She prefers simplicity to paradoxes, answers to dilemmas

‘Yet, one cannot help being disturbed by the fuzzy utopianism and smug righteousness permeating Naomi Klein’s books.’

I’ve been reading Naomi Klein’s new book This Changes Everything, and it is quite disappointing. There is little by way of intellectual excitement, sense of discovery or curiosity to be had from the book. Yes, it contains lots of facts and figures, but they can mostly be googled if you need them. And yes, there is also an argument, but if you’ve read any of her earlier work, you somehow know what it is before you start reading. You get the feeling that Klein possessed all the relevant answers before she sat down to write, and she disposes of a small army of researchers working for her, providing the data she needs to connect the dots that she has already drawn up. After the initial, enlightening documentation of entanglements between politicians, resource companies and large environmental organisations, the book quickly becomes predictable, regularly showing that the answer to most questions you’d care to ask about climate change and inequality is that capitalism is bad and some form of socialism, or at least local autonomy, is the only solution. It is not a stupid or evil thought, but it is not exactly original, to put it mildly. For example, this is pretty much what we used to say in the environmental movement of the 1970s. Like Klein, we had a soft spot for indigenous groups then. But we soon understood that although the nature management of some indigenous groups could be inspiring, they could never provide a blueprint for a global, urban civilization which was committed to a division of labour entailing that most people no longer knew the details of food production.

Modernity, in a word, has to solve the problems it has created without regressing or abdicating. The moment you see this complexity, you are already entangled in paradoxes. And you come to understand that there is no solution, no master plan, no button to press, just better and worse ways of muddling through. Years ago, as a board member of the Sophie Prize, I co-organised a one-day event entitled ‘From know-how to do now’. Notwithstanding the rickety pun, our starting point was that knowledge about environmental degradation and climate change is easily available and has been so for many years, but very little is actually being done, and realistic solutions are hard to come by. Little came out of this conference as well, but at least it left us, the organisers, with the realisation that it is necessary to try out a variety of options, from campaigning for renewable energy to promoting new forms of consumption and production. What is needed is not a grand plan or a new theory of human nature, but political imagination.

Of course, it is excellent news that a smart, earnest left-wing campaigner and journalist like Klein, with her global readership and wide-ranging influence, has come to realise that you have to take the environment and climate seriously in order to act upon global social injustice. She writes in a fluid and accessible style, makes sure to get her facts right, and believes in knowledge as a means to change politics.

Yet, one cannot help being disturbed by the fuzzy utopianism and smug righteousness permeating Naomi Klein’s books. She doesn’t seem to have learnt a single lesson from the failed utopian ideologies and experiments of the last two centuries. She seems oblivious of the complexity of human nature, and appears to be unaware of how a struggling liberation movement overnight tends to change into an oppressive dictatorship. She seems to have forgotten the deep disillusion that invariably sets in soon after a successful revolution.

As politically engaged teenagers, we used to joke, inspired by a May ’68 slogan, that ‘when the last capitalist is hanged with the guts of the last bureaucrat, humanity will finally be free’. Yet, having read Orwell’s Animal Farm and skimmed a bit of Nietzsche and Foucault, we knew that the desire for power and the impulse of selfishness is just as integral a part of human nature as solidarity and sharing. So when the last capitalist was finally disposed of by the struggling and heroic revolutionary forces, new forms of power and oppression would soon emerge. Nothing in human history tells us otherwise. This is why power must never be centralised, and why state socialism is not a recipe for liberation. (Klein is aware of the latter, but seems overly optimistic about the ability of social movements to transform the world system.)

There are villains and heroes in Klein’s narrative about climate change. The villains are, in descending order of magnitude, greedy capitalists, power-hungry or stupid politicians, green, but still profit-seeking capitalists, and large environmental organisations which all too readily get into bed with capitalists and politicians. The message is that green capitalism will never save the planet, and so a different kind of economic system is needed. Klein sees hope, in particular, in popular uprisings against environmental destruction, but also in local resistance movements worldwide, from Cree in Alberta to farmers in Australia.

What Klein fails to recognise is that the people rising up against environmental destruction nearly invariably have a vested interest in doing so. They may be indigenous peoples used to hunting and fishing in their local forest, or farmers who see their livelihood threatened by the encroaching gas wells, or people involved in a local tourist business which depends on pristine surroundings. Those who appear to be independent tend to be people like myself – middle-class, bookish, cappuccino-sipping do-gooders – or professional NGO workers, whose salaries depend on their efforts for the global environment. In other words, discarding enlightened self-interest as a fundamental source of motivation for people around the world, no matter their culture or material circumstances, would be denying a fundamental feature of human nature.

Rather than refusing to accept that competition and selfishness inevitably bubble to the surface in every society – albeit to varying degrees, and with great variation between individuals – what needs to be put into place are policies from above and cultural changes from below that make sustainability a rational option, even in situations when we humans are driven by competitive or selfish desires. Severe green taxes might be an option, that is, not only making the polluter pay (which remains important), but also making the consumer pay: Whenever I took my car somewhere, it would cost a substantial sum, but taking the tram would be free. Eating local lamb, which has actually grazed outdoors, would be really good value, whereas pork fed by soy pellets from Brazil would be almost prohibitive.

