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This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate
Naomi Klein is very serious about her politics. She made her husband visit Nike sweatshops during their honeymoon. Her young son doesn't refer to 'choo choos' but has been brought up to refer to 'pollution trains'. She took part in the anti-capitalist protests organised by Occupy Wall Street and described them as 'the most important thing in the world'. She has spent much of the last five years criss-crossing the planet in order to write a book about the dangers to the environment of criss-crossing the planet.
The publication date for her 500-page manifesto was chosen to coincide with this week's UN climate change summit in New York. She is pessimistic about the summit's chances. Twenty or so previous summits have, after all, done little - perhaps nothing — to slow the growth in humanity’s carbon footprint. The largest percentage increase in emissions since the industrial revolution occurred in 2010 - reflecting the desire of the poorest peoples of the world to enjoy what we in advanced nations already have.
This readable book is full of attacks on 'go-go' capitalism and the fossil fuels that power it. There's equal contempt for the politicians who promise to be green but fail to deliver, the consumers who think that it's enough to buy a few organic products now and again and for the big green campaigners who have become too close to big business.
The most powerful chapter includes a sustained attack on Richard Branson for a $3 billion promise to find a miracle green fuel. Not only has that quest failed but Klein argues that his Virgin business empire has failed to invest even a fraction of that much-trumpeted sum. Virgin has instead expanded its global fleet of aircraft at a gas-guzzling pace.
Her conclusion is clear. If you want to stop natural disasters, failed crops, starving livestock and climate-fuelled ethnic conflicts you must forget Obama, forget Branson and get angry. The heroes of her book are the grassroots protesters such as the activists who last year mounted a campaign of civil disobedience against fracking in the small Sussex village of Balcombe.
Klein finds hope in the fact that in order to feed the demand for global energy the oil companies are no longer operating in poor parts of the world that are desperate for investment but are expanding in rich parts of the West, like Sussex. She wants opposition to developments in our backyards to inspire us to create 'blockadia', a global movement that will stop all fossil fuel developments everywhere.
You would have thought that Klein might have lost faith in all of us. After her book, No Logo (2000) lambasted Nike's employment practices in the developing world (unfairly, I should note), the sportswear company has - swoosh, swoosh - rapidly expanded in its existing markets and has conquered new ones. Most of us want cool kicks more than a cool planet.
The author is honest about our unwillingness to bear the collective sacrifices necessary to reduce our environmental impact. She notes that nearly all of history’s great struggles have failed at the economic fence. Slaves escaped their shackles but never received proper reparations. Feminists won workplace equality but not, as they demanded, a wage for domestic work. South African blacks overturned apartheid but didn't get the public investment in housing that they also demanded. She wishes they had - and this points to the great fault of the book. Klein is ultimately more red than green.
She wants, for starters, $2 trillion of extra taxes on billionaires and companies every year for forty years. She wants to slash military budgets and full decarbonisation by 2030. She offers no ideas as to how global governments already struggling to pay the bills will deliver this much larger state. She seems to hope that much bigger natural disasters will provoke enough people to force politicians to stop the world becoming 'hotter, colder, wetter, thirstier [and] angrier'. But her policy recommendations would endanger what has been history's greatest ever leap forward.
Despite what Klein writes, we don't live in a period of crisis for capitalism. Beyond the West, in particular, we live in a time in which, because of the spread of free enterprise, hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty, life expectancies across the world are soaring and women and children are being freed from back-breaking labour. The capitalist companies that she hates, through GM crops and more fuel-efficient forms of transport, will help us to become greener, healthier and richer.
Klein is a 21st-century Malthus and her lack of faith in human ingenuity is as wrong as his was.
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