This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate (and Naomi Klein vs. Science)

This Changes Everything is a strange book. I agree with its central premise. Capitalism is a fundamentally flawed ideology, that, unchecked, has the capacity to cause untold social and ecological destruction. Within the bounds of the market, there are no mechanisms suitable to address climate change. The energy corporations responsible for pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere aren’t sensitive to the prospect of rising sea levels, more severe fire seasons, long-term drought, or more frequent and intense natural disasters. They might contain people who recognize these problems, but the ultimate arbiter of their decisions is short-term profit accumulation. Suddenly developing a social and ecological conscience – and acting accordingly – would be economic suicide. Corporations that remained responsive to the interests of shareholders would swiftly swoop in and happily gobble up the share of the energy market abandoned by their more environmentally friendly competitors.

Much has been made of finding market-friendly solutions to climate change. The idea that corporations that make billions off the extraction and production of hydrocarbons will somehow responsibly and organically respond to social and ecological threat of climate change is pure fantasy. There’s too much inertia in their current mode of production, and too little incentive for them to change it. Indeed, as Klein reports, some fossil fuels giants have tens of billions of dollars invested in future extraction initiatives. Shifting away from burning hydrocarbons would entail huge immediate blows to their bottom line.  Which brings us to Klein’s central thesis: while the burning of fossil fuels is directly linked to the increases in atmospheric carbon heating the planet, the final and ultimate cause of climate change is the profit motive and the haphazard paths followed in pursuit thereof. In this regard, Naomi Klein makes a pretty good case.

Klein’s critique of capitalism is bold and refreshing. Interestingly, it’s a point the fossil fuel industry’s most zealous advocates had seized upon well before the terms “global warming” and “climate change” had entered the popular vernacular or become the focus of intense, widespread public scrutiny. Klein reports on conferences held by organization like the the Heartland Institute and Heritage Foundation where attendees issued dire prognostications about the social, political, and economic implications of climate change. Not in terms of the direct ramifications of large-scale environmental change, mind you, but in terms of the large-scale social planning that will inevitably be needed to address them. Surprisingly often, people at these conferences accepted the reality of climate change. Many had even made peace with humanity’s role in causing it. Their concern was not whether climate change was real or not. It was if and how the reality of climate change might redefine the social order, undermining decades of neoliberal policy and the ceaseless march of privatization and deregulation. In short, they were concerned that a public tuned-in to the threats posed by a changing climate could begin to use their influence as voters to exert control over the behavior of markets – via the intermediary control of representative governance. In other words, they recognized that addressing climate change demands top-down intervention – i.e. socialism.

It’s hard to overstate the perversity and cynicism of this outlook. Recognizing that unregulated energy markets contain no mechanism for responding to the social and ecological toll exacted by a changing climate, these people are more concerned with protecting their bank accounts than working to ensure the wellbeing of future generations.

Of course, one could go too far in tarring the intentions and motivations of people so concerned about the threat of democratic socialism that they are willing to openly deceive the public about the risks associated with a changing climate. These people are unbridled greed-heads, to be sure. But deeper down, they’re also true believers, possessed of such desperate, unwavering faith in the wisdom of the invisible hand that they are willing to ride full-bore into the maw of ecological chaos, confident that, in the end, the market will provide.

It was once well-understood and widely accepted that there were bound to be economic transactions that involved variables and produced outcomes that couldn’t be accounted for in the price of goods. Recognizing the potential for markets to accumulate unforeseen costs and produce unpredicted benefits, economists advocated the use of taxes and subsidies, facultatively increasing the price of goods that are ecologically or socially harmful, reducing the prices of those that engender surprising benefits. Economists modelled markets as if they were comprised of perfectly rational, infinitely selfish, all-knowing agents as a matter of mathematical convenience. For simplicity, theorists conceived of transactions as instantaneous auctions, wherein everyone knew all the relevant information – including all the potential downstream costs and benefits, however distantly realized – and were entirely open about their values and motivations. Everyone knew everything they needed to know and no one tried to deceive anyone.

