This Changes Nothing: A review of Naomi Klein’s book - This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate
Naomi Klein spent five years researching this book. She travelled to many places around the world where environmental struggles were taking place between the dominant economic model of “dirty extractivism” and people struggling to protect their land, water, and air from the onslaughts of the capitalist exploitation model. She interviewed hundreds of people (indigenous leaders, climate activists, climate deniers, scientists, journalists, political leaders, UN officials, heads of major environmental groups) to give us a book that is brimming with interesting, thought provoking, facts, ideas, and descriptions of local struggles and their global implications.
As such, this book is a gold mine of perspectives and insights into the struggle to save our planetary environment. It lays out the broad landscape of climate controversy and responses, from business as usual, to “free-market” solutions, to geoengineering, to truly transformative visions. She argues that we must overcome the worldview associated with capitalism, with its assumptions about innate human greed and selfishness, and begin to understand our human project as a communal, democratic, planetary endeavor premised on the common good of both humanity and nature. This book is well worth reading.
Yet my review is entitled “This Changes Nothing.” I will try to show why Naomi Klein’s proposal for addressing the climate crisis is entirely inadequate, appallingly vague, and deeply naïve. Her sincerity is not at issue, but rather her failure to recognize and deal with the deeper paradigm on which the destruction of our planetary climate is based. The book is full of valuable information, but it is not where we should turn if we want to envision a sustainable future on this planet. She is clear that capitalism is the problem, but she misses the fact that capitalism is only part of a world system that needs transformation in its entirety.
As Klein makes clear, dirty extractivism is not only raping the Earth, from the jungles of Ecuador and Brazil to the Niger Delta, from the Tar Pits of Alberta to the fracking frenzy in Pennsylvania and Texas. This destructive extractivism mines fossil fuels that are then burned to pollute our planet’s atmosphere, oceans, forests, and agricultural lands. The planet is heating up with major destructive consequences everywhere we look. We now find ourselves at “Decade Zero.” There is no more time for delays, detours, or half-hearted compromises with the neoliberal free-market ideology that is rapidly losing credibility worldwide (although, she says, that still retains immense economic and political power). She writes:
John Kerry has likened the threat of climate change to a “weapon of mass destruction,” and it’s a fair analogy. But if climate change poses risks on par with nuclear war, then why are we not responding with the seriousness that the comparison implies? Why aren’t we ordering companies to stop putting our future at risk, instead of bribing and cajoling them? Why are we gambling? (225)
Klein attended meetings of the climate deniers (who receive major funding from the big fossil fuel companies). In chapter one on why “The Right is Right” she describes the climate denier think tanks, such as the Heartland Institute in the USA, as ‘right’ because they truly understand the implications and the seriousness of the climate crisis. Many others who are not convinced may be on the border of this or that need for serious changes and commitments, but the climate deniers understand what is at stake—total change of their ideology and their way of life—and they want none of it.
She has a chapter on the “free trade” agreements, like NAFTA, that themselves constitute disaster for the environment, giving rise to an international fossil fuel economy where everything from food to useless consumer goods are transported around the planet while burning fossil fuels. Under such trade deals, corporations have the legal power to bring lawsuits against governments whose environmental or labor laws cut into their profit margins. The anti-human features of global capitalism are identical with its anti-nature features: private profit accumulated through exploitation and destruction: “The same logic that is willing to work laborers to the bone for pennies a day will burn mountains of dirty coal while spending next to nothing for pollution controls because it’s the cheapest way to produce. So when factories moved to China, they also got markedly dirtier” (81).
Klein develops, throughout the book, a picture of the world view behind the climate crisis. Coming out of Francis Bacon’s 17th century predictions that the new sciences could lead to human domination over the natural world, the emerging capitalist ideology included both colonialism and slavery. Profit and power were the fundamentals allowing dominators to extract from colonial subjects and from slaves as much profit as possible, treating their human victims as negligible.
