The surreal disconnect between last November’s two biggest news stories would be amusing—hell, funny even—if not for the havoc it portends. On November 2nd, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its released its 175-page report, a culmination of the group’s extensive five-year research effort, which found that the current rate of global carbon emissions will hurtle civilization past the point of no return in at most 30 years. Then just two days later, the Republicans rode a wave of anti-Obama fervor to a majority in the U.S. Senate, dooming the precise body that will need to ratify America’s commitment to any significant emissions cut that emerges from next fall’s last-ditch UN Climate Change Conference in Paris.
One might expect this type of cosmically dispiriting fuck-you to inspire mass outrage, perhaps riots in America’s vulnerable coastal enclaves or in the low altitude nations of Southeast Asia. Nope, nothing. We wake, we work, we sleep, just like we did before the specter of global devastation whispered sweet apocalyptic nothings into our ears. This paralysis in the face of impending disaster has become something of a curiosity among prominent social critics, perhaps most notably journalist Naomi Klein, whose new book, This Changes Everything, impels readers to reframe climate change as a symptom of capitalism rather than environmental disarray. Once we’ve correctly identified the system that perpetrates the wreckage, her argument goes, we’ll feel more empowered to stop it. She repeated as much in response to a question from actor-comedian Russell Brand about how to galvanize the public:
We have to start where people are at; I think, we have to use the language that people are speaking, which is a language of politics and economics. But we have to go deeper [than we have been].
Brand, the author of his own recently released anti-capitalist manifesto, Revolution, retorted:
Who is speaking that language of politics and economics? I don’t think normal people are, you know, Naomi. I think it’s just people who are in newspapers and in politics who are talking it. And I’ve been looking, there aren’t that many of them. In total, there aren’t that many of them. They’re just noisy. Normal people deal on a communal and emotional level, which is their own nature, right?
At first glance the disagreement appears cosmetic, limited to messaging. But underneath this fissure lies a bedrock disagreement about the causes of and solutions to the problem of collective paralysis. Klein thinks proponents of environmental action need to rethink the points they make about politics and economics, but don’t need to move beyond those traditional forms of appeal; while Brand argues for an entirely different discourse bent on reaching people where they experience climate change most personally, through associated social ills or felt experiences. Both authors, like everybody else in the environmental movement, are trying to figure out how to rouse enough people to overcome entrenched fossil fuel interests. It’s the rare question on which one can safely say, without exaggeration, the fate of humanity rests.
This point of departure between Klein and Brand shapes their respective books. Klein’s work offers a nuanced critique of the economic and political forces that have kept civilization trapped in its catastrophic trajectory. She singles out neoliberalism’s toxic combination of a deregulated global marketplace and a disempowered state as the vice grip that renders us unable to change course. Thus, she sees combatting climate change as a cure-all opportunity to address other staggering social ills that have resulted from our economic order: “As part of the project of getting our emissions down to the levels many scientists recommend, we once again have the chance to advance policies that dramatically improve lives, close the gap between rich and poor, create huge numbers of good jobs, and reinvigorate democracy from the ground up.” This is climate change recast as the issue that lifts all lefty boats.
In order to render this sweeping analysis Klein treats capitalism as primarily a system of economic exchange and power distribution, rather than an ideology that animates the very way people think and feel. That said, her work includes a brief intellectual history that marks the scientific revolution and the age of enlightenment as significant shifts in thinking that, in retrospect, layed the groundwork for the dominant modern day set of assumptions that she calls “extractivism,” the belief that nature exists purely for our taking.
While astute, her observations about capitalist ideology stick primarily within the realm of abstraction. In striving to give us a firsthand account of how the capitalist subject feels, she instead names a host of isms. Or she intermittently resorts to a trite list of hyper speed distractions like smart phones, Twitter, and click bait.
But Klein’s book, after all, begs the question: If climate change is first and foremost a symptom of capitalism, then how are we, ourselves formed from that very ideology, equipped to confront it, especially in the little time we have left? Even the most dogmatically anti-establishment among us have internalized, at least to some extent, the dominant system’s mindset of consumption, competition, and utility. We need, then, not merely a political program but a counter-ideology, a different way of being in the world, a means to resist the habits and impulses conditioned somewhere deep in our own hearts.
