Does This Change Everything?

From notes for a panel discussion following a screening of “This Changes Everything,” at the Al Whittle Theatre in Wolfville on November 3. Thanks to the Fundy Film Society and Acadia ESST students for organizing the screening and panel.

This Changes Everything” starts with Naomi Klein confessing that she doesn’t like films about climate change. I feel the same way. Or at least, I feel like I have seen enough of them to be tired of some familiar tropes. Or maybe even that feeling is just a lazy generalization based on my frustration with “An Inconvenient Truth.” In any case, given Klein’s opening claim, I’d like to think about how This Changes Everything is both different from, and similar to, other climate change films.

Let’s start with the differences. Some of these are not stated as explicitly as I will put them here, but I am exaggerating both to highlight the contrasts and because I think these are directions worth pushing in. With that in mind, the first difference that strikes me is that the film talks about (or at least encourages us to talk about) the economics of climate change mitigation in terms of expropriation. The film talks about a global carbon budget, and how much of the world’s proven fossil fuel reserves have to be kept in the ground in order to keep global temperature increase to 2 degrees or less. It is a lot. Dealing with climate change means stranding those assets, which means the companies that hold them will have to write them off their balance sheets. In other words, dealing with climate change requires potentially enormous financial losses for very powerful people and organizations (7 of the top 10 global Fortune 500 companies are oil and auto companies). Klein says at one point that she agrees with the climate deniers at the Heartland Institute about one thing: that what climate change activists (or environmentalists more generally) is a redistribution of wealth – that they are “watermelons: green on the outside, red on the inside.” It’s vanishingly rare that we contemplate the scale of expropriation that is suggested here (more on the scale of change that is implied later). One of the few comparable situations I can think of is the abolition of slavery in the United States. To see how that worked out, I recommend Ta-Nehisi Coates’s award-winning essay “The Case for Reparations,” and his book published earlier this year, Between the World and Me. The book is commendable for a number of reasons, not least of which is that it is beautifully written. It has almost nothing to say about climate change, until the second-last paragraph, which is devastating.

A second difference is that the film’s prescriptive message is all about collective political action. As far as I can recall, there is not a single appeal to green consumerism, switching to energy-efficient lightbulbs, low-flow taps, etc. This is an important and welcome shift, for reasons Michael Maniates explained over a decade ago.

Third, a significant portion of the film focuses on the “environmentalism of the poor”: communities in the global South, who are not only facing some of the worst impacts of climate change, but are also portrayed as political agents, not just passive victims. For these people and communities, climate change represents an existential crisis. In that situation, the political choices are framed quite differently from the way climate change appeals are often framed for us in the wealthy global North. While the film’s cases are far from exclusively in the global South, many of those that aren’t seem to be marginal in different ways: indigenous communities dealing with the tar sands in northern Alberta, Greece in the midst economic disaster, and Montana ranchers trying to recuperate a traditional way of life – an eclectic group that Klein famously characterizes as “Blockadia.” I saw the movie with an audience that was mostly white, and dealing with what is, in comparative terms, relatively mild neoliberal austerity. What does the film have to say to those, and there are many, who don’t see climate change as an existential threat? What about those who aren’t inhabitants of Blockadia, but maybe read about it, or at best go there for a short visit?

In his introduction to Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth, Jean-Paul Sartre says that, for Europeans, the book “often talks about you, but never to you.” (xlv) Then: “Why bother to read it if it is not meant for us? … read it, primarily, because it will make you feel shame, and shame, as Marx said, is a revolutionary feeling.” (xlviii-xlix) There are a few moments like this in the film, particularly for a Canadian audience (Klein and Lewis are Canadian). But “This Changes Everything” isn’t really a shame-inducing movie. And that is partly because the film at least implies that we (those who are most responsible for climate change) don’t have to be constituted the way that we are, and that we can sense a profound wrong-ness in the way that we are constituted. Most powerfully, “we” here refers not just to the sorts of people who would walk into a film like this predisposed to liking it. Early in the film, the hollow pleasures of life in Fort MacMurray, despite (or because) of all the money that is flowing through, are nicely portrayed. And one of the more hopeful moments is the suggestion even those living through and benefiting from this hyper-extraction recognize its emptiness in relatively short order.

On the other hand, the emphasis on hopeful stories is not all that different from other climate change films. And as is often the case, I think some of these hopeful stories are overstated. Germany’s green energy revolution is one example. The extent to which (or speed with which) people in the Fort MacMurray/ Oil Sands machine recognize and rebel against the personal toll that it takes on them may be another. As well, if the stories are long on hope and inspiration, they are short on the strategies and tactics that activists in Blockadia use. Like many other climate change films, This Changes Everything is ultimately designed to inspire, but isn’t a toolkit.

A second similarity with other climate change films: whatever Klein herself thinks, the film sends confusing messages about the kinds of changes that are needed, and the ways in which different systems are interrelated. There are at least three systems operating, and it isn’t always clear which ones are driving what, or how best to intervene in them. At one level there is the technological system: how feasible is it to replace our fossil-fuel intensive system with low- or zero-carbon alternatives? How quickly can this be done, and to what extent is a downscaling of consumption patterns of the global North needed? Aside from the technical components of those questions, which different characters in the film seem to answer somewhat differently, these questions operate on political and economic levels, as well. I mentioned earlier the scale of expropriation that needs to be contemplated. Historically, this scale of change has been characterized as “revolutionary” (e.g. 1789 or 1917). Abolition in the US isn’t always characterized in those terms. Maybe that’s because the expropriation wasn’t really successful, and the exploitation of black bodies continues in other ways, as Coates and others argue (see above). Or maybe the Civil War did mark a revolutionary change in America’s political-economic system, comparable to the French, Russian, or Chinese revolutions, as Barrington Moore suggests in a classic study of comparative politics. And it is here that the film seems ambivalent in possibly unhelpful ways.

In terms of economic questions, I’ve already noted the film’s willingness to deal with the issue of inequality and of capitalism. But ultimately the film seems to waffle on whether the criticism is to be aimed at neoliberalism (a particular form of capitalism), or at capitalism itself, more generally. Do we need better regulation, the right market incentives, etc. to move from a fossil to a green energy system? Or do we need to socialize the means of (energy) production?

A similar ambivalence structures how the film deals with politics. What does “This Changes Everything” tell us about the state? Just as some of the actors in the film argue that better-regulated (non-neoliberal) capitalism can usher in an energy transition, some of them argue that more democratically responsive states can do so, as well. Indeed, Klein herself on at least one occasion in the film notes the importance of citizen action in pushing states to behave appropriately. It was citizen pressure, she says, that made the energy transition (to the extent that there has been one) in Germany happen. But just like capitalism, the state system has a logic of its own, which may not be compatible with a just energy transition. While some in the film argue that states (like corporations) need to be held more accountable, others (most clearly Indigenous communities) argue that the state itself is part of the problem. A couple of years ago, Joel Wainwright and Geoff Mann argued that climate change may demand a politics that is both anti-capitalist and opposed to the state form at the planetary scale (“planetary sovereignty”) – what they call “Climate X.” Climate justice movements represent for them “the seeds of Climate X.” Although necessarily diffuse and shadowy, the Climate X does suggest a politics adequate to a condition – the potentiality of catastrophic climate change – that changes everything. At least some of the voices in Klein’s film, and maybe Klein herself, seem to be hedging their bets.

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