Review of This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein’s book comes at an opportune moment. Last month saw climate justice demonstrations of close to half a million in New York and 40,000 London. It is a sign of a resurgent movement. A movement awakening following the disorientation created by the failed Copenhagen Climate talks in 2009.  Her well researched and written book attempts to explain this history. It doesn’t add anything new to the points that many climate justice activists have been making for years, but she puts together all these many insights.

One of the main questions the book attempts to answer is why after over twenty years of international climate negotiations, climate threatening emissions of carbon has continued its inexorable rise  and – if anything – the pace of emissions has actually accelerated over this period of time. She gives a number of reasons for this failure. First the entrenched power of fossil fuel interests who finance much of the denial of climate science,  and whose power most governments are not prepared to challenge

The second is one of timing. The international climate negotiations started in the early nineties, a time when the neoliberal ideology, free market triumphalism, deregulation and privatisation was at its strongest. The embrace of neoliberalism by the world’s elites meant that rather than introducing direct regulation to limit emissions, they would introduce ineffective market based measures such as carbon trading. She is unsparing in her criticism of the big green NGOs like the WWF who got co-opted by government and big business and ended up supporting ineffective measures such as carbon trading and “lite touch” regulation.

She correctly identifies who the real culprits are. And Naomi Klein is clear: the sort of change she wants to see won’t come about without a political struggle. A war against the corporate interests standing in the way of a solution. She puts forward a vision of a better society which flies against the logic of neoliberalism and austerity. And a strategy for realising it based building a grass roots movement, combining the issue of climate change with social justice by linking the many struggles, such as those opposing fracking and expansion of the carbon economy with issues such as fuel poverty, the demand for jobs in renewable energy with democratic public ownership of key industries such as energy and transport. What she sees as the vanguard of the struggle for climate justice movement are the struggles of indigenous communities, such as Canada’s First Nations, who is waging a struggle against the environmentally devastating expansion of tar sands in  Canada

One big element missing from her analysis is any discussion about class. In particular, working class agency. And where she talks of the working class it’s like she’s talking about another oppressed group. But not talking about class and embracing the language of privilege theory introduces problems with her analysis. This isn’t an abstract point: workers have used their collective power to protect the environment, one famous example being the “Green Bans” introduced by Australian building workers to protect the green spaces around Sydney in the early seventies. Her vision is not realisable without working class self organisation.

She describes the American ruling class as “middle aged white men”. This might be demographically true, but it does not tell us anything about their real class interests. Added to that, the ruling class is becoming increasingly cosmopolitan itself. The richest man resident in Britain, Laksmi Mittal, is Indian and owns over half of Europe’s steel industry. The notion of climate debt, the ecological debt owed by the industrial North to the global South doesn’t take into account the fact that countries are split on class lines. A worker in Britain has more in common with a worker in India than either has with their own ruling class. Solidarity would be a better notion than climate debt

One other problem is that she fails to see the contradictory nature of technological  and scientific progress under capitalism. She is rightly critical of the reductionist and empiricist thinking of people like Francis Bacon, the first exponent if the scientific method, and James Watt, the inventor of the high pressure steam engine. But without the scientific method there would be no climate science, and although Jame Watt’s invention would make possible the dark satanic mills of 19th century Britain, it would also ensure that clean water could be pumped to those very same cities, dramatically reducing infant mortality. She borrows from a variety of sources, including many Marxist writers, but her style is eclectic and not as coherent as it could be. It is the quality of her journalism rather than her philosophy which is the main strength of the book. But don’t let these minor quibbles put you off this book, read it alongside  Jonathan Neale’s excellent Stop Global Warming – Change the World, which will fill in the gaps missing in her analysis.

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