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 defense of 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 stand against 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.