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We Must Heed Naomi Klein's Call

Her new book 'This Changes Everything' makes clear what we're up against and what has to happen.

Ian Gill 29 Sep

Ian Gill's Tyee column, The Poor Mouth, appears every two weeks or so. Gill lives and writes in Vancouver and works on social innovation initiatives. Find his previous pieces in The Tyee here, and find him on Twitter @gillwave.

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In his exquisitely written novel, Harvest, British author Jim Crace darkly evokes the individual and shared anxiety of villagers -- somewhere in rural England, perhaps as long ago as the Tudor period -- whose lives are turned upside down by a radical re-ordering of their relationship to land they have long tended in common.

They stage an uprising, futile as it happens, against nobles who seek to enclose their lands in the name of economic progress (eventually aided and abetted by various "enclosure" Acts of Parliament, legislation that favoured the few over the many).

The villagers are deeply unhappy. "We're the majority, they protest. We must be listened to. I hear the word 'petition,'" says the books narrator. "I could tell them... that numbers amount to nothing in such matters. Dissent is never counted. It is weighed. The master always weighs the most."

In this period of growing foment against our modern-day masters -- hundreds of thousands of people at climate marches worldwide a few days ago, most notably in New York -- it is worth asking what weighs the most, what counts? Does it matter that in Vancouver, which a generation ago hosted peace marches that drew 100,000 people onto our streets, the presence of about 1,000 people at the People's Climate March was considered by many to be a good turnout? Says who? And what does that say, or not say, about our willingness to seize what author Naomi Klein cites in her new book as the world's "climate moment"?

Flushed with our own petitions, if not yet brandishing sticks and blades on our indignant marches upon the manor houses of our time, what effect are we having on our masters? Stephen Harper, who weighs a good deal, couldn't heft himself to a United Nations leadership summit that 125 other states at least pretended to take seriously. Canada sent, in his stead, our hapless and mis-labelled environment minister, Leona Aglukkaq, to tell lies about our government's climate change agenda to an empty side room at the UN.

As embarrassed as we should all be about Ottawa's truculence in the face of climate change, fortunately we have a powerful, non-government proxy in the climate debate who -- by sheer force of will, reason, persistence and intellectual courage -- outweighs and out-argues not just our governing factotums, but the industrial fossils for whom they shill on the global stage. We can at least take heart that Naomi Klein is on the case.

Degrees of urgency

This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate rises magisterially from where Klein left off in her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, every page of which documented the violence wrought by global capital and at the last, foretold capitalism's "violent decline." This Changes Everything brings the case for an end to neoliberal economics fully into view, although the overarching question is whether the degree of violence that will attend capitalism's messy demise will end up killing all of us in the process.

The answer, at least on first blush, isn't pretty.

Klein cites the International Energy Agency -- an organization not given to rhetorical or analytical flights of fancy, and which counts even Canada as a member -- as being of the view that if we don't get world emissions under control by "a rather terrifying" (Klein's phrase) 2017, "our fossil fuel economy will 'lock-in' extremely dangerous warming." So for those of you who think the day of reckoning is 2030, or 2050, it's actually not. We won't be cooked in three years, but we'll have irreversibly set the thermostat.

Remember the 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 F) that was said in Copenhagen in 2009 to be the "safe" upper limit of climate warming? Not only will we be there soon, and are almost certain to overshoot, but mainstream analyses now have us pitching towards 4 C (7.2 F), even as much as 6 C (10.8 F) of warming. Even the best-case scenario at the lower end of that range "is likely to be calamitous," Klein writes.

These numbers, and many, many more, pepper Klein's account and suggest an inexorable energy death spiral that could make fossils of us all. Perhaps our soon-to-be fossilized selves will be a source of energy for the next forms of life to inhabit the Earth millennia from now? (That's me speculating, not Klein.)

