How do we imagine the climate changing?
Some scenarios involve techno-fixes like cloud-seeding or new kinds of carbon sinks. Cool tech, usually backed by even cooler entrepreneurs, saves the day — Iron Man plus Al Gore plus Steve Jobs. In green.
Other scenarios are apocalyptic: blizzards, floods, tsunamis, and droughts; crashing planes; millions of migrants moving from south to north only to be shot at armed borders. The poor fight and starve; the rich enclave themselves in shining domed cities as they document the extinction of charismatic species and convince themselves they aren’t next.
And there is climate change as unconscious: the stuff of stress, inconvenience, anxiety, and repression; the relief at not having to manage anymore; the enjoyment of change, destruction, and punishment. There will be a last judgment after all. Here those of us who follow the reports of emissions, temperature increases, and political failure get to enjoy being in the know, being those with access to the truth. We can’t do anything about it, but we can judge everyone else for their blind, consumerist pleasures. We can name our new era, marking our impact as the Anthropocene (hey, we have changed the world after all.) Anticipatory Cassandras, we can watch from within our melancholic “pre-loss,” to use Naomi Klein’s term, comforted at least by the fantasy of our future capacity to say we knew it all along. We told you so.
The hardest thing is doing something about it. Coming together. Fighting against the multiple centrifugal forces that have produced us as individuals preoccupied with our particular freedoms, preferences, conveniences, and choices. It’s no wonder in this setting that market approaches to climate change have appeared as popular options. They affirm the selves we’ve become and promise to solve the problems all in one new light-bulb or electronic car.
Some of our present difficulty comes from the challenge of imagining a better future. Does it involve a kind of re-peasantization? The elimination of all industry, of all the advantages accrued to some of us under late capitalism? Or is it closer to what we have now, but with windmills and bicycles, the Dutchification of everything? Or is it really not that big a deal at all, a few tweaks here and there so that society looks pretty much like it did in the 70s (Taxi Driver? New York told to drop dead?).
Naomi Klein’s bold attempt in This Changes Everything is to take up the challenge of creating an alternative to the grim inequalities of our present trajectory by using climate change as a frame for galvanizing left politics. What the economic crises of the seventies and eighties were for the right (opportunities to deepen and extend neoliberalism), climate change can be for the left (an opportunity to “pull huge swaths of humanity out of poverty”). If the left fails to take this opportunity, that is, if we don’t take advantage of the “existential urgency” that climate change provides to develop a more focused left strategy, we are doomed to “climate-change-fueled disaster capitalism—profiteering disguised as emission reduction, privatized hyper-militarized borders” etc (154). What we need, she tells us, is a People’s Shock.
Rejecting narrow market-based approaches like cap and trade, Klein argues that climate change
could be the best argument progressives have ever had to demand the rebuilding and reviving of local economies; to reclaim our democracies from corrosive corporate influence; to block harmful new free trade deal and rewrite old ones; to invest in starving public infrastructure like mass transit and affordable housing; to take back ownership of essential services like energy and water; to remake our sick agricultural system into something much healthier; to open borders to migrants whose displacement is linked to climate impacts; to finally respect Indigenous land rights — all of which would help to end grotesque levels of inequality within our nations and between them. (7)
Just as Marx and Engels linked communism to the workers movement, making communism the mission of the working class, so does Klein link a vision of a progressive future to the climate movement. If the only way to eliminate the exploitation of the workers is the abolition of capitalism, the only to eliminate the exploitation of the planet is .... multiple, dispersed activities combined within a diffuse policy framework oriented toward long-term planning and inspired by an essentialist, overly romantic vision of locality, indigeneity, and democracy (that is to say, populism).
Klein’s attempt to make climate change the basis for a stronger left politics is a crucial political move. But she weakens it. She fails to see it through. At the site of this failure is a red hole, a missing communism that distorts her vision. She invokes radical politics, but ultimately pulls back into the formula of the alter-globalization movement: in a movement of movements, multiple communities can solve their problems democratically.
