What’s wrong with us? Review of Naomi Klein’s ‘This Changes Everything’

September 11, 2014 § 1 Comment

Naomi Klein’s new book This Changes Everything: capitalism vs the climate is a tour de force of uncompromising argument, backed by penetrating analysis, a gift for story-telling and a deep, human empathy for those who are suffering now – and will suffer in the future – from the depredations of a turbo-charged capitalism that is ideologically unwilling and practically unable to deal with climate change.

The systematic sabotage of neo-liberalism

Her central thesis is straightforward – neo-liberal capitalism, with its dependence on fossil fuels and its need for continuous growth, is unable to tackle climate change. Free-market fundamentalism has spent the last thirty years removing regulation, rubbishing the public sector, promoting unsustainable growth, destroying collective solidarity and concentrating power and wealth in the hands of the few. Its practices have attacked and undermined the very tools – state action, planning and investment – that are urgently needed to bring climate change under control. Its ideology has made us doubt our capacities for collective action and undermined our values of solidarity and human kindness. It has, she says, “…systematically sabotaged our collective response to climate change.”

Klein is clear that only concerted national and international programmes of regulation, state investment and planning, comparable to the powers taken by UK and US governments during the Second World War, have any hope of making the annual 8-10% reductions in emissions that are now needed to bring climate change under control. She sees further than this however. She argues that tackling climate change and tackling inequality and social justice are part of the same struggle and she brings a sense of enthusiasm and possibility to this challenge. The good solutions to our climate problems could also bring lives that are more just, more equal and more worth living to far more people than currently enjoy them.

Klein is not blind to the benefits that capitalism has brought to society and she is not proposing the destruction of everything that characterises our current economic system. She does however wish to see the back of the free-market fundamentalist version that has ruled the globe for the last thirty years. And she is clear that it will not leave the stage quietly. Her interviews with participants at the Heartland Institute’s meetings are chilling indeed. She is in no doubt about the struggle that we face. And she is in no doubt about the urgent need to build a political movement that cuts across the boundaries of our existing concerns.

From ecological amnesia to radical change

As Klein herself acknowledges many of her arguments are not new. This is territory that others have trodden before but she makes the arguments with renewed vigour and honesty and draws many threads together with meticulous research, compelling stories, vivid prose and a sense of hope and possibility that has been lacking from much writing on the climate in the years since Copenhagen 2009. One of the most interesting parts to me was her admission of her own past blindness to climate change and her curiosity about the mechanisms for this ‘ecological amnesia’ as she calls it. Klein understands that our psychological defences and our capacity for disavowal play a part in our collective failure to address the problem. But this is only one of many insights that Klein weaves into this complex and riveting book. Her understanding of the way that corporations work, her grasp of complex trade agreements, her capacity to outline the science and her historical understanding of our assault on nature – all these make her book stand out. But for me it is her empathy with the lives of ordinary people and the way she tells their stories as she makes the arguments for radical, long-term change that spoke to my heart.

In a week where the UK government has published its proposals for the Paris round of negotiations with the depressing statement that growth and decarbonisation are ‘both sides of the same coin’, this is a must-read book for anyone serious about making Paris deliver on what the world, its biosystems and its people actually need.

You can hear Naomi Klein speak about This Changes Everything in London on October 6th and in Oxford on October 8th.

Fuel poverty, fuel affluence and carbon reduction

October 28, 2013 § 8 Comments

Fuel poverty, along with fuel price increases, has been much in the news. But is it fuel poverty or fuel affluence that we should really be concerned about – the fuel poor or the fuel rich?

There is no doubt that fuel poverty is a serious problem. To be fuel poor is to suffer. Cold affects health. Respiratory problems, mobility problems and cardiovascular problems are all made worse. Worries about whether it’s OK to turn the heating on and whether bills can be paid are a recurrent, debilitating anxiety for many of society’s most vulnerable people.

