Exploring the gospel principles of earth stewardship

Book Review: This Changes Everything – Capitalism vs. the Climate

This Changes Everything

Naomi Klein is a dedicated anti-corporatist and class warrior. Long before she focused on climate change, she was committed to battling the exploitation that seems to inevitably accompany aggregation of corporate power and wealth. That framing drives her analysis of anthropogenic climate change, embedding this profound environmental issue in an associated social, economic, and humanitarian context.

Klein is convinced that the crisis of climate change will be the catalyst for the political and economic revolution for which she has long struggled. She advocates that climate advocates embrace the accusation of right-wing pundits that climate change is a stalking horse for social revolution, and rise to their revolutionary role. She believes that these two seemingly intractable problems, (economic injustice and climate change), are the most profound moral challenges of our time, and can only be solved if they are attacked in tandem. Klein’s book is an explication of this political jujitsu, justification and recipe for turning a political epithet into a political agenda.

Klein exhorts society to reject an “extractivist” mentality in favor of an ecologically, socially, and economically sustainable alternative. Her soaring prose is powerful and thought-provoking, although perhaps occasionally too sweeping. For example, she vests tremendous hope in the power of Indigenous people and local control to protect the environment, but the efficacy of such a strategy deserves more rigorous evaluation than her romanticized vision seems to allow.

The book is not without other flaws, laden with too much Monday morning quarterbacking, too much 20-20 hindsight, too many unsubstantiated declarations about how much better things would have been if only yesterday’s leaders had possessed Klein’s wisdom. If only President Carter had framed his “malaise” speech in terms of shared sacrifice, the nation would have been galvanized to energy conservation. If only environmental organizations had eschewed common ground with corporate interests, meaningful climate legislation would have passed Congress in 2008.

Her indictments of major environmental organizations for “selling out” presume that her strategies (public protests and lawsuits) would have been more successful. That question is worth debate, but surely more complex than she presents. Lawsuits, for example, only work if the law is on your side. If you can’t pass environmentally protective laws, lawsuits become powerless.

She relies on anecdotes to argue that the largest environmental organizations have become “part of the problem,” but anecdotes – even many of them – should not be the basis for sweeping generalizations. To pick one example, I don’t know how the Nature Conservancy can justify oil production on conservation land, but I’d like to hear their side of the story. In any case, a complete accounting of any organization should include all its works, good and bad.

Unfortunately, Klein’s hostility to corporations and economic incentives blinds her to what could be constructive tools. She seems to categorically reject markets and economic incentives, rather than evaluating them on a case-by-case basis. Her prescription seems to be simply, “force the corporations to do the right thing.” If only it were so easy.

Klein’s fundamental priority is upending the global economic system – for which climate change is but one of many justifications. Only time will tell whether embedding climate action in an agenda of global political revolution is constructive, but her moral framing and hope in the face of overwhelming obstacles should resonate with many people of faith.

Overall, I have never so strongly recommended a book with which I have so many disagreements. I recommend this book not because I agree with the author on every point, but because she provocatively and articulately raises profoundly important questions. This book should be the basis for a very stimulating LDS Earth Stewardship book group.