This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs. The Climate by Naomi Klein
Simon & Schuster, September 2014
576 pages – Amazon
The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert
Henry Holt and Co., February 2014
336 pages – Amazon
Naomi Klein and Elizabeth Kolbert are, in a sense, both on the same team. They both write about climate change and humans’ devastating impact on our fragile planet. They start from the premise that there is no doubt about what is happening. The evidence is all around us. Where Klein and Kolbert differ lies in what they focus on. Although she is concerned about the future of humanity, Kolbert is more taken with the effects that we, “the weedy species,” she calls us, are having on the rest of the animals inhabiting the Earth. Humans, she says, are like an invasive species and we’re currently contributing to and witnessing mass extinctions of species like the Brazilian frog, as well as bats, rhinos, all large mammals, etc. Klein focuses on climate change and how, although it presents us with terrible effects now and tremendous dangers in the future, it also offers us an opportunity to create a better world.
Klein is an optimist while Kolbert is not. Naomi Klein wrote an earlier book entitled The Shock Doctrine in which she discusses our leaders’ propensities for taking a crisis and using it to advance a certain agenda. New Orleans was flooded by Hurricane Katrina and the authorities used that catastrophe to replace all the public schools with charter schools. The Bush Administration reacted to the destruction of the World Trade Center by 19 Islamic radicals, 17 of whom were Saudi Arabian, by using the tragic event as a reason to invade Iraq—a country that had nothing to do with 9/11. Neo-cons advanced the idea of the United States straightening out the Middle East. Cheney and friends decided this was the time to disregard all those silly laws about habeas corpus and fair trials and the Geneva Conventions. “It’s time to take the gloves off,” Wolfowitz said. You get the idea. It’s like Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. When there’s a crisis, there’s an opportunity.
In her new book, Klein turns this idea around and says, couldn’t we use a crisis to improve our lives rather than just ceding more power to the government or vested interests? Couldn’t we seize control and change our fate? Kolbert is not so sanguine. She would also like to see us take steps to slow the rate of climate change but she sees us in the throes of what she and a number of scientists refer to as The Sixth Extinction. “Right now, in the amazing moment that to us counts as the present, we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed,” Kolbert writes. There have been five other extinction events in the history of the earth. The last one is the one we are all familiar with: 66 million years ago the dinosaurs were wiped out when, most scientists now agree, an asteroid smashed into the earth filing the atmosphere with dust leading to a massive die off. But there were four other mass extinctions that paleontologists now know of and Kolbert refers to these in her book as a pretext for pointing out that extinction can and is happening right now.
One of the interesting notions that one takes away from The Sixth Extinction is expressed by a number of the scientists Kolbert talks to. When you look at this long history of life on earth that stretches back 450 million years with these mass extinctions, you begin to get the idea that it’s obvious we humans are not going to be around forever and, in fact, we may be gone soon. Once an extinction begins, it seems to proceed rather quickly. We’re witnessing a number of species disappearing right now, in our lifetime–from frogs in South America to polar bears in the Arctic.
Naomi Klein gives numerous examples from around the world of how people are responding locally to the challenges of climate change. The Dutch have created massive dams and gates to hold back water, the Germans derive more and more energy from wind farms and solar power. The Chinese have agreed to stop building coal plants eventually. The United States is finally getting onboard with more fuel-efficient cars and so on. Klein proposes that we all scale back our energy use and live a more community oriented lifestyle and participate in “the unfinished business of liberation.” Whether you think more along the lines of Naomi Klein or Elizabeth Kolbert might come down to how optimistic you are about our future. Reading and listening to these two (they’ve both been on Moyers and have talks available on YouTube), it does, however, seem like Kolbert is the grown-up in the room.
Experts from a number of different fields have identified our problem. E.O. Wilson says we aren’t a super-organism. Contrast humans and ants. Ants are like some utopian communist society where everyone has a role and they all work together for the common good. Stephen Pinker says our problem is we identify strongly with groups—our group. This is great for sports, not so great for government. Peter Singer says we take care of our circle of family and friends but are not so concerned about people on the other side of the country, never mind the other side of the globe. Here’s another problem: we’re good at thinking short term (as in quarters), not so good at thinking long term (as in the next fifty years).
Fitzgerald has a famous line about intelligence being the capacity to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. On the one hand, the country may seem as if it’s falling apart; on the other hand, there are some people working hard to improve our lives and whatever we think, we still have to keep on trying. So it is with climate change and the sixth extinction. It doesn’t look good, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to do something about it. Reading these two illuminating books is a start.
Ed Meek: Freelance writer and poet. Spy Pond (poems) coming out this spring with Prolific Press. Twitter @emeek. Blog: letsrethink.org. Live in Somerville, MA.