She points out that Adam’s Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published in 1776, the same year that James Watt’s steam engine was invented. The steam engine was touted as the invention that could at last free the producer from dependence on nature. It could be moved anywhere and operated any time using the fossil fuel coal. Man’s dependence on nature was now nearly eliminated and his capacity for domination and exploitation of nature nearly unlimited. But this attitude spells disaster. She quotes one political scientist to the effect that “facing truths about climate change ‘means recognizing that the power relation between humans and the earth is the reverse of the one we have assumed for three centuries’” (175). She agrees:
We know that we are trapped within an economic system that has it backward; it behaves as if there is no end to what is actually finite (clean water, fossil fuels, and the atmospheric space to absorb their emissions) while insisting that there are strict and immovable limits to what is actually quite flexible: the financial resources that human institutions manufacture and that, if managed differently, could build the kind of caring society we need. (347)
Then there are the geoengineers, the “mad scientists” as she calls them, who envision putting trillions of sulfur dioxide particles into the atmosphere or reflective mirrors into space or “cloud brightening” agents into the cloud cover. Klein describes their arguments and proposals in some detail. She sees this clearly as the climax of the false relation to nature initiated by Francis Bacon and the early-modern paradigm of the 17thcentury. Instead of changing our world view and our ways of relating to nature, our arrogance now leads us to envision engineering the entire planet in ways that are both untested and untestable, with unknown consequences that could be catastrophic. She points out the broad resistance to geoengineering among climate scientists and biologists, and the striking lack of “humility before nature” exhibited by the geoengineers (267).
It is not all that different with the big environmental organizations such as the Nature Conservancy, the Environmental Defense Fund, Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International, and the World Resources Institute. Their millions of dollars in funding resources comes from either big oil, big corporations (like Walmart), or big corporate foundations (like the Ford or Rockefeller foundations). Their environmental advocacy, in return, emphasizes corporate friendly “solutions,” such as carbon trading, green investment, self-regulation by corporations, and other options that never even get close to addressing the roots of our environmental crisis. The Nature Conservancy even maintains its own oil well in Texas, pumping its own fossil fuel, and reaping its own profits through pollution (192-94), and Conservation International has partnerships with some of the worst polluters on the planet, such as Walmart, Monsanto, Shell, Chevron, McDonalds, and BP (196).
Klein does not see much hope for a sustainable world coming from this quarter. Like the mad scientists of the geoengineering movement, many of the big green organizations are staffed by people still operating under the capitalist paradigm ostensibly requiring nothing more than proper “market solutions” to address climate change. The most promising and inspiring encounters from her five year’s of travel and research come from “Blockadia.” This term refers to the legal, spiritual, activist, economic, and civil disobedient resistance growing rapidly worldwide to the extractivist projects of the big corporations: blocking their mining, their pipelines, that transport systems, and their supposed legal right to rape the land and destroy the environment.
The Blockadia movement has brought together traditionally unlikely bedfellows, for example, local ranchers in Montana with local indigenous groups who assert their treaty rights to an environment that allows them to flourish with clean water, soil, and air. The Northern Cheyenne have broken legal ground by arguing that the 1977 Clean Air Act in the USA includes their right to breathe clean air (390). Klein chronicles that legal challenges being made by indigenous peoples around the world to the invasion of their lands and environments by the dirty extractors. However, this global struggle is more than a resistance movement, it now embraces a self-conscious worldwide struggle to save our planet.
The Blockadia global resistance movement has realized that resistance is not enough. We must actively convert our local economies to sustainable, renewable, fossil fuel free community systems, working with nature’s rhythms and requirements rather than extracting and dominating. These new systems “working synergistically” with the Earth “require a humility that is the antithesis of damming a river, blasting bedrock for gas, or harnessing the power of the atom” (394). “There is no more potent weapon in the battle against fossil fuels than the creation of real alternatives. Just the glimpse of another kind of economy can energize the fight against the old one…. It must be accompanied by a power correction in which the old injustices that plague our societies are righted once and for all. That is how you build an army of solar warriors” (397-99)
The army of solar warriors who envision another kind of economy will require planning, but climate planning will be of a “different sort entirely” from traditional kinds of planning. People at the grassroots level will need “the tools and the power to build a better life for themselves” (133). Planning must be decentralized as much as possible but still integrated into a global “Marshall Plan for the Earth.” There apparently must be planetary coordination and vision along with decentralized planning and control. However, “the failure of our political leaders to even attempt to ensure a safe future for us represents a crisis of legitimacy of almost unfathomable proportions” (364). Where, we may ask, will this new legitimate authority for planetary coordination and vision come from?
