Naomi Klein's new documentary on "environmentalism" is nothing more than a cover for centrally managed economies, wealth redistribution, and intrusive government regulations.
by Rachelle Peterson
October 6, 2015 - 10:35 pm This Changes Everything, the movie version of Naomi Klein’s bestselling book by that title, is a moment of astonishing candor on the environmentalist left. For decades, conservatives have argued that environmentalism is a cover for centrally managed economies, wealth redistribution, and intrusive government regulations. Klein comes out and says that indeed, environmentalism is exactly that. Conservative critics, she says in so many words, “are right.” Climate change is an opportunity to write “a new story.”
The film itself—billed as a “documentary”—is a ho-hum 90-minute foray into climate change victimhood that, if not for Klein’s cult following, would be forgotten the day it came out. But Klein is a leftist rock star and an architect of the burgeoning fossil fuel divestment campaign. The film is constructed to feed her fandom. The comic movie Mr. Bean’s Holiday climaxes when Mr. Bean accidently interrupts a film, Playback Time: A Carson Clay Film, that is directed by, produced by, acted in, and written about the narcissistic Carson Clay. Klein’s film is something similar. It is produced by Klein Lewis Productions, filmed and edited by Klein’s husband Avi Lewis, narrated in first person by Klein, and generously sprinkled with shots of Klein cradling a Canadian Indian child, talking to activists in the developing world, or gazing solemnly on a trash dump while wind whips her hair about her face.
Though the film plays to its leftist audience, conservatives should pay attention. Klein is among the clearest, most popular North American advocates of unadulterated progressive theory, and the movie This Changes Everything offers a condensed, simpler package of the full story she tells in its 550-page companion book.
Klein’s basic contention, presented in patient, step by moccasined step in the film, is that mankind is good and society is evil. Political action on climate change has stalled because “they told us the problem is us: we’re greedy and shortsighted.” Human nature, “they” say, isn’t malleable, “so there’s no hope” for fixing climate change. Klein builds an alternative narrative on different premises: the problem isn’t human nature or consumption or greenhouse gas emissions but society’s mischaracterization of nature as a “machine” that we operate rather than a “Goddess” we respect.
Two hundred fifty years ago Rousseau postulated that “Man is born free, and everywhere is in chains.” Klein picks up those chains and attributes their modern iterations to a fossil fuel-based economy. In her account, early modern societies founded on the “machine” hubris remained constrained by nature. Entrepreneurs built factories only where hydro power could run them and shipped their goods only where sailing winds could take them. Then fossil fuels gave us “the ultimate one-way relationship with nature.” We could build wherever we wanted, travel whenever we wished. When the pollution overwhelmed us, we sent industrial production to “sacrifice zones” in poorer countries. Now, says Klein, we’ve run out of frontiers to exploit and overtaxed nature’s limit. The angry Goddess is hitting back.
The bulk of Klein’s film is devoted to introducing the people in the “sacrifice zones.” Alexis and Mike, Sierra Club members, run a goat ranch in Montana that got flooded with oily water after a spill. Crystal from the Beaver Lake Creek tribe organizes indigenous activists against Canadian tar sands extraction on their ancestral land. Melachrini and her Greek compatriots protest a gold mine that would bring the nation much-needed cash but mar a mountain range. Here Klein snags the opportunity to link capitalism to the “domination” narrative of nature as a machine. The economic machine demands constant growth and consumption of resources, she says, and requires cutting loose hindrances like fair wages and good working conditions: “Squeeze nature. Squeeze the people.”
In the rush to showcase outrage at that “squeeze,” Klein’s analysis gets tangled. Solar panels, for all their dependence on natural sunlight, are tech-intensive and have proven a perfect opportunity for government boondoggles and corporate cronyism. Windmills eat up habitats and disrupt wildlife. Is the green revolution she praises in Germany really a back-to-nature reversal?
And if mankind is so innately good, wouldn’t a free market system maximize opportunity for those good humans to make unfettered good choices? After a clip of Ronald Reagan’s famous quip, “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help,” Klein demands a government that “has your back” and guarantees decent standards of living. But if society is the source of our ills, might not Leviathan make them worse? When the EPA unleashed a flood of pollution in the Gold King Mine in Colorado, we saw a government program backfire. Klein breezes through these complications.
And for a leader in a movement that delights to smear fossil fuels as “on the wrong side of history,” Klein doesn’t seem to pay much attention to history. Nature as a machine is an eighteenth century allegory no longer at play in physics or philosophy. Science has long used metaphors to describe the natural order. The most famous is legal, the idea that nature obeys standard laws that can be deciphered. There are others. Medieval geocentric cosmology postulated planets interrelated and inclined towards each other’s “influence.” The “machine” analogy largely grew out of, rather than predating and justifying, the explosive growth of tools for mass production. William Paley’s famous 1802 defenseof deism by comparing the earth to a clock that required a clockmaker postdates the steam engine, the spinning jenny, the power loom, the cotton gin, and even an early battery. Contemporary physics doesn’t jibe with Klein’s preferred “Goddess” analogy, but it readily acknowledges the riddles of the world that can’t be described and that we don’t understand. Quantum physics is rife with mysteries that, if anything, match the medieval metaphor better than the early modern.
There is a lesson conservatives should learn from Klein. She takes a perceived evil that her fellow activists standagainst and turns it into an opportunity to stand for something: “What if global warming is not only a problem but the best chance you’re ever going to get to build a better world?” Conservatives should stand not only against big government, climate apocalypticism, politicized science, and intrusive regulation, but we should also stand for self-governance, responsibility, self-determination, and the conditions that foster life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. What if the rise of a progressive environmental movement is not just a political opponent, but an opportunity to make the case for small-r republicanism?
