Just over 100 years ago, the tall grasses along the Gulf Coast of Texas teemed with a bird called the Attwaters Prairie Chicken. By the mid-20th century their numbers had plummeted due to the incursion of subdivisions and oil and gas drilling. In 1995 the Nature Conservancy, a wealthy nonprofit that buys and sets aside ecologically sensitive areas as preserves, struck a deal with Mobil (now ExxonMobil), which owned a section of the prairie chickens’ last remaining breeding grounds. The company donated more than 2,000 acres to the nonprofit. Within five years, astoundingly, the Nature Conservancy began drilling for oil on that same swath of land. When this fact came to light, the organization’s response—that it could drill without disturbing the birds—was so tortured and far-fetched it could have been drafted by ExxonMobil’s own PR team.
In her compelling new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, Naomi Klein tells the tale of how dysfunctional mainstream environmentalism has become. It is one culprit among many, including politicians, namely President Obama, and capitalism itself—an economic system that must grow despite finite resources—that explains why our planet and its atmosphere are such a mess. Thankfully, Klein has not written another civilization-snuff book filled with apocalyptic scenes of ecosystem collapse. She tries neither to scare readers nor convince them of the latest science. Instead, Klein offers a reality check. “What is wrong with us?” she asks in the book’s early pages.
And while conservatives—who generally favor carbon-heavy free markets—grasp that fixing the climate requires a major economic and political overhaul, many environmental advocates don’t seem to understand that basic fact. Klein kneecaps many established green groups for what she calls “reflexive political centrism.” In addition to drilling on their own land, these nonprofits—the Environmental Defense Fund is a target of particular scorn—often work with polluting corporations to find “win/win” outcomes that almost inevitably fail to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. Big Green, as she refers to these groups, also foolishly fought for a carbon market in 2009 instead of pushing Obama to dedicate major resources to an environmentally sane overhaul of America’s infrastructure.
Klein lets loose on Obama for blowing a historic opportunity to stabilize the climate along with the economy. In early 2009, Obama took the White House with a clear popular mandate for change just as the global financial crisis and carbon emissions were peaking. Both the banking and auto sectors were surviving on huge infusions of public money, and Obama had $800 billion in stimulus money. The power he held at that moment rarely visits an American president. According to Klein, he could have introduced bold carbon controls, reconfigured auto plants to manufacture rail cars, and required banks to finance it all. He could have dedicated huge chunks of the stimulus to green public works such as high-grade mass transit and a national network of smart grids. Instead, he left the car-makers and banks to their own devices and channeled the bulk of the stimulus to highway and road construction. And while Obama may suck, he is hardly alone: Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, as scientists and environmentalists tried to address greenhouse-gas emissions, political leaders deregulated markets, forged trade agreements, and issued extraction permits that assured ever more fossil-fuel-reliant production and consumption.
If government controls aren’t forthcoming, what about private efforts? Klein performs a masterful takedown of wealthy corporate leaders who pledge to voluntarily solve the problem. She lavishes special attention on the progressive British tycoon Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Group. In 2006, with much fanfare and positive PR for his brand, Branson promised $3 billion to develop a low-carbon jet fuel. But, having spent just a fraction of that money, he has yet to produce a viable fuel. Klein’s exposing of liberals’ fear of regulation and faith in the market is incisive and key to understanding why as a society we have failed to fix climate change.
This Changes Everything gets wobblier when it comes to solutions. Most notably, Klein calls for developed economies to ban fossil fuels and employ central planning to build new energy and transportation infrastructures. Klein is unequivocal that the market won’t spur these shifts—she rightly swats away the misguided notion that “green” products will heal the planet—but planning and policy can. Central planning is necessary because only with great public sums and the right regulations can cities, regions, and nations create robust renewable energy and public transit sectors, the latter of which she says should be free of charge.
Klein’s envisioned future will be different from Soviet-style central planning, which she disdains, because while policies would originate on the federal level, local officials accountable to communities would decide how to implement them. Yet the assumption that ground-level leaders would actually shutter coalmines, power plants, and all the rest is a questionable one: These are facilities where many of their constituents work and whose owners fund their electoral campaigns. Consider the fact that current federal environmental laws enforced by states are routinely flouted, such as provisions in the Clean Water Act requiring safe disposal of toxic ash from coal-fired power plants.
It’s tough to assess the viability of Klein’s recommendations (many of which are familiar) because they go in and out of focus. To propose a centrally planned economy without being summarily dismissed requires careful attention to the steps by which an economy would get there. Vague and sweeping gestures toward solutions can appear to equip aspiring activists and reformers with practical answers without actually doing so.
Likewise, the means she proposes for getting from here to there, offered in the last third of the book, are episodic and disjointed. And here is where This Changes Everything loses its power. She tours the reader through grassroots struggles against “extreme extraction” like fracking. Klein’s irrepressible admiration for small-scale resistance allows her to connect these disparate campaigns into what she calls Blockadia, a fantasy capitol of The Resistance. It is through the confrontations and heroics waged by denizens of Blockadia that society will reach a place where the climate can be saved.
Klein’s work is informed by the two strains of the Jewish left tradition—the pragmatic and the messianic. In This Changes Everything she deploys both, which serves neither. Blockadia invokes the messianic dream of final redemption: If people join together they will stop global warming—or, even more dreamily, if they recognize that all these various struggles are happening, they’ll understand that The Revolution is already under way.
This trope undermines Klein’s very pragmatic desire to solve the climate crisis—which is a real problem. So, why not delve into how people have empowered enlightened leaders to enact and enforce needed measures? Instead of skimming the surface of Denmark’s highly successful wind-energy sector, why not discuss the conditions that have allowed those measures to stay in place for decades—who has protected them and how?
Similarly, the book’s title promises to challenge capitalism, but Klein ultimately shies away from any such undertaking. The activist struggles she chronicles are not fighting capitalism, but rather “extractivism”— drilling and mining for fossil fuels. Getting off oil, gas, and coal is one of the toughest tasks humanity faces—but it is not synonymous with the end of capitalism. And her vision wavers here, too, at times outlining reforms, at others calling to scrap capitalism altogether, without explaining what that would mean and how it might happen.
Klein’s analysis of what has gone wrong with the environmental movement, and why most political and economic leaders don’t take meaningful steps to address a pressing crisis, is illuminating. This part of the book moves the climate-change discussion forward in vital ways because it doesn’t simply diagnose the problem; it begins to get at the root causes of a variety of social ills whose origins and solutions are connected with how we treat our environment: A “more habitable climate,” she says, could deliver a “far more just economy.” Klein’s ability to see crisis as opportunity is what makes her an original and exciting thinker. Addressing global warming could be the catalyst for solving a range of social inequities—income, wealth, race, and sex.
Yet at the end of the book, Klein admits that change may come only after the devastation wrought by more Katrinas and Sandys. Viewed through this—sadly—more realistic lens, the climate crisis may well present an opportunity to transform the broken world we now inhabit into a vibrant, inspiring place. But even if that happens, getting there is unlikely to be fun.
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