But there are other numbers, too, forcefully and persuasively assembled by Klein, that say we can pull out of our global ecological tailspin if, for instance, we quadruple investments in clean energy by 2030. She even cites a road map towards how 100 per cent of global energy, "for all purposes," could be supplied by wind, water and solar resources, by as early as 2030. Then again, by Klein's (and the IEA's) accounting, we don't have until 2030. So what's a world to do?

Well, we need to take back the grid -- and we need to do it now.

Richard Branson and other naked emperors

First, we need to quickly disabuse ourselves of any notion that business as usual is a tenure track to a sustainable future. As convincing as Klein is about why climate change really does change everything, and not for the better, it is as the referee in her subtitled battle, Capitalism vs. The Climate, that Klein seeks to be most disruptive -- to blow the whistle on all our orthodoxies. As our reigning disabuser-in-chief, her rasping disdain for compromise in the face of climate calamity spares no one.

Not environmental groups, at least the large professional ones, that have in her view effectively "merged" with the enemy, seduced by the notion that market mechanisms like cap-and-trade and carbon pricing will reduce emissions, while distracting their members with invitations to cleaner consumerism -- the old greener light bulb/Prius driving/eco-label buying/travel offsetting nexus. "With emissions up by about 57 per cent since the UN climate convention [treaty] was signed in 1992, the failure of this polite strategy is beyond dispute."

Supposedly benevolent billionaires like Bill Gates and Richard Branson get a rough ride, mostly because they've been taking us for a ride, promising to "invent a new form of enlightened capitalism" because, of course, only capitalism can save the world from a crisis created by, well, capitalism. Klein is at her indignant, barbed-wire-chewing best when she uncovers the hubris of Branson's brazen self-branding as a hero in the climate wars, another vanity project utterly at odds with how he continues to build his fortune and lead his life.

Politicians, too, get scant affection from Klein, U.S. President Barack Obama in particular being excoriated for utterly squandering the first year of his presidency, when he failed to used his democratic mandate to legislate aggressive climate policies just when the auto industry was at its weakest and the banks were on their knees and beholden to Washington. Free trade deals, deregulation, naive detours into geo-engineering, the power of right-wing think-tanks... the catalogue of what Klein takes on and takes down is exhaustive, and at times, exhausting.

But mostly she places the blame squarely where it belongs: with fossil fuel companies that have gamed capitalism so perfectly that they attract obscene subsidies to earn even more obscene profits to pay to shareholders, and to underwrite bribes to politicians to minimize the burden of taxes and regulations so the companies can, with impunity and indeed encouragement, get about "blasting the bedrock of our continents, pumping our water with toxins, lopping off mountaintops, scraping off boreal forests, endangering the deep ocean, and scrambling to exploit the melting Arctic -- all to get at the last drops and the final rocks.... It's madness."

Indeed it is.

Tax and spend and survive

The remedies that Klein proposes, on the other hand, make perfectly good sense if you aren't a card-carrying member of the Heritage Foundation or the Fraser Institute.

First, "there is... no scenario in which we can avoid wartime levels of spending in the public sector." Luckily, there is evidence that heavy investments in renewables can deliver on the simultaneous promise of "green jobs" and clean power. Look no farther than Germany, whose "relentless push into renewable energy" was examined in detail mid-month in a feature in the New York Times. Germany's big bet on energiewende (wind now provides 10 per cent of German energy, solar 7 per cent) has the potential to be a globally transformative model, although as the Times points out, "the difficulties of the transformation are likely to be enormous, too."

So is the resistance. Fossil fuel companies will not go gently into that good renewable night. Klein is hardly the first person to point out that in order to stave off the meltdown, energy companies should be compelled to effectively strand 80 per cent of their known "assets" by leaving them in the ground, and should cease exploration for more. But the very nature of how the market assigns value to companies, she writes, insists they find new reserves in order to maintain a "reserve-replacement ratio" of 100 per cent or better. Their stock prices depend on it, as do their executive bonuses.