Klein presents the “core problem” preventing adequate response to climate change as “the stranglehold of market logic” and “unfettered corporate power.” She says that “our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life.” (21) We are in the midst of a battle between capitalism and the planet. If capitalism wins, and at this point it is winning, extremely dangerous warming will lock-in, threatening the habitability of the planet. What is to be done? We have to change everything.
Everything rides on how we understand “everything.” Klein seems to understand it in terms of neoliberalism, where neoliberalism involves privatization, deregulation of the corporate sphere, lowering of taxes within a broader setting of global trade. By rendering the problem in terms of neoliberalism, she doesn’t have to advocate the abolition of capitalism, even when her arguments tend in that direction. So her solution is a kind of global Green Keynesianism, a step back into the time before neoliberalism dismantled the welfare state. It is hard to say exactly what Klein has in mind, though, since she offers so many options in a giant menu of change. It’s like she thinks “everything” should be on the table and we (each “community”) should be able to pick what we want (perhaps in a truer, more democratic market).
Klein’s sense of “everything” is limited by the absence of a communist alternative. For example, even as she criticizes market fundamentalism, she sometimes seems fully ensconced in it. She wants to “buy time for clean energy sources to increase their market share and to be seen as more viable alternatives, weakening the power of the fossil fuel lobby” (349). But if we have to change everything, why not just nationalize the fossil fuel industries and undertake a 5-10 year process of dismantling them? Or why not nationally fund clean energy and inject so many taxes and regulations into the carbon economy that it withers away? It’s like Klein feels so fully trapped within the economic system we have that she can’t break free even as she insists we must break free. There has been and still is a name for this break — communism.
Some of the components of Klein’s new Green Keynesianism would likely include: a carefully planned economy; basic annual income; big public sector expenditures; higher taxes on the rich; and tougher business regulations. The Green justification for the higher taxes on the rich is that they are the ones who need to curb their consumption. The big expenditures would include better public transit, energy efficient housing, and changes in land use to encourage local agriculture. Klein also favors doing a lot with taxes, following the “polluter pays” principle applied to corporations and the rich. It was never clear to me who or what was engaged in the long-term planning she advocates and what sort of force these plans would have. I expect that planning would occur on multiple levels. Given Klein’s insistence on local, decentralized communities, it also isn’t clear to me how the plans would be integrated.
Klein opposes the nationalization of energy. She advocates instead the model of democratically run, community-based utilities — let a thousand renewable energy providers bloom! She treats this as a project of the commons (her models are Germany and Denmark). Governments provide a national framework within which decentralized, small-scale, local providers supply renewable energy.
Accompanying the core problem of market fundamentalism is a cultural narrative regarding human domination of the earth. This narrative, Klein argues, underlies much of the left as well as the capitalist right. The former Soviet Union, Mao’s China, and contemporary extractivist left-wing governments in Latin America are clear examples, but so are trade unions fighting for “dirty” jobs instead of clean ones, and so are any left Keynesians who continue to think in developmentalist terms. In place of this narrative of domination, Klein’s Green Keynesianism would emphasize regeneration, “relationships of reciprocity and interconnection with the natural world” (182).
How, then, can we make the change we want to see? Not with big Green: “the ’market-based’ climate solutions favored by so many foundations and adopted by many greens have provided an invaluable service to the fossil fuel sector as a whole” (199). These include consumer-based solutions (buy Green!) as well as carbon trading schemes, and fracking as a clean energy bridge to renewables. In addition to having done little to nothing to lower emissions over the last twenty years, these approaches, she argues, make the problem worse by failing to challenge the hegemony of the market.
Klein has more confidence in the “movement of many movements” that she calls “Blockadia.” These include anti-fracking, anti-extractive industry, and pipeline protests all over the world. Klein rightly emphasizes how the contemporary resistance movement is more than a NIMBY struggle. Across multiple sites, activists share the conviction that fossil fuels must remain in the ground. They use local issues (health, safety, livelihood) as instruments for getting at the global problem of climate change.
