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  • Ken Ilgunas

Book Recommendation: “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate” by Naomi Klein

Climate change fascinates me like nothing else. It is the defining story of the 21st Century. Glaciers are melting, oceans are rising, the earth is warming, people are scared to death. It’s become a war of sorts — one in which conservatives are pitted against liberals; industry against the environment; science against ideology. With the fate of the world and civilization at stake, it’s the 21st Century’s most important story, even if half the world doesn’t care to listen.

The book I’ve been working on — Trespassing across America — is in many ways an environmental book, so I try to get my hands on all things climate change. I’m most interested in figuring out how we got here from a cultural evolution perspective (i.e., Christianity, neoliberal capitalism) and how we might get out—in other words, can we somehow — politically, technologically, economically, and philosophically — get out of the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into?

Klein’s This Changes Everything is excellent. While most of us already know that our consumptive and wasteful economic system — capitalism — is to blame for our countless environmental problems and is at the bottom of our unsustainable plundering of natural resources, Klein’s book is an eloquent, forceful, no-pulled-punches reminder:

Our economic system and our planetary system are now at war. Or, more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life. What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature.

The book is best at explaining the fundamental causes behind our climate change crisis. If there’s anything to criticize — and I’m nitpicking — it’s that she takes on too much, filling us in on the rather massive international environmental movement, including everything from divestment, to indigenous rights, to the Keystone XL. This scope and attention to detail may have the effect of pulling the spotlight off her most revolutionary (capitalism vs. climate change) insights.

For someone new to the subject of the modern-day environmental movement, This Changes Everything is a superb summary of pretty much everything going on. For those of us who casually follow the environmental movement, like myself, the book at times can come across as a bit ponderous.

Despite acknowledging the many forces working against the environmental movement (increased worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, the waning of media coverage, and widespread climate change denial), Klein is unapologetically optimistic, citing the massive international movement that has for years been challenging our prevailing economic system and energy policies. Klein sees, or wants to believe, that progress is happening.

Indeed, we are seeing progress. Since when do we oppose pipelines because what goes through them affects our climate? Since when do 35,000 people march for the climate in Washington D.C.? Since when is practically the whole world at least aware of the concept of climate change? You couldn’t say these things in the 1990s. These are developments of the 2010s.

But are they enough? Based on the results of the 2014 elections, we can say, with certainty, “No, definitely not.”

Republican Mitch McConnell, a climate denier, is now the Senate Majority Leader. Republican Jim Inhofe, the country’s most loopy tin-foil-hatted climate denier, now holds the chair of the Environment and Public Works Committee. Incoming Republican Senator Joni Ernst says, “Yes, we do see climates change, but I have not seen proven proof that it is entirely man-made.” (Watch the Bill Maher video below in which he brilliantly illustrates what’s happened in Congress.)

Despite the hopeful tone, reading This Changes Everything in the wake of the 2014 elections only left me with a feeling of exasperation. The world is coming to an end, and we’re putting the party most responsible back into office?! What the hell…

It’s one of those times you can’t help but wonder, “So in what direction are we heading: backward or forward?”


Klein on how capitalism and a healthy planet cannot coexist: “We have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis. We are stuck because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe—and would benefit the vast majority—are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets.”

“And that is what is behind the abrupt rise in climate change denial among hardcore conservatives: they have come to understand that as soon as they admit that climate change is real, they will lose the central ideological battle of our time—whether we need to plan and manage our societies to reflect our goals and values, or whether that task can be left to the magic of the market… Climate change detonates the ideological scaffolding on which contemporary conservatism rests. A belief system that vilifies collective action and declares war on all corporate regulations and all things public simply cannot be reconciled with a problem that demands collective action on an unprecedented scale and a dramatic reining in of the market forces that are largely responsible for creating and deepening the crisis… As Robert Manne, a professor of politics at La Trobe University in Melbourne, puts it, climate science is for many conservatives ‘an affront to their deepest and most cherished basic faith: the capacity and indeed the right of ‘mankind’ to subdue the Earth and all its fruits and to establish a ‘mastery’ over Nature.’”

On climate change denial: “Yale law professor Dan Kahan, the lead author on this study, attributes the tight correlation between ‘worldview’ and acceptance of climate science to ‘cultural cognition,’ the process by which all of us — regardless of political leanings — filter new information in ways that will protect our ‘preferred vision of the good society.’ If new information seems to confirm that vision, we welcome it and integrate it easily. If it poses a threat to our belief system, then our brain immediately gets to work producing intellectual antibodies designed to repel the unwelcome invasion. As Kahan explained in Nature, ‘People find it disconcerting to believe that behavior that they find noble is nevertheless detrimental to society, and behavior that they find base is beneficial to it. Because accepting such a claim could drive a wedge between them and their peers, they have a strong emotional predisposition to reject it.’ In other words, it is always easier to deny reality than to allow our worldview to be shattered.’”

“One of the most interesting findings of the many recent studies on climate perceptions is the clear connection between a refusal to accept the science of climate change and social and economic privilege. Overwhelmingly, climate change deniers are not only conservative but also white and male, a group with higher than average incomes. And they are more likely than other adults to be highly confident in their views, no matter how demonstrably false… McCright and Dunlap offer a simple explanation for this discrepancy: ‘Conservative white males have disproportionately occupied positions of power within our economic system. Given the expansive challenge that climate change poses to the industrial capitalist economic system, it should not be surprising that conservative white males’ strong system-justifying attitudes would be triggered to deny climate change.”

On how we’re moving backwards:

“Preliminary data shows that in 2013, global carbon dioxide emissions were 61 percent higher than they were in 1990, when negotiations toward a climate treaty began in earnest.”

“The years leading up to the gathering had seen a precipitous collapse of media coverage of climate change, despite a rise in extreme weather: in 2007, the three major U.S. networks—CBS, NBC, and ABC—ran 147 stories on climate change; in 2011 the networks ran just fourteen stories on the subject.”

“A 2007 Harris poll found that 71 percent of Americans believed that the continued burning of fossil fuels would alter the climate. By 2009 the figure had dropped to 51 percent. In June 2011 the number was down to 44 percent—well under half the population.”


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