So, don't expect the fossils to shy away from the model that got them this far any time soon, and don't expect governments to make them. The fossil fuel industry, Klein says, "is betting that governments are not going to get serious about emissions cuts for the next 25 to 40 years (my emphasis)." For all Obama's Barack-come-lately statement last week that "no-one gets a pass" in the fight against climate change, you can rest assured that our own government, under Stephen Harper and probably under Justin Trudeau, is far more likely to approve a martial plan to lock in Canada's fossil fuel dependency than a modern-day Marshall Plan to accelerate renewable energy's ascendancy.

Thus Klein arrives at an almost inevitable default to the only fallback we've ever really had, which is ourselves, and each other. To a "robust social movement [that] will need to demand (and create) political leadership that is not only committed to making polluters pay for a climate-ready public sphere, but willing to revive two lost arts: long-term public planning, and saying no to powerful corporations."

Long-term planning, tougher regulation of businesses, higher taxes on the affluent, big Keynesian dollops of public sector spending, reversing privatizations, cancelling free trade deals, accelerating divestments, honoring treaties, especially with Indigenous peoples -- in other words, the antithesis of the governing ideologies in almost every developed country in the world.


Which brings us back to saying no -- to a level of dissent that is both counted, and that must eventually outweigh everything else. Which brings Naomi Klein to "a territory some have taken to calling 'Blockadia.' Blockadia is not a specific location on a map but rather a roving transnational conflict zone that is cropping up with increasing frequency and intensity wherever extractive projects are attempting to dig and drill, whether for open-pit mines, or gas fracking, or tarsands oil pipelines."

Blockadia is a place whose citizens are unwilling to accept being fated to live in "sacrifice zones" like the Niger Delta, Alberta's tarsands, disappearing Pacific atolls, along pipeline routes, beside polluted shores or downstream from breached tailings ponds. Blockadians bring to the climate table something no company can, which is their "ferocious love" of where they live. The consequences of climate change aren't quarantined someplace "else" any more. We all live in Blockadia, because we are all at risk. "We are all in the sacrifice zone now."

Klein's faith in the masses might seem wistful, even dangerously naive given how mighty are the forces of "extractivism." But she takes heart from the fact that, almost hourly if not daily, there is growing evidence-in-action that capitalism's goose is cooked. The protests against Northern Gateway and Keystone XL and countless other follies-in-waiting have "taken the extractive industries, so accustomed to calling the shots, entirely by surprise: suddenly no major project, no matter how seemingly routine, is a done deal."

Klein invites us, as citizens of Blockadia, to examine whether we are willing to make our own "place-based stand (to stop) real climate crimes in progress." That doesn't necessarily mean going to jail (although it might). It could be as simple an act as voting -- as citizens in Kitimat did to voice opposition to being the terminus for Enbridge's tarsands pipeline; saying no, just as Prince Rupert did when its port was proposed as an alternative. Witness the citizens of New Brunswick, who turfed a Conservative government that wanted to stake the province's future on shale gas extraction. Witness the City of Burnaby and its fight against Kinder Morgan's pipeline expansion; the City of Vancouver's opposition to coal port expansion and to Kinder Morgan.

The fact is, everything counts now.

"More and more... communities are simply saying, 'No.' No to the pipeline. No to Arctic drilling. No to the coal and oil trains. No to the heavy hauls. No to the export terminal. No to fracking. And not just 'Not in My Backyard' but, as the French anti-fracking activists say: Ni ici, in ailleurs -- neither here, nor elsewhere. In other words: no new carbon frontiers."

The French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir once wrote about the ethics of ambiguity, and in her own way, that's what Klein has done. This Changes Everything is unambiguous in its condemnation of a system whose failures are now writ so large as to present the greatest mortal and moral threat our species has ever faced. She is equally unambiguous about what needs to be done, and who needs to do it. And when.

De Beauvoir wrote, "The present is not a potential past. It is the moment of choice and action." In order that our present not define our past, and condemn our future, we must heed Naomi Klein's call. Our moment of choice and action has arrived.  [Tyee]

Read more: Energy, Environment

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