Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything” vs. Actually Confronting the Climate Crisis

Naomi Klein’s influential book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate evades confronting the actual forces behind the climate emergency and rules out the radical changes the crisis demands.


Reposted December 14, 2015 | Revolution Newspaper |


We are reposting this polemic versus Naomi Klein’s influential book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate that appeared at earlier this year—with the following intro, dated December 7, 2015, from A World to Win News Service.

A World to Win News Service. Heads of most of the world's states and governments are continuing to meet in Paris for the CoP21 climate crisis, chaired by the French foreign minister whose government is bombing and sending soldiers to Syria and unleashing terror tactics against immigrant communities and potential climate demonstrators at home. Protest activities in favour of the climate are taking place in Paris and other cities across Europe and the world. The slogan ''System change, not climate change'' is widespread, but the content remains ambiguous. Do we mean that the system can be changed to save the environment, or that the system is just that, a system that operates according to an overall inherent logic and can't operate in any other way? Can we take the climate emergency as an opportunity to make corporations and governments accept a gradual process of making the system more human and green, or can the planet only be saved through a whole new, and ultimately global, economic, social and political system, which requires that the states that enforce that system be overthrown and replaced by a new kind of revolutionary political power? As these questions are discussed and debated, the views of Naomi Klein have currency among many of the more radical-minded protesters. As a response to these ideas, we are reprinting the following review of her book from the March 2, 2015 issue of Revolution, newspaper of the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA (


2014 was the warmest year in Earth’s recorded history. The ice caps at the North and South poles are melting and sea levels are rising; extreme storms hit harder and more often; carbon in the atmosphere is turning the oceans more acidic, posing great threats to marine life.

This Revolution special issue focuses on the environmental emergency that now faces humanity and earth's ecosystems. In this issue we show:

  • the dimensions of the emergency...
  • the source of its causes in the capitalist system, and the impossibility of that system solving this crisis...
  • a way out and way forward for humanity—a revolutionary society in which we could actually live as custodians of nature, rather than as its plunderers.

Read online....

Also available in brochure format (downloadable PDF)

We face a real and accelerating climate emergency. It is driven by the relentless burning of oil, coal, and natural gas; destruction of rain forests; and environmentally harmful agriculture. Scientists warn of the mass loss of species, of human civilization being compromised, even the possibility of a planet on which human beings can no longer survive—if things continue as they are.

This is a dire crisis, and the environmental movement to save the planet is growing and spreading. Within this movement and beyond, big questions are being discussed and debated: Why is the climate crisis advancing so relentlessly... why is the system’s response to “let the planet burn”... and what will it take to stop looming environmental disaster?

In this setting, Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate is causing a lot of stir. Klein is a writer and radical activist who is very influential in this movement. The buzz and controversy around her book have everything to do with the title: capitalism vs. the climate. Indeed, Klein offers valuable exposure of how the economies of the industrialized capitalist countries, especially the United States, have degraded the ecosystems of the planet. And there is excitement about the book because she claims to offer a way forward.

But, as we will show in this polemic, Naomi Klein does not get at the root causes of the climate crisis. And she puts forward a program based on the illusion that it is possible for THIS system to become something it cannot be: environmentally sustainable. Yes, we must “change everything.” But to do so requires revolution.

I. Understanding the Cause: Capitalism and the “Rules of the Game”

Klein passionately declares: “Our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life”—and she’s right. But for Klein, the problem is not the actual nature and functioning of the capitalist system of production but a particular form of capitalism. She says:

We have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis (p. 18, our emphasis).

As Klein sees it, an extreme ideology, “free market fundamentalism” (sometimes called “neoliberalism”), has hijacked economic priorities and decision-making. She argues that this ideology is setting the terms of things: government regulations are cut back, public life gets more privatized, oil companies and the ultra-wealthy more easily buy off politicians, and uncontrolled extraction of fossil fuels leads to a “careless economy.” This free market fundamentalism is what she wants to change. And she advocates a mass politics that will pressure those on top to bend away from this “free market capitalism” to move towards a more caring and “greener” economy.

Klein indicts and rejects “deregulated” capitalism—but not capitalism. She does not probe deeper into the capitalist system and its underlying ways of operating. But that is where you have to go to scientifically understand what is driving the environmental crisis, and what it will take to confront and act on this crisis on the scale and with the urgency required.

The special environmental emergency issue of Revolution explains this well:

Any society is a system that operates according to certain rules, like a game. If the rules are violated, the system doesn’t work.... So you need to understand the rules. And you need to understand whether you can make the game work by modifying the rules, or whether you need to be playing a different game altogether.

The same is true with the system of capitalism. Yes, there are individual capitalists and corporations who have created the crisis. But we need to understand if there is something about the rules of that game that have led to this crisis. We need to understand whether we can deal with this crisis by working within the rules of capitalism, including perhaps modifying those rules—or whether capitalism itself must go. The future of life itself depends on our getting this right.

So what are the core rules of capitalism?

Rule #1: Everything is a commodity and everything must be done for profit. Everything under capitalism is produced to be exchanged, to be sold. What gets produced, and how it is produced, is motivated and measured by profit: whether it’s housing, computers, medicine, or energy. And profit comes from the exploitation of billions of human beings on this planet. Under capitalism, the environment is regarded and treated as a free “input” to be seized and poured into production for profit. And so rain forests are cleared for agribusiness, pristine wilderness and coastlines are auctioned off for oil drilling... and the planet heats up.

Klein says that the problem is that an “ideological wall has blocked a serious response to climate change” (p. 72). But it is the material-social system of production for profit that is the foundation of things. And the ideology of “markets bring freedom,” of “winner take all,” of “competition brings out the best”—this reflects and reinforces the system of production based on profit.

Rule #2: Capitalist production is privately owned and driven forward by the commandment expand-or-die. Competition runs through this whole system. It’s beat or be beaten. Apple takes on Microsoft. GM and VW battle over the China market. The key way to gain advantage is to cheapen costs, to introduce new technology to produce on a larger and more efficient scale—with devastating consequences to humanity and the planet. For the capitalists, this is not a matter of choice or greed, or the result of the blinders of an “ideological wall.” If individual capitals don’t invest and expand, and keep accumulating profit and more profit, they can’t stay in the game as profitable units of capital—and they go under or get gobbled up.

Klein wants the powers-that-be  to “manage” what she calls “degrowth” to save the planet. But under THIS system, no person or group “manages” the economy. It is managed by these rules of the game. Yes, the capitalist state enacts regulations and standards to keep the system functioning. But it is not possible to consciously regulate the economy on a society-wide scale according to a rational plan. Why? Because of private ownership and competition. And you can’t have a capitalism that doesn’t grow. Suppose GM said to VW and Toyota, “We’re going to slow our growth to save the planet—and you can have the China market.” Well, goodbye to GM.

Rule #3 is the drive for global control. Capitalism is a worldwide system. It is made up of a handful of rich capitalist countries that dominate the world. It operates through a great divide: between the capitalist-imperialist countries and the countries of the Third World that it brutally oppresses and pillages.

Competition and rivalry between corporations and banks take place on this global playing field. But the most intense form of rivalry is between contending world powers for strategic control over regions, markets, and resources. Klein passionately indicts the big oil companies for what they have done to the environment. But oil is bigger than Exxon, bigger than the Koch brothers (right-wing billionaires and big-time political operatives whose companies include oil refining and distribution). Oil is a strategic commodity: control over oil supplies and oil markets brings with it leverage over the world economy. Oil is a strategic weapon of rivalry and intimidation. The U.S. imperialists under Obama, for example, have ramped up oil and natural gas production to maneuver against imperialist Russia as well as countries like Iran and Venezuela that depend on oil sales.

This is the nature of the system. And a fundamental consequence of these rules is that capitalism, as a system, cannot deal with the environment in a sustainable and rational way—even if an individual capitalist, or group of capitalists, wanted to.

II. Naomi Klein Wants to Bend the Rules... We Need a Different System Operating According to Different Rules

Klein puts forward a program:

[I]f enough of us stop looking away and decide that climate change is a crisis worthy of a Marshall Plan level of response, then it will become one, and the political class will have to respond, both by making resources available and by bending the free market rules that have proven so pliable when elite interests are in peril (emphasis added, p. 6).

There is so much here that is wrong.

First, for a supposedly radical critic of the system to embrace the original Marshall Plan is outrageous. What was the Marshall Plan about? After World War 2 ended in 1945, the Western European economies were in a state of ruin, and there was widespread radical and revolutionary sentiment. The United States had come out of the war as the strongest imperialist power and provided aid and financing to rebuild and modernize economies like West Germany. This was the Marshall Plan. But this was not global humanitarianism.

