On “This Changes Everything”

Every decade or so, Naomi Klein produces a massive work, analyzing something of particular importance to the sociopolitical realm in Western culture. Her newest book, “This Changes Everything”, concentrates on the sociopolitical realities of climate change. It is not a comforting read, despite her assurances that climate change can be used to enact the positive changes long desired by the liberal progressives. Scientists, she says, have set 2017 as the deadline before which we must begin cutting emissions at a fantastic rate if we are to have any hope of preventing the 2ºC rise in temperature before the end of the century. As with her previous books, she promotes social, grassroots movements to confront and change the powerful, but this time it’s not just political or corporate organizations that need to change; it is our own view of how we fit and interact with the natural world.

I was often troubled by the information and its implications provided by this book. While I am a liberal progressive, already living with minimal impact (though not exactly by choice), and would have little trouble adjusting to the system that Klein proposes, I know few people who would be content with such a shift. Most would far prefer to go to war over the last barrel of oil on earth than we would shift our thinking away from neoliberalism and the magical thinking of religious conservatism, let alone capitalism itself. Climate change denialists are firmly entrenched in politics and in fossil fuel extraction businesses, and are unable to see (or at least react to) the devastation that is already occurring, let alone understand that it is becoming increasing worse. Many of these are extremely rich people, and can produce many challenges in the public media that serve to influence the opinions of the average dispassionate individual, especially those unversed in critical thought.

Klein barely touches on the American phenomenon of climate change denial. Although this might indicate that its popularity among the general populace is exaggerated, it is difficult to deny that the American government (as well as that of Canada) is strongly committed to the denialist position. Among those few paragraphs which she has donated, one thing stood out that I think may have been elided in my usual readings. It’s not really the science that they’re denying. Not exactly. It’s that the science of climate change calls the bluff of religious belief, both in the Abrahamic god (in particular) and in the infallibility of the free market. People have bought into these ideas, and formed a massive part of their own identities around these beliefs. For centuries, people in the Western world have fervently believed that it was their God-given right, their gift from beyond, to master and control the natural world. It’s what we are *supposed* to do. Climate change turns that concept on its head, and whole populations find themselves capable of understanding or adapting to the new paradigm. Those who cannot, become denialists.

This is not a new fight. We’ve seen it before in the form of anti-evolutionists, who reject everything proposed by Darwin and the century-and-a-half of data that supports and enhances the theory of evolution. Biologists have shown that humans are direct descendants of an animal species that also spawned every other ape species. All life is connected, every living thing on earth a relative of every other living thing, from jellyfish to plants to swans to blue whales. Not created independently over the course of a few days. Humans are no more special to this planet than are cuttlefish, just one part of a continuing stream of life that began some 4 billion years ago, and will continue well past our departure. There was no Adam, no Eve. No Original Sin for which to be forgiven, no Garden of Eden. Some people just can’t handle that fact, and find the only viable course to be denial, denial, denial. And they’ve done this for a very long time.

The rest of the world has no choice but to ignore these recalcitrant people if progress of any kind can really occur. The problem with that, of course, is that these people also happen to have enormous power, both in government and the corporate world. Evolution denialists exist and can be safely ignored, for the most part, but that obstinate position is small potatoes compared to the challenge of climate change. Almost no one in the present day actually applies any element of the theory of evolution in their daily lives. But nearly all of us contribute to the putative causes of climate change. Our world depends on a permanent, endless supply of fossil fuels that we burn for energy and otherwise convert into useful objects. Those who have accepted the theory of climate change now understand that the demands that it will place on our socioeconomic systems is terrifying, and are largely paralyzed by that knowledge.

The problem, as Klein notes in her subheading, is capitalism itself. The endless pursuit of wealth and power, all else notwithstanding. A philosophy that the Western world has been operating under for nearly four hundred years. An ingrained ideal that has lodged itself in our consciousness that has shown tremendous results over the centuries and brings us to a seeming apex with each passing year. A proxy for religion, so defined because it requires belief not only without evidence, but despite it.

