I’m Afraid This Changes Nothing

nkbkWhen 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.

texvot

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.

 

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Post-Reality Politics

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.

Needless Polarization

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.

Incoherence

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,” [287] 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.”

Fantasy

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.

Illiteracy

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.

Comments:

  1. Thanks. You talk about Klein's belief in the emergence of a powerful anti-climate/anti-capitalism movement - I'm wondering if her argument is the same as it always was, e.g. in her 2002 paper `Farewell to the end of History'. Lengthy quote:

    If neoliberalism is the common target there is also an emerging consensus that participatory democracy at the local level - whether through unions, neighbourhoods, farms, villages, anarchist collectives or aboriginal self-government - is where to start building alternatives to it. The common theme is an overarching commitment to self-determination and diversity: cultural diversity, biodiversity, and, yes, political diversity. The Zapatistas call this a movement of ‘one “no” and many “yeses”’, a description that defies the characterization that this is one movement at all, and challenges the assumption that it should be. Rather than a single movement, what is emerging is thousands of movements intricately linked to one another, much as ‘hotlinks’ connect their websites on the Internet. This analogy is more than coincidental and is in fact key to understanding the changing nature of political organizing. Although many have observed that the recent mass protests would have been impossible without the Internet, what has been overlooked is how the communication technology that facilitates these campaigns is shaping the movement in its own image. Thanks to the Net, mobilizations are able to unfold with sparse bureaucracy and minimal hierarchy; forced consensus and laboured manifestos are fading into the background, replaced instead by a culture of constant, loosely structured and sometimes compulsive information-swapping.

    Klein was one of key people responsible for popularising this idea of a global `swarm' movement. At the time, this was leapt on by a lot of left-wing theorists worrying about the `problem of agency': given that it appeared the old idea of a proletariat-led revolution was vanishing along with a coherent proletariat, what the hell was going to replace it? `A swarm of decentralised social movements creating an emergent world of social justic' was a very appealing answer at the time.

    So yes - is Klein's answer much the same now? Does she look to a non-hierarchical, distributed uprising of "one no and many yeses" still? She writes well in that paper I link to above about how this approach frustrated a great many political organisers. If that is still her approach, you definitely seem unconvinced - "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."

    This connects to the degrowth stuff because of its political approach / culture: a bunch of the social justice campaigning groups who would have been reading Klein pre-9/11 when the WTO was still enemy number one now share a theory of change, and a view of economic growth, with degrowth campaigners. It's a messy overlap, I wouldn't want to over-egg it. But it's a problem for me precisely because of the baggage it brings about what sorts of actions, opinions - and friends - are allowable.

    Though I suppose at least they're doing something...

  2. I think you have hit on a major aspect of the problem here. The status quo doesn't really need a theory - it can successfully make do with incoherent BS.

    Those of us proposing a major rework of how the world works will have trouble agreeing on things. But in our case, it matters. Marx, for all his flaws, did provide a very simple core thesis - property should be held in common. It's really not at all clear what the emerging hypothesis is or could be. I am sure you have your theories, and I have mine. Since our ideals are mutually congenial we could enjoy arguing about the details. But multiply that by a million halfway serious policy geeks... (not just multiply, really. Combinatorially explode. A million factorial over two possible conversations!) (~4.13E+5565708) Where's a consensus here that we can sell to the public?

    Add to that that almost anything sensible has definite short term costs and uncertain long term gains, and we have a very hard time achieving consensus.

    Celebrating local NIMBY movements is a delusional approach to this problem (which may have no solution at all). People who say no to pipelines and people who say no to wind farms are similarly motivated.

    Devolution to the local is just the most pernicious of idle fantasies, even in the absence of rapid climate change. We can't support 10 billion people by relocalizing. And that's even before climate driven crop failures seriously kick in.

    So here we are. As Schellnhuber (talking about using solar panels in Africa to power Europe, but the observation is more broadly true) said: “All the technical problems have been solved, but it cannot be done.”

  3. Pingback: Hulme: In what ways is religious belief relevant for understanding climate change? – Stoat

  4. Point 7: Much of the coal baseload power stations are needed to balance the net.
    Solutions:
    a) A larger electricity net is needed with more long-distance high-power distribution. (Europe is now awaking to this point.)
    b) More energy storage (e.g. huge batteries already in deployment. Much made in Germany).
    c) Flexible power usage, i.e. the "intelligent grid" (e.g. do water desalination, metal smelting, private laundry drying, water heating etc.etc. during high electricity production.)
    d) Leave some spare renewable production for load balancing. Keep back e.g. 10% of potential production for load balancing. E.g. solar PV is excellent for load balancing in millisecond timeframe.

    So, there's 2 sorts of power generation: 1) For consumption 2) for grid balancing. And this needs 2 categories of pricing/trading. This subtle point often evades politicians (like here in southern Germany) and also some energy providers (I've worked for one).

