I have come to think of that night as the climate movement’s coming of age: it was the moment when the realization truly sank on that no on was coming to save us. The British psychoanalyst and climate specialist Sally Weintrobe describes this as the summit’s “fundamental legacy” – the acute and painful realization that our “leaders are not looking after us…we are not cared for at the level of our very survival.”
Naomi Klein on the 2009 UN climate summit, This Changes Everything, p12
If you’re under 35 you probably know that you’re going to see climate change (CC) hit hard within your lifetime (harder than it’s already hitting, that is), and if you’re under 35 with kids then you probably don’t sleep at night because of how hard it’s going to hit them.
In This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein makes the case that either we challenge and overthrow the dominant economic orthodoxy of our age – within a matter of years – or CC will overthrow it, along with everything else. Klein makes the point that the political right are generally correct in their assessment of what CC really means, and that when the right dismiss CC as a left-wing conspiracy used to justify socialist reforms, they’re right in their suspicion that socialism is – kind of, generally – the answer. They’re just wrong about it being a conspiracy.
The Guardian recently ran a series on Millennials – the problems facing them, their anxieties, etc – which ultimately I found a bit disappointing, largely because CC didn’t feature as much as it should have. The truth is that if you’re young, and you’re lucky enough to have the energy to pay attention, CC anxiety is a constant. CC is not something that may or may not exist – it’s happening now, and it’s going to get worse. And everything else – the refugee crisis, the financial crisis, the housing crisis, various employment crises, the war on terror, the war without end, superpower sabre-rattling, NHS cuts, library closures, etc, all the stuff that’s usually presented as competing for funding or public attention – is either a consequence of it, an anticipation of it, or arising from the same root cause as it: neoliberal economics. (See Philip Pullman’s great speech on the greedy ghost for more on that).
And in the same way, the solutions to CC are solutions to other problems as well; one of many good ideas that Klein discusses is a citizen’s income. A citizen’s income (i.e. a wage paid to every citizen of a country by the government, whether they work or not) would mean that people wouldn’t have to take jobs that were fundamentally useless (or worse, actively destructive – how many jobs actually do nothing but fuel consumption?) in order to survive, thereby weakening the dependence on extractive industry in certain places. It would also mitigate against the impending automation crisis, and it would be a (late, insufficient) acknowledgement of something that feminists have been fighting for for decades; the economic value of unpaid labour. It’s a win-win-win, but given that in our time staggeringly hateful attitudes towards unemployed people (and homeless people, disabled people, LGBTQ people, BAME people, women, etc) are completely mainstream and acceptable (and encouraged by our press and successive governments), and given that our government’s dominant narrative is the austerity drive, a citizen’s income sounds like economic heresy. It could be funded by effective corporate taxation though, and that’s before you get to the not-too-radical ‘polluter pays’ funding models. And of course heresy is only heresy until enough people are on side.
And so on and so forth; a proper green energy policy would result in (positive) jobs (and taxes), etc. There are many such policy ideas and funding methods outlined in the book, all of them sensible, desirable, and progressive. Even if CC wasn’t happening, they’d be good ideas, is the point. They’re ostensibly no-brainers, and are not at all impossible. But they feel like pipedreams because they depend upon large-scale government intervention, and our governments in the west are increasingly hands-off free marketeers, who act as if they genuinely believe all our problems can be solved by us, as individuals, working, earning money, and spending money.
But working, earning money, and spending money is not a plan. Not when so many of our jobs are tied up in a kind of interdependent tertiary industry boondoggle, doing nothing much more than simply enabling other jobs. Real changes are required now. The world is heating up because of anthropogenic climate change, and the consequences are being felt. The consequences are not as obvious or direct as coastal towns being drowned overnight; they’re potential consequences, things that might have been caused by CC – for example, the terrible drought that preceded the Syrian civil war – and the most severe consequences are felt not by those of us in developed western economies who are largely responsible for causing the problem. Of course, we in the west don’t really want to know. Witness the utter shamefulness of Britain’s ongoing response to Syrian refugees. Whether or not CC was a contributing factor to the Syrian civil war and concomitant horrors or not (though many climate scientists believe it was) CC will result in droughts, conflicts, natural disasters, resource conflicts, and more. And refugees. (Will we become more kind towards refugees as the number of refugees increases, or less?)
Government nudging will keep us too busy working, earning, and spending to consider the alternatives to neoliberalism, or to even really think about the fundamental problems of our lifetime at all. Even if that is not the intention of their nudging. And the encouraged lifestyle allows us denial; how can we be doing wrong when we’re doing the right thing, we’re working hard, we’re just getting on with our lives, providing for our dependants? But that’s the nature of climate change; it’s a reminder that everything is connected, everybody is connected. Working, earning, spending – living the life our government and press tell us is the right life – means consuming petrochemicals on the commute, it means working for corps that have invested big money in oil firms, it means buying stuff from the low-regulation countries to which we’ve exported all our manufacture (and emissions). That has profound effects on people all over the world. The economic recovery we’re told again and again is a good thing, is desirable – that means more of all of the above; ultimately, it means emissions rising beyond the 2°C threshold. It’s not that working, earning, spending has to stop, but we do have to dispense of the delusion that having a job is inherently good, that earning money is inherently good, that spending money is inherently good. We have to think hard about how we do it; how to do it in a way that enriches and regenerates our environment, our society, our culture. Working, earning, spending as we do now simply means increasing emissions, more cheap, deregulated and dangerous worldwide labour, increasingly extreme storms, polar melt, droughts, wars, mass migration, increasingly desperate people, and bodies floating in the water. That’s where we’re at, and most people below a certain age know it.
But This Changes Everything is not a doom-mongering book. It points to positive developments all over the world, often developments that occur as a result of indigenous peoples fighting hard (again) for the land that European invaders once tried to take from them, and that multinational corps are now trying to drill, frack, mine, poison, etc. And also, it shows how the solutions are actually known and understood; what is required is not blind hope in governments that have shown again and again that they do not care about the welfare of their citizens, or hope that some new way out will materialise – what is required is that we recognise our shared humanity and that all people are equally important (regardless of where they’re born), equip ourselves with the arguments, fight extractivist industry when it shows up on our doorstep, challenge the political and economic orthodoxies of our societies, and use our votes intelligently. Which in the UK, probably means voting for the Greens or Labour, depending on where you live. I’m not a Labourite – Labour have not been an alternative to the Tories in their basic economic ideology for as long as I’ve been old enough to vote. But they’re getting there now. A lot of the ridicule Corbyn is receiving is from people who are locked into a particular economic mindset, and it’s his detractors who are behind the curve. Corbyn’s Labour are more cognisant of current and future problems than they’re given credit for.
So there’s a lot to do, but it’s not impossible. To start, have a look at thischangeseverything.org, buy Klein’s book, read it. I can’t recommend it enough.
In summary: acting now, and dealing with all of the massive adjustments and fallout that that entails, is preferable to not acting now, and dealing with all of the massive adjustments and fallout that that entails.
And in a moment of candor, the weapons giant Raytheon explained, “Expanded business opportunities are likely to arise as consumer behaviour and needs change in response to climate change.” Those opportunities include not just more demand for the company’s privatized disaster response services but also “demand for its military products and services as security concerns may arise as results of droughts, floods and storm events occur as a result of climate change.” This is worth remembering whenever doubts creep in about the urgency of this crisis: the private militias are already mobilizing.
This Changes Everything, p9