December 18, 2015
The Left vs. the Climate
Why Progressives Should Reject Naomi Klein's Pastoral Fantasy — and Embrace Our High-Energy Planet
Liberal and progressive politics used to embrace energy, technology, and modernity for human liberation and environmental quality. Today it embraces a reactionary apocalyptic pastoralism epitomized by Naomi Klein’s latest, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. As such, Klein's book is symptomatic of the Left's disturbing turn against progressive, pragmatic action for people and the environment.
Ever since Marx’s day, leftists have been straining to spy the terminal crisis of capitalism on the horizon. It’s been a frustrating vigil. Whatever the upheaval confronting it — world war, depression, communist revolution, the Carter administration — a seemingly cornered capitalism always wriggled free and came back more (and occasionally less) heedless, rapacious, crass, and domineering than before.
Now comes global warming, a cataclysm seemingly so dire that it cannot be finessed with reformist half-measures, so all-encompassing that capitalism would have to leave the planet to dodge it. For many on the Left, capitalism is at the heart of climate change: the crisis of over-combustion stems from the capitalist dynamic of overproduction and overconsumption, all driven by the logic of over-concentration of profits in the hands of the wealthy few. And nothing will resolve the crisis, the Left hopes, but the transformation of every aspect of the world capitalism has made — to pull consumerism, waste, hierarchy, competition, trade and alienation up by the roots and replace them with a political economy of sufficiency, recycling, egalitarianism, cooperation, localism, and nature.
It was almost inevitable that Naomi Klein, the Left’s preeminent celebrity journalist, would make herself the mouthpiece of this mind-wave. The Canadian writer-pundit and Nation columnist is a master of broad frameworks and far-reaching implications. She has already written two books — No Logo, on the corporate takeover of culture, and The Shock Doctrine, on the neoliberal take-over of economies — that crystallized huge clouds of progressive discontent into catchy memes. Her trademark blend of light wonkery, sardonic prose, sharp-eyed reportage and fist-waving militance appeals to every left constituency from academics to Occupiers. Most important, her penchant for tying absolutely anything she can think of into her thesis du jour feels tailor-made for climate change, the most omnipresent and multifaceted of subjects.
Her new manifesto, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate is a wide-ranging synthesis of Left-green doctrine on the entwinement of ecology and economy. It’s about belching smoke-stacks, thickening carbon dioxide, melting icesheets, acidifying oceans, shattering hurricanes, and searing droughts. It’s also about callous oil companies, preening billionaires, corrupt politicians, environmental groups subborned by corporate cash, hard-pressed farmers, desperate workers in dirty jobs, and downtrodden natives defending their land. This is all of a piece to Klein: the fight for a sustainable economy is also the fight for a fair and humane one, a furtherance of struggles for labor rights, civil rights, welfare rights, and land reform, for grassroots democracy against elite power.
By aligning these immediate struggles for justice with the collective battle to save the planet, she writes, climate change can “bring together all of these still living movements” and “right those festering wrongs at last — the unfinished business of liberation” .
For Klein, that alignment will spark not just programmatic clarity and mass mobilization, but spiritual redemption as well. Coal, in her view, is the dark heart of industrial capitalism and its mania for “total domination of both nature and people,”  and has turned us into “a society of grave-robbers” feeding off buried fossils. In abandoning it we will forge a new bond with the natural world and “[derive] our energy directly from the elements that sustain life” .
Even more than in her previous books, Klein advances a grand vision of “changing how we live, how our economies function, even the stories we tell about our place on earth,”  along with a sensibility that combines apocalyptic dread with utopian yearning to stimulate revolutionary determination.
Unfortunately, the result is a garbled mess stumbling endlessly over its own contradictions. Her understanding of the technical aspects of energy policy — indispensable for any serious discussion of sustainability — is weak and biased, marked by a myopic boosterism of renewables and an unthinking rejection of nuclear power and other low-carbon energy sources. Having declared climate change an “existential crisis for the human species,”  she rules out some of the most effective means of dealing with it.
Her attack on globalization and trade sometimes clashes with rather than supports her goal of rapid decarbonization. Her abhorrence of industrial civilization misconstrues its complex, sometimes positive impact on the environment. Her politics veer between calls for massive government initiatives and celebrations of an extreme localism and populism that are likely to hobble state action. And her rhapsodic ideal of a society that stands in “humility before nature”  glosses over the inherent tension between natural limits and human aspiration — and what that implies for her goals of development and liberation.