There is also hope, she argues, in the fact that history is full of sudden changes of thought and attitude, many of these changes arising from values, and from those who based their resistance of humanitarian values, not from merely economic or resource demands. She cites the end of colonialism, the ending of slavery, and the civil rights movement in the United States. It can happen suddenly, she insists, one day we are a lone, morally indignant voice crying in the wilderness, then suddenly we find that everyone is speaking the same message (see Martin 2018).
The massive planetary change, she says, needs to be “democratic,” by which she seems to mean grassroots, bottom up, and concerned with the common good and not elite privileges. We need to delegitimatize the dominant extractivist-capitalist world view, with its “stifling free-market ideology” and create “a Marshall Plan for the Earth” (458-60). It cannot be simply the elimination of the fossil fuel economy but must be a new understanding that the Earth is there for us all to live upon and for future generations to enjoy: “the climate challenge will be fruitless unless it is understood as part of a much broader battle of worldviews, a process of rebuilding and reinventing the very idea of the collective, the communal, the commons, the civil, and the civic after so many decades of attack and neglect” (460).
Klein’s Marshall Plan for the Earth includes a “universal social safety net” and a guaranteed annual income for everyone on our planet. Such a revisioning of the purpose of economics as directed toward the common good, rather than private profit, “opens up a space for a full-throated debate about values—about what we owe to one another based on our shared humanity, and what it is that we collectively value more than economic growth and corporate profits” (461). If people have a guaranteed income, then they will no longer be forced by economic necessity to compromise values in order to earn a living. A planetary debate about who and what we are as human beings, and the values we share, could then become a living reality.
Yet, as I said above, this changes nothing. Naomi Klein, like so many environmentalists who lack a truly penetrating critical analysis, does not discern that the capitalist paradigm and the sovereign nation-state paradigm come out of the same early-modern set of assumptions. Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum was published in 1620. The Treaty of Westphalia, at which scholars say the modern system of nation-states was founded, took place in 1648. Like capitalism, which fragments humanity into a competitive system of self-interested units, the system of sovereign nation-states fragments humanity into absolute territorial units, independent of one another and recognizing no enforceable laws above one another. Like capitalism, this system has no notion of a planetary common good and is structurally incapable of embracing such a good. Klein recognizes a crisis of legitimacy of “almost unfathomable proportions,” yet offers no alternative to the system currently in power.
World Systems Scholars, for the past half century, have pointed out that these two systems (global capitalism and sovereign nation-states) are intricately related, reinforcing one another (Boswell and Chase-Dunn 2000). The capitalists have colonized the governments of these nation-states, and the nations themselves act from their own perceived self-interest and not for the common good of humanity. Neither genuine democracy, nor action toward planetary common good, nor protection of our universal human rights can flourish within this divisive system. It is this system as a whole that has caused the climate crisis. The very examples that Klein cites regarding domination and extractivism have just as much to do with militarized, territorially based nations as with capitalism: colonization, imperialism, endless wars, exclusivism regarding immigration, racism, free-trade agreements, off-shore bank accounts, and legal protections for corporate domination and exploitation.
That is why this book, informative as it is, ‘changes nothing.’ Klein argues that we need greater democracy, yet where can such greater democracy come from under the system of sovereign nations colonized by capitalism? She argues that we need a “global Marshall Plan,” yet she says nothing about the immense imperialism still rampant in the 21st century, nor the interstate military, endless wars, and economic rivalry among the big nations that is concerned with anything and everything except a true global climate plan that changes the way everyone does business. Where would such a Marshall Plan come from if not from democratic world government? She largely ignores the threat of nuclear holocaust.
She argues that we need a morality revolution in which our shared human values inform our global relationships, yet sovereign nations are institutionally driven to operate on a war, security, mistrust, and competition model, not on shared humanistic values. The world spends nearly two trillion dollars per year on weapons and wars, funds that could and should be used to transform our planet into a sustainable, life-affirming garden of peace with justice. Without transforming this system of militarized, sovereign nation-states, there is little hope that humankind can survive the next century.
