Book Review: Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything”

by Miles Raymer

This Changes everything

Every human struggle needs an image of a better future for supporters to rally around, but it’s never enough to simply know where we want to end up.  The accomplishment of profound societal change, if sought peacefully, also demands a set of linguistic and psychological frames revolutionaries can use to inform, impassion, and ultimately persuade people to join the cause of converting aspirations into economic and political realities.  Additionally, successful movements require hard data and concrete policy directives to substantiate their claims.  Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate provides all of these for the climate movement, and will perhaps be remembered as one of the most important framing documents of a generation.

This Changes Everything is both an eloquent explication of the pressing challenges of 21st century environmentalism as well as a rousing polemic against the forces that are driving us toward the edge of the climate cliff.  Klein’s unapologetic moral clarity deftly circumvents a media environment stifled by cowardly attempts to feign objectivity.  Rather than trying to sugarcoat her arguments so they can be easily digested by the status quo, Klein goes out of her way to emphasize that her strategy for addressing the climate problem will fly directly in the face of today’s dominant economic trends.

This could be a wildly depressing book.  Indeed, The Shock Doctrine was one of the most depressing works of nonfiction I’ve read.  But This Changes Everything is a resoundingly hopeful document.  Klein’s central message is that fixing climate change requires radical solutions that, if implemented, will not only mitigate the damage we are doing to the biosphere, but also begin to put right the most egregious sins of capitalism and globalization: “The fight against violent resource extraction and the fight for greater community control, democracy, and sovereignty are two sides of the same coin” (309, emphasis hers).  This insight––that beating climate change is as much about fighting for a better world as it is about avoiding the possibility of a much harsher one––imbues Klein’s book with an infectious, ebullient energy that sways skepticism and dispels indifference.

Klein starts out by explaining the global community’s collective failure to properly address climate change up to this point.  Regarding climate change denial from the political right, she makes the nuanced case that conservatives actually understand better than anyone that climate change is anathema to their way of doing business, both in politics and the private sector.  Conservatives must either accept radical change or deny the impetus for action: “They have come to understand that as soon as they admit that climate change is real, they will lose the central ideological battle of our time––whether we need to plan and manage our societies to reflect our goals and values, or whether that task can be left to the magic of the market” (40).  Klein also exposes the failures of the left, especially the “Big Green” movement which has by and large teamed up with oil companies and abandoned the fight for meaningful carbon reforms.  Many liberals have also been guilty of toothless activism by ascribing to the illusion that we can beat climate change by simply growing vegetables, driving hybrid cars and switching out a few light bulbs.  Klein pulls no punches: to bring about lasting, truly sustainable change, we will all have to significantly reduce personal as well as industrial consumption.   Klein is unequivocal in her assertion that incremental responses to climate change are no longer viable; given how long we’ve ignored the problem, we don’t have any non-radical solutions left on the table.

Laying out her plan for action, Klein sets her sights on 2 degrees celsius––the current rise in global temperature within which climate scientists say we have a good chance of avoiding the worst case scenarios.  Some claim we are already committed to a 4-6 degree increase, but Klein thinks 2 degrees is still manageable if we act fast and forcefully.  Meeting this challenge will require actual and radical change resulting from the combined actions of individual communities and national governments willing to intervene in markets and dictate the terms not just of a swift transition away from fossil fuels and toward renewables, but of a just transition where the rights of the globe’s most vulnerable lifeforms (human and otherwise) are taken into account.

