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      A Political Realignment Over Climate? A Reflection on Naomi Klein

      Naomi Klein doesn't say much about California in her brilliant must-read, This Changes Everything, Capitalism VS the Climate. Yet California may be the place which indeed "changes everything", assuming that such a utopian goal is even possible. At the very least California is the laboratory of the solar, renewables, and conservation r/evolution of the last few decades, for better and for worse. Klein's book is a great correction to the recent drift of environmentalism - she calls it market environmentalism - but it perhaps another correction is needed soon, given the California experience. 

      Klein's main argument is that major environmental groups have sold out to Wall Street, corporate donors and Democratic Party leaders. She is scathing in her attacks on market-based strategies. She supports a resistance strategy instead, mainly led by native people and youth around the world who are blockading the fossil fuel industry where they can. The resistance is grouped in what she calls Blockadia, a community whose identity is shaped at the barricades. This same Blockadia, she believes, might well be the unifying thread for the Left's dream of a progressive society beyond the domination of corporate power. In the end, she hopes for a "Marshall Plan for the Earth" without explaining how that goal can be achieved without passing through the institutions she tends to despise. 

      Hers is a great antidote to the prevailing approaches of many mainstream environmentalists and those who believe the crisis can be met with a few adjustments to the prevailing system of capitalism - not minor adjustments, to be sure, but designed to preserve the current system in a cleaner, greener form. 

      There are two problems with her bold Big Picture. First, there are vast differences between and within the mainstream environmental groups, which she views too monolithically. Without getting into detail, the majority of committed environmental activists have fluid identities which find them one day zip-tied on the ground, another day knocking on doors seeking donations, then bringing court challenges against polluters, and even voting for candidates like Bernie Sanders - an "all of the above" approach which seems internally consistent to most of them. In addition, there are major differences, often-brutal ones, between different "mainstream" environmental organizations. Lumping them all together as one "Big Green" monopoly results in marginalizing Blockadia from necessary resources of support. 

      Second, she seems to be arguing that capitalism itself must be changed before the climate crisis abates. That is the plain meaning of her title. But she is too subtle a thinker to go that far. Her own instincts contain an anarchist thread, which is suspicious of the State, seen by socialists as the instrument of social reform or revolution. She leaves the question open, in favor of a very important formulation that both capitalism and state-sponsored socialism are both based on the extraction of natural resources for economic growth. Environmental formulations like "sustainable growth" have been Band-Aids to avoid resolving these contradictions for years. She makes a great contribution to the search for a new theory of political economy. 

      But what to do about the Green Billionaire class, which she correctly says is heavily involved in shaping environmentalism? Should the Sierra Club have rejected the $50 million donated by Billionaire Michael Bloomberg for its campaign to shut down Big Coal? Does the One Percent have any role in solving the climate crisis? Or does the One Percent have to be removed from power first? It's a bit like the arguments between socialists and suffragettes decades ago over which should come first, socialism or the vote? In retrospect, it's hard to believe that serious advocates fought over that question, but today there are many on the Left who place their Left agendas ahead of the climate one. What Klein is arguing is that all ideological positions must be reconstructed to deal with the epic new crisis unfolding. The reconstruction must be spiritual, cultural, political and economic as well. 

      Klein is hostile to market approaches like California's cap-and-trade, a 2006 law which mandates steady greenhouse gas reductions (the cap) and allows polluters to purchase a further right to pollute under the new limit (the trade). Honestly, I am not sure how I would have voted had I been in the California legislature when it passed by the narrowest of margins (on solely Democratic votes plus a signature by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger). One of the most pernicious aspects of cap-and-trade is socio-economic; that is, the law allows a corporation to keep polluting Richmond, California, in exchange for purchasing and preserving one hundred thousand acres of Upper Peninsula woods. Or indigenous people may be displaced from the Lacondon Jungle as part of its being designated as a nature preserve. The debate over that provision still continues. 

      The fight over AB 32 (Sen. Fran Pavley's cap-and-trade bill) came down to a basic partisan vote in the legislature. Arnold, which is what we still call him, and the Democrats, wanted the bill. For Arnold, it meant breaking completely with his own party. For the Democrats, it meant giving Arnold a victory in an election year. Rather than create a new bureaucracy, a Climate Action Board, it was agreed to place the program under the Air Resources Board, a powerful government agency. The ultimate political debate was over whether the cap-and-trade program "shall be" a market mechanism or simply "may" be one. In a compromise, the market approach was left as an option to be carried out by a state agency (the ARB) that had all the characteristics of a so-called "command and control" bureaucracy. A hybrid approach was created through political compromise. Arnold signed the bill into law without a single Republican aye vote. That was the end of him in his party. 

