No new ideas here: A critique of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything

Rarely have I seen so much uncritical gushing from both Climate Change activists and the American Left as on the release of Naomi Klein’s latest work, This Changes Everything, which aims at the relationship between our economic system (Neoliberal or “free-market” Capitalism) and Climate Change.

This lauding of praise to me is puzzling, although I understand the temptation to praise someone who confirms your belief systems. And the barrage of terrible coverage of Climate Change and energy issues in the mainstream media, whether from deniers of scientific consensus, pro-nuke or pro-natural gas hacks or merely poorly informed journalists, is enough to set a low bar for any sort of discussion of these issues.

Don’t get me wrong. The intersection of our economic system and ecological catastrophe, particularly in the form of Climate Change, is an extremely important topic. It was high time that someone addressed it, and it was a bold move by Klein to take on such a complex and important subject. However, these are matters that need to be examined with intellectual rigor and a fresh perspective. In short, this needs to be done well.

As a journalist who has written about renewable energy for nearly five years, I find significant flaws in Klein’s reading of climate and energy issues, and that she fails to accurately understand or convey key details of the global transition to renewable energy (known as the Energy Transition or Energiewende in German) in ways that undermine her work.

However, these are symptoms of a deeper problem, and Klein is committing an error that is standard practice for ideologues. Klein started with the conclusion of This Changes Everything in previous works like Shock Doctrine long before studying Climate Change, then found convenient details to support this pre-existing thesis that Capitalism is our core problem. Simultaneously she falls into a sort of movement romanticism that fails to strategically assess important global phenomena.

The result is a mis-telling of the details of we as a society are beginning to effectively address Climate Change, and a strategic failure in terms of talking about how we will move forward with meaningful solutions. Her readers, and the general public, deserve better.

 

Slain myths and untold stories

This is not to say that the work is without merit. Beyond the sheer ambition of the task, Klein takes aims at and slays a number of common delusions and false prophets in Part 2 (“Magical Thinking”). This includes the “billionaires will save us” delusion (“No Messiahs”, chapter 7) and the delusion that free-market Capitalism will solve this problem on its own, which is routinely disproven throughout the book. She is correct that over-consumption by the wealthy is a major problem in terms of greenhouse gas reduction, and that we will not consume our way to a clean energy future (“Shopping Our Way Out of It”, p. 221).

I am also thankful for Klein for taking the time to tell the story of how much of the mainstream environmental movement and specifically the “big green” NGOs have been utterly co-opted (“Fruits, not Roots”, chapter 6). This is important information.

I agree with several parts of Klein’s thesis: Stronger popular movements are needed to address Climate Change, and we need strong policies at the nation-state level to speed the rate of change, policies that at present are limited by the very nature of our economic and social systems and our relationship with our government.

Most importantly, I must give Klein credit for covering the role that popular movements and “local power” have had in the Energy Transition, a crucial detail that is frequently missed by those who are telling this story. While causation is usually a difficult matter, it is clear that citizen demands and citizen power cooperatives were fundamental in building support for the Danish wind program starting in the 1970’s, which can be considered the beginning of the Europe’s shift renewable energy, as well as in Germany.

 

Failing the Energy Transition

However, when Klein begins telling this story, I find that her accounts of key details are off and her priorities strange. She begins with the vote to re-municipalize Hamburg’s electric and heating utility, and goes on to say that “one key factor that has made possible what may be the world’s most rapid shift to wind and solar power: the fact that in hundreds of cities and towns across (Germany), citizens have voted to take their energy grids back from private corporations that purchased them”.

While it is true that “local power” in the form of energy cooperatives has been politically important for renewable energy policies, this has not necessarily been the result of municipalization in Germany, or elsewhere in Europe where renewables have been widely deployed. While in North America a small minority of municipal utilities have led the way, when I spoke with Jörg Mayer of the German Solar Industry Association in São Paulo last August, he cited the German Social Democratic Party’s (SPD) base of power in coal-dependent municipal utilities as a factor behind the SPD Chair and Energy and Economics Minister Sigmar Gabriel’s attack on Germany’s renewable energy policies.

