This Changes Everything

I’ve just finished reading This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate by well-known Canadian environmentalist and writer Naomi Klein. It’s the best book I’ve read in ages.

Book cover. Creative Commons licensing.

Book cover. Creative Commons licensing.

This book doesn’t mess around. It bravely goes straight to the core.

In a style that is intensely readable and colloquial while also bursting with well-sourced facts, Klein tells us in no uncertain terms that the time we have to avert climate-catastrophe is running out scarily fast. Because we’ve wasted so much time faffing around at feeble UN conferences for not years but decades while emissions have soared, we’ve now lost the luxury of weaning ourselves off fossil fuels with gentle but steady steps. After this painful delay, saving ourselves will now only be possible with a global response unprecedented in speed and scale, and pulling it off means breaking all the rules of the free-market bible.

A lot of mainstream environmental organisations shy away from admitting the major discrepancies between environmental sustainability and growth-crazed capitalism. They dare not place the two in conflict, presumably because they worry governments would choose the latter. They say that investing in the “green economy” will boost growth and jobs. Well, it will create jobs, and in the short-term it may create growth as well, but that cannot be the end goal on a finite planet – and especially not under the banner of sustainability.

Klein, on the other hand, boldly underlines that addressing the climate crisis in the very short time we have before a tipping point is reached is not compatible with free-market capitalism. She says that if we’d started in the 80s, maybe we could have done it with carbon trading and other non-intrusive market-based mechanisms. But we simply don’t have time for that. Worse, free-trade rules in many places make it illegal for governments to enact bold climate action like banning oil-extraction and ensuring local energy projects hire local people and use locally-made materials. Even worse than that, climate scientists have agreed that most of the known reserves of fossil fuels need to stay in the ground if we’re to have a hope of staying below 2 degrees. The problem is, the fossil fuel corporations have already assured their investors that these reserves will definitely be dug up and sold. The reserves are worth trillions of dollars, and without them the whole industry will collapse. Free-market growth-orientated capitalism does not offer the companies any option other than to do everything in their power to get those fuels to market. To save ourselves, we will have to purposefully sink a huge part of the global economy, voluntarily passing up the chance for a multi-trillion cash boost. That is why it is now a stand-off: capitalism vs the climate.

Klein says that dealing with this crisis will force us to rethink many assumptions that have been hegemonic since the Thatcher and Reagan era of the 80s. Like for instance, that private companies are always better at managing resources than the state, and community-management isn’t even an option. That trade is always good, no matter what is traded or where the money goes. That every problem is best solved by the market. That regulations are pretty much the devil incarnate. That people are mostly selfish, isolated and powerless. That the rich deserve their wealth and the poor deserve their poverty. That money is more important than anything else. That “there simply is no alternative”. All these assumptions are fundamentally challenged by climate change and the scale and speed of the economic transformation that’s needed.

She also says that the climate crisis gets to something much deeper than the neoliberal theory that swelled in the 80s and still holds sway today. When properly acknowledged and acted upon, it uncovers a paradigm that has been entrenched for hundreds of years, which Klein calls extractivism. This is a world-view that is rooted in the age of colonialism, and yes, it is as ugly as it sounds. It’s the idea that there is always a wild frontier to push back. There’s always more resources to take, always plenty of space to spew rubbish, always more land to expand into, and crucially – always more people to exploit. In this historical period, colonisers simply stole everything – they took land and resources, and they enslaved the original inhabitants. (Unpaid labour! Imagine the profit margins!). This mindset is all about taking, without giving anything back. Seeing nature as something to be mastered and conquered. Seeing the majority of people (poor and foreign) as completely disposable. Extract, exploit, then move on and repeat. No wonder our modern economic system is unjust, doesn’t seem to value people much less nature and treats the world as if it is an infinite store-cupboard and landfill-site combined.

It’s this kind of ideological foundation which has allowed us to think using the sky as a rubbish dump is okay, that infinite growth is possible, that gross inequality is just part of life.

All of those ideas need a swift revision.

The book also talks about inspiring coalitions of farmers, environmentalists and Indigenous tribes blocking new fossil fuel extractions, the divestment campaign, and the importance of moving from extractivism to a worldview based on a regenerative relationship with nature and each other. One where we take and we also give back.

But I don’t want to describe the whole book, I want you to read it! It really is brilliant. I read it in just three days, hardly pausing to do much else.


It’s capitalism vs the climate, and I know which side I’m on.

Do you?

2 thoughts on “This Changes Everything

  1. Hi, Tegan, – I’ve read Naomi Klein’s book and I know which side I’m on too. But it’s one thing to know what is needed – keeping 80% of the fossil fuels in the ground, for starters – and actually doing something about it. I realised just how dependent I was on the current economic system when my credit card came up for renewal. What if the bank decided not to renew my card? How could I buy stuff online? I could probably get some kind of debit card, I know, but as it happens, a new card arrived from the bank, renewing my account. No problem then, but what if?

    There are quite a lot of what ifs on the horizon at the moment, and they’re very worrying for people like me who live in suburbia and have no access to good farmland to grow food (or the means to buy land). What if there’s an oil crisis and the food supply chain is disrupted? Suddenly millions of city dwellers will be left without food, and many will be unable to heat their homes.

    However, if we are to prevent runaway climate change, we’ll have to stop using oil, very soon, all of us. This will turn our lives upside down, there’s no two ways about it. And it’s really scary.

    Will we end up like the story in the New Testament where Jesus tells his apostles to leave everything and follow him? If you’re thinking, ‘uh-oh, religious nut alert,’ well don’t think that; I’m just trying to make a genuine point here. The apostles had to make a choice: stick with their life as they knew it or make a clean break, a bold move that could, and would, leave them with nothing and in other people’s debt.

    Suburbanites and city dwellers will find themselves in this situation at some stage, but not by choice. So, should they up sticks and head for the hills, perhaps joining a permaculture commune or helping to set up one?

    I’m inclined to think that a bold move is required, and soon, to get back to the land, even though most of the mainstream media continue to report that cities are the fastest growing areas in the world and more and more of the world’s population will end up in cities. To me, that looks like a recipe for disaster. Governments everywhere should be encouraging their citizens to farm again, to grow their own food, because when TSHTF there will be massive loss of life in cities everywhere. What will you do?

    1. Hi Coilin, thanks for reading and commenting!
      Yeah, we are all so dependent on a system that is unsustainable and getting more unstable every day. I too worry about oil shocks leading to food shortages and supermarkets emptying while millions of city dwellers freak out. I suppose the key is to try to improve our resilience while we can. I live in a flat without a garden, and I really want a garden so I can start to grow some food. But I don’t think it needs to be a case of just going to the countryside to be self sufficient. As it stands cities are unsustainable and reliant completely on outside land. But have you looked into the concept of green cities at all? There’s some quite exciting ideas for how cities could be made part of the solution. Walkable cities with every roof covered with either food growing or solar panels, solar panels in the glass of buildings, vertical urban farms, community gardens and nature parks… The UN recently published a report saying that small scale organic agriculture can feed the whole world. That’s not even considering permaculture, which is way more space, energy and labour efficient. Permaculture design means we can meet our food needs without most of the population needing to be growing food full time, like we did in the past.
      Again, thanks for commenting! :)

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