A Climate Polemic Against Capitalism

Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything, argues that capitalism is largely to blame for our climate crisis. How Klein describes her book in an interview:

Changes EverythingWhat I’m arguing in this book is that we need to return to the progressive tradition of responding to deep crisis by trying to get at the root causes of the crisis. And the best example of that is the way in which the progressive movement responded to the Great Depression. It became an opportunity to change the way we organized our economies, to regulate banks, to launch social programs that got at the roots of inequality.

If we really believed that climate change is an existential crisis, if we believed climate change is a weapon of mass destruction, as John Kerry said, why on Earth would you leave it to the vagaries of the market?

In another interview, Klein clarifies her position:

I’m not saying that markets have no role in combatting climate change. I think the right market incentives can play a huge role—we can point to all kinds of companies doing great stuff. The issue is not to say the market has no role. It’s the idea of leaving this to the market. We can mint solar and wind millionaires and still not get there because we have these hard targets we have to meet. There will have to be a strong role for the public sector, a strong role for regulations and, yes, incentives. But the idea of just leaving our collective fate to the market is madness. You wouldn’t treat any other existential crisis in that way.

Zachary Karabell strongly disagrees with Klein’s thesis. He fears that “rhetoric risks obscuring just how much is being done by large companies around the world to reduce their carbon emissions and environmental footprint”:

None of us should lose sight of working toward a less resource-intensive future. Getting there requires massive investment of trillions of dollars and concerted effort at multiple levels of society. Dismissing a key element of that change—the multinationals and global NGOs that are trying to make these changes in spite of the sclerosis and opposition of so many governments and in the face of powerful lobbies—may galvanize some activists. But barring a synchronous overthrow of the entire global capitalist system, we need the assiduous efforts of multinationals that simultaneously strive to make heaps of money and to reduce their environmental impact. Without them, we would be many steps closer to the environmental Armageddon that Klein and so many of us fear is nigh.

Rebecca Henderson argues along the same lines:

We need to build a social movement that can insist that our leaders put in place the policies that will enable us to deal with the threat of climate change. And while we may struggle with longer-term priorities, we’re also a species that will do almost anything to ensure the welfare of our children. We need to rediscover the old idea that responsive, democratically controlled government has a central role to play in ensuring that the rules of the game are fair, and in dealing with problems like climate change: tough, long-term collective action problems that can only be addressed by the state.

But that doesn’t mean that we should abandon capitalism. With the right policies, capitalism properly understood is perfectly well equipped to prepare us to face the risk of large scale climate change. In fact, it’s the only thing that can.

And Will Boisvert calls the book “a garbled mess stumbling endlessly over its own contradictions”:

Her understanding of the technical aspects of energy policy — indispensable for any serious discussion of sustainability — is weak and biased, marked by a myopic boosterism of renewables and an unthinking rejection of nuclear power and other low-carbon energy sources. Having declared climate change an “existential crisis for the human species,” [15] she rules out some of the most effective means of dealing with it.

Her attack on globalization and trade sometimes clashes with rather than supports her goal of rapid decarbonization. Her abhorrence of industrial civilization misconstrues its complex, sometimes positive impact on the environment. Her politics veer between calls for massive government initiatives and celebrations of an extreme localism and populism that are likely to hobble state action. And her rhapsodic ideal of a society that stands in “humility before nature” [267] glosses over the inherent tension between natural limits and human aspiration — and what that implies for her goals of development and liberation.

John Gray is much more sympathetic. He calls Klein’s latest “a powerful and urgent book that anyone who cares about climate change will want to read.” But he finds it “hard to resist the conclusion that she shrinks from facing the true scale of the problem”

When I read The Shock Doctrine (Guardian review headline: “The end of the world as we know it”), I was unconvinced that corporate and political elites understood what they were doing in promoting the wildly leveraged capitalism of that time, which was already beginning to implode. The idea that corporate elites are in charge of the world is even less convincing today. …

Another problem with pinning all the blame for climate crisis on corporate elites is that humanly caused environmental destruction long predates the rise of capitalism. As Klein herself observes in an interesting chapter on what she calls “extractivism” – the economic model that treats the Earth as a bundle of resources waiting to be exploited – human activity was already changing the climate centuries ago. “We started treating the atmosphere as a waste dump when we began using coal on a commercial scale in the late 1700s and engaged in similarly reckless ecological practices well before that.” Moreover, though Klein doesn’t explore the fact, it’s worth bearing in mind that the extractive model was applied on a vast scale in the centrally planned economies of the former Soviet Union and Mao’s China, where some of the largest and worst 20th-century environmental catastrophes occurred.

However, Chris Bentley is against dismissing Klein out of hand:

We haven’t made significant progress, Klein argues, because we’ve been expecting solutions from the very same institutions that created the problem in the first place.

As for who should be the agents of this change, Klein reports on the front lines of grassroots movements from Montana to Greece — an unofficial coalition of shared interests that she dubs “Blockadia.” Klein says the answer is to empower the communities that stand to lose the most: among them, indigenous peoples threatened by mining and drilling operations, the world’s developing nations, and activists resisting austerity amid widening socioeconomic inequality.

While “power to the people” may seem an uninspired way to change the world’s dominating socioeconomic systems, Klein’s sharp analysis makes a compelling case that a mass awakening is part of the answer.