The Marshall Plan had three basic objectives: to rescue capitalism and prevent revolution in Western Europe; to shore up Western Europe to stand against the then-socialist Soviet Union; and to ensure that the U.S. would stay the dominant imperialist power in the world capitalist system. The U.S. imperialists “bent” some of the rules, like offering low-interest loans, to achieve this. But it was the same game of capitalism.

Klein turns her head away from the savage consequences of reviving the world imperialist system: decades of cancerous growth based on cheap fossil fuels, the mass use of tens of thousands of chemicals whose environmental impact is harmful or unknown, and massive expansion of the automobile. The imperialist system that was revived and modernized carried out unjust and horrific wars in Korea, Algeria, Vietnam, and Iraq. The system that was revived and modernized forged a global network of sweatshop exploitation.

Sorry, Naomi Klein... but the Marshall Plan, along with financial institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, gave us the world we have, not the world we need!

Let’s go back to Klein’s program for action. She says that if we start to think differently and pressure the elites, they will bend the rules—and this will bring about a switch from oil, coal, and natural gas to solar and renewable forms of energy, investment in environmentally safe mass transit, and creation of new jobs. Klein makes it sound so very reasonable: it will be good for the capitalists who can invest in “green,” good for the people, and good for the planet.

Once again, Klein ignores the real rules of the game:

» Take the fossil-fuel industry. Huge amounts of resources, infrastructure (like pipelines), and knowledge are sunk into this sector. In a capitalist economy, this investment has to be made good on. In other words, in order to cover these huge investment costs and to return a profit, oil and natural gas have to be extracted and refined or liquefied—and then sold on the market. You can’t just move from oil to solar, like moving pieces on a chessboard.

To create a truly “green economy” would require a radical rupture in the structure of the economy, a monumental outlay of capital, and comprehensive planning: to break the dominance of the automobile, to create sustainable cities, to develop agriculture that does not rely on petroleum-based chemicals. Under capitalism, you can’t rapidly shift resources and the surplus produced in one sector of the economy to another—exactly because of private ownership and control.

» It is astonishing. Klein  has written an over 500-page book about capitalism and climate change that barely says a word about the military. In fact, the U.S. imperialist military—with its tanks and fighter jets, its military bases and logistics, and its unjust wars and occupations—is the single largest institutional consumer of oil in the world. You can’t run an imperialist military on solar and wind power. Okay, the U.S. has been installing solar panels at the Guantánamo naval base. Torture powered by green energy—is this the world we want?

» And let’s look more closely at the solar power industry itself. Yes, the imperialists have “bent the rules” some and given the solar power industry subsidies and backing. But a) it is a drop in the bucket compared to what gets invested in fossil fuels; and b) the solar power industry does not escape the real rules of capitalism. For example, capitalist China is producing solar panels cheaply, utilizing its huge reserves of super-exploited labor—and it dominates this industry globally. The U.S. and Western European imperialists have responded, and Klein notes this, by trying to restrict imports of solar panels from China.

» Klein argues that we can make policy shifts under this system that can bring us back to 1970s levels of consumption: “we enjoyed a healthy and moderate lifestyle and we need to return to this to keep emissions under control” (p. 91). Say what! The 1970s lifestyle for most in the U.S. was based on living in the largest global imperialist empire in history.

But leaving aside this chauvinist blind spot, there is something else. Climate science shows that we must cut carbon emissions by 80 percent or more in the decades ahead if we are going to prevent the possible collapse of ecosystems and threats to human civilization. To make those cuts will require profound and seismic changes in how we live, in what is produced and how, in consumption, in our values. Klein suggests that we can readily adapt and easily change. No, this requires a wrenching transformation.

III. Naomi Klein Concentrates a Mode of Thinking... Of the Radical Petite Bourgeoisie

Klein’s book turns out to be a dead end. She does not really face the depth and seriousness of the social transformations that the environmental crisis demands. She does not confront what the best of her own research points to: that we have to get on a radically different trajectory. She cannot conceive of a world without Exxon. She writes: “Since the oil companies are going to continue being rich for the foreseeable future, the best hope of breaking the political deadlock is to radically restrict their ability to spend their profits on buying, and bullying, politicians” (p. 151). This is hardly a vision of “changing everything”!

