Locating Naomi Klein in the political economy of climate change

She sits somewhat uneasily between ecological Marxists and pro-market ecological economists

Martin CraigNaomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, offers a distinctive political economy perspective on the slow rate of policy responses to the scientific consensus that emissions of greenhouse gasses must be reduced if hazardous and irreversible changes to the earth’s climate are to be avoided.  It makes uncomfortable reading for advocates of ‘business as usual’, which is perhaps its primary purpose. But it also contains some equally challenging arguments for those genuinely keen to explore the nature of, and transition to, an environmentally and economically sustainable political economy.  Sometimes, though, she is less than explicit in what she is saying, leaving it to her readers to wrestle with the many implications of her remarks.

My aim in this post is to draw out just one of these implications: namely, the relationship between ‘capitalism’ and the climate highlighted in the sub-title of Klein’s book.

Klein’s argument is that the scale of industrial activity in, or sustained by, developed economies is such that only ‘de-growth’ of activity and consumption will suffice – if an internationally just and economically sustainable model of economic activity is to be achieved in a time-scale consistent with avoiding the worst effects of anthropogenic climate change.  Drawing on the work of Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows-Larkin, she concludes that developed countries must immediately reduce emissions by 8-10% per annum and consumption to the levels of the 1970s.  Debates about the scope of as-yet unspecified and unrealised ‘innovations’ to ‘de-couple’ growth from emissions, or about the hitherto mixed track record of ‘climate capitalism’ in promoting sustainable restructuring, are thus instantly rendered moot points.

Her analysis of our failure to act sooner stresses the impact of neoliberal restructuring – in particular, the various institutional and ideological obstacles that it has put in the path of those advocating more interventionist measures to make economies more sustainable.  Yet, for Klein, the underlying cause is capitalism itself, especially the damaging ideology of ‘extractivism’ to which she thinks it is bound.  Here, extractivism denotes the treatment of economic resources (natural or human) in entirely instrumental ways without regard for the regenerative capacity of the (ecological or social) systems from which they are drawn.  In this vision neoliberalism has served simply to dissemble extractivist capitalism at precisely the moment it was approaching its climatological limits.  Unfortunate timing indeed!

Thus Klein sweeps up in one authoritative stride the highly contested relationships between capitalism, ideology, growth and environmental degradation – some of the biggest of the ‘big’ questions of political economy.

Her prescriptive intervention is no less ambitious.  It is the reconfiguration of political forces via the building of an international anti-extractivist social movement, which will, in turn, lead to the election of environmentalist parties and the emergence of what we might call a ‘post-extractivist’ state.  Such states will then co-operate with each other to facilitate the restructuring of domestic and international political economies in ways that will bring about both sustainability and justice (goals she sees as ethically and functionally intertwined).  The policy measures to be deployed to this end are ‘green industrial policies’ and social programmes funded by a rigid ‘polluter pays’ approach to business taxation.  In a candid statement, Klein refers to the eventual outcome of post-extractivist restructuring as a ‘carefully planned economy’, and she highlights the role that democratic processes should play in resource allocation by alluding to the case for communal and not-for-profit forms of ownership within such an economy.

This is undoubtedly an exciting and provocative proposition.  Yet, at precisely this most important point, Klein’s analysis becomes markedly less definitive.  Among the most fundamental questions she raises lies capitalism itself and, in particular, the role of the private sector in the transition to, and operation of, a post-extractivist economy.   Her notion of a ‘carefully planned economy’ sits somewhat uneasily between the positions adopted by ‘ecological Marxists’ and ‘pro-market ecological economists’ in this debate.  On the one hand, her discussion of the economic policy of the democratic post-extractivist state in maintaining sustainability hints at the ‘steady state’ economy envisioned by Herman Daly.  In this formulation, the state purposefully manages the ‘material-energy throughput’ of the economy at a level consistent with environmental sustainability, but the private sector remains the allocator of those economic resources made available to it by the democratic post-extractivist state.  Firms are thus constrained in their ability to expand production at will and so compete for market share increasingly on the basis of the quality, rather than quantity, of their products.

On the other hand, Klein’s condemnation of extractivism and emphasis on the role of community and public ownership in changing the behaviour of energy producers hints at a deeper, more radical critique of contemporary capitalism.   She implicitly highlights the tension between use and exchange values inherent in capitalism, noting the primacy of the latter for firms and the strategic push this gives towards profit-maximisation.  For ecological Marxists, this compels capitalist firms to ‘expand or die’ within the competitive conditions that neoliberals celebrate, imparting (in the absence of absolute ‘de-coupling’) a necessarily extractivist and expansionary trajectory to the capitalism as a whole.  The questions then become the following: would competition on the basis of quality alone prove sufficiently profitable to motivate investment, or would the result merely be stagnation and crisis?

We might add here that such production would surely be no less extractivist in its tendencies (one can imagine goods composed of ever rarer raw materials in order to differentiate them from the competition).  For ecological Marxists, a post-extractivist economy is consequently a post-capitalist one, thereby making Klein’s democratically informed, carefully planned economy a much more radical proposition.  Indeed, it would necessitate a re-engagement with the ‘socialist accountancy debate’ about the scope for non-market forms of resource allocation.  Of course, this itself might be timely in the wake of the latest neoliberal crisis…

All of these questions can be readily dismissed as the realm of utopian theorising.   Yet, as Klein forcefully reminds us, it is the trajectory along which we launch ourselves at this point in time that will determine if sustainability is achieved before the dangerous consequences of global warming, and environmental crisis more generally, make themselves manifest.  The only alternative is the equally drastic and decidedly dystopian proposition of ‘geo-engineering’ and the associated deliberate manipulation of the climate, the risks of which bring forward political economy questions no less challenging than those raised by Klein.

It’s surely time to join the debate she has so trenchantly stirred up.