Hope & Change

After all the hair-on-fire reactions to Naomi Klein’s immediate classic This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, it’s nice to actually see a rational response to her masterwork. Rebecca Henderson of the Harvard Business School argues that substantive rethinking of Western economic assumptions isn’t necessary to avoid a climate catastrophe:

Our world and our economy need to face the risks of uncontrolled climate change — the sooner the better.

Yet, the publication of Naomi Klein’s new book This Changes Everything earlier this month and the claim by many of the marchers at [the People’s Climate March] that ‘Capitalism is the enemy’ raises another risk: that in our struggle to address climate change we will turn on the wrong enemy. I’m in complete agreement with Ms. Klein that as a society we should be doing something about climate change, and doing it at scale. But the first step isn’t to dismantle capitalism.

Maybe we don’t have to dismantle capitalism per se, but we definitely have to dismantle the culture of free-market fundamentalism that gave birth to the climate crisis. Henderson seems to recognize this:

Both the marchers and Ms. Klein have a point, of course – namely that even though we know what to do, we’re not doing it. She thinks it’s because we’re the victims of evil capitalists. It is certainly true that political action on climate change would benefit from reforms aimed at limiting the influence of incumbent industries. We need to make it clear that our commitment is to a capitalism in which it’s not ok for corporations – or wealthy individuals – to use their money to bend the rules of the game in their own favor.

Henderson also points out why an unstoppable climate movement is necessary:

Our failure to address climate change is thus ultimately a failure of democracy. We need to build a social movement that can insist that our leaders put in place the policies that will enable us to deal with the threat of climate change. And while we may struggle with longer-term priorities, we’re also a species that will do almost anything to ensure the welfare of our children. We need to rediscover the old idea that responsive, democratically controlled government has a central role to play in ensuring that the rules of the game are fair, and in dealing with problems like climate change: tough, long-term collective action problems that can only be addressed by the state.

But that doesn’t mean that we should abandon capitalism. With the right policies, capitalism properly understood is perfectly well equipped to prepare us to face the risk of large scale climate change. In fact, it’s the only thing that can.

Credit to Henderson for not blindly bashing the hell out of Klein, as seems to be the fashion these days. Here’s a test of whether anyone in your social circle has a functioning mind: say Naomi Klein’s name, and see if they freak out. If they go ballistic, consider dropping that person as a friend.

D.R. Tucker

D. R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based journalist who has served as the weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly since May 2014. He has also written for the Huffington Post, the Washington Spectator, the Metrowest Daily News, investigative journalist Brad Friedman's Brad Blog and environmental journalist Peter Sinclair's Climate Crocks.