Author, The Fragility of Things: Self-Organizing Processes, Neoliberal Fantasies, Democratic Activism.
“The truth is that this is the hardest book I have ever written.” (Klein, p26)
Naomi Klein, in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (2014), knows that climate change is an eerie thing. To engage it deeply is to rethink a set of engrained categories organized around subjects and objects, culture and nature, capitalism and communism, and the trajectory of time itself. So we often try not to think about it. On the other hand, discernible changes in arctic glacier flows, inedible fish, rising global temperatures, depleted coral reefs, floods in low lying islands and cities, ocean acidification, rapid species extinctions, and extreme weather events draw us back to the issue. So many people go back and forth. To and fro.
That was the yo yo logic Naomi Klein followed, too, until a few years ago. Near the end of the book she reviews struggles she went through to conceive and bear a child. After various medical strategies failed she talked with some naturalists. She then retreated from the rigors of air travel for a while, spent more time in western Canada away from a hectic Toronto life, hiked a lot, and altered her diet. A pregnancy followed that was carried to term, though she does not guarantee the life regime changes were the cause. Nonetheless, now she folds the outer ecology of life more intimately into its inner quality. She also thinks about the future facing her two year old son.
Klein does not, at least on a charitable reading, tether attachment to the future to a universal, reproductive logic. Rather, this is the way her own attachments crystallized to make climate change THE topic to pursue. Numerous singles and couples build rich lives without children. We are nonetheless variously tethered to the future through the things we build, the houses we repair, the students we teach, the writing we undertake, the communities we support, the labor unions we sustain, the churches we attend, and the movements that vitalize us. The dilemma is that the extractive system in which we participate is now based upon a future that is self-destructing. It rings increasingly hollow to many who carry out its role imperatives. The danger is that many respond to this bind with aggressive denial, insistent withdrawal, or even the back and forth logic that plagued Klein until recently. Klein’s project is to intensify our ties to a possible future at odds with the one the extractive culture is building.
Advanced capitalism generates innumerable pressures, ambitions, compensatory consumption desires, and temptations to delay, resist or deny pursuit of such critical attachments. Cynicism, withdrawal, opportunism and aggressive denial are merely four of its temptations. But Klein’s wager is that, once we connect the future trajectory actually underway to the climate induced shocks we increasingly face, the disparate social movements now in play may expand to transform our condition. You encounter a new event--a severe flood, a storm that floods the city, a fracking corporation rumbling into your neighborhood, an oil pipeline projected for your area, water bubbling up from storm pipes onto streets, a devastating hurricane that breaks through flimsy bulwarks built for another era. Now you become ready to rethink and connect.
This is a critique of the way late capitalism assaults human ecology, and more besides. For, as she says, Soviet communism also spawned a huge extraction and emission machine before it collapsed, generating more per capita CO2 emissions than several capitalist states. And Mao Zedong insisted that "man must conquer nature". Moreover, some capitalist states---e.g., Germany, with its recent drive to renewable energy—secrete far lower CO2 emissions than others—e.g., the United States and China. Yes, the trajectory of climate change is entangled today above all with neoliberal capitalism. But it is also tied to compensatory modes of consumption not entirely reducible to that source, to specific religious traditions, and to a powerful drive since at least the time of Francis Bacon to treat nature as a deposit of resources for human mastery and exploitation. It is important neither to give short shrift to the primacy of neoliberal capitalism nor to ignore other forces with some degree of autonomy that contribute to this drive.
In chapter One Klein argues that climate deniers are right about one thing: If the climate science is accepted and we respond adequately, radical changes must be made in the neoliberal organization of life. That truth, indeed, is a key source of denialism among many neoliberals, Fox talking heads, and corporate chiefs. The deniers say that the changes proposed would subject the free market to extensive regulation, that taxes for the rich would soar, that the basic structure of consumption would change. They are correct on all counts. The thing they are wrong about is the repeated assertion that an impersonal organization of capitalist markets ensures impersonal rationality---each new meltdown disproves that assumption. Klein could do a bit more to show how changes in the infrastructure and ethos of consumption are closely linked. For when you move from the state and corporate mandated infrastructure of hi-tech medical care, private health insurance, massive road construction for auto and truck travel, and a fossil fuel energy grid you can also move toward an infrastructure that is more ecological, inclusive and egalitarian. Such changes, in turn, make it more possible for people to alter the ethos of consumption in which they participate, so that a positive spiral between ethos and infrastructure is set into motion.
Early in the book Klein fastens our attention on the small island of Nauru in the South Pacific. It was a beautiful little gem before, first, guano hunters dug out its center, second, ocean acidification decimated sea life in the area, third, rising sea levels began to reduce its size from the outside, and, finally, it was deployed by Australia as an outpost for concentration camps to imprison boat refugees from Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iran and Pakistan seeking to escape war-torn areas.