For all its vehemence, Klein’s everythingism — her conviction that everything is threatened, that everything must change, that everything is settled about how to change, and that everything will be reconciled in the coming state of nature — falls far short of a useful call to action. A book about changing everything needs to know how everything works and interacts so as to set priorities and strike balances, but Klein proceeds more by romantic enthusiasm and anathema than by detailed knowledge and analysis. Her views are all the more troubling because they faithfully reflect the received wisdom on the Left about environmental and climate policy. Given the vigor of the green movement and its impressive success at influencing policy makers and capturing the public imagination, these ideas will help shape the world’s response to global warming. Klein’s book therefore provokes a disturbing question: having done so much to put the crucial issue of climate change on the agenda, does the Left have anything coherent to say about it?
Blending environmental reporting with lurid montage — “From the young climate activist breaking down and weeping on my shoulder at the Copenhagen summit, to the climate change deniers at the Heartland Institute literally laughing at the prospect of extinction…”  — Klein lays out an alarming panorama of climate change. Carbon dioxide levels are soaring; temperatures are rising; inundation, famine, pestilence and war — or even worse tipping points — threaten at two-, four-, or six-degree benchmarks; catastrophe is assured if urgent but fuzzy deadlines are not met. (“If we do not get our emissions under control by a rather terrifying 2017, our fossil fuel economy will ‘lock-in’ extremely dangerous warming.”); the planet is toast unless developed countries immediately start reducing greenhouse emissions by 8 to 10 percent each year, which they show no sign of doing. “What is wrong with us?”  she asks, echoing the reader’s plaintive cry at the mess humanity has made.
But Klein wants to terrify readers, not push them towards fatalism (or solutions she disapproves of). So she redirects our gaze from an incorrigible “us” to a specific it — “deregulated capitalism” — led by a corporate them, “an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets“ . She thus gives us a target that’s big enough to shoulder the blame yet, perhaps, not so deeply entrenched as to be invulnerable to popular wrath.
In particular, she argues, the fossil fuel sector has pervasively thwarted sustainability reforms by bribing politicians, defanging environmental groups, sponsoring fraudulent science, and plowing ahead with monstrous projects that will grind on for decades to amortize their huge costs. (The Alberta tar sands, complete with “the roar of the earth being ripped up” are Exhibit A) . And capitalism more generally, according to the Right-wingers who tell Klein that climate change is a socialist hoax, is allergic to the strict regulation, public investment, growth constraints and redistributive cost-sharing that decisive climate policy requires. Left in charge, she concludes, capitalism’s response to climate change will be “profiteering and escalating barbarism to separate the winners from the losers” .
Klein is a talented (though not always reliable) muckraker, and makes many of these charges stick. She piles up examples of fossil-fueled money swaying lawmakers, scientists, and main-stream environmental groups who, she argues, have embraced toothless measures that cater to corporations rather than challenging them. She levels many sharp criticisms: of “market-based” climate initiatives like emissions cap-and-trade schemes and carbon offset scams in which businesses raise their emissions in order to reap subsidies for abating them; of feel-good green consumerism; and of pseudo-green billionaire Richard Branson, whose pledge of funding to research biofuels and carbon sequestration evaporated even as his airline’s greenhouse emissions took off. She argues that enticing private investment in clean energy is an inadequate substitute for a strong regime of government funding. In all, she makes a cogent case against neoliberal approaches to climate remediation that try to accomplish great public purposes through feckless and corrupt market mechanisms.
But Klein’s often incisive critique of market excesses and failures derails when she turns it into a metaphysics of “extractivism,” which she defines as “a nonreciprocal, dominance-based relationship with the earth, one purely of taking.”  The origins of extractivism, she contends, lie deep in Judeo-Christian myth’s about “humanity’s duty to dominate a natural world”  and Enlightenment dreams of mastering nature, imagined as a supine woman, with science. The opposite of extractivism, she writes, resides in “indigenous cosmologies” that “revere nature”  and teach that, in the words of a Native American solar installer, “‘you take what you need and then you put back into the land.’” 
