Is Naomi Klein Right–Do We Have to Take on Capitalism to Address Climate Change?
Naomi Klein argues in This Changes Everything that capitalism and the environment are on a collision course and that narrow measures to address climate change will be inadequate if free-market, corporate-dominated structures and political ideologies remain dominant. She writes that the Right fully grasps the latent threat that climate change poses to the existing capitalist order, and that its need to squelch this threat explains the lavish financing it bestows on the climate denial movement.
Klein says that in the early stages of battling the present corporate-dominated order to address climate change, “a fight for a minimal carbon tax might do a lot less good than, for instance, forming a grand coalition to demand a guaranteed minimum income,” and that “Fundamentally, the task is to articulate not just an alternative set of policy proposals but an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis—embedded in interdependence rather than hyper-individualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy.”
Klein would thus set the bar for an effective response to climate change much higher than most climate activists presently do. Rather than simply institute a worldwide climate pricing regime and other measures to favor renewable energy over fossil fuels (a tremendous feat in itself!), she argues that it is necessary to form an alliance with other social movements to tear down much of the capitalist order and replace it with a more centrally-planned, collectivist economy dedicated not only to environmental sustainability but also to income redistribution and equal rights for all.
Is Klein right? Is working towards an environmentally-oriented socialism the most efficient path to reversing the disastrous carbon-spewing road we are on? Or can the existing capitalist order be tamed sufficiently with narrowly-tailored regulatory and tax measures to achieve the carbon reductions necessary to preserve the planet in livable form? The latter road would seemingly be much easier given the status quo of free-market ideology buttressed by vast rivers of unrestricted money in politics, and the antipathy many people feel towards government, socialism, and collectivist solutions. The significant gains the free-market-oriented, climate-denying Republican Party is poised to make in the 2014 midterm elections is evidence of the continued hostility of the political system towards restraints on corporate dominance.
Because the task of dismantling corporate dominance of the economy and the urgency to address the climate crisis is so immediate, I wish that Naomi Klein were wrong about the need to aim beyond climate policy fixes. But I fear she isn’t. People concerned about climate are overwhelming white, highly-educated and middle class, and therefore a group without the numbers to hold sway over the American and world economy. Climate change is still too remote and abstract an issue to really move large numbers of people. In a recent Gallup poll, climate change was identified as number 14 of the nation’s 15 most important problems.
The environmental movement must join the fight against our society’s pervasive income and social inequality, not only to broaden the coalition in favor of climate-friendly policies, but also to help redefine how people can live together peacefully in harmony with their fellow human beings and with the Earth and its creatures. A society built on narrow pursuit of self-interest and the domination of a small number of rich people over vast numbers of poor people will never achieve a healthy equilibrium with Nature.
The environmental movement has yet to forge a durable alliance with the vast numbers of people discontented with and disenfranchised by the present political order, in part because until recently we believed that the political system could and would make the changes necessary to address our pressing environmental issues. But it is now becoming clear that the oil-and-cash-soaked political system is not any more open to effectively addressing climate change than it is to addressing income inequality, racial inequality, or other pressing issues that affect vast numbers of Americans.
The inflexibility of the present political system is allowing social pressures to build that can ultimately overwhelm it. The question is whether we can channel these pressures peacefully and positively to create a movement capable of building a world we want our children and grandchildren to live in.
Building such a movement will require that we find new ways of getting people out of their homes and activated as citizens. It will require using public spaces such as streets, parks, and sidewalks to gather and educate one another about overcoming obstacles to a better future. It will require finding artists, performers, and orators to help us honestly reflect on where we truly are as a people, and to inspire us to reach a higher level of consciousness. It will require us disentangling ourselves from the corporate-fomented consumerism that ensnares us. The Obama Campaign of 2008 and the Occupy Movement of 2011 both provided us with glimmers of the power that such campaigns can have and the speed with which they can develop. They also provide us with a reminder that such efforts can be fleeting if not supported with long-term planning and resources and a fierce commitment to keep going to the end.
Only by developing, propagating, and implementing a broadly shared vision of how we can live better with one another and with Nature will we achieve a sustainable balance on this Earth. Creating such a movement will require enormous patience, hard work, and creativity, but it is the most noble work we can do and the best hope that we have to preserve our Earth and its creatures.