Capitalism vs. the Climate and the Need for Ideas that Will Indeed Change Everything

Argument with This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, by Naomi Klein.

Key Ideas: Climate denial, free trade, big green, carbon market, Blockadia, indigenous logic, capitalism, climate change

Naomi Klein’s 2014 book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, sets the foundation for the fight ahead on climate change. The book builds on Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and Theo Colborn’s Our Stolen Future, in many ways bringing readers up to date on the fight to stop climate change. As she reports it, the news is grim: Climate change is not getting better. In fact, it is worsening as our fossil fuel addiction intensifies and creative efforts to change are destroyed through the societal structures that dominate our modern world.

Klein’s gifts as a journalist are unparalleled. Yet as a thinker, she returns to the same old power struggle dominating the politics of American history—progressive vs. conservative, left vs. right. The journalistic insights in this book serve as a foundation to point a new direction forward, but the fight to stop climate change needs radically different ideas—not those of disaster capitalism, not those of the traditional right-left fight, but rather ideas of restructuring the political and economic landscape at its core. But let’s begin with Klein.

The Truth in Climate Denial

The single most important insight comes early, in the first chapter titled, “The Right is Right.” Klein’s brilliant analysis of right wing ideology related to climate change shows why the denial of climate change is, in fact, the only rational response they could have, given their dedication to market fundamentalism.

Many more casual observers think climate denial has to do with mere greed and the selfish desire to run ATVs through the woods and SUVs through the suburbs. While there is that faction, the real problem is the ideology known as market fundamentalism—a kind of anti-regulation, anti-public, pro-corporate neoliberal plutocracy that cannot stand the idea that collective action may be required to solve certain problems. Klein shows that the entire global economic system is built on this framework, and what terrifies the deniers is that if climate change turns out to be true, it is an indictment of that entire system and its ideology.

“And that is what is behind the abrupt rise in climate change denial among hardcore conservatives: they have come to understand that as soon as they admit that climate change is real, they will lose 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.”

Klein is right on about the ideological battle, and she appropriately chides the political center.

“So here’s my inconvenient truth: I think these hard-core ideologues understand the real significant of climate change better than most of the “warmists” in the political center, the ones who are still insisting that the response can be gradual and painless and that we don’t need to go to war with anybody, including the fossil fuel companies. Before I go any further, let me be absolutely clear: as 97 percent of the world’s climate scientists attest, the [right-wing] Heartlanders are completely wrong about the science. But when it comes to the political and economic consequences of those scientific findings, specifically the kind of deep changes required not just to our energy consumption but to the underlying logic of our liberalized and profit-seeking economy, they have their eyes wide open.”

In other words, the deniers can’t believe it is true because if it is, the world view, the economic structures, and the political structures are all wrong. If climate change is real, Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, Ronald Reagan, and neoliberalism become demonstrable frauds. More importantly, the gigantic investments of enormous industries are at stake, and the so-called new world order probably stands at the precipice of its own collapse.

How this system works—the corruption of the best decisions and approaches

Until I read Klein’s book, I had no idea the extent to which our current system undermines and destroys every possible effort at solving climate change, no matter its source. This was a powerful wake up call. The comfortable ways this might get solved have all been tried and failed radically. Klein is masterful in documenting how these efforts have failed, but for purposes of this review, I will consider three—trade agreements, big green, and cap-and-trade carbon credits.

So-called Free trade

Let us start by using a more accurate name: the global trade regime. The global trade regime is indeed as regime, but not like any governmental regime, for there is no single person at the helm. No dictator. No evil monarch. Yet its impact is just as dire for the people under its power—that is, all of us.

The trade regime is being used against nearly every local effort to deal with climate change. Klein gives an account of how it worked against her own home town of Ottawa, Ontario, where local government was able to put through a program to develop green economy at home. In order to do so, they had to include buy local provisions, otherwise the politics would not work. The program started and was working beautifully until Japan and the European Union decided that it violated the trade regime rules, and they sued to stop it. They won. “The WTO ruled against Canada, determining that Ontario’s buy-local provisions were indeed illegal.” The Province nixed the regulation, and the investors nixed the program.

The problem, as Klein points out, is not that Ottawa lost, but that every similar local effort also loses. And they lose in two ways. First, they lose like Ottawa—they try something creative and get their hands slapped, and they back down against the global body. Second, and this is what happens far more frequently, the situation becomes well understood by advisors to local government, and they advise against trying it. “We can’t do that. WTO will rule against us. Let’s not waste the time.” Just like that, creative solutions to the world’s most pressing problems are dying on the vine of the global trade regime.

Big Green

In perhaps the most surprising part of this book, Klein delivers a very harsh indictment of much of Big Green—the environmental organizations that have become household names, including Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, Environmental Defense Fund, and many others.