The grandfather of this worldview, suggests Klein, was Sir Francis Bacon, the first person to encourage people to command and conquer Nature herself, which he proclaimed our God-given right. For four hundred years, now, we have been drifting away from our connection to the natural world, and we no longer operate as if we are a part of it. Instead of trying to form a balance with existing natural systems, we have taken to taking everything there is. Prior to the steam engine, coal was of little practical value; we had to rely on forests to supply firewood for heating. From the dawn of the Industrial Age, we made a dramatic shift to fossil fuels, all of them limited in supply, and all of them producers of CO2, a gas now known for over a century for its heat-trapping capacity. All of this we take from the earth, and since the gas itself is invisible, we feel free to ignore any of its effects on the world.

Capitalism is not an idea easily overturned. Even those who disbelieve in a god still buy into capitalist ideals and its legend; plenty of atheists are libertarians, after all. Many zealously maintain a belief that the wonders of technology can have no downside, and that if they do, other technologies, each just as profitable as the last, will be able to clean up and replace them all. Evidence abounds to support the theory of climate change, but devoted capitalists cannot accept that evidence without rupturing a cherished personal identity. And devoted capitalists are everywhere in the Western world. Their heroes are those for whom capitalism brought the most financial success, and each strives to become the next winner. Everyone lower down on the ladder are of no consequence, no value to the pursuit of wealth and power.

There are two times that Klein notes that the denialist, conservative crowd are correct to call “climate change” a leftist conspiracy. But “climate change” has taken a different meaning here. It remains a scientific fact, in that it concerns the changing climate and weather systems of the planet, and trickle-down effects affecting the planet’s ecology. The phrase here refers to that pressing need to change ourselves and our economies at a fundamental level if we are to avoid catastrophe. Indeed, conservatives are more aware of the socioeconomic consequences of addressing climate change than anyone on the liberal side. These are the elite, the rich and powerful people who would necessarily bear the economic brunt of any attempt to tackle the problem. The oil & gas industries in particular will be devastated should any moderately powerful government choose to squelch their activities. They have no choice but to attack the scientists and leftists by whatever means necessary.

As Klein notes, there are solutions to the problem of climate change. The technologies to survive without fossil fuels is here, and are improving all the time. But they cannot compete on a level playing field with the fossil fuel industry, and require such an enormous campaign that it will cannot work without government intervention of a kind never seen before. Solar and wind are viable technologies (she claims), but expensive for individuals to purchase and install, and the spotty coverage independent owners might be able to supply cannot hope to quell the ubiquity of coal or natural gas fired energy.

Although Klein spent next to no time explaining the science behind climate change, I was surprised to see so little coverage of the green technologies that she insists throughout can assist in weaning us off from the oil and gas business. Green technologies require the use of energy, mining and drilling for materials as well. Most plastic, for example, is derived from fossil fuels. There have been some movements, especially in Brazil, to create plastics from living organisms like trees, but they can never match today’s level of productivity. Wind turbines, too, require plenty of metals for blades, stands, and most of the innards, while all designs require the use of neodymium, a material in limited supply, to form their permanent magnets. How many solar panels will be required in order to generate just ONE more solar panel without the need for fossil fuels? Such a question never comes up, perhaps because, again, her aim is primarily on the sociopolitical target. Green technologies can help, a little, and once in play do not generate further pollutants. But it is magical thinking to consider them as ever being wholesale replacements; we still require a complete change of mindset if we are to survive as a species.

The last third of “This Changes Everything” concerns the many activities that opponents of the extractive industries have undertaken over the last decade. Despite the immense power of these companies, and the governments that seek a portion of the profits, there are large groups of people who have joined together to prevent them from even starting. Slowly, people are starting to realize that the Earth is our only home, and that it is no longer possible to keep sweeping our waste under the carpet. The indigenous people of Canada and the US have had a number of successes in delaying or preventing extractions from their territories. More importantly, they have been among the first to take a stand and not only remind us all of the need for balancing ourselves with Nature, but of how to do it. That is our greatest hope, if we are to overcome this challenge. And we are waking up.

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