Somewhere along the line, this thinking leaped off the rails, and the market principles espoused and enumerated by the likes Smith, Pareto, Walras, Keynes, and Hayek morphed into an ideological religion. Enough people indifferent to nuance and obsessed with the myth of the self-made man read Hayek and Friedman – filtering their works through a hazy lens of Ayn Rand – that market liberalization became a religious crusade. They began to take the simplifying assumptions of economists too seriously. Instead of treating them like normative prescriptions for how things would work in perfect world, they began to treat them like divine ordinances about how things should work in the real world. Market fundamentalists and their allies have since made it their mission to shape the world into an Eden of free, unmitigated exchange – a perfect paradise for the idealized creatures of economic theory. Sadly, this is about as reasonable as setting up a game preserve for unicorns.

Their vision of utopia is one entirely divorced from the realities of human behavior and the natural world from which it emerged. In this vein, market fundamentalists have come to mirror the hardline communists ideologues the United States fought a nearly five decade cold war – punctuated here and there by intense moments of southeast Asian or central American heat – against. They’re so enamored of a romanticized ideology that they’ve been rendered blind to the unburnished strictures of reality. Decades of work in behavioral economics, psychology, sociology, and anthropology have revealed evidence that humans are irrational, myopic, parochial, tribal creatures, riddled with internal contradictions, from an awe-inspiring capacity for altruism and selflessness to a sickening taste for self-indulgence and materialism. The governing tenets of normative theories of economics have been repeatedly proven to be false. They make the modelling simpler, but lose descriptive fidelity with reality in the process.

When it comes to their personal fortunes, the people placing such fevered conviction in the benevolent providence of markets probably aren’t wrong. For them, the market will provide – at least for the time being. Incredibly wealthy and politically influential, they’ve got what it takes to ride out whatever storms (both literal and metaphorical) anthropogenic climate change might throw their way. Some of them will even likely make a tidy profit doing so. Already a market has emerged for in the insurance sector for companies interested in buffering themselves against the potential costs and disruptions that are bound to come with a changing climate. Climate change is the perfect storm for disaster capitalism (which Klein has written about elsewhere), opening the door for people to make millions off the suffering of others.

For those unfortunate enough to occupy rungs farther down the economic ladder, outlooks are considerably more grim. Market fundamentalists and their cronies in various world governments have placed so much rabid faith in the wisdom of the market that they are unwilling to budge an inch from the territory they’ve staked out on the frontiers of ideological fanaticism. Their belief that a market, sensitive only to the feedback of profits lost and profits gained, will always provide the best possible outcome for the most possible people has no more basis in reality than Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels’ visions of communist utopia. The men who flew a Boeing 767 into the South Tower of the World Trade Center had just a much justification for their belief that they’d be greeted in the afterlife by 72 virgins as a man like Ted Cruz does for his belief that a market entirely unleashed from the shackles of government oversight and regulation will maximize human flourishing.

Even without the looming specter of climate change, the idea that wholesale privatization and deregulation will benefit anyone outside a small minority of wealthy elites is difficult – if not fundamentally impossible – to justify. Markets simply don’t have the ingredients necessary to set prices that account for all the potential costs and benefits that come with production and consumption. Nor is there a compelling argument to made that, were prices thus set, humans would respond to them in a way consistent with their own long-term best interests. This crude reality alone should be sufficient to derail campaigns for endless market liberalization. Unfortunately, the zealots have sunk their claws so deep into the fabric of modern society that the precepts of unmitigated capitalism are treated like features of the divine order of the cosmos, built and bred into the marrow of social, political, and economic institutions the world over.

Now, as humanity has finally become sensitive to the full range of costs associated with centuries of barrelling growth and consumption, the need to overturn this fanaticism has grown more urgent than ever. This Changes Everything’s greatest strength is the force and clarity with which Klein makes this point, supporting it with detailed reporting and mountains of evidence.