Extractivism ignited, Klein argues, at the end of the 18th century when water wheels, an industrial power source dependent on geography and nature’s hydrological rhythms, were replaced with coal powered steam engines that could be deployed anywhere, anytime. Coal thus “liberated [commerce] from the constraints of living on a planet bound by geography and governed by the elements”  — always a bad thing, in Klein’s view — and fostered “a powerfully seductive illusion of total control” . The result was global disaster as coal and other fossil fuels enabled the capitalist West to control everyone and everything. “Colonialism needed coal,”  she explains, to “deliberately appropriate other people’s lives and land”  and “[open] up sub-Saharan Africa and India to colonial pillage” . Indeed, she contends, the whole scientific-industrial drive to “abuse the earth as if it were an inanimate machine,”  rested on coal and other hydrocarbons.
Cobbled together from loose associations rather than cause-and-effect reasoning, Klein’s eco-history of the Industrial Revolution fails on every count. Blaming coal for Western imperialism makes about as much sense as condemning wind turbines because sailing ships carried the conquistadors. And coal was not the first fuel humans used to liberate industry from nature — wood was, and much of the impetus to use coal stemmed from the rapid industrial depletion of Europe’s forests in the early modern era. Fossil fuels in some ways lightened the burden of human extractions from nature: powering industries so forests could regrow; supplying kerosene so we didn’t need to hunt whales for lamp oil.
These ideologically charged conflations shape Klein’s views on modern energy systems, too. Extending her “extractivist” critique to any technology that lets capitalism’s hubris supercede nature’s order, she evaluates energy sources on their prospects for abating not just greenhouse emissions but colonialism (or its globalist remnants), corporate gigantism and our sense of estrangement from the land. Renewables, especially wind and solar, come out tops on her scorecard because of these associations. She refers briefly, and never critically, to academic studies that model all-renewable energy systems (especially Mark Z. Jacobson’s controversial papers), but offers virtually no discussion of the real-world performance and feasibility of renewable generators.
Instead, she waxes lyrical about their sublime attunement to the rhythms of nature. Renewables, she writes, will spark “a fundamental shift in power relations between humans and the natural world,” and foster a “dialogue with nature” . She likens them to “surfers, riding the swells as they come” — the antithesis of extractive sources, which are “NFL football players, bashing away at the earth” . That metaphor, which never addresses what we should do for power when the surf’s not up, is as close as Klein gets to acknowledging the chaotic unreliability of weather-dependent wind and solar power.
Nuclear power is also, of course, a major source of low-carbon energy — it generates 12 percent of the world’s electricity, almost three times as much as wind and solar combined — but since it falls on the earth-bashing side of her dichotomy it gets demonized. As always, she establishes guilt by association more than evidence. “Nuclear is a heavy industrial technology, based on extraction, run in a corporatist manner, with long ties to the military-industrial complex” she writes, adding that “[n]o technology has done more to confirm the notion that man has tamed nature than the ability to split the atom.”  Conceived in pride, war and greed, nuclear power is the embodiment of extractivism’s dark impulses.
But beneath all that dudgeon Klein’s discussion of the specifics of nuclear power is remarkably ill-informed. She briefly invokes the Fukushima accident, without mentioning the expert consensus, expressed by the UN Scientific Committee on the Effects of Airborne Radiation among other authorities, that the Fukushima fallout will cause “no discernible increased incidence of radiation-related health effects.” She refers in passing of the risks of nuclear waste and the allegedly high costs and slow roll-out of nuclear power, but offers no facts or argument to substantiate these points, which are hotly disputed by experts. Klein simply doesn’t understand these issues and can’t discuss them intelligibly. Journalists can’t be experts on everything, but she doesn’t even solicit any views beside those of the anti-nuclear academics who are her exclusive sources on the subject. NASA climate scientist James Hansen, for example, whom Klein repeatedly cites as a leading authority on global warming, is also an outspoken supporter of nuclear power — yet she never talks to him about it.
On the basis of this shallow and one-sided discussion, Klein issues sweeping proscriptions against nuclear power, calling for an eventual phase-out with an immediate moratorium on new reactors and the shuttering of “the oldest plants” (which are actually working well with good safety records). She does not pause to consider what such measures will do to the climate, given that reactors are prodigious sources of clean energy. As of this writing, 2014 has so far seen six new reactors come online. That’s not many, but the high productivity and reliability of nuclear power means those six reactors will generate more low-carbon electricity every year than the entirety of Germany’s current (much-ballyhooed) solar power sector. Under Klein’s moratorium, none of those reactors, or the 67 others currently under construction around the world, or the hundreds more planned, would be completed — an enormous set-back for decarbonization.
