“This Changes Everything—Capitalism vs The Climate”—What I Learned

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Author’s note: I am simulposting this post both at LinkedIn Pulse and at Bowlby Less Traveled.

I recently finished reading Naomi Klein’s 2014 book entitled This Changes Everything—Capitalism vs The Climate. I received a copy of Klein’s book from a friend who knew that I had previously enjoyed reading Klein’s 2007 book entitled The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Klein’s 2014 book is centrally about the climate change debate. Simply, her position is as follows: We should leave all remaining reserves of carbon-based energy (i.e., oil, gas, coal, etc.) in the ground and immediately switch to energy sources such as solar and wind. She calls the former energy sources “dirty” and “depleting” while the latter energy sources are “clean” and “renewable.” I did not necessarily find Klein’s position startling. Economist Jeremy Rifkin takes a similar position in his 2011 book entitled The Third Industrial Revolution: How Lateral Power Is Transforming Energy, the Economy, and the World. Rifkin tends to favor hydrogen as being the clean and renewable energy source of the future. [1] What surprised me about This Changes Everything is the sheer number of topics Klein brings in to the climate change debate. In this post I’d like to give you a feel for the plethora of topics covered in This Changes Everything. Here’s a sampling (in no particular order).

Goddess versus God—Klein traces the roots of the climate change debate all the way back to ancient times when Goddess religions, tied to the land through agriculture, were invaded by God religions who enjoyed a certain level of mobility as afforded by horses and herds. [2] This conflict is captured in the Biblical story of Cain, who was a crop farmer, and Abel, who was a shepherd. [3] You can find this theme—Indigenous peoples tied to the land versus non-Indigenous peoples detached from the land—throughout Klein’s book. Here’s a modern example.

James Watt and the Liberation of Steam—Klein suggests that the current climate crisis was started by the invention of the steam engine by James Watt in the late 1700s. [4] Before Watt’s steam engine, industry was still tied to nature: flowing water to drive the mills and blowing winds to drive the ships. The steam engine broke this connection to the earth and created energy mobility (as did herding animals). “[W]hen Watt’s engine was installed in a boat,” writes Klein, “ship crews were liberated from having to adapt their journeys to the winds, a development that rapidly accelerated the colonial project and the ability of European powers to easily annex countries in distant lands.” Throughout This Changes Everything, Klein frames the climate change debate using frames such as colonization and reparations. Very simply, extraction industries (like oil and gas) are liberating carbon-based energy from the ground and delivering that energy wherever there is a demand. Klein uses the term extractivist and frames extracting carbon-based energy as producing “dirty energy.” In contrast, energy such as solar and wind are framed as being clean and renewable (as mentioned above), once again tied to place and the earth.

The Plight of Indigenous Peoples and Mother Earth—As mentioned above, throughout her book Klein uses imagery like God culture attacking and dominating Mother Earth. These are themes I have encountered reading feminist books like Jane Caputi’s 1993 book entitled Gossips, Gorgons and Crones: The Fates of the Earth. [5] I guess what took me by surprise was the number and frequency of feminist topics—rape of the earth, mistreatment of Indigenous peoples, liberation from oppression, compensation for women for their centuries of providing unpaid care—that Klein brings in to the discussion of climate change. Klein devotes entire sections of This Changes Everything to the idea that the only effective way to stop carbon pollution is to band with Indigenous peoples and support them in their attempts to stop mining and drilling operations on, and pipelines and transport roads across their ancestral lands. Klein does, however, point out that many Indigenous groups, who typically have very few resources, are tired of being the only ones putting up a fight against extractivists.

