This Changes Everything

By Naomi Klein

H. G. Wells described economics as “the ecology of the human species . . . the science of the balance of life.”

For Naomi Klein it is the dominant economic paradigm of our time, a form of free market capitalism predicated on infinite growth, that has thrown the planet’s balance of life out of whack.

By now we are all familiar with the problem of global climate change. Aside from a fringe of deniers (who may or may not believe their own denials), the majority of us, including almost all expert opinion, agree that man-made climate change is happening and that it poses a real risk to civilization as we know it. You can argue over the details of just how much risk we are at and when things are really going to start breaking down, but we all know that the kind of mass production/high consumption lifestyles that we’ve grown accustomed to are unsustainable.

This is all preface to the argument Klein makes in This Changes Everything, which is that the values of consumer capitalism are directly opposed to environmental sustainability. This is “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.”

There are no easy fixes for the mess we’re in. Klein takes apart three of the leading placebos: the idea that the market can be adjusted to provide its own fix (through systems like “cap and trade” for carbon emissions); that a billionaire messiah will be able to fund a technological solution to our energy needs; or that we will be able to geoengineer our way out of any crisis by way of building giant mirrors in space to deflect the sun’s rays, turning the oceans green, or some other woolly scheme.

None of this is going to work. And while much can be done by way of developing renewable energy sources and “agroecology” (though here Klein may be guilty of some overly optimistic thinking), what is really needed is a “Great Transformation” to “an entirely new economic model.”

This will involve a lot of local solutions to what are now global problems, but ultimately the onus is on government to lead the way by creating the conditions for a new framework to emerge. The task is large. The phrase “Great Transformation” recalls Karl Polanyi’s classic work on the birth of the market economy and the capitalist system, a development contemporary with the Industrial Revolution. That was one of the most profound shifts in all of human history, matched only by the beginnings of agriculture some 12,000 years earlier. And as Polanyi noted, the (first) Great Transformation marked a change not only in human society but in human nature.

The work of the next Great Transformation will be to effectively undo all of this, creating a new economy, or human ecology, and a new human nature, all within the next decade or so. A tall order, for which there is no historical precedent, despite Klein’s best efforts at finding one. The emancipation movement in the nineteenth century and civil rights in the 1960s aren’t even close.

It’s typical of books like this to try and offer some grounds for hope and practical calls for change that we can believe in. That’s becoming harder all the time, but Klein does her best. Unfortunately, most of the seeds for hope she describes are grass roots efforts involving small, often Indigenous, communities. This isn’t how most of humanity lives any more. The survival of today’s megacities is hard to extrapolate from these green shoots. Is it even possible to imagine a sustainable Tokyo, Mumbai, or NYC?

Klein’s message is that we need to be active in directing change in a way that preserves the best of what civilization has built so far. A lot may depend on how sudden the change comes. A “long emergency” or soft landing – the fate of the frog in the pot brought slowly to boil – might not be the best thing. Instead, a sudden calamity could help bring about a paradigm shift toward sustainability, an inversion of the neoliberal “shock doctrine” Klein described in an earlier book.

Either way, it will be our fate to live in interesting times.

Review first published December 13, 2014.

%d bloggers like this: