What does it mean to “change everything”?

Examining green values in the context of Naomi Klein’s call to action

It is the issue that will define a generation. Climate change has been at the forefront of green politics for decades and has over recent years dominated political discourse — making international headlines, toppling world leaders and consuming billions of dollars and huge political capital.

Despite all of this however it can feel as if we are getting nowhere. Despite recent international announcements, and shifts in the coal and renewable energy industries, keeping global warming to a safe(r) level seems to becoming increasingly difficult. Our political and business leaders continue to tinker around the edges while the planet burns.

Is capitalism the problem?

Climate change is often presented as either a scientific or technological issue. The debate has tended to focus around whether the science of the issue is real or not, or alternatively, once we have accepted it to be real, what technological solutions are required. In This Changes Everything, ((Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything, Penguin Books, 2014)) Naomi Klein shifts away from this approach, arguing that climate change is actually a social and economic problem, placing the blame directly on capitalism. She states:

“Our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life. What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature.” ((Ibid, p. 22))

Environmental critiques of the growth imperative at the heart of the capitalist economy have been a part of green thinking for decades. The 1972 Limits to Growth report to the Club of Rome explored the limits of economic growth in our society. The report’s central thesis was that in an Earth with finite resources, the ongoing quest for unlimited growth in the economy would eventually lead to an environmental crash. If business continues as usual, the authors argued, there would be a complete collapse of our environment by 2070.

Our capitalist system of never-ending economic growth demands a culture of production, materialism and consumerism. This requires not just the exploitation of workers and their labour for profit but also the exploitation of our environment. To maintain the system as it currently stands requires the exploitation of natural resources at an unprecedented scale, including the burning of fossil fuels contributing the global warming.

To maintain the system as it currently stands requires the exploitation of natural resources at an unprecedented scale, including the burning of fossil fuels contributing the global warming.

Klein explores this issue of exploitation through challenging the idea that humans have the right to dominate nature. Likely originating from biblical teachings these views began to dominate economic thought following the writings of Francis Bacon, who argued the environment was something which we had the capacity to own, dominate and control. About 150 years later this idea was met with a physical reality. The development of the coal powered steam engine by James Watt provided an energy source that gave the “promise of freedom from the physical world — a freedom that unleashed industrial capitalists full force to dominate both workers and other cultures”. ((Ibid, p. 173))

Hence what Klein called the birth of the “extractive capitalism”. In order to create never ending profits, capitalists require never ending resources. To produce wealth we need to dig things up, chop things down and pave things over. And in capitalism, particularly in a global world, this process is never-ending. Economic growth therefore becomes what Vandana Shiva describes as “anti-life” — a system that exploits resources that should be owned and shared by all, but in reality are for the benefit of the few.

Yet, the exploitative nature of capitalism cannot answer the entire question of why, as a society, we have not been able to solve climate change. Yes, the extractive nature of our society has been the root cause of the problem, but why, when grappling with an issue so great as climate change, has our society been unable to challenge it? Klein argues it is partly a case of ‘bad timing’. At the very time we needed to come together to solve climate change, neoliberalism, a belief system based in the ideals of individualism, became the dominant social and economic philosophy.

Like the story of exploitation, the story of individualism takes us back to the Enlightenment. At the heart of individualism is the belief that each person’s main goal is to further their own interests and that in itself will provide for society as a whole. This expresses itself economically, through promoting ideals that we are all economic competitors seeking to look for our own gain, as well as politically, through the development of liberalism, a political system focused on individualism, liberty and the securing of private property. Klein argues this belief system has become predominant with the rise of neoliberalism, which shifted our focus away from Keynesian economics and the willingness of Governments to intervene to deal with major issues to one that focuses on market mechanisms, deregulation, privatisation, and lower taxation.

Money not the right kind of green.
Money: not the right kind of green. Flickr/Jamie Henn/305.org; CC BY-NC-SA

But our current economic system does not promise unlimited growth and profits for all, only a few. Hence the growing inequality we have witnessed over the last 30 years. This is a particularly important insight in relation to tackling climate change. For example, many in the environment movement are often confused at conservative opposition to renewable energy. As an energy system it has the capacity to be extremely profitable and to share those profits around to large swathes of the community. But that is precisely the problem. If implemented well, renewable energy challenges the power of the owning class — a class that has profited greatly from a heavily centralised energy system dominated by coal, gas and oil. Any challenge to that is naturally going to opposed. Capitalism is a system of exploitation by a particular class over another, and any challenge to that — even if it is highly profitable or even improves life and liberty for all, is going to come with opposition.

Herein lies the problem as Klein sees it. Climate change, a global, unifying, and inherently social and cultural issue, gained prominence at the exact same time as our society moved more heavily towards individualism, deregulation and corporatisation. Climate change became an issue as the shift in power swung even more greatly towards the 1% and away from the majority of people. We can see this best in the way in which governments around the world were willing to intervene during the 2008 Financial Crisis to save our big banks, insurance and automobile companies. Government responses seem readily available to protect the economic interests of the 1%, or to respond to immediate economic crisis but not so much when it comes to the broader interests of our society. Our society, or more pointedly our governments, have lost a willingness to use the tools we needed to solve the problem. Climate change is an issue that requires a collective response, one that is just for all. Our individualistic, neoliberal, society is proving a barrier.

Challenging the barriers

Where does this leave us? In an important and clever observation, Klein argues this highlights an inconvenient truth: the right is right. For decades conservatives have been railing against climate action, arguing it is a mass plot to redistribute wealth and challenge capitalism. Here, Klein argues, they are exactly on the money. In fact, climate changes gives the left a key opportunity to deal with many of issues we’ve been fighting over for centuries — the exploitation of workers, growing economic and social inequality, the struggles of indigenous peoples for sovereignty, and the destruction of our environment. It gives us the opportunity to create a “movement of movements”. As she argues:

“if there is a reason for social movement to exist, it is not to accept dominant values as fixed and unchangeable but to offer other ways to live – to wage, and win, a battle of cultural worldviews…….[a vision] that we are not apart from nature but of it. That acting collectively for a greater good is not suspect, and that such common projects of mutual aid are responsible for our species’ greatest accomplishments. That greed must be disciplined and tempered by both rule and example. That poverty amidst plenty is unconscionable………And most of all, it means continually drawing connections among these seemingly disparate struggles – asserting for instance, that the logic that would cut pensions, food stamps, and health care before increasing taxes on the rich is the same logic that would blast the bedrock of the earth to get the last vapours of gas and the last drops of oil before making the shift to renewable energy”. ((Ibid, p.61))

This is our challenge. Yet it is one many in the environment movement often seem unwilling to take.

As climate change has become a dominant issue, many environmentalists seem to have run in the opposite direction — presenting it as a problem that requires only small shifts in the way our society and economy operates. Academic and green activist Clive Hamilton argues this is connected with a deep denialism within the movement. Unable to cope with the challenge many have refused to acknowledge and deal with the realities of what climate change means. In doing so the mainstream environment movement has narrowed its focus on incremental and achievable wins, getting caught in campaign cycles instead of focusing on the larger picture.

In doing so key parts of the movement have become wholly consumed by the system that it is supposed to be fighting against. Klein looks, for example, at donations provided to large environmental organisations in the United States as examples of a corrupting influence hindering more ambitious and challenging approaches. In Australia, mainstream environmental organisations have become trapped within a political system that imposed its limitations on them. With the election of the Rudd Labor Government for example, big green organisations developed the Southern Cross Climate Coalition (comprising the Australian Conservation Foundation, WWF Australia, The Climate Institute, the ACTU and ACOSS) to support the passage of the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS), which was opposed by many smaller organisations as well as the Greens as it would not reduce carbon emissions. With the re-election of the Gillard Government groups developed the “Say Yes Campaign”, which supported undefined action on climate change.

Both of these groupings focused heavily on insider politics, working the halls of Parliament instead of the streets as a way to achieve change. This has been a noted shift within much of the environment movement, where people have moved away from organising local communities towards working within politics and business to define what is “achievable”.

In doing so the mainstream of the movement has become trapped within neoliberal capitalist ideals. The focus of a political movement should be to expand the range of options available for our society and build power to demand solutions that will not only work, but will also build alternatives to the systems that are causing our problems.

The focus of a political movement should be to expand the range of options available for our society and build power to demand solutions that will not only work, but will also build alternatives to the systems that are causing our problems.

