Naomi Klein pins the blame for climate crisis squarely on capitalism. John Gray fears the problem is much bigger
This Changes Everything is as much about the psychology of denial as it is about climate change. “It is always easier to deny reality,” writes Naomi Klein, “than to allow our worldview to be shattered, a fact that was as true of diehard Stalinists at the height of the purges as of libertarian climate deniers today.” Much of this book is concerned with showing that powerful and well-financed rightwing thinktanks and lobby groups lie behind the denial of climate change in recent years. There is not much reasonable doubt as to the findings of science on the subject. As a result of human activities, large-scale climate change is under way, and if it goes on unchecked it will fundamentally alter the world in which humans will in future have to live. Yet the political response has been at best ambiguous and indecisive. Governments have backed off from previous climate commitments, and environmental concerns have slipped down the policy agenda to a point at which in many contexts they are treated as practically irrelevant.
For Klein none of this is accidental. Following on from her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine, a timely and powerful exposé of the environmental and social devastation wrought by neoliberal policies of “shock therapy”, Klein interprets the marginalisation of climate change in the political process as the result of the machinations of corporate elites. These elites “understand the real significance of climate change better than most of the ‘warmists’ in the political centre, the ones who are still insisting that the response can be gradual and painless and that we don’t need to go to war with anybody… The deniers get plenty of the details wrong… But when it comes to the scope and depth of change required to avert catastrophe, they are right on the money.”
The first of the book’s three sections details how the environmental movement has been derailed by the financial crisis and the aftermath of austerity, together with the corporate promotion of climate denial. In the last of the three Klein deals with the movements that are springing up in a wide variety of contexts to challenge the neoliberal order. The second section, dealing with what Klein calls “magical thinking”, is in many ways the core of the book. Here she considers technical fixes for climate change, including schemes of geoengineering. In one of the more grandiose schemes, dimming the rays of the sun with sulphate-spraying helium balloons has been proposed in order to mimic the cooling effect on the atmosphere of large volcanic eruptions. The risks of such technical mega-fixes are obvious. As any climate scientist will tell you, we simply don’t know enough about the Earth system to be able to re-engineer it safely. Yet as Klein notes, such madcap schemes will surely be attempted if abrupt climate change gets seriously under way.
Klein is a brave and passionate writer who always deserves to be heard, and this is a powerful and urgent book that anyone who cares about climate change will want to read. Yet it is hard to resist the conclusion that she shrinks from facing the true scale of the problem. When I read The Shock Doctrine (Guardian review headline: “The end of the world as we know it”), I was unconvinced that corporate and political elites understood what they were doing in promoting the wildly leveraged capitalism of that time, which was already beginning to implode. The idea that corporate elites are in charge of the world is even less convincing today. The neoliberal order has recovered, and in some countries even achieved a spurious kind of stability, but only at the cost of worsening global conflicts. The fantasy of a global free market has given way to the murky struggles of geopolitics, with great powers jostling for control of natural resources. This is a dangerous world, but not because an all-powerful elite is in charge. None of the states contending for power in the Middle East, Ukraine or the South China Sea can control or predict the consequences of their actions. No one is in charge in the world’s conflicts.
Another problem with pinning all the blame for climate crisis on corporate elites is that humanly caused environmental destruction long predates the rise of capitalism. As Klein herself observes in an interesting chapter on what she calls “extractivism” – the economic model that treats the Earth as a bundle of resources waiting to be exploited – human activity was already changing the climate centuries ago. “We started treating the atmosphere as a waste dump when we began using coal on a commercial scale in the late 1700s and engaged in similarly reckless ecological practices well before that.” Moreover, though Klein doesn’t explore the fact, it’s worth bearing in mind that the extractive model was applied on a vast scale in the centrally planned economies of the former Soviet Union and Mao’s China, where some of the largest and worst 20th-century environmental catastrophes occurred.
Along with most environmentalists nowadays, Klein doesn’t discuss overpopulation. But there can be little doubt that population pressure has been a powerful driver of environmental crisis. The extractive economy began with the invention of agriculture, which may itself have been a response to rising human numbers. Even before the spread of farming, migrating hunter-gatherers were implicated in a number of great extinctions. Population growth is slowing in many countries at the present time, but there will still be 8 or 9 billion human beings on the planet within the lifetime of many now living and pressures on resources can only increase.
Though she identifies the prevailing type of capitalism as the culprit in the climate crisis, Klein doesn’t outline anything like an alternative economic system, preferring instead to focus on particular local struggles against environmental damage and exploitation. In many ways this makes sense, but in a global environment of intensifying scarcities, giving priority to local needs is unlikely to be a recipe for harmony. Whether in the Congo in the 1960s or Iraq at the present time, internecine conflicts – exploited and aggravated by the geopolitical stratagems of great powers – have led to a condition of endemic war.
Throughout This Changes Everything, Klein describes the climate crisis as a confrontation between capitalism and the planet. It would be more accurate to describe the crisis as a clash between the expanding demands of humankind and a finite world, but however the conflict is framed there can be no doubt who the winner will be. The Earth is vastly older and stronger than the human animal. Even spraying sulphuric acid into the stratosphere will not trouble the planet for long. The change that is under way is no more than the Earth returning to equilibrium – a process that will go on for centuries or millennia whatever anyone does. Rather than denying this irreversible shift, we’d be better off trying to find ways of living with it.
John Gray’s next book, The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Inquiry into Human Freedom, will be published by Penguin in March