Book review: This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate

Book review: This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate

Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything provides a realistic, exceptionally written view of what it will take to avert global climate disaster.

When the first European visitors arrived in present-day Nauru, they dubbed the Pacific island “Pleasant Isle” for its combination of pristine beaches and shores lined with coconut trees. This tropical paradise was also overwhelmingly rich in rocks of almost pure phosphate of lime, a highly sought-after agricultural fertilizer.

Foreign companies soon began intense mining operations, bringing about high economic development and radically altering the lifestyles of Nauruans. Extravaganza in the form of imported cars and food became the norm in the 1960s and 70s. However, economic mismanagement and poor lifestyle choices have taken their toll on Nauruans, who are now heavily indebted and boast one of the highest diabetes rates in the world.

Nonetheless, these aren’t the greatest risks they are facing. Intense mining transformed the geography of the island, leaving its interior ravaged and uninhabitable. Sea levels around Nauru have been climbing by 5 millimetres a year since 1993 and intensified droughts have caused severe freshwater shortages.

As climate change intensifies, the future of Nauru remains uncertain since its people no longer have the option to move inland, due to their own extractive and destructive activities. “Thanks to its mining of phosphate, Nauru has spent the last century disappearing from the inside out; now, thanks to our collective mining of fossil fuels, it is disappearing from the outside in.”

These are the types of case studies exceptionally narrated in Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, a book that is as much about climate change as it is about the destructiveness of our consumerist habits, corrupt political systems and corporatist pre-eminence.

With her distinctive prose and style, Klein retakes many of the arguments exposed in “The Shock Doctrine” and transforms them into the most threatening forces behind climate change.

Ever since the invention of the steam engine and the emergence of the modern corporation, these profit-maximizing machines have sought new frontiers to exploit, new markets to penetrate and new consumers to create. The result is that over 200 years of intense exploitation and extractive activities have taken a heavy and irreversible toll on the planet.

Klein begins by exposing what she dubs the “denier” movement. Individuals who fly to Davos in luxurious private jets or who run for the Republican presidential nomination in the United States, and who (apparently) believe that climate change is a “conspiracy” by left-wing activists to redistribute wealth and to stop the driving forces of capitalism, that climate change is a myth because winter still comes every year and that men are incapable of altering the world we live in so drastically.

These deniers are found in corporate and political posts, one of them being Nigel Lawson, Margaret Thatcher’s former Chancellor of the Exchequer, who declared that “green is the new red” and that the climate movement was “a new license to intrude, to interfere and to regulate.” In other words, to interfere with the sacred free market ideology.

And, indeed, what we need is precisely that: to intrude in the nasty deals brokered by fossil fuel companies and corrupt governments, to interfere in the way they exploit finite resources and to regulate their activities so that emissions are brought down significantly.

Klein is always coherent in her view: “Let me be absolutely clear: as 97 per cent of the world’s climate scientists attests, the Heartlanders [deniers] are completely wrong about science. But when it comes to the political and economic consequences of those scientific findings, specifically the kind of deep changes required not just to our energy consumption but to the underlying logic of our liberalized and profit-seeking economy, they have their eyes wide open.”

This later consolidates as the central argument of the book, that the economic system in which we live, one that champions consumerism regardless of where you find yourself, is the main threat to our planet.

After all, we expect our iced lattes to taste the same whether we are in Miami or Montevideo and we enjoy driving comfortable cars whether in the heat of Dubai or the chill of Moscow. And behind this hedonism that has become our standard lie the corporate forces seeking to reach every corner of the world and, to do so, exploit all the resources along the way; the corporations using chemical fertilizers to increase the yield of coffee crops, and the companies building vehicles emitting high levels of CO2, when green alternatives are available but are not cost-attractive.

Klein exposes that we have reached a point when we can, at most, restrict global warming to two degrees Celsius. This level is still deemed “safe” enough to avoid hundreds of millions migrating from coastal areas or to prevent the further deterioration of glaciers and ice sheets. However, to stay within this threshold would require our the economic system to suffer inevitable alterations, our habits to change significantly, and governments to intervene harshly.

The book is much more optimistic than its predecessor, The Shock Doctrine, and Klein cites important examples of communities and environmental groups achieving tangible results and milestones. She notes that the scale of economic transformation required to stay within the two degrees target has been achieved in the last century, in the aftermath of the Great Depression and the Second World War.

But, most notably, Klein eloquently illustrates solutions that are empowering, palatable and perfectly feasible. These include a fundamental change in our behaviour and our perception vis-á-vis nature, from one of exploitation to one of respect; a dramatic policy change that encourages the use of green technologies and taxes polluting industries that treat the atmosphere as a “dump space;” and a reconfiguration of the power structure, away from corporations and oligarchs towards self sufficiency models and local industries.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of This Changes Everything is that it never sounds utopic, but rather entirely feasible. If we want to continue to drink our coffee every morning, have salmon for dinner and a Riesling before bed, we need to start acting.

About Author

Eduardo Arcos

Eduardo Arcos is a policy analyst and freelance journalist. He holds an M.Sc. in Security Studies from University College London and a B.A. in International Relations from the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education (ITESM). His research focuses on international political economy, peace and security and Latin American affairs.