Klein also has a pronounced animus against hydroelectricity, especially if it’s big and productive like the “highly contentious megadams” of Brazil. Indeed, she virtually casts hydropower out from the church of renewables, which “require a humility that is the antithesis of damming a river, blasting bedrock for gas, or harnessing the atom” . But hydro is an even bigger source of low-carbon energy than nuclear, producing 16 percent of the world’s electricity and slated for major expansion in Asia and South America. Together, nuclear and hydro are the centerpieces of the world’s most successful clean-energy programs. France has decarbonized its electric grid using mostly nuclear (75 percent in 2012) and hydro (12 percent). Sweden got almost all its electricity from hydro (48 percent) and nuclear (39 percent) that year, while Switzerland sourced 58 percent from hydro and 36 percent from nuclear. Ambitious decarbonization programs are so feasible that they are positively banal — using the technologies that Klein anathematizes on doctrinal grounds.
All of which shows that the great distinction Klein draws — between corporate extractive energy that arrogantly bashes nature and life-affirming renewable energy that humbly harmonizes with nature — is pure nonsense. In the real world, her neat ideological divide doesn’t line up with the carbon-abatement potential of energy sources, or their other environmental impacts, or their compatibility with the corporate Moloch. Nuclear power is in many respects, like land footprint and material inputs, among the least environmentally intrusive of energy sources. Renewable technologies, if they are to fully power the economy, would require an unprecedented industrial reengineering of the landscape. Hydropower will have to expand dramatically and drown huge territories. A modern wind turbine is not a Dutch water-color; it is a domineering, 40-story industrial installation, built by extracting large quantities of steel, concrete and rare earths, and manufactured by corporate megaliths like GE and Siemens — and there will be millions of them in a high-renewables future. The implicit vision of renewable energy is to turn all of nature into a machine for generating power: prairies and ridgelines sprouting wind farms; deserts paved with solar panels; estuaries corked by tidal generators; coastlines girdled with wave generators.
And there’s worse in the reprise of biomass power, an antique and very destructive form of renewable energy now rebranded as nominally green. Klein distances herself from biomass — wood and crops burned directly to generate heat and electricity, or processed into hydrocarbon fuel — because producing it ravages forests and crowds out food production. But biomass is a major part of most high-renewables schemes because, unlike wind and solar, it can keep the lights on when nature isn’t cooperating. Thanks to EU renewable energy subsidies, Europe’s burning of wood chips for heat and electricity has quadrupled in the last decade to 17 million tons, much of it sourced from North American forests. Klein approvingly cites a US National Renewable Energy Laboratory study touting 80 percent renewable energy by 2050, but doesn’t mention that it would get up to 15 percent of America’s electricity by burning biomass. That would consign up to 30,000 square miles of land to biomass production, much of it monoculture plantations of switchgrass, slash pine and other energy crops optimized for rapid harvest cycles — agribusiness at its most extractive.
Not surprisingly, Klein’s discussions of specific energy policies get hopelessly muddled by her clashing ideological commitments. An example is a section on solar power in Ontario, which she frames as a cautionary tale about the evils of global trade, one of her long-standing bugaboos. The vignette concerns the province’s lavish feed-in-tariff for solar electricity, enacted in 2009 as part of Ontario’s plan to shut down its coal-fired power plants. The tariff law included a requirement that solar installations source 40 to 60 percent of their content from local companies. The initiative worked great, jump-started a flourishing Ontario solar industry providing thousands of jobs, and wiped out coal, Klein reports: “By 2012 Ontario was the largest solar producer in Canada and by 2013, it had only one working coal-fired power plant left.”  Alas, triumph turned to ashes when the World Trade Organization ruled against Ontario’s local-content provisions; after the provincial government complied by eliminating local-content rules, the solar industry promptly slumped. “The WTO ruling was an outrage,” Klein fumes, one that “let trade trump the planet itself.” 
The story reiterates one of Klein’s favorite themes — that corporations and governments use free trade laws to dismantle climate regulations and stymie clean energy. There’s only one problem with that interpretation of the Ontario episode: it’s completely wrong. Whatever the arguments against free trade, there’s no doubt that solar power has thrived on it; indeed, the worldwide solar boom is largely due to the global trade in cheap Chinese solar panels, which have sent prices plummeting. Recent protectionist import barriers imposed on them have perceptibly slowed solar installations in the US and EU. In any case, the WTO ruling could not have crimped the solar energy boom in Ontario because there never was a significant boom. Cloudy, northerly Ontario manufactured solar panels, but it produces virtually no solar power, less than 1 percent of the province’s electricity in 2013. Contrary to Klein’s deceptively worded suggestion, solar energy played no role at all in shutting down Ontario’s coal-fired power plants. Which low-carbon energy sources did? That’s right: the province’s refurbished nuclear power plants, which generated 59 percent of its electricity in 2013, and hydro generators, which contributed 23.4 percent. (Wind farms chipped in 3.4 percent.) Far from being a victim of global trade, Ontario’s clean energy program is a huge success thanks to nuclear and hydro — something that Klein unaccountably neglects to tell readers.
