This Changes Everything: simplistic globe-trotting essay based on faulty premises

Avi Lewis, “This Changes Everything” (2015)

Billed as a film about climate change, this documentary essay based on Canadian journalist Naomi Klein’s eponymous book actually follows up a premise expressed in Klein’s previous work like “The Shock Doctrine” that current global environmental, political and economic crises are the end manifestations of an ideology that developed during the 17th and 18th centuries. This ideology stipulates that humans can and should master nature using their conscious intellectual and rational faculties. Welded together with bits and pieces selected from economic, political and social theories and philosophies in the Western intellectual public domain of the period, this ideology is premised on continuous and infinite economic growth, self-interest and the notion that economic markets should be free of government intervention. Nations that adopted this ideological model more or less then went on to conquer the world in search of new lands and resources for their industries; in the process they subjugated the peoples they found in those new lands, destroyed their cultures, languages and beliefs (and the very peoples themselves) and ravaged the territories and resources they found. The Western invasion of the world is still ongoing, albeit perhaps with new actors (some of them former colonies of the old actors) using new or more refined tactics, technologies and tools of propaganda, but it has now hit a crisis point: the planet’s systems are no longer able to sustain the continuing onslaught and they are now breaking down and reacting in unusual and bizarre ways. “Climate change”, manifested in extremes of temperature causing prolonged drought and hurricanes or typhoons of extreme ferocity, is but a symptom of the general disease.

What Klein (who narrates the documentary) and Lewis try to do is alert viewers that climate change and other global crises are the end results of an ideology and the culture it engendered gone berserk, and the fact that all that was required for this ideology and its culture was a change in thinking about humans’ relationship to the world. Rather than bemoan this change in thinking, we should be inspired by this historical example to rethink the ideology and what resulted from it, to change our thinking again about our relationship with nature, embrace a new paradigm about our place in the world, and from that create a new civilisation based on new values of sustainability, cooperation and collective action.

To that end, the film jumps around various parts of the planet, starting with Fort McMurray in Alberta, the epicentre of Canada’s tar sands mining industry, and its effects on the local Cree community, its ability to subsist off its native lands and the degradation the industry is causing to local ecosystems. The film then hops to Montana where a rancher couple and the local aboriginal peoples must cope with a burst pipeline that floods and pollutes the river with oil (from the tar sands mines in northern Alberta, incidentally). From there we have to fly to Greece to see activists and protesters battle their government and foreign mining companies, to Andhra Pradesh (India) where again local people are up in arms against a coal-fired power plant proposal in their neighbourhood, and to China where people are fighting air pollution and the government there is investing huge sums in solar energy generation to steer households and industry away from depending on coal power for electricity needs.

Klein’s narration (and narrative) is the only thing that pulls all these stories together; streamlined and simplified though it is already, the film would fall apart without Klein’s input. While the narrative is very powerful, because it is based in part on historical fact, it is so simplified that even viewers not familiar with the development of Western science, economic theory and politics since the 1600s can find gaping holes in its conclusions. Switching from fossil fuels to renewable energies will not automatically lead or encourage people to adopt sustainability or become cooperative and less selfish; these new technologies can simply replace the old technologies, much as petroleum replaced coal and steam in the early 1900s. The world will carry on as before but with a renewed greed for new resources and lands to exploit.

We also need to ask whether in the 16th and 17th centuries, when French philosopher Jacques Descartes first propounded his view that humans (but not animals) could have souls – and therefore it was the right of humans (specifically Western Christian humans) to dominate the natural world – such a concept really was so revolutionary or was merely a voiced reflection of what most people in positions of power and influence at the time believed. By Descartes’ time, the Western conquest and colonisation of the Americas was already well under way, millions of American aboriginals had already been enslaved and robbed of their cultures, languages and beliefs, but the ideology, beliefs and values associated with modern-day corporate capitalism had not yet developed. Could Klein’s premise in fact be based on a false assumption that ideology is the problem? This is a serious question to consider because if she is wrong, then adopting an ideology of sustainability, of placing the group ahead of the individual, and of collective decision-making and action above individual decision-making and action, will not necessarily help us and could actually lead to new forms of oppression and environmental exploitation and degradation.

The fact is that ideas and concepts that were originally benevolent in intent can always be cherry-picked and twisted to suit personal agendas. Concepts of individual liberty, rights and responsibilities developed during the Enlightenment have been degraded to support greed and self-indulgence, as exemplified by the Marquis de Sade’s use of Enlightenment ideas to justify his sexual abuses of prostitutes and women who worked for him. Who can say that concepts of sustainability, preserving nature for the benefit of future generations and collective decision-making and action over individual decision-making and action won’t be used to excuse greed, self-interest and psychopathic behaviour?