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Reviewed: Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything”

Judith Lewis Mernit

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At some point during the last decade, as various plans have been floated to avert climate change, it struck me that we’re focusing on the wrong problem. Global warming caused by a buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere (carbon dioxide chief among them), has indeed sped us in the direction of rendering the planet uninhabitable for life, human and otherwise. But climate change is not a disease in itself. Instead, it’s a symptom of a disease, systemic and pernicious, brought on by squandering the parts of nature we call “resources” at a breathtaking clip and without restraint. All of the solutions on offer, from displacing coal with natural gas in the West to constructing more nuclear reactors in the South, are supposed to allow us to go living exactly as we do, without the consequences.

Except we can’t. As Naomi Klein, author of No Logo and the blockbuster bestseller, The Shock Doctrine, explains in her new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, tweaking the status quo won’t save us now. We can’t just swap one form of energy for another and expect to right the atmosphere. We have to, as the title suggests, change everything. Dump Francis Bacon’s belief in a culture based on growth without restraint; stray from the path laid out for us by steam-engine inventor James Watt, whose coal-fed machines launched the Industrial Revolution. Consume less, share work, reconnect with the natural world and restore its balance.

It’s going to be hard. Coal and other hydrocarbon fuels have “freed large parts of humanity from the need to be in constant dialogue with nature,” Klein writes, “having to adjust its plans, ambitions, and schedules to natural fluctuations and topographies.” Now those fuels crash us headlong back into the conversation: If we don’t dump coal, along with oil and even natural gas, then rising seas, drought, floods and extreme weather will dominate, and perhaps even end, our existence on this planet.

Most people know this; Klein cites poll after bipartisan poll showing support for action on climate. Still, the warnings haven’t altered the practices of fossil-fuel companies, which continually ramp up their efforts to extract every last drop of decomposed dinosaur hidden deep within the earth. Nor do the rest of us demand they stop, which we could do by dramatically changing our high-consumerist ways. Unless we undertake a wholesale overhaul of our economic culture, we’re doomed.

This Changes Everything is a kitchen sink of a book, documenting a half-century of environmental progress and backsliding, chronicling nearly every fossil-fueled disaster that has befallen the U.S. and Canada, while reaching around the world for examples of pillaged islands and small nations that will suffer disproportionately from a disaster borne of other countries’ hyper-consumption. Klein spends a lot of time myth-busting and sacred-cow goring: former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg’s grandiose greenwashing; Virgin CEO Richard Branson’s broken promises to invest $3 billion in biofuels; Fred Krupp, under whose leadership the “once combative” Environmental Defense Fund partnered up with every corporation from Walmart to McDonald’s.

Klein aims accurately at her deserving targets and hits them dead on. But she’s weak on how to strip the moneyed few of power and influence and set the world on a better course.  Her sharp analysis of the problems we face, in fact, leaves the book all the more wanting for a similarly keen analysis applied to solutions — to constructive cures for our profligate, planet-poisoning way of life, something beyond her hopeful but flawed analogies to the abolition movement and the fall of apartheid.

She puts great faith in “Blockadia,” those physical protest movements that stand in the way of climate-destroying projects; she believes in local action based on Wendell Berry’s ideal of “affection” for the land. She insists repeatedly that a “climate movement” could be an opportunity whereby we might also demand economic fairness, social justice and better public health — a “people’s shock,” as she puts it. (In that way, she says, “a fight for a minimal carbon tax might do a lot less good” for the environment than “forming a grand coalition to demand a guaranteed income.”)

And she is right: Climate is not an isolated problem, but one knit up in every other injustice that plagues us. It’s just hard to find in Klein’s book the mechanism by which, in this troubled democracy, any kind of revolution gets started. Klein’s calls to action seem more philosophical than concrete; there’s no clear way to figure out how to go forth and act upon them.

Which doesn’t mean the transformation she wills won’t happen — it might even happen soon. Change, as she notes, has a way of springing up all of a sudden, before anyone sees it coming.

“Recent years,” Klein writes, “have been filled with moments when societies suddenly decide they have had enough.” With any luck, we’re on the cusp of one right now.

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