Yet, for a book with such a compelling central thread, I was surprised by how frequently I found myself disagreeing with the author. Klein consistently evokes apocalyptic language, writing of human extinction and the habitability of the planet earth as if either is actually at stake. Climate change could spell untold human suffering and ecological devastation, but it’s very unlikely to drive the human species to extinction. Likewise, she romanticizes the primitive past and indigenous lifeways, treating pre-industrial societies like expert conservationists, living in perfect, blissful, harmony with the earth. Based on available archaeological evidence, this view is naive at best. Globalization is painted as a ubiquitous evil – never mind the fact that, inasmuch as it has contributed to climate change, it has also raised billions of people out of crushing poverty and perpetual hunger. Her treatment of GMOs, geoengineering, and nuclear power evinces a relationship to science that is more a matter of ideological opportunism than a devotion to reason and evidence.

Each of these points is worth addressing, because each entails a breed of error that does much to undermine the strength of Klein’s larger argument.

First, there’s the issue of human extinction. Klein oft references the final end of the human species, written in some onrushing future by the blind avarice and indulgence of past and present generations. Perhaps she’s being deliberately hyperbolic, but I don’t see how that level of exaggeration and emotionalism serves her point. It is disturbingly likely that the drought, biodiversity loss, superstorms, ocean acidification and sea level rise caused by unmitigated climate change could unleash a cascade of escalating disasters, each one feeding into the next, locking humanity into an endless, frantic cycle of catch-up. Klein is savvy enough to recognize how these crises will be handled within the logic of the market – profiteering and exploitation will run rampant, as a small minority reaps enormous benefits from the misery of everyone else.

Yet it is exceedingly unlikely that climate change will cause the extinction of Homo sapiens. This isn’t really much of a ray of hope – it’s entirely plausible that the compounding cycles of disaster released in the wake of worst-case-scenario climate change could reduce the human population to scattered bands living on the fringes of the high arctic, scavenging rancid scraps from the shores of poisoned seas and eating one another to survive. More probable scenarios – mass human displacement, massive social and economic inequality, bloody conflicts over bread and water, the emergence of hardcore corporate feudalism – aren’t much more appealing. But short of making the planet earth literally uninhabitable to our kind of organism (which it seems very unlikely to do) climate change will not drive humans extinct. Our facility with social learning, coupled with our capacity to store and transmit cultural knowledge from generation to generation, make us one of the most adaptable organisms to have ever existed. You’d have to look to tardigrades (water bears) or certain strains of fast-adapting bacteria for a more resilient species.

As with her dire prognostications, Klein’s approach to primitive and/or indigenous lifeways leaves much to be desired. She readily and consistently falls into Rousseau’s old trap, speaking wistfully, if not explicitly, of the wisdom and probity of the “noble savage”. There’s a sort of magnanimous racism to this kind of thinking, which I’m sure anyone given to it would be damn quick to deny. It suggests there’s something fundamentally different about “primitive” peoples, something that makes them more finely tuned to nature and equality than the rapacious scalawags that spilled out of Western Europe and the Mediterranean. This is pure rubbish. In terms of behavior, the only meaningful difference betweens industrial and pre-industrial peoples are cultural. It just so happens that Europeans happened to have inherited and modified innovations in agriculture, animal husbandry, food production, preservation, and storage – significantly conditioned by ecological happenstance – that facilitated massive population increases. Later, they became widely infected by the ideological prescription that material surplus and increase were desirable above all else.

The exact processes that led to this have been dealt with extensively. I won’t dwell on them here. Instead, suffice it to say that the concept of primitive utopia that emerged in the 19th century – persisting, in various forms, to muddy the thinking of an otherwise intelligent author in the first decades of the 21st – is a rosy-eyed fiction. Primitive societies often give credence to the Hobbesian diagnosis of a life that was “nasty, brutish, and short”. Rates of interpersonal violence are higher. Infanticide is commonplace. People die preventable deaths from injury and disease and animal attack. And, more to the precise point of Klein’s romanticism, they are hardly conservationists. Strong evidence indicates that the first Americans had a major role to play in the extinction of the North American megafauna – mammoths, saber-toothed cats, short-faced bears, giant bisons and ground sloths. In Australia, the first humans played a role in the eradication of a menagerie of bizarre giants – marsupials the size of hippos, carnivorous kangaroos, and an eight foot long tortoise, among others. In New Zealand, the Maori drove the giant moa to extinction. More prosaically, the archaeological record implicates humans in a number of resource depressions, extinctions, and extirpations. By around 1500 years ago, California hunter-gatherers around the Sacramento Valley had significantly reduced deer and elk populations. The earliest inhabitants of Easter Island introduced invasive species and over-exploited local resources, destroying the local ecology. My own research reveals a series of local depressions in steller sea lion populations in the seas around Sanak Island off the Alaska Peninsula – well before the arrival of Russian sailors – caused at least in part by human hunting.

