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December 01, 2014
Book Review: This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, by Naomi Klein
    by Robert Kropp

The author and activist argues that global trade policies promoting privatization and government austerity have doomed the climate movement thus far, but insists that there is still time for massive public infrastructure programs to address both climate change and inequality.


In The Shock Doctrine, published in 2007, Naomi Klein analyzes how neoliberal economic policies were exploited by nations such as the United States under the George W. Bush administration to justify the dismantling of public services while increasing the power of corporations. “The acceptable role of government in a corporatist state,” Klein wrote, is “to act as a conveyor belt for getting public money into private hands.”

Seven years later, Klein has published her next book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. Whether or not it can be said that corporations have exploited the crisis of climate change in the same way that Shell and BP, for example, exploited the Iraq war to gain control over that beleaguered nation's oil reserves, Klein's new book leaves little doubt that the corporate strategies dissected in The Shock Doctrine have been put to effective use by fossil fuel companies whose drive for profits proceeds without regard for the global environment.

The scientific proof of climate change is so incontrovertible by now that even the number of Republican members of the US Congress that believes otherwise must surely be far lower than the votes against effective climate legislation would suggest. And, according to Klein, right-wing organizations are well aware of this reality. They are, she continues, well aware of the implications as well: that the only effective global response to climate change requires the dismantling of the neoliberal gospel of deregulation and privatization. Because of this, she writes, the right wing maintains a corporate-funded attack on the veracity of climate change; not because it disbelieves the science but because it recognizes that acting on that science means an end to their day at the trough.

But right-wing agents of disinformation are not the only villains in This Changes Everything; environmental groups come in for their fair share of criticism as well. The Heartland Institute and other neoliberal groups, Klein writes, recognize the implications and act accordingly in order to defend their interests, as insular as those interests may be.

Environmentalists, on the other hand, seek to assure that the transition from fossil fuels to a low-carbon economy won't be such a big deal; it can be accomplished, they contend, without a dismantling of capitalism as it is currently practiced. This, Klein contends, is demonstrably untrue; the way of life currently enjoyed in wealthy nations like the US will have to be downsized significantly in order to keep the worst effects of climate change in check while attempting to improve the livelihoods of billions of the world's poorest.

So what is to be done? In Klein's view, signs of what must be done are already underway: a march in New York City on behalf of the climate draws hundreds of thousand of people; indigenous people in the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, and amid the environmental disaster left behind by Chevron in the Ecuadorian Amazon, face off against corporations intent upon destroying their homelands; and increasingly destructive extreme weather events gradually erode the financial power lurking behind climate denial.

There are precedents in history for the paradigm shift required, Klein writes. One such precedent was the response to the Great Depression; but more pointed, Klein writes, was the success of the abolitionist movement in the US in ending slavery. “The same understanding about the need to assert the intrinsic value of life is at the heart of all major progressive victories,” she contends.

Wri ting in The New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert—herself the noted author of The Sixth Extinction: an Unnatural History—takes issue with the imprecision of Klein's solutions. “(Klein) vaguely tells us that we’ll have to consume less, but not how much less, or what we’ll have to give up,” Kolbert writes. “At various points, she calls for a carbon tax. This is certainly a good idea, and one that’s advocated by many economists, but it hardly seems to challenge the basic logic of capitalism.”

So where do sustainable investors fit in as part of the solution? Another of the progressive developments noted by Klein involves the fossil fuel divestment movement, especially when divestment is coupled with reinvestment in clean energy technologies. But what is not necessarily helpful, she observes, are equity investments in clean energy companies that line the pockets of entrepreneurs while ignoring the systemic change that is really needed. Public infrastructure works on the scale of the New Deal are what are really needed, to replace an economy built on consumption and inequality.

It has been noted that 85% of the transition to the low-carbon economy will have to come from private investment. With a stock market more or less flourishing at least in part because of neoliberal enshrinement of growth at any cost, will the fiduciary duty of institutional investors be interpreted to permit them to move their assets to the relatively low yields of fixed income investment, in order to help fund public works through the purchase of Green Bonds and other vehicles?

In This Changes Everything, Klein castigates several major environmental groups for the degree to which they have cozied up to the same corporations whose business model threatens the salutary aims the groups purport to pursue. I have far too much respect for the sustainable investors with whom I have communicated to suggest that they might fall prey to the same temptations. I trust they will always keep in mind, in meetings behind closed doors with corporate boards, that they are dealing with the same entities that, in too many cases, have historically undermined the sustainability mission of social and environmental justice.

 

 
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