Her account of Germany’s Energiewende, the world’s flagship renewable energy program, is almost as misleading. Klein revels in German energy policy as much for its politics as its performance. She praises it for putting ownership of wind farms and solar panels “in the hands of farmers, citizen groups and almost nine hundred energy cooperatives,” a feat that has “decentralized not just electrical power, but also political power and wealth.” The Energiewende has proven itself not only populist but gratifyingly dirigiste by “engaging in long-term national planning,” “picking winners” and “fixing prices.” Despite these violations of neoliberal orthodoxy, she writes, “Germany’s transition [to clean energy] is among the fastest in the world” according to the German academics she talked to .
Unfortunately, Klein’s glowing portrait bears little resemblance to reality. The Energiewende is not a repudiation of neoliberalism, it’s a classic example of neoliberalism, and a strikingly dysfunctional one at that. Its feed-in tariff mechanism is meant to stimulate private investment in renewable energy by paying lavish subsidies to a small class of property owners and the corporations that install their wind turbines, solar panels and biogas rigs—just the kind of public subsidy of private profit that Klein normally despises. (Even the ersatz populism is waning now as policy moves away from smaller-scale distributed projects and towards more reliable offshore wind farms, which are immense multi-billion-euro installations owned by giant utilities.) German energy policy owes less to rational planning than to haphazard political calculations shaped by every pressure group from antinuclear protesters to the large industrial firms that are exempted from the renewable energy surcharges that are boosting ordinary citizens’ electric bills. The result has been a chaotic program marked by boom-and-bust cycles (never mind the nuclear phase-out; Germany’s solar installation rate has collapsed by 70 percent over the last two years), crippling costs and hasty legislative improvisations to correct the blunders of previous improvisations.
The Energiewende’s performance is as unattractive as its politics. A seldom noted aspect of Germany’s renewable energy is that much of it comes from biomass burning, which generates 28 percent of its renewable electricity. Half of Germany’s timber harvest is now burned for heating and electric power, and 17 percent of its arable land is used to grow energy crops, a proportion that may rise to one third by 2020. Many environmentalists are aghast at the slash-and-burn segment of Germany’s “clean” energy sector.
Klein says nothing about these difficulties. One troubling feature of the Energiewende that she does acknowledge is Germany’s ongoing reliance on coal-fired electricity and its slightly rising carbon dioxide emissions — even as wind turbines and solar panels have burgeoned. On this question she lapses into her own version of denial. Critics blame that development on the precipitate shutdown of German nukes after the Fukushima accident, but Klein will have none of it. Instead, she blames the lingering political clout of the German coal industry. Otherwise, Berlin could just say no to coal, as one renewables advocate informed her: “‘German emissions are not up because nuclear power is down. They’re up because nobody told the German power companies not to burn coal….What we need are strict rules against the extraction and burning of coal. Period’” .
This is double-talk, and it’s astonishing that Klein swallows it whole. German emissions certainly are up because of the phaseout of nuclear; simple arithmetic proves it. If the seven reactors shuttered in 2011 were restarted, they could displace 15 percent of Germany’s coal-fired electricity and eliminate millions of tons of carbon dioxide each year. It’s true that the coal industry is one of the many constituencies that German energy policy panders to. But the new coal plants now coming on line were commissioned after the passage of the Energiewende legislation in 2000 precisely to compensate for the anticipated shutdown of nuclear plants. As Social-Democratic leader Sigmar Gabriel recently told the German press, “you can’t abandon nuclear power and coal at the same time.” He would know: he coauthored the legislation that phased out nuclear power and is now the minister in charge of the Energiewende.