Tackling fuel poverty doesn’t reduce emissions

But why are fuel poverty and carbon reduction so often spoken of in the same breath? Why is tackling fuel poverty suggested as part of the solution to climate change? The truth is that tackling fuel poverty makes little difference to carbon emissions. Poor people, living in substandard housing (rated E, F or G) generally have a fixed budget for their heating, rarely enough to keep their home warm. Through necessity, they under-heat their homes. When their homes are thermally upgraded, they spend the same amount of money. The difference is that they are now able to live at a temperature that offers them a decent quality of life. One study found that fuel use amongst the poor actually increased slightly following upgrades, possibly because people could feel more confident in a well-insulated house that keeping the heating on for a little longer would not actually break the bank.

The hidden problem of the fuel rich

So if dealing with substandard housing – which must be done – does not reduce carbon emissions amongst poor people, why is it treated as if it does? We might suspect that something else is going on: responsibility is being deflected from a problem that powerful people would prefer not to face. The problem is the fuel rich.

There are two categories of the fuel rich we might consider. Those who live in large, un-insulated houses but who can afford they bills they incur, and keep themselves snugly comfortable by pumping extraordinary quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere. And those who own many of the houses lived in by the fuel poor – the landlord, rentier class who achieve their carbon-polluting lifestyles on the backs of their vulnerable tenants.

If the fuel rich insulated their own homes, there would a genuine drop in carbon emissions. They could keep their homes just as cosy at a fraction of the carbon pollution. But mostly, they don’t. Ask any architect or engineer who has proposed even the most ordinary energy-saving measures to a wealthy client, refurbishing an existing dwelling. For every one who agrees, there are a dozen who don’t. They can’t be bothered. The additional cost will add to the price of the job. The marble worktops, gold-plated taps and £50,000 kitchen units are essential. The insulation – and the environment – can go hang.

And the landlord class who own many of the properties lived in by the fuel poor? Despite tax breaks (Landlords Energy Saving Allowance) and the inducements of the Green Deal – which bizarrely would see tenants paying through bills for the improvements – most landlords do not act. Why? Greed, selfishness, stupidity and a disregard for the lives of others are all candidates.

Deflecting attention from the real carbon polluters

Psychologically we are in familiar territory. David Cameron can wring his hands. George Osborne can offer an extra jumper. The rich simultaneously affect concern while deflecting attention from their own culpability.

So what should a concerned environmentalist do? If you want to campaign for carbon reduction make your target the fuel rich, not the fuel poor. Alleviating fuel poverty is a noble aim but it does not, in itself, reduce carbon emissions. Focus your sights on those who are the cause of the problem.

Genuine carbon reduction is almost always a question of social justice. Whether we are looking at the relationship of wealthy countries like the UK to poor ones like Tanzania, or the relationship between the affluent and the disadvantaged in the UK, then the rich must reduce their impact so that the poor can achieve a decent, human standard of living.

 

 

IPCC report, hope and the left-right debate

September 30, 2013 § Leave a comment

I’ve spoken to a lot of people who were hopeful in the run-up to publication of the new IPCC report that politicians would finally show leadership. At some level I shared that hope, but I also recognised the queasy unrealistic feeling I’d experienced during the collapse of the Copenhagen COP15 talks when I fantasised that Obama was going to fly in and settle everything for the good of humanity and the world. I knew it was a fantasy. And it grew in proportion to the hopelessness of the situation.

Leaving fossil fuels in the ground

For climate change to be dealt with, fossil fuels have to be left in the ground. The more you understand about the paradoxes of energy efficiency, the rebound effect and the dilemmas of economic growth, the less likely it seems that the current economic system and current economic models can cope with the problem. This may go some way to explaining the current preoccupation with the fact that climate change seems to have become an issue that belongs to the left.

For many years conservation and environmental concerns seemed non-party political. If anything, it was the left who – fearing that progress might be denied to working people and less developed nations – saw these concerns as a cover for reaction and inimical to the left-wing agenda. As the scale of the problem has become apparent, with its challenge to just about every norm and assumption of contemporary western life, it’s the right who are panicked by the (realistic) possibility that capitalism and the survival of humanity are incompatible. They’re choosing capitalism – head-in-the-sand, bone-headed, neo-liberal capitalism – and their method of attack is to deny the science.