Sacrifice Zones—Klein spends a lot of time talking about sacrifice zones. I read about the idea of sacrifice zones in Dr. Caputi’s work. The need for sacrifice zones points out that there is a recognition (at some level) that extraction operations do cause harm. The big example Klein points to is the small island of Nauru (approximately 4000km from Sydney in the Pacific Ocean). Nauru was blessed with an abundance of bird droppings, which, given enough time, forms the foundation for a great fertilizer. “Nauru … was developed to disappear,” reveals Klein, “designed by the Australian government and the extractive companies that controlled its fate as a disposable country.” Klein continues, “It’s not that they had anything against the place, no genocidal intent per se. It’s just that one dead island that few even knew existed seemed like an acceptable sacrifice to make in the name of progress represented by industrial agriculture.” I hate to say it but New Mexico has several sacrifice zones from garbage dump sites that receive refuse from other states to our Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) that stores nuclear waste. [6] Klein warns that as carbon emissions reach a tipping point, the whole Earth may become one big sacrifice zone.

Carbon Tipping Point and Strange Bedfellows—Klein tells us that we are now at the point where the atmosphere can no longer absorb or otherwise accommodate the carbon that is being put into the air by extractivists. Klein’s plan is to convince extractivists that they should leave the remaining carbon in the ground, make reparations to those countries (typically in the South) that have contributed little to carbon pollution, and begin the process of converting to a new, clean energy economy, one that respects the Earth and its life giving and sustaining nature. Klein is not necessarily against all extraction. The Earth does provide much to all. Klein is mainly concerned with what she calls extreme forms of extraction: deep water drilling, tar sands, and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) chief among them. With respect to fracking, Klein points out that oil and gas companies are now trying to frack in places like Ithaca, NY, home to Cornell University. As you would expect, these operations were shut down in large part because Ithaca has money and an extensive academic brain trust. Klein gives us many examples of where money and brain trust power are now joining forces with Indigenous groups who have land rights power. These pairings have created some interesting bedfellows such as Indigenous peoples and ranchers. Heck, one energy executive joined a lawsuit against a fracking company because fracking operations were taking place near his home in an affluent part of Texas. Apparently extreme extraction knows no bounds and is now taking place in the backyards of people who have the power to say “not in mine.”

Klein’s Bottom Line and a Marshall Plan for the Earth—It’s a bit long but I think this following passage from This Changes Everything nicely sums up Klein’s overarching position. Properly and appropriately addressing the climate change issue will

represent nothing less than the unfinished business of the most powerful liberation movements of the past two centuries, from civil rights to feminism to Indigenous sovereignty. The massive global investments required to respond to the climate threat—to adapt humanely and equitably to the heavy weather we have already locked in, and to avert the truly catastrophic warming we can still avoid—is a chance to change all that; and to get it right this time. It could deliver the equitable redistribution of agricultural lands that was supposed to follow independence from colonial rule and dictatorship; it could bring the jobs and homes that Martian 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. Such is the promise of a Marshall Plan for the Earth.

Systemic versus Direct Causation—Throughout her book Klein uses what cognitive scientist turned political critic George Lakoff calls systemic causation. Systemic causation holds that causation can only be assessed by looking at systems and the interactions taking place between the many different parts that comprise a whole. “[The biosphere] is a living breathing collection of organisms (mostly microorganisms) that are evolving every second—a ‘self-organizing, complex, adaptive system’ (the strict term),” writes Klein. Klein often uses salmon as a model of systemic causation. “It’s the salmon,” Klein tells us, “that connect the streams to the rivers, the river to the sea, the sea back to the the forests.” Klein warns, “Endanger salmon and you endanger the entire ecosystem that depends on them….” I mention this because as Lakoff points out, typically liberals engage in systemic causation. In contrast, conservatives typically engage in direct causation: one billiard ball hits another. Klein correctly suggests that direct causation is part and parcel of reductionistic thinking: reducing wholes to parts. Apparently extractivists use reductionistic thinking: extract carbon, burn carbon, repeat. I mention this because John Bowlby tried to sell systemic causation as a part of selling his theory of attachment. He failed. Moving away from a carbon economy is also about moving away from direct causation and reductionistic science. In essence, it’s about moving away from conservatism. This is why many conservatives simply reduce the climate change debate to, “Liberals wanting to do away with our way of life.” Can you blame them? For Klein’s project to work, time will have to be spent assessing why earlier attempts to sell systemic thinking—like Bowlby’s—were not successful.

