Naomi Klein postscript no. 2

Reading This Changes Everything put me in a somewhat nostalgic mood, bringing back memories of the good old days, over a decade ago now, when No Logo and Adbusters were all the rage, and Kalle Lasn was declaring that “culture jamming will become to our era what civil rights was to the ’60s, what feminism was to the ’70s, and what environmental activism was to the ’80s.” It also reminded me of the fun that Andrew Potter and I had calling bullshit on all this.

My nostalgia was partly due to a passage in the introduction to This Changes Everything, which expressed with absolute clarity the fundamental difference in worldview between Klein and myself. When it comes to understanding the major problems of our age, one of Klein’s central convictions is that the people are innocent. As far as my own view is concerned, I guess I’m more inclined to think that the people are guilty. That sounds a bit harsh, so maybe I should say something more like the people are not innocent.

This was, in fact, the major difference between the theory of consumerism put forward in No Logo and the one advanced by Andrew and myself in The Rebel Sell. The central argument of No Logo is that consumerism is a type of ideology foisted upon ordinary people by corporations. It is an implication of this claim that the ordinary person is fundamentally not responsible for the various characteristics of the consumer society in which we live. Lots of people, I should note, like this analysis, because it held out the hopeful promise that we could somehow “cure” society of consumerism, by overcoming the power of the “brand bullies.”

The central argument of The Rebel Sell was that consumerism is first and foremost something that consumers do to each other – with the implication that, if you are looking for someone to blame for the whole thing, each of us should take a moment to look within ourselves. That’s because consumerism, in our view, essentially has the structure of an arms race, produced through status competition among consumers. (This was, in fact, the point of the rather tart passage in The Rebel Sell that criticized Klein – our intent was not to be ad hominem, but rather to show that No Logo was shot through with the precisely the sort of status preoccupations that drive competitive consumption. By showing that even the most prominent critic of consumerism was acting in ways that promoted consumerism, our goal was to reveal just how extensive our complicity is in the system, and how unlikely we are to change anything just by criticizing advertising.) This analysis also had the rather depressing implication that, while we might be able to limit the excesses of consumerism, on the model of an arms-control pact, there is nothing that can be done to “cure” society of this ill.

As far as developing this argument was concerned, our major conceptual resource was the concept of a collective action problem, or of a prisoner’s dilemma. So we joined the group of neo-Veblenians (Fred Hirsch, Robert Frank, Thomas Frank) in arguing that the central pathologies of consumer society (including the dynamic of countercultural rebellion and ‘co-optation’) could be modeled as a type of collective action problem (specifically, as a race to the bottom). (For those who are interested in the connection to Veblen, here is an academic article that I wrote on the topic.)

At the time Andrew and I wrote The Rebel Sell, the whole collective action/prisoners’ dilemma thing was still relatively unknown, and so there was some novelty in the analysis. Since then, however, the “collective action problem” idea has become quite well-known. In part this is because of the growing significance of environmental problems, many of which are textbook examples of collective action problems. It remains the case, however, that many environmentalists fail to grasp the logic of what I have taken to calling Hobbes’s Difficult Idea. Still, most people have at least heard of it.

Hobbes’s Difficult Idea is important because it provides a simple and straightforward answer to a question that initially puzzles many people: How is it that we can find ourselves acting in a way that has foreseeably disastrous consequences, and yet fail to change our behaviour, even when doing so could easily avert those consequences? Hobbes’s answer was that, when we do so, it is because we, collectively, have an interest in changing our behaviour, and yet no single one of us, taken individually, has an incentive to change his or her own behaviour. And because individuals lack an incentive to change, the group will continue hurtling along to its destruction. I had a bit of fun a while back criticizing David Suzuki for failing to grasp this. Specifically:

Suzuki winds up committing the core fallacy of environmental activism. He thinks that if people only understood the consequences that their actions were having on the environment, they would each be motivated to change their behaviour. And so, to the extent that we are not changing our behaviour, it must be because we do not understand, or that we have not been telling ourselves the right “story”…  Thus when Suzuki writes “we say we are intelligent, but what intelligent creature, knowing that water is a sacred, life-giving element, would use water as a toxic dump?” he seems genuinely not to know. The answer is easy: we are intelligent creatures who care just slightly more about ourselves than we do about other people. For example, like most residents of Toronto I do not use the water on my land as a toxic dump; I use Lake Ontario for that purpose. Saying that “we are water, and whatever we do to water, we do to ourselves” sounds very nice, but all the “we” talk actually encourages a very serious confusion. What I do to water, I primarily do to other people, not to myself, which is why I care about it just ever-so-slightly less.

With this as background, I wasn’t entirely surprised to see Klein expressing the usual puzzlement, right at the beginning of This Changes Everything:

So my mind keeps coming back to the question: what is wrong with us? What is really preventing us from putting out the fire that is threatening to burn down our collective house?

