Thursday, May 1, 2014

I Finally Can’t Take Naomi Klein Any More

She seems like a nice person and she wants the best for everyone, but her writings have become so counterproductive, so utterly wrong and yet so influential within the activist community, that it’s time to stand up.  (Or in my case, sit down at the computer.)

I just read her latest screed in The Nation, “The Change Within: The Obstacles We Face Are Not Just External”.  For the record, not everything in it is nonsense, but the most important parts are.

I’ll start with the less significant gripe.  Klein writes that we are unprepared to deal with climate change because “Climate change is place-based, and we are everywhere at once.”  We move around too much.  We are too global.  We've got to stay in one place for long periods and get to know the local flora and fauna, ID that flower that’s blooming a week earlier this year.  The reason we don’t understand climate change is that we've become too cosmopolitan.

Well, count me as a rootless cosmopolitan.  I like where I’m living, but I like most of the places I used to live too.  I don’t have any particular attachment to local places, local people or local thinking.  Or to put it differently, I appreciate all the local places, people and cultures, and I don’t place my current abode above them.

And guess what?  While many of its effects are local, climate change is the mother of all global problems.  The carbon cycle is planetary, and its impacts are driven by processes that span the planet too.  Above all, the solutions have to be global in scope.  Living your own particular, pristine local lifestyle is not the answer, folks.  We need global collective action, and that’s going to come from people who adopt a global perspective and feel comradery with other people who speak different languages and live thousands of miles away.  Klein has it ever so wrong about localism.  Yes, love the local wonders wherever you may be, but try to summon within yourself an intellectual and emotional frame that’s broader than anything we've ever seen before.  That’s what we’ll need.

But the real whopper is what she leads with: “Climate change demands that we consume less....”  How can I express how angry I feel when I read this?  Yes, it is ignorant and appeals to the prejudices of her tribe (the nouveau righteous), but it is deeply, deeply hostile to human solidarity.  Oh, and it has as much political potential as a suicide cult.

Folks, we’re still not out of the global meltdown that hit us in 2008.  There is massive unemployment throughout the industrialized world, much of it unmeasured because workers have dropped out of the labor force.  Outside our charmed circle, such as it is, literally billions of people lack the basics for health, security and the pursuit of their dreams.  So it is true, a large portion of the world’s people are consuming less than they’d like, and here we have Klein cheering it on.

Let me get personal.  My college is going through another of its periodic spasms of budget cuts.  We've laid off faculty lines and are looking to slash expenses anywhere we can, despite the fact that we've been making these kinds of cuts for years and never restoring them.  I will grant that much of this can be laid to our own failings, but we are part of a larger story, the long-term defunding of public higher education in a country whose progress in that area has come to a standstill.  I can assure Klein that this will lead to less consumption: unemployed faculty will consume less, students priced out of higher education will consume less of this product, and people who supply goods and services to our institution will have to take a hit as well.  And you know what?  This will do nothing at all to stop the climate juggernaut.  (One of the positions we cut was for a faculty member whose specialty is “climate justice”.  What do you think of that?)

There are two massive holes in Klein’s argument that rival any open pit mine you might stumble upon.  First, what do you mean “we” when you say “we must consume less”?  Aha, you didn't mean everyone, just the ones who were overconsuming, right?  And who gets to decide who they are?  And in an economy in which my income is your spending (the fundamental macro identity, in case you were wondering) how are you going to cut the consumption of the “bad” people without starving the “good” ones?  It’s all simply bonkers.

And the other hole is that in an economy that operates on prices, as ours, for all its faults, clearly does, the economic quantity of consumption is not tethered to the physical quantity of resources people consume.  I know this first-hand: the faculty jobs we've cut would not have sped up the extraction of fossil fuels one iota—perhaps even the contrary if our climate specialist would have been ultra-persuasive.  Moreover, the students who acquire less education will not be saving the planet that way either.  (In case you were wondering: yes, education is part of GDP.)

Think about it: how can economic growth be “bad” and recessions, with all the cutbacks they entail, not be “good”?

And by the way, replacing a capital stock built up over decades in response to insanely low fossil fuel prices with one that runs sustainably is going to require a lot of economic activity—you know, GDP.

There was a companion article in the same issue by Chris Hayes that’s soooooo much better, and makes it crystal clear what an immense political task we have in front of us.  One place to start would be to stop doing dumb things, like telling the people whose support we’re trying to get that the solution is for them to have less.


Mark Buchanan said...

I haven't read the book, but it's possible that when she says "consume" she means it in sense of common usage where it means "use up", in which case she would merely be saying that we should have a more sustainable economy.

Sandwichman said...

Aren't you punching a hippy here, Peter? Naomi Klein is the main enemy? Give me a break.

You actually make the same mistake that Klein makes but you put a plus sign on it instead of a minus sign. The problem is NOT that we consume "too much." The problem is that we don't CONSUME at all! Every molecule of stuff that we process industrially remains as waste after we've exhausted its services. See Ayres and Kneese, 1969.

