This Changes Everything — Review

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, by Naomi Klein. Simon & Schuster, 2014.

For Naomi Klein, the climate change issue changes everything: the only way to deal with climate change is to change capitalism. We need fundamentally to alter our economic system if we hope to save the planet. Her analysis is spot on and I hope that climate change activists and vegans will study and benefit from this book. The only criticism I would have is not that it is too radical, but that it isn’t radical enough.

The main strength of the book is that Klein clearly understands the basic politics of the climate change debate. She shows the extensive influence of the fossil fuel industry; by now, they are even trying to infiltrate and influence green groups. She is really at her best when she shoots down all the various detours to climate change action — detours that have misled the public and even some green groups. These include “geo-engineering” schemes, natural gas, and fracking. She shows how the fossil fuel industry successfully defeated climate change legislation in 2009, when there was broad public support for climate change action and suspicion of corporations was very high in the wake of the financial crisis.

Where, exactly, are we headed? Probably “where we are headed” is intuitively obvious to Klein and to many of her readers: we are headed towards a renewable energy economy based on such things as wind, solar, and water. She assures us that renewables represent a viable alternative, pointing to the examples of Germany and Denmark, and cites a Scientific American article showing that a 100% renewable energy economy is technically feasible.

Really? I’m not against changing our economic system and throwing up solar panels and wind turbines everywhere; but I question whether this is enough. In reality our situation is considerably more serious than she lets on, and the needed changes are much deeper and more extensive. We need to change not just our economic system, but our whole way of life, starting with the food we eat.

The major omission of the book is — you guessed it, not a word about livestock agriculture. Can someone send her a copy of Cowspiracy? Probably about half of all greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to livestock agriculture. We can quibble about the exact percentage, but it’s huge, and because of uncounted carbon dioxide from cattle respiration, methane from cow belching, and destruction of forests for grazing in the Amazon, it’s likely the single most important contributor to climate change. Cowspiracy pointed out that the mainstream environmental groups steadfastly refuse even to discuss livestock’s role in climate change. In this respect, Klein is no better. Realistically, we are not going to be able to deal with climate change without addressing diet. It’s just not going to happen.

This leads to a broader problem, namely that we do not face just a single environmental problem called “climate change”; we face limits to growth. Climate change is simply the single best-known and most important limit, a limit on how much carbon dioxide, methane, and greenhouse gas emissions we can dump in the atmosphere. But other limits are waiting in the wings.

The most prominent one, ironically, is fossil fuel depletion. Peak oil — the maximum point of world oil production — doesn’t mean that we’re running out of oil, just that we are burning through the cheap stuff. Now, the only way to maintain our industrial system is to produce more expensive oil, from the Alberta tar sands, from below the ocean floor, or from fracking. At some point the expense of extracting this oil will overwhelm our willingness to pay for it, and that will be the point at which we have reached peak oil.

By trying to “fix” peak oil by increasingly desperate measures such as mining the tar sands or coal-to-oil schemes, we are actually making climate change a lot worse. Alternatively, if peak oil arrives and we do nothing, the economy might collapse and we might sink into a permanent recession or depression. This would at least reduce CO2 emissions, but it would also make it more politically difficult to allocate our dwindling resources to building a renewable infrastructure. It will be a tough sell.

Klein seems to understand the limits to growth problem, but only acknowledges limits in one area — limits on the amount of pollution that can be dumped into the atmosphere.  She cheerily dismisses concerns about oil, apparently misled by the fracking boosters who are promising a century more of fossil fuels. And what about other limits? Aren’t we faced not just with a single limit — the climate change problem — but multiple limits, including mineral extraction, energy, forests, soil, and water? California’s drought, for example, is mostly a problem resulting from livestock agriculture, which is where most of California’s water goes.

There is very little discussion about how we would get to a renewable energy economy based on solar, water, and wind. The Scientific American article she cites by Jacobson and Delucchi is rather superficial and does not address all the problems with renewables such as lessened EROEI (“energy return on energy invested”), the problem of intermittency, the need for huge infrastructure changes to electrify transportation, the need for up-front energy investment, and so forth. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t do renewables anyway, or that there aren’t ways around some of these problems — just that we should be honest about the difficulties that we face.

In her final chapter, she says that everyone has the right to reproduce and that fertility treatments should be paid for by health insurance. I am happy for her offspring, but human overpopulation is a key part of our environmental problems. Overpopulation of domestic animals is also critical — over 90% of the land-based mammalian zoomass of the planet is humans and their livestock. As a practical matter, we aren’t even going to be able to deal with climate change, much less all the other environmental problems, without making veganism pretty much the social norm, nonviolently reducing human population, and encouraging simple living not just for a few “eco-saints,” but for everyone.

Klein is right to draw attention to the climate change issue and to discuss the huge political problems we have in dealing with this issue. She understands the social justice ramifications of climate change. She is right that this does change everything, but has seriously underestimated how much needs to change. It’s not just our economic system that needs to change, but our society, our values, our culture, and our way of life.

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