Nauru has been destroyed from inside out and outside in. It is simultaneously a sad reality and a powerful metaphor: “the lesson Nauru has to teach us is not only about the dangers of fossil fuel emissions. It is about the mentality that allows so many of us, and our ancestors, to believe that we could relate to the earth with such violence in the first place—to dig and drill out the substances we desired while thinking little of the trash left behind...This carelessness is at the core of an economic model some political scientists call extractivism… Extractivism is a nonreciprocal dominance based relationship with the earth, one purely of the taking. It is the opposite of stewardship, which involves taking but also taking care that regeneration and future life continue. “ (p.169) Here, as at other junctures, Klein folds care for the future into detailed engagement with a specific situation. The power of this text, to my ear, thus exceeds that of her earlier work on capitalism, useful as that was. As she analyzes each situation we feel visceral dispositions within us begin to ripple.
Klein offers excellent reasons why big, high-tech climate fixes are dangerous, even as she reports how (and why) large corporations, politicians, and moderate think-tanks favor such fixes. She also reviews how, in the 1980s and '90s, several leading environmental groups lost their way by becoming closely tied to the “market solutions” the corporate world was prepared to fund and entertain. Though she does not note it even a critic of neoliberal avoidism such as Paul Krugman is too closely linked to market solutions than to more radical changes in production and consumption priorities. This part of the book is effective stuff, if familiar to some degree in other books, such as Clive Hamilton’s Earthmasters.
The most compelling chapter to me is chapter 9. It is entitled “Blockadia: The New Climate Warriors”. Here Klein engages locals on the ground at numerous sites who pierce through old market schemes and advertising strategies as they mount protest movements. “Blockadia” is in fact a floating collection of movements popping up whenever open pit mines, fracking, or tar sands pipelines are in the works. These movements expose and contest the latest stage of extractive capitalism. As we roll through such movements in Greece, Nigeria, New Brunswick, Ithaca, Manchester, New South Wales, Inner Mongolia, Oregon, Alberta, Pennsylvania, and North Dakota, as we encounter urban and suburban protesters, indigenous activists, and academics exposing and contesting false promises, health hazards, refinery explosions, aquifer damage, river pollution and soaring C02 emissions, the sense of a burgeoning cross-territorial constellation begins to crystallize. Klein helps us to discern how a series of disparate movements could begin to merge into a larger constellation, how each provides ammunition, tactical insight, publicity, and moral support to the others.
She also shows how academic research, exposing accidents, effects and dangers that states and extractive companies cover up, have become more active in some of the very areas now under attack. Research into toxic effects by geologists and others at Cornell provides a case in point. It was probably spurred by a fracking campaign close to home in central New York State. Here is Klein: “The various toxic threats these communities are up against seem to be awakening impulses that are universal, even primal—whether it is the fierce drive to protect children from harm, or a deep connection to the land that had previously been suppressed... Social media in particular has allowed geographically isolated communities to tell their stories to the world, and for those stories, in turn, to become part of a transnational narrative about resistance to a common ecological crisis.” (p.303)
Klein could have talked about the “blowback”-- those ugly practices of "pacification" traditionally farmed out to colonies by imperial states and then brought back to control urban minorities at home. Here, blowback takes the form of destructive extractive practices previously hidden in places that elites, liberals, and innocent citizens could ignore. Blowback now means that the "center" and the "periphery" are merging as extractive industries move into previously protected territory.
I hope it is clear how impressed I am with this study. That is not to say that the book is entirely sufficient to the huge task it sets itself. I will list a few things that might extend Klein's work, in the spirit of augmentation.
First, to understand why the United States is an outlier among the older capitalist states, it is important to grasp how neoliberalism in this country has been bolstered by angry energy emanating from the right edge of evangelicalism. The "tea party" is not a new thing, despite media suggestions. The “evangelical/capitalist resonance machine”, as I call it, has been active for at least four decades. Its two entangled constituencies—neoliberals and evangelicals—intensify the worst in each other. This constellation is thus not well understood by those who think the explanation of economic life must invoke economic factors alone. In this machine neoliberals demand market deregulation in pursuit of power, privilege and ideological hegemony.