Because as much as greens might wish otherwise, it’s not possible for Germany to simply tell power companies not to burn coal, period. Germany must burn coal because the country’s enormous wind and solar sectors are still too feeble and fickle to power the country. In the winter their combined output sometimes falls to less than 5 percent of rated capacity for an entire week. Without coal Germany would go dark. And it will need coal for decades to come because, contrary to Klein’s plaudits, the Energiewende is moving at a snail’s pace that can barely keep up with the phaseout of nuclear power let alone displace coal generation. In 2000, when the program started, 6 percent of Germany’s electricity generation came from renewable sources; last year it rose to 24 percent, an increase of 18 percentage points over 13 years. That rise is largely offset by the decline of low-carbon nuclear electricity from 30 percent to 15 percent of generation over the same period (with more nuclear shutdowns due next year). Even taken on its own, the rise in renewable generation is unimpressive. France decarbonized 75 percent of its electricity generation over a span of 20 years from the 1970s to the 1990s by building nuclear plants — a much faster (and cheaper) transition. Germany, too, plans to reach the 80 percent decarbonization benchmark — in 2050. That timetable makes the Energiewende one of history’s slowest transitions to clean energy.
When we look at the real world, we find that renewable energy sources, all of them, comport well with the extractivism Klein deplores. There is no reason to look to them for relief from capitalism’s excesses and hubris. The obverse also holds: there is no particular reason that a radically altered economic system will curtail extractivism. Klein says as much, noting that the Soviet bloc’s energy sector was extractivist with a vengeance, and that today’s Left-populist governments in Bolivia, Ecuador and elsewhere are eager to extract their fossil-fuel reserves. What, then, is her vision for “an entirely new economic model”  that will restore our relationship with nature?
As usual, Klein is hazy on the specifics. She points to the usual green lifestyle infrastructure —mass transit; home energy-efficiency rehabs; walkable urban cores and anti-sprawl planning; bike lanes. She files all this under the breezy rubric of “policies and programs that make low-carbon choices easy and convenient for everyone” . But she also sounds notes of austerity, prescribing “less consumption,”  luxury taxes, “low-energy forms of agriculture” (which likely means low-yield, labor intensive and high-priced),  and “‘selective degrowth’” . On the other hand she calls for measures that tend to boost consumption, like income supports for the poor, vast green jobs programs, better pay for the caring professions and a minimum basic income so desperate men won’t be forced to work the tar sands. Klein assures us, with hand-waving instead of number-crunching, that this will all work out: society will make do with much less while people get much more of everything that really matters.
All of this is very sketchy and conflicted. In one chapter Klein reminds us how the public bore sacrifices with good cheer during World War II. In another she backtracks on sacrifice, writing that “smallness and shrinking humanity’s impact or ‘footprint’…is simply not an option, not without genocidal implications.”  But how, the reader wonders, can her talk of shared sacrifice and less consumption and degrowth not be about shrinking humanity’s impact, and how can shrinkage not imply reduced circumstances? Her answer: a vague utopian transcendence by which “we can…change the nature of our actions so that they are constantly growing, rather than extracting life” .
This is just one instance of Klein’s penchant for briefly registering objections while shying away from the contradictions they imply. Her book is full of tensions that she waves off instead of squarely facing, nowhere more than in her less-is-more notion of sustainability. She never confronts the possibility that “selective degrowth” is just a mealy-mouthed term for painful austerity measures, that mass transit is not as easy and convenient as cars in most places, and that people may not like exchanging reduced consumption for increased rapport with nature. That last trade-off may not even make sense because of its own intrinsic contradictions. In one passage Klein describes how, seeking to de-stress and detoxify, she moved from Toronto to rural British Columbia, where she “learned to identify a half dozen birds by sound, and the sea mammals by the ripples that appeared on the water’s surface.”  Sounds lovely, but moving from a dense city with well-insulated apartment buildings and great mass transit to the BC coast, a diffuse sprawl zone where people live in heat-leaking houses and drive everywhere, surely did not soften her climate impact. (She did cut back on air travel, except for “research”—which for a globe-trotting journalist means a lot of flying.) Engaging in intimate dialogue with nature is actually a pretty carbon-intensive lifestyle.
Many of the proposals Klein gestures at have merit, but they don’t add up to a convincing economic plan for sustainability. She provides few details, no figures, amid little analysis of how much it would all cost or how much of the crisis it could avert. Affluent Westerners can stand to cut back, but developing countries urgently need to boost their energy use, and their increase will dwarf the West’s cut-backs. There’s really no question that the world as a whole will raise its consumption of everything — food, energy, stuff — in the decades to come; no feasible economic model can prevent that. Klein derides the search for “technological miracles”  that sidestep the need for a deep greening of our economy and lifeways, but she is getting things backwards. Very few people — certainly not Naomi Klein — will stomach austerity on the scale needed to forestall climate change. Miraculous or not, technology that lets us power a modern, industrial society — but cleanly — must do the heavy lifting.