Instead much of our movement, operating within the constraints of our system, has become caught within the minimal solutions it can provide. This is best found in the Say Yes Campaign. This campaign, which put plainly consisted of little more than a rally, was launched by mainstream environmental organisations as a way to support clean energy legislation being negotiated by the Australian Labor Party, Greens and Independents. Yet the campaign launched before any legislation had been released, pre-emptively supporting the bills before the details had even been known. Constrained by the internal political debate at the time, mainstream organisations went for what they considered to be “achievable” rather than what was “desirable”. In doing so they inherently limited the scope of the debate, sending a signal to the Australian Labor Party in particular that they would support the legislation no matter the details. This made ambition in the package more difficult as nobody was pushing from the outside for it to occur.

This is a key problem the environment movement is facing. In being caught up in insider politics it has limited the scope of potential action — a scope defined by a neoliberal capitalist elite, which, as noted cannot provide us the answers we require to solve climate change. Climate change requires us to think out of the box — to challenge our neoliberal capitalist system in favour of a new set of values. Many within the environment and climate movements are failing to do this, so how can we shift towards a movement that heads in this direction?

A green climate agenda

With attempts at “green capitalism” failing our climate, it is important to look towards other options. It is here that green philosophy can play a key role.

There are many different definitions or ways of conceiving of green philosophy or green values, but here I will consider the four key pillars of the international green political movement as the basis. These pillars are: ecological sustainability, social and economic justice, peace and non-violence and participatory democracy.

The first, and most obvious way, in which green thinking provides a way forward on climate change is through the primacy it gives to environmental values. Green values are based in recognising inherent value in the environment and in turn opposing its unnecessary exploitation. Green philosophy does this in a very simple way — it acknowledges the environment is essential to human life and that without it we cannot have a functioning society, or economy.

It is a deceptively simple idea, but as noted above, capitalism is not based on this premise and our governments rarely act from it. Even within green circles the idea of “triple bottom line accounting”, which places the environment at the same level as our economy, has become dominant practice. Green values directly challenge this idea by stating that without an environment a functioning society and economy are simply not possible.

What does this look like practically?

First, this must mean the absolute rejection of our dominant growth and profit mantras. It is simply impossible to continue unlimited growth in an infinite world. With that “green capitalism”, alongside ideas of “green growth” must go out the door, to be replaced with a system that places the environment and our society at the forefront. This doesn’t mean we need to hope for a mass economic recession. Rather we can develop planned and meaningful de-growth and redistribution strategies (yes, we do want to redistribute wealth!) that limits impacts on those who are most vulnerable in our society.

While this seems like a massive shift, in reality it represents more of an emphasis on values that already exist within our society. A recent study for example challenged pre-determined ideas that we need to use economic benefits to convince people to make changes to their personal habits. The research, conducted at the University of California, looked at people’s energy usage after they were provided particular campaign information. Those provided with economic arguments (i.e. that cutting energy use would save them money) did not cut their energy use at all, while those who were provided with environmental and health based arguments cut their energy usage by 8%. This number increased to 19% for participants with children.

This demonstrates that, when emphasised, values that place our environment, health and community at the centre can play a dominant role in our society. We have seen this all around Australia with the growth in movements to halt new fossil fuel projects. Led from members of the community with support from Lock the Gate, 350.org Australia, Greenpeace and numerous other local organisations, people around the country have risen to oppose the growing expansion of Australia’s fossil fuel industry. In her book Naomi Klein describes this as “Blockadia” and we are seeing this grow in Australia. In recent years over 300 people have been arrested at the blockade of the Maules Creek Coal Mine, people have mobilised up and down the coast to stop new port developments along the Great Barrier Reef, indigenous and white Australians have come together to stop the James Price Point LNG Project and local communities have successfully blocked coal seam gas developments in Victoria, Bentley and Gloucester.

There have been two important things about all of these campaigns. First, they have been heavily localised — placing a particular focus on grass roots democracy as outlined within the four pillars. Each campaign, while emphasising climate impacts, has also focused on local communities and the values of the area where these developments have been proposed. Secondly, these campaigns have focused heavily on environmental and social values. While questions of the economic viability of these developments have been raised, campaigns against them have focused on the destruction of environmental and social values. The campaign against the Maules Creek Coal Mine for example has focused on the destruction of the Leard State Forest and adjoining farmland, while in Queensland campaigners have focused on the environmental values of the Great Barrier Reef. When given the opportunity, communities around the country can and do often place these sorts of values above immediate economic concerns.

