Book Review: This Changes Everything, by Naomi Klein

A passage in Naomi Klein’s new climate manfesto, entitled This Changes Everything, stood out to me:

The southeastern [Indian] state of Andhra Pradesh has been the site of several iconic struggles, like one in the village of Kakarapalli, surrounded by rice patties and coconut groves, where local residents can be seen staffing a semipermanent checkpoint under a baobab tree at the entrance to town. The encampment chokes off the only road leading to a half-built power plant where construction was halted amidst protests in 2011. In nearby Sompeta, another power plant proposal was stopped by a breakthrough alliance of urban middle-class professionals and subsistence farmers and fishers who united to protect the nearby wetlands

Richard Branson tossed a globe around at a climate change-related press event. Naomi Klein argues that this image is illustrative of the fundamental political problems of climate change: We think we’re in charge of the Earth.

If you’re a bleeding-heart lefty like me, then that quote probably makes you very happy. After all, it ticks all the boxes: Pastoralism, nonviolent direct action, organized peasants, and a vaguely anarchist makeshift checkpoint set up under a tree. This, and other passages in This Changes Everything make climate activism seem like the culmination of all that the left has been working towards for decades. That, in fact, is precisely Klein’s argument: Climate change might be terrifying, but we can solve the problem with the same movements and policies that, by a convenient coincidence, fit exactly with the movements and policies that Klein already supports.

In case you haven’t detected it yet, I should say at this point that I’m somewhat skeptical of this thesis.

It’s not that Klein is wrong. Not exactly. Her argument can be broken down into two premises: Firstly, that climate change cannot be addressed without also changing the neoliberal economic order which prevails around the world today; and secondly, that existing left-wing movements already provide a template for how to create a low-carbon society. Klein’s argument in favour of the first proposition is entirely convincing. One chapter points out how international agreements to deal with climate change constantly run up against the free trade agenda. Another demonstrates how “green billionaires” such as Richard Branson are basically useless: at the end of the day, capitalism being what it is, they have to prioritize their investors over the climate. The first half of the book has a radical premise, but it is extremely well-supported by a unique synthesis of recent environmental history.

But once Klein is finished tearing down old systems, she devotes about a third of the book to building up an alternative. And this is where the problems emerge: Klein abandons the critical approach she applies to the prevailing right-wing order, giving the left-wing largely sympathetic treatment where the climate is concerned. Rather than taking up the difficult soul-searching that will be required to adopt even left-wing movements to the challenge of climate, Klein instead simply presents a series of tropes that have been staples of the left-wing echo chamber for decades. This approach isn’t always off the mark; it’s unsurprising that those who have been fighting against neoliberalism for three decades will have at least some of the answers when it comes to averting the harm it does to the climate. And Klein does indeed point to some promising movements for change. Her account of the role of indigenous movements in stopping pipelines and fracking is particularly compelling, particularly as she draws links between these and other kinds of on-the-ground resistance efforts.

But even in this case, she seems to have half-forgotten about climate change. In many of the cases she cites, the resistance is primarily motivated by concern about the local effects of the fossil fuel industries: Water tables poisoned by fracking, mountaintops destroyed by coal mining, and coastlines threatened by oil tankers. These are very real and pressing concerns, and we should support people fighting back against these harmful effects of the fossil fuel industry. But Klein leaves a very important question unanswered: If these impacts on the local environment are somehow mitigated, then can we still count on this kind of local resistance purely for the sake of the climate? If fracking is made healthier, coal mining is made less destructive, and fossil fuel transportation by ship and pipeline is made safer, then can we expect these movements to stick around purely for the sake of the climate? Perhaps there is an argument to be made that we can, but Klein doesn’t make it.

Another problem is that while Klein spends a good deal of her book excoriating the established environmental movement for its collaboration with industry, she falls hook, line and sinker for some of the cultural baggage that has been holding environmentalists back. Environmentalism, she argues, should be low-tech, democratic, and rooted in the need to protect local ecosystems. Klein makes an absurd comparison between view of conservation inspired by images like Earthrise and the Pale Blue Dot, and the image of Richard Branson holding up a big inflatable globe, as if he’s “in charge” (a favourite term of Klein’s) of the entire planet. If your environmentalism is inspired by an enterprise as technocratic of the space program, Klein argues, then you’re doing it wrong. Much better to fight to protect the lower-case earth: the ground beneath your feet. Klein’s stretched comparison between her own fertility struggles and the struggles of the planet to bring forth life reaffirm this view when she heavily implies that the naturopath she visited was far more effective in helping her become pregnant than the more traditional fertility doctors she had previously tried.