The most fully imagined, yet woefully underthought, part of Klein’s book is her account of the politics of changing everything. Legislation and lobbying, both intractably corrupted by capitalism, won’t do in her view. “Only mass social movements can save us now,” she writes, quoting one academic militant’s call for “‘environmental direct action…protests, blockades and sabotage by Indigenous peoples, workers, anarchists and other activist groups.’” She dubs this movement of popular eco-insurrection “Blockadia”—a “roving transnational conflict zone” that springs up “wherever extractive projects are attempting to dig or drill.”  Blockadia includes Greek villagers fighting a gold mine, American greens interdicting oil equipment bound for Alberta, Chinese peasants protesting a coal mine, and any number of anti-fracking battles from Romania to New York. The goal is to stop every extractive project in its tracks, Klein declares, by “simply saying ‘No.’ No to the pipelines. No to Arctic drilling. No to the coal and oil trains. No to the big rigs. No to the export terminal. No to fracking…..[N]o new carbon frontiers” .
Blockadia’s uncompromising negativity stems from an intense local devotion to “an identity, a culture, a beloved place that people are determined to pass on to their grandchildren,” Klein writes . That localism feeds the populist ire of activists like this anti-fracking organizer: “‘You think you can just come into my town and tell me you’re going to do whatever you want, wherever you want, whenever you want it, and I’m going to have no say? Who do you think you are?’”  Indigenous peoples are especially powerful Blockadians thanks to their ancient bond with sweeping tracts of land. In Alberta, Klein reports, the one thousand members of the Athebascan Chipewyan First Nation are blocking a tar sands expansion by mighty Shell and its 92,500 employees, while other First Nations leaders are suing the Canadian government for trillions in compensation for plundered resources.
Blockadia’s appeal to climate crusaders is obvious: barricades, battle lines, tangible targets that turn the abstract problems of invisible gases, imperceptibly rising temperatures and human complacency into something visible and stoppable; in Klein’s words, “a sense of moral clarity” . Yet it is not obvious that Blockadia really is a zone of ardent moral clarity. Many farmers, many indigenous people, love their land all the more for the fracking royalties it brings them, and feel populist anger at regulations that block that income. And the logic of Blockadia is to block everything — not just coal mines and pipelines, but whatever raises local hackles. That includes renewables projects — dams, biomass plantations, even wind farms and solar plants. In Germany locals are blocking the power lines that are being built to accommodate new wind farms; in Britain angry country-folk are trying to block the towering turbines themselves and the solar plants overspreading nearby fields; in Massachusetts, the Cape Wind offshore wind farm was fought by Native American activists as well as a local tribal elder named Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
Characteristically, Klein acknowledges all this but never confronts the implications. She nods at “problems when policy makers ram through industrial-scale wind farms and desert solar arrays without local participation or consent,”  but considers said problems readily solvable. So another contradiction: while Klein relies on Blockadia to eternally shout “No!” at lucrative fossil-fueled projects, she expects it to say yes to solar arrays that blanket the countryside—as long as there is proper consultation. This is far from a consistent or realistic political program. Comprehensive decarbonization must be planned and organized on a national and international scale. For it to proceed on the deadlines Klein wants, a great many clean energy projects must be rammed through in short order. If any offended local activist can block them, if indigenous groups can claim veto rights over whole continents, then things will grind to a halt. Extreme local intransigence will eventually be over-ridden, but the pervasive effect of Blockadia, if it takes hold, will be to slow progress at every turn. The result could be the opposite of the green mantra: acting globally while thinking locally.
It’s not even certain that Blockadia, with its conviction that grassroots certitudes trump expertise, can reliably understand where local interests lie, especially in the complex realms of ecology and public health. One Blockadian campaign that Klein mentions in passing is the protests in India against new power plants. The best-known is the movement against the recently completed Kudankulam nuclear plant in Tamil Nadu, which is opposed by Indian greens and local villagers (and by the anti-nuclear Left in the West, from European parliamentarians to Noam Chomsky). The risk of an accident at the seaside plant is the focus of opposition, but what’s never discussed is the plant’s role in reducing the much more serious risks stemming from Tamil Nadu’s chronic electricity shortages. A lack of electricity kills in all sorts of mundane ways, from intestinal infections that arise because there is no power for water and sewage treatment to lung ailments from cooking over smoky fires instead of clean electric burners. Kudankulam’s massive 2000-megawatt output helps relieve those shortages; not opening the plant arguably posed a worse public health risk than opening the plant. But according to Klein, “in Blockadia, risk assessment has been abandoned…replaced by a resurgence of the precautionary principle”—a turn she heartily endorses.  That’s a tragic mistake in this case, because at Kudankulam there really is no contradiction between healthy sustainability and development — yet Blockadia has rejected both.
