It’s increasingly obvious that the global economic system, and particularly the current brand of U.S. capitalism, are not really compatible with the actions needed to combat climate change.
Naomi Klein makes this point clear in “This Changes Everything,” which is both a passionate and controversial polemic and a reasoned discussion of the issues and forces stalling, and indeed preventing, a comprehensive response to climate change.
The problem is not the political and ideological divisions or scientific “debate,” which are hard enough to deal with — it’s mainly about money, according to Klein. The book’s subtitle is compelling: Capitalism vs. The Climate. Simply put: “Our economic system and our planetary system are now at war.”
The basic point: Taking climate change seriously means we must seriously “change everything” — our way of life and our economic structures — and capitalism isn’t helping. In fact, it can’t help the cause; it’s hurting it. Doing what needs to be done means “drastic government intervention” and collective action on an unprecedented global scale because the “very habitability of the planet depends on intervening.” This idea is, of course, anathema to the climate denier crowd. Those folks know that the global economy is “created by and fully reliant upon the burning of fossil fuels.” That foundational dependency “cannot be changed with a few market mechanisms.”
“In the short term,” Klein continues, “you might be able to argue that the economic costs of taking action are greater than allowing climate change to play out for a few more decades … But most people don’t actually like it when their children’s lives are ‘discounted’ in someone else’s Excel sheet, and they tend to have a moral aversion to the idea of allowing countries to disappear because saving them would be too expensive.”
As Klein notes, this is both the climate deniers’ intellectual pretzel problem and their mission: It’s always easier to deny reality and claim rampant conspiracies and hoaxes than to allow their worldview to be shattered.
Thus although we are faced with a crisis that threatens our survival as a species, “our entire culture is continuing to do the very thing that caused the crisis, only with an extra dose of elbow grease behind it.” Cognitive dissonance reigns; it’s so easy: “All we have to do is not react as if this is a full blown crisis…then, bit by bit, we will have arrived at the place we most fear, the thing from which have been averting our eyes.”
There are quotes like these on almost every page of this necessary book. Klein makes it sound unsolvable, but she doesn’t quite cross that line. “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.”
Yes, we are stuck because the actions needed to avert catastrophe while benefiting the vast majority threaten the stranglehold that the “elite minority” has on the economy, our political process and most of the major media outlets, Klein says.
We can get unstuck, she argues, once we acknowledge that the free market cannot accomplish what needs to be done. This will not happen easily or without upheaval. There are ways of preventing, or mitigating, the grim future that climate change presents. It’s not simply about spending a lot of money and changing a lot of policies: “It’s that we need to think differently, radically differently” for changes to be even remotely possible.
“The good news is that many of these changes are distinctly un-catastrophic. Many are downright exciting.”
Exciting perhaps but ultimately not wholly convincing. Can, as Martin Luther King Jr. said in 1967, a “radical revolution of values” shift our society from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society? That was nearly 50 years ago in another context, but there is not another 50 years available for the sort of transformation needed to address climate change.
Can, or will, “extraordinary levels of social mobilization” to force action regarding climate change occur? Will we take our smartphones to the streets in massive demonstrations demanding action and sacrifices during another climate change crisis? I’m willing to be taken by surprise by Operation Climate Change.