Klein’s fertility treatment is her own business, of course. But when combined with her thoughts about the Pale Blue Dot, it becomes clear that Klein’s book is based firmly in 1970s environmentalism, which was at its heart a reaction to industrial technocracy. This led to a deep distrust of scientists and engineers in favour of a personal, even spiritual engagement with nature. And forty-four years after the first Earth Day, Klein is pushing the same basic narrative, in which science and technology are primarily part of the problem rather than the solution. I bet you can guess what Klein thinks of nuclear power.

The thing is that nothing is that simple. Yes, technology has been poisoning the planet on a large-scale since the nineteenth century, and scientists and engineers have often done more harm than good. But this is not the 1970s, and many of the scientists now sounding the alarm about the climate are part of the kind of large, bureaucratic scientific institution that makes hippy environmentalism so uncomfortable. The engineers developing wind turbines, electric cars, and new kinds of bike infrastructure are also often very establishment figures, many of whom probably lack any kind of spiritual connection to nature. But we need all hands on deck to address the climate crisis. Yes, we need to challenge the prevailing economic order as well as our own rates of consumption. But we also need to leverage every single sustainable alternative we can get our hands on, regardless of whether it is centralized, local, high-tech, low-tech, socialistic, or capitalist. Because the climate doesn’t care about our political and economic preferences.

I don’t really mind if environmentalists prefer to see the planet as a space-ship, a goddess, a super-organism, or even a resource to be exploited, so long as that worldview is mobilized into a willingness to fight. But Klein’s distrust of scientific diagnoses and technological solutions is dangerous. The planet may well need its equivalent of naturopathic doctors who are capable of looking at it holistically and proposing low-tech solutions that take advantage of existing environmental processes. And it certainly needs dedicated activists ready to put their bodies on the line in the fight against fossil fuel companies. But the Earth also needs something more like traditional medicine: lab-coated scientists who use satellites, computer algorithms, and advanced chemistry to diagnose its problems, as well as ambitious engineers who can prescribe high-tech solutions. We need all of the above.

Anybody who has read more than a few posts in this blog can tell that I’m pretty left-wing. And that means that, naturally, I think that left-wing thought is a better approximation of reality than right-wing thought, including the centre-right consensus of the current economic paradigm. But it’s hubristic to think that any political ideology, which is an imperfect product of political alliances and historical contingencies, provides the perfect analysis of or solution to climate change, which is bigger than any political debate. Klein is probably right that right-wing ideology is inseparable from the practices that are causing climate change. But just because we on the left are more sympathetic to the problem, it doesn’t mean that we, too, won’t have to make political sacrifices. Real action on the climate demands that we seriously reconsider our positions on things like gentrification and technocracy. We need to fit our concern for the oppressed into the harsh facts of climate change, and find ways to help them that don’t make the problem worse. This difficult task is what Klein misses in her book.

The Ukrainian Crisis and Climate Change

The recent crisis in Ukraine is going to make these shale gas resources very tempting. If we’re not careful, that will mean more fracking and a lot more carbon emissions. Image from Kyivpost.

This is meant to be a technology blog, but, as I’ve argued previously, technology does not exist in a vacuum. It both influences and is influenced by society, politics, economics, culture, and the environment. And so, in order to properly introduce this post, I’m going to have to do a little bit of amateur speculation about geopolitics. Bear with me.

If you’ve paid any attention to the news in the last few weeks, you will have noticed that things are a little bit tense in Ukraine. Honestly it looks pretty dire. Crimea is, for all intents and purposes, now part of Russia, and it seems like Vladimir Putin has his eye on the Donetsk region as well. The “Pro-Russian Militias” operating in Eastern Ukraine almost certainly include at least a few Russian soldiers sent to stir up exactly the kind of unrest we’re seeing now. And Moscow’s recent warnings issued to Kiev seem to be little more than flimsy pretext to invade another part of Ukraine, ostensibly in order to protect the welfare of Russians living there.