Most notably, Gabriel and his predecessor Peter Altmaier of Chancellor Merkel’s CDU have weakened the highly successful feed-in tariff. Like other “standard offer” policies, Germany’s feed-in tariff provides standardized, fixed-price, long-term, must-take contracts for renewable energy generation. It is good to see Klein explain these policies, but when she does her focus is strange.

Klein’s first take on feed-in tariffs is to complain that the WTO has shut down domestic content requirements, which require that participating renewable energy systems use locally manufactured components, as evidence of the incompatibility of free-market policies and serious action on the climate.

This was a poor choice. Not only do most of the successful feed-in tariffs, including those that have driven and are currently driving the global solar market (in Germany, China and Japan) not feature domestic content requirements, but they aren’t essential for job growth through renewable energy, as Klein implies. This is because most of jobs of renewable energy come not from manufacturing wind turbines and solar panels, but from design, engineering, sales, installation, operations and maintenance – jobs which cannot be offshored.

Next, in an effort to support the link between public ownership and the shift to renewables, Klein lists nations that have strong climate commitments – and lists the wrong ones (p. 99). Norway can hardly be considered a model for other nations, as it has a small population and ample hydroelectric resources which were developed long before the Energy Transition. The same is largely true of Austria, which gets much of its electricity from hydro. The Netherlands is the most bizarre choice, as the nation lags well behind most of Western Europe in wind and solar deployment. If Klein was looking for European nations that are leading the Energy Transition, she should instead list Spain, which got 20% of its electricity from wind and 5% from solar in 2014, and Portugal which has had similar success with wind and biomass. (Note: A co-author and I have an article on Europe’s transition to renewable electricity pending publication in IEEE Spectrum)

As these three examples show, Klein repeatedly screws up the details to support her thesis. This was unnecessary, weakens her argument, and is a dis-service to her readers and to the public understanding of the Energy Transition.

It becomes clear that Klein does not understand the German experience with renewable energy when she slides half-way into the German Coal Myth (p. 97, 136-139), admitting that she is unsure if a two-year increase in Germany coal use was a result of the nuclear shut-down (it wasn’t). Here Klein is committing a standard error of contemporary journalism, mistaking a media circus over an alleged phenomenon for the phenomenon itself.

If Klein’s researchers looked at primary data instead of distorted media accounts and understood what is going on in Germany, they would realize that 1. there is little statistical correlation between a temporary rise in coal use in 2012-2013 and a very mild fall in nuclear output (but a stronger co-relation with falling gas use), 2. German emissions have been on a trend of decline for over 20 years and 3. temporary substitutions of one fossil fuel for another are insignificant when you are entirely replacing fossil fuels. Germany’s Energy Transition represents one of the only credible attempts to do this.

Backed by poor research, Klein appears to miss the central role of the Energy Transition. Not only has this shift been lowering emissions in Europe for over a decade, but so far this is the only really significant, medium-term progress that has been made. Furthermore, it is leading to cost reductions which are enabling solar and wind to be more easily deployed in other nations that lack such strong policies. For a book that claims to address the big questions of Climate Change, to miss this is a fundamental error.

 

Protest movements, romanticism and strategy

Apparently solar and wind farms and exponential growth rates of renewable energy deployment are not as sexy to Naomi Klein as protest movements (Part 3: “Starting Anyway”, and specifically the chapter “Blockadia”), which she spends more than a third of the book exploring. The contemporary American Left is in love with these movements. This may be because it lacks other ambition, or because the art of effective organizing outside its own subculture was lost a long time ago.

I am familiar with some of these movements. Twenty years ago I started my deep involvement in environmentalism fighting logging operations in the little remaining old-growth forest in my native Oregon. I saw people in my movement protest, destroy logging roads, chain themselves to trees and pieces of buried metal to stop heavy equipment, and proudly march off to jail. What we actually accomplished, and what any of these defensive, rearguard actions actually accomplish, is debatable.

As long as we continue to get our paper from wood instead of other less ecologically destructive sources like hemp, as long as we build houses for 20 or 30 year lifespans, and as long as multinationals like International Paper run the forest industry and are looking out for their quarterly profits, unsustainable logging will continue.

These things are harder to change, but essential. Most forestry activists do not appear to have ever made the leap to pursuing these deeper changes, and neither has the Climate movement. Leaders like Bill McKibben continue to emphasize blocking individual fossil fuel projects and divestment, and appear to lack the vision to do anything else.

