This Changes Everything, by Naomi Klein

This Changes Everything

In This Changes Everything, subtitled Capitalism vs the Climate, Naomi Klein argues that successfully combating the impending climate change disaster requires certain radical changes in world economic and political structures and power that overlap a great deal with the causes of the political Left.

I’m going to go into a few specifics shortly, but let me open by saying that I agree with much more than I disagree with in this book, the areas where I agree tend to be more important than the areas where I disagree, and where I disagree it’s often a matter of tone or nuance rather than anything substantive and fundamental.

Early on, I had one of those “I wish I had said that, because this is very much what I believe even if I’ve never been able to articulate it nearly so well” moments when I read:

We have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis. We are stuck because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe—and would benefit the vast majority—are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets.

So, yeah, this book is very much right-headed as far as I’m concerned, but now let’s move on to specifics, where, if anything, I’ll lean toward a devil’s advocate stance and note some quibbles I have.

Klein notes, correctly, that of the few scientists who are climate change deniers, the vast majority are in the pay of industries that profit enormously from climate change denial, thus putting their claims in serious doubt.

Could one say the same about climate change believers? Do they benefit financially by saying what they say? Or even beyond financial matters, are they influenced by ideological convenience, i.e., does someone like Klein have a conflict of interest in that climate change being real would provide an incentive for major policy changes that, as a leftist, she independently is all for?

She addresses this, I think appropriately, by noting that it matters which side the scientific consensus is on. As non-scientists unlikely to be able to understand the relevant raw data and validly draw conclusions from it, the overwhelmingly majority of us have no realistic choice beyond accepting an “appeal to authority” argument for one side or the other. Since climate scientists are on the side of climate change believers by a huge margin, the burden of proof is on those who would align with the minority.

Certainly “conspiracy theory” hypotheses are not of equal plausibility for the two sides. On the one hand we have: “The tiny number of climate change denier scientists are lying or at least manifesting unintentional bias because they are in the pay of oil companies and such, and there is a huge amount of evidence from history that corporations are basically amoral moneymaking machines whose payee’s jobs are to say whatever—true or not—will maximize their paymasters’ profits.” On the other hand we have: “The overwhelming number of climate change scientists are lying or at least manifesting unintentional bias because they have to in order to get government funding or because they have a strong ideological preference against capitalism, in spite of the fact that many of these governments are strongly pro-capitalist themselves, and that the evidence indicates plenty of scientists come from all ideologies—left, right, center, and apolitical.” There’s really no comparison. One is utterly plausible (a comparatively small number of people are succumbing to an extremely common source of bias); the other is completely looney tunes (a very, very large number of people are succumbing to an alleged source of bias that makes little sense).

So her position is that, yes, the side of the climate change debate she agrees with is the same side that it is most convenient for her to agree with for other reasons, but that happens also to be the side that a very strong consensus of informed scientists support, so if you dismiss everyone, including her, that has a reason to be biased, you still should come down on the side of the climate change believers.

She references the off-cited 97% figure to support her claim that the vast majority of relevant scientists are climate change believers. So is that accurate?

I don’t know. I see it all the time, and I’m suspicious of it. Certainly the deniers insist it has long since been debunked, but given how routinely they lie I wouldn’t put much if any weight on that.

I’m suspicious more because it’s the kind of thing I would think would be very hard to measure in an accurate, unambiguous way. I’d want to know, for instance, what constitutes belief versus denial? If you think there has been roughly the kind of warming that has been alleged, but you disbelieve that it has been caused by burning fossil fuels and other such human activity, what side does that put you on? What if you think only a fraction (5%?, 20%?, 70%?) has been caused by human activity? What if you’re unsure climate change is real, like if you think there’s a 75% chance it is given the evidence currently available?

Who counts as a relevant scientist? Do you have to have a certain kind of degree? Does it have to have been from a certain set of universities that count (and not The Exxon Institute of the University of Creationism)? Do you have to have published on climate science? Do you have to have published in only certain peer-reviewed journals on climate science?

I would think that depending on the wording of the questions, the way the relevant respondents are chosen, and the way the responses are interpreted, you could come up with very different numbers, certainly not 97% every time.