Humans are humans, gifted with the same level of foresight, cursed with the same level of myopia, wherever they live. The idea that there has ever been, anywhere, a perfect relationship between humanity and nature (or even a clear demarcation between the two) is a point of hopeful fiction. The places where superficial appearances are otherwise relate not to the pure, uncorrupted conservationist ethos of indigenous peoples, but to a lack of technology or a sufficient resource base to sustain long-term population growth.

Globalization is a trickier beast. Free trade agreements have been disparaged across the political spectrum, often due to their perceived role in job loss. Because they make it easier for companies to outsource work to wherever they can find the cheapest employees, free trade agreements are often implicated in the decline in the availability of local manufacturing jobs. There is some truth to this – free trade agreements have resulted in job loss – but the larger reality is that, in the United States, most of the manufacturing jobs lost in recent years have gone to robots, not foreigners.

More insidiously, globalized commerce tends to increase the carbon footprint of economic endeavors and undermine localized efforts at political self-determination. As Klein notes, an increasingly globalized economy depends on the transportation of goods over longer and longer distances. This inherently entails pumping more carbon into the atmosphere, as cargo planes circle the globe and massive container ships drive through the oceans. Not only does this intensify and accelerate climate change, it also distances consumers from the direct ecological costs of their economic decisions. The already frail and unreliable tools consumers might have available to punish a local factory for producing goods in a way that damages local water and air supplies are entirely extinguished when the poisoned water and smoggy air are thousands of miles away. Throw in an international court system that allows foreign polluters to sue local governments for establishing regulations that favor cleaner businesses closer to home and the prospect for constructing sustainable, environmentally conscious markets look incredibly dim.

Klein’s solution is to refocus economies on a local level. This is all well and good, but it ignores the ways in which people in the developing world have benefitted from globalized trade. Certainly something must be done – urgently – to address the ecological costs of international commerce, but it shouldn’t be done at the cost of throwing billions of people back into poverty. Localized trade is generally a good idea: it lowers the carbon footprint of economic transactions and puts people in direct contact with the consequences of their economic behavior. But in finding a way to realize those benefits in local communities, it’s essential that we don’t fall into the trap of placing a higher premium on local lives simply as a consequence of proximity. The people who have been lifted out of poverty by global trade matter too – let’s find a way to limit the harm produced by a globalized economy without eliminating its benefits.

Which brings to my final major criticism: Klein’s selective science-phobia. She has a wealth of praise for solar and wind technology, but every other potential energy source is either greeted with the wary eye of a hardened Luddite or outright dismissed as too scary or too tainted by corporate greed to be a feasible alternative to fossil fuels. In my view, the best solutions to some of the environmental problems posed by global trade are technological. Let’s not do away with international commerce because of its large carbon footprint. Instead, let’s just do away with the large carbon footprint and power humanity’s aerial, terrestrial, and aquatic shipping fleets with clean fuels. This, of course, involves developing more and more efficient means of converting solar energy into electricity and inventing more efficient and resilient storage techniques (i.e. better batteries) – both realistic, if unrealized, prospects. It might be the science fiction enthusiast in me, but I have a hard time swallowing the argument that the solution to any of our problems will somehow involve less technology and innovation.

Klein seems to have a narrow and rigid list of technologies she considers worthy of approbation. Ubiquitously, they are those technologies that are perceived to make the most unobtrusive use of existing natural resources: wind and solar power. I don’t disagree with her that these are technologies that should be pursued with vigor. Especially not when it comes to solar power. Rather, my point of contention is with her ideologically defined disregard for any technology that involves manipulating the natural world in ways that might be trespass some vague bound of permissible use.

