Controversial left wing author and speaker Naomi Klein returned to her native Montreal on September 16th, and the Political Bouillon Concordia’s editorial team was in attendance. Klein presented an overview of the findings from her latest book “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate”. The basic premise of the book, as the title suggests, is that a rehabilitated, sustainable environment runs axiomatically in opposition to the capitalist economic system. What became apparent as the presentation wore on however, was that her (admittedly self-acknowledged) reputation for spouting generalizations is well earned. In her zeal to discredit broad-based liberal capitalism, Klein seemingly fails to notice that her criticisms, while often valid, are typically directed at only a very specific brand of globalized neoliberal ideology that does not impugn capitalism as a whole. Her examples only further strengthened the opinion of our team, that liberal, Keynesian capitalism is well suited to deal with the issues of climate change if government and regulatory bodies are capable of leading the charge.
One of the cases that Klein focused on during her talk was the Ontario government’s 2013 initiative to end coal-fired power. Klein praised the initiative for its ability to both reduce the harmful side-effects of coal as well as its ability to create meaningful employment for thousands of Canadians. Unfortunately, although the policy was widely deemed a success, it was quickly brought to an end when a number of foreign countries challenged it through the WTO, on the grounds that the policy infringed on their right to make a profit. Klein uses this example as evidence that capitalism and successful environmental policy are fundamentally divergent. While her criticism of the ruling is understandable, Klein makes two significant errors in attempting to use this example to prove the primary arguments of her book. Firstly, the WTO does not have to be a factor in a capitalist arrangement. Although our current system does have a mediating body for trade, this is only the result of a very specific type of neoliberalism rather than a necessity of liberal capitalism. Even if we were to conclude that an institution for international trade mediation is critically important, such an institution could opt to view protectionist issues such as these in the context of environmental sustainability. The second major flaw in the Ontario example is that it indicates, contrary to her prior negativity on liberal capitalism, that a moderate government is still capable of implementing sound environmental policy. The fact that the Ontario government’s plan was interfered with by the WTO does nothing to change the reality that a pragmatic, centrist liberal government successfully passed a great act of environmental protection through its legislature.
Klein similarly praises Germany for their recent transition to more sustainable forms of energy production- an outcome brought about by successful policy implementation within the capitalist framework. Klein, however blames Germany’s ultra-powerful coal lobbies for dampening the effect of this transition. Although green energy has experienced somewhat of a renaissance in Germany, the coal industry is still thriving through the operation of several large lignite coal mines. This is partly due to the already low price of carbon emission permits in the country, as well as the influence of coal lobbies over said price. To Klein this represents a failure of liberal capitalism, but as neither powerful lobbies, or cheap emission permits are a necessary element of a capitalist economy, it seems illogical to categorically reject it as an economic system failure.
The prescriptive element of her talk (and presumably her book) was comprised of a call to use the current environmental crisis as a catalyst for greater systemic economic change. This being said, she gave very little indication of how this might be accomplished, or even what concrete changes would result in a desirable, more egalitarian economic system. During the question portion of the conference, an audience member asked Naomi Klein an extremely straight forward question: If not capitalism, then what is the solution? Despite her capacity to criticize the framework of capitalism, as well as outlining policies around the world that have made significant strides in pursuing greener practices, Klein deliberately offered no real response to the query past a few generalized vagaries. While there are no easy answers to this problem, its hard to imagine even her greatest supporters not being disappointed by her inability to provide a remotely substantive answer. Particularly given that the author boldly calls for this crisis being leveraged to bring about systemic change, it seems shocking that she was unable to complete one of her own major points in detailing to any reasonable degree, the more desirable economic system that she vaguely mentions being implemented.
Our criticism of Naomi Klein may often seem harsh, but this largely stems from a concern that her very valid warnings on the importance of environmental sustainability will be trivialized due to the arguments which surround it. Many aspects of her presentation detailing the severity of the issues that we are facing and the need for faster action are indeed accurate. However, this does not make her scholarship immune to criticism, despite that we sympathize with the root cause for her arguments. Despite her broad, often sensationalist pronouncements to the contrary, there is no compelling evidence to indicate that regulated liberal capitalism cannot deal with the problems that we are facing. So long as there is responsible government, forward-looking private enterprise and an engaged, informed citizenry to keep these groups to task, then we believe a pragmatic and progressive government can successfully usher in environmental reform within the framework of responsible capitalism.
– Eli Zivot and David Hughes