Capitalism at war with the planet
In her new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate, Naomi Klein makes a passionate argument for direct action globally against the fossil fuel giants and for a transformation to safe, renewable generation of energy.
Review by Peter Arkell
This is a kind of handbook, even a manifesto, for the growing mass movement not only against the plans of the oil and gas corporations, but against poverty, inequality and unemployment.
Naomi Klein undertakes a global examination of the practices of the fossil fuel industry, as well as an overview of the growing mass of ordinary people who are resisting them over the world. She traces the expansion of Big Oil and Big Coal into ever-dirtier and more reckless kinds of extraction.
As the conventional oil wells run out, the industry is scarring the land with new methods of extraction. These include the blowing-up of mountains for coal in the US, coal-bed methane extraction, huge open-cast projects such as the exploitation of the Alberta Tar Sands, and fracking which, with the associated leakage of methane in the drilling process, is no cleaner than coal.
With time fast running out to prevent catastrophic climate change, the book puts forward a strategy for a transformation to safe, renewable generation of energy, and links this to a general transformation of the economy. This involves not simply resistance, but resistance with alternatives on offer which can be taken up locally and implemented immediately.
No-one else is going to save the planet, Klein argues, least of all the governments of the advanced countries, that are so closely tied in to the interests of Big Oil that they hardly even pretend to take any responsibility for the health of billions of people in the future.
The recent climate talks in Lima, Peru, could only come up with a half-baked set of proposals that postponed the big decisions until the UN Climate Change conference next year in Paris. Meanwhile, emissions worldwide will continue to increase, as the industrialised countries refuse to curb their own emissions or to help developing countries modernise cleanly.
Nearly all scientists are warning of the grave threat to life on earth from over-heating as a result of increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the lower atmosphere. “If governments are unwilling to live up to their international (and domestic) responsibilities,” Klein writes, “then movements of people have to step into that leadership vacuum and find ways to change the power equation.” And in the process, she writes, a new form of participative democracy, starting locally, will emerge to replace the meaningless forms of today.
The very act of resistance opens up all kinds of alternative ways of making energy locally, of building an alternative economy locally and of addressing the acute social problems, she writes. Just a glimpse of another kind of economy can be enough to energise the fight against the old one. What seems impossible becomes possible.
In Denmark, for instance, about 40% of all electricity is generated sustainably, mostly from wind, while in Germany the figure is 30%. In many cases the local utilities are co-operatives that are run democratically by the communities that use them. In Germany, Klein writes, about half of the renewable energy facilities are in the hands of farmers, citizen groups and almost 900 energy co-operatives. Overall there are 1.4 million photo-voltaic installations and about 25,000 windmills, with nearly 400,000 jobs created there.
These figures show up the lie that neo-liberal governments (acting for the fossil fuel industry) peddle all the time, namely that a fast transition to renewables is impossible and therefore new, dirty coal or gas-fired generating stations, and nuclear power stations of course, have to be built to keep the lights on.
Governments, meanwhile, are busy using the new trade laws to denounce, through the World Trade Organisation (WTO), many green energy projects on the grounds that they contain unfair support for local industry and are therefore protectionist. In 2010 the most populous province in Canada, Ontario, unveiled a new climate action plan with the aim of weaning the province off coal completely by 2014.
The legislation included a condition that renewable energy providers had to source at least half of their workforce and materials from within the province. This was an attempt to revive Ontario’s manufacturing sector that had previously been centred on the car industry.
The plan took off. The province became the largest solar panel producer in Canada and by 2013 it had only one working coal-fired power station. Over 30,000 local jobs had been created as a wave of solar and wind manufacturers set up in business there. But Japan and the EU complained to the WTO. They considered Ontario’s buy-local requirement to be discriminatory and unfair to companies outside Ontario. The WTO ruled that the buy-local rules were indeed illegal and distorted the free market. So the province rescinded the local-content rules, investors pulled out and the promising scheme ground to a halt.
Klein sees climate action as the catalyst for the building of a powerful mass movement to protect humanity – and the natural world – from the ravages of “both a savagely unjust economic system and a destabilised climate system”. Action against climate change, against pollution, against poverty, unemployment and inequality should all be linked.
She is looking for transformational change, but is also well aware that transnational corporations are poised and ready to profit from the disaster that they themselves are creating by trashing the planet, including privatising the commons and continuing to pursue policies for even further de-regulation.
She repeatedly makes the point that the actions needed to avert catastrophe fundamentally conflict with the requirements of deregulated global capitalism. They threaten the interests of an elite minority who control the economy and the political process and most of the media. It is the interests of this tiny minority that is effectively blocking the emergence of new ideas and new ways of producing energy that could transform the world.
“Our economic system and our planetary system are now at war,” she writes, “Our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life. What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model requires to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature”.
Klein’s contention is that climate change, if treated as a true planetary emergency “could become a galvanising force for humanity, leaving us all not just safer from extreme weather, but with societies that are safer and fairer in all kinds of other ways as well. The resources required to rapidly move away from fossil fuels and prepare for the coming heavy weather could pull huge swaths of humanity out of poverty, providing services now sorely lacking, from clean water to electricity.”
So Klein sees movements fighting climate change as “a catalysing force for positive change”, for rebuilding local economies and “to reclaim our democracies from corrosive corporate influence”, for investing in public infrastructure like public housing and to remake “our sick agricultural system into something much healthier”. All in all, it could lead to an end to “grotesque inequality”.