The struggles of Blockadia are the flip side of the extreme energy boom going on for the last decade (the one with Sarah Palin’s tagline, “drill, baby, drill!”). In the US and Canada, this boom has made more visible the war that the fossil fuel industry has long tried to hide, namely, that the carbon economy—and the capitalist economy more generally—relies on sacrifice zones. Klein writes:
for a very long time, sacrifice zones all shared a few elements in common. They were poor places. Out-of-the-way places. Places where residents lacks political power, usually having to do with some combination of race, language, and class (310).
With the “extreme energy frenzy,” the sacrifice zone has expanded. More people—and more people in the north and west, in areas formerly privileged enough to think they were entitled to turn their heads—are now in the zone of allowable sacrifice. From the vast reach of the Bakken, Marcellus, and Utica shale plays, to the Alberta tar sands, to the continent crossing pipelines, to deep-water oil rigs, to the exploding bomb trains, the intensification of the carbon economy has extended the range of expendable people and places.
Although Klein doesn’t use these terms, climate change makes clear the scale of expropriation underpinning the carbon economy. The surplus value captured by the top— by the owners, shareholders, and executives of the fossil fuel industry — is expropriated not just from the workers in the industry (which it is), and not just from those living nearby (which it is), but from those living hundreds and thousands of miles away (which is a characteristic also of nuclear power). “Sacrifice zone” has the capacity to be a key concept for knitting together anti-capitalist and climate struggles.
It’s correlative concept could then be the “commons.” For example, we would want to eliminate sacrifice zones and treat the entire planet as a commons. Having disallowed communism, Klein can’t get us to this point. More specifically, in the place in her argument where Klein could — and should — point to an internationalist egalitarian vision such as that championed by communists she appeals to a vague notion of democracy understood as multiplicity combined with a romantic vision of indigenous people. This combination embeds unresolved tensions in her argument.
The first problem is the equation of the Blockadia movements with a struggle for democracy. Klein writes: this emergent network of resistance is “driven by a desire for a deeper form of democracy, one that provides communities with real control over those resources that are most critical to collective survival—the health of the water, air, and soil” (295) and “the fight against violent resource extraction and the fight for greater community control, democracy, and sovereignty are two sides of the same coin” (309). Klein displaces particular struggles (pipeline, fracking, climate) into the political field rather than seeing how the struggles themselves change the field by contesting its terms. Most of the time, activist groups aren’t majorities. They are small groups trying to force a position and bring more people over to their side — as well they should!
Additionally, Klein implies that communities are somehow unified and that they encounter an external force (state or corporation) that is violently extracting resources from them. But division goes all the way through communities. The communities themselves are divided. The deadlocked political system that we have is both a cause and an effect of this division. Marxists refer to this division as class conflict (which works well enough if we have a loose understanding of ’class’). By omitting the constitutive place of division, Klein can suggest that community sovereignty is a goal, again, as if the community were united against fossil fuels — but the fact that we are not united is precisely the problem the book, and the movement, encounters.
To use a local example, in the battle against the expansion of methane gas storage and LPG storage in the fragile salt caverns adjacent to Seneca Lake, the Town of Reading — where the facility is located — endorses the gas storage plan. Schuyler County — where the facility is located — also supports the plan, although the vote came down to 1 person in their local board and the community is clearly divided. All the other counties surrounding the lake oppose the plan, but most of this opposition came from votes by city or county boards after petitions from activists. The state is considering the issues, and will make a decision. The federal government has already agreed to let the methane storage proceed, but might reconsider. Which level counts as the community? Why? And what sense does this make in a global setting? No one involved has said that the process has not been democratic. This is what democracy looks like. We just don’t think it has yielded the right outcome.