In the end, though, I would be shocked if the accurate number were not very high like that. As long as we don’t get fixated on the 97% figure that everyone cites, and instead we realize that the true number (if we had access to perfect knowledge of exactly where every scientist stands on this matter and how qualified they are to have their opinion taken seriously) might well be 85% or 92%, or 98% or 99.5%, I think it’s justified to believe that the overwhelming majority of relevant scientists are in the climate change believer camp.

I’ll also note, though, that 97% (or slightly more or slightly less) is still just a little bit shaky, in the sense that it certainly isn’t the case that only 97% of scientists think the earth orbits the sun, earthquakes are caused by tectonic movements in the earth’s crust, or the average surface temperature on Venus is higher than the average surface temperature on Mars. 97% (more or less) means, to me, that there’s still some speculation to this, still some room for reasonable doubt, especially concerning the details. That is, even if the phenomenon of human-caused warning itself is very highly likely (though still not certain), things like projections of how long it’ll take for the temperature to rise another two degrees, what the consequences of its doing so will be, how much certain actions we could take would slow this temperature rise, etc. are even more speculative and imprecise.

But I don’t want to go too far down this road. The bottom line is that it’s likely enough that humans are causing the climate to change in ways that will be devastating to us to be concerned about and to do something about. Klein basically treats climate change as established fact, and I’d say it’s close enough to that for all practical purposes that I don’t have a problem with her doing so.

So the enemy that Klein identifies is right wing, unregulated, rapacious, global capitalism, the ideology which—upon the demise of the Soviet Union and the tearing down of the Berlin Wall—was supposedly going to reign triumphant over the world for the duration of human history (though come to think of it, they never specified how long that duration would be, so maybe they’ll turn out to be right after all, even if climate change brings about an apocalypse). The ideology has taken some hits since then, including the recession/borderline depression that commenced near the end of the W. Bush years, so maybe folks are not quite as cocky about its inevitability as they once were, though it’s surely still believed in more strongly than it deserves to be.

That reigning ideology is in conflict with doing what we need to do to avoid the worst ravages of climate change. If Big Government is bad (or at least government that has any will and ability to limit the profit generation of mega-corporations; the right wing doesn’t oppose it being plenty big in every other respect); if capitalists have a right to ship goods around the world with no restrictions and to seek out the cheapest most exploitable labor around the world with no restrictions; if increased commerce—i.e., more people buying, using, and disposing of ever more stuff—is always good; and if, as a corollary of these, the “extractive” industries have to be allowed to dig up and profit from all the coal, oil, natural gas, etc. that they can get their hands on, then climate doom is inevitable. The only way to avoid overheating the planet catastrophically, she concludes, is to defeat this ideology.

In this, she notes, she’s sort of in agreement with the right wingers who think climate activism is a weapon wielded against capitalism by people who are anti-capitalism for other, left wing, reasons. But only very partly.

Yeah, her position is that to stand for the climate is, or should be, to oppose this kind of extreme capitalism. But the right wing conspiracy theorists are still wrong in claiming that the phenomenon of climate change itself is a hoax (it’s strongly supported scientifically), and in claiming that all the people calling for more limits on the extractive industries and on capitalism in general were already anti-capitalism for other reasons anyway (plenty were, plenty weren’t).

Much of the book is spent exploring how even entities concerned about climate change have largely been unwilling to oppose capitalism to the degree needed, but have instead put their efforts into discovering and implementing alleged solutions that conflict as little as possible with the dominant capitalist ideology. These have been, she contends, futile strategies:

