Book Club

The Chair read for you This changes everything by Naomi Klein

Published on 15 December 2021

This changes everything (2014)[1]  is the fifth book by journalist and essayist Naomi Klein (1970). Her work has received widespread acclamation since the publication of The Shock Doctrine : The Rise of Disaster Capitalism in 2007, in which she showed how neoliberalism emerged in the developed world by taking advantage of natural catastrophes and economic crises. This book explores more precisely the role of the capitalist production system in the current climate crisis, clearly stating the main thesis in the first pages: “our economic system and our planetary system are now at war” (p21). This statement is meant as more hopeful than frightening, as if the root of the problem lies in political and social shortcomings, it is up to citizens to fix it.

The first few chapters address the main reasons put forward in the public debate to justify not taking action on climate protection, particularly at the individual scale. First, the idea that there is no technology able to support human needs does not hold up when looking at the number of innovations in recent years, in the renewable energy field for instance. Second, she argued against the fact that there is no sufficient institution to compel every country to come to an agreement, nor to enforce international treaties. Those institutions simply need to be created, following the example of the World Trade Organization, which not only produced a complex set of rules to regulate all flows of goods and services, but also developed a well-respected sanction system. It is possible to do for the climate the same things done to protect economic competition worldwide. Finally, the argument of human nature is often pushed forward, with the idea that one cannot expect individuals to not maximize their personal gain. Hence people could not be trusted to reduce their consumption levels, nor to change their ways of living. Her counter example is the effort imposed without question on everyone under austerity measures – if human beings are capable of putting their well-being on hold to prevent bankruptcy, they are surely capable to do so to prevent the collapse of the ecological system we all depend on. This book stands out from other essays on climate emergency thanks to Naomi Klein’s ability to not dissociate herself from the issues the described. Instead, she exposed her own biases that prevented her from acting on climate change sooner, while witnessing the consequences like everyone else.

The relationship established between the capitalist production system and climate change is twofold. On one hand, the very activity of large companies is the main factor behind the destruction of ecosystems and carbon emissions. On the other hand, those who possess the means of production have enough power to influence political decisions, by preventing research or by forming interest groups to obstruct the democratic process. She gave particular attention to the Heartland Institute, which has gathered wealthy conservatives since 1984 to oppose, among other causes, the implementation of environmental restrictions. Their effort to discredit activists is well summed-up by their “green is the new red” slogan, which attempted to associate climate activists to a foreign communist threat on the American way of life.  Socio-economic inequalities are presented as the main driver of the persistence of the capitalist system. Beyond national contexts, the most drastic consequences of climate change will be endured by the more vulnerable countries, which are also the ones who contribute the least to the problem. Insisting on the importance of those inequalities, she argued against the notion that everyone will face the same hardships as a result of global warming. Much alike rich countries will not be directly concerned by rising sea levels and will be able to keep climate refugees outside their borders, the top 1% will manage to save themselves in the event of an ecological collapse.

The second part of the book, “Magical Thinking”, explores the inefficiency of various compensation policies and attempts to cooperate with large companies. The latter has been notably advocated for by the American non-profit organization Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), which prides itself in proposing humbler and less radical solutions than green activists, in order to incentivize firms to act for the planet. Naomi Klein’s response to their argument is simple: if cooperation with share-holders were the solution to the climate crisis, why hasn’t EDF’s action led to any substantial progress since its creation in 1967? Her more general point follows what was stated in the previous chapters, namely that the top 1% will not suffer the same consequences and that one should not expect a miracle solution coming from billionaires: “our faith in techno wizardry persists, embedded inside the superhero narrative that at the very last minute our best and brightest are going to save us from disaster” (p.255). She also refuted the idea that a radical technological innovation will allow us to maintain our ways without a reorganization production and consumption. The list of such attempts is now rather long, which can instill doubt in the credibility of this scenario. Several examples are invoked to illustrate her point, from Richard Branson’s project to land on Mars to BP Oil’s deep sea drillings. She criticizes a scientific chimera, directly drawn from the myth of Noah’s Ark or Hollywood movies.

If the solution will not stem from a potential technical innovation, nor in the good will of the top 1%, then what is left? The third part “Starting anyway” moves beyond the acknowledgement and description of the climate crisis and reviews different types of action that can be conducted at the individual and community levels. She took particular interest in the Blockadia movement, which aims to prevent new drilling sites worldwide. Their action departs from the estimation of environmental risk, which has been a central policy issue for decades, and instead focuses on the precautionary principle. In short, if an environmental risk is perceived, all economic activity should be put on hold until proven otherwise, which opposes the current way measures are taken, namely after a precise estimate of the damaged caused by a pre-existing activity. The goal is to put the burden of proof on companies instead of the State or general public. Actions taken by Natives in Northern America are in line with this philosophy, and even if they are not always met with success they have the advantage of spreading the idea that companies should be held responsible for the environment into the public debate. This logic is then extended to promote a new paradigm of land sharing, particularly with Natives, based on the idea that economic development should always serve the interests of people and protect traditional ways of living. Consequently, it is also described as the only sustainable way to engage with less developed countries to ensure the survival of ecosystems.

This changes everything can be described as a political essay, which provides a harsh criticism of neoliberal policies and of the capitalist production system, that are identified as the main drivers of climate change. The appeal of her demonstration lies in the grounds she set for individual action, which go beyond forced guilt. Instead of limiting it to riding a bike and using low-consumption lightbulbs, she insisted on the need for collective movements to limit the destruction of the planet in the name of industrial development. The takeaway is that economic activity should not be allowed if it may be harmful to the biosphere. Ultimately, even the funding of the reforms needed to preserve and restore the planet should be organized through corporate tax, stating once again the obligation for companies to serve the interests of the general public. Without understating the urgency of these issues, she managed to go beyond a simple catastrophic statement and formulate coherent solutions that are within the reader’s reach.

Esther Raineau-Rispal, Research Fellow Market structure, strategic behaviors and economic incentives of firms in the construction industry.

[1] Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything, Ed. Penguin Group, 516 p.