One of my favorite poems, by Emily Dickinson, speaks of dancing “through endless summer days” and exalting in the beauty and power of the natural world. A delightful image; but perhaps a verse more in tune with the modern world is: “Because I could not stop for death— He kindly stopped for me.” I don’t know about “kindly,” but as Naomi Klein makes clear in her latest book, death is indeed prepared to stop for humanity if we do not stop and reconsider our course.
This death could come in the form of climate change. The simple fact is that capitalism is killing the planet: endless amounts of carbon dioxide are being pumped into the air, coal and oil are being ripped out of the ground in huge quantities, vast tracts of forest are being cut down, and little is being done about it. Yet there is no technical reason for all of this; quite the opposite. As Klein notes, it is entirely possible to meet all energy requirements with renewable power (wind and solar) by 2030, just using current technology (not to mention the scientific advances that might emerge before then). All that is required is the political and economic will to carry it out—and that is precisely what is lacking.
Instead, the opposite is being done. Coal and oil companies have announced their intention to burn a further 2,795 gigatons of fossil fuels—roughly 5 times more than what is even remotely acceptable from an environmental perspective. This statistic alone shows that, “getting serious about climate change, which means cutting our emissions radically, is simply not compatible with the continued existence of one of the most profitable industries in the world.” This particular example could be multiplied a hundred times over, but the point remains the same. The continued existence of capitalism is incompatible with the measures needed to ensure the continued existence of the human species.
According to Klein, what is required is “a government that [is] unafraid of bold long-term economic planning, as well as social movements that [are] able to move masses of people.” In short, capitalism is killing the planet and socialism is necessary! Yet references to revolution, socialism, and so forth are conspicuous only by their absence in Klein’s book. The Russian Revolution is never mentioned—beyond a reference to the authoritarian “state socialism” of China, the USSR and other proletarian Bonapartist states—and Richard Nixon is used to show someone willing to impose restrictions on capitalism when necessary.
At first glance it seems incomprehensible: Klein demonstrates that the continued existence of capitalism is incompatible with a habitable environment, shows how political leaders are subservient to the ruling economic elites, demonstrates that a broad social movement is necessary, ties the struggle for environmental protections into the broader movement for social change, and calls for a more equal and democratic society. However, the concrete measures she proposes amount to little more than changes in electoral laws, additional environmental regulations, taxes to promote “green behavior,” and generally getting tough on corporations. What is needed is far bolder. For example, a socialist government would nationalize the energy sector with no job losses or pay cuts. Any retraining for workers whose jobs are phased out would be paid 100% by the government at full wages, and new jobs would pay these workers at least what they earn now. The capitalists, not the workers, must pay to reverse the environmental mess they have made.
Klein seems to view the main enemy not as capitalism generally, but the extreme neoliberal version of it, which she incorrectly portrays as being a product of capitalist ideology, rather than an organic development of capitalism and something inherent to it. In this she is like a marathon runner who has gone 25 miles but just can’t make the last few blocks. She correctly criticizes the world of today, but has not yet concretely envisioned the world of tomorrow.
Despite these faults, Klein’s book stands out as a bold challenge to capitalist orthodoxy and a damning judgment on the current capitalist world order. This is a book that condemns world capitalism to destruction simply by telling the truth about it. The incompatibility of the free-market capitalist economy with human existence, and the inability of the current political leaders to implement a serious program are ruthlessly exposed. Furthermore, the absurdity of insider (bourgeois) environmentalism is held up to the light of day, with the astonishing example of a so-called environmental organization setting up an oil well on land it was meant to protect.
The fundamental message of Klein’s book, subtitled “Capitalism vs. the Climate,” is that “Our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth including human life.” This is a book that everyone should read, one that adds urgency to the movement for social change, and provides a disturbing but nonetheless hopeful look at the world today. The old world is dying, while a new world is being born.
Yet this can only happen with the socialist transformation of society, a transformation that becomes ever more necessary with each passing hour. Rosa Luxemburg once said that the choice before humanity was “socialism or barbarism.” Now that we have truly begun to enter the Anthropocene, that slogan has perhaps become somewhat outdated, and the choice before us today is “socialism or extinction.”