As one who has been a member of most environmental groups at one time or another over the last 35 years, I found this section deeply dismaying, yet not at all surprising. For the question I have asked over that time is this: Why are these groups growing so big while the environment just keeps getting worse? It turns out there is a reason: Most of them are in bed with the polluters they claim to oppose.

I took it personally to learn that the Nature Conservancy, a group that had, I thought, a very good mission to raise money and use it to buy lands that would be protected in perpetuity, indeed bought such land in Texas to protect bird habitat from oil drilling, yet only a few years later, itself drilled on that same land! Worse, they claimed it was okay for the endangered birds, despite the fact that the population on that land continued to decline, and today, the birds can no longer be found there. What kind of conservancy is that?

What happened is that Big Green matured, as all big organizations do, and it became corporate. It stopped suing big business, and started negotiating with them. In that manner, the values changed. The thinking process changed. The logic changed. And suddenly, a revered environmental organization is drilling for oil on its own lands.

This is why good ideas by corporate reformers won’t work. For example, insisting that environmental organizations sit on corporate boards will be a lot of sugarcoating about nothing. If the Nature Conservancy and other such organizations can find themselves in such deep conflict with their own mission when they are separate from these companies, imagine what will happen when they are on the boards. All too quickly, they becomes pals, they see the corporate logic, and then the money starts to flow. The logic changes. What Klein calls “Blockadia” becomes “fossil fuel mania.” In other words, Big Green has become synonymous with the structural logic of corporate capitalism.

Carbon Market

The third example is corruption of the carbon markets even before they really started. Carbon markets seemed like a great idea for internalizing the costs of pollution, especially carbon pollution. The core problem is, just as in the preceding examples, this does not change the underlying structural logic that got us into this mess. In fact, it strengthens it.

Perhaps the worst thing of all is that a carbon market does not solve anything. The idea is a false god, as is all market fundamentalism. Markets cannot and do not solve anything other than setting momentary price swings. Klein documents how in 2009, the economic crisis drove down economic activity. Since there was so little economic activity, fossil fuel burning declined, and everyone wanted to unload their carbon credits. Guess what happened to the market? The bottom fell out on carbon permits. Suddenly, there was almost zero cost to emitting carbon, so there was no incentive to eliminate emissions—exactly the wrong incentive.

A similar market, the UN Clean Development Mechanism, underwent a similar collapse. “Weak emissions targets and the economic downturn in wealthy nations resulted in a 99 percent decline in carbon prices between 2008 and 2013,” according to Oscar Reyes from the Institute for Policy Studies. It seems that all carbon markets have done is added a new chorus to the old call: “Drill, baby, drill!” Now they are shouting: “Burn, baby, burn!”

The other side of this is equally egregious. The volatility of a carbon market casts a long shadow on the stability of the solar and wind markets, where long term investment is the name of the game. It is possible that Big Oil and Big Green support these plans because they know that a carbon market will be volatile, and therefore will destabilize all efforts at investing in solar, wind, or other alternatives. Remember, these are the people who knew global warming was becoming a problem as early as the 1950s, and then spent over $120 million trying to deny it.

Possibilities for New Logic

Given that most of the so-called “good ideas” have already failed, we are left with one critical question: What will work? As Klein indicates, doing nothing is not an engagement with the status quo—it is an engagement with ongoing degradation, disasters, war, disaster capitalism, and in general, a worsening world. There is no stasis to fall into because the climate is changing, whether we like it or not, and the impact of those changes are dramatic and worsening. Scientists have stated that an increase of 2 °C (3.6 °F) is the limit as to when the earth undergoes such changes that they are not reversible, and the warming globe begins to spin out of control. At that point, we are no longer looking at 2 °C degrees or 3 °C, but maybe ten or more. 10 °C is 18 °F. I would think that a change of 18 °F degrees would be enough to gain anyone’s attention. There is no status quo in that approach.

What is disappointing in this book, however, is that Klein sets up the battle within the old paradigm—market fundamentalism vs. a progressive agenda of public ownership, planning, regulation, and other controls. To be sure, she makes a very strong case for the kind of controls that could lead us out of this very urgent crisis. Eschewing frauds like “cap-and-trade,” she argues for more democratic control, community control, and global planning—all of which are necessary under the current structure.

However, this approach—if it is all we do—is deeply flawed and disturbing because it leaves in place exactly the dichotomy of thinking that got us here. She is arguing not for a change in the dynamic, but rather for a simple change in who has the power within that dynamic. The vested interests at hand—fossil fuel companies, energy companies, automobile companies, and so on—are essentially left in place to operate the exact same logic that led us to this point. As such, they become the anti-heroes to fight against government control, public ownership, and cooperative enterprise, yet their narrative argument and internal logic undergoes no change at all.