I must admit that for a moment there, reading this passage, I got my hopes up. Surely, I thought, she’s going to say it’s a collective action problem. How could anyone still not have received that memo? And yet my hopes were immediately dashed. Turns out it’s not a collective action problem. Once again, it’s a conspiracy against the people, by the usual suspects:

I think the answer is far more simple than many have led us to believe: we have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis. We are stuck because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe—and would benefit the vast majority—are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over our economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets (18).

Actually, that’s not a very simple explanation. What Klein posits is in fact a very complex explanation, involving a number of hidden, unseen forces, and a lot of contradictory evidence that would need to be explained away. A much simpler explanation would be that it is a collective action problem, caused by the fact that most people are just ever-so-slightly-selfish. Surprisingly, Klein questions even the selfishness idea:

What if part of the reason so many of us have failed to act is not because we are too selfish to care about an abstract or seemingly far-off problem—but because we are utterly overwhelmed by how much we do care? And what if we stay silent not out of acquiescence but in part because we lack the collective spaces in which to confront the raw terror of ecocide? (461)

Um, yeah, it’s always possible that the problem is that people care too much about the environment. Maybe I’m just a misanthropist, but I’ll keep my money on “they’re too selfish to care.”

Now why is all this worth harping about? It’s because one’s diagnosis of the problem strongly influences one’s recommended solutions, and given the gravity of the problem, it’s really important that we get those solutions right. One of the things that had always puzzled me about Klein is that she thinks that some sort of “deep, decentralized” democracy is the solution to pretty much any problem she sees (hence the call for “collective spaces in which to confront the raw terror of ecocide” above). I find this puzzling simply because democracy has such a mixed track record. (Much of the defence of “deep” or “genuine” democracy seems to be based on a version of the “no true Scotsman” fallacy.) Apart from the problem of demagoguery, it just seems to me that local democracy often exacerbates collective action problems, and so is unlikely to help much on the climate change front. Instead what it tends to produce is just nimbyism.

Consider, for example, Klein’s enthusiasm for the new wave of activism she refers to as “Blockadia.” It’s true that there is currently widespread mobilization occurring in Ontario over energy issues. You only have to drive an hour north of Toronto to find yourself deep in Blockadia. And yet what is it that has people so agitated? What are they fighting back against? Wind turbines.

You can find this sort of thing all over:



Meanwhile, what is the rural lifestyle that is being defended? Consider the following real estate listing. At $799,000, and judging by the decor, this is not an upper class home. In fact, it’s cheaper than the average home price in Toronto. This is the sort of place that people with family income over $100,000 but less than $200,000 per year tend to buy. It’s the kind of house that a lot of Canadians aspire to own. What really stands out for me is the picture from inside the big 4-door garage:


Wow. Just wow. You can’t even see what sort of cars they drive (those are presumably parked in the two-car garage attached to the house). Suffice it to say that this family’s recreational activities are fossil-fuel intensive. It’s important to contemplate pictures like these, every so often, to see how people have structured their lives. To expect these people for vote for the sort of changes that will be required, for us all to live within our carbon budget, strikes me as being highly unrealistic. At best they will need to be outvoted.

In any case, I would be happy to present the photo above as Exhibit A, in building my case for my contention that the people are not innocent.


Naomi Klein postscript no. 2 — 10 Comments

  1. As the good people of Greater Vancouver vote against improving the transit system because of (insert absurd and easily refuted by 2 minutes of googling rationalization here), it’s hard not to agree that the people are guilty, and I agree that people are innocent/guilty is a reasonable point of analytical distinction between writers.

    Still, that question seems a bit too ‘zoomed in’ to me. Neither our ‘leaders’ or the people have any real agency, they are both just being pushed along like logs in a river … as per ‘The Devil’s Workday’ by Modest Mouse … or perhaps ‘The Unconscious Civilization’ by John Ralston Saul (sorry). Yes, that’s a bit of a nihilistic viewpoint, but it seems like that is where you’re headed anyways.

  2. I often think the same thing – that the people aren’t innocent, and I wonder what can be done to convince them otherwise. I think that is part of what drives me crazy about the Ontario NDP – any position on the environment or other significant issue can be summarized with the campaign pledge of Homer Simpson when he runs for sanitation commissioner: “Can’t Someone Else Do It?”

    We can eliminate wind turbines, and keep auto jobs, and not charge tolls, and not tax “home heating fuel”, and lower the cost of driving (insurance, gas), and then we can make the big bad other guy stop being bad and fix everything! The satire writes itself.

    I hope slow politics can come to the rescue. Are you starting some kind of slow politics group to try to change the politics?!?

