Changing Everything Except What Needs Changing: What's Missing From The Renewable Energy Debate
Changing Everything Except What Needs Changing: What's Missing From The Renewable Energy Debate
By Steven Gorelick /
May 27, 2016

Among climate change activists, solutions usually center on a transition to renewable energy. There may be differences over whether this would be best accomplished by a carbon tax, bigger subsidies for wind and solar power, divestment from fossil fuel companies, massive demonstrations, legislative fiat or some other strategy, but the goal is generally the same: replace dirty fossil fuels with clean renewable energy. Such a transition is often given a significance that goes well beyond its immediate impact on greenhouse gas emissions: it would somehow make our exploitative relationship to Nature more environmentally sound, our relationship to each other more socially equitable. In part this is because the fossil fuel corporations – symbolized by the villainous Koch brothers – will be a relic of the past, replaced by ‘green’ corporations and entrepreneurs that display none of their predecessors’ ruthlessness and greed.

Maybe, but I have my doubts. Here in Vermont, for example, a renewable energy conference last year was titled, “Creating Prosperity and Opportunity Confronting Climate Change”. The event attracted venture capitalists, asset management companies, lawyers that represent renewable energy developers, and even a “brandthropologist” offering advice on “how to evolve Brand Vermont” in light of the climate crisis. The keynote speaker was Jigar Shah, author of Creating Climate Wealth, who pumped up the assembled crowd by telling them that switching to renewables “represents the largest wealth creation opportunity of our generation.” He added that government has a role in making that opportunity real: “policies that incentivize resource efficiency can mean scalable profits for businesses.”[1] If Shah is correct, the profit motive ­– in less polite company it might be called ‘greed’ – will still be around in a renewable energy future.

But at least the renewable energy corporations will be far more socially responsible than their fossil fuel predecessors, right?  Not if you ask the Zapotec communities in Mexico’s Oaxaca state, who will tell you that a renewable energy corporation can be just as ruthless as a fossil fuel one. Oaxaca is already home to 21 wind projects and 1,600 massive turbines, with more planned. While the indigenous population must live with the wind turbines on their communal lands, the electricity goes to distant urban areas and industries. Local people say they have been intimidated and deceived by the wind corporations: according to one indigenous leader, “They threaten us, they insult us, they spy on us, they block our roads. We don’t want any more wind turbines.” People have filed grievances with the government (which has actively promoted the wind projects) and have physically blocked access to development sites.[2]

It seems that a transition to renewable energy might not be as transformative as some people hope. Or to put it more bluntly, renewable energy changes nothing about corporate capitalism.

Which brings me to the new film, This Changes Everything, based on Naomi Klein’s best-selling book and directed by her husband, Avi Lewis. I saw the film recently at a screening hosted by local climate activists and renewable energy developers, and was at first hopeful that the film would go even further than the book in, as Klein puts it, “connecting the dots between the carbon in the air and the economic system that put it there.”

But by film’s end one is left with the impression that a transition from fossil fuels to renewables is pretty much all that’s needed – not only to address climate change but to transform the economy and solve all the other problems we face. As the camera tracks skyward to reveal banks of solar panels in China or soars above 450-foot tall wind turbines in Germany, the message seems to be that fully committing to these technologies will change everything. This is surprising, since Klein’s book flatly contradicts this way of thinking:

“Over the past decade,” she wrote, “many boosters of green capitalism have tried to gloss over the clashes between market logic and ecological limits by touting the wonders of green tech…. They paint a picture of a world that can function pretty much as it does now, but in which our power will come from renewable energy and all of our various gadgets and vehicles will become so much more energy-efficient that we can consume away without worrying about the impact.” Instead, she says, we need to “consume less, right away. [But] Policies based on encouraging people to consume less are far more difficult for our current political class to embrace than policies that are about encouraging people to consume green. Consuming green just means substituting one power source for another, or one model of consumer goods for a more efficient one. The reason we have placed all of our eggs in the green tech and green efficiency basket is precisely because these changes are safely within market logic.”[3]

Overall, Klein’s book is far better at “connecting the dots” than the film. The book explains how free trade treaties have led to a huge spike in emissions, and Klein argues that these agreements need to be renegotiated in ways that will curb both emissions and corporate power. Among other things, she says, “long-haul transport will need to be rationed, reserved for those cases where goods cannot be produced locally.” She explicitly calls for “sensible relocalization” of the economy, as well as reduced consumption and “managed degrowth” in the rich countries of the North – notions likely to curdle the blood of capitalists everywhere. She endorses government incentives for local and seasonal food, as well as land management policies that discourage sprawl and encourage low-energy, local forms of agriculture.

I don’t buy everything about Klein’s arguments: they rest heavily on unquestioned assumptions about the course of ‘development’ in the global South, and focus too much on scaling up government and not enough on scaling down business. The “everything” that will change sometimes seems limited to the ideological pendulum: after decades of pointing towards the neoliberal, free-market right, she believes it must swing back to the left because climate change demands a huge expansion of government planning and support.

Nonetheless, many of the specific steps outlined in the book do have the potential to shift our economic system in important ways. Those steps, however, are given no space at all in the film. The focus is almost entirely on transitioning to renewables, which turns the film into what is essentially an informercial for industrial wind and solar.