Enter stage left the most unlikely of sages: Russell Brand, famed philanderer and professional adolescent. At the core of Brand’s critique of capitalism wriggles one insatiable feeling that happens to lie, as well, at the center of Buddhism: dukkha. If we intend to confront capitalism and save the planet, says Brand, then we must first heal our ingrained sense of dissatisfaction and separation. To overcome the capitalism without, we best transform the capitalist within.
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By now you may have encountered a few keen and thorough dismissals of Brand’s book. The most zealous thrashing comes from the Daily Beast’s Michael Moynihan, who points out the prominent factual errors and sophomoric political summations that riddle its pages. The Guardian’s Nick Cohen echoes this sentiment when he derides the manifesto for its brimming “with references to books Brand has half read and thinkers he has half understood.” Natasha Lennord, of Salon, also notes the casual misogyny that suffuses Brand’s writing and undermines his avowed commitment to egalitarianism.
All of these criticisms are valid and, yes, Brand, with his air of celebrity entitlement and New Age vanity, hardly embodies a pitch perfect ambassador for populist uprising. But these critics, all political commentators, seem to expect from Brand’s work what they might find in Klein’s. Brand does not deliver astute or even, at times, accurate historic-political analysis, but he deftly articulates that most 21st-century of feelings: what it’s like to witness the worst human impulses being rewarded on the largest possible scale while trying to maintain an evenhanded response as those same impulses arise in oneself.
For Brand, then, politics is unabashedly personal, which elevates his life to allegory. He frames his past addiction to heroin and alcohol as metonymic for our collective dependence on the peak experiences promised by capitalist consumption. Again and again, we see passages like this one that refer to how Brand exhausted himself on the hedonic treadmill:
When I necked five-quid bottles of vodka, I did not read the label. When I scored rocks and bags off tumbleweed hobos blowing through the no-man’s-land of Hackney estates, I conducted no litmus tests. As I sought sanctuary in the twilight of cemeteries entombed in strangers’ limbs, I barely even asked their names.
Extreme, yes; but Brand’s early life story sounds an awfully similar note to that of Siddhartha Gautama—a young prince, with every sensory pleasure at his disposal, renounces excess. Some cynicism rightly accompanies this comparison and arises whenever Brand, drawing parallels to yet another religious figure, casts himself as a martyr of excess born again to lead the masses to salvation. After all, Brand has hardly left behind fame—8.5 million Twitter followers and regular talk show appearances—or fortune. And Brand’s choice of a large publishing house—Ballantine Books, a subsidiary of the behemoth Random House—reveals a willingness to compromise principles for platform. It’s the glaring misstep that likely caused the sales-oriented choice of his book’s cover, which features a zoomed-in photograph of Brand’s face, even though the work’s contents call for a leaderless social movement.
But we best not dwell on the contradictions of Brand’s life. Our absence of detail regarding the historical Buddha does not stop us from drawing inspiration from his story, so why should some smudges compromise our use of Brand’s. As allegory, both tales work. And when Brand describes addiction’s concomitant feeling of dissatisfaction, any Buddhist will recognize it as what we call dukkha: “Isn’t there always some kind of condition to contentment? Isn’t it always placed in the future, wrapped up in some object, either physical or ideological?” he asks. Then he answers: “I know for me it is, and as an addict that always leads me to excess and then to trouble.”
Brand, again mimicking the Buddha, warns against our attachment to pleasurable experiences and our aversion to painful ones. We’re caught seeking the next peak or warding off an anticipated low. Like the Buddha, Brand sees this ongoing cycle of ego-gratification and protection—what Buddhists call samsara—as a basic characteristic of the human condition. Yet Brand leaps back into the political when he identifies the opportunistic exacerbation of samsara by a particular culprit—global capitalism as reflected in mass corporate culture. He argues that our popular culture shackles us to this limited, self-gratifying cycle. “We are living in a zoo, or more accurately a farm,” he writes, “our collective consciousness, our individual consciousness, has been hijacked by a power structure that needs us to remain atomized and disconnected.” He adds: “We have been told that freedom is the ability to pursue our petty, trivial desires when true freedom is freedom from those petty, trivial desires.” This is the late Japanese Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki’s distinction between perceived freedom, that which remains limited by an illusory sense of self, and perfect freedom, that which eliminates all dualism at ego-death—but with manipulative advertisements as an added impediment anchoring us to the former.