I think, however, that this will turn out a little bit differently than things turned out in Crimea. President Obama’s apparent impotence in the face of Putin’s aggression has been a pretty big embarrassment for him, and when Putin makes another move there will considerable pressure on Obama to act. Similar public pressure could assert itself in other Western countries. My own prime minister Stephen Harper seems particularly keen to get involved in the crisis.

I don’t mean to say that we are on the verge of World War 3. Western powers are probably not willing to risk starting a nuclear war over Ukraine. (Sorry, Ukraine). But I do think that we could see some very severe economic sanctions being imposed on Russia. And Russia will retaliate with the most potent economic weapon they have available: Their energy resources. Ukraine and much of Europe are highly dependent on Russian gas to heat their homes, which gives Putin a pretty important strategic advantage.

This would not be the first time that energy resources have been used as a diplomatic weapon, of course. It was OPEC’s decision to use “the oil weapon” that led to the energy crisis of 1973, which was a major transitional moment in how the world thinks about both transportation and energy use. But it might not turn out that way this time. Joe Biden recently toured Ukraine, and engaged in a little bit of “Shale gas missionary work“, and the crisis is also giving a boost to the US domestic fracking industry: two Congressional bills have been introduced in an effort to speed up the approval of new fracking projects on the grounds that this will enhance US national security by reducing Europe’s dependence on Russian energy. A Republican sponsor of the bill argued that “opposing this legislation is like hanging up on a 911 call from our friends and allies”.

Outside the United States, British Prime Minister David Cameron has been promoting British fracking, pointing out that “Some countries are almost 100 percent reliant on Russian gas, so I think it is something of a wake-up call”. And in Canada, the Conservative Government has been promoting Tar Sands oil to counter Russia. Rather than causing us to rethink our energy consumption habits, as the 1973 crisis did, the crisis in Ukraine could cause the Western World to double down on unconventional fossil fuels.

This is very dangerous. Even if you ignore the fairly well-substantiated claims that fracking pollutes groundwater, the methane emissions from fracking sites alone are extremely dangerous for the climate. And some brief calculation reveals that if all 482 trillion cubic feet of shale gas under the United States alone are fracked and burned, somewhere around 25.5 million tons of carbon dioxide will be released into the atmosphere. That gas needs to stay in the ground. There are, however, few things that can motivate for major technological change like geopolitical crises, and so it seems distressingly likely that the events in Ukraine could wind up locking in a whole lot more carbon emissions at precisely the time when we need to be promoting renewables.

Is there an alternative to this? I don’t know. Environmentalists don’t much chance of being heard in the discussions over Ukraine, which will undoubtedly be framed as serious discussions for serious people. (Serious people generally don’t care about the climate). But perhaps there is an opportunity to use this crisis for good. I don’t know what Ukrainian or European renewable resources look like, or whether they could be developed quickly enough to reduce dependence on Russian gas. Nor do I know if there’s much possibility-either technological or political-for the expansion of nuclear power or hydroelectricity to meet the demand. But environmentalists with a better eye for energy geopolitics than I have should be thinking very seriously about these things.

Geopolitics has always had a relationship to technological development, because it provides one of the most potent ways of disrupting existing socio-technical regimes. It was the First World War, for example, that really made the motor vehicle a force to contend with, while the Second World War made intercontinental air travel possible. Since the basic task of the environmentalist is to disrupt existing socio-technical regimes in ways that are favourable for the planet, we should learn to use these crises to our advantage. We should try and counter the narratives coming out of Ukraine that call on us to abandon our drive to sustainability so that we can thwart the new Red Menace, and instead argue that this is precisely the opportunity we need to make a real commitment to carbon neutral energy. Maybe if we manage to do this for once, a global political crisis can be used for some good.


Cultured Meat and the Genealogy of the Environmental Movement

Apparently it tasted a little dry, but on the up-side, this hamburger could help save the world.

Hamburgers, tasty though they may be, are rarely newsworthy. Last week, however, there was a fairly interesting exception to that rule in the form of the first ever completely synthetic hamburger. That means that no cattle were harmed in the production of the burger’s patty; it was made of tissue grown from cow stem cells in a lab. There’s been speculation about this kind of process before, but this is the first time anybody has turned the idea into something you can actually put on a bun with lettuce and serve with a plate of chips.

