Book review: This Changes Everything

We present a new book review by member Simon Norton.

The end of the road

Naomi Klein. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate.
London: Allen Lane, 2014.

As one who has long been interested in alternative economic models I have followed Naomi Klein's books with interest. Her first, No Logo, while not uninteresting, I didn't think of as a particularly important exposé, perhaps because I'm not in tune with the consumer society generally and certainly have little brand awareness, and no brand loyalty at all.

However, her second, The Shock Doctrine, was different. For those who haven't read it, it shows how neoliberal capitalism has used external events – whether of its own making, such as the coup against Allende in Chile or the Iraq war, or natural, such as the tsunami that hit Sri Lanka several years ago – to enforce austerity. It really changed the way I saw the world. And as I bought it as soon as the paperback version reached the bookshops, which was around the time of our own banking crisis in 2008, I immediately worried that the ideas in the book might be used to impose austerity on us.

Unfortunately, I wasn't all that convinced by her final chapter, in which she outlined how some countries were beginning to claw their way out of austerity. While some of the measures concerned would certainly bring some relief, they didn't seem strong enough to provide a complete antidote.

I wasn't surprised when I heard that Klein's next book would be about climate change, and eagerly awaited it. The first part of the book is excellent. It shows how the measures which would be needed to tackle climate change – developing renewable energy and mandating energy-saving measures, including an end to car-based suburban sprawl – are completely incompatible with neoliberalism (in the UK, it didn't take long for the Tories to forget their promise of 'the greenest government ever'), and that this goes a long way towards explaining why the prophets of neoliberalism are inveterate climate change deniers. It attacks part of the environmental movement for trying to appease them with measures like carbon trading, which (at least the way it has been introduced) has been a complete failure in terms of reducing emissions.

The book then attacks the ideas of using nuclear power or geoengineering as solutions. I think that one can dissent with the former while still accepting the main thrust of the book – certainly nuclear power can't be the whole solution. With geoengineering, most scientists who propose it regard it as a 'Plan B' in case efforts to reduce emissions fail, or don't reduce them by enough to stave off catastrophe, but the book draws attention to a growing tendency to treat it as a 'Plan A', and she argues that the dangers of one of the main methods proposed – the injection of sulphur dioxide into the stratosphere – are so great that the cure would almost certainly be worse than the disease.

Next she comes to the counterattack. There is a lengthy discussion of popular campaigns against fuel extraction, including the UK campaign against fracking. She suggests that fuel companies might soon have to come to the conclusion that they have come to the end of the road.

Unfortunately I'm worried that this isn't enough. If we stop fossil fuel extraction, this should certainly help to avert a climate crisis, but at what cost? Will there be an energy crunch which will lead to the disintegration of the fabric of our society? There doesn't have to be, but I suggest that to avoid it we also need to push the other measures necessary – opening up new sources of renewable energy and drastically reducing our demand for energy.

This in turn will require not only greater energy efficiency but also an end to the consumption treadmill, including a move away from individual motor vehicles to collective transport – buses as well as trains – plus walking and cycling for shorter journeys. It means that our local authorities will have to work out models (and have the powers to enforce them on developers) of land use and housing provision which are not dependent on almost universal car ownership. It means abandoning energy-guzzling schemes like new runways (whether at Heathrow, Gatwick, or Stansted), and massive road schemes such as our own A14. Can we rise to the challenge of mass action to stop these from going ahead?

Simon Norton


With regard to the A14, I think that most people would agree that the present road is unsatisfactory. However, this does not excuse the Government from promoting a scheme designed by 'roads people' – the Highways Agency – to meet the needs of motorists and hauliers, with scant attention paid to the needs of bus users, cyclists and walkers. While I personally would support an amended scheme which would aim to tackle the real problems – see Cambridgeshire Campaign for Better Transport Newsletter 118 for my proposals – I am 100% in opposition to the official proposals, which will spend a lot of money for extra road capacity that will soon be eaten up by extra traffic, leading to even worse congestion especially in places like Cambridge which will be at the receiving end of A14 traffic. I therefore hope that the Cambridge People's Assembly will play its part in trying to move our government towards a more sustainable transport strategy.

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