      AB 32 went into effect in 2012-2013. Cap-and-trade now generates between $2-5 billion in funds to be invested in California clean energy and renewables programs through 2020. That will be as much as $25 billion or more within an overall estimated clean energy budget of $120 billion (the rest comes from existing state funds and a corporate loophole closure.) AB 32 is now fused with SB 535 (2012), which requires that cap-and-trade funds not only reduce carbon emissions but also provide "co-benefits for impacted and disadvantaged communities." That formula enables the environmental movement to indeed become a broader progressive movement including economically distressed communities of color and labor. 

      If cap-and-trade was a sellout to the corporations, one must ask why the fossil fuel lobby seems to hate it so much. By an agreement reached in 2006, the oil and gas sector was given five years before coming under the reach of the cap. Last year their top priority was trying to jam and exemption from the cap through the Legislature. The fight went on to the final day of the legislative session before the governor, the ARB and Senate Democrats, blocked the industry. Throughout that period they ran television and radio commercials blaming the governor for gasoline price increases that would be coming from cap-and-trade (without acknowledging the reason). They also poured millions into legislative races, and even recruited a sitting Democratic senator to become Chevron's lobbyist in Sacramento. The fight is unending and complicated. 

      It's hard to imagine taking down Finance Capitalism before getting the climate crisis addressed. Should we reject the $74million spent by billionaire Tom Steyer on environmental candidates and campaigns to block the XL pipeline, even though most of his money was wasted?  Should send back the money they received from the Rockefeller funds to launch their movement to keep fossil fuels in the ground? That would be absurd, and Klein stops short of advocating a rejection of these billionaire offerings. But that's the interpretation of her book many will take away. 

      In searching for relevant models to unprecedented crisis before them, Klein and Chris Hayes, among others, have pointed to slavery and abolition, a drama in which the capitalist class was forced to divest from their property holdings in human beings. As advocates of nonviolence, they tend to understate the fact that 620,000 Americans died in the Civil War. Perhaps a great Climate War is inevitable [we already hear stirrings on the Right]. But a better model to work from, however imperfect, is that of the 1930s New Deal. 

      As I have written about this scenario before. The argument can be stated briefly. Before the New Deal, the capitalist class had unfettered power over laboring men and women, a systemic cruelty was inflicted on the elderly and sick, and all was done in the name of a free-market, racist, anti-government ideology. The Blockadia of that time, the strikes and factory occupations, the growth of left-wing and revolutionary movements - caused a split among the One Percent as to how to respond. The Roosevelt coalition, based on massive popular support, prevailed in reforming the capitalist system. The Left in fact was divided over the New Deal reforms, claiming that FDR sold out to save the capitalist system. That argument, which was reiterated by Howard Zinn and others, went on for decades. The truth of the matter will never be entirely clear because World War 2 pump-primed the economy to rescue America from further Depression. Labor unions were empowered. The elderly gained Social Security. Those left out, including African Americans, built the early civil rights movement on concessions from the New Dealers. 

      The point is that it's equally possible that finance capitalists and big corporations will join the battle against climate change to save their own system from destruction. On the other side will be the fossil fuel lobby and the fundamentalist climate deniers running Congress. Tough compromises will have to be hammered out: why should the greenest of corporations be allowed to exploit slave and sweatshop labor? Why should campaign finance reform prevail over the greenest of investors? Why shouldn't the student and labor movements push for divestment from fossil fuels and re-investment in renewables? The fact is that all of this, and more, will go on, because we live in a stormy political process where coalitions are inherently contradictory. If Klein is half-right, there may come a new political realignment in which most Democrats choose climate justice over their irrational ties to corporate and confederate Democrats, as happened in the 1960s in response to the civil rights movement. 

      Klein wants it all, and she surely deserves it. But between socialism and barbarism lies radical reform, the only conceivable path left towards a sustainable planet. Klein at least has rescued the mainstream progressive conversation from its broad assumption of Clinton-era corporate neo-liberalism. She has harnessed the fight against carbon and methane emissions to the struggle for social justice, and is trying to transform the environmental movement to a broader one based in communities of color, poverty and unemployment. That's more than enough for one book, or chapter, on her amazing journey.

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      Reader Comments (4)

      Nicely put. My frustration with otherwise completely admirable activist like Ms. Klein is their ignorance of exactly the kind of nuts-and-bolts historical / technological measures they need to embrace to accomplish their ends.

      For example, Ms. Klein has a relatively primitive notion of the technology we call "money." See this review, of This Changes Everything for one example.

      In that review, Modern Money Theory -- the school of economic thought that, unlike neo-classical economists from Mankiw to Krugman, predicted the Great Recession -- demonstrates a lot more that what she believes possible is feasible, with even less conflict than she believes is necessary.

