When Naomi Klein says things like
Any attempt to rise to the climate challenge will be fruitless unless it is understood as part of a much broader battle of world views. Our economic system and our planetary system are now at war.
I am sympathetic. Whether a very stiff price on carbon could resolve our immediate quandary or not is, I think, debatable, but it’s a highly theoretical debate. Who thinks our economic system will actually permit, never mind advance, a sufficiently stiff tax? Our goal, after all, is not to advance renewables; it is to stop net carbon emissions cold. It appears that too much wealth and power is at stake. The current order simply will not permit that, at least foreseeably.
And Klein is a fine essayist. So I expected and wanted to like her magnum opus on climate, “This Changes Everything”. But I don’t. In fact I’m sorely disappointed. I find the book naively optimistic, agonizingly politically correct, and uninsightful. Not only is there nothing new here, but the old stuff this book is made of is, I’m afraid, tired and half-baked.
What Needs to Change
For one thing, when talking about the current order, it’s clear that the US has the world over a barrel, the Republican party has the US over a barrel, and the billionaires have the Republican Party over a barrel. Anything that can disrupt some part of that configuration changes everything. But without changing that there is nothing that can be done. If we are going to be talking about the politics of climate, we really need to talk about how the world can escape the dominance of the US, or the US of the Republican party, or the Republican party of Messrs. Murdoch, Koch, Koch, et al. The book addresses none of these issues, so it seems politically beside the point.
I don’t entirely agree with David Roberts’ diagnosis, though I think it’s interesting enough that I highly recommend you read it. In short, he sees nothing to disrupt the conservative drift toward fantasy.
Before I connect this back to Naomi Klein’s book, let me quibble a bit with David.
He certainly has a point when he says that the right “start thinking you really can “make your own reality,” forgetting there’s anything rigid in the world that can’t be wished away,” that “governing a country that way is disastrous” and that “The dilemma the left faces [is either to] Cling to standards of reason & discourse the other side rejects, or “join ’em” — fight the same way.” Finally “the way the right’s nihilistic oppositionalism has redounded entirely to Obama’s detriment. Low-info voters can’t untangle.” All true. Low-information voters can only anticipate successfully in a democracy if they have networks of trust including high-information voters who share their interests. Whether this was ever the case in America is debatable. It certainly isn’t true now, but the stakes are immense.
What David seems to miss, what the cultural cognition folks miss, what outside observers miss, is that the rural and southern states are hardly more red than they are blue. The South is Grey.
That is, most people in the South have either been effectively discouraged from voting, or are indifferent to voting, or hold both major parties and the process in contempt.
(That’s not to mention a huge contingent of non-citizens here in Texas, but that group doesn’t even show up on the chart.)
So if something were to “change everything”, it would be a political movement that could engage some of the grey majority in the southern and western states. (Maybe just Texas!)
Alternatively we need to await the decline of the economic influence over the world by the US. Don’t hold your breath.
David’s main point about the fantasy-driven right is true enough in practice, even though abstentions dominate the process.
The trouble is that the nonvoters are even lower-information than the voters. Would it take some alternative fantasy to attract them to the blue side?
In the end, would the blue side be much better?
To be fair to Naomi Klein, she acknowledges the issue:
I am well aware that all of this raises the question of whether I am doing the same thing as the deniers – rejecting possible solutions because they threaten my ideological worldview. As I outlined earlier, I have nlong been greatly concerned about the science of global warming – but I was rolled into a deer engagement with it partly because I realized it could be a catalyst for forms of social and economic justice in which I already believed.
But there are important differences to note. First, I am not asking anyone to take my word on the science… Nor am I suggesting that the kind of equity-based responses to climate change that I favor are inevitable results of the science.
What I am saying is that the science forces us to choose how we want to respond. … the big corporate, big military, big engineering responses to climate change … or … [to] steer away not only from the climate cliff but also from the logic that brought us careening to that precipice
So it’s nice that she sees the issue. But has she really steered away from it? I suggest that despite her self-awareness she is as steeped in fantasy as anyone.
On one hand, she does say “As for pitching climate action as a way to protect America’s high-consumerist way of life – that is either dishonest of delusional because a way of life based on the promise of infinite growth cannot be protected, least of all exported to every corner of the globe”. Not the most elegant of sentences (she can do better) but I agree entirely with the sentiment.
On the other hand, it is mere sentiment in Klein’s hands. Claims like this are bandied about, but never explained or defended. And they come fast and furious, for hundreds of pages.
And are they presented coherently? No, a few pages on there is a pitch for “green jobs” and a policy organization called “Smart Growth America”, which presumably doesn’t advocate that the only smart growth rate for America is a negative growth rate.
The trouble with growth is that it will eventually stop. The trouble with advocating a planned rather than a disastrous stop is that people like wealth. Busy people don’t have the time or inclination to think it through. The pressures of the here and now trump any long-term thinking. People defend what they have and want to increase what they can get. We don’t have a civilization of compromise and collaboration, and as long as people are frantic to make a buck, they can’t even find time to imagine one, never mind a sensible path toward it.
