Repackaging a “New” Perspective on Climate Change

Rethinking Our World: an invitation to rescue our future

By Maja Göpel (trans. David Shaw)

Scribe US, 2023

Climate anxiety is real. As news outlets deliver more images of burning forests, unbreathable air, and sinking coastlines, a deep sense of hopelessness only grows. Addressing climate change itself is just as anxiety-inducing, and debates ensue as to who can solve such a multi-faceted, problem. However, a major facet of the problem is that the global community doesn’t agree about what the problem is. Sure, perverse fossil-fuel reliance is warming our planet and destroying our ecosystems. But, how did we allow it to happen?

In Rethinking Our World, Maja Göpel encourages readers to widen their lens to consider the economic and social systems that got us into this mess and the mindset shift that could get us out. The book breaks down everyday ecological and socioeconomic concepts–from “nature” to “development” to “fairness”–and juxtaposes how things are to how they should be. Göpel’s work has its strengths, and would make a contribution to the syllabus of an international studies or climate policy course as a concise, earnestly framed alternative to the everyday textbook. Although it lacks a more radical political imagination, it offers a reassuring hand to those who want to create a world that puts the planet and its people over profit.

Reading Rethinking Our World reminds one of sitting in a university seminar. Göpel, the professor, walks the reader through a birds-eye view of climate policy and its intersection with global economics. The seminar is packed with real-world examples, analogies, and rhetorical questions that allow for an accessible dialogue and conversational flow. While it strays away from conventional structure for a book of its kind, this flow allows Göpel to use language that is, for the most part, simple and clear for a reader who lacks expertise on the nuances of international climate concerns.

Another large strength of the book lies in its brevity. In less than 200 pages, Göpel provides strong arguments without sacrificing much depth. At the end of each chapter, she summarizes the main points in a single paragraph–an effective grounding tool for readers overwhelmed by climate information and misinformation.

One of the most admirable arguments Göpel makes is an appeal to humanity’s objective knowledge of the common good.  She writes that a “system that rewards selfishness produces selfish people.” She rightfully and ardently probes the reader’s tendencies toward overconsumption and self-absorption, as well as the society that encourages them. Changes in our world will occur only when its people want to change, and this author does a solid job of cultivating the drive to do so. 

For example, in a discussion on the complexities of the agriculture industry, she clearly maps the most pressing problems that need to be solved– that is, meat consumption is too high, industrial agriculture receives too many incentives for caring more about production than pollution, and wages are too low for most people to afford good food. Anyone who is just learning about the harms caused by Big Ag are presented with the topline problems and solutions. She then uses the final chapter to offer words of encouragement for the reader, encouraging them to build community with other activists, challenge others to think outside the global “business as usual” and stay connected to their original drive and intention when things become difficult. If I had read this book at the beginning of my university career, I probably would’ve found it helpful as a stepping stone to future environmental activism.

However, Rethinking Our World presents some oddities and argumentative holes. Most glaring is that Göpel fails to call capitalism out by name. She makes vague references to the current global economic dynamic or our failing patterns of production and consumption. Yet she never points the finger directly at “the capitalist system” or “our capitalist society” as the framework that perpetuates these things. The exclusion is so pointed that it feels intentional. If she is a well-intentioned proponent of capitalism, (and the book lists her as a member of the Club of Rome), her beliefs are at odds with the sentiments of the book. After all, how can you call for the change of a system that’s destroying that planet while also working within the confines of that same system?  

Although it’s a solid read, I’d call the initial marketing of the book a bit misleading. The U.S. cover blurbs describe it as “hopeful,” “blueprint-oriented,” and “soothing.” Although the tone is level-headed and the approach to solutions straightforward, I was no less anxious or more soothed than when I began reading it. The potential fixes to our global, shared problem are definitely agreeable to the everyday liberal who wants to see a healthier planet (it’s hard to argue that we need to consume and pollute less), but the book lacks much guidance on how to get those fixes and sentiments off the drawing board. For instance, she calls for the reform of industrial agriculture subsidies, but doesn’t explain what good reform looks like. There is no advice on how to alter the political imagination of our most influential policymakers or how to get politicians out of Big Oil’s pockets. 

Göpel’s work does a good job of guiding a cautious or overwhelmed policy novice through thickets of facts to a belief in a world that puts first our fellow humans, rather than industry profit or capitalism-induced self-interest, at the center of economic practice. However, we shouldn’t pretend it’s any more groundbreaking than that. She is calling for reform, not a true rethinking.

There are also some practical distractions. The book would have benefitted from a more thorough copyedit, and some passages read awkwardly. The clunkiness could be a classic case of “lost in translation.” But what are we to make of the cover of the book itself, a close headshot of Göpel against a dark background?  This is not an autobiographical work or a memoir. It feels a bit odd to place a white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman on the front of a book about a global phenomenon that spells ruin and catastrophe for those who look nothing like her.

Göpel doesn’t offer any particularly keen insight for well-read or activist democratic socialists. Many who’ve worked at the intersection of environmentalism and anti-capitalism policy will nod at her points, feel validated in their perspectives, and likely search for something deeper or more inspiring. However, as an introduction, this book provides a concise and enticing invitation for the persuadable voter or unaware first-year college student to shift their perspectives on environmental, social, and economic questions for our communities and the climate.