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book review

Klein’s latest book focuses more heavily on instigating systemic change than the everyday lifestyle choices we think of as being “green.”Tim Fraser/The Globe and Mail

Environmentalism can often feel like a hobby for the wealthy: organic food, tote bags, energy-efficient light bulbs. All good things, to be sure, but buying carbon offsets for your flight to New York doesn't mean much when an Exxon Valdez's worth of oil is spilled every year in the Niger Delta. The world is littered with these sorts of sacrifice zones – the Alberta tar sands, Appalachian coal country, the jungles of Ecuador – where the very industries responsible for climate change exploit and poison the most marginalized among us. This means that the green movement is not, or should not be, the domain of the posh and the privileged; for communities ravaged by resource extraction, it is a matter of survival. The only way to stop global warming is to rethink the way we relate to each other.

This is the new environmentalism – one that focuses on systemic change rather than go-green lifestyle choices – and it has a powerful proponent in Naomi Klein. Her new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, has the potential to be the definitive account of our current moment, much as her 2000 blockbuster No Logo both reflected and galvanized the global-justice movements of the late nineties and early aughts. With environmental issues largely disappeared from the front page and the legislature floor, This Changes Everything makes a muscular case for global warming as the defining, cross-sectional issue of our era. As Klein writes, "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."

According to Klein, climate change is not a problem that can be solved by markets or industry. Instead, it will require a massive reorganization of our political, economic, and social systems – one that, by both practical and moral necessity, must be driven by popular movements. This Changes Everything is a work of startling force, exhaustive reporting, and telling anecdote. Klein's look at climate-change deniers is particularly gutting; my heart sank as I read a representative of the conservative American Enterprise Institute tell victims of Hurricane Sandy, "We need to suck it up and be responsible for taking care of ourselves." Klein also directs her scorn on reckless geoengineering proposals, "green messiahs" like Richard Branson (whose 2006 promise to invest $3-billion in renewable energy over ten years has come to less than a tenth of that) and, of course, the fossil-fuel industry, particularly its alarming rush for unconventional hydrocarbons like bitumen and shale gas.

Perhaps her most penetrating takedowns are of "Big Green" organizations like the Nature Conservancy and the Environmental Defense Fund, which she targets for succumbing to market logic and teaming up with the very industry responsible for causing climate change in the first place. In Klein's telling, Big Green groups have wasted time and political capital by cozying up to their fossil-fuel donors, focusing on counterproductive mechanisms like cap-and-trade, and, in the extreme case of the Nature Conservancy, literally drilling for oil and gas on a patch of Texas land set aside for habitat preservation.

Ultimately, Klein argues, it is not just suicidal or unwise to continue extracting carbon: it is wrong, a profound failure of shared responsibility. For all their faults, climate-change deniers are, at the very least, consistent: if global warming is not real, then we need not do anything. But, as 97 per cent of climate scientists tell us, global warming is real, and yet we're still not doing anything – or, at the very least, not doing enough.

The mental contortions required to square this circle boggle the mind. We know that oil companies are required to prove to shareholders that they always have new, proven sources to tap; as such, the industry has little incentive to shift to wind or solar (indeed, it invests paltry amounts – typically, less than one per cent of overall expenditures – on renewable energy). We also know the amount of carbon that can still be burned before we reach total catastrophe (565 gigatons), and we know that current proven reserves come to five times that amount (2,795 gigatons). We know that, despite claims to the contrary, the technology to begin an immediate mass shift to renewable energy exists now; we know that such a shift – such a "Marshall Plan for the Earth," as Klein calls it – would create new job opportunities dwarfing the unemployment triggered by the end of the hydrocarbon sector. But, instead, we continue to tinker around the edges – in no small part, thanks to the stranglehold that oil, gas, and coal companies have over both the energy market and our political processes.