Governments, for their part, must get over the false truism that markets are best left alone and that corporations cannot be forced to pay through the nose for polluting.  We cannot allow our fates to be decided by billionaire philanthropists and geoengineers toying with ecological systems they don’t fully understand, so the only other option is to harness political structures in order to appropriate and redistribute the vast wealth accumulated by corporations and individuals, especially those most responsible for carbon emissions: “It is not that ‘we’ are broke or that we lack options.  It is that our political class is utterly unwilling to go where the money is (unless it’s for a campaign contribution), and the corporate class is dead set against paying its fair share…[we] need to demand (and create) political leadership that is not only committed to making polluters pay for a climate-ready public sphere, but willing to revive two lost arts: long-term public planning, and saying no to powerful corporations” (119).  This is not just idle talk––Klein provides plenty of data showing how the money for a global transition toward renewables for everyone (not just the first world) can be collected and put to good use.  Her plan is also not an elimination of free markets, but merely a recognition that some activities and resources are too important not to be tightly regulated and made transparent for public scrutiny.  All we need is the political will to get it done.  No small feat, but also not a particularly high price to pay for simultaneously saving and improving our civilization.

While communities are pushing for this political paradigm shift, they will also have to fight tooth and nail to resist the further extraction of fossil fuels, sometimes against overwhelming odds.  Since further extraction is tantamount to giving up entirely on the 2 degree target, banding together to fight extraction wherever it arises is the most important work to be done by people living wherever oil or coal can be found.  One encouraging example is the “Honor the Treaties” movement, which involves a resurgent assertion of the rights of sovereign indigenous North American nations that has provided the foundation for a particularly potent rejection of the Alberta tar sands and Keystone XL pipeline projects.  This is just one of many creative strategies Klein documents to reveal how communities can keep carbon in the earth.  The climate crisis, for all its horrors, can also provide the motivation and resources to knit disparate activist groups together in common cause.

This Changes Everything can be read as a political and ideological companion to the work of Jeremy Rifkin and others who see capitalism as an economic system that will ultimately bring about its own marginalization.  Rifkin’s recent book The Zero Marginal Cost Society provides the technological and economic platform on which many of Klein’s suggestions can be put to good use.  Readers looking to participate in radically new economic systems that put a premium on human capital and environmental flourishing––what Rifkin calls “the biosphere lifestyle”––are well advised to look to his works for further guidance.

Klein’s passionate manifesto climaxes with her championing of the biosphere’s “right to regenerate.”  This poignant and heartfelt chapter describes Klein’s battle with her own reproductive system, and draws parallels between her personal struggle to become pregnant and the hurdles faced by myriad lifeforms that are currently running up against reproductive failure due to compromised ecosystems.  “As our boat rocked in that terrible place…” she writes of witnessing the aftermath of the BP Deepwater Horizon spill, “I had the distinct feeling that we were suspended not in water but in amniotic fluid, immersed in a massive multi-species miscarriage.  When I learned that I too was in the early stages of creating an ill-fated embryo, I started to think of that time in the marsh as my miscarriage inside a miscarriage” (427).  Very rarely do journalists draw such effective connections between depictions of disaster and relevant personal hardships; Klein’s metaphorical resonance and professional fearlessness are superb.

Klein goes on to argue that saving ourselves and our world from catastrophe requires a sweeping new view: “A new kind of reproductive rights movement, one fighting not only for the reproductive rights of women, but for the reproductive rights of the planet as a whole…All of life has the right to renew, regenerate, and heal itself” (443).  This regenerative perspective excoriates the miasmic anthropocentrism that still passes for good sense in halls of human power.  It is a call to arms for those willing to sacrifice and strive to achieve a more sustainable, relational lifestyle for this and future generations.

Throughout this book, I tried my utmost to be skeptical, to seek out holes in Klein’s arguments and research.  And while this is neither a foolproof reform plan nor a work of groundbreaking intellectual creativity, it is one of the most meaningful and courageous pieces of writing I’ve ever had the good fortune to come upon.  Any quibbles I have with Klein are just drops in a sea of appreciation for the fact that writers like her are willing to do that which I am too cowardly to accomplish myself: record stories from the darkest caverns of human activity and use them to map a way back to the light.  Failing to achieve a just transition away from environmental exploitation and into a better, healthier world would be a travesty in itself, but all the more so when we have books like this to help us figure out how to play our part.  So, in whatever way you can, get started.  “The stakes are simply too high, and time too short, to settle for anything less” (466).

Rating: 10/10