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This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate

by Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein is angry. The author of No Logo and The Shock Doctrine, and a self-confessed former climate change skeptic, comes out swinging in a book that takes direct aim at corporations, governments, and – surprisingly – climate activists responsible for promulgating an existential crisis that, in the words of one scientist “poses a clear and present danger to civilization.”

thischangeseverythingKlein opens her book on climate change with a sobering image: passengers on U.S. Airways Flight 3935 who were forced to disembark at the airport in Washington, D.C., during the summer of 2012. The reason? The plane’s wheels had literally sunk into the melting tarmac. The image is impressive both in vividly capturing the nature of the catastrophe at the heart of the book, and in highlighting the cognitive dissonance facing those who attempt to address the realities of global warming: the very fossil fuels used to power the plane are responsible for the predicament in which the travellers found themselves. Klein recognizes her own part in this phenomenon when, a few pages later, she refers to her belief that “there was nothing wrong with the shiny card in my wallet attesting to my ‘elite’ frequent flyer status.”

For a writer like Klein, the word “elite” is charged with meaning: the argument underpinning her new volume (which has just been shortlisted for the Hilary Weston Writers’ Trust Prize for Non-fiction) is that if we are to put the brakes on an accelerating process of ecological ravishment, a lot of very rich people stand to lose. Yet, as the author makes clear in an exhaustively researched exploration of our current dependence on the structures of capitalism and energy consumption (the two are, Klein demonstrates, inextricably connected), the alternative is rendering our planet uninhabitable.

This Changes Everything argues that the period during which gradual, incremental alterations to individual lifestyles might have had an effect on reversing global warming has passed. The unchecked advance of globalization beginning in the 1980s, with its absolute adherence to free and unfettered market capitalism, has created a situation in which the only solution to our climate woes is a complete overhaul of the way we live. Klein has forged a career out of criticizing the mechanisms of corporate dominance and government malfeasance; what is impressive here is her level gaze, which makes the righteous anger seething through almost every word that much more potent.

And, significantly, she does not ignore the missed opportunities on the part of climate activists, or the hypocrisy involved in large organizations such as the U.S. Environmental Defense Fund or the Nature Conservancy partnering with corporations that simultaneously lobby for deregulation and increased production of dirty energy. She points out the shortfalls in the promises of supposed climate warriors from among the super-rich – Richard Branson chief among them, but also Bill Gates and Warren Buffett – and includes an astounding chapter about geoengineers who promote science-fiction solutions such as using a giant hose to shoot sulfur into the stratosphere as a last-ditch attempt to dim the sun’s rays.

“[T]he solution to global warming,” Klein writes, “is not to fix the world, it is to fix ourselves.” The second half of her book provides examples of small victories among climate change activists, many of them coming out of indigenous communities whose land and water is threatened by pollution and degradation from burst pipelines and fossil fuel emissions. Klein’s optimism is more muted than her fury, lending the second half of this book a vague feeling of anticlimax. (There is also a frankly unnecessary and distracting digression into the author’s own attempts to get pregnant in her thirties.) However, when she harnesses her rage at humanity’s inability to see what is right in front of us, she is no mere polemicist or propagandist. She is a force of nature.