Brand holds that corporations promote individualism—both intentionally and incidentally—because it generates profits. Some would argue that, to the contrary, corporations prefer consumers who mimic celebrity idols or peers, and thereby reject individualism altogether. This rebuttal, however, conflates individualism with individuality. Corporations do have a mixed relationship with individuality because, for instance, while Apple wants consumers to pick from any of its different colored iPhones, it doesn’t want them to have such distinct preferences that they reject iPhones altogether. Individualism, though, is retained in either case, so long as the consumer defines her or himself primarily as a single actor making choices that reflect on her or him. Corporations promote individualism, then, because it is the necessary parent ideology of choice-based consumerism.
Brand points out how scientific materialism and Christian libertarianism reside on opposite sides of that same lonesome coin. They, like consumer ideology, take the individual as the principal unit of human life. Brand’s antidote: unity. He credits the community he found in rehab as the central reason for his recovery. But a prerequisite for unity is trust, which he sees as being in short supply. Brand considers trust a necessary feature of any populist social movement because it allows for the new, inevitably sacrificial relationships that revolution demands. But that trust, says Brand, starts with a clear understanding of ourselves. “The only Revolution that can really change the world is the one in your own consciousness,” he writes, bordering on cliché.
How, then, do we develop a more intimate, knowing relationship with ourselves? Brand offers his advice in a long aside about the way that transcendental meditation and yoga evoke a reservoir of quiet and stability that he believes crucial for our ultimate liberation from petty individualism. This prescription does not carry the ritual or ethical tradition of Buddhism and its pick-and-choose ethos smells of the consumer mentality that Brand so despises, yet it’s refreshing to see these practices alongside a discussion of wealth inequality with economist Thomas Picketty or global food policy with activist Helena Norberg-Hodge—spirituality not debased but elevated to the political.
Time, though—time is running short. 30 years. Buddhist teachers, especially those in my Zen tradition, wax about the illusory nature of time. That metaphysical talk is well and good, but the IPCC’s 30-year deadline is as real as the piles of debris left by hurricane Sandy or typhoon Haiyan. To use a portion of those 30 years to sit quietly or journal or reckon in some other way with the workings of your own mind, says Brand, is to honor the scale of the problem, not to minimize it. Committing to such a regimen positions us to become aware of and eventually unearth the capitalist tendencies that persist within.
But the political question remains: How will we organize along such lines? Labor unions fought for the New Deal, churches formed the latticework of the Civil Rights movement, even community organizations have spearheaded the recent victories in local minimum wage hikes. But something so ineffable as, well, the ineffable—especially when divorced from formal religious structure—will likely fail to buoy our individual worries about wealth inequality and climate into a forceful push for change. Thus, unsurprisingly Brand’s book lacks in concrete prescriptions, though he drops hints of a fondness for the anarchist consensus model of Occupy Wall Street. Klein meanwhile has no patience for that model, or what she describes as the left’s “fetish for structurelessness, the rebellion against any kind of institutionalization,” which she notes, “is not a luxury today’s transformative movements can afford.” As though anticipating the shortcomings of Brand’s book, Klein warns that if “opposition movements are to do more than burn bright and then burn out, they will need a comprehensive vision for what should emerge in the place of our failing system, as well as serious political strategies for how to achieve those goals.”
Klein laments the weakening of those institutions that have formed the backbone of past social movements. And it’s safe to say that a successful climate movement must rebuild and harness those organizations. But, at the end of the day, those organizations will be made up of individuals—a point that brings us back to Brand’s call for revolution from the inside out. The simultaneous publishing of Klein’s traditional political analysis and Brand’s amalgam of lefty-spirituality mirror the balance co-emergence of structured resistance and personal reckoning that will necessarily comprise a successful environmental movement. And it better happen fast.
Image 1: David Dodge
Image 2: Duncan C