But “the way we live” refers to culture and behavior, not emotion and soul, or the way we experience. Klein’s focus is on “social, political, and economic transformation.” That is insufficient. She says she wants to “go deep,” but does not go deep enough.
Emotional and spiritual transformation are key. How we process our feelings is critical. The space between stimulus and response is decisive. We do have some control over our emotions. Some personal change can happen immediately, before society’s new cultures are fully formed.
Her second error is her loose, inconsistent use of the word “capitalism.” She often makes it clear that the problem is unfettered capitalism as we know it. In an August 2018 article, “Capitalism Killed Our Climate Momentum, Not ‘Human Nature,’” Klein uses phrases such as “modern consumer capitalism,” “deregulated capitalism,” “the unbound form of capitalism known as neoliberalism,” and “free market fundamentalism.” That language correctly implies that the problem is not capitalism per se.
But she also continues to weaken prospects for movement building by blaming “capitalism.” She speaks of “this collision between capitalism and the planet,” “beyond capitalism,” “there is nothing essential about humans living under capitalism,” and “capitalism is a tiny blip in the collective story of our species” -- and calls for “democratic eco-socialism.” Her inconsistency on this point confuses the issue. Her frequent anti-capitalist stance undermines a clear-headed strategy that affirms a mixed economy. Not all forms of capitalism are destructive.
Her left-wing fundamentalism makes idols out of certain words, as do religious fundamentalists with their rigid theologies. Ideologues treat an abstraction, capitalism, as if it were real. They attempt to simplify reality by using labels to impose their ideology.
If activists always used adjectives to clarify what they mean when they talk about “capitalism,” prospects for building a mass, multi-issue movement would be enhanced. Careless rhetoric burns bridges.
Building an effective mass movement will require many improvements in how activists relate to others, and to themselves. Those improvements will require more humility and less dogma.