Review by Randy Cunningham, Chair NEO Sierra Club Coal & Energy Committee. This Changes Everything was published by Simon and Schuster in 2014.
In the New York Times Book Review of November 6, 2014, reviewer Rob Nixon calls This Changes Everything one of the most important books on the environment to appear since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962. He may be correct.
Where I differ from the NYT reviewer is that This Changes Everything is not only a book on the environment. It is a critique of our world as viewed through the lens of the climate crisis. Klein’s book is a call to revolt against the laissez-faire, neo-liberal establishment that has conquered our world since Reagan was in the White House and Thatcher was at 21 Downing Street. Klein’s chapters are intellectual broad sides. They illustrate how fiscal austerity, the dismantling of the public sector, globalization, and the removal of all barriers to capital have created a world that is much more unequal, and unjust as it speeds towards a climate cliff that will be the ruin of us all.
One of Klein’s best chapters comes from her going into the belly of the beast of climate denier-dom when she attended a conference of deniers sponsored by the Heartland Institute and interviewed some of the stars of the movement. She manages to scrape away the bogus science and wild conspiracy theory of the movement, to reveal the Great Fear that is their core motivation. The deniers are stalwarts of the conservative movement, who have not been able to enjoy for long their victory over communism before being confronted by the issue of climate change. They are not worried about cooking the planet, as much as they are worried that the steps it would take to salvage our situation would make a bonfire of their most fundamental beliefs. The preservation of laissez-faire capitalism is more important to them, than the survival of the planet.
In our partisan gridlocked world, some Democrats will take comfort in her roasting of those at the Heartland Institute Conference. That would be a mistake, because as she fires her artillery against neo-liberalism she does not distinguish between Republican neo-liberals and Democratic neo-liberals. John Boehner would not enjoy this book, and neither would Bill or Hillary Clinton.
Many will want to pigeonhole Klein’s views as socialist, or liberal. You can’t blame them for doing so because that way her message can be dismissed. But Klein is part of a generation on the left that is dangerous because they do not conform to traditional stereotypes from the Cold War past. In covering extractivism – which she defines as the belief that the world is an infinite warehouse open for looting – she not only massacres the sacred cows of capitalism, but then saves some ammunition to savage the favorite nostrums of traditional Marxism and current left governments.
Klein in the end possesses what I consider one of the finest qualities any social critic can claim. She shows how everything is tied together and knits a whole garment by examining the cultural, political, economic, and ideological parts that make the whole apparatus work – or in this case work in such a way that it should scare everyone. Her book belongs alongside Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century as part of the work of a new generation of writers who have gotten off their knees before the Market God and are constructing a new body of criticism that hopefully will inspire movements for social change in the future. Unfortunately, the world has changed since Silent Spring upset the apple cart. We live in a post-literate world, where bookstores are heading for extinction, and books no longer influence the political world as they once did. Let us hope for our own survival that Klein’s fine work bucks that trend and influences our thinking and politics.