A Line in the Tar Sands: Naomi Klein on the Climate

TORONTO, ON - NOVEMBER 10:  Author Naomi Klein attends the 21st Annual Scotiabank Giller Prize on November 10, 2014 in Toront
TORONTO, ON - NOVEMBER 10: Author Naomi Klein attends the 21st Annual Scotiabank Giller Prize on November 10, 2014 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by George Pimentel/WireImage)

"The House [of Representatives] has now signed our death warrants and the death warrants of our children and grandchildren. ... We are a sovereign nation, and we are not being treated as such. We will close our reservation borders to Keystone XL. Authorizing Keystone XL is an act of war against our people."
--Cyril Scott, President of the Rosebud Lakota ("Sioux") Nation

I was to have been one of 400,000 protestors gathered for the People's Climate March in New York on Sept. 21. Alas, a knee injury sidelined me. As a consolation prize, a friend bought me Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. So wowed am I by Klein's singular accomplishment that I dedicate this post to an unsolicited review.

For those who may be unfamiliar with Naomi Klein, she's a brilliant, 44-year-old Canadian journalist and activist. Two of her previous books -- No Logo (1999), a critique of globalization, and Shock Doctrine (2007), an exposé of "disaster capitalism," neoliberalism's dark underbelly -- were international bestsellers.

This Changes Everything is similarly destined. The New York Times review hailed it as "the most momentous and contentious environmental book since [Rachel Carson's] 'Silent Spring.'" If you read only one nonfiction work this year, make it Klein's. In this meticulously documented masterpiece, she lays out the origins and magnitude of the climate crisis, why it has been so difficult to confront, and what must be done to mitigate it.

In 2011, with no previous interest in economics, I began studying this dubious social science under the auspices of Occupy Harrisonburg's Economics Working Group (EWG). Our motivations were twofold: to understand what caused the worldwide economic collapse of 2008 and to articulate "fixes" in language anyone could understand. After more than a year of study and discussion, the EWG arrived at many of the conclusions put forth explicitly or implicitly by Klein:

  • That globalization is the modern guise of imperialism.

  • That the 2008 economic collapse was unprecedented. Not simply a bursting economic bubble, it resulted from a train wreck between physical reality and economic fantasies at the core of neoliberalism: that the Earth's resources are limitless, and that exponential growth of money and wealth can be sustained into perpetuity.
  • That the fixes include reining in financial speculation, reclaiming the charter, measuring what matters, reviving the commons, thinking globally but living locally, and, above all, kicking fossil-fuel addiction.
  • But conclusions do not a story make. Klein's unmatched gift lies in weaving together factual strands -- from a multitude of perspectives and disciplines -- into a coherent, compelling, and beautifully crafted narrative.

    With a journalist's eye, Klein does not shy from harsh reality. "This may be the first truly honest book ever written about climate change," claims Time's senior environmental writer. Her first chapter is titled, surprisingly, "The Right Is Right" -- not right to deny the overwhelming evidence that climate change is real and driven primarily by human activities, nor right that climate science is a conspiratorial hoax, nor right to hold the futures of our children and grandchildren hostage to ideology, but right about one thing that most "warmers" don't want to admit: that if climate change really is real and driven primarily by human activities (and it is), then confronting it will upend "business as usual" in all facets of our lives, hence the book's title.

    Klein faults many quarters for our impotence in facing the civilized world's greatest threat. For starters, there are the fossil-fuel-funded climate-denial mills -- the Cato Institute, the Heritage Foundation, and the Heartland Institute -- that collectively generate more than 70 percent of disinformation about the climate. But Klein levies ample criticism at Big Green, particularly the Environmental Defense Fund and the Nature Conservancy, both far too cozy with the carbon industry. And then there are degradations of soft denial by "warmers" themselves, such as the mistaken belief that changing light bulbs and driving Priuses will somehow make enough of a difference. It won't. We are careening toward 6 degrees Celsius (10.8 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming by century's end. Kevin Anderson, the deputy director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the UK, told Klein that even 4 degrees Celsius of warming is "incompatible with any reasonable characterization of ... [a] civilized global community."

    Let's pause to levy two minor criticisms. First, the book's subtitle, a slight misnomer, leaves critics room to accuse Klein of advocating for some discredited Soviet-style, state-regulated economy. Not so. It's unbridled capitalism -- that is, neoliberalism, aka "free-market fundamentalism" -- that she deftly takes to task. More accurately, the true culprit is extractivism (the subject of Chapter 5), an odious mindset (of which both capitalism and communism have been guilty) best articulated by U.S. Rep. Steve Stockman (R-Texas): "The best thing about the Earth is if you poke holes in it oil and gas come out." And second, while critical of using gross domestic product (GDP) as an indicator of the nation's economic health, Klein misses the opportunity to advocate for more meaningful indicators, several of which have been floated by the New Economics Foundation.

    Like Silent Spring, This Changes Everything is a deeply spiritual book. It's about a collision of worldviews: "hierarchal and individualistic" vs. organic, "egalitarian and communitarian." While the former may have been viable in the days of seemingly boundless frontiers, it's destructive in a world of 7.5 billion people competing for dwindling natural resources.

    The spiritual power of several chapters -- "Blockadia" (Chapter 9), "Love Will Save This Place" (Chapter 10), and "The Right to Regenerate" (13) -- brought me to tears. In Chapter 10 Klein writes:

    The power of this ferocious love [of place] is what the resource companies and their advocates in government inevitably underestimate, precisely because no amount of money can extinguish it.

    On the front lines of the blockades against the Keystone XL pipeline and tar sands extraction are Native Americans and First Nations peoples, whose DNA is intertwined with that of Mother Earth, peoples who never succumbed to the fallacy that a profit motive justifies the destruction of our very life-support systems.

    If This Changes Everything is unblinkingly honest, it is also hopeful. Every crisis affords opportunity for regeneration. The exigencies of climate change could be "a catalyzing force" for global citizens "to demand the rebuilding and reviving of local economies; to reclaim our democracies from corrosive corporate influence; to block harmful new trade deals and rewrite old ones; to invest in starving public infrastructure like mass transit and affordable housing; to take back ownership of essential services like energy and water; to remake our sick agricultural system into something much healthier; to open borders to migrants whose displacement is linked to climate impacts; to finally respect Indigenous land rights -- all of which would help to end the grotesque levels of inequality within our nations and between them."

    Klein calls for no less than a Marshall Plan for the Earth, an idea proposed to her in 2009 by Angelica Navarro Llanos, Bolivia's young ambassador to the World Trade Organization. Such bold action -- a rapid global transition from fossil fuels to renewables -- would, of course, cost hundreds of billions of dollars, anathema to neoliberal proponents of austerity. But if the U.S. alone could muster $2 trillion to destroy Iraq, surely the world's wealthy nations can collectively marshal financial resources sufficient to tackle humanity's greatest crisis yet: climate destabilization.

    This Changes Everything is part environmental manifesto, part Bible, and part field manual for effective activism. It's a clarion call to action and a life raft of hope. If humans survive this crisis, future historians will note the synchronicity of the People's Climate March and This Changes Everything as the turning point.