The right edge of the evangelical movement, on the other hand, is insulted by the very assertion that human economic activity could change something in (nonhuman) nature that God has created such as climate. And several of its leaders now invest the providential hand of God in the operation of capitalist markets. The two constituents together thus intensify opposition to exactly the things egalitarians and ecologists care about most. As I have written in Capitalism and Christianity, American Style, evangelism and neoliberalism resonate together… [they] are bound by similar orientations to the future. One party discounts its responsibilities to the future of the earth to vindicate extreme economic entitlement now, while the other does so to prepare for the day of judgment against nonbelievers. These electrical charges resonate back and forth, generating a political machine much more potent than the aggregation of its parts. (48-9). What’s more, their combined strength in southern and western states gives climate denialism impressive power in Congress. To overcome this reactionary resonance machine a pluralist assemblage of workers, professionals, farmers, minorities, nontheists and church/temple/mosque devotees of several types is needed.
Second, Klein is correct in saying that an accumulation of role changes by individuals and groups cannot resolve the climate crisis. Rapid changes in state supported renewable energy, the infrastructure of consumption, and the structure of taxation, etc. are needed, as she shows. But the truth of this point may encourage her to underplay another. As people adopt new practices--buying used clothes and furniture from volunteer organizations, dropping the use of lawn pesticides, bringing new speakers to their church, trading bikes, buses or zip cars for cars, using trains whenever possible, supporting local pressure to reform garbage and waste collection, installing solar panels if they can afford to do so, writing and publicizing eco-centered blogs, joining community gardens in the city, teaching new courses, supporting eco-concerns in their labor unions, and so on endlessly--the cumulative result does not only improve things modestly. It connects participants as constituencies, and it works on the subterranean dispositions and inclinations of the experimenters themselves. It prepares us to heed new climate events and to support larger pressures to restructure the economy.
Third, while Klein digs into the details of how corporate practices impinge upon climate, she avoids exploration of the partially self-organizing processes of climate, ocean currents, species evolution, cross-species disease transmission, wetlands, and glacier flows themselves. It is indispensable to join her work to studies doing exactly that, as for example Fred Pearce starts to do in With Speed and Violence. Then we will understand how melting glaciers become self-amplifying as the enlarged amount of open water absorbs more heat rather than reflecting it; we will grasp how the West Antarctic Shelf responds to human induced triggers with its own amplifiers that greatly exceed the effect of these triggers. We will deepen our insights into how triggers, amplifiers, and tipping points work and how they intersect with capitalist extraction, pollution and emissions. “[The] dampening of destructive elements” in self-organizing systems, I have written, “requires self-reflective intervention by the human uses of that system. You can call the latter a self-conscious regulation of the system needed when its self-organization creates dangerous or exploitive results” (The Fragility of Things, 83).
We may also begin to work more actively on those nature/culture and subject/object dualities that helped to blind so many scholars to the Anthropocene until so late in the twentieth century. If sociocentrism is the attempt to explain political economy through categories that give too much autonomy to social forces such as profit, or relations of production, or markets , or state practices, or preference schedules, or some combination of these, critical studies today must mix accounts of planetary, nonhuman systems with active self-organizing powers of their own into accounts of capitalism. And vice versa. To the extent climate change involves planetary forces with partial self-organizing capacities, sociocentrism in the human sciences and cultural internalism in the humanities must be revised significantly. That is one of the reasons I am drawn to the theme of the Anthropocene—the 200 year period when industrial emissions have helped to reshape climate. Supported by many geologists and climatologists, it explains both how climate, ocean currents, and glaciers periodically went through rather rapid changes before modern economies were founded and how today emission and pollution triggers emanating from neoliberal capitalism galvanize natural amplifiers that exceed the force of those triggers.
Finally, the bracing account of diverse anti-extraction movements that Klein provides may encourage us to project a cross-country beacon that could draw them together. In the near future it is both urgently needed and perhaps possible to organize a cross-country general strike to place pressure on states, corporations, unions, churches, banks, universities, and localities from the inside and outside simultaneously, pressing all of them to take rapid action to reorganize the economies of extraction, production, consumption, and finance. I have explored such a need and possibility in a couple of posts in The Contemporary Condition. (my Latour piece and the Obama Swarming piece). The idea may also grow organically out of the accumulated movements Klein supports. Such an action would speak to the planetary condition and urgency of today.
Each of these points, I believe, is consonant with the spirit of Klein’s endeavor; none detracts from its analytical power or inspirational force. Indeed, This Changes Everything is an exemplary study, informing and illuminating us as it jostles the molecular habits that help to define us. Perhaps, then, it is appropriate to allow Klein the last word: "When I started this journey, most of the resistance movements standing in the way of the fossil fuel frenzy either did not exist or were a fraction of their current size. All were significantly more isolated from one another that they are today...Most of us had never heard of fracking... All of this has changed so rapidly as I have been writing that I have had to race to keep up… In these existing and nascent movements we now have clear glimpses of the kind of dedication and imagination demanded of everyone who is alive and breathing during climate change's 'decade zero'." (pp. 451-452)