Among its many demonstrations, This Changes Everything, reveals how the grassroots anti-fracking movement is right where it should be—except for decades-old backroom deals between Big Green groups and the oil and gas industry that hold the movement down like a cartoon ball and chain.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
So, let me start again: You need to read Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything, which delivers a message so big that the title alone pushes both the author’s name and the subtitle (“Capitalism vs. the Climate”) right off the front cover.
All your friends and loved ones need to read the book, too, and that fact alone can end all further thinking about holiday gifts.
And if you live anywhere near Washington DC, you are lucky because those gifts can come as autographed copies. On Friday, Sept. 19, Klein is reading and signing at Sidwell Friends Meeting House as part of a book-launch event that is hosted by the inimitable Politics and Prose Bookstore and co-sponsored by Food & Water Watch and 350.org—both member organizations of Americans Against Fracking. [Full disclosure: I’m the science advisor for AAF.]
After she signs her last book, the author is heading to New York City for the People’s Climate March—presumably along with much of her audience, as next Sunday’s march for climate justice is on course to deliver an equally outsized and powerful message.
In other words, this is the book that speaks to our time.
Simply put, This Changes Everything is a literary enactment of the old adage that every crisis is an opportunity in disguise. For Klein, the crisis—and she rightly sees it as a moral one—is the ongoing destruction of our agriculture-enabling, freshwater-providing, weather-regulating, life-nurturing climate system, which is under attack by heat-trapping gasses that are the unpriced, unregulated, untaxed, unmonitored consequences of a global economic system that runs amok on fossil fuels.
(Amok—from the Malay language: sudden mass assault following a period of brooding; now more widely viewed as an episode of psychopathological behavior).
The opportunity is to remake that economic system, which, even before it went berserk on Earth’s climate, wasn’t really meeting human needs very efficiently or very equitably—for all the reasons Klein has explicated in her previous two best-selling books, No Logo and The Shock Doctrine.
(Berserk—from the Old Norse: bear-skin-clad warrior, frenzied by battle, who believes himself invulnerable; now more widely understood as crazed, reckless, defiant violence … that believes itself invulnerable.)
The best science available, says Klein correctly, shows that 80 percent of the world’s oil, gas and coal reserves need to stay in the ground for us to attain even a break-even chance of avoiding multiple planetary tipping points. These lie just ahead, like so many landmines that could, if triggered, blow us into uncharted, civilization-ending territory.
So, what about disciplining the current economic system until it becomes responsive to the findings of climate science? Sort of like … hmm … anger management counseling for pro-football players who punch out their women?
Answer: Such attempts invariably fail.
In chapter after chapter, Klein walks us, tour guide-style, through a veritable museum of these failures. The double-crossed U.S. Climate Action Partnership. The star-crossed 2009 UN Climate Summit in Copenhagen. The stultifying shell games of cap-and-trade. The bait-and-switch Pickens Plan. The abandoned Virgin Earth Challenge. The half-abandoned Kyoto Accord. And, my personal favorite: the Center for Sustainable Shale Development, which is the love child of the natural gas industry and the Environmental Defense Fund. (“The very name makes it clear that it will not be questioning whether ‘sustainable’ extraction of fossil fuels from shale is possible in the age of climate change.”)
The fundamental problem, Klein tells us right away, is this:
[W]e have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things conflict with deregulated capitalism … our economic system and our planetary system are now at war. Or, more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on Earth, including human life. What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature.
To put a finer point on the essential quarrel between the reigning economic ideology and the irreducible needs of the ecological world, Klein observes that the business model of the fossil fuel industry is predicated on burning five times more fossil fuels—all of it used as collateral with Wall Street—than our climate models tell us is compatible with a living planet.
To be sure, Naomi Klein is not the first to point all this out. Bill McKibben ran these numbers in his now iconic 2012 essay in Rolling Stone, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” And, in a larger way, environmental writers—Elizabeth Kolbert (Field Notes from a Catastrophe), and Dianne Dumonowski (The End of the Long Summer) are just two—have been thoughtfully exploring the collision between insatiable growth and finite resources since at least 1972 (Club of Rome, The Limits to Growth).
Indeed, the gap between how many tons of carbon we can still ignite without burning down our planetary house and how many tons the largest corporations in the world already have on their balance sheets as proven reserves against which they borrow, bet, stake their fiduciary responsibility to shareholders, and otherwise make the financial world go ‘round (the former would be “80 percent less than what we are burning now” and the latter, “a whole shitload more than that”) gave rise to the now-popular notion of stranded assets and carbon bubbles. The conversation around those topics animates the fossil fuel divestment campaign and did not start with Klein.
But at least two elements set Klein’s book apart and make it essential reading for all those new to these issues, as well as those of us who feel steeped in them already.
One is an uncanny sense of zeitgeist. Klein offers science, economic analysis and political solutions to climate change—and exposes false solutions for what they are—at just the moment when a mass climate justice movement is awakening and seeking just those things that she provides here. This Changes Everything is both a mirror of that movement and its midwife. Unlike so many other chroniclers of the climate crisis, Naomi Klein is not ahead of her time. And that’s a very good thing.
Second, Klein’s deft command of diverse material—from climate debt to austerity measures, from indigenous rights to corporatization of the Big Green groups, from geoengineering to impacts of oil spills on fertility, from the psychology of climate denial to the lessons of the abolitionist and civil rights movements—help reveal not only how entrenched and multi-causal the problem but also where lie possible and multiple points of intervention.
[Aside: you really need to read the chapter titled “Dimming the Sun.” Here, Klein reports on a meeting of elite engineers, during which men with PhDs seriously contemplate the pros and cons of shooting pollution into the stratosphere in order to dim the sun’s rays, along with other maneuvers—like dumping iron into the ocean to prompt plankton to absorb more carbon dioxide. Manipulating the global environment to make it less of a greenhouse is increasingly viewed in policy circles as a sensible workaround to abject lack of progress on the “just stop emitting greenhouse gases” front. Having myself heard an Environmental Protection Agency research scientist say just a few months ago, that geoengineering, rather than mitigation, was the focus of his own work now, I assure you that this is a real trending thing.]
Because climate change is revealed by Klein as the misbegotten monster of a flawed economic model, readers see how the climate movement can—and must—join forces with other wide-awake, already organized movements that also have a serious issue with globalized, boom and bust, water-destroying, air-polluting extractivist projects—along with the elected officials for which the fossil fuel industry serves as ventriloquist. Among them: indigenous nations, labor unions, faith communities, farmers and anti-poverty campaigns:
With many of the biggest pools of untapped carbon on lands controlled by some of the poorest people on the planet, and with emissions rising most rapidly in what were, until recently, some of the poorest parts of the world, there is simply no credible way forward that does not involve redressing the real roots of poverty.
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In other words, the path to get off carbon—which requires reinvesting in local economies, local infrastructure and public transportation; rebuilding democracy; creating sustainable jobs; curtailing corporate power; and recapitalizing rural America—also happens to be the way forward for income and racial equality. In Klein’s words, it’s the “unfinished business of liberation.”
That’s a convenient truth. And it’s meticulously footnoted.
Based on its commodious length and ambitious scope, it would be easy to call This Changes Everything a “sprawling” book. It’s not. It’s too smoothly designed and tightly drafted to sprawl. All its through-lines, sub-plots and thematic elements are finely woven. Indeed, each chapter deserves its own review.
Instead, I’ll circle back to where I began—to the ball and chain—and highlight the sections of the book devoted to fracking. These not only contain important reportage for those of us on the frontlines of this fight but are also among the best-written sections of the book.
The historical chapter called “Fruits not Roots” examines why and when many Big Green groups cozied up to natural gas and still, to this day, in spite of all manner of damning evidence, cannot issue a full-throated condemnation of fracking as villainous for the climate. The stage was set, says Klein, during the pro-corporate conversions of environmental groups and their supporting foundations during the 1980s. Market-based solutions and partnerships with industry groups, rather than lawsuits, bans and confrontations, became the favored strategies. Green groups began going after low-hanging fruits that offered winnable victories to show to funders—but no chance of actually solving the problem—rather than striking boldly at root causes.
Klein does not really examine how the gas industry began to market itself as the “white meat” of fossil fuels or what role the environmental community played in providing green cover for that narrative, but what she does make clear is the industry itself—in the early 1980s—came up with the metaphorical claim that gas was a “bridge” to a clean energy future, and, then, the mainstream environmental community, at the dawn of the Clinton years, began to echo that pitch.
Just how deep into the fossil fuel tank many Big Green groups plunged becomes clearer as Klein follows the money. The Nature Conservancy, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and Environmental Defense Fund are all selected out for mention here.