  • Many of the larger, more mainstream environmental groups have tried to work with the bad guys, to be “pragmatic” and not insist on “purity,” to bring about change “from the inside,” and in the process have pretty much been coopted. They’ve been so eager to be able to proclaim “There’s no need to be scared of us. Look at all the millionaires and billionaires, Fortune 500 companies, mainstream and conservative politicians, etc. who give us money, sit on our boards, and praise us! Surely they wouldn’t support us if we were some kind of wacky left wing outfit threatening society’s dominant values and material interests!” that they’ve neutered themselves as far as speaking truth to power and pushing for the kind of radical actions that are necessary to combat climate change.
  • “Cleaner” versions of traditional sources of energy, like natural gas, “clean coal,” nuclear power, etc. have been greatly overrated in terms of how much of an improvement they really are as far as climate change and other drawbacks. Even as a “bridge” while we’re gradually building up genuinely alternative sources of energy like solar, wind, and hydro, they are losers. We have to switch to those alternative sources more quickly with more urgency.
  • Science fiction style technofixes aren’t the least bit promising, and are frankly rather scary. We’re talking things like cooling the Earth by placing a massive number of tiny mirrors in the sky to reflect back some of the sun’s rays, blasting a huge amount of the equivalent of volcanic dust into the sky to block the sun, etc. We’re nowhere near being able to do these things, the effects of doing them are speculative at best, even if they improved things in some places they could make them worse in others, and if and when they could no longer be maintained then all the heating we would have been holding off would catastrophically come about all at once.
  • “Cap and trade” and carbon taxes and such are too incremental, too piecemeal to work. Because they’re structured to be consistent with capitalism as currently practiced, they invite corruption, have easy to exploit loopholes, and have undesirable unintended consequences.

As to the last, I really don’t know enough about how these measures have succeeded and failed in the real world, what their consequences have been, what their prospects for the future are. Just on the level of intellectual analysis though, I do find something appealing about understanding the climate change problem in terms of what the economists call “externalities,” and trying to come up with a solution that fits the problem so conceived, which things like a carbon tax can be understood as an attempt to do.

Let’s say I’m getting rich by holding concerts in my front yard and charging admission. That’s great for me, and it’s no problem for the people buying the tickets since they’re presumably getting what they paid for. So the parties directly involved in the transactions have no grounds for complaint. But loud music emanating from my property night after night might well be significantly lowering the quality of life of my neighbors. They aren’t a party to the transactions, but they are adversely affected by them. (Or I suppose some of them might be beneficially affected by the transactions, if they enjoy the kind of music they get to hear for free.)

Similarly, if I’m an oil company, it may be that each of my individual contractual relations (to obtain land to drill on, to sell oil, etc.) is unobjectionable (or probably not, but let’s just say hypothetically that none of the transactions wrong any of the contracting parties), but what about the consequences for other parties, like someone born in 2030 who is more likely to die in a flood or whatever due to the effect on the climate of my actions today?

Aren’t the parties doing the damage obligated to compensate those they are damaging (or to refrain from the behavior if the cost of such compensation would be more than they can handle)?

Taxing behavior that contributes to climate change would be a way of making people pay for the hidden costs of what they do. They could either pay the tax, which would go toward taking countermeasures against climate change or compensating those harmed by climate change, or cease the behavior that contributes to climate change. In either case they would no longer be reaping the benefits of their behavior while shifting the costs to unwilling third parties.

In principle that seems to be a justified approach; I would think the problems would be practical ones. It’s hard enough in, say, lawsuits to determine things like causation and extent of damage where the harm is fairly direct and obvious. If we’re talking about ascertaining how much some particular coal company contributes to the present and future suffering of people all over the world by raising global temperatures some minuscule percentage of one degree, that would get wildly complex.

So any such taxes or fees would have to be very, very, very rough estimates of what is owed—of what the costs of the behavior truly are—but the principle would still be that such companies aren’t having something taken from them unjustly by a tyrannical state or world government or whatever, but are appropriately paying for the harm they do that previously the system gave them a free ride on.

Anyway, I’m not sure what all I want to say about that—I keep thinking of more points to make pro and con about basing climate change reforms on the principle of making those most responsible for climate change pay for their undesirable externalities—but I’ll leave that topic for now so as not to make almost this whole essay about such speculation in an area that I really haven’t studied or thought through in depth.

So what Klein contends is that the dominant ideology of laissez faire capitalism, of “free” trade, of “what’s good for General Motors [the largest multinational corporations, especially the fossil fuel companies] is good for the nation [world]” is not something to continue to accept and try to work with if you want to take effective action against climate change. We’re going to have to oppose that philosophy, and dispute the notion that extremist capitalism has somehow been proven right (by the collapse of the Soviet Union or whatever) when in fact it’s in the process of making the planet barely livable at best—hardly an undeniable success story.

Opposing that can mean in part recognizing that that system enables the richest and most powerful entities to shift the costs of their behavior to others, as I talked about above. It can also include, as she discusses, questioning the implicit values of that system, or what it categorizes as “success.”

