A polluted beach in Alabama during the BP oil spill disaster of 2010. Photo: Kari Goodnough/Bloomberg
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Steven Poole on Naomi Klein: Could climate change action rejuvenate worldwide democracy?

In her new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism v the Climate, Naomi Klein provides a vividly reported and densely researched argument for how our future should look.

This Changes Everything: Capitalism v the Climate 
Naomi Klein
Allen Lane, 566pp, £20

Right-wing deniers of the robust findings of modern atmospheric science sometimes claim that the whole idea of global warming is just a front. What “warmers”, as they call them, really want is allegedly not just a sharp reduction in fossil-fuel emissions but a wholesale socioeconomic transition to tree-hugging socialism. Such cynics will be gladdened by Naomi Klein’s new book. For in it she does explicitly argue that the present “climate emergency” provides an excellent excuse for global revolution.

This is, for Naomi Klein, an acceptable version of “the shock doctrine”. In her brilliant 2007 book of that name, she demonstrated forensically that neoliberals have repeatedly exploited natural disasters, wars and economic crises to push through policies proclaimed necessary as a response but that they had always wanted anyway. (The rollbacks of public services after the 2008 financial crisis in the name of urgent “austerity” provided ample further confirmation of her thesis.) The shock doctrine, however, is apparently fine if it’s for a good cause. Here, global warming can be half welcomed as a “galvanising force” or a “catalyst” for building “societies that are safer and fairer in all kinds of other ways as well”.

Of course, Klein also believes – as do almost all scientists and non-specialists who aren’t shills for the oil companies – that anthropogenic global warming is happening. Yet the way she expresses the facts is often with the kind of exaggeration on to which self-proclaimed “sceptics” will gleefully fasten. She writes of a “crisis that threatens our survival as a species”, which it almost certainly doesn’t, though you would think that threatening famine, disease and flooding for hundreds of millions or billions of people was severe enough. Nor is global warming a threat to “life on earth” as a whole. Klein writes of “a battle between capitalism and the planet”, though the planet is in no danger at all.

Klein believes that we need to keep the rise in global average temperature within 2° Celsius to avoid the most catastrophic and brutal changes. She therefore spends the early parts of her book impatiently dismissing potential solutions that, in her view, will take too long, or are otherwise undesirable. In the United States and China, she writes, “The solar market continues to grow impressively. But it is not happening fast enough.” (And yet Germany already gets nearly a third of all its energy from a mix of renewables.)

Worse still than a too-slow solution is a hubristic one. Klein rehearses persuasively the reasons why geo-engineering – for instance, imitating the cooling effect of volcanoes by spraying tonnes of sulphate particles into the high atmosphere – is extremely risky. And nuclear power is bad because . . . Well, why exactly? Klein musters an impressive company of boo words in the following sentence: “Nuclear is a heavy industrial technology, based on extraction, run in a corporatist manner, with long ties to the military-industrial complex.” It represents, she continues, one of the “big corporate, big military, big engineering responses to climate change”.

Yet, like the shock doctrine, “big engineering” is bad only when it’s not good. For, elsewhere, Klein argues that the world needs an enormous public works programme to build new systems of “mass transit” and high-density housing. Figuring out how transport infrastructure escapes being counted as “big engineering” and therefore something to be sneered at is left as an exercise for the reader.

Klein argues with much more detailed and persuasive reporting against carbon markets, or the disturbingly comfortable relationship between some environmental organisations and oil companies. She is especially good on the failure of Barack Obama to take meaningful action on the climate, and on the depredations of “extractivism”, which in its modern form leads to fracking and the hell-scape of the Alberta tar sands.

Unfortunately, Klein periodically veers into hippie-ish mumbo-jumbo. She happily cites not only scientific evidence but eccentric sociological pronouncements by psychoanalysts and she accuses poor old Francis Bacon, one of the fathers of modern empirical science, of having a pathological desire to violate Mother Earth. This reader hurried swiftly on.

Having dismissed market-based or technological approaches that she deems too slow, Klein lavishes more attention – and patience – on grass-roots activism and nurturing environmentalism. This is typified by the indigenous peoples of her native Canada, who, as she demonstrates in a series of cheering scenes, are stopping new pipelines and drilling by asserting ancient land rights that as yet have not been definitively rejected by any court. (Though when some First Nation Canadians build a ceremonial bonfire to “burn continuously for days”, Klein doesn’t complain about the carbon emissions.)

Such on-the-ground battles are increasingly being won elsewhere in the world – including in the forests of Greece, or in rural Britain – giving rise to what Klein perceives as a virtual nation of environmental resistance that she christens “Blockadia”.

“The goal becomes not to build a few gigantic green solutions,” she concludes, “but to infinitely multiply smaller ones.” More Blockadia, more renewable energy and more confiscatory taxes on oil profits, on the way to a rejuvenated worldwide democracy: Klein portrays all this as the grand culmination of centuries of civil-rights struggles. Indeed, it seems that almost as great as her sincere and often movingly expressed fear of what decades’ more warming will do to our currently familiar environments and ecosystems is her fear of some solution to global warming that will not require a worldwide political transformation.

Any fix that enables “business as usual” to continue – a triumph of “big engineering”, say, in the form of nuclear fusion – won’t usher in all of the other things that Klein finds desirable and that many readers will, too, such as a universal basic income, renationalisation of utilities and better public transport. Yet, despite her pleas, science alone cannot tell us that these nice things are part of the mandatory response to global warming.

So how should Klein’s vividly reported, densely researched (with the aid of several assistants) and passionately argued book be considered as a rhetorical intervention? Evidently it isn’t designed to change the minds of denialists, nor will it seduce the global rich, who, she darkly warns, will have to pay.

It will not appeal to those who think that inventing genetically modified crops to feed more people during droughts is a good idea, whatever happens to the climate. (Klein dismisses such work because it is mostly done by – boo! – “agribusiness giants”; the reader’s suspicion that she has not quite worked out how her preferred form of non-industrial agriculture could feed the world’s population is not assuaged by her admiring reference to the anti-GM activist Vandana Shiva.) And it won’t appeal to those who judge that, although Klein’s vision of a more equitable world is all very splendid, it is not likely to happen any time soon.

But in using her powerful authorial brand to urge it at such length, Klein hopes to make it more likely – to help usher in “a people’s shock, a blow from below”. As such, the book is a utopian call to arms, much like the Communist Manifesto. Whatever else it does, it will also provide welcome confirmation for the conspiracy theories of her enemies. 

Steven Poole’s most recent book is “Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower?: A Treasury of Unbearable Office Jargon” (Sceptre, £8.99)

Update, 22 September: This piece originally referred to Klein reporting against "carbon tax". This should have read "carbon markets", and we have updated it accordingly.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: What Next?

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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear