December 2014 – January 2015

Arts & Letters

Wilful blindness

By Robert Manne
A climate-change protest in Sydney, November 2014. © Jeff Tan / AAP
Naomi Klein’s ‘This Changes Everything’

There is nothing in history even remotely as momentous as what humankind is now doing in full knowledge of the facts – gradually destroying the habitability of large parts of the Earth for humans and other species by burning fossil fuels in ever-increasing quantities to meet our ever-increasing energy needs. Judging by present behaviour, our generation, while living in unprecedented material comfort, is leaving the task of adapting to an Earth four or six degrees hotter than the one that existed before the industrial revolution to the generations yet unborn. If nothing changes, our legacy will be a world of rising sea levels, droughts, floods, famines, furious heatwaves; of disappearing glaciers, coral reefs and tropical forests; of acidic oceans and mass extinctions. Unless it turns out, through a miracle, that virtually the entire cadre of the world’s scientists who work in the area of climate are fundamentally wrong, the only people these future generations will be able to look upon with respect are those who saw the monstrousness of what we were doing and who gave their lives to the climate cause. One such is the Canadian leftist, Naomi Klein, the author of This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the climate (Allen Lane; $29.99).

Klein has two main explanations for humankind’s dispiriting behaviour. The narrower she calls “bad timing”. It wasn’t until the 1980s that climate scientists were reaching a consensual conclusion about the consequence of powering our economies by burning the fossil fuels that had lain under the Earth’s surface for hundreds of millions of years. But it was also only in the 1980s that neoliberalism, the ideology that made the contemporary world – inspired by the writings of Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman and Ayn Rand, and spread by a cluster of big business–financed, private enterprise “think tanks” – had thoroughly displaced the world view dominant since World War Two, Keynesian social democracy. In the English-speaking world especially but also beyond, neoliberalism convinced the new elites of business, politics and bureaucracy of the damage done by government intervention in the economy and of the virtues of deregulation, privatisation and lower tax. Simultaneously it favoured the interests of the elites, the so-called 1%, and inhibited states from taking the kind of radical interventionist action – which Klein describes as the Manhattan Project of the Earth – that was vital if the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy was to take place with the speed the climate crisis required.

Klein concedes that, at present, the climate-change denialists are winning. The media has lost interest in climate change. Polls show that it is the lowest political priority among Americans. Accordingly, Klein begins her book with a visit to the most extreme outpost of the current camp of victory – the Heartland Institute. Their wilful blindness regarding the threat we are facing and their theories about the world conspiracy of governments and scientists are risible and contemptible. But on one thing, she argues, they are right: preserving an Earth fit for human beings will require revolutionary change of the kind Heartland most fears. The neoliberal world view will have to be discredited and replaced by something that licenses state action and imagines human motivation as nobler than individual self-gratification. Many practices of unfettered contemporary capitalism, especially among the fossil-fuel corporations, will have to be confronted and prohibited.

Unfortunately, however, as Klein understands – and in some tension with her first line of argument – the cause of the crisis we now face is grounded in something deeper than bad timing: the kind of exploitative relationship to the Earth that has held dominion in the West since the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution. In the realm of ideas, this relationship began with Francis Bacon’s praise for humankind’s capacity to master nature. In the realm of the material, it began with James Watt’s coal-powered steam engine. Klein calls the philosophy and practice that emerged from the conjunction of these two developments “extractivism”. As she argues, if a human-friendly Earth is to survive, we must not only discard neoliberalism and transform the predatory practices of contemporary capitalism but also re-imagine our relationship to the Earth.

Sometimes Klein can make the task before us seem relatively simple. At one point she tells us that all that is required is to return our consumption levels to those that prevailed during the 1970s. At another, she takes comfort from what the less thoroughly neoliberal Western societies have already achieved, like the progress made by renewable energy in Germany (despite its disconcerting recent turn from nuclear power to coal) or the prominence of wind power in Denmark. But more realistically, in general she is willing to admit that what we now must do is more daunting and difficult than anything humankind has ever had to achieve.

Like many revolutionary thinkers, Klein directs at least as much animus towards moderates in her own camp as she does towards its formal enemies. She is particularly harsh in her condemnation of the “Big Green” environmentalists who made an accommodation with neoliberalism through their search for market solutions to the climate-change crisis. Fred Krupp’s US Environmental Defense Fund has championed the idea of “cap and trade” since the 1980s. In Klein’s view, Krupp’s willingness to compromise with the fossil-fuel corporations rendered the bill he managed eventually to get to Congress entirely meaningless. Accordingly, she sees the death of the proposed American emissions trading scheme in 2010 as a bullet dodged rather than as a promise unfulfilled.

Big Green’s failure in Klein’s eyes is to think that the solution to the crisis can be found without truly fundamental socio-economic change. Nor is she more sympathetic to the technologically inclined climate-change environmentalists, whose house philosopher, Bruno Latour, claims we have misread the story of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and that, rather than entertaining an illusory hope of a return to nature, we must embrace ever more technology and learn “to love our monsters”. (There is some confusion in the argument here. The renewable-energy solutions Klein favours are only feasible because of advanced technology.)