Adelaide, Divestment
Divestment Day event in Adelaide. Flickr/350.org; CC BY-NC-SA

Another area where we can see this campaigning is in the divestment movement. Divestment is based on the simple idea that “if it’s wrong to wreck the planet then it’s wrong to profit from that wreckage”. The campaign calls on universities, churches, councils, Governments, banks, super funds and individuals to remove their investments from fossil fuel companies. Again these campaigns have focused on the social and moral reasons for doing so, emphasising that the protection of the environment should come ahead of short term profits. And they have had significant success. In Australia we’ve seen divestment announcements from the Fremantle, Moreland, Marrickville and Goomalling Councils, a number of large and small churches, Local Government Super and from the Australian National University and University of Sydney. This adds to global divestment from the likes of the Rockefeller Foundation, the cities of Seattle and San Francisco and the University of Glasgow and Stanford University.

While discussing economic and environmental values it is worth providing a cautionary tale regarding the renewable energy industry. With shifts in pricing many are now predicting the coming years will see renewable energy begin to replace fossil fuels. In doing so it has been seen by many that the market is solving the problem for us. It must be noted the market does not work as easily as this. Even as the coal industry has begun to struggle for example, fossil fuel companies and their friends in Government continue to push the growth of the industry. On the other side of the ledger we have seen renewable energy struggle. Uncertainty around the Renewable Energy Target for example has seen investment in the industry within Australia collapse. This highlights that the market cannot be relied upon to solve the problems for us. The capitalist class and Government continue to be willing to interfere to save the fossil fuel industry, essentially weighting the scales so the renewable industry struggles to compete and flourish.

Even if the market boosted renewable energy to the point where it could overtake fossil fuels that still is not necessarily a complete victory for our environment. Of course renewable energy is essential to halting greenhouse gas emissions. But the energy sector is just one part of climate change and climate change is one part of the environmental crisis we are facing. Economic growth fuelled by renewable energy sources still provides huge problems for our environment and society and therefore cannot be relied upon as the only solution.

The second way green values provide solutions to climate change is through a particular focus on people. This is outlined primarily through the lens of ‘social justice’ in the four pillars, but can essentially be boiled down to the idea of placing human and social needs above economic indicators. This may sound in contradiction to earlier exploration of the focus we place on the environment, but the two go hand in hand. Australian Greens Leader Christine Milne stated it best when at the National Press Club she outlined that “we live in a society, not an economy.” In the speech, Milne highlighted the pressures people are facing in everyday life:

“People I speak to right across the country tell me about the pressures in their lives, the sense that the world is becoming a harsher place, a less caring place. Different to the analysis of the major parties though, the Greens understand that these pressures are not just about money, but about time and a sense of losing connection to community and the environment. Not just about finding work but about finding work-life balance. Not about building more roads, but about spending less time on the roads. Not just about how to benefit from the boom but asking, is there a future after the boom.”

Milne is providing the human face that is often missing from our economic mantra. When we look at that human face we find it is often not doing as well as our politicians may want us to believe. Research questions whether economic growth is always synonymous with improved wellbeing, and in fact an obsessive individualist growth culture has been shown to have serious impacts on mental health and social wellbeing. Green philosophy challenges our growth mantra therefore not just because of its environmental impacts but because of the social impacts as well.

But issues that are often more ‘human focused’ also have a major impact on climate change. Reducing the working week is the perfect example. Australians work the longest hours of anywhere in the world — a massive 43.2 hours per week. Longer and more insecure working hours are in part a result of the growth agenda at the heart of our economic system. These long working hours are having a huge negative impact. Research shows that “long work hours increase risk of dying from cardiovascular heart disease, risk to family functioning, injury at work, smoking intensity, anxiety, digestive problems, and alcohol abuse”. Campaigns to reduce working hours therefore have a double impact. First reduced working hours for those working long hours provide the social benefits of reducing stress and mental health issues that arise due to the impacts of long working hours. And in turn more reasonable hours of work could also reduce carbon emissions. A trial of a 4-day working week in Utah for example saw a drop of emissions by 14% as employees drove less and offices used less energy. The struggle to provide a society with reasonable working hours confronts the same barriers as trying to lower carbon emissions – an economic system focused on exploitation and never-ending growth.

