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?

Marvel
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Smart and politically alert, Black Panther will inspire a generation of film students

Plus, Wakanda has a border control system to make Theresa May swoon. 

Before I went to see Black Panther, I had no idea whether or not it would be any good. That might sound strange, given the positive buzz around it, but I did have a nagging suspicion that “being nice about the first black-led Marvel film” might have got mixed up with “parading my anti-racist credentials on social media”.

Well, that suspicion was an unworthy one. Black Panther is not just smart and politically aware for a superhero film – it’s smart and politically aware, full stop. Its central conflict springs from its alternate-reality vision of Africa: specifically, a country called Wakanda, home of the world’s only reserves of “vibranium”. This has allowed Wakanda to become more technologically advanced than the West – “it’s as easy as riding a hoverbike”, the country’s chief scientist says to a bemused American at one point – and it has not only never been colonised, but never been mapped. It hides its lush plains and skyscrapers inside a holographic mountain.

A rare, mystical natural resource might be a staple of fantasy films (think of Avatar’s Ronsealishly named unobtainium), but putting it in the middle of Africa gives the film both a historical resonance – untold misery was caused by the 19th century efforts of European powers to secure the continent’s mineral wealth – and a contemporary one. It’s impossible to make a smartphone without rare earth metals, and some of the places where these are found, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, suffer from what economists call a “resource curse”. Without strong governments and infrastructure, the vast wealth obtainable by mining creates opportunities for corruption, and funds militias and civil wars.

Rare resources also attract vultures: which is exactly what Wakanda’s rulers fear. If they share the source of their power,  and give away their only advantage over the West, how will they be treated? A glance at their continental neighbours would be anything but reassuring.

That question – could you honestly advise Wakanda to share its vibranium with the world? – is interesting enough. But the film’s politics go even deeper, into uncomfortable questions about culture and immigration. All Wakandans have a tattoo on their inner lips, which grants them access to the kingdom: it’s a border control system that would make Theresa May swoon.

Early in the film, King T’Challa (whose alter ego is the superhero Black Panther) discusses with one of his closest advisers whether or not they have a duty to their fellow Africans, particularly refugees. W’Kabi (played by 28-year-old British actor Daniel Kaluuya) offers an argument we are more used to hearing from Trump voters in those worthy American newspaper profiles of flyover states: won’t mass migration mean the end of our unique culture? Putting that sentiment in the mouth of someone from an uncolonised African country is deeply provocative, helping audiences scale what the anthropologist Arlie Russell Hoschchild calls an “empathy wall”. The film ultimately rejects W’Kabi’s position, but it does give it space to be heard.

There’s another layer of sophistication to the political allegory here. The film’s true villain is not the white South African arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (although the parents who gave him that name really only have themselves to blame that he turned to crime and prosthetic augmentation). It’s the deeply conflicted figure of Killmonger, King T’Challa’s first cousin.

 Killmonger (Michael B Jordan) fights T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). Photo: Marvel.

The king’s father killed his own brother back in 1992 after discovering that he had arranged the theft of a cache of vibranium. The plan was to distribute it to black people around the world, so they could rise up against their (white) oppressors. “I think the best villains are ones that have a point of view that’s relatable and that you can empathise with,” screenwriter Joe Robert Cole said in a recent interview. “Sometimes it’s how far you take things that makes you a villain, and not necessarily the perspective.”

Again, the film gives Killmonger’s argument space to breathe. Raised by a single mother in America, when his dead father asks him in a vision why he has no tears for him, he says that life is cheap here, meaning: black life. The Wakandans are not pacifists – Black Panther can, and will, kill people with his claws – but Killmonger experiences violence as chaotic, meaningless and random. He has been brutalised by the reality of life as a black man in America, and later as a soldier in America’s foreign wars. How radical is that: a $200m Hollywood film where the villain is a personification of America’s domestic and foreign policy?

There is so much more richness in the movie that (I hope) it will inspire a generation of film students. How should we react to a king and his subjects making monkey noises at someone in an ethnic minority, trying to intimidate him into silence? (In this case Martin Freeman’s white CIA agent.) How do black Africans feel about the film’s essentially American perspective, implying a commonality between black citizens in countries with such huge disparities in average income? How do the kind of internet writers who worry about “cultural appropriation” feel about a cast which includes black British, West Indian, Zimbabwean-American and German actors doing Xhosa accents? (“The implicit statement in both the film’s themes and its casting is that there is a connection, however vexed, tenuous, and complicated, among the continent’s scattered descendants,” noted Jelani Cobb in the New Yorker.)

As a white British viewer, the most uncomfortable moment for me was when Killmonger promises that the “sun will never set” on the new Wakandan empire. It reminded me of the developed world’s anxious hope for the future: that the rising nations of the world will treat us better in their pomp than we treated them in ours.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia