Polluted rivers, open pit mines and smog-shrouded cities are the physical manifestation of capitalism run rampant. Our insatiable appetite for oil, gas and coal is not only making the earth unliveable in the long term, but is also affecting communities around the world. But while politicians fail to come up with solutions, it’s these very communities that hold the key to the solution.
This is the message of This Changes Everything, a documentary by Naomi Klein and Avi Lewis, which provides an insight into the human tragedy brought about by the fossil fuel industry. Native Americans in Canada whose access to ancestral lands is blocked by tar sands development, ranchers in Montana whose land is suddenly polluted by massive oil leak from a pipeline, and residents of Beijing who can’t breathe fresh air half of the year.
Climate change is often seen as a future problem. We have seen some changes of a warmer climate – shrinking ice caps, altered weather patterns – and if the science is to be believed, the worst is yet to come.
But Klein and Lewis want to show us that the fossil fuel industry is already making our lives miserable. In India, for example, coal power plants are being built at an astronomical rate. The power they produce doesn’t benefit locals, who must give up their land and their livelihoods connected to it. Instead, the power is sold to neighbouring states.
Finding a solution within capitalism for climate change is futile, the documentary argues, given that the problem is excessive consumption created by capitalism. The documentary hovers for a second at a geoengineering conference where researchers propose emitting chemicals into the upper atmosphere to reflect back a little sunlight and offset global warming. “They want to use pollution to solve the problem that pollution created?” Klein asks rhetorically, before the documentary moves onward.
Klein and Lewis want locals to stand up for their rights and the land they occupy. They present a scenario of renewable energy independence, and a transition to a sustainable economy. They point to Germany’s enormous investment in renewable energy, brought about by popular demand as a positive example.
But there are major problems. Scientists have agreed the damage to the planet won’t be too bad if we keep the warming to within two degrees. But this requires that energy companies only burn one fifth of their proven fossil fuel reserves. This means that energy companies would have to write off huge amounts of their value, potentially sparking a massive economic crash.
Newspaper The Guardian launched a campaign ‘Keep it in the Ground’ in the hope of bursting this ‘carbon bubble’. But their attempts to convince investors to divest from carbon energy have proven difficult, if not impossible. If The Guardian can’t motivate change, can anybody?
This Changes Everything is a call to arms, for communities to stand up against capitalism that we cannot trust to self-correct away from causing irreversible climate change. This message is pushed through examples around the world where locals stand up to multinationals that are exploiting their land and resources. At times the analysis feels thin, especially that of Greece whose terrible austerity and selling off of resources is, at least partially, their own doing.
It’s not entirely one-sided, and climate change deniers and big oil are both given the chance to defend their positions. But you are definitely on the side of the little man in this film, and for good reason – Klein and Lewis want to show that standing up against powerful forces can be successful.
It’s too easy to think that mass movements have little effect. We saw enormous demonstrations have zero impact on the COP15 negotiations in Copenhagen. Despite enormous popular support for investment in renewable energy, the new Liberal Party (Venstre) government has earmarked renewable energy research for cuts in next year’s budget.
It’s easy to sneer at Klein and Lewis’ call for a popular uprising against capitalism and climate change. But when the science is on the side of an energy transition that is being blocked by the lobbying efforts of multinational energy companies, we can’t put our trust in politicians to protect the long-term future of our planet. Their documentary inspires hope by showing examples where protest has worked.
Few believe that the COP21 climate conference in Paris this December will result in a deal that will actually make any impact on limiting climate change. But do the chances of a solution increase for every extra person that takes to the street? If so Klein and Lewis have done their job. If not, they can sleep easy while the world around them burns. At least they tried. M