Sunday, October 5, 2014

This Changes Nothing — Naomi Klein's Climate Prescription

"A post-capitalist world would not be one of dense cities and jet travel, but it would have a chance of averting climate change if it could rediscover a balance with nature akin to that previous noncapitalist societies maintained for millennia primarily through gift economies and perennial agronomies."



We eagerly picked up a copy of Naomi Klein's latest book, This Changes Everything — Capitalism and Climate Change, the day it was released because we were mesmerized by the word "capitalism." Of course we were interested primarily in climate change, but we already have whole shelves of books devoted to that topic, going back more than 60 years. What we are looking for now are not retread problem statements, no matter how elegantly posed, but viable solutions to the urgent, existential dilemma. When someone mentions as a pivot point something as grand as capitalism, we are immediately drawn, because at last, we think, they are getting to the root of the matter.
"There is no way this can be done without fundamentally changing the American way of life, choking off economic development, and putting large segments of our economy out of business."
— Thomas J. Donahue, President of the US Chamber of Commerce, on ambitious carbon reductions, quoted in This Changes Everything.
Klein's book disappoints. She delves into capitalism only very superficially. She does not undertake the more arduous task that her title suggests — dissecting linkages between exponential-growth driven culture and macroclimate — and then illuminating a transition pathway to a better future, some style of money game antithetical to Monopoly.

Make no mistake — understanding capitalism is key to understanding and reversing climate change. Klein provides neither the understanding of how that has happened nor any practical and promising way to post-modernize the process, such as by a smartphone linked to MazaCoin (trading at $0.000078 as of Sept. 10).  For her, "capitalism" just seems to be synonymous with "corporatism" or "greed." We might have still purchased the book if either of those words had been substituted in the title, but we would have held fewer expectations.

She refers to the books she reads to her child and creates a similar narrative here: good guys (First Nations women leaders, Ken Saro-Wiwa's Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, Henry Red Cloud's Solar Warriors, the Rainforest Action Network, 350.org), whose activities are "mesmerizing," "heroic," "determined;" while bad guys (Richard Branson, frackers, Fred Krupp, carbon traders, UN negotiators, Nature Conservancy) are "entrenched," "sly," or "rich and powerful." There is even a cliffhanger finish — will our heroes transition to clean energy in time?

Jean Laherrere predicts a very rapid drop in energy after 2017
Missing are any grasp of civilization itself ascending the steps of the guillotine; the inextricable fossil energy embodied in industrial-scaled renewables; or the Ponzi tsunami in sovereign debt and its implication for globalized supply chains. The dumbing down process Al Gore described in The Assault on Reason seems to have struck the left with the same casual brutality as it lobotomized the right. 

What Naomi Klein dispenses best is harangue. Because she is a very gifted writer working with a large research budget, the book sits well on its shelf beside works of similarly gifted writers performing similar harangues. Her prescription is protest — "Blockadia" is the term she coins — and while that may indeed produce results sometimes, especially when resonating with cultural shifts reflected in contemporary music and prose, it may also be catastrophically naïve if the "ask" is too far a reach for mass acceptance, or if the advocates' own lifestyles betray a secret lust for role reversal.

Martin Luther King's grasp of the use and limits of protest provides a modern example of successful "swerve" (in contemporary climate tactician lingo). As described in his famous Letter from A Birmingham Jail, there are a number of essential preconditions for moral protest. Although King does not make the attribution, his checklist is drawn from the voluminous lifetime writings of Mohandas K. Gandhi.

First, purify yourself.

For Gandhi and King, self-purification means, besides purging racial prejudice from your own heart, harboring no anger, while at the same time being prepared to suffer the anger of your opponent. For King, this meant the ability to forgive but not forget; to bounce back again and again, still holding love in your heart. For Gandhi it meant a willingness to take sides with your oppressor — "If anyone attempts to insult or assault your opponent, defend your opponent (non-violently) with your life." (“Some Rules of Satyagraha” Young India (Navajivan) 23 February 1930 (The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi vol. 48, p. 340).

Second, negotiate.

King and Gandhi always sought civil remedies through normal channels, and when these failed for illegal and unconscionable reasons, they could then proceed to a final tet-a-tet. They informed authorities in advance of their intentions to resist. They offered themselves for arrest. No protest could proceed before every possible avenue for redress had been followed but inexplicably blocked by the intransigence of authority. This tedious process provided the clear moral high ground in each confrontation.

Klein writes,

"'You have been negotiating all my life.' So said Canadian college student Anjali Appadurai, as she stared down at the assembled government negotiators at the 2011 United Nations climate conference in Durban, South Africa. She was not exaggerating. The world's governments have been negotiating for more than two decades; they began negotiating the year that Anjali, then twenty-one years old, was born. And yet as she pointed out in her memorable speech on the convention floor, delivered on behalf of all assembled young people: 'In that time you've failed to meet pledges, you've missed targets, and you've broken promises.'"

