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This is a big book in more than one way. It’s long – 566 pages, and that’s with no pictures. Don’t panic though: the last 100 are notes and index. It’s got a big topic of course: anthropogenic climate change. And a big argument: that capitalism is at war with the planet. It isn’t the carbon; it’s the corrupt economic system.
Naomi Klein is a well-known journalist and activist, who has taken on various aspects of capitalism in the past, in books, articles and other ways. This book is her biggest salvo yet regarding her perceived malevolence of free-market capitalism.
There is no doubt about the science: as a result of human activity, the climate has already changed, and the rate of change is increasing, with disaster the most likely outcome. But little has been done. Governments have reneged from their commitments; the environment has been allowed to slip down the political agenda – at least in the USA. Why? Klein argues that the biggest obstacle to action on climate change is denial. She writes: “It is always easier to deny reality than to allow our worldview to be shattered, a fact that was as true of diehard Stalinists at the height of the purges, as of libertarian climate deniers today.” A large part of the book is devoted to showing the ways in which powerful lobby groups and right-wing think-tanks have stymied action on climate change and shaped the discussion.
The level of denial is staggering. I’d have thought that denying climate change was just for the lunatic fringe, yet many members (perhaps a majority) of the (US) House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology are climate change deniers.
The book falls into three parts. In the first part Klein argues that the fight against climate change has been derailed by the effects of the Global Financial Crisis, austerity measures in many countries as a result of the crisis, and the corporate agenda of denial. The second part is the meat of the book, dealing with what Klein calls “magical thinking”. She looks at some suggested technical fixes for climate change, including some ideas which sound like pure science fiction. Sulphate-spraying from helium balloons, to dull the effect of the sun by mimicking the effect of large volcanic eruptions? Interfering with hurricanes? What are the risks? At present we don’t know enough about the Earth system to be able to make these massive changes to the world safely. We may never know. But, Klein notes, if climate change reaches a tipping point as the result of inaction, this sort of terra-forming scheme will surely be attempted.
In the third part of the book, she looks at some of the movements that have sprung up to counter the neoliberal movement. I thought this the weakest part of the book. There is good news here: this crisis can be used to transform our failed economic system into something “radically better”. Of course, this reveals, if not a bias, at least the starting point of all Klein’s thinking: current capitalism has failed. Not everyone agrees with her, but you won’t find their arguments here.
The book is obviously written by a North American (Klein is Canadian) and most of the material is US-based. I have found Klein’s style difficult in the past, but here the writing is clear and approachable. That doesn’t make this an easy book: the issues are large and the scope of the book is enormous. It is unashamedly a polemic, and it’s possible to feel that the reader is being shouted at in places, or even harangued.
This book could have been even bigger. Klein doesn’t really consider the way in which the financial crisis has segued into global conflict, and if not into war then at least into disputes over resources such as water.
Changing the conversation is important; this book shows how to start. It behooves us all to get involved.
Reviewed by Gordon Findlay
This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate
by Naomi Klein
Published by Allen Lane