Understanding the consequences of living with climate change: A review of This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein

In the aftermath of the British general election, where climate change and care of the environment more generally weren’t a priority for the major political parties, and certainly not for the new Conservative government, it feels crucial to keep awareness, debate and action high on the agenda.

Because these moments when the impossible seems suddenly possible are excruciatingly rare and precious. That means more must be made of them. The next time one arises, it must be harnessed not only to denounce the world as it is, and build fleeting pockets of liberated space. It must be the catalyst to actually build the world that will keep us all safe. The stakes are simply too high, and time too short, to settle for anything less.
— Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything (2014, Penguin, UK)

Indeed, Klein's groundbreaking book makes light of the previous Conservative-led coalition being close to the oil and gas industries, which wish to promote their energy and single-minded economic agenda against any other system that might place people, communities and our living planet higher than GDP (gross domestic product). The core of the issue, Klein argues, is that capitalism is the problem; power, money and the efforts to preserve the hegemony of that power are preventing the urgent, necessary, all-species action on climate change. Carbon causes the specific problem of temperature and weather change, but it is the psychology driving those behind the means of procuring and using the carbon that needs tackling. And quickly.

For five years, I read and reviewed most of the books that came out on environmental themes. Some, like Fred Pearce’s Confessions of an Eco Sinner (2009) and Dancing at the Dead Sea by Alanna Mitchell (2005) are excellent in their style, factual analysis and presentation. Others might cause a small ripple, or none at all. It’s a big field of literature in its own right now, rightly so. What I took from that drip-feed diet was an observation of growing problems, and some case studies, but not such a rigorous dissection and arguing of the scale of the disaster that befalls humanity, as that presented here.

Every so often a book comes along that has its own force and depth of integrity and This Changes Everything has that power. Indeed, the New York Times described it as “almost unreviewable… the most momentous and contentious environmental book since Silent Spring.” Rachel Carson’s book is credited with providing and presenting the data that led to the phasing out of DDT being used in agriculture and household gardens; could Klein’s book have a similar impact upon the climate change deniers and the businesses that most affect our planet?

Klein has been on a roller coaster of a journey with this book and acknowledges help from full-time assistants and researchers, as well as funding in order to travel, employ others and write. She was also trying to get pregnant during the research period and this personal narrative of hope, disappointment and then ultimately happiness weaves through it, grounding much of the ecological devastation and impact upon communities in some hope. However, it is tinged with some shocking statistics:

They found that proximity to fracking increased the likelihood of low birth weight by more than half, from about 5.6% to more than 9%” and the town of Mossville, in Louisiana, where industrial plants convert oil and gas into petrochemical products, is described by a resident as “a woman’s womb of chemicals. And we’re dying in that womb.
— Princeton/MIT study

The introduction and first part of the book, Bad Timing, is a tough read. She visits conferences dedicated to climate change denial and unpicks the money trail given to the propaganda. Klein devotes a lot of space to Richard Branson and Bill Gates, exploring their Damascene conversion to finding a “solution” to climate change, and how this hasn’t halted or altered their business practices and expansions.

But I think it’s crucial to focus on the positive and highlight the optimism that Klein does weave through the latter part of the book, where she talks of some of the communities she has visited who are able to “build fleeting pockets of liberated space”, in terms of their “resistance to the economic system [that] creates the necessary friction to slow and brake.”

I met with a group of people who had come together through the Transition Cambridge Group to discuss This Changes Everything and asked them for their responses, how the discussions around the issues had gone, had anyone’s attitudes changed and how they were responding as a group and as individuals and members of other families, communities and networks, to the strong message for change and action.

“As a direct result of coming together to read and respond to the book, we’ve formed a group called ’Fossil-Free Cambridgeshire’, one member, a doctor, said: “We concluded the book before the winter holidays, then we reconvened and discussed where to go. We talked about doing an action and then thought about starting a group like this. The university has one, Positive Divestment Cambridge, but that’s specifically for the university. It isn’t about divestment, but about positive investment instead."

“We also decided to create another group, a support group or a leaders meeting, to discuss what was coming out of this and support each other. We formed around International global Divestment Day, made a banner and met and joined a demonstration."

We met on election night, 7 May, and the talk turned to arranging meetings with local ward councillors post-election, irrespective of their parties and any national political agendas, but to work on a local level with debate and discussion.

“I’m enthusiastic to do more, and reading the book and meeting within this group has reawakened the activist within me,” another member said. “From the outset, Klein spoke of the fears and struggles that confronted her, and that when she faced them, it showed her the reality [of the climate situation and the impact of business as usual]. We can have much better lives, and better communities, if we face some of these challenges and fears.”

This was a clear example of one of the “circular and reciprocal systems” Klein writes about, using resilience in a regenerative way to respond. Klein highlights many examples around the world where communities have come together, often from a very weak initially demoralised and socially awkward start, to create resistance and communality. Although politics belittles the people; as I write in late May the US Senate has voted 50-49 against the motion that humans are responsible for climate change, despite scientific evidence presented by NASA and other respected bodies to support the motion.

To conclude I’ll point the reader to both the book, and to the accompanying online materials and campaign, particularly the Beautiful Solutions part of the website, which highlights some opportunities “to chart a different course”.

The book needs to be read, and to be responded to, although I recommend seeking out, if not already being involved with, a community of those willing to engage with the issue, as the facts and figures Klein lays bare are a tough read, hard to digest and respond to alone.

May this book truly help to change everything, for the best we humans can achieve.

This review is by James Murray-White, Pivotal Organiser, writer and filmmaker, specialising in visual anthropology: exploring the world and what makes us tick. He has a background in theatre (as playwright and director, with a smidge of theatre in education), and also 5 years as an environmental journalist in the Middle East, where he wrote for www.greenprophet.com amongst others. Currently a content producer for Cambridge TV.

A version of this review was first published June 2015 in Contributoria - http://contributoria.com/