The book looks at the alternative solutions that have been put forward to solve global warming, but finds them all empty of content or downright dangerous. There are the rich “messiahs”, the green billionaires such as Bill Gates and Richard Branson who look to a technical fix or the invention of a less polluting fuel. In 2006 Branson even pledged $3 billion over a decade to develop biofuels as an alternative to oil and gas as well as other technologies to battle climate change. But some years later after spending a fraction of the pledge, he opted to expand his airways empire with planes that fly on conventional polluting fuel.
And then there are the geo-engineers who have schemes to dim the sun, by dumping stuff into the stratosphere, or reduce the growing acidity of the oceans through deposits. Klein’s worry is that in the event of a crisis, a huge heat wave or a series of super-storms, opposition to these kind of schemes could melt away and they could be deployed. “The solution to global warming”, she warns, “is not to fix the world, it is to fix ourselves”.
In a section of the book entitled Blockadia, the author takes a look at the new climate warriors and their achievements. The most successful campaigns are those in which the local communities are actively involved and where there are alternatives to fight for. It is these that have shocked the extractive industries.
Klein cites many instances round the world, even in China, of principled and intransigent campaigns to block the building of a pipeline, or of an oil terminal on the coast, or a fracking enterprise or whatever. Many of them, in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand involve defending the rights of the indigenous peoples who live in places the oil companies have, up till now, been used to exploiting as they saw fit.
“What is changing”, Klein writes, “is that many non-native people are starting to realise that indigenous rights – if aggressively backed by court challenges, direct action and mass movements demanding that they be respected – may now represent the most powerful barriers protecting us all from a future of climate chaos. Which is why, in many cases, the movements against extreme energy extraction are becoming more than just battles against specific oil, gas and coal companies and more, even, than pro-democracy movements.
“They are opening up spaces for a historical reconciliation between indigenous peoples and non-Natives, who are finally understanding that, at a time when elected officials have open disdain for democratic principles, indigenous rights are not a threat, but a tremendous gift.”
Among the many actions that she describes is the protest at Balcombe in West Sussex in 2013 against a test well being drilled by the fracking company Cuadrilla. Most of the residents were against it (82% according to a poll) and they were joined by protestors from all over the area in a month-long camp outside the gates to the well. Many were arrested, including MP Caroline Lucas, but the protest helped to alert everyone in Britain of the possible dangers to their drinking water, among other risks, that fracking posed. And in the months since, an alternative power company caller REPOWERBalcombe has been formed, with the aim of supplying 100% of Balcombe’s electricity demand through community-owned, locally-generated renewable energy, with the money coming from residents buying shares in this co-op.
Of course, the oil companies are fighting back with the help of their governments and new trade laws. “Again and again, after failing to persuade communities that these projects are in their genuine best interest, governments are teaming up with corporate players to roll over the opposition, using a combination of physical violence, both by security forces and by corporations, often working in tandem.”
Klein is firmly in the camp of the “physical force” wing of the environmental movement, for direct action. She is contemptuous of the Big Green groups who have sought to compromise with the fossil fuel companies and find joint cause with them in return for donations.
She recognises that it is not possible to reform capitalism, and she calls for transformational change in the economy: capitalism with its endless growth dynamic is not compatible with a healthy planet and will destroy the eco-systems on which life on earth depends. She puts forward solid economic arguments for moving beyond fossil fuels and argues for a Marshall Plan for the earth.
She looks to history to find transformative movements that have defied the simple economic interests of capitalism. She identifies the abolition of slavery in the 19th century and the third world independence movements of the 20th century as examples of historical movements that forced ruling elites to back down. She doesn’t point out, however, that these movements were carried out within the capitalist system, which adapted, then carried on.
She calls for the building of an alternative economy based on “very different values and principles” and she understands that “any attempt to rise to the climate challenge will be fruitless unless it is understood as part of a much broader battle of world views, a process of building and re-inventing the very idea of the collective, the communal, the commons, the civil and the civic after so many decades of attack and neglect”. She concludes: “Only mass movements can save us now.”
The problem with this perspective of spontaneous mass movements is that capitalism and the state that exists to protect the system, can survive mass movements. It has done so many times and in many different countries. What humanity is now facing is the inevitable, if unintended, destruction of the planet’s ability to support life as a result of the continued activities of capitalism, in a social system controlled and run by a minority and not humanity as a whole. This calls for a mass movement with a very clear idea of what is to be done and how to do it.
Today’s historic task is to go beyond protest and build a mass movement to challenge for state power and overthrow capitalism. It is not possible to dismantle the corporations and construct a not-for-profit economy where people can live sustainably as part of nature, unless this is done.
This may be implicit in much of Klein’s analysis, but it is not spelled out, and we are left with the impression that it is possible to transform the economy, and society with it, simply through mass movements against the plans of the fossil fuel industry, which would, hopefully, spark off a movement for a more equal society and a restoration of meaningful democracy.
The book, which took five years to research, is a very valuable analysis of the extreme dangers to life on earth that the continuation of the activities of the big oil and coal corporations pose, unchecked as they are by governments or anybody else. The author is correct to emphasise the incompatibility between the continuation of capitalism as a system and the health of the planet’s climate. But she stops short of pursuing the conclusions that flow from her analysis.
19 December 2014