Naomi Klein – This Changes Everything

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This is the first book of Naomi Klein that I have read. Of course I have known of Naomi Klein’s existence pretty much since I have been properly politicized many years ago. I just never got to read the books and thought there wasn’t that much new in it for me. I thought of her as a great introduction for the interested-but-not-yet-radical people out there and I obviously didn’t really need that introduction anymore. Watching the horrible Shock Doctrine documentary didn’t help, although I recently gathered that Naomi Klein distanced herself from that as well and hopes to do better with the This Changes Everything documentary that should come out in the near future. But I thought it would be a good idea to read this ‘classic’ (that’s what all Naomi Klein books become) while it was still fresh. Plus I never really read a book fully focused on climate change and had heard that this was Naomi Klein’s most radical book yet, including the subtitle ‘capitalism vs the climate’.

And I liked it a lot more than I expected. It is brilliantly researched (she has an entire team working for her) with tidbits and facts that were completely new for me. Actually, the entire geo-engineering topic was new for me, I didn’t know it even existed, let alone how seriously it is taken by some as a solution to climate change.

It is a movement book. It provides the frames and arguments for a movement to unite both the radicals and the progressives and gives them the ammunition to convince people and grow a movement. And I love the framing. It is divided in three parts. The first one sets out the problem; its massive scale and what will need to be done to save the world. The second part takes aim at the false solutions; those that are presented by big business, green billionaires and the big green NGOs, and how the latter are utterly corrupted (with the most shocking example of the Nature Conservancy drilling for oil in their own nature reserves), dismissing them and their freaky geo-engineering techno-fixes as magical thinking. And then in the third part she sort of sets out a strategy, with the anti-extractivist movement of Blockadia fighting off new pipelines and extraction projects, the divestment campaign and the potential to delegitimize the fossil-fuel industry, the legal and moral challenges for industry from indigenous peoples, all in all coming to a conclusion where she compares the movement necessary to combat climate change with the abolition movement against slavery.

I love the framing. It has a lot of frames, small and big, words and metaphors (‘sacrifice zones’, fossilized resources as ‘decayed remnants of long-dead life-forms’, extraction as ‘grave digging’). Just look at this quote:

“Given this legacy, our task is not small, but it is simple: rather than a society of grave robbers, we need to become a society of life amplifiers, deriving our energy directly from the elements that sustain life. It’s time to let the dead rest.”

Beautiful right? And just like the term ‘shock doctrine’ has become common usage, some of this book’s metaphors are already popping up elsewhere.

What I realized by reading this book is the positive potential that climate action has as an all-encompassing narrative for a better present and future world. As Naomi Klein argues, climate science provides the strongest and most powerful argument against ‘unfettered capitalism’ since William Blake’s dark Satanic Mills. And as she sets out in the first chapter, the Right(-wing) is Right in their climate denialism, they realize the revolutionary power that climate science holds against everything they believe in and that is exactly why they frame climate change as a left-wing plot. This is why This Changes Everything.

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Bagger 288. The giant grave-digging machines that are used at Europe’s largest open-cast coal mine at the Hambach forest.

One of my favorite things about the book is that it very clearly argues against extractivism. In my favorite chapter Beyond Extractivism, Naomi Klein examines the extractivist relationship we modern-day humans have with our natural surroundings, one purely of taking, nonreciprocal, dominance-based and the opposite of stewardship. She points out Francis Bacon as the patron saint of the modern-day extractive economy that convinced the British elites to abandon the pagan notions of the earth as a live-giving mother figure to whom we owe respect and reverence. With Watt’s steam engine nature could finally be conquered. The steam engine at first was not better than the water wheels that powered the British cotton industry, but it took over because it made the industry independent from the flow of water and the weather (/nature) and would work at a constant rate. Secondly, the steam engine worked anywhere regardless of the geography, so production could be centralized from remote areas (with rivers) to cities like London, Manchester, and Lancaster, making it far easier to control labour. Extractivism is that what enabled capitalism and it is the great power of fossil fuels that continues to allow corporations to scour the world for the cheapest and most exploitable workforce.

Or as the Ecuadorian ecologist Esperanza Martinez (also quoted by Naomi Klein) puts it:

“It has become clear over the last century that fossil fuels, the energy sources of capitalism, destroy life − from the territories where they are extracted to the oceans and the atmosphere that absorb the waste − through transformation and consumption. The oceans are acidifying and the atmosphere contains more and more greenhouse gases. Fossil fuels, under the guise of ‘energy security’ promote violence across the world, in the process building and sustaining inequalities regarding who pays the costs for the extraction and also in access to energy.”

And this argument to stop extracting fossil fuels is so important. I will later discuss the book’s radicalism and perhaps lack thereof, but I do want to say here that people do not realize how fucking radical this argument against extractivism actually is. It is not really anti-capitalist, although it may imply a lot of anti-capitalist politics – as it would entail a stop of ´energy security´ politics (e.g. Western imperialism in the Middle East) as Esperenza Martinez mentions and so on. But the argument against extractivism has been too radical for most of the world’s Marxist-Leninist organizations of the last 100 years for example. Just think of Soviet style socialism as well and Mao’s declaration that “man must conquer nature”.

