Demystifying the Climate Crisis: A Review of Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything”

By Meg Sherman, a student of Modern History and Politics at University of Southampton.


The global movement to divest from fossil fuels is a clear-thinking, progressive choice for action on climate change. This Changes Everything: Capitalism VS The Climate, a newly published volume by Naomi Klein, provides an invaluable history of environmental and economic injustices and should be required reading for anyone interested in the divestment movement.

The truth on climate change is hard to identify in a world where business is powerfully invested in misinformation. But under the smog of denialism the effects of human-made global warming (via carbon emissions) are already being wrought in real, violent ways upon the planet: ways of life are being extinguished; low-lying pacific islands look set to be swallowed by the sea; global temperatures melt previous records with alarming alacrity, and extreme weather events displacing large populations are fast becoming the norm. Our generation lives throughout the endgame of industrial civilization, a time when humanity urgently needs new, compelling narratives about potential transformations in society, economics and politics. Incisive, compelling and relevant as its predecessors, Capitalism VS The Climate appears as a stray flicker of hope, imploring a thoughtful resistance to predatory capitalism and envisioning a real place for a climate movement with redistributive justice at its’ core.

Following in the path of No Logo and Shock Doctrine, Klein’s latest volume deepens her earlier work exposing the disastrous underbelly of neoliberal globalization. The crux of her argument is that the environmental crisis is itself a consequence of the systematic desolation of the global commons, increasingly privatized and deregulated by centralized trading regimes, dominated by the richer industrialized nations, questing for more control of planetary resources. Shock Doctrine railed against the callousness of structural adjustment regimes which deprived nascent economies in the global south of their health, wealth and stability in order to serve the narrow interests and myopic greed of corporations and profiteers, that is to say, the agenda of the 1%. And in Capitalism VS The Climate Klein, using the aftermath of hurricane Katrina by way of example as to how reconstruction efforts can be hijacked and stymied, argues that global warming itself will be hoisted to the engine of the shock doctrine insofar as business competes to advantage from mounting crises without advancing help, solutions, assistance or attempts to mitigate and alleviate the accruing damage. Instead they use crises cynically as a platform for further deregulation and privatization, undermining public unity and collective solidarity. This is disaster capitalism laid bare: a lethal obstacle to public health and environmental sustainability. Major economies founded on the extraction of fossil fuels and emission of greenhouse gases are the major crisis culprits, stoking inequalities. Key stakeholder groups with historically the least restricted access to resources deriving from this foundation are called upon to amend their high-consumption lifestyles, to rediscover the real need for economic justice, or condemn global citizens to further disaster.

Klein looks to initiatives already underway which speak to hopes of achieving lasting social and environmental security by approximating more conscientious and democratic ways of life. Capitalism VS The Climate integrates the lessons and voices of Cheyenne social movements who live on lands intersected by the Keystone XL pipeline, and who have given life to the concept of stewardship by taking bold leaps forward in the resistance against big oil with public education initiatives empowering citizens to establish clean forms of power production in their own communities, harnessing abundant sources like solar and wind energy. Corporate rhetoric has a canny habit of reframing disastrous policies which attack the lives of vulnerable people as a triumph for democracy as much as it has a way of casting radical change as beyond the spectrum of possibility. But in Klein’s view the alternative is not only clear, but well within the means and creativity of people everywhere:

“with the right kind of public pressure, money can be marshaled not just to rebuild cities and communities, but to transform them into models of nonextractive living… activists can demand everything from free, democratically controlled public transit, to more public housing along those transit lines, powered by community-controlled renewable energy – with the jobs created by this investment going to local workers and paying a living wage.”

When it comes to climate change prominent politicians and business leaders argue that we can overcome it by investing more faith in technological and market-based solutions, perpetuating the idea that we don’t need wholesale social and economic reform to underwrite the transition to a low-carbon future. Klein on the other paw argues that a deregulated system which creates the widespread market failure of climate change has obviously outlived its utility, and she argues for more support for research directed at renewable energies, as a pre-requisite for solving issues of public health and the environment. She is astute when she argues that if you take the warnings of modern climate science to their logical conclusion then we ought to have democratically control over public utilities so that they are governed less recklessly. A well-known truism states that madness is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results. Einstein put it this way: We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” How, then, can we rely on plutocratic capitalism to solve a problem it created and support the long term needs of life on Earth?

