Digging ourselves to death: a review of Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything

Tired of the supernatural hullaballoo towards the end of David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks, I walked into the local Barnes and Noble last week looking for something post-apocalyptic to read, and for some reason I bought Naomi Klein's This Changes Everything. I was a big fan of her 1999 No Logo, and I figured what might be more bleak fun to read than a book that relentlessly keeps its focus on climate change? I didn't expect to be held transfixed by her argument. I got into arguments with my colleagues about investing in Exxon-Mobil, and I was struck by the difference between their fatalism about the climate change crisis (what Bill McKibben calls "the overwhelming sense around the world [that] nothing will happen in time") and Klein's sense of hope about the issue. Another colleague pointed out that many of our planetary problems would be solved if half of the human population could magically disappear, but Klein barely touches on that kind of thinking. Her portrait of systemic environmental degradation, polluted skies, and rising levels of greenhouse gas emissions in the atmosphere consistently refuses to give in to despair, although she admits to feelings of "pre-loss" or the "morbid habit" of picturing a beautiful nature scene in front of her as already despoiled. Whether one agrees with her or not, Klein's book clarifies the issue of climate change and gives it a sense of immediate political and economic urgency. She posits that we can continue our current course of "climate-change-fueled disaster capitalism" until planet Earth cooks, or we will need to radically revisit all kinds of basic economic principles, political assumptions, and extractivist practices to keep the world temperature from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius over the next few decades. At times, This Changes Everything reads like a very real yet grim dystopian thriller in which the author refuses to give in to the expected unhappy ending.

One thing is certain: Klein's book has a clear villain--the oil companies. As she writes, "From the perspective of a fossil fuel company, going after these high-risk carbon deposits is not a matter of choice--it is its fiduciary responsibility to shareholders . . . yet fulfilling that fiduciary responsibility guarantees that the planet will cook" (148). Her observation had me wondering about how much do we individually and habitually consume petroleum-based products, and how easy would it be for anyone to switch over to only using renewable energy? When I get up in the morning, I drink coffee from Colombia, brush my teeth with a plastic toothbrush, drive to work in a car, work in air conditioning, eat food that has travelled great distances, buy a book, etc. The thought of how I might begin to cut back on this enhanced life style proves daunting given how just about every aspect of it ties in with the premise of having cheap abundant fossil fuel. Klein does include a chapter in her book entitled "Beyond Extractivism: Confronting the Climate Denier Within," but our way of life is so energy-intensive in the United States that it seems nearly impossible to fundamentally change that addiction within 30 years before nature finds another way to take care of the problem. The challenge seems so insurmountably great, Klein's solutions can take on a Pollyanna quality of dreamy wish-fulfillment. Klein anticipates that critique by reasserting that the climate allows us no choice but to think and act in radically different ways.

I especially liked Klein's history of the small island of Nauru, a cautionary tale that reads like Jared Diamond's description of Easter Island in his 2011 book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Once called Pleasant Isle, Nauru began as an beatific oasis of "coconut palms, tranquil beaches, and thatched huts" (162), but then colonizers started to "mine phosphate until the island was an empty shell" (163). One could then look upon its environmental degradation with "solastalgia" or "the homesickness you have when are still at home." Klein quotes Glenn Albrecht's claim that this solastalgia has become a feeling that we all increasingly share: "A feeling of global dread asserts itself as the planet heats and our climate gets more hostile and unpredictable" (165).

As time went on and the surrounding ocean continued to rise, Nauru became menaced both within and without, threatened both by floods and mining. As Klein writes, "In a 2007 cable about Nauru made public by Wikileaks, an unnamed U.S. official summed up his government analysis of what went wrong on the island: 'Nauru simply spent extravagantly, never worrying about tomorrow.' Fair enough, but that diagnosis is hardly unique to Nauru; our entire culture is extravagantly drawing down finite resources, never worrying about tomorrow. For a couple of hundred years we have been telling ourselves that we can dig the midnight black remains of other life forms out of the bowels of the earth, burn them in massive quantities, and that the airborne particles and gases released into the atmosphere--because we can't see them--will have no effect whatsoever. Or if they do, we humans, brilliant as we are, will just invent our way out of whatever mess we have made."

"And we tell ourselves all kinds of similarly implausible no-consequences stories all of the time, about how we can ravage the world and suffer no adverse effects. Indeed we are always surprised when it works out otherwise. We extract and do not replenish and wonder why the fish have disappeared and the soil requires ever more 'inputs' (like phosphate) to stay fertile. We occupy countries and arm their militias and then wonder why they hate us. We drive down wages, ship jobs overseas, destroy worker protections, hollow out local economies, then wonder why people can't afford to shop as much as they used to. We offer those failed shoppers subprime mortgages instead of steady jobs and then wonder why no one foresaw that a system built on bad debts would collapse."

"At every stage our actions are marked by a lack of respect for the powers we are unleashing--a certainty, or at least a hope, that the nature we have turned to garbage, and the people we have treated like garbage, will not come back to haunt us" (165-6). As Klein concludes, "In other words, Nauru isn't the only one digging itself to death; we all are" (168).

Overall, This Changes Everything exudes a sense of cosmic payback, a drama of damnation that could punish us all just as the rich living in China cannot elude their polluted air. Today, in New York City, and across the world, people are marching in the People's Climate March. Having studied the topic of climate change for the past 10 years, Klein has some thoughtful, at-times radical ideas as to how to solve it. A very good reason to read her book.

Related links:

---"the evolution of the 'climate change' film"

---Klein's "Climate Change Is a People's Shock"

---Leonardo DiCaprio's UN Climate Summit speech

---Klein on the "greenwashing" of big business

---"At the moment, the overwhelming sense around the world is nothing will happen in time. That's on the verge of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy – indeed, as I've written in these pages, it's very clear that the fossil-fuel industry has five times as much carbon in its reserves as it would take to break the planet. On current trajectories, the industry will burn it, and governments will make only small whimpering noises about changing the speed at which it happens. A loud movement – one that gives our 'leaders' permission to actually lead, and then scares them into doing so – is the only hope of upending that prophecy."  --from "A Call to Arms: An Invitation to Demand Action on Climate Change" by Bill McKibben

---What's Possible

---"I was never really a marcher." --Naomi Klein