Some years ago I found myself writing and researching about the Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI), a whitewashing organization for the industry that frames the extractive industry’s problems solely on corruption (of poor nation’s governments), that of course can be dealt with through increasing transparency, ignoring all the other problems that come with resource extraction. Back then I was looking for strong counter arguments and narratives. Why not keep those resources in the ground as history has proven the extraction has been disastrous for the global South? This is true even when you look at it purely economically: e.g. the resource curse.  There must have been people making these arguments right? While searching the only people I could find making this argument were some marginalized researchers from Ecuador involved in the Yasuni project (like the aforementioned Esperanza Martinez) and a small NGOs like Oil Watch. Now their arguments (oil in the soil – coal in the hole – tar sands in the land) are central in one of the best-selling political books of the year. More importantly even, the fossil-free global divestment campaign – that only started in November 2012 –  is now active all over the world with fossil-free student groups being active at hundreds of campuses. They actually make the same argument against extraction, but they made it mainstream. And the fun thing is, they don’t even realize how fucking radical they are! Of course, as Naomi Klein writes as well, divestment campaigns are not going to deliver the goods, but they are central in the delegitimization process of the fossil fuel industries and extractivism.

In the conclusion Naomi Klein makes comparisons with previous social movements and finds the strongest similarity of what the climate movement ought to be with the abolitionist movement. The abolition of slavery had enormous economic consequences similar to the ones necessary to keep the oil reserves in the ground, but ending slavery was not merely a matter of changing laws but it involved changing people´s world views and their patterns of thought. We should be unafraid to speak the language of morality – “to give the pragmatic cost-benefit arguments a rest and speak of right and wrong, of love and indignation”.

And the strongest moral voices come from the frontlines of Blockadia. It is a completely different way of fighting extractivism than divestment, but Blockadia and the fossil free divestment campaign complement each other, and Blockadia can make good use of an increasingly delegitimized extractive industry.

What I again like in Naomi Klein’s writing here is the framing. I have talked with quite some people involved in the Hambacher forest occupation and the ones blocking pipeline 9 in Canada. They are often feeling hopeless, fighting a giant extractive industry project on your own is. Naomi Klein makes it all sound a bit more hopeful. By realizing your local struggle is connected to similar continent or even worldwide struggles you will feel better. And it is good to realize that Blockadia is growing and having its successes. A few people can actually make quite a dent in the plans of multi-billion companies. Also, if there is one thing that billion-dollar investors hate, it’s political uncertainty.

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Although the subtitle of the book is capitalism vs the climate, it actually nowhere becomes explicitly anti-capitalist. She supports some kind of Keynesian government intervention to build solar farms and other sustainable energy projects for ‘green jobs’, but at other points in the book she is arguing for blockades, workplace occupations and for a “basic income that discourages shitty work”. Throughout the book Naomi Klein appeals to different crowds. She switches around from a merely anti-corporate politics to a more thoroughgoing anti-capitalist one and back. A brilliant critique on this contradiction comes from Out of the Woods collective, who distinguish between major Klein and minor Klein. It’s the major Klein that dominates; she “uses the word ‘reckless’ a lot and rails far more against deregulated capitalism and market fundamentalism than against capitalism or markets per se”.

“Klein sees that “there is plenty of room to make a profit in a zero-carbon economy; but the profit motive is not going to be the midwife for that great transformation.” Still, given a climate movement that challenges the endless drive for profit as the organizing principle of social life, why limit its ambition to capitalism minus the fossil fuels, plus some co-ops and a welfare state to complete its “human” face? We may have to settle for that as a new compromise, depending on the balance of forces, but the hard part is generating such powerful and combative movements in the first place. Once that’s done, why throw real transformative power aside and stop at a greener shade of Keynes?” – Out of the Woods

Out of the Woods argues that major Klein needs the minor Klein to “provide the ‘people’s shock’ to help transition to a post-fossil fuel embedded liberalism”. But does the minor Klein need the major Klein?

I do think that a book completely written by the minor Klein with a focus on the structural drives of capital would be more coherent and less contradictory. The analysis would be more correct when you connect things like corruption, corporate money in politics and deregulated financial markets – with capital’s expansionary drive and the consequent concentration of capitalist class power, rather than simply taking a moral stance against these issues.

Out of the Woods lists some the impersonal mechanisms that enforce the drive for profits:

“These mechanisms include, but are not limited to: investors requiring returns; requirements of debt servicing; the need to generate surplus to cover unforeseen costs/losses; the need to generate surplus to reinvest in productivity (which may even reduce short term profits/dividends); income growth as a means to other ends, with perverse outcomes (like conservationist oil wells); the need to achieve economies of scale through expansion; the pressure of competition, either to secure first-mover advantage or not be left behind. For states: GDP underwrites hard military/trade power and soft aid/opinion power; growth expands the tax base; growth allows the state to keep rolling over the national debt.”

Naomi Klein ignores these, except for once mentioning the structural imperative to satisfy shareholders*. Her focus on moral values “leads her to propose that there are ‘sectors that are not governed by the drive for increased yearly profit (the public sector, co-ops, local businesses, nonprofits)’”. I think that (and I’m really not completely sure either) as long as capitalism exists, capital’s expansionary drive will always be this structural power lurking in the background. I think capitalism without fossil fuel extraction is perfectly possible, just as capitalism with a welfare state is possible. But just as there will always be this drive on capital’s part to destroy the welfare state, to accumulate by dispossessing the public, there will also be a structural imperative to start exploiting fossil fuels again. Out of the Woods suggests our strategy should coincide with the minor Klein – to go all the way – beyond the ecocidal logic of endless growth and therefore beyond capitalism. I am with them. But then again, the book itself is, as I said earlier, a movement book, not merely a scholarly exercise. For now we need to grow the movement and for this we need both the direct action radicals and the institutional capacity of (reformist)) NGOs and trade unions. And This Changes Everything with two different Kleins being mixed up together serves that purpose.

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