“Politics begins in disappointment”. So goes Simon Critchley’s useful aphorism. Naomi Klein’s version thereof could go “politics begins in missed appointments” – from the first warning shots about a “metabolic rift with nature” during the industrial revolution, through to burgeoning science about climate change from the likes of NASA in the 1960s, past the Kyoto agreement, up to the recent Copenhagen Climate Summit/Débâcle, globally speaking, we have not shown up to any of our appointments to deal with climate change. For Klein it is time to show up, and moreover it is time to name the real reason for our missed appointments – capital – and to get beyond it.
Klein is a veteran of drawing out the way class and capital suffuse key political struggles over race, gender, the built environment, war, and so on. She is self-admittedly late to the game when it comes to anti-capitalist environmentalism. When she says that “this changes everything” this titular phrase seems to be aimed at herself, and those like her – reds who aren’t yet green.
No Logo and Shock Doctrine were huge eye-openers for many people. The former showed Dickensian sweated labour at the heart of sleek, modern capitalist value extraction, and was cited as a “this changes everything” book by many (including a surprising amount of musicians). The latter book fore-fronted operations of neoliberalism which relied upon extracting value from catastrophe. It was Schumpeter’s theory of creative destruction for the neoliberal age. When many of us were thinking about Guantanamo, Klein placed capital firmly at the core even of “states of exception”.
I think there is a “this” which changes everything in her new work on environmentalism too, but unlike the last works, it does not come in the journalistic documentation she has now produced on climate science and fossil and nuclear-fuelled industrial fall-out. The “this” which might change, if not everything, then something for many of us, now dwells with Klein as an activist, not so much Klein as a journalist, but more on this in a moment.
If we stay with that which she chronicles, and the reason it does not change everything for many of us, it is because we are not dealing with any simple problem of unknowns which need documenting. Climate change, perhaps more than any other potentially progressive topic, has well known dimensions and facets recognised even by many who are in no way progressive. Yes, there is huge misinformation from the climate change deniers, but the consensus on what exactly is wrong with our relation to nature is remarkably solid.
Institutionally, from the Intercontinental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to NASA, from insurance brokers to Pentagon strategists, from almost the entire scientific community to even a great many conservative politicians around the world, the score is basically known: we are extracting too much, burning too much, emitting too much, and cutting down, paving-over, poisoning and embanking too much of what makes the planet liveable for many, including humans. To be sure, Klein collates much of this together in one place, and this makes for discomforting reading. For example we have an account of hunters finding moose flesh turned green and riddled with tumours from the tar sands oil industry of Alberta, Canada; or we hear about Nauru – an atoll literally hollowed out for phosphate extraction, and now being submerged by rising sea levels. But politics comes from disappointment, not discomfort.
Her basic point of contention is simple and powerful – we had the chance to allow capital to reform its way green, and it missed that appointment over and over. Now the poles have reversed. The “reasonable”, reformist route is today extremist because history and science tell us it will be too little, too late; we can break our skulls over trying to make yet another uncommodifiable thing commodified (environmentalism), or we can just get over the market and get on with the overdue task at hand. For Klein a commitment to reforming our way out of climate change is actually a sophistical commitment to unimaginable climatic turbulence. The “revolutionary” changes to political economy she proposes.
This is the link between the anti-capitalist Klein and the environmental Klein; she is redrawing the political boundaries of what true environmentalism is by outlining how we should be deeply disappointed in the existing order’s woeful approach to climate change, and social justice, and inequality. This should be a jolt to red-greens who are focussed on policy and reform. Politics begins in disappointment with this system. Klein is rearranging how we perceive political allies and adversaries. She is tuning us in to the deep links between social justice and environmental justice. This is what changes something, maybe everything, if we can make good on it.
 Infinitely Demanding, (London: Verso, 2008) pp 8-10; then see p. 137.
 No Logo, (Toronto: Knopf, 1999); Shock Doctrine, (Toronto: Knopf, 2007).
Naomi Klein. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The climate. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014.
John Gullick is a political activist with Britain’s People’s Assembly Against Austerity. He holds a PhD from the European Graduate School, and has a forthcoming book, Seven Subjects: the Good, the Bad and the Stupid, with Fordham University Press.