Reframing the political debate

Two recent publications shed an interesting light. In a recent interview with Salon , Naomi Klein repeated her argument, (first made in an article in the Nation in 2011) that in cosying up to capital and espousing so-called market based solutions to climate change, the big green groups have failed to engage with the deeper problem – the fact that capitalism-as-we-know-it is incompatible with any real solution to climate change. The right meanwhile are only too aware of this incompatibility – hence their enthusiastic denial of the scientific facts.

On this side of the Atlantic, the Climate Outreach and Information Network (COIN) have published an interesting report ‘A new conversation with the centre-right’ which explores how discussion of climate change can be framed to appeal to an audience that is rapidly in danger of disappearing either into indifference or into the arms of their more extreme, denialist friends.

Both publications attempt to re-frame the political debate. COIN’s report recognises the importance of keeping the right talking and thinking outside the frame of denial. Klein’s challenge pushes the green establishment to wake up and put a critical economic hat on for once.

The ugly face of capitalism

Meanwhile, up in the Arctic, the ugliest face of capitalism, supported by corrupt government, tries to crush those who protest. As the Greenpeace activists face imprisonment on trumped up charges of piracy for their protest at the Gazprom rig, we can count ourselves warned. This is how capitalism behaves under threat.

I notice myself feeling weary. Hope and fantasy bear a troublesome relationship. The fantasy that publication of the IPCC report would see a resurgence of genuine leadership and a serious challenge to the status quo was comforting. It seemed to offer hope. In the same way, denialists hope that climate change isn’t happening, big green groups hope that market-based solutions will crack it, an apathetic public just hopes that it will all go away. Fantasists, all of us.

On the back foot, struggling and afraid, it is not surprising that fantasy is attractive. But in desperate times real hope can only come from a more sober place – from the recognition of a darker reality and our own humanity, from a belief that relationship, justice, equality, other species and habitats all still matter. We have what we have. What is, is.

It’s a fight, and it’s looking increasingly dirty.

Donations to Greenpeace can be made at http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/

Security, masculinity and the fracking debate

September 4, 2013 § Leave a comment

A few weeks ago George Monbiot suggested in the Guardian that we should think about the psychological motivations of fracking enthusiasts. Spot on. As I wrote 18 months ago, the language of the debate is determinedly, and demeaningly masculine. But I think there is more to it than the macho fixation that George suggests. This masculine strutting is, after all, familiar from every other large engineering project you care to think of: nuclear power, space exploration, the channel tunnel. It chimes easily with the desire of large corporations to invest large amounts of money. It makes small men feel big. It’s familiar, doable and profitable.

ENERGY SECURITY

With fracking however, government has tried to appeal to the public through the rhetoric of energy security, claiming that if we fail to exploit this resource, hard-working families will be priced out of energy, pensioners will die from hypothermia and the nation will be in hock to unreliable foreigners. Baloney, of course, since all energy is now traded on international markets and home-production guarantees nothing about price. It’s the framing that’s interesting – the appeal to security.

There’s an attempt to weld together the gung-ho metaphor of exploration with the paternalistic metaphor of security for those who are deserve it: those who belong to ‘us’ and not to ‘them’. They thus hoped to appeal simultaneously to their neo-liberal financial backers and to their traditionalist, rural constituents. This has of course back-fired, as those rural constituents feel anything but secure as they see their pleasant homes and stable communities threatened by industrialisation they would prefer located elsewhere.

A TROUBLESOME FRAME

As Alex Randall pointed out in a piece for Open Democracy 3 years ago, energy security is a troublesome frame. In this instance it has upset the apple cart for the right, but it can equally well do so for the left.

The psychological associations of appeals to security are to childhood memories of safety and care, the idea that someone will take care of us, provide for us, make sure that nothing goes badly wrong. Many of the Tory party’s traditional supporters have an ambivalent attitude to these associations. Sibling issues emerge in the fear that others may take what is rightfully yours and the security agenda slips easily into a jingoistic defence of ‘our’ energy and from there to the idea that it is justifiable to achieve energy security through armed conflict if necessary.