  3. Nice piece Jo. I’m hoping that you’ve time to do a post about Ontario energy soon, since I think it’s a growing topic in media circles and an increasingly salient part of Ontario government policy. It’s rarely noted, even in places like the recent Globe article on energy costs in Ontario, that we have a *surplus* of power. We pay Americans to take power off our hands, and our current infrastructure is very insensitive to even predictable changes in demand (e.g. summertime air conditioning, the expected rate of use by particular energy-intensive industries (like pulp), etc). My understanding is that the last government invested heavily into long-term contracts at fixed rates, where local producers sell power into the grid at any time at a rate set years ago. With our current surplus these contracts are now superfluous for our energy needs, and only serve to cost us. Now Wynne’s government is introducing cap-and-trade along with new environmentally friendly projects. Interesting to see how all of this develops.

  4. Somewhat connected to the guilt or innocence of The People, has your work on collective action problems examined what is sometimes called the “rebound effect” or the “Jevons Paradox”?

  5. RE: wind power

    The problem in Ontario is that provincial legislation took all control over siting/ approving wind farms out of municipalities’ and communities’ hands. They were bad for municipal gov’ts because wind mills raise less tax revenue than agriculture. They do also create a collective action problem in that many ppl in rural Ontario want to enjoy a peaceful turbine-free lifestyle for various reasons (yes, possibly from the view of their four wheelers) but individual farmers can make a lot money by selling or leasing their properties to turbine developers. So they end up getting built and pissing off all the neighbours and the local gov’t has no say. Then the developers organize sham public meetings that piss the community off even further. And it becomes a political no brainer for council and mayoral candidates to make a big fuss about how bad wind and renewables are and how bad the Liberals are.

    If Smitherman had just rolled the feed in tariff out more slowly, with better municipal input and possibly some requirements for community ownership it would have all been much less controversial.

  6. Decentralized democracy would probably not help build community support at all, but its possible (based on European examples) that democratized ownership would. Though co-op owned renewable projects are more risky/ expensive, meaning higher costs to electricity rate payers.

  7. I think the passage from page 18 you cite about minority interests holding us back is not incompatible with the CAP analysis. After all, we might think that what prevents us from solving the CAP is that people in big oil make sure you can’t get elected if you support a carbon tax.
    It’s like people in the Hobbesian SoN trying to sign a social contract but some guy who is selling guns is making sure nobody does so. This guy (just like big oil) doesn’t create the problem. But he has an interest in it’s not being solved.

    Now, as you know, I agree with you that the solution Klein proposes is ridiculous. But in terms of the relative blame she has a point, I think. We’re all guilty in creating the problem – I take myself to be just as guilty as the guy with the garage – since I fly a lot (and I do carbon offsetting only sometimes; and who knows whether that’s actually effective). But the Koch brothers are guilty in the same way + they are also guilty of making it harder to solve the problem.

  8. In some cases, NIMBYism is a collective action problem. Everyone wants the thing done, just not near where they live. But this doesn’t explain why so many people sympathize with those who don’t want the project in their back yard — even though the sympathizers’ own back yard is a long way away.

    I expect that’s more because of populist suspicion of experts. It doesn’t necessarily matter whether they are oil industry experts talking about the safety of pipelines or climate scientists saying how bad anthropogenic global warming will be. The average person has no way of independently evaluating their evidence, so falls back on heuristics about who they trust. And we are increasingly unwilling to give anyone epistemic authority over us, even scientists, without some demonstratable proof (like the airplane actually stays in the air).

    What’s more, there is no general argument that the suspicion is wrong: often experts are in the grip of groupthink and confirmation bias, and the common sense of the public is closer to the truth (see Condorcet jury theorem for reasons why). Lots of wind turbines might be worse for the environment than the amount of warming that will occur if we let the market determine carbon prices. The experts think otherwise, but they are cognitively invested in thinking otherwise.

    On the merits, there’s no doubt about the reality of anthropogenic global warming, but there is no end to the uncertainties about how bad it will turn out to be. We don’t know what future technology will bring in terms of substitutes for carbon. Climate sensitivity estimates seem to have been too high so far: the models say that will change, but these are models with huge degrees of freedom and N=1. We also don’t really know what the effects of warmer climate will be.

    Even environmentalists are unwilling to make the kinds of sacrifices (for example, on wind turbines or nuclear power) that you would expect if they really believed AGWM will be catastrophic.

    Anyway, I agree that the best public policy is as high a carbon tax as the people will put up with. Not sure that’s very high.

  9. Perhaps Naomi Klein’s point is that it *is* indeed a collective action problem. Generally, collective action problems arise from free individual interactions and are addressed and solved in collective organizations, i.e. in the political domain (and people get informed on them by medias).

    Now what she says (I think) is that political organizations and medias are being led astray by strong economic powers, which prevents us from taking care of collective action problems. So you’re right in a sense but she’s right too that the main problem lies in these strong economical powers.