Does this gain sufficient moral high ground to justify laying down one's life to tasers, tanks and microbeams directed from aerial platforms? Not yet.

The UN climate treaty process (UNFCCC), informed by the slowly consensed scientific authority of the IPCC, is not being thwarted so much by covert action in the West Wing and 10 Downing Street or the corporate headquarters of Koch Industries as by the sluggish response of elected or inherited governments to the slow-dawning reality of the scope of this particular problem. As successive governments over 30 years come to grasp its dimensions and what that implies for the fate of business as usual, there is a kind of institutional learning that takes place -- the kind of progress by baby steps that was foreseen by Eleanor Roosevelt when the United Nations was founded. It may seem glacially slow to people from the generations of Klein and Appadurai, raised in the Twitterverse, but slow is not "no." 



Harvard Students at September Climate March in New York
In the tortoise-like process of the UNFCCC, the next major deadline is COP-21 in Paris, December 2015. The recent high level meeting in New York and this December's COP-20 in Lima are intended to set the stage for a treaty. That legally binding treaty should be seen as a Rubicon for the UN process. If it arrests emissions by firm and timely process, "alea iacta est" – the die is cast.  If the river is not crossed, or it does not go far enough fast enough, or the UN farms the crisis out to mercenary corporations, mass civil disobedience is fully justified.

Klein writes:

"By posing climate change as a battle between capitalism and the planet I am not saying anything we don't already know. The battle is already underway but right now capitalism is winning hands down. It wins every time the need for economic growth is used for the excuse for putting off climate action yet again, or for breaking emission reduction commitments already made.…

"Right now the triumph of market logic, with its ethos of domination and fierce competition, is paralyzing almost all serious efforts to respond to climate change…. For any of this to change, a worldview will need to arise to the fore that sees nature, other nations and our own neighbors not as adversaries, but rather as partners in a grand project of mutual reinvention.

"That is a big ask, but it gets bigger. Because of our endless delays, we also have to pull off this massive transformation without delay. The International Energy Agency warns that if we do not get our emissions under control by a rather terrifying 2017, our fossil fuel economy will 'lock in' extremely dangerous warming."

Giving your negotiating partner (in this case the UNFCCC) a deadline is something both King and Gandhi did. If the partner asked for an extension of time for reasonable cause that would be granted. Again and again. The process of negotiation is not complete until the last legal stone has been turned and the final responses are bereft of moral reason.

The third step in preparing successful protest is surrender. For King, this involved bearing Christian witness, as in the case of sending waves of children to face billy clubs, firehoses and attack dogs in order to fill Birmingham's jails to overcapacity.

For Gandhi, surrender meant to "never retaliate to assaults or punishment; but do not submit, out of fear of punishment or assault, to an order given in anger."

As a prisoner, Gandhi observed the same rules of self-discipline as in the outside world. He obeyed prison regulations except those contrary to his own self-respect. He fasted only when his own self-dignity demanded it. Once begun, he expected no respite from a fast. Each was a fast to the death.

Parenthetically, these same rules have been scrupulously followed by the victims of daily ritual of torture ordered by President Barack H. Obama in the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba. These striking prisoners, whose numbers are estimated at between 45 and 160 but whose actual numbers are unknown owing to the gag order issued by the Department of Defense and the refusal to allow in UN human rights inspectors, are innocent men. They were innocent when they were abducted from their homes and farm fields in 2002. They were even found innocent in 2009 by the Military Review Panels ordered by federal courts in 2006. And these were kangaroo courts designed to find them guilty. Their court review came partly in response to the 26-day hunger strike in 2005 that ended only when Navy medics joined in a sympathy strike and refused to provide medical assistance to the daily torture feedings. Only then did prison authorities agree to bring the camp into compliance with the Geneva Conventions, something we all still await.


Today's tortured Guantanamo strikers are waterboarded three times per day at the orders of President Obama. It is not as though he gets up in the morning and before he sees Malia and Sasha off to school he says to a military attaché, "Oh, go ahead and torture another 100 or so prisoners at Gitmo, and throw in some women and children prisoners at the black sites in Afghanistan too, just to let them know we mean business." Rather, as a Commander who could simply order their judicially-ordained release with a few words, he remains mute, kisses his daughters' foreheads, and then prepares daily remarks to, say, praise his outgoing Attorney General for his record on civil rights, or condemn some oil-rich Middle Eastern dictator as cruel and anti-democratic.

From whence does moral authority derive?

Every day since early February 2013, each of Obama's victims is given the option of ending their fast and avoiding being waterboarded yet again — more than 1700 times for some, so far — and each day they choose dignity over the orders of their oppressors. They choose to go under the hose rather than sacrifice their regard for what it means to be a human being.



