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.