Klein’s book climaxes with a chapter in which she compares her own reproductive travails to the life-threatening menace of extractive capitalism. She postponed motherhood until her late thirties — in large part, she tells us, because of “ecological despair” over the impossibility of raising a child sustainably.  Like many women that age, she endured a round of miscarriages and failed fertility treatments that left her depleted and depressed. Chucking the high-tech baby science, Klein repaired to a naturopath who regaled her with theories — maybe stress was the problem, maybe radiation exposure from air travel  — and put her on a regimen of yoga, acupuncture, Chinese herbs, gluten-free food, the works. Sure enough, she got pregnant and bore a healthy son.
From this saga Klein draws an elaborate lesson on the importance of respecting natural boundaries instead of trying to transcend them with fertility treatments or any other technology. “There is something valuable in the body memory of slamming up against a biological limit — of running out of second, third, and fourth chances—something that we all need to learn…a constant vigiliance about the limits beyond which life cannot be pushed” . She reinforces that moral with a montage of endangered fertility in the world at large, from fish larvae slimed by the BP oil spill to polar bear cubs crushed in their thawing permafrost dens to miscarrying women who live near oil refineries. All this, she suggests, is the poisonous fruit of a system that tramples nature’s limits.
But there is a different way to interpret Klein’s experience and its meaning for humanity’s relationship with nature. The likely culprit for her reproductive difficulties was not stress or radiation, but simply that she waited until her late thirties, when fertility reliably drops off, instead of having kids in her early twenties when fertility is high. And while she may have been motivated by concern over Earth’s carrying capacity, most women who postpone childbearing do so for more personal reasons — to build a career, wait for Mr. Right, or just live a little before settling down. Such choices are usually at odds with nature’s fertility rhythms, so they are mediated by technology on both sides: women use birth control to prevent natural pregnancies and, later, fertility treatments to cause non-natural ones. Women like Klein no longer structure their lives around nature’s tight constraints on fertility; they now bear children on their own terms and timetable instead of nature’s terms and timetable. That is a central achievement of feminism.
Just as breaking with natural fertility is essential to the liberatory project of feminism, so other aspects of human development also require a radical liberation, and alienation, from nature’s limits. Whenever we use energy it is to free ourselves from some natural condition: to be warm in winter and cool in summer, to stay up after dark, to eat out of season, to escape hard labor, to leave the local patch of terroir where we sprouted and see the world. These are all acts of liberation, and they require abundant power and technical ingenuity. The Left once embraced that vision and fought to ensure that everyone would be liberated by the immense energies and technological wizardry unleashed by the industrial age. No more; now the Left stews in resentful suspicion towards industrial civilization and in an incoherent doctrine of naturalism that romanticizes underdevelopment to an almost reactionary degree.
Klein’s book is dismaying confirmation of all this. She understands, rightly, that a thoroughgoing mobilization of public resources is necessary to confront the challenge of climate change. But her uninformed, dogmatic treatment of the substance of that problem, so typical of the Left’s approach, generates only confusion and misdirection. To make a useful contribution to changing everything, the Left could begin by changing itself. It could start by redoing its risk assessments and rethinking its phobic hostility to nuclear power. It could abandon the infatuation with populist insurrection and advance a serious politics of systematic state action. It could stop glamorizing austerity under the guise of spiritual authenticity and put development prominently on its environmental agenda. It could accept that industry and technology do indeed distance us from nature — and in doing so can protect nature from human extractions. And it could realize that, as obnoxious as capitalism can be, scapegoating it won’t spare us the hard thinking and hard trade-offs that a sustainable future requires.
Will Boisvert writes on energy, environmental, and urban policy for The New York Observer, Dissent, and other publications. He is the author of the Breakthrough Journal piece "Harmonic Destruction." He lives in New York.
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Will Boisvert writes on energy, environmental, and urban policy for The New York Observer, Dissent Magazine, and other publications. He lives in New York.