How Not to Save the Planet – Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything”

imagesGlobalization. Trade. Market Economics. Capitalism. Corporations. Economic growth. Writer Naomi Klein hates it all. Her book, This Changes Everything, argues that global warming’s terrible effects require junking that “neoliberalism,” for a different and more humane economic model. What, exactly? Don’t know.

Kleinites think globalization, trade, and capitalism worsen poverty and inequality. That’s just as factually wrong as climate change denialism. UnknownIn the previous century – despite all its upheavals, the Depression, world wars, Russian and Chinese craziness – worldwide average real dollar incomes rose five-fold – 500%. The average person wound up five times better off than at the start. Poverty ranks plummeted. That didn’t happen through socialism.

Klein believes the only thing trade, capitalism, and “extractive” industries produce is profit – the only reason they exist. It’s just “greed.” There’s no recognition that industry produces stuff people want. Fossil fuel extraction is profitable because it creates energy we need and use (which Klein hates too).

images-1She demonizes free trade without understanding it. Yes, it does make some people richer – a lot of people. Trade happens only when both sides benefit. That spreads prosperity. Freer trade enables poor people in developing countries to sell their products in richer ones. Protectionism keeps them out – and poor. So does “buy local.”

Partly, Klein hates trade because of what’s traded – our “wasteful, materialist, consumerist lifestyle.” (“Consumerism” is buying something someone else disapproves.) Consumerism, extractivism, and economic growth are what cause climate change. We’ve heedlessly raped the planet, and global warming is our “comeuppance.” We’ll be cooked, and drowned by rising seas, unless we stop making electricity with fossil fuels, driving gasoline cars, flying planes, etc. Unknown-1The political right, Klein says, realizes this, and hence rejects climate change science because it blows up their ideology of market economics and unrestrained capitalism. (While Klein loves climate change because it feeds her ideology of blowing up market economics and capitalism.)

Yet science tells us that blowing them up won’t halt climate change. If tomorrow we stopped everything – cut carbon emissions to zero – global warming would continue, only slightly slower than if we do nothing. Klein acknowledges this.

So does she welcome other approaches? No. Klein sees any answer that smacks of technology as just “doubling down” on what got us into trouble in the first place –  like geo-engineering to remove carbon from the atmosphere, or cool the planet by blocking some sun radiation. images-2Replacing fossil fuel power generation with nuclear? That’s so capitalist/industrialist. And if global warming will hamper food production, how about genetic modification techniques that boost crop yields? GAAAA!

While bashing right-wing science denialism, Klein does acknowledge denialism on the left – mentioning the anti-vaccine movement – but denies the science telling us genetic modification is safe and beneficial. And nuclear energy is such an obvious no-brainer in terms of climate impact that many greens are finally embracing it. Klein is actually somewhat persuasive that geo-engineering is problematical, but urges banning further research. Who’s anti-science?

Further, if climate change will mean big trouble, wouldn’t having more money to deal with it help? But Klein hates economic growth, writing zingers like, “having more money won’t help you if your city is under water.”

Unknown-3Ha ha. Well, actually, it would. In fact, Klein bemoans that richer people can escape warming’s ill-effects. The Netherlands has already started raising buildings in anticipation of higher sea levels. Such efforts are costly, and Klein foresees trillions needed. Without economic growth, where will the money come from? Simple: guilty energy companies must pay. But she also says they should be stopped from drilling – so their trillions in future earnings won’t exist.

Klein’s hatred of economic growth (shared by climate zealot Bill McKibben) is also bizarre in light of their anguishing about inequality, poverty, and human deprivation. Growth does make the rich richer, but makes the poor richer too. How can they expect to beat poverty without a bigger economic pie? Just by redistribution? Seriously? With a billion or so people still living on less than $1 a day, I have no patience for those with cushy lives who superciliously call for ending economic growth. (And they are the ones charging capitalists with callousness.)

images-3While Klein wants to dismantle “the system,” her alternative is never clear. But it is clear that stopping the industrial market economy and consumerism would (far from her dream of ending inequality) drastically shrink the economic pie, creating mass unemployment and impoverishment. Klein fantasizes that unemployment would actually be solved with all the new clean energy jobs. How those jobs would be supported, without a consumer economy, is a mystery.