The logic of status quo—extractive economy, corporate capitalism, and market fundamentalism—has failed to maintain a status quo. It is time for change. What will work? The only thing that can—we must replace the central logic of our times. Market fundamentalism and corporate capitalism have proven to be incapable of providing a solution to the crisis we face. Given that climate change has been on the radar for over half a century, a new vision is required; one based on a new logic.

Milton Friedman once said that when disaster strikes, you look for the ideas that are lying around, and you try some of them out.  After reading Klein’s book, I am more convinced than ever that the real problem is a lack of such alternative ideas. Let’s look at Klein’s alternatives, which will come up short, before I suggest some new directions.

Klein’s Alternatives

Naomi Klein posits three fairly reliable alternatives from the progressive environmental left—what she calls indigenous logic, local economic development, and Blockadia—and achieves, I think, similar results. While all of these ideas have something to contribute, none of them—not even all of them put together—create a truly actionable structural logic that could replace the dominant view now.

Blockadia, as I read Klein, is essentially the resistance movement which is born from local sensibilities, love of community and the land, and activism at its best. While Blockadia is necessary at this point, it does not provide an alternative vision. There’s no set of ideas to pick up on and implement when there is an opportunity. Indeed, there is only what we are against. So, while necessary and actually inspiring to read of people’s commitment and courage, Blockadia is only a temporary stand against the most egregious devastation. It can stall, but it cannot reverse, the corporate capitalist juggernaut.

Klein suggests indigenous logic is a second theme for progressive resistance, and in this context it adds a profound moral component to the discussion. The affinity indigenous people express for their land is moving, and in some situations they have actual legal rights to assert as well. The legal rights can be used in Blockadia, and the affinity to the land is wonderful, but let’s not kid ourselves, lest we get lost in a deeply romantic vision that isn’t accurate. Although many indigenous people are great stewards of the earth, many others are not and never were. Slash and burn agriculture, for example, is not exactly the highest picture of stewardship. It wasn’t catastrophically devastating only because the scale was not big enough, and the same holds true today. Indigenous logic works best in very low density population areas. Because a large part of society will never want to go “back to the land,” the indigenous logic argument isn’t very inspiring. Insightful, yes, but it is not a practical logic at the current scale of the global human endeavor.

The third alternative, local clean and green economic development, is important, but not enough. It’s first contribution is to remove the persuasive power of big oil to corrupt local leaders under a rallying cry that everyone will be better off and there will be jobs for all. Where people face poverty, they will do desperate things, even if they do not want to do so. This is no different, and local development is a good antidote.

The problem is that all three alternatives leave in place the basic logic and structures that run things today. Big oil stands unchanged. Big green stays the same.  Plus, the people pushing the progressive alternatives nearly always eventually lose. They are outgunned, out-powered, out-maneuvered, out-moneyed, and always out-lasted. Blockadia eventually becomes exhausted. Indigenous people were rooted out by this juggernaut across America and Canada for several centuries, and it continues to this day. Green development helps but can still be overrun, and often is. What’s different? Nothing. The same battles persist.

What Is the Problem?

Thirty five years ago, Reagan said: “Government can’t solve the problem; government is the problem.” This rallying cry was false then and it remains false now. Rather than a statement of fact, this statement was used—and still is—to disempower the one institution—government—which allows us as citizens to govern ourselves and make choices about the kind of society we want. And it hid what has now become the really obvious truth, especially in terms of climate change. Let’s reformulate that idea: “Markets can’t solve the problem; markets are the problem. Capitalism can’t solve the problem; capitalism is the problem.”

Rather than attempting to shift the power from one side of the spectrum to the other, necessary as that may be in the short run, we must see through all this rhetoric to the inherent structural bias of the systems we have created—market fundamentalism and corporate capitalism. For that structural bias drives the juggernaut. That bias drives the inevitability of our so-called “progress.” It’s structural element maintains the current system despite our awareness something is deeply wrong, and it creates that near universal feeling of helplessness in facing a faceless system. To stop climate change, we have to end that “faceless system.” We have to change the intrinsic logic that drive the activity causing climate change.

Ideas on Where to Start

The core of the program ahead is to change the economic and political structures which drive the logic. There are four key areas to begin.

  1. Rewrite (at least), and perhaps eliminate, the global free trade regime, which is fundamentally anti-democratic, so that it will allow local communities to find their own solutions. The trade regime must be stopped as a weapon against local control and democratic action.
  2. The corporate structure needs a complete overhaul to make it serve society, rather than the other way around. The corporate entity confers advantages and privileges that no person could ever attain, including essential immortality. Those advantages can be helpful for serving certain societal interests, but they are now the primary factor driving climate change and preventing us from dealing with it.
  3. The rules of Congress must be changed so that it may once again function as an arm of the people’s will rather than a party’s will.
  4. The international finance system, which drives the movement of money and capital all around the world, has to be stopped and re written, for this is the mechanism used by market players to punish countries and locales seeking to express their own sovereignty through democratic action. Without this change, democratic action will always turn a locale into a target for financial decimation.

