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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Okja begins as a buddy flick – but ends up in the slaughterhouse

Korean director Bong Joon-ho works with British co-writer Jon Ronson on this tale of genetically engineered superpigs.

If Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation studio responsible for Spirited Away, were to branch out into live action, the result might be something like Okja – at least in part. It’s the tale of a genetically engineered breed of waddling grey superpigs, not so much porcine in appearance as manatee or hippo-like, created by the twitchy, imperious CEO of a multinational corporation, Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton), in the hope of solving a global food shortage.

Each of these docile beasts is despatched to a different corner of the planet to be reared. The enormous Okja grows up in rural Korea, gambolling in the fields with her young companion, Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun).

Okja is no dumb animal – she saves the child from falling off a cliff by using a rope to improvise a sophisticated pulley system. She should be working in crisis management, not ending up on someone’s fork. But eventually the day comes when Mirando’s representatives arrive to claim their several thousand pounds of flesh.

The early scenes borrow the leisurely rhythms of Mija’s idyllic days with Okja; she snoozes on the beast’s vast belly, softly rising and falling in time with her pet’s breathing. Yet once she follows the kidnapped creature to Seoul, where they are taken in by a band of animal rights activists, the film lurches from one style to another. What begins as a tranquil buddy movie finishes up in the blood-soaked slaughterhouse where Okja is due to end her days; it’s as though My Neighbour Totoro had morphed into Fast Food Nation.

The film’s Korean director, Bong Joon-ho, and his British co-writer, Jon Ronson, present viewers with a transaction that reflects the ethical and ecological implications of the story.

We can have our heart-warming tale of the bond between human and animal, but only if we accept also those parts of the plot which demystify that relationship and take it to its industrialised extreme. It’s a bold strategy that has worked before for this film-maker – in The Host and Snowpiercer he used the genres of horror and action, respectively, to smuggle through political and environmental messages.

But Okja risks falling between two stools. Young children who might enjoy the first third (and can see Okja on Netflix the very day it is released in cinemas, easily bypassing the 15 certificate) would be alternately bored and traumatised by the rest of it. Conversely, adults will have an awful lot of whimsy to wade through before reaching the meat of the movie.

There are compensations. The film is sumptuously designed by Lee Ha-jun and Kevin Thompson, and crisply shot by Darius Khondji. Swinton, who played the villain in Snowpiercer as a grotesque northern schoolmarm with oversized gnashers, puts in the distorting dentures once again in Okja as both Lucy and her sister, Nancy, with whom she is locked in an irresolvable rivalry. Lucy is bleached (pink skin, platinum hair, white robes) to the point of invisibility, whereas Nancy is a harrumphing Penelope Keith type in a quilted jacket.

Other capable actors are undone by the unreasonable demands placed on them. Shirley Henderson, as Lucy’s assistant, has been directed to talk at comically high speed for want of any actual funny dialogue, and Paul Dano would be more plausible as a winsome animal rights activist if he weren’t leading the Animal Liberation Front. The group’s portrayal here as a group of touchy-feely flower children (“This is a non-lethal chokehold, OK?” one member says, as he disables a security guard) is laughable.

But no one comes out of Okja quite as badly as Jake Gyllenhaal in the role of Dr Johnny Wilcox, a wacky nature TV presenter who is like Steve Irwin trapped in Timmy Mallett’s body. The film is at its most wrong-headed in scenes where Dr Johnny, left alone with Okja, first forces her to mate with another superpig (a pointless episode that serves no plot function) and then tortures her.

It’s that risky trade-off again: enjoy the knockabout chase sequence in which Okja fires turds at her adversaries, and later you must endure the darker side of the same narrative. It will be a forgiving audience indeed that doesn’t recoil from this approach, which is too much stick and not enough carrot.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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