Still less is Klein tempted by the promise of the geo-engineers who, despairing of the possibility that humans will ever abandon fossil fuels, have dreamt up several fantastical schemes, like injecting sulphur particles into the atmosphere in order to dim the sun. She tells us of a visit to a conference of geo-engineers where this idea is discussed. She is aware of an academic paper that argues that injecting sulphur might interfere with the summer monsoons of Asia and Africa. The conference is thus toying cheerfully with an idea that might imperil the future of billions of human beings. For her, geo-engineering does not offer a solution to the climate crisis. It represents rather the ultimate outcome of the thinking that helped create it – the masculinist fantasy that the brightest minds can control the Earth and the destiny of humankind. Klein is, too, utterly scathing about the billionaires promising to save us from the impending climate catastrophe, like Sir Richard Branson, who brags about donating $3 billion to the cause of climate change (most of which fails to materialise) while opposing the carbon tax in Australia, demanding the expansion of Heathrow Airport in London, and spending a fortune in the insane quest to allow members of the 1% to become tourists in space.

Where then is there hope? Naomi Klein is politically close to perhaps the world’s most creative climate activist, Bill McKibben. From him she has adopted two proposals. Firstly, the wide dissemination of the idea of the carbon budget, which, on the basis of climate models and simple arithmetic, reveals that if we are to have any chance of avoiding an increase of more than two degrees in the post–industrial revolution global temperature, 80% of the reserves of unrecovered fossil fuels already on the books of the fossil-fuel corporations will have to be left in the ground. And secondly, the mounting of an international divestment campaign aimed at institutions like universities and churches. Divestment would not aim to bankrupt the fossil-fuel corporations but to convince their leaders and supporters that some of the most enlightened members of society detest their trade. As most people who work for or support these corporations are not wicked but conventionally self-interested, many will be shaken by the claim that they are involved in destroying our future. Recently, the Australian National University joined the divestment campaign. The hysterical response of pro–fossil fuel interests in business, politics and the media showed that the movement had touched one of the most sensitive social nerves – people’s desire to feel good about themselves.

Shaming, however, is not enough. Klein’s principal hope lies in the worldwide movement fighting the obscene behaviour of the corporations that are presently drilling deep in the oceans and the Arctic Circle and laying waste to vast expanses of land, the “sacrifice zones”, in their frenzied search for oil, tar sands, gas and coal. Klein calls this Blockadia – finding memorable names for things is one of her gifts – which she describes as “a roving transnational conflict zone that is cropping up with increasing frequency and intensity wherever extractive projects are attempting to dig and drill”. She argues that Blockadia has certain natural political strengths – the fierce determination of those driven by love of homelands, in conflict with rootless transient workers who speak of their jobs as lucrative jail sentences; or the capacity of “cash-rich and rights-poor” middle-class activists to form alliances with “rights-rich and cash-poor” indigenous peoples. But I am certain she knows enough about the nature of power to see that there is no chance that the struggles of Blockadia will be able to overcome the alliances of governments and corporations, which have a common interest in the extraction of fossil fuels, without some intervening factor. What might this factor be?

At this point Klein asks an interesting question. Are there any examples in history where a social movement has succeeded in forcing elites to forgo substantial economic self-interest? Klein acknowledges that the great emancipatory movements of our era – concerning race and gender – have been primarily legal and cultural, rather than economic. However, she finds a precedent in the 19th-century anti-slavery movement for what must now occur. According to one estimate, the southern plantation owners in the US lost an asset worth the equivalent of $10 trillion when required to free their slaves. Like the anti-slavery movement, the struggle to abandon fossil fuels is in essence a moral matter: the duty of wealthy nations to the poorer; the duty of our generation to future generations and other species. Unlike the anti-slavery movement, however, it must achieve its object non-violently, exclusively through moral suasion. Although she doesn’t put it like this and may not even agree, in the end Klein’s argument seems to me to rest on the conviction that Blockadia and the climate movement can achieve their object by revealing through their courageous struggles and their moral clarity the astonishing gravity of what is at stake – the salvation of a human-friendly planet – and thus transforming the moral consciousness and the economic behaviour of Western elites, the most powerful and privileged class that has ever existed.

Like all those engaged in this struggle, Klein admits that she cannot free herself entirely from the threat of “inertia or even despair”. Neither she nor I nor anyone else knows whether humankind will rise to the challenge of climate change; or, if we do, whether it will be too late; or, if it is not too late, what the new, non–fossil fuel energy mix will be; or how this new mix will be transferred from the developed to the less developed world; or what the world that has transcended neoliberalism and unfettered capitalism will look like. Of only one thing can we be sure. None of this will happen without a revolution in the way we think about our relations with the Earth and with our fellow human beings. Naomi Klein understands all this as clearly as any contemporary thinker, which is why I regard This Changes Everything as among the most brilliant and important books of recent times.

Robert Manne

Robert Manne is emeritus professor of politics and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent books are The Mind of the Islamic State and On Borrowed Time.

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