All four of these deserve much more attention, but let me expand on two of them here. The deeper implications will be explored in additional posts to my blog.

First, the single most important challenge is how to stop the logic within the corporate entity itself. Corporations, by the very nature of their duties and responsibilities, enact a logic of wealth building, externalization of costs, and diminishment of community and environment. They do this not be choice, but because they have to according to the rules that govern them. Society has recognized this problem ever since it started regulating corporations against their worst abuses. As we have learned, however, trying to get corporations to change how they behave through outside regulation has proved to be ineffective at best, largely because the corporation has advantages that citizens have a very difficult time overcoming. As a result, the march goes on. First against indigenous cultures, then against the environment, and then labor, communities, and the environment again. The inherent logic of the corporate entity and its legal duties provide no consistent alternative.

It is a profound and empowering idea to realize that corporate charters are granted by us, not the other way around. We can revoke corporate charters. We can dissolve corporate structures. We can change the rules—duties, fiduciary responsibilities, offices, and so forth—which drive corporate behavior because those rules were created by us. We could hold them accountable to requirements other than wealth creation, and use the threat of dissolution to force compliance. After all, a corporation is nothing but a legal fiction, and the logic which drives them is baked into that fiction. If we change that fiction and how it is structured, we can change the logic.

Second, the US Congress must be made to put the people above party. The current rules were created by the House itself—there is nothing in the Constitution about a two party system. Yet the two party system has evolved into a “winner-take-all” system, which utterly disempowers the entire losing party. Hence, the House is run by a little more than half of the representatives that serve it, and this is the result of the “logic” of the House.

But what does this mean? First, the millions of people in this country who are represented by a person from the minority party might as well not be represented at all, whether they are Democrats, Republicans, or Independents. They have no real power to exert their interests because their representative is out of power. Whether they support the representative or not is irrelevant—they have no representative power. Call that 45-50% of the people in the country.

Second, another 45-50% of the remaining voting public, plus all the people who did not vote, in the districts of the majority party are also locked out of the discussion. Representatives claim a “mandate” based on the vote of roughly 25% of their constituents, and they do so in order to silence the call for representation.

Just as the corporate logic leads inevitably to our current conundrum, so the House logic leads to our current political disempowerment. “Throw the bums out,” never works because the problem is the logic, not the bums.

These are two examples to illustrate the kind of structural logic that must be changed. Klein’s desire to fight via Blockadia, indigenous logic, and green development are helpful beginnings. I hope these illustrations I have provided build on Klein’s base. For if we are to defeat climate change, we must be able to govern ourselves and to change the logic of a dysfunctional world which we have created.

In Conclusion: Handfuls of Nothing

As Klein makes clear in her book, the years ahead will be nothing if not fraught with these struggles. For many, they will be life and death struggles. But what makes this problem so difficult and so pernicious is that despite the mounting storms, extreme weather events, and rising sea levels driven by climate change, the real threat to civilization will not be characterized by death, destruction, and catastrophic images. Rather, it will be characterized by… nothing. The creation of nothing. Things, animals, and species will simply and quietly disappear.

Many years ago, Theo Colborn and co-authors pointed to this problem in their book Our Stolen Future. Back in the 1960s, rivers caught fire and whole lakes were dead. Colborn’s 1996 book pointed out a far more subtle problem—the increasing inability of species to reproduce. Klein points out that the real impact of oil spills like the Exxon Valdez are not captured in the immediate aftermath, but rather 4-5 years later, as when the herring fishery collapsed in Prince William Sound. It collapsed because the young fish born in those fouled waters came of age years later when they were of reproductive age. But as the fishermen discovered, the fish were not fertile, and they could not reproduce. To this day, they have not recovered. The same is happening in the Gulf of Mexico after the BP disaster there. While BP advertises a full recovery showing smiling people, this same quiet disappearance unfolds. As Klein described it, that left the Gulf Coast fishermen with “handfuls of nothing.”

For all the dramatic language around sea level rise and Superstorms, the real image wrought by climate change is likely that one: Handfuls of nothing. Herring on the Alaskan Coast or shrimp in the Gulf seem localized, and in their current intensity, they are. But climate change illustrates that our dirty, toxic methods are reaping global consequences. It will change everything.


Posted in Arguments with Books, Capitalism, Climate Change and tagged , , , , , .

Anthony Signorelli is the author of Speculations on Postcapitalism, and other books. They are available as Ebooks on Amazon:

The Postcapitalist Manifesto
Speculations on Postcapitalism Ebook
How to Find Your Purpose, Passion, and Bliss: A Mythological Guide for Young Men