The downsides of materialism have long been known, but they’re still worth thinking about and talking about.

Consider a society of people who do a minimal amount of labor and have a minimal amount of stuff. They make very little money and spend very little money (assuming they use money at all). They do what they need to do to sustain themselves and little else. Maybe they have some indulgences, but they’re quite few and quite modest.

Let’s say that changes over time to where ultimately they are frantically working a huge number of hours, making and spending far more money, and accumulating more and more stuff. Maybe they used to typically work 5-10 hours a week; now they work 50. Maybe they used to make the equivalent of $200 a month; now they make ten or twenty times that. Maybe they used to have very little in the way of material possessions; now they have, or are trying to get, TVs, jewelry, smartphones, designer tennis shoes, whatever.

In a capitalist sense they have made enormous progress. Employment is way up, income is way up, economic activity in general is way up, etc. The arrow is pointing straight up as far as gross national product, per capita income, and pretty much any such conventional measure of economic success.

But are the people really any better off? Those who argue that they are could point to the fact that most of the change has been by choice. That is, people in an advanced capitalist country could always forego working so many hours and do without much of the stuff that requires money if they wanted to. The fact that they don’t indicates their preferences, and how dare leftists paternalistically override their preferences?

But that could be a reflection of the addictiveness of materialism as much as anything else. The crack addict makes all kinds of choices—committing crimes that could land him in prison, blowing up his relationships, ruining his health, etc.—because behaviorally he prefers getting the crack he craves over anything else. But objectively surely he is less happy and his life is worse than if he weren’t a crack addict, and at some level he likely recognizes that himself.

We wouldn’t be harming people by educating them about the dangers of crack addiction and discouraging them from using crack, even if the majority of people who use it, left to their own devices, will keep chasing after it.

Not every aspect of modern capitalist culture is the equivalent of crack, of course. Some “progress” really does make life longer, healthier, more enjoyable, etc. But much doesn’t. Maybe it’s not best to go back to some pre-industrial era, but at the very least we could be a lot more selective about what material stuff we want in our lives and what we’re willing to do to get it.

I saw a documentary many years ago about gigolos in Japan. It was about clubs where women pay young men (kind of metrosexual girly men, interestingly) to socialize with them, drink with them, flirt with them, and kind of be make-believe boyfriends though typically without sex. They pay stunning amounts of money for this service. Then you find out that a disproportionate number of these women customers are in the sex trade themselves, working as exotic dancers and such, and that there’s considerable overlap between the people who own the clubs where they work and the people who own these gigolo clubs.

So in effect, guys who are overworked and not satisfied with their lives and their relationships, but who at least make plenty of money, deal with the negativity their rat race life has generated in them by spending a lot of that money to go to strip clubs and get drunk and be titillated by women who ultimately don’t deliver. Then those same women, after working long hours in a job that makes them feel bad about themselves but at least makes them good money, turn around and spend a lot that money to go to these gigolo clubs to get drunk and be titillated by men who ultimately don’t deliver. So the lives they lead and the work they do puts them in a position where they crave certain expensive countermeasures to relax and momentarily feel better about themselves, which necessitates continuing if not intensifying the lifestyles that generate enough money to be able to afford such countermeasures, even though that’s what’s causing the dissatisfaction to begin with, and round and round it goes. And the people at the top take a cut of all of it.

No one has a gun to these Japanese folks’ heads, saying they have to work themselves half to death, have to be so ambitious, have to counteract their dissatisfaction by spending a lot of money, etc. But are these self-evidently “successful” lives, just because of the high level of economic activity they involve?

An ideology that pushes people to work more and more and consume more and more is obviously good (at least temporarily) for those at the top, and like I say, you have to recognize that some of what it enables really does enhance life. But it’s a mixed bag at best in terms of human satisfaction, happiness, and how it incentivizes us to treat each other.

And then it turns out that unrestricted economic growth and voraciously consuming more and more cannot be sustained indefinitely anyway, due to limits imposed by nature. Resources are finite, and using them the way we’ve gotten used to using them has consequences like pollution and potentially catastrophic climate change.

So the claim is that we can’t solve such problems as climate change without turning away from an extremist capitalist ideology, but that if we think that means accepting a worse life for ourselves and our descendants, that may indicate something skewed about our values more than anything.