All together, This Changes Everything holds the Big Greens accountable for redirecting public attention away from the need for big, systemic change and toward lifestyle and consumer approaches to climate change—complete with on-line carbon calculators—that did little to actually lower emissions. What’s worse, this appeal to green shopping choices—
may have even played a role in weakening public belief in the reality of human-caused climate change. [Perhaps] because the ‘solutions’ to climate change proposed by many green groups in this period were so borderline frivolous, many people concluded that the groups must have been exaggerating the scale of the problem. After all, if climate change really was dire … wouldn’t the environmental movement be asking the public to do more than just switch brands of cleaning liquid …? Wouldn’t they be trying to shut down the fossil fuel companies?
The excerpt above will likely be flagged as one of the most controversial passages of the book: Klein lays the blame for widespread climate change denial at the feet of the environmental community!
But as a biologist and educator working actively on climate change during the 1990s, I think Klein is exactly right. I watched many readers and students first become deeply affected by the evidence for global warming and then retreat back into indifference once they realized it was only about light bulbs and carbon offsets for purchase after all. And backing up Klein and me both is the excellent 2007 book, Shopping Our Way to Safety, by sociologist Andrew Szasz, who demonstrates how a focus on shopping and self-protection actually undermines the goal of meaningful, systemic environmental reform.
To speak of undermining: to me, the most tragic tale told in This Changes Everything is concerns the devolution of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).
Taking up Rachel Carson’s unfinished work after her death from breast cancer, EDF began as a pugnacious “sue the bastards!” shop of the 1970s. Against all odds, and after years of uncompromising work—EDF succeeded in winning an enduring national ban—first on DDT and then on PCBs.
By contrast, in its current incarnation, EDF is as an open collaborator with the gas industry. Far from seeking to ban this carcinogenic, accident-prone industry, EDF and its allies have actively expanded its market.
In 2012, EDF shocked the fracking activist community by accepting from Bloomberg Philanthropies a grant of $6 million to advocate for model regulations for fracking (i.e. industry proposals dressed up in Sunday clothes), even though there is no scientific evidence to say that regulations can make fracking safe for people and the climate. Meanwhile, EDF undercuts the work of grassroots fracking abolitionists while professing to represent the reasonable environmental center.
More recently—and just in time for the People’s Climate March—EDF has clarified its position and its language. Fracking holds no hope for actually solving the climate crisis, blogged Mark Brownstein, EDF’s vice president and chief counsel, last week. And natural gas is not a bridge, it’s an exit ramp. But EDF remains realistic. It doesn’t see the oil and gas industry going away anytime soon. So, when in Rome:
Someone has to fight for those rules—and that’s what EDF is doing aggressively, every day. Sometimes that means sitting across the table from energy companies. And that kind of engagement wouldn’t be possible if we were simultaneously calling for bans and moratoria.
Seems to me that’s just the sort of rationalization Eldridge Cleaver had in mind when he intoned, “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.” (Do you agree, Naomi?)
Oh, hang in there a few more years, EDF, and watch your exit ramp become a boat launch.
I have just a few quarrels with This Changes Everything. I wish Klein had turned her formidable intellect on the fossil fuels that aren’t burned but rather become feedstocks for the petrochemical industry. What is the plan for our materials economy in a fossil fuel-free world? (Okay, I’ll take up that question and research it myself).
And I found myself wincing when she characterized grassroots activists as die-hard volunteers who pass the hat to raise cash. It’s so much harder than that. I work with people who have taken out second mortgages on their homes in order to fight fracking, who have cashed out their retirement, who have spent their kids’ college fund. If you want to hold press conference in Albany with a bunch of angry farmers, somebody has to charter the bus. Somebody lays their credit card down. I’ve been that person.
These are small complaints. This Changes Everything is a wonderful book narrated by a likeable, really smart and sometimes funny author who makes her readers feel smart, too. It provides us sufficient reasons for the imperative to recreate our economic world in ways that align it with our physical world and our only home. And, in broad strokes, it shows us how.
We have to do it right away, and all of us are required to help.
There is no guarantee it will work, but all the other alternatives are worse.
In the end, my reaction to this big book was not so unlike my reaction to the New York City subway system the first time I confronted it as a transplant from Peoria. “Wow.” I thought. “This is complicated. This is useful. This is scary. This is fantastic.”
(Fantastic—from the Greek: to imagine, to have a vision.)