Pollution and climate change are not problems that affect polar bears and some other distant animal species, instead they are closely intertwined with the story of our economic system during the last 400 years – this is the story told by the movie ‘This changes everything’. It is based on a book of the same name authored by activist Naomi Klein.
In the film, the viewer is taken on a journey around the world through places where battles related to environment are being fought. By studying various traditional communities that are on the front lines of this war, the film makes the point that environmental destruction is not human nature, but a by-product of capitalist growth.
Starting from the industrial revolution, man has been out on a journey to control the environment for his needs – and as is later pointed out, these needs are actually the needs of the capitalist machine, one that requires endless growth. The film evokes the viewers’ emotions, with scenes of pristine landscapes, such as boreal forests in Alberta, Canada, wilderness of Montana, USA, and green hill slopes in Halkidiki, Greece; then proceeding to show capitalism rampaging and pillaging.
Tar sands mining in Alberta causes oil spills. Montana is seeing a flurry of development – oil drilling, building oil pipelines, coal mining, coal trains, and so on. Greece is at the mercy of creditors after the 2008 financial crisis, every last resource that they have has to be offered to investors – the hills of Halkidiki will be mined for gold by a Canadian company Eldorado. A lot of oil drilling is also proposed in Greece. These developments are coming at a time when the dangers of fossil fuels and global warming are well-understood and recognized.
At each of these locations, it is local communities that resist the projects (of mining, drilling, etc). In the North American examples, native First Nations communities are leading the fight against corporate plunder of the environment. In Greece there have been massive protests against policies of austerity and hand-over of resources to foreign corporations.
In contrast to local communities, who have preserved their environments, and have led sustainable lives with environment for generations, corporates and governments have no incentive to care for those environments. They make decisions based on profits, in distant meetings. The film makes a point here of the importance of giving back power and agency to local communities, with regards to the management of resources and production of energy.
We next travel to the developing world – the new frontier in the quest for profits. Sompeta in Andhra Pradesh is a coastal community, whose wetlands were under threat because of a proposed coal-based thermal power plant. The community understood very clearly that there was nothing in it for them – and that the would lose their sources of subsistence and would be reduced to wage labour. The community fought, and won. The plan for the thermal power plant was dropped. But the larger picture in India is grim. There are about 500 (coal-based) thermal power plants proposed across the country, as policy makers chase the mirage of double digit growth. The struggles against these have been led by the poor – casting doubts over the claims that economic growth will alleviate poverty.
Part of the solution, suggested by the film, is renewable energy. China and Germany are held up as examples. Germany depends on renewable sources for about 70% of its electricity. It has also shifted from centralized to distributed power generation. China is now the largest producer of solar panels. China plans to shut down down its last coal-powered plants in 2016.
The film resorts to a simplistic mantra – build renewable energy, create jobs! The viewer is left recollecting the scenes of the solar factory in China, which is not very different from other vast factories; which pollute and exploit workers. For example Chinese start-ups are known to dump silicon tetrachloride without recycling, which is a poisonous byproduct of solar cell manufacture. This system doesn’t change underlying systems of capitalism – one thing is replaced by another.
The other positive example, Germany, is also problematic. In the discussion following the film, a German audience member pointed out that Germany is still a very consumerist society. Solving the problem of the environment is going to require much more – consuming less and consuming differently, and most importantly reorganizing our economic system so that the engine of profit motive is retired to the garage!