When history knocks
Naomi Klein rightly blames capitalism for climate change. But she doesn’t go far enough.
Naomi Klein is a longtime movement and media icon, a gifted synthesizer and popularizer who, over the past two decades, has been a leading chronicler of anti-corporate, anti-globalization, and anti-capitalist social movements (a series of “anti”s that undeniably needs some unpacking).
Who else on the Left gets a sympathetic interview on the evening news of Canada’s publicly owned television broadcaster before the release of her latest book? And who else, as a preview of that book, is immediately given a chance to explain to a national audience why, from the perspective of the environment, capitalism is “the main enemy?”
Klein’s writings and talks have provided “the movement” with needed context and coherence, and served as a conduit and catalyst for discussions, contributing to its recruitment and growth. Her new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, is the climax of her highly influential trilogy and also registers how much her perspective has changed over the last fifteen years.
This shift centers on both her assessment of the movement — more than ever before, Klein expresses frustrations with the movement she is part of and still sees as fundamental to social change — and her deeper appreciation of capitalism “as the main enemy.” On this latter point, her earlier criticisms of particular aspects of capitalism have now expanded into suggesting — or at least coming very close to suggesting — that capitalism has become the central barrier to human survival and progress.
Klein’s trilogy began with No Logo, which came out in 1999 and exposed the manipulative and exploitative underbelly of consumer culture. Fortuitously published amid the Battle of Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization and later branded the “bible of the anti-globalization movement,” No Logo built on the moral crusade across university campuses against the corporate use of sweatshop labor for that culture. But it mistakenly separated supposedly “good” and “bad” corporations, obscuring the larger social system in which these companies lived and acted.
Klein’s second major book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism also arrived at a propitious moment: in 2007, just before the financial implosion and the most dramatic economic crisis since the Great Depression. This time Klein chronicled how corporations and capitalist states pounce on the opportunities provided by man-made or natural crises to “ram through policies that enrich a small elite.” In this case, though, the focus on crises underplayed what capitalism does between crises.
Again displaying a penchant for well-timed releases, Klein’s This Changes Everything reached bookstores two days before October’s massive Climate March in New York City. Here it is no longer capitalism’s bad apples that are the focus, nor capitalism’s ability to use crises against us, but the organizing principles of the system itself — and the environmental consequences that follow. “[O]ur economic system and our planetary system are now at war,” Klein writes, “and it’s not the laws of nature that can be changed.”
In characteristically accessible language, Klein summarizes the alarming scientific consensus on climate change. But the significance of This Changes Everything doesn’t lie in Klein’s detailed and passionate description of the urgency of the environmental crisis. Rather, its importance lies in Klein’s determination to demonstrate that changing our relationship to nature is inseparable from changing our relationship to each other — by “transforming our economic system” (I’ll return later to ambiguities in how this is interpreted).
The immediate threat to the earth “changes everything” in the sense that just adding “the environment” to our list of concerns is not good enough.
The sheer scale of the problem necessitates a politics that can take on capitalism. We must do away with any notions, Klein asserts, that the environmental crisis can be contained and eventually rolled back through policy tinkering (though addressing symptoms is necessary); technical fixes (though sensible technological advances should be vigorously pursued); or market-based solutions (no qualification necessary — it’s silly to expect the market to solve problems it was instrumental in creating). Something far more comprehensive is required.