This Book Changes Nothing

When I heard about Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. Climate Change I expected it to include some reused arguments but also to  reflect some new, incisive analysis and engagement in a legitimate debate. I initially heard of the book through an NPR interview. Though I sometimes disagree with  the positions NPR promotes, I have historically found the books they recommend to be engaging and thought provoking. In this case I was disappointed.

Klein’s thesis is contained in her title; it is that capitalism is inherently bad for the environment. The answer, for Klein, is an increase in centralized planning, redistribution of wealth, and internationally approved regulations. In a paradoxical manner, she insists repeatedly that placing economic and political control into the hands of a small number of individuals will result in getting power back to the people. I’m still trying to work my way through the math on that one. To be fair, I’m probably not giving her as much benefit of the doubt as others might, since I believe that a relatively free market and a federalist democracy will have a better final outcome than other economic and political systems.

Klein is in favor of economic redistribution including a welfare state that guarantees a minimum income, no matter whether the resident contributes to the economy or not. At one point she plainly states, “Implicit in all of this is a great deal more redistribution [of wealth], so that more of us can live comfortably within the planet’s capacity.” (p. 92) While these are nice sentiments, I suppose, they denigrate humanity and, ironically, separate the worker from her labor. If there is no incentive to work by increased well-being, there will be less work done. When there is less work done, there will be less flourishing. Where there is less flourishing, there will be more suffering. The ability of the worker to benefit from her labor implies that she actual benefits from the fruit of her labor in community, not that the fruit of her labor is distributed according to a third party's design.

One of the major flaws in Klein's argument is that she has boiled all of human nature down to economics. Humans are essentially economic creature whose greatest and, perhaps, sole needs are financial. Thus simply being alive warrants someone else paying for it. In her calculus the community does owe people a living. It isn't clear who or what will fund all of this redistribution in Klein’s economy.

Another major weakness of Klein's book is the argumentation. There are numerous strawmen and more subtle misrepresentations throughout the book. Early on, Klein offers hope she will seriously engage opposing view points as she writes, “Disagreement is the lifeblood of any intellectual gathering.” (p. 33) She then goes on to castigate conservatives for not debating disparate theories at a conference, but then her book fails to engage economists or scientists with differing perspectives. This seems a bit disingenuous. Klein repeats several times she has a don a great deal of research, and her endnotes show a fair amount of research by people that she agrees with.

Instead of careful argumentation Klein substitutes a heavy dose of adjectives for thoughtful engagement with opposing ideas. Thus other viewpoints can be labeled with pejorative descriptions and approved views either left without adjective or labeled positively. There is a consistent pattern of this throughout the book.

Klein uses rhetorical quotes from far-right polemicists and juxtaposes them with much more even-keeled comments from those that support her view. Thus Sarah Palin becomes a spokes-person for capitalism, while academic monographs and policy statements tend to represent Klein’s position. This is entertaining, but Klein neglects the reality that for every Fox News there is an MSNBC. Bad rhetoric lives on both ends of the political and social spectrum. The answer to bad rhetoric is not cheap misrepresentation, but improved rhetoric.

Klein does recognize that economics and environment involve worldview. However, she fails to recognize that she herself has a worldview. In the black-and-white world Klein creates there are the facts and everyone else’s opinions. She does not demonstrate an understanding that most things reported as facts are based on interpretations of data. The ideas she proclaims weren't birthed from a simple scientific experiment in a laboratory, they are the result of interpretation through a particular worldview. There are good and bad worldviews, but one has to recognize the existence of their own worldview before they can engage in meaningful discussion of the worldview of others.

The most awkward portion of the book is the final chapter. In her chapter, “The Right to Regenerate: Moving from Extraction to Renewal,” Klein compares her struggles with infertility with the environmental problems with the earth. Somewhat surprisingly, Klein does question some of the laws that make third party reproductive services more accessible than the adoption process and also reflects on some concerns with unthinking and incautious use of fertility technology. She fails to note that many of the restrictions that inhibit adoption are well-meant, but unhelpful uses of centralized government power. However, the example itself is a poor metaphor, because Klein reveals she did not attempt to get pregnant until her late thirties. The comparison between ecosystem disruption and trying to get pregnant past one's reproductive prime falls flat.

One of Klein’s major points is that government spending is necessary for environmentalism and for good government. What Klein fails to consider is how such an economic system will function. Klein cites cases of limited socialism and nationalization that, she claims, have resolved some world problems. She fails, however, to consider how those same changes negatively affected anyone. Klein also fails to consider whether the world economy can function without a major market system in existence somewhere. Her examples are also all very recent, so there has not been time to evaluate the outcome.  

In this marathon attack on capitalism, there is a relentless, one-sided promotion of a single viewpoint with little serious consideration of other positions. In over 400 pages of text, Klein never points to a potential weakness to her political, environmental, or economic proposals. According to Klein’s proposal, the biggest difficulty is to centralize all power and increase government spending, everything else will work out. I’m still looking for a real world example where that has worked in the long-run.

In the end, most people want clean water, clean air, public parks and sufficient public works. People on both the right and left end of the political spectrum are rightly upset about corporatism (which is what Klein confuses with a market economy) and excessive corporate control of the government. Instead of dealing with the real problem of excessive corporate influence on regulation and political process, Klein calls for an increased centralization that would tend to aggravate the problem. If more power is centralized, as Klein proposes, then the money from international corporations can only have more influence, not less as she claims to desire. If an explanation for why centralized government control of national and personal economies is made, I missed it in this book. Her central point that centralized economic and social planning is better is based on an assumption. Perhaps Klein explains it in one of her previous books against capitalism. In the end, she is right to point out problems, but her solutions leave much to be desired.

I came to this book as an environmental ethicist, hoping to read an engaging book that would bring me into an important discussion from a different angle. I wanted a thoughtful critique that wrestled with the economic and social issues of the day. What I found was a book that will sell a lot of copies because it is being well-publicized and tells a segment of the population what they already believe and want to have reinforced. Such an approach will continue to reduce the opportunities for bi-partisanship, a fact she notes at one point in her diatribe, because it demonstrates exactly the shallow engagement and failure to dialogue that characterizes so much contemporary debate. This book is not about seeking truth and convincing people of its value, it’s about making money by speaking the words people want to hear. Ironically, given its success on the New York Times Bestseller list, This Changes Everything will be a capitalistic success.