This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate

Naomi Klein

Book cover

Another successful outcome from my “read more women in 2016” campaign. Like Rebecca Solnit, Naomi Klein has been vaguely on my radar for some time, and the campaign finally prompted me to pick up her most recent book. I really liked it and am looking forward to back-reading “No Logo” and “The Shock Doctrine.”

TCE is just what it says on the tin, a book about climate change and capitalism. The general thesis is that successfully combating climate change at this point requires changes to lifestyles and political systems that are so significant that they would pose a significant threat to capitalism as we know it; one immediate implication is that this threat is the very reason that leaders and governments have not enacted significant responses to climate change in the thirty or so years that we’ve known about it. The message of the book is that we do still have time to make the needed changes, but it is growing short, and requires, for lack of a better term, a political revolution.

Klein is an intelligent and very readable writer. She falls somewhere on a spectrum between Rebecca Solnit and someone like Matt Taibbi or Thomas Frank–more polemical and activist-y than the former, but more meditative and humanist than the latter. Interestingly, although the majority of the book is written in an impersonal advocacy-journalism style, there is a fairly extended section later in the book where Klein talks about her personal experiences with infertility during the time she was writing the book, and the connections she drew between that experience and her subject matter. It is a bold authorial choice and, to be honest, one that initially turned me off, but eventually won me over when it became clear that she was making much more than the superficial analogy of damaged earth::damaged body.

Another thing that interested me about the book was the very prominent role that indigenous people played in it. To get in my obligatory Bernie Sanders reference, I was kind of surprised when I read about Sanders having an advisor for Native American affairs, thinking that it seemed like kind of a niche topic for a presidential candidate to have an advisor on. But Klein makes an interesting and convincing argument that indigenous groups are currently one of the most powerful countervailing forces in the current battles around climate change. She often describes this from the Canadian “First Nations” perspective (she is Canadian), but also talks about the U.S. case as well. Basically, the point is that government treaties (or in the Canadian case, I think also the constitution?) recognize rights for indigenous peoples to continue to pursue traditional ways of life, which tend to be worded in a very general way. There has been a legal movement to bring court cases asserting these rights to counter energy-related environmental despoliation, such as dumping of waste from the Alberta tar sands or from hydrofracking. She describes how the recognition of these legal rights and the power associated with them has resulted in some shifting of power dynamics as traditional left-wing groups and indigenous groups have recognized their mutual needs. It definitely changed my perspective, not least because a lot of the indigenous groups described sound pretty bad-ass.

Related to the above, I would say this book shares some of the world-view of Daniel Quinn’s book “Ishmael,” which I was read as a kid and which I read to Elise a few years ago. Klein’s focus on combating not only capitalism but “extractivism” more generally (which can also be instantiated in communist or socialist societies) is reminiscent of Ishmael’s dichotomy of “takers” and “leavers.” On Klein’s telling, climate change is a significant enough threat that successfully combating it would require a “revolution of values,” as MLK would put it–becoming more of leavers and less of takers. The good news, if that seems like a tall order, is that the required values are in fact the sort of “folk values” that are generally more or less subscribed to by most individual people. The problem is that these values are not subscribed to by corporations or by governments acting in their interests. So in essence, the task at hand is to reign in corporate power and, a fortiori, to work toward a government that is more responsive to the citizens than to economic elites and corporate interest groups. Sound familiar?

Last thing I’ll mention; although this is by no means a Canada-centric book, I found it really interesting to read about the political and environmental situation in that country, which gets fairly little press coverage in the sources I generally read.

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars