I recently sat down to watch This Changes Everything, the documentary narrated by Naomi Klein based on her latest book of the same title. While in many respects moving, in my view, the documentary is ultimately a confused and unpersuasive thesis on the climate, and wider ecological crisis, facing humanity. In what follows I will not dwell on the valuable aspects of the film – I encourage people to see it to appreciate that. I will focus instead on problems with a narrative, which, today, is hegemonic on the ecological-left.
Problematic Analysis of Root Causes
The overarching thesis of the documentary is that the climate crisis is a symptom of a much deeper malaise. This is correct. But I take issue with the diagnosis. For Klein, the problem rests with a 400-year-old 'story' driving western culture involving domination of nature. For centuries we have been trying to subdue and control nature, bending her to our will, rather moving to her rhythms. Intensive resource extraction, and all the environmental problems that flow from it are, according to Klein, the outflowing of this dominant cultural myth.
On the one hand, Klein is undeniably correct. This enlightenment ideology of endless 'progress' – manifesting in the drive for economic growth – do indeed underpin our ecological destruction. But what this diagnosis misses is why this ideology came to dominate western culture and, today, the globe – and retains our hold on us, even in the face of grave threats to our collective survival. The most persuasive answer is the one given by anti-systemic left theorists such as Takis Fotopoulos, who argue that the growth/progress ideology, was required to reproduce the capitalist market economy – an utterly new mode of production within human history which, not coincidently, emerged around 400 years ago! While its true, as Murray Bookchin argued, that there had always been a relationship between hierarchical societies and human domination of nature, the market economy dramatically accelerated the trend, and gave it a hitherto unknown systemic drive. This new mode of production was based on the 'grow or die' imperative of endless capitalist accumulation. In other words, it was the systemic logic of capitalism for endless growth, which necessitated and, subsequently, reinforced the ideology of 'progress,' not the other way around.
It's true, as greens thinkers frequently point out, the 19th century labour movements, as well as 20th century 'socialist' states, embraced this very same ideology of growth and progress. But there was a key difference. The soviet elites pursued growth out of the cultural/ideological desire to out-compete the west. But, unlike under capitalism, the requirement for growth was not a systemic compulsion built into their planned/socialised economies. Had their cultural aspirations been different, they might have pursued goals in line with a less materialistic, more self-sufficient, ecological society.
Does Klein really think Capitalism is the problem?
To be fair, at points within the documentary, Klein does indeed powerfully articulate this systemic reality. "The economy", she says, "is a machine that needs perpetual growth. If it slows down, you have to feed it more. Use anything and everything as fuel. Cut loose whatever it's carrying so you can drive on; ever faster, ever meaner." But the clear anti-capitalist implications of that statement get lost in the documentary overall. Klein's real problem seems to be the 'extreme' version of capitalism we have today – i.e. neoliberalism – not capitalism itself. She identifies neoliberalism, simplistically, it terms of a withdrawal of the state, from protecting the common good. Presumably Klein would like to see a return to the Keynesian era welfare capitalism. Then, she thinks the state would 'have our backs' and we may be able to effectively address climate crisis.
For a journalist who originally made her name with the rise of the anti-globalisation movement, the documentary is striking for its lack of attention to globalisation as a key element within our overall predicament. There are two problems here.
First, overlooking globalisation renders Klein' critique of neoliberalism unconvincing. As Fotopoulos convincingly argues, neoliberalism is intimately bound up with the globalisation process – which itself represents a qualitatively new phase within the evolution of the capitalist system. Klein proceeds on the assumption that neoliberalism is just a misguided ideology that can be easily reversed by more enlightened parties or politicians. But neoliberal policies are actually, with minor variations, the required policy framework for states that want to maintain growth and consumption, in a global economy dominated by Trans-National Corporations (TNCs). Unless neoliberal policies are adopted, economies either struggle to attract investment from TNCs or are unable to maintain export competiveness. This means that neoliberalism will not be reversed unless and until states remain integrated into the global economy, based on open and liberated capital and commodity markets.
Second, Klein should be critical of globalisation on sustainability grounds. Greens have long pointed out, with very good reason, that the globalisation process is heavily resource and energy wasteful. There is little hope that we could adequately address climate change, or other environmental problems, within present globalised systems.
The forgoing suggests that an ecological movement worth its salt must be both anti-capitalist and anti-globalisation, at the same time. Or, to put it positively: it must be for a (reconceived) socialism, as well as greater economic self-reliance at all levels (i.e. local, regional, national etc.) But the challenges do not stop there. We must also turn our backs on high consuming lifestyles – and here Klein's 'narrative' is particularly weak.
Overlooking the economy/ecology contradiction:
Throughout the documentary, Klein rightly exposes the huge environmental damages caused by a global economy built on vast 'extraction of fossil fuels'. But she is silent about the consumer cultures that such extractivism undeniably, has made possible. Quite the opposite. She expresses unqualified anger at the austerity being imposed on (all?) workers in the first world. Neoliberalism, she opines, is 'squeezing the earth and squeezing the people.'
Surely Klein must not fail to see that ending 'extractivism' is going to impose a much more severe kind of 'austerity' – at least in a material sense - than anything yet dished up by neoliberalism? After all, fossil fuels accounts for 81.4% of world energy use (IEA, 2015) and are necessary not just for supplying the electrical grid, but for all kinds of industrial, commercial processors as well as liquid fuel for transport. They are also essential for extracting the cheap mineral resources on which industrial societies depend.
The tension is perhaps most clear in the documentary's case study of the proposed Gold Processing plant in Halkidiki, Greece. The local mayor argues that the mine is necessary for growth and jobs, in the context of a deeply depressed Greek economy. The mayor is opposed by protestors who, rightly, express concern about the impact of mining on Indigenous cultures and the local environment. But none of the critics provide us with concrete alternative economic proposals, let alone convince us that the Greeks can hope to revive their prosperity – which Klein does not challenge – whilst also ending 'extractivism'.