Book Review: Plus ça Change, Plus c’est la même Chose

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate by Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein has seen the future and it does not look good. Right at the beginning of her new book – This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate – Mrs Klein rhetorically asks: What Is Wrong with Us? She then proceeds to answer the question in great detail over the following 560+ pages of the tome.

Indeed, there is plenty wrong with us. We consume way too much and, by doing so, deplete the earth’s resources and warm it up to boot, potentially unleashing a vast and terrifying range of disasters. The culprit is, of course, capitalism and its sibling, consumerism. These evil twins reduce people to helpless beings that covet superfluous products and useless services.

Mrs Klein’s solution is seductively simple: Just do away with capitalism. She strongly disagrees with those who argue that climate change may be tackled by the adoption of smart policies designed to steer future growth in a more sustainable direction. That clearly won’t do. According to Mrs Klein, the status quo cannot be maintained and radical change is called for if disaster is to be averted at the eleventh hour.

“Interestingly enough, the huge investments with which Mrs Klein proposes to right both climate change and social wrongs are to be coughed up by a shrinking economy.”

The shrill tone that environmentalists – born again or otherwise – usually employ to deliver their message never fails to amaze. Oftentimes debate is stifled at the very get-go by the taking of uncompromising positions that advocate the downfall of economic and political systems built on centuries of societal tinkering.

Leveraging the Climate

In her most recent book, Mrs Klein not just addresses climate change; she seeks to use the impending disaster as leverage to deal with social ills such as enduring poverty. The massive investments required to save the world are to benefit the have-nots as well:

“It could bring the jobs and homes Martin Luther King dreamed of; it could bring jobs and clean water to native communities; it could at last turn on the lights and running water in every South African township. Climate change is our chance to right those festering wrongs at last – the unfinished business of liberation.”

Interestingly enough, the huge investments with which Mrs Klein proposes to right both climate change and social wrongs are to be coughed up by a shrinking economy. De-growth is to replace the capitalist promise of endless growth. Only by imposing a lasting economic depression is it possible to cut emissions by the required degree to decelerate global warming. People will have to cut back on consumption and corporations need to reduce – and even eliminate – profits.

Mrs Klein warns that governments must again engage in long-term planning with the free market relegated to the margins, if not the history books. This will do nicely if de-growth is to be the objective of humankind’s collective efforts.

Though held in great esteem as a debater, Mrs Klein falls woefully short on the specifics of a shrinking world economy. She pays much attention to the need for systemic change but fails to explain how the resulting economy is to function, i.e. how global society should manage “de-growth” (Orwellian doublespeak for economic depression) and still ban poverty.

The few answers Mrs Klein does provide bespeak of an utter negation of common human character traits. Capitalism’s much-deplored triumph is but the product of the natural propensity of people to better their lot. Since the dawn of time, keeping up with the Joneses has encouraged folks to find ways of self-improvement either through work or innovation. Somehow, going down with the Joneses lacks the same appeal.

Are we – in Mrs Klein’s world of de-growth – to work hard but consume ever less, or are we to sit back, relax, and refrain from consuming anything beyond the most basic necessities to sustain our now rather empty, and quite possibly dreary, lives? What if one of us should rebel against this dystopian world and decides, as a latter-day Winston Smith, that he wants to consume more than his fair share and is willing to put in an effort to do so?

No Choice

Mrs Klein repeats ad nauseam that global society has no choice: It is systemic change and de-growth or die (or fry). Environmentalists advocating gradual adaptation and those who express a trust in technological progress and innovation, are summarily dismissed as capitalist running dogs. Admittedly, Mrs Klein does not quite use that expression, but she comes close – calling those who dispute the urgency of the need for a de-growth revolution, a “bunch of nutcases” and “hard-core ideologues.”

Rather than offering a depressing read, Mrs Klein has written a book that overflows with optimism: To her, climate change may just be the catalyst that brings about a more just world order. There is, however, plenty wrong with the amalgamation of all issues plaguing humanity into a single challenge to be tackled with, of all things, de-growth.

First, de-growth is a “solution” devoid of any sense of reality: All attempts at forging a new man are doomed to fail – it runs counter to nature and has been tried before with regrettable results. Second, climate change is one issue, and world poverty quite another. Trying to unify these problems is akin to the search for the Theory of Everything that keeps hordes of physicists gainfully employed. The theory may very well exist; it has not yet been found. Notwithstanding her impressive intellectual powers and prowess, Mrs Klein has so far not unearthed a unified approach to all the world’s ills.

While it may be politically correct to applaud anyone drawing attention to the Armageddon that awaits a warming world, Mrs Klein sorely misses the point in This Changes Everything. Global warming, in fact, changes little to nothing: The seismic systemic shift that Mrs Klein advocates will simply not occur as it denies human nature.

Also, climate change-inspired de-growth will not get rid of world poverty. It is nothing short of ludicrous to state otherwise. If a reasonably prosperous world cannot eliminate human want, one with only half as much wealth at its disposal will certainly not succeed.

Implicitly recognising that de-growth is highly unlikely to succeed, Mrs Klein happily concludes that the world is doomed. This fate, however, is not quite sealed. Human ingenuity knows few, if any, bounds – something Mrs Klein has entirely overlooked. While humankind will muddle on, conquering peaks and navigating valleys, some of us will undoubtedly come up with innovations that may yet save the day.

Rather than lamenting the destructive ways of human development and proposing an impossible way out of the resulting predicament, it may perhaps be a good idea to focus human ingenuity and place our collective trust in the genius of man.

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