If the Gitmo hunger strike experience tells us anything, it is that protest does not always succeed. Sometimes it only worsens the conditions being protested. As Malcolm Gladwell describes in David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, the Birmingham civil disobedience campaign was going badly for King until a wire photo of a firehosed teen being attacked by a police dog made front page news. Suddenly, nationwide, public wrath was aroused.

The fourth rule for any protest is to have a goal. For Gandhi, it was Indian independence from British rule. For King, it was ending segregation. Both men, of course, wanted much more. These simple goals, while grand enough to be assumed unachievable by most observers at the outset of the protests, were nonetheless below the mark. Among his goals, King wanted to end the War in Vietnam, and wars generally. Gandhi wanted to end religious and ethnic intolerance. They got what they could, and that was quite enough for the time.

Naomi Klein also has large ambitions. Her vision of the future is bright — "the climate movement does not have the option of saying 'no' without also saying 'yes'" to the many forms of solar development. Already solar power in many of its emerging systems is cheaper and quicker for industrial use than fossil and nuclear options, but that finesses the larger point. Is the goal to save industrial civilization? Is the goal to save the religion of consumerism, of growth economics, and thus, capitalism?

The title of the book seems to suggest that capitalism is the problem. Her analysis, however, lacks the thoughtful deliberation of critics like Noam Chomsky, Steve Keen, Chris Hedges or David Korowicz. Capitalism to Klein is a foil; a target for her sharp political invective. To fight this evil scourge she urges us to storm the parapets, take the streets, stand up to the tanks. Capitalism is just her shorthand for evil greedy bastards.

She writes:

"This book is about those radical changes on the social side, as well as on the political, economic and cultural sides. What concerns me is less the mechanics of the transition — the shift from sole rider cars to mass transit, from sprawling exurbs to dense, walkable cities — than the powerful and ideological roadblocks that have so far prevented any of these long understood solutions from taking hold on anything close to the scale required."

That statement deserves some unpacking. Klein is not very concerned about transition modalities other than street protest. She gives short shrift to Transition Towns, Holistic Management or permaculture and makes no mention of ecovillages, complimentary currencies, gift economies or bioregionalism. She sees the connection between capitalism's profit imperative and the disequilibrium of exponential growth (long a standard of permaculture training) but has scant grasp of the carbon cycle civilizational embed since the dawn of agriculture, energy return on invested energy (EROIE), or the abbreviated future-discount factor as a function of human neurobiology. 


Granted, she pays token lip service to Holistic Management and soil carbon, but calls biochar “problematic at scale” and lumps much of regrarianism with geoengineering. She seriously needs to attend the Biodiversity for a Livable Climate conference in Massachusetts next month. 

Consider her failure to grasp the exponential function as applied to human population. After describing her own difficulties in trying to bear a child, she says simply, "Anyone who wants to have a child should be able to." Really? What about a second, or a fifth? Is this a right that humans had before we emerged from the Paleolithic or is it dependent on some modern scheme of ordered liberty, not to mention bioscience? 

Is it not a right that must first, perforce, be grounded in resource availability, on the penalty of starvation for the whole? Would she confer that right on every reindeer on St. Matthew Island, or are we just talking about womens' reproductive rights here?

Self purification requires we examine our own needs and determine which of them is actually required and which is merely more comfortable. Faced with the discomfort of say, 140-degree summer months, and the discomfort of limiting family size to one-half child, as we described in our Post-Petroleum Survival Guide, which is preferable? For how long?

Klein's "mechanics of the transition" are mere Disney models of New Urbanism — dense, walkable cities presumed able to accommodate 12 billion or more people with ample power from renewable energy to carry packs of contented residents up and down 100 floors in air-conditioned elevators with happy, seasonal background music. Exactly how are those cities to be built and maintained after we dispense with profit motive, not to mention the fossil fuels to turn iron into steel and limestone into concrete?

Self-purification as a pre-protest ritual might reveal to Klein that the powerful and ideological roadblocks she attributes to a Goldman Sachs boardroom are affixed firmly within her own worldview. They are entrenched in the premises of cornucopian solar power advocates as deeply as in the Carlyle Group. If she is to exorcise the Kochs and Saudi princes from control of Earth's climate, she will have to first exorcise mechanistic utopian fantasies from her own thinking. Her admiration for indigenous peoples is good, but she needs to be reminded that their sustainability as peoples comes from their diverse cultures' awareness of natural limits and willingness to forego lifestyle choices that did not adhere to those limits.
A post-capitalist world would not be one of dense cities and jet travel, but it would have a chance of averting climate change if it could rediscover a balance with nature akin to that previous noncapitalist societies maintained for millennia primarily through gift economies and perennial agronomies.

In her new book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Elizabeth Kolbert's epiphany, which comes to her in closing chapters, is that the only way we will ever stop the advent of the Anthropocene is to eliminate the anthros, ie: near term human extinction ("NTE"). She delivers this message with an appropriate sense of grief, but after 300 pages of hard evidence it is difficult to rebut her conclusion. We can really only fall back on unreasoning hope, no matter how fantastical, because the indictment is irrefutable.

Kolbert says that the reason we have the climate threat is not because of human follies and foibles but precisely because of our genius. Our undoing is borne of our strongest attributes — all those parts of ourselves we regard as venerable. It is our human ingenuity, creative spark, versatile skills, and power to project the future from past experience that is killing every other lifeform on the planet, and finally, with the unregistered loss of some tiny, unnoticed but critical link in the web of life that supports us, ourselves as well. As long as we, tool-making homo, remain, Earth's fate is sealed and the climate will continue in the general direction of Venus. Once we are gone, recovery may yet be possible for other life forms. Archaelogists may come to know us only as that mysterious, millimeter-thin layer of radioactive plastic in Earth's outer crust.

If this message is disturbing, there may be comfort to be found by turning back to a part of This Changes Everything. In lionizing First Nations, Naomi Klein reminds us that before the Colombian Encounter there were on Turtle Island a race of people who, by and large, had learned to live in harmony with the natural world, not as dominators but as members. Not to be too simplistic, there were also indigenous nations that over-exploited, behaved with cruelty and avarice, and caused extinctions of megafauna. Klein's heroes are the former, the stewards of nature's bounty, who built verdant soils and abundant forests and lived in peace. If there is any hope for us all, it lies there, in that model. Pray we can rediscover it in time.

5 comments:

Joe said...

There are plenty of sustainable tribal cultures around the world, although I doubt the their populations would add up to more than a few million people at most. They will preserve the human species, that is if the rest of us don't totally wreck the climate.

Here's hoping for a quick collapse of the capitalist market economy in the near future. My speculation is that when it comes, it will not have been due to any protest or reform movement, but rather lack of cheap energy and financial panic. Certainly no bucolic agrarian utopia paired with "walkable cities" powered by solar panels will take its place.

Eddie Tennison said...

Thank you for the insightful review. Although I haven't read Klein's book,the general impression I've gotten from other sources is in complete agreement with what you've said.

It looks completely hopeless, and prayer is indicated, from my POV.

Josiah Hunt said...

Wow Albert, acute and bold words were shared here. Thank you.
The ending paragraphs leave me feeling that you have little hope. I too grapple with this at times.
The idea of a civilization that is in balance with it's surroundings - I would like to take this opportunity to discuss that with you a little bit. I would venture to say that the culture which likely killed off the megafauna, is the same that was found to be in complete balance with it's surroundings - just at a different place in their timeline. And I would go further to suggest that if the idealized "culture in perfect harmony with it's surroundings" was placed into a new environment, the pattern may repeat itself again - apparent abundance is enjoyed enthusiastically until a point at which it's demise is at odds with a culture's newly engrained reliance.
So here we are, globally at the end of wild, the wilderness left for us to plunder is not enough for itself to rebound - the outcome of continuing our plunder is to continue permanent loss of species and the dynamic ecosystems that provide us with abundance. Yet we continue - entrenched in our ways, we have indebted ourselves to continue.
Here is one place that I find hope - Humans can evolve our philosophies in a generation or two and we now have the ability to share our thoughts and collective data in real-time via the internet. I am not suggesting that the internet is our savior, we are our only savior, but never before have we been able to immediately trade notes across the such vast distances and between languages. The world is now a small island and we can talk to the other side any time of the day. We can become Turtle Island if we so decide. I am really hoping that we get this ship aimed in a new direction as quick as fricken possible. We are already facing some pain, but the longer we delay, the more painful a future for us youngins and our offspring.
The actual mechanics of the transition are not the problem, there is already sufficient tools at our dispense and more every day, the solution lies in cultural evolution. And you Albert, have just helped nudge that one little bit forward. Thanks.

Albert Bates said...

Josiah, the repeating pattern of destruction you mention is the point made by Eliz. Kolbert, and the remedy you suggest (and I agree with) is the idea promoted by Naomi Klein, ie: we can, if sufficiently scared, turn this around and live better than before - crisis/opportunity. This was the theme of my 2006 Survival Guide also. It may be hopelessly naive.

Unknown said...

I agree Albert. While I was also lured by the title and the mention of Capitalism to do so I didn't pick up Naomi's book partly because I was sure it would be a vast list of the problems with little on solution and that view was vindicated when I saw her on the Colbert Report. She was asked what the solution was and she said we just need to take the money away from the wealthy, not a very comprehensive answer. Recognizing and demonstrating the genius of certain indigenous cultures is what needs to happen, I think. Falling in love with the world.

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