At the same time, a change in mentality is necessary, and it may be under way in some of the richer corners of the world. The term affluenza was coined some years ago, referring to the now well documented fact that extreme affluence does not make people happier. (I wrote a book about this in Norwegian some years ago.) Consumerism works fine for most of us up to a point, but it is not sufficient; it is not fulfilling in the same way as religion used to be. Humans need something more enduring; and seeing yourself in a global context, as an integral part of Gaia (a metaphor, coined by James Lovelock at a suggestion from his friend William Golding, depicting the planet as an organism), may well be the kind of religiosity is needed in this secularised, consumerist, individualising world, where the old religions have little to contribute except complacency, regression and conflict.

Naomi Klein has no faith in such measures. She seems to envision a world where the profit-seeking motive (or selfishness, or the competitive drive) has been abolished or at least brought under control. But two centuries of utopian political thinking has led to nothing but tragedy and disillusion, and no comparative anthropology worthy of its credentials can point to a society where solidarity and mutual aid are the only social forces. Yes, it is true that we humans like to cooperate, and we like to be liked by others. But we also like to win and to be admired by others. Creating a decent society is not done once and for all; it is an ongoing project, and it entails hard work. And the serpent is never far away.

In recent decades, the traditional left has failed in two major areas, namely diversity (including multiculturalism) and environmentalism (including climate change). The left – mainly Marxism and its permutations – simply wasn’t made for these issues. It excelled in promoting equal rights and equal benefits, but soon proved incompetent in dealing with cultural diversity (which has a complicated relationship to equality) and environmental crises (which cannot easily be reconciled with traditional demands for equality, which have historically presupposed economic growth).

However much I sympathise with Klein’s views, I feel an almost constant urge to contradict her. There is something profoundly irritating about her knack for simple just-so stories about the evils of corporations and the virtues of common folk, stories which ultimately come across as repetitive with a hint of smugness. She is one of those people who always has a ready answer. There is not much by way of complexity or ambivalence in her writings. She prefers simplicity to paradoxes, answers to dilemmas. For example, she rarely zooms in on people who actually work in the fossil fuel industry – perhaps, a decade ago, she would have portrayed them as potential socialists and working-class heroes – and when she finally does write about the foot soldiers of the fossil fuel industry, all she has to say concerns their high divorce rates, substance abuse and thwarted dreams of early retirement. People I know in Australia tell different stories. Surely, they recognise the problems Klein mentions. Fly-in-fly-out work is disruptive of family life and disturbs the rhythms of civil society. But at the same time, thousands of people make good money and have a reasonably harmonious life as workers in the fossil fuel world. Imagine yourself a school leaver in Central Queensland. You are just seventeen, and you are thoroughly fed up with school, so higher education is out of the question. Luckily, you can get a job as an apprentice with the local alumina factory. After a few years, you can begin to pay down the mortgage on a house. Still a few years later, you earn more money than a university professor. And you’re then supposed to listen when some middle-class people from the big city come and lecture you about climate change and the need to close down your workplace? The truth is that in many countries – Norway, Canada, Australia, Russia – working in extractive or energy-intensive industries can be a blessing for poorly educated members of the working class. I’m sure that Klein wants to educate them, but I’m not so certain that they will want to listen to her.

Klein must be commended for her engagement and conscientious search for statistics and stories that demonstrate the need to think radically differently about the future of the species and the planet, and which show that the economic and political elites cannot be counted on as the instigators of change. And, to repeat, it is really good news that a leftist campaigner of her stature has discovered the importance of environmental questions. Her critique of the naïve faith in technological solutions, exemplified through visionary capitalists like Richard Branson and dangerous, megalomaniac ideas about geoengineering, is also important and pertinent. Yet, the feeling lingers that Klein proposes 19th century solutions to 21st century problems. In fact, there is no historical subject in the narrative about global climate change, unlike in the stories about social reforms and radical working classes. We are all in this together, and every effort counts. There is a real danger that while Klein and her allies are busy fighting corporate greed, business elites are being alienated, politicians align (as they tend to) with the economically powerful, and the little guy with a green engagement is left with few options left other than sorting his rubbish and taking his bike to work. As if that would make a difference in the effort to save Antarctica and the Maldives.

No holier-than-thou rhetoric will do the trick. It is necessary for greens of all shades to get their hands dirty and jump into bed at the first convenient moment with whichever strange bedfellows are at hand to offer their services.

4 thoughts on “She prefers simplicity to paradoxes, answers to dilemmas

    • Takk for lenken, Nils! Faktisk traff jeg Alf senest i dag tidlig (!), da vi begge er på AAA (American Anthropological Association) i disse dager. Håper å få tatt en kaffe med ham en av dagene for å snakke mer. Han er en spennende forsker!

      • Kul! Och vilket sammanträffande! Jag skulle önska att humanekologin kunde få mer plats i Norge, och att økosofin fick mer plats i Sverige (de lade nyligen ner de kurser som fanns i dito på Karlstad universitet, i samma veva som Olav Thon blev hedersdoktor där […])

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