The second problem is Klein’s association of communities with indigeneity and land. Klein writes, “communities with strong ties to the land have always, and will always, defend themselves against businesses that threaten their ways of life” (309). Here again she denies division, as if everyone in a community agreed on what constituted a threat, as if they were all similarly situated against a threat, as if they were never too deluded, tired, or exploited to defend themselves, as if they could never themselves constitute a threat to themselves. Cities, towns, states, and regions make bad decisions all the time; they stimulate industries that destroy them. Klein, though, has something else in mind, “a ferocious love” that “no amount of money can extinguish.” She associates this love “with an identity, a culture, a beloved place that people are determined to pass on to their grandchildren, and that their ancestors may have paid for with great sacrifice.” She continues, “And though this kind of connection to place is surely strongest in Indigenous communities where the ties to the land go back thousands of years, it is in fact Blockadia’s defining feature” (342).
Participants in my seminar found this description racist or fascist. Even though this is not Klein’s intent, her rhetoric deploys a set of myths regarding nature, and some people’s relation to nature, that make some people closer to nature (and further from civilization) than others. It also justifies an intense defense of blood and soil on the part of one group’s attachment to a place such that others become foreign, invaders, rightly excluded as threats to our way of life, our cultural identity. Given that climate change is already leading to increased migration and immigration and that the US and Europe are already responding by militarizing borders, a language of cultural defense and ties to the land is exactly what we don’t need in a global movement for climate justice.
Klein’s argument, though, gets worse as it juxtaposes indigenous people’s love of place with the “extreme rootlessness” of the fossil fuel workforce. These “highly mobile” pipefitters, miners, engineers, and big rig drivers produce a culture of transience, even when they “may stay for decades and raise their kids” in a place. The language of rootless echoes with descriptions of cosmopolitan Jews, intellectuals, and communists. Some are always foreign elements threatening our way of life.
In contrast, I imagine climate politics as breaking the link between place and identity. To address climate change, we have to treat the world itself as a commons and build institutions adequate to the task of managing it. I don’t have a clear idea as to what these institutions would look like. But the idea that no one is entitled to any place seems better to me as an ethos for a red-green coalition. It requires us to be accountable to every place.
I should wrap this up. The final tension I want to address comes in Klein’s conclusion, as she emphasizes mass social movements. Invoking the abolition movement, Klein is inspiring, properly crediting Chris Hayes for his influential Nation article linking climate change and the emancipation of the slaves in the US. Nonetheless, her argument is strange. She calls for societal transformation but refuses the term “revolution.” Throughout the book, she has said that we are running out of time to stop a warming trend so severe as to destroy civilization as we know it if not eliminate the human species altogether. She invokes Brad Werner’s famous paper announcing that earth is basically fucked. But she writes:
And let’s take it for granted that we want to do these radical things democratically and without a bloodbath, so violent, vanguardist revolutions don’t have much to offer in the way of roadmaps (450).
This lets her completely discount the revolutionary movements of the 19th and 20th centuries, as if there is nothing to learn from any of the large scale organizing undertaken by communists, socialists, wobblies, and unionists. Her model for the left thus relies on extracting from the left a central component of our history. Frankly, at the level of tactics alone, this is a bad call: why sign on to a political project premised on the rejection of working class achievements (a move which repeats a ubiquitous gesture of erasure since 1989). Wouldn’t incorporating these achievements be fundamental to any effort to reinvent “the very idea of the collective, the communal, the commons, the civil, and the civic after so many decades of attack and neglect” (460)? Klein is trying to open up a collective desire for collectivity, but without communism.
It is also without revolution, which Klein dismisses as vanguardist, as if her Blockadians weren’t themselves at the vanguard of climate struggle. But what does it mean to reject revolution? If the movements are mobilized as she suggests, what will stop them? What would block or hinder the people after they are moving? Perhaps the state, since Klein hasn’t said anything about seizing it. Perhaps each other, since she thinks of us as divided into local communities. Perhaps the capitalist system, since she hasn’t called for its abolition. Or perhaps this isn’t the worry, since we are unlikely to be mobilized enough in time at all — and for enough of us in the north, that will be okay, at least for a while.