COMPETING MEANINGS FOR SECURITY

Alex points out in his article that while for people on the left a security agenda implies peace-building, conflict resolution and a fair distribution of resources, for those on the right it means achieving stability by any route necessary – political bullying, economic blackmail or military intervention.

In the fracking debacle, it’s the right who have come unstuck in their assumption that the security agenda will play out in the way they expected, but the left should be equally aware that this frame will not necessarily take you where you expect. You mess with people’s most basic fears at your peril.

Economic recovery, carbon emissions and the obsessional defence

July 28, 2013 § 1 Comment

It’s a commonplace in economics that growth in GDP is a good thing. And it’s a commonplace in psychology that awkward topics of conversation will be avoided. If something upsets the status quo – expect a defence.

There are few topics as awkward as the relationship between economic growth and climate change. As economies grow, they use more energy. And sadly, neither improvements in efficiency, techno-wizardry, or a move towards renewables is likely to solve the problem. Carbon savings made in one place free up resources to be used elsewhere. This year’s efficiency improvement is swallowed up in next year’s growth. This is what is known as the rebound effect. « Read the rest of this entry »

Does ignorance of numbers help people defend against their impact on the climate?

June 27, 2013 § Leave a comment

 

I meet a lot of people who tell me they are ‘hopeless with numbers’ or ‘useless at maths’. There seems to be little shame in the admission. I’m not brilliant at maths either. I struggled in the remedial ‘O’ level class and was relieved to be allowed to drop the subject in the sixth form. I associated it with dull blokes who tucked their trousers into their socks when cycling and earnest girls who preferred the chemistry lab to sexual chemistry.

The environment world sometimes seems full of the same dullness. People who think that telling me that the UK produces enough rubbish every hour to fill the Albert Hall, will change my mind about where to drop that aluminium can. Or that the way to my ecological heart is to stun me with the news that a tonne of CO2 would fill my house.

It’s easy to mock, but staying ignorant of numbers can also be a way of defending against the gravity of one’s impact on the climate. Here are some of the things I’ve been told in groups and interviews where we calculated people’s actual carbon footprints:

  • “I think one’s spiritual connection to the environment is more important than the actual numbers.”
  • “Is 15 tonnes really worse than 10 tonnes?”
  • “I think numbers can distract you from the politics.”
  • “Numbers are so abstract – they make my head ache and they don’t motivate me.”
  • “I’d rather live an ethical life than get obsessed by numbers.”

Each of these people was struggling with the news that their carbon footprint was above average. Some of the statements contain interesting truths. Some are nonsense. Behind them lies the anxiety of being a poor environmental citizen, being asked to make changes that are hard or being accused of selfishness. Believing that numbers don’t matter is culturally acceptable and allows people to segue easily away from their discomfort.

As a teenager passing my maths GCE exam involved facing anxieties about self-image and about failure. Only then could I drop my defence that numbers were stupid and unsexy and enjoy my limited ability to use them creatively. Some people face a similar task when confronted with their environmental impact. They can’t grapple with the realities that the numbers reveal unless they can also find a way to cope with the anxiety and discomfort. So instead of realising that they have the power to make a real difference they hide behind the belief that the numbers are too difficult, boring or stupid to concern themselves with.

If you can bear it, here are just three numbers to think about.

  • 15 tonnes – the average personal UK footprint – the one you are likely to have if you have an average UK income.
  • 4 tonnes – the average world footprint.
  • 1.5 tonnes – the level of a sustainable footprint.

If you visit the WWF website, you can make a rough calculation of your own footprint. Or you can join a Carbon Conversations group and discover, in the company of others, that it is possible to make changes to your life and that the numbers are not as frightening as you thought.

Talking to friends about climate change

April 30, 2013 § 5 Comments

Over the last few weeks I’ve found myself engaged in a number of difficult conversations with friends. I met someone who one day was celebrating the purchase of some cheap outfits from Matalan and the next horrified at the collapse of the garment factory in Bangladesh. Another friend is enthusiastically exploring consultancy opportunities in China. A third has flown half across the world for two days work in London and intends to do so again, later in the year.