Such defensive actions help, by making fossil fuels more expensive and difficult to extract, as well as raising awareness. Some of these projects must never come to fruition, and I support anyone who works to defend their home from reckless fossil fuel extraction. But what Klein’s “Blockadia” will never do is to stop us from using fossil fuels, because stopping individual fossil fuel projects becomes a game of whack-a-mole, where new projects pop up in places that are less defended and have more local support.

The Energy Transition – the global move to renewable energy, mass and electric transport and sustainable land use can and will effectively stop large-scale fossil fuel extraction and use. It is the only thing that will, besides the full-scale collapse of modern civilization.

 

Leftist delusions

In page 58, Klein warns of exactly what she is doing. “… This raises the question of whether I am doing the same thing as the deniers – rejecting possible solutions because they threaten my ideological worldview”. It would be inconvenient for Klein to look too hard at the progress of the Energy Transition, because that would undermine her thesis that Capitalism is the core problem behind Climate Change.

I agree strongly with Klein that Neoliberal Capitalism both exacerbates Climate Change and that the power of the large extractive industries are the main stumbling block to change. However, Climate Change is not “about Capitalism” (front jacket cover), and _is_ about carbon – specifically burning fossil fuels and industrial agriculture. This was and is just as much the case in actual and historical Communist nations (The U.S.S.R., China, etc.) as it is in Capitalist societies. While stronger policies are important, it will not require an overthrow of Capitalism to re-make our energy system, nor will this necessarily result in an improvement. We certainly can not wait for one.

Klein reached her conclusion that Capitalism is our central problem well before this current book, which explains why she cherry-picks her information, misrepresents major details, and generally gives a strategically unsound analysis. Such an important issue as Climate Change deserves a fresh look, which Klein does not offer, and a deeper understanding of the details of what is currently happening in energy. It should, indeed, change everything about the way that we look at the world.

Due to the lateness of our efforts, achieving meaningful action on the climate will take strong political action and mass movements. It will also take working not only with the growing renewable energy, electric vehicle and energy storage industries, but entrepreneurs and financiers. These are sections of Capital which we absolutely need, and which have been far more successful in initiating the move away from carbon in North American than the Left.

And if popular movements for a better future and a livable climate are going to be effective, they are going to have to be very different than the ones that we have had in North America for the past few decades. The North American Left has not had any significant large-scale political successes for fifty years. What it has done is shown that it is incapable of real organizing, or really anything except flash-in-the-pan protest movements and transient mobilizations. This is why our society is becoming vastly more unequal and moving backwards in terms of political power for the poor and middle class, as we slouch towards oligarchy.

We don’t have time to wait for the North American Left to re-grow an organizing culture or to learn from its crippling internal dysfunction. Anyone who expects Occupy to get us off fossil fuels is just as delusional as anyone who thinks we can consume our way to a livable planet.

Nor does Klein’s collectivist Left have a monopoly on the Energy Transition. Both feed-in tariffs and falling costs are not only making collective citizen ownership of renewables easier, but also individual ownership. The latter is less emphasized in Klein’s work, but is a core part of how the deployment of renewable energy is remaking the economic and political dynamics of energy. This speaks to a different politic, one that transcends conventional ideas about right and left and that at its core is about the disintegration of large centralized power structures. This is why right-wing groups in Arizona and Georgia are backing distributed solar.

We are in the beginning of the Energy Transition now. We desperately need to accelerate it, working with all the tools and constituencies at our disposal. This will take an accurate understanding of the details of this transition. It will also take different movements, and a different kind of politic, than is offered in Klein’s work.

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2 comments

  1. Reblogged this on Krispy's Blog vol (on)gevraagde meningen and commented:
    Zinvolle kritiek op Naomi Klein. Wie kan er nou serieus Nederland als voorbeeld noemen van een land dat duurzame energie serieus neemt? We staan nog net niet in de top 3 van meest fossiele EU-lidstaten

  2. Charley in MA · · Reply

    Thank you for this very interesting analysis. I am also curious about what you think of NK’s explanation of carbon offsets specifically. Can you contact me via email?

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