Would the Japanese women customers in the gigolo clubs really be worse off if they gave up their stripper jobs for less lucrative jobs, and didn’t have all that extra money to spend on partying with pretend boyfriends? Maybe we could step away from the work, spend, and consume to the max imperative to keep the planet from overheating, and be at least as happy as we are now. Maybe it’s not even a sacrifice.

I think Klein has a plausible point that there are reasons independent of climate change to encourage people to question if the capitalist values and lifestyles they take for granted really are for the best. Is it suspiciously convenient for her argument? A little, but I agree more than not that the greed and materialism generated by capitalism would be undesirable to a significant degree even if there were no such thing as climate change.

I’m a bit less on board with—though not totally opposed to—one of her other main themes, which is that combating climate change is good because it puts us on what is for independent reasons the right side of the struggles of indigenous people. I think there’s a certain amount of romanticizing of the indigenous in this book.

The indigenous, and I suppose poor people or people being screwed by capitalism in general. That’s something that’s common on the Left, the tendency to not only side with the underdogs, with those who are being treated unjustly, but to present them as being more noble and enlightened than they really are.

In leftist accounts, victims are always inspiringly standing up for themselves against their oppressors and against evils like climate change, and we’re joining in their struggles. In reality, there is plenty of idiocy, evil, blindness, and selfishness in the oppressed.

No doubt there are some respects in which some indigenous cultures are less materialistic than modern capitalism, or otherwise have values worth respecting and considering adopting. But they also have plenty of bullshit. To think they’re all about respecting the Earth and all that is like thinking Christians are all about living in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount. You can always cherry pick aspects of a culture to make it look good, but if you’re going to be honest rather than polemical about it, you also have to recognize when indigenous or other oppressed people adhere to irrational superstitions, wage bloody wars for no even minimally justifiable reason, cut off the clitorises of baby girls, etc.

And people on the bottom aren’t consistently on the side of the Left, even if arguably it would be in their self-interest to be so or just be morally right to be so. Plenty of them are racists, cling to the values and lifestyles that make them easy to exploit, hate unions, vote for Trump, etc. Leftists desperately try to avoid coming across as believing “I know what’s best for you even if you don’t,” but often that happens to be precisely the case.

Which is not to say that Klein never mentions, say, indigenous people or local workers who short-sightedly welcome extractivist companies on their land for the money and jobs they bring, but you’d think reading this book that such folks are a very small minority, given that she gives them about 5% as much attention as the local activists heroically rallying against the activities that are poisoning the planet.

In reality, I’d say the majority of the oppressed either oppose the Left, or are only somewhat on the same side as the Left for the wrong reasons.

I’m much more in agreement than disagreement with This Changes Everything. But I also recognize that it is structured as polemic, which is always in some conflict with truth and objectivity. If there are ways that capitalism enhances life, and ways that it does the opposite, this book will focus far more on the latter. If there are ways that indigenous people are scary superstitious primitives, and ways that they are noble and have plenty to teach the rest of us, this book will focus far more on the latter. If there are ways that local communities are greedily allying with their exploiters and those who are despoiling the planet, and ways that local communities are rising up and bravely defying those who would oppress them and cause catastrophic climate change, this book will focus far more on the latter. If there are ways that the battle against climate change requires us to compromise on other things we value, and ways that it furthers the other causes we already believe in for independent reasons, this book will focus far more on the latter.

If there have been successes and failures in the fight against climate change, if there are reasons for optimism and reasons for pessimism, this book will present the issue in whatever way is most likely to hit that sweet spot that avoids a reaction of “Oh everything’s fine, it’s all going to work out, the good guys are already winning without my needing to do anything” or “Oh shit, this is totally hopeless; no point in my doing anything since we’re doomed regardless.”

This is a “rallying the troops” book. The message is “We can prevail if we fully believe in what we’re doing and give it our all.”

I’m not saying it’s blatantly dishonest propaganda, just that it has an obvious agenda. It’s an agenda that happens to be far more justified than not, but what it says and how it says it is chosen for pragmatic reasons, and I’m enough of a purist about such things to never be fully comfortable with that.

There are actually a few other matters from the book that I thought about musing on in this piece, but this is already considerably longer than I intended, so I’ll stop here.