The only really credible, value-based, and pragmatically effective response to the climate crisis is to ratify the Constitution for the Federation of Earth. A universal value base, premised on our common humanity, is already built into the Constitution,and the World Parliament that it creates is mandated to continue the discussion of how we can equitably and compassionately translate these values into concrete environmentally sustainable economic and social practices. The World Parliament is primarily elected by the grassroots of humanity, from 1000 electoral districts worldwide. The Constitution contains many features to ensure actualization of its mandate to preserve the Earth and create a sustainable, peaceful planetary civilization. A Marshall Plan for the Earth is already built into the Earth Constitution.
What environmentalists often fail to realize is that the complete change necessary to create a sustainable world civilization requires more than culture, more than values, more than endless resistance; it requires systemic (institutional) transformation as well. The capitalist system destroys human lives as well as the environment. But the world’s political system does the same. They are both anti-life, anti-holism, anti-love. The Earth Constitution gives us comprehensive system change to complement cultural and moral change. All three are necessary parts of the holism of our planetary biosphere and the human situation.
And surely “democracy” is necessarily more than the ‘populism’ advocated by Naomi Klein. Authentic democracy necessarily institutionalizes equality, liberty, and community, and that is why it is incompatible with capitalism, which is institutionalized inequality (Leech 2012). Democracy is also incompatible with militarized sovereign nation-states, for all war making, interstate rivalry, national security systems, spying, and interstate competitive struggle necessarily destroys democracy both within and between nations.
The Earth Constitution establishes authentic democracy for the Earth, an essential condition for climate sustainability. Article 13 guarantees a number of environmental rights to clean water, air, nourishing food, etc. The Constitution restores the legitimacy of the nation-states by limiting their sovereignty to internal affairs and integrating them as one component of our planetary human community. For the first time in history, the common good of the people of Earth will be represented in the World Parliament, which will not be dominated by sovereign nations (as is the UN), nor by corporations and the wealthy. The people of Earth will have a global public authority, explicitly mandated to serve their common good, disarm the nations, and protect the global environment. The Constitution creates a global public banking system that can easily finance all these transformations.
The kind of planning Klein envisions will then be possible. Local decentralized control can be integrated into planetary coordination, monitoring, and dialogue. Democracy becomes more than mere populism; it must be institutionalized so that the grassroots of the planet are drawn into a system of planetary responsibility and global awareness, exactly what is needed for planetary regeneration and sustainability. Coordination, and the dissemination of knowledge and techniques for sustainable agriculture, transportation, energy, economics, and finance must be worldwide and not based on intellectual property rights, corporate greed, national secrecy, or local exclusivism. All this is already embedded within the Earth Constitution.
Not only this, but under the authority of the Constitution, the Provisional World Parliament has already passed a World Legislative Act (WLA) for a guaranteed annual income for everyone on the planet (WLA #22). It boggles the mind that environmentalists struggle worldwide against overwhelming odds when they could simply choose the one route that would make transformation to a global, value-based system, as smooth, comprehensive, and painless as possible. Naomi Klein’s recommendations truly “change nothing,” for they recommend transforming the global capitalist system without defanging its militarized ally: the lawless system of nation-states. Unless we transform the whole to a democratic, values-based system, institutionalized to represent the common good of humanity and our natural world, we have no credible future to look forward to.
Naomi Klein’s book is deeply informative, but not transformative. It is deeply passionate without any practical means to translate that passion into action. It is deeply caring but lacks the knowledgeable analysis of our world system that can generate a practical plan for transformative action. It is deeply democratic without any viable means to translate the democratic spirit into institutionalized action. It lacks any mention of the absolute need to ratify the Constitution for the Federation of Earth.
Boswell, Terry and Christopher Chase-Dunn (2000). The Spiral of Capitalism and Socialism: Toward Global Democracy. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers.
Klein, Naomi (2014). This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Leech, Garry (2012). Capitalism: A Structural Genocide. London: Zed Books.
Legislative Acts of the Provisional World Parliament on-line at:
Martin, Glen T. (2010). The Constitution for the Federation of Earth: With Historical Introduction, Commentary, and Conclusion. Appomattox, VA: Institute for Economic Democracy Press. Also found on-line at www.earth-constitution.org
Martin, Glen T. (2018). Global Democracy and Human Self-Transcendence: The Power of the Future for Planetary Transformation. London: Cambridge Scholars Publishers.