  5. Devolution to the local is just the most pernicious of idle fantasies, even in the absence of rapid climate change. We can't support 10 billion people by relocalizing. And that's even before climate driven crop failures seriously kick in.

    It seems you're caught in either-or (tertium non datur) thinking. We need both local and global. And what is locally unsustainable (i.e. destructive) beyond occasional temporal glitches (e.g. crop failure one year) needs some reconfiguration.

    In former times, the solution was war: An unsustainable locality just conquered new territory/resources to avoid collapse. What changes everything is that today (since ca. 20y) the planet is no longer flat for all practical purpose. So, forget about war.

  6. The blog post at that link sounds like it was written by two people, one an anarcho-nilihist and the other a Koch-funded AGW denier. Yes, the rich will get richer regardless of how energy is produced, and yes, the current course of industrial civilization is unsustainable. The assertions about the technical problems with alternative energy, however, are merely specious AGW-denier talking points.

    A complete transition to non-fossil-carbon energy is feasible under current conditions, and will at least buy time to deal with the ecological and politico-economic issues. I'm still glad I never had children, though.

  7. First, thanks for your effort! (I've laid the book aside some weeks ago - not because I disliked it or found it boring, but because some other obsession ate up all my spare energy.)

    But then: Quoting Boisvert! Somewhere here on planet3.org you already quoted another polit propaganda gem of his. So, now I declare this guy a right wingnut at best, and a professional rightwing manure spreader at worst. Just read the image caption of the quoted article:

    Liberal and progressive politics used to embrace energy, technology, and modernity for human liberation and environmental quality. Today it embraces a reactionary apocalyptic pastoralism epitomized by Naomi Klein’s latest, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. As such, Klein's book is symptomatic of the Left's disturbing turn against progressive, pragmatic action for people and the environment.

    (loc. link)
    The good ol' "back to stone age" smear from pre-Chernobylean pro-nuke propaganda! The man knows his business. You could as well quote Charles Krauthammer or Pat Michaels.

    (And then I spotted enough nonsense about coal and empire (go read Ugo Bardi) and German Energiewende (it's neolibrol, haha!) and decided to not waste my time there but instead continue reading Klein.)

    ==> As long as such mouthpieces are treated as Very Serious People, nothing will change. And yes, this changes everything: Some style of discourse can no longer be socially acceptable if we want to be serious about the implications of this age. Homo Sapiens or not? This is the question. Can we please get real and forget about left vs. right?

  8. Thank you.
    Klein has a "Beautiful Solutions" page, on her book website:
    https://solutions.thischangeseverything.org/
    which makes no attempt, that I saw, to estimate or weigh the potential relative GHG savings of the solutions displayed, relative to the need.

    There's something that I just don't understand here. It's one thing not to feel an emotional pull toward effective actions, it's another to dismiss or ignore them entirely.
    (Note: I do say this without having read the book.)

  9. Gol darn it, we need everything. And fast. Those wedges ... etc.

    What we don't need, but are getting, is those working towards solutions and doing the heavy lifting being labeled, rudely by some and more politely by the likes of Andy Revkin, who appears not to realize he is being used. Sad. OTOH, exploitation is have quite a recrudescence in modern life.

    (note, thanks to Tobis for the review, very comprehensive and on NK much as expected, but the take on Dave Roberts' tweets was informative)

  10. Tom Athanasiou at EcoEquity has a much kinder review of the book, but he gets testy with the New York Times reviewer who thinks that the Oreskes-Conway fiction "The Collapse of Western Civilization" is more true to life than Klein's book. Having read neither book yet, I can't be certain, but I wouldn't be surprised if I agreed with the NYT reviewer. Athanasiou indicates that Klein devotes some discussion to likening the needed climate effort to the movement to abolish slavery. I'm guessing that you would observe that, in the U.S.A., they call that the Civil War.

  11. What do you mean by silver bullets? The kinds of things that kill vampires? Aha:

    "a specific, fail-safe solution to a problem (from the notion that a bullet made of silver is necessary to kill a werewolf)
    I would not call his plan a silver bullet, but anything is better than nothing.

    Magic thinking is too easy. Cooperation is hard work, and imo we are all too prone to blame those with whom we have minor disagreements.

  12. It's really uncanny how well "The Road to Wigan Pier" predicted our political situation way back in 1937. Orwell's basic thesis was that socialists' fetish for ideological purity, their use of meaningless jargon like "bourgeois ideology," their association with 'cranks,' and their generally off-putting message was going to drive the middle classes into fascism. Klein is more or less committing every one of the sins he described.


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  1. Regarding Hulme, it would be a curious to survey folks about the origins of their cosmology or world-view. I know of few people who consult the scriptures or pray every day about every decision. I’ll guess that education would bring more to one’s general outlook than faith. To make big changes, we need to look farther upstream. http://www.donellameadows.org/archives/leverage-points-places-to-intervene-in-a-system/

    [Off topic. Posted to open thread -mt ]

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