Another proposal of interest is the notion of a guaranteed basic income. Promoted by Green parties around the world, this policy would replace current unemployment benefits to instead provide a basic guaranteed income for all people. Such a scheme provides security and certainty for those who are either jobless or have low paying jobs, but also allows for greater debate about the value of particular work in our society. A guaranteed minimum income for example allows workers to reject dirty energy jobs (Klein pg. 461), instead being able to seek work which is more beneficial to themselves and broader society. On top of that a basic guaranteed income provides security for workers as we go through the important process of de-growth, ensuring the working class do not suffer due to shifts in our economic system.

Transforming our economic system will also require a shift in our democracy. Over the past decades it has become clearer than ever who our political class represents. We saw this in particular around the passage of the proposed mining tax in Australia. A policy that was popular with the Australian population from day one, the tax caused huge headaches for the Labor Government. Influence from the mining industry helped topple the then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, with influence and lobbying then shifting to new Prime Minister Julia Gillard to implement a tax that was a toothless tiger. Australian Greens leader Senator Christine Milne looked at this issue in an essay she wrote for Island Magazine, Things Are Crook in Tallarook. Milne tackles the influence of the “plutocrats’ in our political system, in particular blaming the influence of mining interests for the failure of climate-based legislation. This influence is not a new development — as noted above it is the basis of capitalist government. Our system works to the benefit of the few, with politicians representing the 1% above the rest of the population.

Tackling climate change therefore requires that we tackle problems in our democracy. Many campaigns in this area direct their energy into changing the current system of Government — introducing proportional representation, greater controls on lobbying, and creating restrictions on donations to political parties. These are all important renovations. Yet, as long as politics continues to represent the establishment, it is only through breaking the foundation of the system that we can really see any change.

Yet, as long as politics continues to represent the establishment, it is only through breaking the foundation of the system that we can really see any change.

Although it may not look like it, this process is already underway. Australia, along with the rest of the world, is currently undergoing what some call a “crisis in politics”. As neoliberalism grew our major parties saw the decimation of the social bases that formed their authority. Politicians have lost the trust of broader society and lurch from crisis to crisis in an aim to regain this authority. In doing so governments have seemingly lost the capacity to engage in any real, meaningful reform. While politicians are willing to intervene to save banks or automobile companies or to ensure continued economic growth (as the Australian government did during the Global Financial Crisis), as Naomi Klein describes the old political parties no longer have the capacity or authority to implement the mass social changes they used to be able to do before neoliberalism emerged.

Yet this crisis in politics provides us with an opportunity unlike no other. More than anything it has highlighted who our politicians truly represent. We can see this clearly in Australia, whether it is the industry influence over the mining tax or the ongoing corruption allegations of the Independent Commission Against Corruption in New South Wales. Our politics has become a system of influence and corruption that is rotten to the core. It is in facing and understanding the core problems that we are able to challenge them. It is clear people are turning away from the values of the major parties and it is time to present an alternative. Green political parties are often at the forefront of this debate. As noted, Greens Leader Senator Christine Milne has taken on the influence of the 1% in our political system. In the United Kingdom the UK Greens have recently seen a huge surge through representing both anti-establishment politics and radical politics. In Spain the political party Podemos has gained huge support railing against establishment politics and running against austerity measures, while Greek party Syriza just took what many have called the “first Green Government” on a similar platform.

What is key to all of these movements is they have tapped directly into an anti-establishment political framework. Each of these parties has challenged the mainstream political dogma, particularly around the precedence of capitalist economics over the needs of the environment and society. And in doing so they have tapped into dormant feelings about our political system and gained significant success. While this may not be directly about climate change, these movements are extremely important to combatting global warming. If we want to see political action of any real measure it is these sort of movements we must be supporting — otherwise we will continue to be stuck with weak attempts that focus more heavily on continued growth and private property rights over the needs of our environment and society.

This changes everything. And we can do it.

Climate change changes everything. It requires a complete overhaul of how we treat our environment, our economy and our society. And in doing so, as Naomi Klein describes, it requires a “movement of movements”; one that sees and engages with the vast array of shifts we require in our society — shifts to end inequality and the exploitation of workers and our environment.

While it may seem overwhelming, it is in facing the challenge head on that we will be able to overcome it. Many people are doing this work already — creating shifts in the way in which we value our environment, society and economy in order to rethink our capitalist culture. And this is working. What it requires is all of our effort. All our energy. And with that we could very well win.

Featured image: Divest – Esperance, WA, Flickr/Anne Morecombe CC BY-NC-SA

For further discussion on the ideas presented in this essay, see the following responses:

James Clark

Ted Trainer