I did some teaching for trainee Lay Readers in Sheffield Diocese recently, about discipleship and our care for the environment. The Assistant Principal, Bill Goodman, wondered if I’d read Naomi Klein’s book. Well, to be honest, I’d based most of my talk on her book! I’d thoroughly recommend it, and to help persuade you to read it, here is his book review.
Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate (London: Penguin, 2014)
Naomi Klein is not for the faint hearted: an uncompromising thinker and activist, a compelling communicator. She is clear that we are now in the final decade of opportunity to avoid catastrophic climate change. She sees much of our current environmental crisis as driven by the rapacious demands of unregulated capitalism – while being equally scathing about the destructive effects of some centralised socialist regimes. The key problem she attacks is what she terms ‘extractivism’ – a desire to extract resources endlessly from a finite planet, while also disregarding their polluting outcomes.
The book is in three major parts. The first section, ‘Bad Timing’, considers how our current climate crisis has developed since the industrial revolution, and how it has accelerated in recent years, fuelled by free-market fundamentalism. She sees an urgent need to rebuild the public sphere (health care, affordable homes, flood defences, public transport), with those who cause pollution – particularly fossil fuel companies and users – paying their fair share of the cost. I found much of this section familiar, but brought to life by her gift for researching and recounting true stories from today’s world which bring the issues vividly to life.
Her second section, ‘Magical Thinking’, critiques some recent proposals for solutions to the climate change crisis: miraculous scientific interventions (such as seeding our atmosphere with sulphates to dim the sun), philanthropic billionaire ‘messiahs’ (such as Richard Branson), and market-based ‘green business’ solutions. She is scathing about all these options, particularly the way some environmental groups have been co-opted and neutralised by the big-business groups they are seeking to work with.
The final section, ‘Starting Anyway’, looks for effective responses to the crisis. One is to invest our savings and pension funds not in oil and coal, but in firms that positively promote the transition away from carbon to renewable energy – so her antipathy towards our current model of capitalism is not total: she can work within the system to some extent. In addition, she champions the direct action of ‘blockadia’ – passive resistance to fossil fuel extraction and other polluting industries, particularly by the local communities most affected. These need to move beyond ‘NIMBY’ism to a wider perspective: ‘Not In My Back Yard – Nor In Anyone Else’s’. Her inspiring stories often focus on indigenous groups disputing land claims with mining companies in USA and her native Canada (also Nigeria and Ecuador); these stories have less immediate resonance in our corner of the world, although they might inspire us to support the groups described and to think about action in our own context.
For Klein, solutions need to be both top-down and bottom-up. She is convinced that only significant intervention and regulation by governments (of the kind seen in the USA in the 1960s and 70s) can turn the tide, with a kind of Marshall Plan for the planet. But where is the political will to be found? It needs to come from ordinary people, leadership bubbling up from below, with social media helping spread its reach. She draws inspiration and hope from grassroots groups and people movements, often arising from particular crises (such as the Occupy movement after the 2008 financial crash); mass movements are needed now, demanding radical action and initiating it at local levels. I find myself wondering whether this will be enough; I hope so – what is the alternative? She sees one striking example of how this was achieved in the past, in the historic movement to abolish slavery. Despite mockery, outrage and fierce resistance from the powerful, a key foundation of the global economic order – slavery – was eventually abolished (although sadly, with significant compensation paid to the slave owners).
Klein expresses no overt faith stance; but a number of her concerns resonate with mine as a Christian. When so many politicians today resort to self-serving pragmatism as the only way to motivate us, Klein’s moral conviction and passion for social justice is a refreshing change – she sees it as morally self-evident that we need to reduce the glaring inequalities that marginalise many and disfigure our world. The world’s poorest people are those most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. The urgency of this task for our day which she conveys reminds me of the Kairos Document’s challenge to apartheid at a pivotal moment in South Africa. For Naomi Klein, the climate change crisis is an opportunity to transform and reinvent our cultural values, and so our world; to embrace a worldview of ‘interdependence rather than hyper-individualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy’ (p.462). An inspiring vision, and a tall order to achieve. For me, that will take grace, courage and perseverance which we need God to nurture within us and draw out of us.
Bill Goodman, August 2016