Global forecasts predict another unassailable reality aside climate change, that fledgling economies like Brazil, Russia, India and China, tailed by developing LEDCS, will together surpass the activity of the traditional MEDCs and G7 by the middle of this century. The total energy demanded to support those transitions is huge. And two imperatives are to meet that demand and to do it whilst reducing overall greenhouse gas emissions. Concurrently. An immense challenge. It is clear that climate change is an urgent global issue and getting good policy and functional alternatives on the go is crucial as only this will form the basis for societies and industries to reverse the very damaging practices inherent in current methods of production, to respect the balance of nature, and ensure we put a stop to pollution everywhere to protect the shared lands which sustain life on the planet. And the narrative in Capitalism VS The Climate is driven by a heartfelt wish to open people’s eyes to the collective power we have to create new visions and strategies, real options and choices for progressive, radical change in a future which runs fugitive from the totalizing, destructive ambitions of corporate capitalism.

Book Review of “The Blunders of Our Governments” by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe

DipticBy Will Jennings, Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at University of Southampton (Academia.edu, Twitter). Read more posts by Will here.


 

This is an extended version of a book review that will be published in Political Studies Review in August 2015 (Volume 13, Issue 3), and will be available at the Wiley Online Library.

The Blunders of Our Governments. Anthony King and Ivor Crewe. London: Oneworld, 2013.

At a time when the modern state is faced with the pressures of austerity and a rising anti-politics sentiment among its citizens, The Blunders of our Governments takes on the important task of cataloguing and diagnosing the many policy failures of British government over several decades. In this, Anthony King and Ivor Crewe sketch out some of the details of twelve highly readable ‘horror stories’ of British public policy; with the cases including the poll tax, the ERM crisis, the Millennium Dome, the public private partnership for upgrading the London underground and the aborted identity cards scheme. Having done this, they reflect on some of the causes of the identified blunders and how they can be linked to defects of the British system of government, and to the cultures and practices that are prevalent in Whitehall and in Westminster. This is a noble effort and no doubt one that will attract the interest and attention of influential decision-makers in government. Its format makes it highly accessible for a popular audience, but means that it frustratingly fails to make any reference to the substantial amount of research that exists on policy disasters (and the litany of labels used to describe the occasions when things go wrong with policy). This means that a lot of what is already known about the dysfunctional pathologies of modern British government is overlooked, for example the excellent work of Moran (2003) on policy catastrophes and the regulatory state. Indeed, King and Crewe repeat many of the arguments made by Dunleavy (1995) about large-scale, avoidable policy mistakes being endemic to Britain’s political/administrative system, and even draw on some of the same cases. The lack of a clearly structured theoretical framework or method for policy analysis means that the set of explanations of policy blunders seems rather ad hoc and there is no attempt to integrate these in some sort of conclusion. Indeed, the book ends rather abruptly with a postscript on the Coalition government’s record on policy blunders.

That this is such an engaging account is in part because it is full of contradictions and unsolved puzzles. The authors repeatedly suggest that British government is blunder-prone (p. ix, xiv, 399), but concede they are unable to say whether it is more or less blundersome in either historical or comparative perspective (p. x). It is claimed that blunders are numerous (p. ix), but no systematic review of the evidence is presented to back this up – we simply have to take the word of these seasoned observers of British politics. Indeed, it is a little surprising that King and Crewe admit to selecting their twelve cases “… from a much longer list compiled from the suggestions of a large number of former ministers, senior officials and political commentators” (Crewe 2014, Political Insight). This would seem methodologically problematic given that in-group biases are one of the factors famously associated with policy disasters; such as in the seminal work of Janis (1972) on groupthink. Should we trust the judgement of the people who were at the scene of the crime as to what happened and who was to blame? This seems at risk of the ‘cultural disconnect’ that the authors warn about.