Rachelle Peterson is a research associate for the National Association of Scholars, and co-author of Sustainability: Higher Education’s New Fundamentalism.
Comedian Michael Loftus, host of the new TV show "The Flipside" goes on an extended rant about how people who supposedly believe in the upcoming end of the world brought on by global warming primarily seem interested in just making money for themselves.
The recent Neil deGrasse Tyson kerfuffle and the dogmatic defense of the global warming consensus raises the question: what’s the impetus? Why do people feel the need to proclaim themselves so loudly as the pro-science side of the debate and to write off all opponents as anti-science? What makes scientists so susceptible to a cultural vogue like global warming and so willing to be dismissive of evidence that contradicts their theory?
The least satisfying explanation is that it’s easy to make a name for yourself and get funding and research grants if you back the global warming consensus. That’s true, but it doesn’t seem quite sufficient. There are lots of way to get rich and famous and get invited to the right cocktail parties. Why choose this one? Nor is it enough to say that people are looking for an excuse to feel smugly superior, because there are also lots of ways to do that. I’ve even had Evangelical Christians do it to me, and truth be told, I’ve probably been a little smug once or twice myself.
All of these are just extra inducements added on to a deeper motive.
Given the size, breadth, and intensity of the global warming vogue and the pro-science pose of its supporters, it must answer some profound need, some crisis of the soul.
It is needed because the left is fundamentally reactionary.
The modern left formed as a reaction against capitalism and the Industrial Revolution. I think this reaction was driven by a deeply ingrained attitude toward morality. Practically every moral philosophy has warned against the evils of greed and self-interest—and here was an economic system that encourages and rewards those motives. You could look at this and decide that it’s necessary to re-evaluate the moral issues and come to terms with self-interest in some way. Most factions of the modern right have done so, whether they accept self-interest as a necessary evil or to make a virtue of selfishness.
But if you’re not willing to make such an accommodation, you’re going to look around, see all this heedless profit-seeking, and conclude that it must be evil in some way and it must be leading to evil consequences. So you will lend an eager ear to anyone who claims to validate your moral suspicions about capitalism.
In the first go-around, these anti-capitalists tried to capture the science of economics, forming theories about how capitalism is a system of exploitation that will impoverish the common man, while scientific central planning would provide abundance for all.
Let’s just say that this didn’t work out. When it turned out that central planning impoverishes the common man and capitalism provides abundance for all, they had to switch to a fallback position. Which is: to heck with prosperity—too many material goods are the problem. Our greed for more is destroying the planet by causing environmental catastrophes. This shift became official some time in the 1960s with the rise of the New Left.
Some of the catastrophes didn’t pan out (overpopulation, global cooling) and others proved too small to be anything more than a speed bump in the path of capitalism (banning CFCs and DDT). But then along comes global warming—and it’s just too goodnot to be true. It tells us that capitalism is not just exploiting the workers or causing inequality or deadening our souls with crass materialism. It’s destroying the very planet itself.
The global warming theory tells us that the free market is a doomsday machine bringing about the end of the world. It turns capitalism into a metaphysical evil.
And there is no halfway solution to the problem, no practical fix or technological patch. Carbon dioxide emissions are an unavoidable byproduct of the burning of fossil fuels, and the entire system of industrial capitalism runs on fossil fuels. So the only way to avoid catastrophe is to shut it all down.
You can see how this brings order and balance back to the left’s universe. Their visceral reaction against capitalism is validated on the deepest, most profound level.
You can see how this would be almost like a drug or like an article of religious faith. How can you allow people to question and undermine the very thing that gives meaning to your life? Hence the visceral reaction to global warming skeptics.
Then there is a second dilemma faced by the left. Their own history—and indeed their present—hasn’t always been so liberal and enlightened and progressive. The hard-core advocates of central planning had embraced or excused Soviet totalitarianism, with its party lines and Lysenkoism, and the central planners and “pro-science” types of a previous era had embraced eugenics. Today, there are still those who want to shut down opposing opinions, and every couple of years somebody floats a proposal to imprison global warming skeptics. Or maybe they just try to sue them and shut them down in the courts.
What to do? Construct an alternative narrative in which the political right is the modern-day successor to the Inquisition and the political left is the inheritor of a tradition of bold free-thinking that goes all the way back to Giordano Bruno. Even if you have to fudge a few facts to make it work.
Now put these two together: the left’s imperative to think of itself as a tradition of free-thinkers opposed to religious dogma, and their need for a scientific theory that validates their prejudice against capitalism—and you get the impetus for the whole mentality of what the blogger Ace of Spades calls the “I Love Science Sexually” crowd (a play on the name of a popular Facebook page). And you can also understand their adulation of popularizers like Neil deGrasse Tyson who repeat this conventional wisdom back to them and give it the official imprimatur of science. Once the narrative is established, it becomes a bandwagon and others jump onto it because being “pro-science” sounds like (and is) a good thing, and because they don’t know enough to question the story they’re being told.
You can also see why they would be more concerned with having the image of being “pro-science” than they are with actually being scientific. The first allows you to hold fast to the specific conclusions that are comforting to you; the second means that you have to be willing to challenge them.
In short, this is an attempt to capture science as a metaphysical validation for the worldview of the left—even if they have to kill it to capture it.
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