Opening up difficult conversations

I repeat the same advice to people who ask me how to deal with conversations like this: listen; open up the conversation; try to understand the other person’s position; empathise with the dilemmas; explore the conflicts; try not to get angry. I still think this is good advice but are there occasions when it’s not appropriate? Definitely. There are times when you need to challenge someone, times when you should get angry and times when you might risk falling out with even your closest friends.

As a therapist I spend a lot of time trying to understand other people’s experience. Empathy is essential. It’s critical to appreciate the complexity of someone’s mixed and conflicting feelings. You need to have compassion for the anxiety that produces paralysis and for the fragile self that struggles with self-criticism and self-doubt. You need to attend to the unconscious roots of seemingly irrational behaviour and self-destructive actions. You listen; you suspend judgment; you try to help someone through the tangle to a more creative solution.

Authenticity and truthfulness

But there are also times in therapy when you challenge someone. Authenticity and truthfulness matter as well and it doesn’t help to be a pushover or to collude with someone’s self-destructive impulse. I once listened for a long time to a man explaining his distress at losing his driving licence following a series of speeding incidents. He was struggling with alcohol but had somehow avoided being breathalysed and had to date succeeded in avoiding accidents too. After a while of listening to his self-justifications, I said ‘Actually, I think the court was right.’ He was angry with me, but I was also standing up for a better part of himself, the part that knew that he was dangerous behind the wheel.

Understanding the defensive moves

These situations are always complicated. Sometimes a friend is trying to wind you up. If they can succeed in becoming the victim of your anger they can feel relieved of any guilt they feel. You will be in the wrong for attacking them. They will be the innocent party. Sometimes a friend is seeking your absolution. They want to be accepted and forgiven for acts they feel are not really justifiable. They treat you as a parent who will offer compassion for their powerlessness or their need to be special. Sometimes a friend is asking you to collude. They are inviting you to share in their denial, encouraging you to ease their guilt by joining them in pleasures it might be better to forfeit.

In the course of one of these conversations you will encounter all the defensive moves that Stoll-Kleeman and colleagues[i] describe so well in their discussion of climate change denial. Things like:

  • It’s the clothing company’s responsibility not mine
  • If I don’t buy from Matalan, the garment workers won’t have jobs
  • I’m too small to make a difference
  • The plane was going anyway
  • China needs people like us to put them on the right track
  • My contribution is unique – I have to go there to make it
  • I have to make a living
  • If I don’t do this, someone else will
  • It’s too late for mitigation

It is important to address these objections sympathetically, explore their origins, tease out their emotional charge and the social constraints that reinforce them. But it is also important to hold your ground, know when you are being manipulated and when to offer a challenge.

Gregory Bateson

In the 1970s, systems theorist and polymath Gregory Bateson expressed this moral challenge very clearly in an appeal which drew, surprisingly, on St Paul. If ever there was a man who understood the intricacies of both human relationships and ecology, it was Bateson, but here he is with a crystal clear statement of what I have elsewhere called ‘the ‘no’ of nature’[ii] – the incontrovertible fact of the limits of nature which challenge our narcissism, our phantasies of immortality and our blindness.

“The hardest saying in the bible is that of St Paul, addressing the Galatians: ‘God is not mocked,’ and this saying applies to the relationship between man and his ecology. It is of no use to plead that a particular sin of pollution or exploitation was only a little one or that it was unintentional or that it was committed with the best intentions. Or that ‘If I didn’t, somebody else would have’. The processes of ecology are not mocked.”  Bateson 1970 p.480[iii]

Sometimes this is a challenge which needs to be spoken straight.


[i] Stoll-Kleeman, S., O’Riordan T. and Jaeger, C (2001) The psychology of denial concerning climate mitigation measures: evidence from Swiss focus groups. Global Environmental Change, 11: 107-117.

[ii] Randall, Rosemary (2012) Great Expectations: the psychodynamics of ecological debt. In Weintrobe, Sally (2012) Engaging with Climate Change. London: Routledge.

[iii] Bateson, Gregory, (1970) Ecology and flexibility in urban civilisation, in Steps to an ecology of mind. 1973, Granada publishing P.480.

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