"But you hate Naomi Klein!" my friend exclaimed, utterly shocked.
One hundred pages into Klein's latest book, This Changes Everything, I was completely hooked despite myself. Days later, after turning the final page, I regretted recommending it. Of course I didn't hate the author - but I sure hate that book.
The last thing mother earth needs right now are yogurt weaving earth mothers like Naomi Klein.
Which is a shame, because in the first hundred pages, Klein does a brilliant job.
"We know that if we continue on our current path of allowing emissions to rise year after year, climate change will change everything about our world," the introduction proclaims. "All we have to do is not react as if this is a full-blown crisis."
Klein provocatively but convincingly argues that the political right has a far better grasp of the magnitude of the climate challenge than those on the left: either we rapidly and fundamentally change the way the global economy works, or we will cause a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions.
American conservative's climate change denial is driven not by their ignorance, she claims, but by their acute awareness of the fundamental economic restructuring required to cut down carbon emissions enough to avert a worldwide catastrophe.
Klein goes on to connect some of the dots between capitalism and climate change, persuasively arguing that privatized power utilities and free trade agreements in particular can lock entire cities and even countries into high carbon pollution trajectories.
She mercilessly savages moderate environmental NGOs for accepting funding from major polluters and working with industry to pursue incremental approaches and technological fixes to an existential threat that requires, above all, one radical solution: leaving most of the world's known carbon reserves in the ground, forever.
And then Naomi Klein blows it.
For the next three hundred plus pages, she drags the reader along on a syrupy tour of the entire new age kitsch pantheon, from the "brave" climate warriors who chain themselves to bulldozers over "a lone Mi'kmaq mother kneeling in the middle of the highway before a line of riot police, holding up a single eagle feather" to the goat herding yogi who "can feel the earth breathe," before finishing up by literally dolloping out wisdom from her womb.
Having thus alienated mainstream readers - exactly the people the climate change movement most urgently needs to reach out to and bring on board - Klein then blocks meaningful debate among the already converted:
"Meeting science-based [carbon] targets will mean forcing some of the most profitable companies on the planet to forfeit trillions of dollars of future earnings by leaving the vast majority of fossil fuel reserves in the ground. It will also require coming up with trillions more to pay for zero-carbon, disaster-ready societal transformations... if climate justice carries the day, the economic costs to our elites will be real."
Get real, Ms. Klein.
Seen from a global carbon budget perspective, every person living in a developed country is a member of Naomi Klein's (conveniently undefined) "elites." Simply by living when and where we live, we are all stakeholders in Exxon Mobile, Shell and BP, like it or not - through the nice warm houses we live in and the cars we drive, through the cheap food we eat and the decent public services we enjoy.
And as long as 'we' keep consuming, 'they' will keep producing to meet our demand.
Let's briefly remember what happened when BP shares plunged after the U.S. pressed for massive compensation after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Suddenly, in the immediate aftermath of a highly publicized oil spill, top British politicians lined up to defend BP, severely straining transatlantic ties.
And they did so with public support. "One pound of every seven pounds of dividend income paid into our retirement funds came from BP's rich legacy of oil discoveries around the globe," the British Daily Mail helpfully reminded its readers. The effects of just one compensation claim, against one fossil fuel company, caused a democratic backlash.
Forget the Koch brothers. Big Bad Oil has three far more powerful supporters: You, Your Money & Your Vote.
To suggest, as Naomi Klein does, that all 'we' need to do is stand up to 'them,' force evil corporations to leave lots of carbon in the ground, strike a few zeros off some faceless billionaires' bank accounts to cover the bill, and then happily carry on living the good life is trite and, ultimately, dishonest.
"The value of the world's economy is based on stock portfolios that depend upon 2,795 gigatonnes of carbon from the proven oil, gas and coal reserves that haven't yet been burned. While these fossil fuels are still physically in the ground, economically they are above ground in the sense that they are reflected in share prices, collateral for company loans and national budget calculations. Those 2,795 gigatonnes of reserves have an estimated market value of 27 trillion US dollars, which means keeping to the 565 gigatonne carbon budget [needed to avoid catastrophic levels of warming] is tantamount to writing about $20 trillion off the value of the global economy, which - to put it mildly - is unlikely to happen. By way of comparison, the collapse of the sub-prime mortgage market (which triggered the last recession) only wiped out around $700 billion ($0.7 trillion) from the worldwide market."
That leaves us with three forms of climate change denial.
- The first, that climate change isn't happening, is dead.
- The second, that climate change is happening but won't be that bad, is dying fast.
Even the much-maligned cheerleaders of global capitalism at the World Bank now warn that "if the world warms by just 2°C (3.6°F) - warming which may be reached in 20 to 30 years - we could see widespread food shortages, unprecedented heat-waves, and more intense storms." Yes, the video below was produced by those evil bankers in Washington D.C.
The third form of climate change denial is the facile line peddled by Naomi Klein & Co.
It's the convenient and self-righteous fairy tale that a sinister capitalist cabal of corrupt politicians, shadowy lobbying groups, and Big Bad Oil are to blame for the current crisis, and that averting disaster is simply a matter of 'us' taking back control and forcing 'them' to pay the price for the necessary economic transition.
Capitalism versus Climate: Do we really need to choose?
Having seen communism with my own eyes before it collapsed (an extremely ugly sight), and having worked and conducted research in developing countries for years, I deeply appreciate the blessings of global capitalism, most of all the way in which it has enabled hundreds of millions of people to break out of desperate, heart-breaking, soul-crushing poverty.
Denying the benefits of global capitalism - warts and all - is every bit as idiotic as denying that climate change is happening.
The challenge we face now is twofold.
- First, we need to figure out how we can leave 20 trillion dollars' worth of carbon in the ground without ruining the global economy, putting out the lights and sending millions of people back into poverty.
- Second, we need to achieve broad-based support for this transition from voters and consumers, especially those in the developed world, as they will have to change their lifestyles and, make no mistakes, foot the biggest bill the world has ever seen.
But please, no more yogurt weaving earth mothers, and no more polar bears.
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