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.

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The Green Deal – great offer or another example of denial at work?

January 28, 2013 § 1 Comment

The Green Deal is the government’s latest offer on climate change. Is it a good offer or another policy that colludes with people’s desire that climate change shouldn’t really affect their lives?

Denial and disavowal

Denial is a familiar idea in relation to climate change. Its most common form is not the outright “black-is-white” argument of the denialist industry but the common capacity to keep the awkward knowledge split off in one part of the mind so that ‘life as usual’ can go on. Psychoanalysis often refers to this as ‘disavowal’. People know and don’t know simultaneously. Uncomfortable knowledge is shelved. The awkward facts of climate change are put in a separate box. In this way the anxiety, guilt and disturbance they cause can be managed.  Loss doesn’t have to be faced. Anne Karpf described this process well in her recent Guardian article Climate change, you can’t ignore it  and I discussed it in my piece The Id and the Eco in Aeon magazine a couple of months ago.

Also familiar are the contradictory statements and policies of governments and big institutions as they respond to pressure from vested interests and stakeholders. BIS (the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills), the Treasury and DECC (the Department for Energy and Climate Change) set off in mutually opposing directions. The ‘joined-up government’ trumpeted by the Blair administration in 1998 as a solution to ‘wicked’ problems like climate change was quietly dropped. Cameron and co have no interest in reviving it.

What is less familiar is the way a process of denial can be enacted within a specific public policy. This is an altogether more insidious process as it contributes to confusion in the public mind, reinforcing and legitimising the status quo of disavowal. The government’s Green Deal, launched this week as a programme to upgrade the UK housing stock, is a sad example.

The need for big changes

In 2006 the government-commissioned Stern report was clear. Stern argued that dealing with climate change required investment of 1% of GDP a year in order to avoid much greater costs later on. Stern later agreed that his figures were optimistic and that 2% was more realistic. Others suggested that even that was inadequate. What was not up for debate was the fact that climate change will cost money. Priorities need to be realigned and the economy transformed.

When you come down to specifics, research on the UK housing stock is equally clear. Both Brenda Boardman’s research for Oxford University and energy modelling done by DECC and the Scottish Government show that we can’t meet our obligations under the Climate Change Acts unless almost all the possible upgrades to existing houses are made. This includes a long list of projects whose costs outweigh their monetary savings.

So what does the Green Deal offer? It provides loans to householders and landlords that are recouped through energy companies making a charge on fuel bills. At its heart is the idea of the ‘Golden Rule’. No upgrades to housing should be made that cost more than the savings that can be made on energy bills.

Perversion and the avoidance of reality

This is a policy which simultaneously accepts and denies reality – the process at the heart of disavowal. On the one hand the Green Deal acknowledges that something must be done to reduce the energy demand of UK housing. On the other it suggests that this is a matter of choice not necessity, that no loss to the individual will be involved and that the key consideration is financial. Many of the actions which in reality are needed are placed out of the frame, along with the arguments for taking any of them.

The perverse lie at the heart of the Green Deal is the idea that each energy-saving action should have a ‘payback’ time. When governments in the 1960s provided grants for toilets, bathrooms and electricity in the nation’s run-down Victorian housing, the ‘paybacks’ on these works were not calculated. The motive was to provide decent, healthy housing for all the population. In the 21st century a similar programme is needed to transform the housing stock to cope with climate change – a programme needed once again because it is the necessary, decent, human thing to do.

The Green Deal policy could be seen as a prime example of what Paul Hoggett[1] (in his essay Climate change in a perverse culture) describes as a perverse culture, where processes of thinking have been corrupted and policy-makers operate in an ‘as-if’ world where it becomes more important to appear to do something than to actually make a difference. This is a world in which evasion, half-truths and collusion thrive. Morality is blurred. Targets are substituted for actions. Tricks are preferred to truth. Complexity provides a smokescreen for ineffectiveness.

Newspapers from the Guardian to the Daily Mail have predictably picked up on the problems at the heart of the Green Deal. Its confusing rules, complex processes and muddled finances are easy to pick holes in. Sadly, instead of offering leadership that spells out the unpalatable truths, accompanied by genuine incentives to make meaningful change, the Green Deal both colludes with a public that prefers not to face the issue and provides a framework for further denial.


[1] Hoggett, Paul (2012) Climate Change in a perverse culture in Weintrobe Sally (ed.) Engaging with climate change: psychoanalytic and interdisciplinary perspectives. London: Routledge

The many faces of climate change denial

September 1, 2011 § 3 Comments

In popular parlance ‘denial’ can refer to anything from the barefaced lies of a politician to the psychobabble of checklists that tell you whether you are ‘in denial’ about any number of personal ills. Understanding climate change denial means unravelling both psychological and sociological meanings of the term. « Read the rest of this entry »

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