Naomi Klein in Oxford

Naomi Klein spoke in Oxford a few days ago on invitation of COIN, the Climate Outreach Information Network in the UK. Her talk was in the Sheldonian Theatre, the official ceremonial hall of the University of Oxford—a ceremonial building indeed that added much to the enjoyment of the evening. Naomi drew a large crowd—of more than 800, so I have been told—and the event was very interesting indeed.

Dr. Adam Corner, the COIN Research Director, has already offered his thoughts on the event and Naomi Klein’s latest book, This Changes Everything. He “found the ambition of the book (to radically curb the excesses of ‘extractivist’ growth-based capitalism) compelling, but the means by which these ends could be achieved disappointingly lacking in inspiration.”

I cannot comment on the book overall as I have not read it yet beyond the early chapters, but for me the evening in Oxford raised the following questions, issues, or resolutions:

  • Capitalism is a subject for discussion. The topic of a conversation can often tell us more about the world than the arguments that are launched for or against a particular position. For example, the fact that climate scientists now vigorously debate whether one extreme weather event or another might be attributable to climate change—as for example in a recent special issue of the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society—tells us that climate change is no longer a distant threat but that it is happening all around us. Why? Because 10 or 20 years ago no one would have seen fit to have that debate. The fact that we have the debate tells us all we need to know—climate change is happening now. Likewise, the fact that the words such as “capitalism,”  “inequality,” and “social justice” have found their place in mainstream public discourse tells us all we need to know—we are at the cusp of a paradigm shift.
  • What’s unrealistic is to ignore reality. If the solution to climate change really involves the demise of the neoliberal paradigm, isn’t that an extremely unrealistic endeavor? Isn’t climate change bad enough without having to trade in a one ideology for another one? Klein’s rejoinder to those legitimate questions was quite insightful, I thought: What’s unrealistic isn’t the replacement of neoliberalism with something else, what’s unrealistic is to ignore the physical reality of this planet which has become a central pillar of neoliberalism.
  • How to move forward? Like Corner, I am ambivalent about what follows from Klein’s analysis or indeed what she has to recommend. Perhaps paradoxically, I can agree with several seemingly incompatible positions: On the one hand, I have enough faith in markets to believe that pricing of externalities, or Pigovian taxes, may be sufficient to yield a transformation to a low-carbon economy. It wasn’t that long ago (in a nearly-geological time scale at least) that I was a principal of a software company at a time when MS-DOS 2.0 and an 8087 numeric co-processor were considered a breakthrough—the comparison with today’s information technology is so breath-taking that it augurs well for the speed with which markets could decarbonize the modern economy if given the incentive to do so. On the other hand, I have little faith in the current assortment of political “leaders” and their ability to introduce the legislation and leadership required to make markets function for the benefit of future generations. Opposition to neoliberalism, and its ultimate demise, may therefore be the only way in which climate mitigation can be achieved. On that view, any action that nibbles away at the prevailing neoliberal paradigm and its underlying fundamentalist view of free markets may indeed be considered climate activism.
  • To Change Everything we Need Everyone. Yes.