“We accept it as normal that people who have never been on the land and have no history or connection to the country may legally secure the right to come in and by the nature of their enterprises leave in their wake a cultural and physical landscape that is utterly transformed and desecrated” –Wade Davis (2012)
This article began as a review of Naomi Klein’ 2014 book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, but it has grown into something much larger, a consideration of the roles of ecopsychology and our individual connection to ecology in the greater politcs of climate change, resource extraction, and environmnental destruction.
At nearly 500 pages plus 60 pages of endnotes, Klein has written an imposing book. Most of the space is taken up with case histories to illustrate and reinforce Klein’s arguments. Klein is a very good storyteller and she has done a great deal of research; the book is a goldmine of specifics. In this discussion I summarize her conclusions, omitting most of the factual background for those conclusions. I assure you it is there.
In chapter after chapter Klein convincingly makes her points, but I do not believe she succeeds in her main point that it is capitalism vs. the climate. In fact, she even suggests several “capitalist” solutions to the climate crisis. As I will describe later, I believe she has done something even more valuable by reframing the issue as Extractivism vs. Blockadia, abstract economics vs. our connection to the earth.
Klein begins with a discussion of the climate denial movement. There are different shades of climate change denial: People who insist that climate change is not happening, that it is happening but is not caused by human activities, or that it is happening but is not an important problem. These contradictory views have in common that they are all arguments against taking action to reduce carbon emissions. For the most part, people promoting these views are conservative politicians, dirty energy companies, or supporters of these politicians or corporations.
Beyond denying the reality of climate change, deniers often express fears “that climate change is a Trojan Horse designed to abolish capitalism and replace it with some kind of ‘green communitarianism’”. The first shock in this book is Klein’s assertion that they are right – that business as usual and climate stability are mutually exclusive; that massive economic and cultural change are required if we are to avoid catastrophic climate chaos. That a growth-oriented capitalist economy and a stable climate cannot co-exist.
The people who are in denial, according to Klein, are the progressives, liberals, and environmentalists who believe we can reform the system and get by; that radical change is not required. We are up against a non-negotiable deadline and a rapid and complete makeover of the economic system is needed.
The book is in three parts:
Part 1. Bad Timing
After dropping this bomb, the first part of the book describes recent history and documents how the climate crisis has come about.
There was a great deal of progress in enacting environmental laws and regulations hroughout the 1970s. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1962), publication of The Limits to Growth (Meadows, et. al., 1972), the first Earth Day, and concerns about issues such as acid rain, strontium 90, lead, and DDT led to an assertive and successful environmental movement. Government intervention and regulation were seen as the best ways to protect the environment.
However, in the 1980s, just as scientific evidence about carbon emissions and climate change was accumulating, the market fundamentalism of Reagan, Thatcher, and Mulroney became the dominant philosophy of many governments and international organizations. This shift to the right was followed, in the 1990s, by the movement towards free trade and globalization. Increasingly, according to Klein, governments can be punished for policies that support green energy or local production or which might discourage imports or exports. In almost all free trade agreements, trade and investor rights trump climate and corporate greed trumps community.
Free market fundamentalism and free trade arrived at just the wrong time. If policies to limit carbon emissions had been enacted in the 1980s, we could have gradually and relatively painlessly moved to a low-carbon economy. Instead, Klein says, inaction has created a crisis – we are fast approaching a wall of catastrophic climate chaos.
Back then, carbon emissions might have been contained within the context of free market capitalism. A financial transaction tax, closing tax havens, taxing billionaires, cutting military budgets, carbon taxes, and the elimination of fossil fuel subsidies could have raised up to $2 trillion annually to fund the transition while directing market forces towards sustainability. Instead, big business opposed, and continues to oppose, all these measures.
Climate change is not an issue, it is a frame. “The environmental crisis – if conceived sufficiently broadly – neither trumps nor distracts from our most pressing political and economic causes: it supercharges each one of them with existential urgency.” Good jobs, social and economic justice, democracy, and peace are all tied to climate change. “The alternative to such a project is not the status quo extended indefinitely. It is a climate-change-fueled disaster capitalism – profiteering disguised as emission reduction, privatized hyper-militarized borders, and, quite possibly, high-risk geoengineering when things spiral out of control.”
Klein describes the dominant world view of both right and left as “Extractivism.” Contemporary capitalism and socialism both depend on the extraction of profit from natural resources and human beings. There is no notion of reciprocity or responsibility. Francis Bacon is credited by Klein with first clearly stating the Extractivist philosophy. The subsequent invention of the steam engine made it possible. The story of the tiny nation of Nauru is presented as a cautionary tale and an exemplar of Extractivism. Since the 18th Century Extractivism dominated economic thinking on both the right and the left. A few voices have been raised in protest – Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Rachel Carson, and indigenous people all over the world have criticized the Extractivist view that nature is dead and inert.
Part 2. Magical Thinking
The history in the first part of the book documented how governments and business have failed to seriously address the climate crisis. The second part of the book deals with three other sources of false hope for avoiding a climate disaster.
As mentioned earlier, the environmental movement did well in the 1970s, but in the 1980s extreme free-market fundamentalism took over. Since then, according to Klein, corporate donations and partnerships have silenced many of the big environmental non-profits on climate change, particularly the Environmental Defense Fund, National Resources Defence Council, and the Nature Conservancy. They have been careful to not threaten consumerism. They have joined the gas and fracking industry in promoting gas as a “bridging technology”. They have been involved in questionable carbon markets. The Nature Conservancy has allowed wells on conservation lands. Klein doubts if “big green” has any motivation to try to slow climate change.
Another source of false hope comes from green billionaires such as Richard Branson, Warren Buffett, Michael Bloombert, Bill Gates, and T. Boone Pickens. They have talked green, but Klein documents that they continue to profit from fossil fuels. The Sierra Club was temporarily convinced they were sincere, but has subsequently come to understand their hypocracy.
Geoengineering, using technology to arrest or reverse climate, is terrifying on a number of levels. Most of the plans, according to Klein, even if they worked, would cause great human suffering, especially in Africa and Asia. None of the plans provides a long-term solution; according to Klein they are more like keeping the planet on life support.
Klein says we have been misled by the astronauts’ view of the world as a blue-green ball in space. It is too easy to forget, when we see these beautiful pictures, that there are billions of people living on the surface. The global view leaves out the social dimension and a callous disregard for human welfare is seen in many geoengineering proposals.
Part 3. Starting Anyway
In contrast to the view from space, many people, and particularly Indigenous peoples around the world, have a deep loving connection with where they live. Increasingly, oil, coal, and gas developments are invading these spaces and people are resisting. Klein calls these oppositional movements “Blockadia”. In Blockadia ordinary people are defending their local environments from outside high-risk Extractivists. Klein gives examples from Greece, Romania, Canada, Britain, Russia, China, Nigeria, and the US. “The various toxic threats these communities are up against seem to be awakening impulses that are universal, even primal – whether it’s the fierce drive to protect children from harm, or a deep connection to land that had previously been suppressed.”
Fracking, mountain-top removal, tar sands, pipelines, nuclear waste disposal, and mining have traditionally taken place in the Extractivists’ “sacrifice zones.” These places are typically distant and the people living there are few and poor. The residents of sacrifice zones often lack political power, usually due to some combination of race, language, and class. Traditional sacrifice zones are places where the people have been written off.
“But in less than a decade of the extreme energy frenzy and the commodity boom, the Extractivist industries have broken that unspoken bargain. In very short order, the sacrifice zones have gotten a great deal larger, swallowing ever more territory and putting many people who thought they were safe at risk.” People are discovering that the places they care about are not being protected by government and they will need to do it themselves.
Marine disasters were first, coating popular beaches in California, Spain, and most recently the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. Unlike the Exxon Valdez spill in the sacrifice zone of Alaska, these disasters took place near population centres and on popular beaches. The Enbridge pipeline spill in the Kalamazoo river has taught people that these tragedies do not just occur on the coast.
“Fossil fuel activities are so dirty and disruptive, they tend to weaken or even destroy other economic drivers: fish stocks are hurt by pollution, the scarred landscape becomes less attractive to tourists, and farmland becomes unhealthy.” In addition, BP and other Extractivist corporations, abetted by lax government regulation, have destroyed public trust. Assurances of both public benefits of exploitation and public safety are no longer convincing, according to Klein.
People everywhere love their children, value their health, often loves the land they inhabit, and care a great deal about air and water. The power of this love is behind the strength of Blockadia. If our community is not under threat we can support those that are through donations, political activity, and the divestment movement in which institutions and individuals move their wealth from dirty energy to clean energy. Klein documents how the Extractivists are fighting back using all the tools available to those with great wealth and no scruples: The investor-protection provisions of free trade agreements, massive political donations, costly lawsuits and legal manouvering, advertising, and bribing community leaders.
The connection to land is especially strong for the world’s indigenous peoples. Without the history of migration shared by immigrants and living in sometimes pristine sacrifice zones, they are often the leaders of Blockadia. From Idle No More in Canada to some South American governments, they are using their legal and moral authority to compensate for their lack of military or economic power. Klein provides a number of convincing case histories.
Klein makes it clear that local communities can only resist if they have an alternative to dirty money. Promoting clean jobs is one tool. If dirty energy developments are to be stopped, the divestment movement needs to add an investment component, with funds becoming available to local communities to create clean jobs.
Returning from Blockadia to a global scale, Klein asserts that there is the moral question of historical responsibility for climate change. The wealthy countries should finance low-carbon development in the poorer countries. She also discusses how pollution affects eggs, embryos, and children more than it affects adults. All living things should have a right to regenerate. This is how healthy ecosystems function.
Historically, there have been a succession of successful or partially successful liberation movements. Religious persecution, slavery, colonialism, sexism, child labour, and racism have all been confronted. Progress has come when those in power have been forced to respond to pressure from below. While there has been great progress in social justice in many places, when powerful economic interests have been threatened, success has been very limited. For example, when slavery was abolished in the British Empire, former slave-owners (not former slaves) were compensated for their “loss”. The same dynamic was in play with the recent bail-out of banks rather than debtors.
The climate movement is confronting powerful economic interests as well as the economic and social system that supports those interests. “how do you change a worldview, an unquestioned ideology?” asks Klein. The notion of abolishing slavery arose in the 14th Century, about 300 years before most slaves were emancipated. Climate change is upon us now and there is very little time left.
Klein redefines climate change for what it is – not just an environmental issue but a complete game-changer, a new “frame” for all the issues confronting society. The subtitle of the book directs our attention to Klein’s earlier critiques of capitalism, but in this book she fails to make the case that it is capitalism vs. the climate. Her advocacy for investment in renewable technology is a tacit recognition that capitalism has an important part to play in any solution. Climate change should not be an issue of right or left.
I believe she does something even more important than indict capitalism. Klein reframes the problem as arising from a subtype of capitalism, Extractivism. The book identifies Blockadia as coalescing into a worldwide movement of threatened communities and not merely NIMBY (not in my backyard) selfishness. Her proposed solutions of local ownership and control provide an alternative to the centralization of power and the globalization of trade that are hallmarks of contemporary politics and capitalism.
It is this insight which connects Klein’s book to ecopsychology. Dealing with climate change and other ecological disasters will involve abandoning the linear, one-way thinking that has been the dominant European worldview since the enlightenment and underlies Extractivism. Instead, we need to adopt the circular or cyclic world view characteristic of many indigenous cultures (Saul, 2014).
The motivation for Blockadia is found in love of our communities and love of the land where we live, not in ideology. While many people may relate their local struggle to global issues, the leading for action comes from a sense of solidarity with the local, both human and more-than-human. This attachment to community, to place, to “all my relations” might save us.
Australian environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht (Albrecht, 2012) coined the words endemophilia to describe “people’s love of the locally and regionally distinctive elements of their place” and soliphilia for “the love of the totality of our place relationships and a willingness to accept, in solidarity and affiliation with others, the political responsibility for the health of the earth, our home.” Similar ideas can be found in environmental psychology (Scannell & Gifford, 2010). It is these emotions of attachment, and not fear or greed or anger, that fuel blockadia.
Indigenous peoples often have a strong sense of endomophilia. As a result they are taking leading roles in blockadia around the world. For settlers or the descendents of settlers, the connection to place is not automatically as strong, but it can be developed. To save the future, we need to build our connection with our local community and local ecology. This, it seems to me, is the role for ecopsychology. Ecopsychology can help adults and children develop a sense of belonging in their locality so that when it is threatened they will be there to defend it. Similarly, when ecotherapy helps people discover the healing powers of the land around them, they will view it as a precious resource, needing to be nourished and protected.
Capitalism isn’t the enemy, but globalization and extractivism are. They will be defeated by strengthening local communities. This is partly political, as advocated by anarchists and municipalists (Biehl & Bookchin, 1998) but it is also personal, creating an important role for ecopsychology.
Albrecht, G. (2012). Psychoterratic conditions in a scientific and technological world. In Peter H. Kahn, Jr., & Patricia Hasbach (eds.) Ecopsychology: Science, Totems, and the Technological Species. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Biehl, J., & Bookchin, M. (1998). The Politics of Social Ecology: Libertarian Municipalism. Boston: Black Rose.
Carson, R. (1962). Silent Spring. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin
Davis, W. (2012). Sacred Geography. In Peter H. Kahn, Jr., & Patricia Hasbach (eds.) Ecopsychology: Science, Totems, and the Technological Species. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Klein, Naomi (2014). This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. Alfred A. Knopf Canada.
Meadows, D. H., Meadows, G., Randers, J., & Behrens, W. W. III. (1972). The Limits to Growth. New York: Universe Books.
Sale, K. (1991). Dwellers in the land: the bioregional vision. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.
Saul, J. R. (2014) The Comeback. New York and Toronto: Viking.
Scannell, Leila; Robert Gifford (2010). Defining place attachment: a tripartite organizing framework. Journal of Environmental Psychology 30: 1–10.