Naomi Klein and this book represent the outlook and class position of a radical section of the petite bourgeoisie. This is a class that is “in the middle” between the two great classes, the proletariat and the bourgeoisie, whose interests and outlook are capable of leading society in today’s world.

Instead of seeking a fundamental break with the whole train of environmental destruction, and the capitalist-imperialist system that has given rise to it, Klein goes for the “middle ground,” seeking to resolve all this without rupture and dislocation. She wants to find a solution within the framework of the system itself, and ends up attempting to solve the system’s problems for it. She invents illusory solutions, non-solutions, for excruciating problems that can be solved only by revolution and a new system.

IV. Communist Revolution Opens the Way for Humanity to Confront This Emergency and Become Caretakers of the Planet

There is a way out, through communist revolution. Exxon, and imperialist governments, their police and armies will be no more. We can far surpass a world where the planet’s animals, plants, and sea life are destroyed. Where its resources are ravaged and the oil extracted from this process is burned to serve the private profit of small groups that fight it out for global imperialist domination.

The Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal) from the RCP is written with the future in mind. It is intended to set forth a basic model, and fundamental principles and guidelines, for the nature and functioning of a vastly different society and government than now exists: the New Socialist Republic in North America, a socialist state which would embody, institutionalize and promote radically different relations and values among people; a socialist state whose final and fundamental aim would be to achieve, together with the revolutionary struggle throughout the world, the emancipation of humanity as a whole and the opening of a whole new epoch in human history–communism–with the final abolition of all exploitative and oppressive relations among human beings and the destructive antagonistic conflicts to which these relations give rise.

Read the entire Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal) from the RCP at

A radically different system will be in place of capitalism. What a society like this would be like and how it would function is developed in the visionary Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal).

Socialist society, and even more, a communist world, makes possible economic planning based on the largest and most important needs of human society. The widespread use of renewable power sources like solar, wind, and geothermal (heat energy from the Earth) can become reasonable and possible in a socialist society. A socialist society can mobilize the people, scientific knowledge, and resources to drastically restrict and ultimately move beyond the use of fossil fuels, while solving the practical and economic problems that will come with such a transition to renewable energy. And do that as part of moving to a world in which human society has an economic foundation that takes care of the planet as one of its foundational principles.

With capitalism’s domination of ideas and culture gone, the understanding of the natural world, science, and the values that foster preserving the world will no longer be the preserve of an elite. With a new revolutionary state that serves a radically different system, we can bring into being a culture and orientation towards learning about and changing the world to undo the damage from the past and develop completely new and positive relations between people and the planet.

As an essential component of a global process of revolution, we can develop a process that links together the knowledge, experience, and method of scientists, with people who have lived in the rain forests and know its life intimately, with fisher-people and others all over the world—cooperating, sharing information and experience, working to overcome the deep inequalities left from capitalism, while engaged in a global battle to prevent ecological catastrophe. The questions, research, and experience can reverberate around the world: How is the great international effort to undo the destruction of the fabric of life on the planet going? How are we doing at stopping the injection of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere? At rebuilding the rain forests to take more carbon out? And so much more.

Capitalist society screams at people “buy, buy, buy,” and ranks people by the money and “goodies” they own. With socialism, it will be possible not just to raise opposition to consumerism as a kind of moral principle, but to have an entire society in which profit no longer rules, and where it is no longer necessary for the functioning of the economy to sell more and more goods. In this society, the relations between people will not be based on buying and selling.

It will now be possible for people, increasingly and in a mass way, to see themselves not from within capitalism’s framework of a race for accumulation, “each against all,” but instead as emancipators of humanity and the planet. People will come to see nature not as objects to be hurled into production for profit or carelessly despoiled, but as a rich, living fabric of which humans are one part. They will learn how the natural world is billions of years in the making, and that each human generation has the responsibility to pass it to the next in an improved condition.

This is just a glimpse of what a revolutionary society and people can do. This world is possible. This is what the Revolutionary Communist Party is taking responsibility for—building a movement for an actual revolution with the party at its core to defeat and dismantle the state institutions of the old society, to create a new state power and socialist system, and to work urgently towards the full emancipation of humanity and protecting the planet for current and future generations.

At this perilous juncture for the planet, we do need to “change everything”—through revolution. It won’t be easy. But it is our only chance of achieving a truly sustainable society—and beginning the process of restoring the ecosystems of the planet.


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