Klein’s answer to this is not just to focus on the fringes, and fervently hope. I wouldn’t really object to that – I do enough of it myself. The problem is her declaration of the inevitability of success, when the chances are between slim and none of even forming a consensus, never mind successfully implementing it.
Klein says “Nuclear power and geoengineering are not solutions to the ecological crisis; they are a doubling down on exactly the kind of reckless short-term thinking that got us into this mess”. A provocative claim.
It’s defensible, perhaps. But is it defended? To my eye Klein just runs it up the flagpole to try to get some people to salute. It’s not alone in this way. I fell like I have been subjected to a 466 page barrage of such strongly worded claims.
And anyone who supports or even investigates anything she doesn’t like is voted off the island. The benign (and to my mind largely underestimated) Jon Foley plays a very important role in the world conversation and we are immensely better off for his calm, thoughtful reassurance, but he speaks of appealing to conservative voters with patriotic values, and Naomi votes him off the island. That’s unfortunate enough – building a winning political coalition doesn’t usually start by alienating nonthreatening, intelligent, decent and thoughtful centrists.
But it gets worse – she’s unimpressed by Ken Caldeira, among the most outspoken of the major climate scientists. Why? Because he’s willing to contemplate geoengineering.
This really does remind me of denialists – claiming that “science” is on their side, and yet dismissing anyone with credible credentials as inherently bought off and untrustworthy.
It’s almost unnecessary for me to write a review here. Despite my reluctance to link to the Breakthrough Boys, Will Boisvert has a cogent critique of Klein there.
As with I did with the growth question, Boisvert raises the question of whether her position is even self-consistent.
Many farmers, many indigenous people, love their land all the more for the fracking royalties it brings them, and feel populist anger at regulations that block that income. And the logic of Blockadia is to block everything — not just coal mines and pipelines, but whatever raises local hackles. That includes renewables projects — dams, biomass plantations, even wind farms and solar plants. In Germany locals are blocking the power lines that are being built to accommodate new wind farms; in Britain angry country-folk are trying to block the towering turbines themselves and the solar plants overspreading nearby fields; in Massachusetts, the Cape Wind offshore wind farm was fought by Native American activists as well as a local tribal elder named Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
Characteristically, Klein acknowledges all this but never confronts the implications. She nods at “problems when policy makers ram through industrial-scale wind farms and desert solar arrays without local participation or consent,”  but considers said problems readily solvable. So another contradiction: while Klein relies on Blockadia to eternally shout “No!” at lucrative fossil-fueled projects, she expects it to say yes to solar arrays that blanket the countryside—as long as there is proper consultation. This is far from a consistent or realistic political program.
and most importantly this: “Having declared climate change an existential crisis for the human species, she rules out some of the most effective means of dealing with it.”
While I don’t agree with Boisvert on every specific about our quandary, I share his frustration with Klein’s book. Not only is it 466 pages of handwaving; the position it advocates is woefully unrealistic. It simply suggests that Klein is so obviously correct that a mass movement will emerge of sufficient power to threaten the powers that be and move us back to a path of social democracy as well as environmental sustainability.
Don’t misunderstand. I too, fervently wish for social democracy and environmental sustainability. But I don’t think that wishing will make it so. To be fair, Klein wrote before the disturbing 2014 election here in America and I have the dubious advantage over her of looking back at it. But though the result was close to our worst case, let’s face it. The best case was not that pretty.
There may be some NIMBYism here and there (which she calls Blockadia), but to spin this into a social movement with the power to upend the system as it exists is absurdly premature at best. Actually, it is grimly, pathetically funny.
But there’s also the fantasy, common in so many corners, that the climate problem (and the sustainability problem writ large) admits of neat solutions, and that some sort of localism will not just add some value but suffice to get us through.
Here’s another place where I have a fundamental disagreement. We will not turnip farm our way out of this mess.
Demonizing people like Caldeira and Foley is also craziness.
The right fools itself that it has no problem, while the left fools itself that there is an easy solution. Both will be very disappointed. Meanwhile, we are cast adrift – there is no reasonable movement. The left’s delusions, as exemplified by Klein, are perhaps a bit less virulent than the right’s. But delusions don’t solve problems.
The denial of reality is tempting and dangerous. Klein offers us little of substance, just a fairy tale to counter the Heartland Institute’s fairy tale.
Since Klein’s book is, in the end, a fantasy, one wishes it were presented more attractively. But as fantasies go, it’s boring.
Surprisingly (because Klein can write powerful essays) and disappointingly, the book is almost unreadable. Now, so are IPCC reports and I read them anyway, but I end up learning a great deal in the process. Klein’s book is another story.
I forced myself to slog through it because I did promise a review of it. But it rewarded me with nothing other than a few anecdotes and a long litany of undefended or weakly defended political correctness.
And so it’s the biggest fantasy of all that “This Changes Everything” is remotely in a position to change, well, anything. I wish I could say something more enthusiastic. But alas, the main bit of enthusiasm I have for this whole review project is that I’m glad it’s over.