Book Review: This Changes Everything, by Naomi Klein

I admittedly have a crush on Naomi Klein.

Well, This Changes Everything is excellent. That’s the gist of it. And I think everyone should read it.

I don’t feel like explaining the book or Klein’s arguments, because you should read and interpret them yourself. But, to sum up, she says that the societal changes we must undergo to address and mitigate climate change will create a more just and equitable society. Klein isn’t so much concerned with climate change itself as with its relationship to modern progressivism. I find it refreshing, since I have always been, and increasingly am, more skeptical of the philosophy that unfettered free market capitalism is Good and anything in the public sector is Bad.

My admiration for the book isn’t diminished by the one flaw I find with it, and the one that I’ve been struggling with professionally for a while: what is this zero-carbon world supposed to look like?

A friend of mine is a PhD student specializing in environmental communications. When I asked him if he knew of any books or resources that talked about what exactly we’re are trying to achieve, he said, “That’s a problem with the field: lots of critique with no vision of how to improve it.”

Before I started working for an conservation nonprofit, I was aware but didn’t particularly care about environmental issues. My roommate, Derek (the Viking), a botanist, and I had a conversation about Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael and how I didn’t like it because the book’s prescription sounds genocidal.

“Do you know the term ‘Carrying capacity?'” Derek asked. “It’s the maximum population size a given environment can sustain and the human population is way beyond it.”

I argued that Thomas Malthus predicted that the population couldn’t move past where it was in the 19th century, but never anticipated the tractor. Derek looked bewildered by this and now I understand why. Because we have thousands of years of innovation-saving-society scenarios to look at, it’s hard to imagine that we won’t invent our way out of the problem. But as soon as there is one catastrophic event that we can’t use brute intelligence to get out of, that’s it. That we, as a species, could be living on borrowed time and debt sounds absurd. But if you really think about it, assuming that some genius is going to save us all is pretty repellant, too (see, The Watchmen). In other words, it’s hubris, or, worse, a stupid acquiescence.

But the Malthusian thing still bothers me. If the situation is going to get as bad as the research indicates, how do we save seven billion people, let alone provide a just standard of living for them? Klein talks about it, but doesn’t offer any concrete advice, but mostly because the answer is: it’s complicated. Or, maybe, she does say what we need to do and it’s “that depends…”

The greatest obstacle to overcoming climate change is not technical, but conceptual. Just like the eponymous Ishmael explains, we need to see ourselves as part of the world, not masters of it. The world isn’t a resource, but a source. Everything that we take, we take from ourselves or future generations. Likewise for giving.

The reason this all interests me is that I work for an environmental nonprofit and am in communications. The environmental movement is in a bit of a predicament right now because we just fended off a concentrated attack from the denialist camp that eroded confidence in the science and we’re only starting to climb our way out of the post-2006 slump in public opinion. While most people are paying attention to the facts and are aware that we are in a serious situation, it’s still a low priority.

It’s just not fair.

When Fox News gets to say, every day, that the world is ending, people act. When environmentalists say the apocalypse is taking place right now, people shrug it off and say, “That’s just the price we pay.”

A lot has been written about this phenomenon, but I really do think that the problem is in the messaging. Progressives abhor hyperbole and are distrustful of Doom and Gloom. It doesn’t help that the language of science doesn’t really work in American political dialogue, because, in science, the data can always be re-interpreted and new theories could, and probably will, replace the old. Whenever something is asserted scientifically, it’s in the form, “The data indicates…” not “the data proves…”

The protagonist of Thank You for Smoking makes a similar point, that political power and public opinion follow the people who offer the least doubt and most confidence. Demagogues don’t have to prove that they’re right, just that we might be wrong. By offering the data with caveats, we’re winning the argument for our opponents.

The Left’s greatest weakness is one of it’s defining strengths: skepticism.  Progressivism is an agnostic political theory that can’t stand absolutes. What I’ve learned by reading Klein’s Shock Doctrine and This Changes Everything, is that the progressivist’s position is often portrayed by the reactionary as “absolute” when it is, in fact, not. It’s not communist, socialist, totalitarian, Nazi, or whatever else, to say our society should regulate the market and ensure a reasonable standard of living for even our poorest.

That’s what I really admire about Klein, that she takes a hard-line in a philosophy that prides itself on not being hard-line. Freedom and independence is good. But so is compassion, reciprocity, generosity, and duty toward the society that enabled us to thrive.

So, the book means a lot to me. I recommend it. Also, Greed Is Not Good.

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Filed under Nonprofiteers, Progress, Rant, Reading Recommendations, Review

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