      Along those same lines, progressives of all stripes need to understand understand money is a social construct, not a zero-sum game. Neither taxes nor borrowing funds government. Where would taxpayers (or lenders-to-government) get the dollars to do those activities if government didn't spend the dollars out into the economy first?

      Taxes make the money valuable; they do not provision government. And raising taxes on the rich or petroleum producers, while it may be valuable from other perspectives, is unnecessary to fund the remedies for global warming.

      The typical (primitive) reaction to this observation is that "just printing money" will inevitably cause inflation. That's not true, either. According to its own audit, the Fed issued between $16 - $29 trillion in the wake of Lehman's bankruptcy in 2007. That's seven years ago. Where's the inflation?

      Never mind the sophisticated economics explaining this (see here and here, for example), where was all the "fiscal responsibility" when multi-trillion-dollar wars and financial sector bailouts were the topics of conversation? But let social safety nets come up and "Whoops! We're out of money!"

      More observations are available for money-as-social-construct in Ellen Brown's Public Bank Solution. Don't miss 'em.

      December 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAdam Eran

      Naomi Klein, for whom I have great respect and admiration, made an unfortunate choice in calling for a "Marshall Plan" for the earth. The Marshall Plan was a postwar instrument of U.S. imperialism designed to blunt the postwar pro-socialist movements that were broadly supported throughout Europe, and to assure that European economies would be securely tied and subservient to that of the U.S. If the New Deal saved American capitalism from revolution, the Marshall Plan saved European capitalism from the socialists and Soviets.

      Another problem raised by Klein and correctly identified by this commentary is whether fundamental structural changes in capitalism (up to and including its demise) is required to be able to take the steps necessary to address the climate crisis. If so, humanity is pretty much doomed. But it is also difficult to see how changes sufficient to stave off climate calamity can be made without eliminating fossil fuels, and if that is the case, how the fossil fuel sector can be wrestled to submission to its own demise within the framework of the existing capitalist order. Will there be other capitalist interests powerful enough to bring the fossil fuel sector to heel without giving up their own power to the kind of popular democratic movement that will be necessary to make these changes?

      Finally, there is nothing inevitable about the ability of the environmental movement to change public consciousness sufficiently to create a movement strong enough to impose these changes. The reality of looming climate crisis and calamity in and of itself is not going to do that. On the left, there were at one time a large number of revolutionaries who operated under the assumption that capitalism was doomed by its internal logic. The only debate in their minds was when and how the revolutionary transformation would occur. Capitalism proved to be far more adaptable than they had believed and public consciousness far more resistant to revolutionary change.

      This raises the issue of agency. Even impending doom can not be counted on to spontaneously produce the kind and scope of change in public consciousness required to accomplish the changes that will be necessary. There is a lag between changes in reality and changes on social awareness. How long that lag is may determine whether society as we know it will survive.

      For the environmental movement to succeed will require that it become a thoroughly revolutionary movement that is prepared to offer not only an alternative vision but a concrete economic and social alternative that will command the allegiance of a broad spectrum of the population. That will require taking on not only the fossil fuel industry, but also the military industrial complex, for they are inextricably interwoven and interdependent. Yet the leading forces in the environmental movement have been resistant to taking on the MIC and the militarized foreign policy that serves it. We will not achieve the fundamental changes in one without achieving equally dramatic changes in the other.

      The only way to accomplish this is if the labor, economic justice, peace, environmental and other progressive movements abandon their go-it-alone strategies, break out of their movement silos and begin to develop an integrated strategy for social change.

      December 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Eisenscher

      I agree with almost all of what Klein proposes. She's a little tough on Bacon and Watt, but they no longer care.
      However, she seems to think that corporate power can be overturned in some kind of "Occupy" bloodless coup. How much blood would you be willing to spend to weaken Wall Street greedy bastards so they will move to stop global warming?

      December 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBob Coppock

      In order to create a sustainable society we must develop a sustainable culture, one in which war is not an option. As long as people make war on one another, we will be more concerned with immediate survival than with long-term survival. A new culture requires a new spoken-word language. So as we name things, we perceive things. We really do not know the final meaning of anything: all we have is the feelings about things which well up from our deep subconscious levels regarding how things affect us. These deep feelings come from the emotional affects of the sounds of words. The phones affect us subliminally, and the story told by those sounds serves to inform us of how we are affected by whatever we have names for. Name it and claim it. We experience simultaneously the feeling effects of the sounds of words and the thoughts of the things to which they refer. Hence, we associate the feelings with the things. Neurologically, that which fires together wires together. The word seems to be an innocent
      identifier when actually it is a definer. Each language generates its own culture. "Old world's broke, ain't worth fixing. We need to start all over we need a new beginning. We need new signs, we need new symbols, we need a new language, we need to redefine the world." Tracy Chapman, 1995 "New Beginning"

      December 4, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoseph Gilbert
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