The most glaring example is nuclear power, which Klein brings up and dismisses repeatedly without offering any solid justifications for doing so. As near as I can tell, her concerns boil down to the fact that nuclear power seems scary, representing as it does a distillation of man’s abusive dominion and exploitation of the natural world. There seems to be an arbitrary boundary between good innovation – where humans create novel materials and systems to harness solar energy – and bad innovation – where humans create novel materials and systems to harness the energy of nuclear fission. Probably this has a lot to do with the relationship between nuclear power and nuclear weapons, in addition to the looming specter of disasters like Fukushima and Chernobyl.

Nuclear power, however, is safe. Since its invention, nuclear power has been linked to 300 deaths worldwide (and that’s a rather generous estimate). Over the same period (starting with Fermi’s discovery in 1934) coal mining has been the direct cause of 29,949 deaths in the United States alone. Globally, the count is surely much higher. The generation of energy from coal has killed 100 times more people in the United States than the generation of nuclear power has killed in the entire world.* Obviously, this doesn’t even begin to account for the colossal environmental costs of coal – even if we were to stop mining and burning coal tomorrow, the environmental toll would still be counted for generations to come.

The idea that we should dismiss nuclear power because of a few frightening accidents is patently absurd, especially when one considers the fact that technology already exists to build reactors that are inherently safe. In the 1970s, 80, and early 90s researchers at the Argonne National Laboratory developed and tested the integral fast reactor (IFR) – a reactor made safe by the very physics upon which it operates. The IFR was tested, simulating loss of coolant flow (the problem at Fukushima) and all normal shutdown options: it shut itself down, proving itself a meltdown-proof reactor.

Klein, I’m sure, would be quick to point out that there are additional hazards associated with an IFR. Some of its constituents – like liquid sodium – are inherently dangerous. Though the IFR produces less waste, it still comes with attendant waste disposal problems. These are real concerns, but they aren’t cause for a wholesale abandonment of nuclear energy. They should motivate further research, not outright dismissal. The raw reality is that every technology comes with its share of problems. Windmills kill bats and produce vibrations that disturb burrowing animals and subterranean communities. Solar photovoltaics are often produced using heavy metals like cadmium, which have the potential to accumulate in food chains. There are no perfect solutions. And, often enough, the only way to find out how good a solution is and what costs it carries is to try it out.

This is precisely the reason why I don’t see the use in taking large-scale geoengineering options entirely off the table. Researchers have dubbed these the Pinatubo Option, after a volcanic eruption that laid the seed for thinking about climate change in terms of solar radiation management (SRM). The basic idea is to ameliorate the effects of harmful greenhouse gases by pumping aerosols like sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to cut down on the amount of solar radiation (i.e. sunlight) that reaches the earth’s surface. These are clearly last-case scenario options, but the idea that they should be automatically shunted into the intellectual dustbin because they come with a fog of unknowns – some of them likely dangerous – is truly strange.

In general, Klein is eager to steer the safest possible route, both ideologically and environmentally, eschewing all but the most well-established green technologies. Investments in nuclear power and geoengineering are risky, and therefore anathema. I used to be sympathetic to that kind of thinking – less and less so, as I grow and learn. The fact of the matter is that all human progress entails some amount of risk and uncertainty. Dealing with that fundamental fact is the flat fee that comes with living in a dynamic, vibrant society that values curiosity and exploration.

The puzzling thing about This Changes Everything is that it can simultaneously be such an incredibly forceful, scrupulously sourced argument against the perilous excesses of unrestrained capitalism and so gravely misguided when it touches on issues of human nature and the power of innovation. In the final analysis, Klein’s book is as much an ideological screed as it is a cold assessment of the facts. She meets the barking madness of free market fundamentalists with an ideological fervor redeemed only by the fact that it currently aligns with humanity’s best interests. This, of course, makes her an ally – not only to progressives, but to all humanity. She’s not wrong: capitalism, left unchecked, will devour the world.