For a study of government blunders, there is a much greater focus on high politics – in the form of ministerial and departmental manoeuvrings – than the reasons why policies fail and how the choice of particular policy instruments matters. Accordingly, blunders are selected as ‘occasions on which ministers and officials failed to achieve their declared objectives’ (p. 6). This is a clear benchmark for identification of political blundering, but does not allow for a more critical and systematic evaluation of why things go wrong. Take the case of the Millennium Dome discussed in Chapter 8. This was an unmitigated political disaster for the Blair Government, with ministerial hubris playing some part. However, in terms of construction and delivery the Dome did not suffer the magnitude of cost overrun typically incurred in the management of mega-projects – rising just 4% from the forecast expenditure in its May 1997 budget (NAO 2002, p. 2). The financial difficulties of the Dome were instead due to over-optimistic expectations about revenue from commercial sponsors and ticket revenues – which left the government-owned company insolvent. Further, the confused governance of the Dome project can be traced to attempts to deliver millennium celebrations as a public-private partnership, before the Blair government even took office in the 1990s. This decision led to a protracted, disruptive and ultimately futile outsourcing process, with the private sector unwilling to take on the risks attached to the project, which Labour inherited in 1997. The Dome blunder can thus be attributed to a combination of path dependence (inheritance of the project from a previous government), flawed assumptions in the choice of policy instrument (i.e. co-delivery of the project with the private sector) and cognitive biases of decision-makers (over-confidence and commitment of the sunk cost fallacy once the project was underway). None of these conditions/pathologies are particularly unique to British government, however. King and Crewe’s choice of the term ‘blunder’ is appealing because it cultivates the image of naive ministers and civil servants making avoidable mistakes. However, it distracts from more fundamental questions about why the institutional structures of the state fail to prevent errors due to individual or collective decision-making. As Moran (2001, p. 415) argues, the sustained influence of blunders in high politics can be attributed to ‘incomplete penetration of the regulatory state’. This arguably provides a far more revealing and fundamental explanation of the Dome fiasco and other policy failures.

Similarly, many of the examples identified as cases of policy successes are open to challenge. King and Crewe cite the organisation of the London 2012 Olympics as a policy success (p. 21). While undoubtedly extremely popular and a triumph for the government in terms of operation of the sporting event, in policy and planning terms the Olympics was still error-prone across a range of criteria for evaluation: its cost exceeded the original forecasts by more than 200% (Jennings 2012), the army had to be drafted in to provide security after the contractor G4S failed to supply the agreed number of security guards, and the promised legacy of increased sports participation has not materialised. While a political success, the policy story was distinctly mixed. Similarly, government preparations for the swine flu epidemic of 2009 are cited as another example of success (p. 20). Subsequent scientific evidence has suggested, however, that that the vaccines were ultimately ineffective, leading the Daily Mail to exclaim “Ministers blew £650 MILLION on useless anti-flu drugs” (10 April 2014). One person’s policy blunder is another person’s success, a point which surely more should have been made of.

In some regards The Blunders of our Governments is in line with a healthy tradition of self-depreciating tendencies of the British ruling class, which has endured a crisis of self-confidence since the breakup of the British Empire and in successive decades of crises of the economy and political institutions. King and Crewe’s thesis is premised on the belief that governments screw up too much, and that this ailment is distinctly British in its origins. On the other hand, it perpetuates a dangerous in-group view of the ruling club – based on the stories told by key actors – without asking searching questions about the tools that government opts to use and broader trends in modes of delivery of public services for the modern state and why these do not avert policy blunders. Its lack of reference to comparative examples (such as the cost overruns and technical difficulties in constructing both Berlin Brandenburg Airport in Germany and Bibliothèque nationale de France) is similarly symptomatic of this insularity, and of the lack of systematic analysis of evidence to back up the far-reaching assertions offered. As an account written by insiders with connections to the political elite this book is highly revealing of an outlook of the challenges of governing, which is rather charming but at the same time disabling. It presents only a faux challenge to the political elite and will readily be embraced by them as it reflects their worldview. Nothing important is likely to change as a result of its diagnosis, which given its subject matter might be considered disappointing from the perspective of many citizens.

References

Crewe, Ivor. (2014). ‘Why is Britain badly governed? Policy blunders 1980-2010.’ Political Insight 5(1): 4-9.

Dunleavy, Patrick. (1995). ‘Policy Disasters: Explaining the UK’s Record.’ Public Policy and Administration 10(2): 52-70.

Janis, Irving. (1972). Victims of groupthink; a psychological study of foreign-policy decisions and fiascoes. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin.

Jennings, Will. (2012). ‘Why Costs Over-Run: Risk, Optimism and Uncertainty in Budgeting for the London 2012 Olympics.’ Journal of Construction Management and Economics 30(6): 455-462.

Moran, Michael. (2001). ‘Not Steering but Drowning: Policy Catastrophes and the Regulatory State.’ The Political Quarterly 72(4): 414–427.

Moran, Michael. (2003). The British Regulatory State. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

National Audit Office. (2002). Winding-up the New Millennium Experience Company Limited. London: The Stationery Office.