By the way, poorer people tend to have more children – and higher populations are bad for the environment and climate.

Klein faults most environmentalists for misleading people that some modest lifestyle tweaks will suffice. But, reviewing the book, science writer Elizabeth Kolbert (though generally sympathetic) says Klein peddles a similar “fable” in failing to explain just how much energy consumption and consumer spending would have to be cut. images-4Kolbert references a Swiss study predicated on a target “2000 watt society.” Americans currently use 12,000. The only hypothetical person in the study under 2,000 was a woman living in a retirement home with no TV or computer, traveling only rarely, by train.

So Klein’s program is really to give up modern life; while she vilifies politico/economic “austerity” policies, the austerity she herself advocates is far more draconian. What writers like her (and James Howard Kunstler) seem to want is everyone living on small farms, growing their own food, eschewing manufactured goods, and riding bicycles. Probably 80% of today’s Americans would literally die. Pre-industrial farm life was no bucolic paradise.

But in the end, Klein recognizes that de-growth is just not plausible, perhaps even “genocidal.” Yet still she envisions mass movement resistance overthrowing capitalism and extractivism, in favor of what she finally calls “regeneration.” Kolbert calls it “a concept so fuzzy” she “won’t even attempt to explain.” But she quotes Klein: “we become full participants in the process of maximizing life’s creativity.”

That sounds nice.

images-6We have not heedlessly or foolishly raped the planet. Extracting and using energy was necessary for lifting billions out of squalor into decent lives, and still is. There’s no free lunch. Everything has a cost; economic growth does degrade the environment and climate. We will deal with that. Economic growth will help us do so – making life better in spite of warming.

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9 Responses to “How Not to Save the Planet – Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything””

  1. Anonymous Says:

    Lenin and Mao each led their respective countries on communist paths that lead to subjugation and murderous deaths of untold millions. Naomi Klein dismisses the socialist communist movements of the twentieth century without adequate explanation. Anyone that puts forth socialism as an alternative to capitalism must do better.

    To start, they would need to explain whether the communist leaders were true believers who truly thought that with a little purging of freethinkers and private business owners a utopian society would result; or were they little better than run of the mill totalitarian dictators who used the system for their own enrichment.

    They would also need to resolve the dilemma at the heart of all socialist schemes of how to get the lazy and underachievers to pull their weight; and how to hold back the resentment of the more ambitious achievers who desire to be rewarded for their efforts.

    Capitalism and the profit motive is the only system that works and the questions to resolve are where to draw the regulatory lines and how to fabricate the social safety net.

  2. rationaloptimist Says:

    Klein never actually talks about socialism as a genuine alternative to free market capitalism. What, exactly, she proposes in lieu of the latter is unexplained. Maybe because in fact there IS no alternative that withstands the slightest scrutiny. The problem of socialism is not just “the lazy and underachievers.” It is at odds with fundamental human nature; whereas a market economy (as Adam Smith so elegantly explained!) runs along the grain of human nature, redounding to the benefit of society as a whole. Market economics is, indeed, the NATURAL system into which we evolved — and evolution loves success.

  3. Mac Muir Says:

    AGW proof.

    Carbon dioxide is not causing warming. Here is why I say that:

    Bodies radiate energy in the form of electromagnetic waves. The spectrum of this energy is determined by the temperature of the radiating surface. The surface of the Sun is at a temperature such that most of its radiation is in the frequency band we call visible light with some in the near infrared (which we sense as radiant heat) and some in the ultraviolet. Most of the UV is blocked high in the atmosphere. The visible (0.4-0.8 micron) and near infrared (0.75-1.4 micron) largely makes it to the earth’s surface.

    The Earth having a much lower surface temperature will radiate energy back into space in the far infrared wavelengths (1-30 microns. Peaking around 10 microns. Most of the energy is in the 9-13 micron range.). Carbon dioxide and the other so called “greenhouse gasses” tend to absorb and re-radiate radiation in the far infrared and thus trap heat on the Earth.