Klein fetisizes indigenous lifestyles, exaggerating their cultural commitment to sustainability and regeneration. Low impact living is a natural outworking of forager lifestyles, not an internalized ideological commitment to perpetual balance. At the same time, she casts the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolution as Icarian follies – humanity learned too much, too fast, hungrily consuming the world’s resources in callous indifference to the potential consequences. Certainly it’s true that the fruits of the Enlightenment/Scientific/Industrial revolution have poisoned the natural world. That point is virtually inarguable. But the endless cycles of discovery, criticism, debate, and revolution they set in place are also responsible for every good thing in existence. The notion of individual human rights was an Enlightenment invention. Thanks to science, we now have treatments or cures for hundreds of terrible diseases. Our very understanding of the natural world – including the ways in which we’ve harmed it and the ways to cease doing so – are due to the scientific revolution. Klein’s most cherished ideal – sustainability – is a modern invention. It’s not a vestige of the primitive past, but a modern discovery.

Climate change is a problem. As are the underlying patterns of production and consumption. More fundamentally, the driving ethos of the industrialized West – that markets, unleashed, are pristine, unimpeachable optimality engines, spelling the best lives for the most possible people anywhere and everywhere they reach – is not only blatantly fallacious, it’s wantonly destructive. Markets are very good at some things (e.g., stimulating innovation) and very bad at others (e.g., adapting to variables that can’t be accounted for in price, or basically anything that requires even a modicum foresight about the social or environmental implications of market behavior). For those of us willing to accept this rudimentary truth, the necessity of top-down – yes, that is, socialist – intervention is obvious. This isn’t a matter of surrendering to a colorless dystopia of central-planning. It means whipping the dusty, tattered, rapidly decaying tools of representative government into shape and using them to assert our will in systems that are otherwise beyond our control.

This really isn’t a radical proposition. Within the confines of the market, few of us have the capital necessary to exert meaningful influence over the behavior of giants like Exxon and BP, but all of us will be affected by the environmental consequences of their business model. Using our powers as voters and citizens (diminished – and diminishing – though they may be) is the only viable option left to us. That’s why the efforts of the protestors at places like Standing Rock are so important. Civil disobedience is rapidly becoming our last line of defense against an economic system hell bent on devouring the world.

Nowhere in this recognition is there an obvious repudiation of the larger framework of values and methods that emerged out of the Enlightenment and Scientific Revolutions. There’s no denying that they gave us the coal-fired steam and gas fueled internal combustion engines whose exhaust is currently warming the planet. But there’s also no denying that, inasmuch scientific discovery has the power to doom us, it is also true that it is the only thing that can save us. Modernity comes with its own litany of woes. It also comes with a wealth of invisible comforts that make life today better than life at literally any other time in human history. Fewer people live in poverty or die preventable deaths. The attendant ecological problems are real and in urgent need of redress. In no way is that a matter of trading one delusional ideology for another. The truth is much deeper and far more difficult to master: there are no perfect solutions. Utopia is an illusion. It has not and will never exist. But progress is real. It’s just riddled with error and struggle, giving way to faltering improvements – each new order better than the last, but still flawed and ripe for replacement.

Such is the case with the mythological market of the rational, all-knowing, self-made man. It has its merits. Hard work and self-determination are great. Competition is a powerful engine of innovation. A market wound-up and left to its own devices is a blind behemoth. Let’s use the tools of scientific discovery and representative government to give it a little discipline and foresight.

* It might be contended that these numbers aren’t fair. More people have worked in coal than in nuclear power, so obviously more people have died in the former than the latter. I considered this, and tried to calculate per capita fatalities. Unfortunately, good labor statistics for the nuclear sector are notoriously difficult to find. That said, I gave it my best shot. Between 1934 and 2015, 1 in every 680 coal workers in the United States died of job-related illness or injury. Grossly underestimating the number of nuclear power workers (assuming that no one has ever worked in nuclear before 2015 and using the Nuclear Energy Institute’s best workforce estimates), nuclear power related injuries and illnesses in the United States have claimed the lives of 1 in every 11,111 employees. Coal has gotten safer over time. In 2015, just 1 in every 8,567 workers died. The same is true of nuclear, however: in the same year, 0 of an estimated 100,000 nuclear workers died.

God these things are long…

Here’s the book. Criticism withstanding, it’s well worth a read.


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