Climate change demands that we produce less waste. That's the easy part. The hard part is figuring out how to do that.

What do YOU propose as the alternative to Klein's vernacular "consume less"? Business as usual? Business as usual supplemented by solar panels and wind turbines? Green washing? Carbon trading and targets? said...

I do not have the level of direct annoyance with Klein that Peter does, but I have long viewed her the way I view Michael Moore, somebody whose heart is in the right place and who makes many good arguments, but who also makes misdirected arguments and some outright incorrect ones at crucial points, leading to ongoing embarrassment.

I experienced this yesterday when I was talking with someone I had just met, a well-educated non-economist of a progressive persuasion who brought up Klein as the main person he had read on economics. I was polite and did not openly diss her, but did indicate that she was not always right about everything.

And, S-man, I woud think that you could just go back and look at many past posts by Peter to get at least some answers to the questions you ask him at the end of his post. He has addressed issues related to climate change many times on this blog, generally in a very intelligent and well-informed way.

Sandwichman said...


I don't need to "go back and look." I'm familiar with Peter's positions, probably about 75% of which I would agree with. The 25% I disagree with are pretty fundamental, though and that also has to do with the point I was making.

If Peter wants to take issue with what I'm saying, let him speak for himself. If you want to argue with what I wrote, do so on your own behalf, not by proxy.

Peter Dorman said...

What I'd prefer to do is let S-man and Barkley duke it out in an intellectual back alley somewhere, but that wouldn't be fair of me, would it?

FWIW, I have been very hardline on climate change for many years now: I favor a hard budget constraint for carbon (intertemporal in fact). Just set a limit on how much people can extract and burn, period. Treat it like any other activity that has to be limited, like a fishing quota. If people want to trade the permits that's their business, but the policy job is to say, you can't pump up or dig up the stuff without a permit, you've got to pay for the permits, and there's a fixed number of them.

Most economists won't go that far; they want to "balance" the costs of climate change and the costs of carbon restriction. I usually like having a balanced outlook on things, but not here.

If we have a rigorous carbon permit system and you want to shopping, I'd say go ahead and do it and don't worry what Naomi Klein will think of you.

The closest I come to her anti-consumerist thing is that I believe most of us (in the US at least) would be better off if we worked less, consumed less, and did other stuff with our time. (I'm on the record for that too, but not on EconoSpeak, as far as I can recall.) But I don't consider that necessary for sustainability, just livability.

Oh, and I wasn't hippy-punching. To be very precise, I came home from a completely dispiriting meeting dealing with campus budget cuts (I'm on the faculty committee that has to address this), I wanted to relax with some light reading, and I pulled out this piece by Klein saying that "we" are overconsuming and need to cut back. I thought about the good people who were going to get axed in our little contribution to mass austerity. You read what happened next.

(I threw in the bit in favor of cosmopolitanism because the localism fetish has become so sanctimonious. Maybe being Jewish makes me more sensitive: I can see that "soil" is not as bad as "blood and soil", but I don't feel like compromising.)

Sandwichman said...

"If we have a rigorous carbon permit system and you want to shopping, I'd say go ahead and do it and don't worry what Naomi Klein will think of you."

I'd buy that. As you acknowledge, though, most economists wouldn't. Probably next to none politicians would. And it's not an issue that you're going to mobilize a popular movement around.

I happen to agree that Klein's argument is simplistic and wrong. But not for the same reasons as you do, Peter. The problem I see is on the "jobs" side, not the consumer side and the anti-consumerist rhetoric goes nowhere (unless you consider self-righteousness a destination).

Getting back to the carbon permit system and the opposition to it, the main counter argument will be "job killer!" We can't solve "one side at a time" of the climate change employment dilemma. The two sides are inseparable.

Peter Dorman said...

The employment effect of carbon policy is just about the most misunderstood economic issue we face. If capital were putty there would be minimal to no negative employment effects. Unfortunately capital isn't. There is no systematic study I know of that has looked into the vulnerability of the capital stock to a significant, sudden repricing of carbon.

Sandwichman said...

On this I agree 100%. said...


john c. halasz said...

I think I've read your past posts on cap-n-trade. But I don't agree with it for any number of reasons. But what's so wrong with a carbon tax-and-rebate scheme. B.C. has instituted one and it's proven largely successful, both "physically" and politically. (Among other points, once you get past the political resistance to implementation, it's an effective way to bring a large majority of the population along and get them further engaged with the issue).

john c. halasz said...

"There is no systematic study I know of that has looked into the vulnerability of the capital stock to a significant, sudden repricing of carbon."

Really? I'm surprised by this. Someones haven't been doing their jobs. However, does it have to be sudden? A sudden repricing would produce disruptive effects similar to the 2 oil price shocks of the 1970's. So it would have to be phased in, but with a steady ratcheting up assured. That way, given forward expectations, the effects on consumption and investment would kick in even before the "full" pricing.