Everything Must Go (or everything must change)

It’s deja vu all over again, as Maurice rediscovers a review he posted on another site in 2014.

(I published the following review of Naomi Klein’s ‘This Changes Everything’ over five years ago, and thought of it again after referring to the book in my last post. As the piece has now been taken down from that other site, I thought it worth re-publishing here, not least because the lessons of Klein’s great work are more relevant than ever).

Just this week [the first week of October 2014] we learned that global wildlife populations have halved in a mere 40 years, largely because of human activity. If the report is right, it should shock us to the core: we have wiped out over half the world’s wildlife in half a human lifetime.

Just this week the European Commission, amid much talk of reducing emissions and diversifying power sources, attempted to give former oil man, Miguel Arias Cañete, the job of Energy and Climate Action chief. And as he had to give up his shares in oil companies to take up the post, the word ‘former’ perhaps applies only technically.

Just this week in the UK, the Conservative Party showed they were so determined to go ‘all out for shale’ – at least in England and Wales – that they set aside some of the basic principles of democracy, permitting gas companies to mine under people’s houses without asking permission, despite evidence of overwhelming (99%!) public objection to the decision.

All of these stories – and there are more where those came from – emerged just too late to be referred to in Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, published last week. But they provide clear confirmation of her analysis.

For Klein, the economic system that has been in the ascendancy since the era of Thatcherism and Reaganomics – the ‘Washington consensus’ – has both ramped up the pace of resource over-consumption, and opened a yawning gap between those at the lowest income level and a tiny elite at the top. Crucially, these two era-defining problems – environmental destruction and egregious inequality – both spring from the same source.

The ‘extractivism’ that leads to fracturing rocks and digging under your home without permission is by no means unconnected to the slow violence of the dismantling of the public sector, the reduction of wages, the cutting of hours, the imposition of zero-hour contracts and the creeping denigration of those on welfare that we have seen over the last few years, here and elsewhere. As Klein puts it, ‘the logic that would cut pensions, food stamps, and health care before increasing taxes on the rich is the same logic that would blast the bedrock of the earth to get the last vapours of gas and the last drops of oil before making the shift to renewable energy’. The drive towards extensive privatisation, too, is governed by the same logic. Everything that can be bundled up and sold off, according to this model, must be so bundled and sold. Everything that is now held in common must be enclosed and commodified, made to work towards boosting GDP.

Everything must be industrialised, scaled up, mechanised. All inputs must be measurable and disposable, including what business leaders have taken to calling ‘human capital’. Everything – including human capital – must contribute to maximising profit, or it is so much waste, to be cut off in the name of streamlining. Sold off or dumped; everything that isn’t profitable is landfill.

It’s as if we’re running some generalised closing down sale in which Everything Must Go.

Indeed if the ZSL-WWF report is correct – to say nothing of a huge range of reports on matters from melting ice-sheets to disappearing forests – everything is going already. In the words of the BBC’s Roger Harrabin, ‘humans are cutting down trees more quickly than they can re-grow, harvesting more fish than the oceans can re-stock, pumping water from rivers and aquifers faster than rainfall can replenish them, and emitting more carbon than oceans and forests can absorb’.

The problem is – and here’s where the above examples from Europe and the UK come in – the ascendancy of this destructive model has gone hand in hand with the progressive relinquishing of democratic control over the economy, handing power increasingly to ‘the markets’ – otherwise known as big corporations and wealthy individuals, those who gain most from dumping pollutants and low wages on the people below them.

There is a sort of vicious circle at work: the more resources you extract and control, the more power you have; the more power you have, the more resources you can extract and control. And these resources include political and social resources, such as the media. Hence the huge sums poured into politics in America, and increasingly on this side of the Atlantic, as well as, for instance, into organisations dedicated to sowing doubt about the science of climate change. Anyone who proposes to change the system can expect to have the full force of those resources ranged against them.

But change it we must. And the longer we fail to take decisive action the deeper and more painful the changes up ahead will be. Already the world’s poorest – that is, those who have done least to cause the problem – are suffering the worst consequences of severe and unpredictable weather exacerbated by climate change. To postpone the task of weaning ourselves off fossil fuels is to risk acquiescing in this suffering, this injustice.

Yet embracing the task of making the transition gives us the chance to create both a more sustainable, and a more equitable human society – a more humane, inclusive political economy.

We need to join up all the movements that have sprung up to resist ‘extractivism’ in all its various forms, and start making the transition to a new model, one based on a ‘deeper form of democracy’, in Klein’s words, ‘one that provides communities with a real control over those resources that are most critical in collective survival’. It’s already under way. Unlikely alliances are forming in various parts of the world, a ‘powerful combination of resurgent Indigenous Nations, famers and fishers whose livelihoods depend on clean water and soil’ along with modern urban environmentalists and lovers of nature, and of the places where we belong.

Making this transition is more than just a question of changing power sources from oil to renewable: it is also a ‘fundamental shift in power relations between humanity and the natural world on which we depend’.

Klein might just as well have added that it is a shift in relations between ourselves and others too. The transition calls as much for a change in ethics as for a change in the political economy. Insulating and solarising buildings, expanding public transport, producing low-carbon equipment for schools and hospitals in developing countries, providing outlets for locally produced goods and reinvigorating workplace and local democracy – all of these things are more than merely economic issues, have more than merely economic effects. Such projects help construct models of what Klein calls ‘nonextractive living’ – or in another register, nonviolent living.

Given all the bad news, and the evidence that all too many of our political and business leaders are still wedded to the extractive, indeed violent, dominant model, perhaps this, finally, is what gives us room to hope. What Klein is calling for, what all who are alert to the crisis of unsustainability are yearning for, is a capacious movement, or network of movements where we don’t have to agree with each other all the time on all points, but where we agree to learn to make the transition together.

The title of Klein’s book, This Changes Everything, refers, of course, to climate change. Let’s hope one day it will retrospectively turn out to refer equally to her book itself – or rather to the strong, dignified, and above all humane movements it so powerfully describes.

Maurice Macartney

Originally published 3 October 2014; reproduced here 11 April 2020