Klein's great gifts have always been synthesizing huge amounts of information and drawing connections between seemingly disparate issues; on those points, This Changes Everything is no different. Still, the book is not without its faults. Klein is not an especially elegant writer, and she frequently gets mired in repetitive platitudes, awkward syntax, left-wing cliché, and bumpy rhetorical landings. A larger problem is that it is never quite clear what she means when she refers to "capitalism" – as she does frequently, including in the subtitle of the book. Sometimes, she seems to simply mean deregulated capitalism, or neoliberalism; elsewhere, she seems to mean the profit motive itself; elsewhere, she seems to be referring more narrowly to the extractive economy. But none of those things are quite synonymous with the system that Adam Smith and Karl Marx devoted their lives to studying.

If capitalism itself is the problem, what does Klein mean when she writes that "[t]here is plenty of room to make profit in a zero-carbon economy" and then, elsewhere, that "our economic system and our planetary system are now at war"? The reader is left unsure. The broad strokes she advocates – community-managed power utilities, massive government investment in renewable energy, cheap and accessible public transit – may be radical by today's standards, and are probably a long way off. But they're hardly anti-capitalist as such – in fact, they sound a lot like a hypercharged European social democracy, albeit with ecology at its core. This may seem like a minor theoretical quibble, but it has serious implications for the way the book will be received. Klein's ever-present enemies on the right will call her a command-economy Stalinist; meanwhile, some of her erstwhile allies on the hard left will attack her for not going far enough. Defining her terms more precisely would have helped Klein better face both of these critiques.

The most convincing part of This Changes Everything is the case Klein makes for what she calls "Blockadia" – the loosely affiliated network of social movements that is confronting the extractive industry everywhere from Greece's gold mines to our own tar sands. In North America, Blockadia has achieved its highest-profile coverage in the battles against the Keystone XL and Northern Gateway pipelines, which, thanks to their potent symbolism and sheer geographic sprawl, have managed to unite a diverse and unlikely array of constituencies. (The struggle against Keystone XL is sometimes called a "Cowboys and Indians" alliance thanks to the key involvement of ranchers and Indigenous people.) Even to a sympathetic observer, Blockadia can seem a bit reactionary, a bit not-in-my-backyard. After all, the unquenchable demand for energy will ensure that oil gets to market one way or another, regardless of whether a given project is approved. And, in terms of global supply, the amount of bitumen moved by a pipeline like Keystone XL would be a drop in the bucket, so to speak. Wouldn't our environmentalist efforts be better directed elsewhere?

But Klein makes a compelling argument against such resignation. If we accept the science behind anthropogenic climate change, then every new barrel of oil is less a drop in the proverbial bucket and more a nail in our collective coffin. This means that stopping a pipeline through Nebraska or halting shale-gas extraction on Mi'kmaq land becomes not an expression of NIMBY outrage but an absolute moral imperative. As French anti-fracking activists say, "Ni ici, ni ailleurs" – neither here nor elsewhere. Seen in this light, Blockadia is doing the most important work of all: making life more difficult for the fossil-fuel industry, destabilizing the investment climate around resource extraction, and, crucially, keeping carbon in the ground.

There is another takeaway from This Changes Everything worth dwelling on, especially for Canadians, barraged as we are by endless attempts to greenwash the tar sands as "ethical oil." It is this: if you consider the fossil-fuel industry's bleak record – from its two-faced efforts to pass, and then quash, a toothless cap-and-trade bill in the US in 2009, to its lavish funding of climate-change denialism – it has not proven itself a willing partner in the shift to renewable energy, and it probably never will. You can hardly blame the oil executives for this. After all, truly defeating climate change will require the eventual extinction of the industry, one of the largest and most lucrative industries in history; ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson makes over $100,000 per day, and his company posted a record-breaking $45-billion profit in 2012. But this simply means that oil companies will have to be forced, through popular pressure and legislative action, to let themselves die – to become as fossilized as the long-dead life forms they suck from the Earth.

Drew Nelles is a senior editor at The Walrus.