Cutting the vast amounts of man-made pollution that feed global warming is an enormous challenge for societies that gobble up coal, oil and gas. But in This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein argues that those fuels aren’t the root problem — capitalism is. That message is likely to motivate fans of Klein’s earlier books, such as No Logo and The Shock Doctrine, but it also leads to a tough question.
Is blaming capitalism for climate change just rhetorical hot air — or a brutal and uncomfortable truth?
Whatever side you take, Klein deserves credit for not sugarcoating the problem. She writes that limiting global warming won’t be quick, easy or without disruptions, yet holds out hope that the end result will be better for people, the environment and even the economy. But make no mistake: This Changes Everything argues that we don’t just have to cut carbon pollution. We have to change society and our own lifestyles. Klein writes: “Our economic system and our planetary system are now at war.”
And while Klein is predictably hard on big business and conservatives who deny climate change, she doesn’t spare environmental groups or liberals. Klein pointedly shows how easily the subject can be ignored, noting that until recently she “continued to behave as if there was nothing wrong” with the “elite” frequent flier card in her wallet.
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Klein is dismissive of environmentalists who say better technology can limit climate change, yet she doesn’t resolve some of the contradictions in that position. China, Germany and other countries have used capitalism and mass production to turn out vast quantities of better and cheaper solar panels and wind turbines. In the U.S., Texas has become the national leader in wind energy by treating it as another business for people to make money on. Yet worldwide carbon emissions are rising, not falling.
And like everyone else, Klein struggles with perhaps the toughest global warming challenge: how to cope with the explosive growth of newly capitalist economies.
China is now the world’s largest emitter of carbon pollution, but only 30 years ago Beijing was filled with bicycle-riding workers dressed in Chairman Mao tunics. Today there are BMWs and clouds of pollution generated by vast numbers of people who are embracing capitalism, not revolting against it. And after the recent huge climate march in New York City, India’s environment minister responded by saying that developed countries such as the U.S. need to cut emissions, not developing ones. He told The New York Times that “India’s first task is eradication of poverty” and that “we will grow faster, and our emissions will rise.”
Klein is calling for a global social revolution to combat global warming, but many countries don’t much like it when Westerners who have long benefited from cheap fossil fuels try to tell them what to do.
Yet China and India’s runaway growth also makes clear that Klein’s core point has merit. She writes that “we know where the current system, left unchecked, is headed.” The vast majority of climate scientists say global warming is here, caused by humans, and probably already dangerous, and that the world needs to start significantly reducing carbon pollution. If it doesn’t, scientists predict that in a few decades, much higher temperatures and more acidic oceans will start to cause “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.”
This Changes Everything isn’t all doom and gloom. Klein notes that an aggressive new movement of climate activists has emerged in the last few years. As a mother, she writes passionately about the need to consider the impact on future generations, and she gives many examples of places where wind and solar energy is dropping in price and becoming a cleaner and more realistic alternative to fossil fuels.
This Changes Everything may motivate more people to think and act on climate change, and that’s good. Yet capitalism isn’t the only problem. The old message from a 1970 cartoon on the first Earth Day still hangs in the air: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
Kevin Begos reviewed this book for The Associated Press.