Scorching Capitalism: Naomi Klein Turns Up the Heat in New Movie

Renee Feltz Nov 11, 2015

This Changes Everything
Directed by Avi Lewis
Klein Lewis Productions, 2015

As a rule, documentaries about climate change feature exotic scenes, endangered species and Hollywood celebrities. In This Changes Everything, Avi Lewis joins with author Naomi Klein to change the script and shape a global discussion on the topic. The film follows Klein as she travels the world to interview activists for what would become her best-selling book of the same name. Among the places she visits is Greece, which is liquidating its natural resources amid an economic crisis and austerity measures that have fallen mostly on the poor.

“You can see all the dimensions of the problem here: how the environment is treated, how the citizens are treated,” says Mary Christianou of the Halkidiki Citizens Committee, which is fighting plans by the Canadian company El Dorado to build a massive gold mine. “You have to realize what is the core problem. Then we can fight it.” 

Klein asks her, “What is the core problem?” 

“Do you want me to state it on camera?” Christianou responds, sounding both hesitant and emboldened. “I would say it is the economic system. Capitalism.” 

Klein elegantly makes this argument in her book, which I have read. But the point is so rarely made that I found the scene as refreshing as if it were my first time hearing it. Perhaps now a broader audience that has yet to read her 576-page opus will feel the satisfying jolt of recognition from openly acknowledging how our global economy is built on unsustainable and endless growth.

Another whiff of fresh air is found in India, where the pursuit of double-digit economic growth is fueled by government subsidies and land grants for private investors to build hundreds of coal-burning power plants. In some areas, residents successfully blocked the construction of the facilities, maintaining their protests despite promises of electricity and jobs. They tell Klein they’d prefer to keep their farms and fishing businesses rather than see a power plant destroy their land and water. They note the facilities would actually provide electricity to industrial centers hundreds of miles away instead of locally. This is what “environmentalism of the poor” looks like, Klein argues.

The push for developing countries like India and China to build energy infrastructure as they grow is often blamed for slowing down negotiations on the U.N. climate agreement that have been under way for the last 20 years and are set to conclude this December at talks in Paris. But as charts flash on the screen showing the number of polluted air quality days in China’s major cities, Klein notes the factories burping carbon are often producing goods for Western consumers. 

Like polar bears, solutions are a key part of any climate change documentary. By calling out capitalism’s role, Klein and Lewis have a chance to broaden the climate justice movement and sharpen its focus. The steps are clear to the indigenous activists they feature, who use blockades to keep tar sands oil in the ground; to the Germans they follow, who reject nuclear power and create electricity cooperatives sourced by renewable energy; and to the economist they interview, who argues we “need a different growth system.”

In her book, Klein argues the best way to push forward with cuts to carbon emissions that contribute to climate change is for both “de-growth” of the carbon-intensive parts of the economy and expansion of the low-carbon parts, among which she counts health care and education. In the film, she talks to a Canadian tar sands worker who describes how he and many of his fellow roustabouts dream of building and installing wind turbines and other renewable energy projects instead. Afterward, she optimistically reflects how their vision melts away the false dichotomies of jobs versus the environment, and the economy versus the planet.

At minimum, the release of this film in theaters, combined with community and educational screenings, will invigorate those who are aware but feel hopeless and embolden grassroots organizers and foot soldiers. Will it similarly push governments and the bureaucrats at the climate talks in Paris to finally break with the market fundamentalism the movie decries? That could “change everything,” it argues. But it is up to us to demand it.

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