Hopefully the above gives you a sense for the scope and gravity of Klein’s book. There’s this sense that Klein’s vision for a radical reshaping of the Earth and all of its cultures and peoples should have happened yesterday. There’s this sense of urgency. But, according to Klein and other feminists, it’s an urgency that has been growing for centuries if not millennia. That’s why Klein’s book left me breathless. The shear scope and urgency blew me away. Klein talks about the process of changing worldviews. Specifically, she talks about radically changing the free market worldview. Klein gives us this bottom line: “Free market ideology has been discredited by decades of deepening inequality and corruption, stripping it of much of its persuasive power (if not yet its political and economic power).” Klein wishes that we imagine an alternative worldview “to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis.” That alternative worldview would

  • be embedded in interdependence rather than hyper-individualism
  • focus on reciprocity rather than dominance
  • involve cooperation rather than hierarchy

I have to agree: Klein does wish to change everything. And by Klein’s own admission, this type of wholesale change has never happened before in recorded history. Klein condemns the magical thinking that puts forth the promise that a new technology—one that can literally suck carbon from the atmosphere—is just around the next corner. I cannot help but think that this radical reformation of Mother Earth and its cultures is not also buoyed by the waters of magical wishing. At times like this it is easy to forget that hydrocarbons are used in manifold places: solvents, cleaners, plastics, grease, lubricants, wax, roofing tar, wood preservatives, artificial rubber, and the list goes on. According to the web site for the U.S. Energy Information Administration, “About 76% of the 6.97 billion barrels of petroleum products that were consumed in the United States in 2014 were gasoline (47% of total petroleum consumption; includes biofuels), heating oil and diesel fuel (21%), and jet fuel (8%).” So, sure, we could (in theory) easily switch 76% of carbon energy consumption to clean energy sources. But what about that other 24%? Could we quickly and easily find non-carbon substitutes for the other uses listed above? I don’t have the answers. But simply saying that we should “stop and switch” doesn’t seem like a workable plan. Have economies switched before? I would say yes as I think about a book like Salt by Mark Kurlansky. An description of Salt makes the following observations:

The only rock we eat, salt has shaped civilization from the very beginning, and its story is a glittering, often surprising part of the history of humankind. A substance so valuable it served as currency, salt has influenced the establishment of trade routes and cities, provoked and financed wars, secured empires, and inspired revolutions.

Does salt do these same things today? Not really. Can oil go the way of salt? Looked at another way, can the oil economy go the way of the salt economy? Probably yes. We will need the next salt to come along. Is it solar? wind? hydrogen? Hard to say. But what is clear is the need to replace one economy with another. I do not see doing away with economies altogether as a workable plan. Just my take.


[1] Toyota is now selling limited quantities of its hydrogen fuel cell car Mirai.

[2] The archaeologist Marija Gimbutas did much to promote the idea that God religions from the northern part of Old Europe invaded the Goddess religions of the southern part. Apparently there were three main invasion waves. See her 1999 book The Living Goddesses for an example here. Others, such as archaeologist J.P. Mallory, believe that rather than invading, God religions assimilated Goddess religions over time. See Mallory’s 1989 book In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology and Myth for an example here.

[3] You can find similar themes in the 1953 Western film Shane starring Alan Ladd.

[4] The invention of the steam engine is covered in detail in history professor David Wootton’s 2015 book entitled The Invention of Science—A New History of the Scientific Revolution. I talked about Wootton’s book in an earlier post. Interestingly, Wootton does not bring in the idea that Watt unleashed the age of dirty energy. As with most topics, it is a matter of the view used.

[5] Our Foundation has supported two film projects by Dr. Caputi: 1) The Pornography of Everyday Life, and, 2) Feed the Green: Feminist Voices for the Earth.

[6] WIPP was temporarily closed down in 2014 because of two incidents: 1) a haul truck caught fire, and, 2) a 55-gallon drum of nuclear waste burst. It still has not reopened.