    Each vibrational mode of a particular type of molecule will act as a narrow band reject filter taking out one particular wavelength. This is based in quantum physics. The energy of a photon is inversely proportional to wavelength and only photons with the correct energy are absorbed. For CO2 these are 2.7, 4.3 and 15 microns. Two are base vibrations one is an overtone.

    For an explanation of this see:

    Note: Water as vapor, liquid and as ice has a very complex series of overtones and effects much of the far infrared.

    Scientists like to assume things are linear, even when they are not. It makes modeling much easier. I suspect that many scientists involved in this modeling just assumed that the energy absorption was linear without checking.

    I tried to research this. Starting in 2001. I Googled every form of the question I could think of for years without result. Finally I found the answer on my own bookshelf. The fifth edition of “Reference Data for Radio Engineers” (H.W. Sams & co. 1968) has a graph on page 26-28 showing the transmission of 300 meters (about 1000 feet) of air in the far infrared. The transmission of all three wavelengths affected by CO2 are already zero. The atmosphere is far thicker than 300 meters. Therefore it is safe to assume that almost no radiation at the wavelengths affected by CO2 was making it into space when the data for this graph was taken.

    These three wavelengths are slivers of the entire far infrared. The skirts of the filters are sharp and thus constitute slivers of slivers.

    This says that CO2 has already done virtually all the warming it can.

    Case closed.

    This brings up a second point. If the planet is being warmed by ANY greenhouse effect then the Troposphere (lower atmosphere) should be warming faster than the surface. Years of balloon and later satellite data do not show this. [This claim is widely made but I do not have hard data to reference.]

    Likewise I should point out that the chart I referenced represents an upper bound on the distance to opaqueness. 300 meters is fully opaque but shorter distances may be also. I remember reading someplace that one of the CO2 absorbing wavelengths is opaque in 30 feet but I cannot point to that data and 300 meters is adequate to my case.

    A second point: The modelers like to assume that the weak warming caused by CO2 is amplified by water in the atmosphere. This assumes a positive feedback with a loop gain near one.

    As far as I can tell the modelers are making this as an assumption rather than basing it on data. The actions of water in the atmosphere is quite complex, complete with numerous non linear effects (cloud formation, precipitation etc.). I propose a simple observation to indicate the sign of this feedback. Is the day to night temperature swing larger or smaller with high humidity or with low humidity. This is quite unequivocal: Temperature swings are smaller with higher humidity and therefore the net feedback is negative and therefore water in the atmosphere is attenuating not amplifying other greenhouse gas effects.

    Positive externalities.

    Extra CO2 does have a major benefit. It fertilizes plants. The two most important plant nutrients are CO2 and water. The process of photosynthesis takes six CO2 molecules and six water molecules in the presence of chlorophyl and light and converts them into a glucose molecule and six molecules of oxygen. The plant then converts the glucose into other needed molecules.

    Most of the photosynthesis takes place in the pores in the leaves. The inside of the pore is wet. On average about one hundred water molecules leave for every CO2 molecule entering. With higher CO2 concentrations plants tend to constrict the opening somewhat so less water is lost while the plant is still getting more CO2.

    It was predicted in the 1970’s and 1980’s that we would see mass starvation in the 1990’s. this did not happen. Part of the reason why is the fertilizing effect of the extra CO2.

  4. Greg Says:

    Klein’s proposals may seem over the top, or not, depending on your time horizon and level of contact with the adverse consequences of free capitalism run amok.

    Capitalism and free-market economics are useful tools which, if employed with proper oversight, can vastly improve social welfare. But when vast stretches of land are devastated, species driven to extinction and the air spoiled, one can meaningfully argue that things have gone too far.

    Ultimately, human civilization and the natural environment will have to come to some sort of equilibrium. We’re not there yet since the natural environment is still being destroyed faster than it is being created. Just where the equilibrium turns out to be depends on how soon we wizen up to the consequences of our behaviour. Personally, I’m not very optimistic given the nature of political leadership here and around the world.

  5. rationaloptimist Says:

    As I said, everything has a cost. There’s a price for economic betterment. But the benefits, to humans, outstrip the costs.

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