Friday, 27 May 2016

Some thoughts on Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein's Edward Said lecture has been reprinted in the London Review of Books.  It strikes me as an important contribution in bringing together the social justice and environmental movements and also in pointing out how those two movements overlap in one very specific place - the Middle East.  Like any good article it raises as many questions as it answers so here are some thoughts of my own.

1. "We face so many overlapping and intersecting crises that we can’t afford to fix them one at a time. We need integrated solutions, solutions that radically bring down emissions, while creating huge numbers of good, unionized jobs and delivering meaningful justice to those who have been most abused and excluded under the current extractive economy."

Is this true? Or do we need to focus on the time specific problem first - i.e. climate change - and solve the other ones later.  This might sound callous since it implies that people living and suffering now are in some way of less importance than future generations but there is part of me that would rather see an imperfect solution to climate change right now, even if it doesn't necessarily tick all the boxes.   My feeling is that while Klein's suggestion sounds good in principle, in reality the opposite is true: We face so many overlapping and intersecting crises that we can only afford to fix them one at a time.  And we need to fix one of them urgently.

2. "We often hear climate change blamed on ‘human nature’, on the inherent greed and short-sightedness of our species. Or we are told we have altered the earth so much and on such a planetary scale that we are now living in the Anthropocene – the age of humans. These ways of explaining our current circumstances have a very specific, if unspoken meaning: that humans are a single type, that human nature can be essentialised to the traits that created this crisis. In this way, the systems that certain humans created, and other humans powerfully resisted, are completely let off the hook. Capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy – those sorts of system."

This strikes me as a good observation but one that needs to be developed further.  There is certainly a school of thought that says humans are inherently selfish.  This is the rationale behind Hobbes' vision of society as a set of self-imposed limits designed to curb humanity's darker instincts.   Hobbes' pessimism is given a positive spin by Adam Smith - humans are inherently selfish but this selfishness can be used to create positive outcomes for society as a whole.  And it is present in a more neutral form in Darwin too - humans are selfish but in this they are no different from other animals: all they want is to stay alive.   I don't know enough about non-Western philosophical traditions to comment on whether these observations are specifically Western (or British even) but certainly the idea of humanity as basically selfish can lead to a posture of passivity and defeatism.  Klein is right to point to this as an enemy in overcoming climate change.  

But I think the argument needs more nuance if it is to be an effective one.  Capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy strike me as too vague.  Indeed the risk is that they are so vague that they lead us back to the defeatist throw up your hands in despair position she wants to avoid.  The Vikings were colonizers and  had an extractive economic model, the Arab world was and remains deeply patriarchal, Japan which cut itself off from the West for centuries had a patriarchal, hierarchical and violent culture, the Indians were both victims of colonialism and colonizers themselves, China's embrace of capitalism is consistent with their long mercantile past.  By declaring the enemy to be capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy you end up implicating a very large portion of humanity, far larger I suspect than Klein intends.

I think the real effort that needs to be done is to identify those societies that have a way of life which is both socially just and respectful of the natural world and then to ask honestly if that way of life can be feasibly replicated in developed Western societies.  

3. "The trouble is structural. Fossil fuels, unlike renewable forms of energy such as wind and solar, are not widely distributed but highly concentrated in very specific locations, and those locations have a bad habit of being in other people’s countries. "

This is true if you are Belgium but not true if you are Venezuela, Norway, Russia, Brazil, or Saudi Arabia (or even the US, the UK and Canada).  Are Gazprom, Petrobras and Saudi Aramco in some way better than Shell or BP because they are non-Western?  The emissions they produce are equally damaging to the climate and their profits are used to prop up corrupt regimes.  I don't think Klein helps her case here by conflating climate change and foreign intervention in the Middle East - letting Middle Eastern countries manage their own fossil fuel reserves would have no positive impact on climate change and might even make things worse.  I would personally like to see all these companies go bust - irrespective of whether they are publicly or privately owned and irrespectively of whether they are exploiting their own reserves or those of other countries.  

4. One final question that Klein's article raised in my mind was to wonder what the world would look like if we were to call a halt not just to the age of fossil fuels but also to the whole imbalance which has allowed some countries to get rich off the back of others.  If Europe were to give back all its ill-gotten gains - not just the oil but the gold and silver, the diamonds, the sugar cane, the tea, the slaves - then would it still be able to finance things like healthcare, education, public transport and the welfare state?    

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