Book: Capitalism vs. the Climate

Our dominant economic system is at war with our planet, argues Naomi Klein in her new book

Earlier this year, the UK Foreign Office put up a “Greener Government” noticeboard in their London reception. A small pack of postcards invited ideas for change. Nestled under references to meat-free-Mondays, better bike parking, or turning the Pitcairn Islands into a marine reserve, was the rather undiplomatic suggestion: “Take all the rich people. Fry them in olive oil and garlic. Eat them.”

Hardly the sort of language one is used to seeing at the Foreign Office. But it is a discourse often associated with environmentalists who are accused of secretly hiding a socialist agenda under green ideals. Many have tried to rebuff such claims, insisting there is nothing left-wing about action on climate change. Green can wear a tie, we are repeatedly told. Green can mean business. Green can be a language of the right.

Enter Naomi Klein, whose new book wants to reclaim environmentalism for the left and re-inject some ideology into the debate. Taking the somewhat controversial view that climate sceptics are correct at least in their equation of environmentalism with socialism, she contends our dominant economic system is at war with our planetary ones. The sooner we wake up to this, the better.

There’s a lot to like in the book. It’s quite poetic in places, with an occasional turn of phrase which can help unlock new ways of seeing the world. I think we’ll see several of the book’s words taken up by campaigners in years to come. “Extractivism”: the ideology of taking from the Earth. “Blockadia”: global networks of resistance to stop the expansion of fossil fuel extraction. And yet, there is something moribund about Klein’s thesis. Intellectually, in places, it lacks depth, and I personally found it morally troubling.

She starts by stressing the everyday climate denial we all engage in. The way we just ignore it; or maybe we notice, but manage to quickly forget. This is one of the many strong aspects of the book. She doesn’t simply paint a monster of evil capitalists; we are all complicit in this problem.

She goes on to complain that climate change has not been given the crisis treatment in the way, for example, 9-11 or the banking crisis has. But “politicians aren’t the only ones with power to declare a crisis.” We, the people, may demand action on climate change, just as we have on slavery, suffrage or apartheid before. Many inspiring words are offered, ones that have lit up lecture rooms for several years.

Klein also argues convincingly that our inaction on climate change has been exacerbated by capitalism. Capitalism is not the nimble, effective system it’s sometimes made out to be; indeed it can actively stifle change rather than drive progress. She also makes swift work puncturing the idea that a billionaire messiah will save us. Her key case study, Richard Branson, seems a slightly too obvious target though, even if it is a case worth making. And this is where the book starts to unravel. Apparently Jeremy Grantham’s less of a problem because he supports things she likes. And I wondered where the other members of the climate-interested rich were, in all their diversity. Paul Polman, for example, or Robin Birley. As it stood, this section felt like a glance in the right direction, but insubstantial.

Her philosophy of science and technology also needs work. Scientists who support her claims are celebrated. But we’re also warned that the birth of modern science heralded this thing we’re to call “extractivism”, as we arrogantly assumed we could completely know and control nature. There are, however, other ways to look at modern science too. For example, try Sussex’s approach to building a politics of science which puts social justice and environmental integrity at its core.

Klein has a good footnote on the problems of public participation with respect to nuclear power, but it shouldn’t just be left as a footnote. She could extend this, and find hope in the possibilities of reform and engagement in science and technology – even nuclear – if she chose to. Klein is not the only writer on climate change to insufficiently tackle the politics of science, but that doesn’t excuse it.

Klein also takes the opportunity to reapply her older idea of the Shock Doctrine. In part she simply argues the transformations of climate change will be exploited by people with rather suspect agendas.  But apparently the shock of climate change is ok if applied to her own ends. As she describes, her own awakening to the climate cause came when she realised that it could be a galvanising force to make the world safer and fairer in other ways. The word apocalypse, we are told, comes from the Greek apokalupsis meaning uncovered or revealed. As environmental problems affect more and more of us, political problems are revealed, and social movements emerge in response. Keystone wasn’t just a pipeline, it was a movement. This is true, but I can’t shake the sense that Klein’s enjoying this.

China offers an example, as she quotes Friends of Nature director Li Bo laughing at the irony of an environmentalist thanking the smog for bringing larger problems to public attention. No matter how rich you are, there is no way to hide from toxic air: “And that’s the beauty of it”. But can we really talk about air pollution as beautiful?

Klein seems to sell the idea of Blockadia as the grand hope of climate change. But it feels like a sad place to find solace. When Owen Patterson talks of the opportunities offered by climate change, he sounds crass and slightly dangerous. Similarly, when Klein tells us breathlessly that “climate change is our chance”, it feels wrong. Find hope in the many inventive ways we are organising to take action on climate change, but not in the suffering. That’s grotesque. It’s like saying we need a good war.

Eat the rich if you want to, but I’m not sure why you need to get the planet to excuse it. Both socialism and environmentalism deserve better than this meagre thesis