This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate

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Naomi Klein’s megalith of a book has been garnering an awful lot of attention in the last few months since its mid-September release.  At first it might seem like a daunting read: 466 pages about climate change and capitalism, which are both complicated enough subjects on their own.  However, Klein’s straightforward writing style and use of memorable anecdotes allow her to discuss the links between social and environmental justice compellingly.  Rather than leaving me scratching my head after each chapter, I nodded along and found myself re-telling her stories to friends and family over dinner as I worked my way through This Changes Everything.

 The first section of the book, “Bad Timing”, was interesting, but too long for me.  In it, Klein outlines how capitalism and climate change are interrelated.  And repeats herself a lot.  In her (well-titled) first chapter, “The Right is Right” she describes how the denial of climate change by the political right is intertwined with their fear that accepting and comprehensively addressing climate change will destabilize the political and economic status quo of society.  Fair enough.  She goes on to argue that to address the social and environmental injustices that such a capitalist, extractive system perpetuates, we must shift our political system as well as our economic system.  These are good points, and she traces them historically and across continents to show patterns in political impotence in the face of corporate power.  However, about 100 pages in to this 180-page section I began feeling like we were travelling in circles.  Although the material was interesting, I nearly gave up on the book as we slogged through the rough and repetitive terrain of free trade agreements, intergovernmental organizations, and political lobbying.

The second part of her book, “Magical Thinking” was a breath of fresh air.  In this second section Klein outlines the ways in which mainstream groups have attempted to address climate change.  She describes environmental NGOs, environmental capitalism, and technological innovations that have all attempted (and spectacularly failed) to solve climate change.  Harking back to section one of the book, where Klein so adamantly drills into the reader that the root of climate change is capitalism, it’s unsurprising that she dramatically and thoroughly dismisses each of these three approaches as insufficient in addressing the problems’ roots.  She tells compelling stories of green-washed corporate billionaires making the big bucks off false environmental schemes, of environmental NGOs striking rich on fossil fuel profits in their conservation areas, and of anti-pollution technologies that spew more mysterious chemicals into the air than they remove.  However, some have argued that by choosing only the “slam-dunk, open-and-shut cases of how damaging the [corporate] collaborative model is”[1] she shies away from the challenges that more nuanced cases pose.  Such critique leaves us wondering: how much more of the institutionalized environmental movement is fundamentally flawed?

However, Klein avoids those questions and pushes ahead to offer readers the most inspiring section of the book, “Starting Anyway”.  In this third section she builds a case for how the environmental movement can address the intertwined problems of climate change and capitalism, while learning from others’ mistakes and moving away from false solutions that rely on the same rotted capitalist base.  She describes ‘blockadia’, a roaming fontier where local face-offs occur over environmental and social issues.  She tells us about divestment campaigns on campuses across North America.  She centres on Indigenous organizing and the issues that unresolved land claims carry for extractive projects and settler-colonial states.  She builds, and builds, and by the end of the book we are cautiously hopeful.  We have seen how the shifts we need can start, although their full trajectories are left to the imagination.  Klein calls us to act in our local spheres for global well-being, and not by listing which kind of lightbulbs to buy or how to change personal habits.  Instead she outlines how we can (and already do!) connect with one another to push back at a broken system and crack it from within.

Klein does a lot in one book, even a long one.  There are many messages to be taken from her work, and not all of them can be digested in one reading.  I personally recommend sitting with the text and sifting through it; skipping what feels repetitive and focusing on what feels useful and interesting to you as you read, and then maybe going back to gain more context and history.  Her anecdotes are good, her writing is engaging, and her message is one of hope.  This book is a good one – whether you’re deeply engaged in the environmental movement and looking for insight and inspiration or you’re trying to find something catchy to motivate the slactivists in your life.

Book review by: Allison Jones


[1] This Changes Something: Naomi Klein takes on the Big Greens in Briarpatch (January, 2015).  http://briarpatchmagazine.com/articles/view/this-changes-something

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