While we should probably admit that using biotechnology to grow animal parts independent of the animals that sustain them is normally the subject of some very pessimistic science fiction,  we shouldn’t let these misgivings stop us from appreciating the potential of this technology. The meat industry, which this technology could reform or completely replace, is one of the most resource-intensive on the planet. The meat industry is the source of a significant percentage of global greenhouse gas emissions, as well as other forms of pollution such as manure. It also takes up enormous amounts of land, and it is the site of some of the most barbaric cruelties we human beings inflict on any other creature. It seems obvious that our consumption of meat is a significant threat to the environment.

That being said, the dream of a purely vegetarian or vegan society is likely to remain just that for at least another century. PETA campaigns may be convincing more and more people to eliminate animal products from their diets, but the vast majority of the population still eats meat and seems largely unconcerned with the ethical and environmental problems of the meat industry. While some of these people might be persuaded to adopt a less radical dietary change such as Meatless Mondays, it seems likely that people will continue to eat meat for some time to come.

Given that, this artificial burger seems almost too good to be true. If high quality artificial meat can be produced on a large enough scale, then we can enjoy steaks that require no cruelty to produce. It’s also probably fair to speculate that the environmental impacts of such an industry will be considerably less than those of the meat industry it would replace. Bio-industrial facilities can be stacked to take up less land, and can be built locally to save on transportation costs. Furthermore, I suspect that it will be much easier to control the emissions of a vat of proteins than of a one ton animal with legs and free will.

That being said, I think there’s a very large potential obstacle in the way of this technology that comes from a somewhat unlikely place. I am referring to the environmental movement. On the face of it, one would not expect environmental activists to oppose a technology with such obvious environmental benefits, but it’s important to consider the ideological background of modern environmentalism. The contemporary environmental movement originated in the 1960s and 1970s, and is grounded in a fairly legitimate reaction to the growing centralizing technocracy and consumer society that was existed at the time. The environmental movement thus has genealogical ties to the 1960s peace movement, the antinuclear proliferation movement, and a whole host of other activist traditions originating from the hippie generation. This can be seen in some of their political positions. Nuclear power, genetically modified crops, and industrial agriculture are opposed partly because these technologies are best suited to a centralized, expert-driven technocracy that environmentalism grew up in opposition to. Conversely, things like organic food and small-scale wind power are promoted by environmentalists because they are relatively low-tech solutions that promote resiliency, self-sufficiency and democracy.

It’s unlikely that anybody will figure out how you can grow your own meat at home. Even if the necessary expertise could be somehow developed in a radical permaculture commune, there is still the question of where they would get bovine stem cells. These complications mean that synthetic meat is likely to take the form of a centralized, expert-driven industry for the foreseeable future. And that doesn’t fit in very well with the visions promoted by environmentalist organizations. I don’t mean to suggest that all the objections these organizations might have are inherently wrong. Indeed, their skepticism might allow them to uncover some environmental danger or health threat associated with fake meat that gets missed by others. But as we negotiate the kinds of new technologies that could make our food system more sustainable, we need to think critically about why activists take the positions they do, keeping in mind that everybody has their own little dogmas and irrational biases. There is no such thing as a purely rational political actor.

I could end this post there, but I think there’s one other trend I should note that could be relevant to this debate. As I’ve said, mainstream environmentalism takes the positions it does because of its roots in the social movements of our parents’ generation. While younger people have internalized those values, mainstream environmentalism remains in one sense a baby boomer’s movement. But as milennials begin to assert themselves in activist circles, we’re starting to see them developing an alternative perspective, which is informed by the political importance of the internet-itself a fairly technocratic space that requires the central provision of some crucial resources. While the hippies generally seek to simplify the world by avoiding and opposing centralized technocracy, adherents to this new philosophy are better described as “hackers”, who seek to directly engage with complex systems, subvert them, and bend them to their will. This, I suspect, will lead to a different set of environmental values, under which fake meat could very well be seen enthusiastically as an environmentally beneficial bio-hack.

When one can talk about generational activist infighting over fake meat, it becomes obvious that we live in a very strange and exciting world indeed.