The film starts well, debunking the notion that climate change is a product of human nature – of our innate greed and short-sightedness. Instead, Klein says, the problem lies in a “story” we’ve told ourselves for the past 400 years: that Nature is ours to tame, conquer, and extract riches from. In that way, Klein says, “Mother Nature became the mother lode.”

After a gut-wrenching segment on the environmental disaster known as the Alberta tar sands, the film centers on examples of “Blockadia” – a term coined by activists to describe local direct action against extractive industries. There is the Cree community in Alberta fighting the expansion of tar sands development; villagers in India blocking construction of a coal-fired power plant that would eliminate traditional fishing livelihoods; a community on Greece’s Halkidiki Peninsula battling their government and the police to stop an open pit gold mine that would destroy a cherished mountain; and a small-scale goat farmer in Montana joining hands with the local Cheyenne community to oppose a bevy of fossil fuel projects, including a tar sands pipeline, a shale oil project, and a new coal mine.

Klein implies that climate change underlies and connects these geographically diverse protests. But that’s partly an artifact of the examples Klein chose, and partly a misreading of the protestors’ motives: what has really driven these communities to resist is not climate change, but a deeply-felt desire to maintain their traditional way of life and to protect land that is sacred to them. A woman in Halkidiki expresses it this way: “we are one with this mountain; we won’t survive without it.” At its heart, the threat that all of these communities face doesn’t stem from fossil fuels, but from a voracious economic system that will sacrifice them and the land they cherish for the sake of profit and growth.

The choice of Halkidiki as an example actually undermines Klein’s construct, since the proposed mine has nothing directly to do with fossil fuels. It does, however, have everything to do with a global economy that runs on growth, corporate profit, and – as Greece knows only too well – debt. So it is with all the other examples in the film.

Klein’s narrative would have been derailed if she profiled the indigenous Zapotec communities of Oaxaca as a Blockadia example: they fit the bill in every respect other than the fact that it’s renewable energy corporations, not fossil fuel corporations, they are trying to block. Similarly, Klein’s argument would have suffered if she visited villagers in India who are threatened not by a coal-fired power plant, but by one of India’s regulation-free corporate enclaves known as “special economic zones”. These, too, have sparked protests and police violence against villagers: in Nandigram in West Bengal, 14 villagers were killed trying to keep their way of life from being eliminated, their lands turned into another outpost of an expanding global economy.[4]

And while the tar sands region is undeniably an ecological disaster, it bears many similarities to the huge toxic lake on what was once pastureland in Baotou, on the edge of China’s Gobi Desert. The area is the source of nearly two-thirds of the world’s rare earth metals – used in almost every high-tech gadget (as well as in the magnets needed for electric cars and industrial wind turbines). The mine tailings and effluent from the many factories processing these metals have created an environmental disaster of truly monumental proportions: the BBC describes it as “the worst place on earth”.[5] A significant shrinking of global consumer demand would help reduce Baotou’s toxic lake, but it’s hard to see how a shift to renewable energy would.

Too often, climate change has been used as a Trojan horse to enable corporate interests to despoil local environments or override the concerns of local communities. Klein acknowledges this in her book: by viewing climate change only on a global scale, she writes, we end up ignoring “people with attachments to particular pieces of land with very different ideas about what constitutes a ‘solution’. This chronic forgetfulness is the thread that unites so many fateful policy errors of recent years… [including] when policymakers ram through industrial-scale wind farms and sprawling… solar arrays without local participation or consent.”[6] But this warning is conspicuously absent from the film.

Klein’s premise is that climate change is the one issue that can unite people globally for economic change, but there’s a more strategic way to look at it. What we face is not only a climate crisis but literally hundreds of potentially devastating crises: there’s the widening gap between rich and poor, islands of plastic in the oceans, depleted topsoil and groundwater, a rise in fundamentalism and terror, growing piles of toxic and nuclear waste, the gutting of local communities and economies, the erosion of democracy, the epidemic of depression, and many more. Few of these can be easily linked to climate change, but all of them can be traced back to the global economy.

This point is made by Helena Norberg-Hodge, founder of Local Futures, who explains how a scaling-down of the corporate-led global economy and a strengthening of diverse, localized economies would simultaneously address all of the most serious problems we face – including climate change.[7]  For this reason, what Norberg-Hodge calls ‘big picture activism’ has the potential to unite climate change activists, small farmers, peace advocates, environmentalists, social justice groups, labor unions, indigenous rights activists, main street business owners, and many more under a single banner. If all these groups connect the dots to see the corporate-led economy as a root cause of the problems they face, it could give rise to a global movement powerful enough to halt the corporate juggernaut.

And that really could change everything.

Steven Gorelick is Managing Programs Director at Local Futures (International Society for Ecology and Culture). He is the author of Small is Beautiful, Big is Subsidized, co-author of Bringing the Food Economy Home, and co-director of The Economics of Happiness. His writings have been published in The Ecologist and Resurgence magazines. He frequently teaches and speaks on local economics around the US.

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Changing Everything Except What Needs Changing: What's Missing From The Renewable Energy Debate