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.
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.