In an interview with ACF's James Norman, Naomi Klein asks: What if part of the reason so many of us have failed to act is not because we are too selfish, but because we are utterly overwhelmed by how much we do care?
Naomi Klein is not afraid to get to the nub of the most urgent issues facing our age. In her previous era-defining books No Logo and The Shock Doctrine, she identifies the unholy marriage of free market capitalism and neo-liberal politics as the scourge of our times, tackling head-on the sinister underbelly of free trade and later examining the tendency for the market to seize upon moments of calamity to ensure its ongoing vitality.
Along the way, No Logo became the bible of the bourgeoning anti-globalisation movement and the world’s leading economists, including Joseph Stiglitz and John Gray, applauded The Shock Doctrine. These texts also inspired a generation of young activists (myself included) at a time when it was rare to find voices able to cut through the neoliberal triumphalism dominating western discourse in the final decade of the twentieth century.
In her new book, This Changes Everything, the 44-year-old Canadian polemicist and board member of 350.org turns her attention to climate change. This book again directly and unapologetically challenges the very core of the way we live — but this time capitalism is under direct scrutiny as the engine of global calamity. Klein’s scope is broad and her tone urgent.
This is an existential threat to the future of humanity itself; the profits of a tiny minority are directly and measurably imperilling the future of life on this planet
Speaking to habitat from her home in Toronto, Canada, Klein says one of the unfortunate things about the climate crisis is its timing. “This crisis fell in our laps at the moment when market triumphalists were telling us that we should leave everything to the free market and look away,” she says. “The fact that those ideas reached their height right when our governments were learning about climate change was spectacularly bad timing.”
However, three decades on, Klein argues we are in a very different moment. She wants a more robust and honest discussion about how the predominant economic system has created deep inequalities. “People no longer believe that short term profit and growth will benefit everybody. There are multiple crises that we are facing as a result of the triumph of that world view — and climate change is among them.”
More than a doom and gloom synopsis of impending environmental apocalypse, Klein’s book points to a positive pathway out of our current malaise of unfettered planet destroying consumption. Klein says humanity’s greatest hope now lies in the capacity of a new global movement, united under a climate justice tent, and rising up to take direct action where governments refuse to budge fast enough.
Klein dares to imagine a future in which climate change becomes the catalyst to address the unfinished business of broader social equity and liberation
“Only mass social movements can save us now,” she writes, “because we know where the current system, left unchecked, is headed. We also know how that system will deal with the reality of serial climate related-disasters: with profiteering and escalating barbarism to segregate the losers from the winners. To arrive at that dystopia, all we need to do is keep barrelling down the road we are on. The only remaining variable is whether some countervailing power will emerge to block the road, and simultaneously create some alternate pathways to destinations that are safer.”
“If that happens, it changes everything.”
Born in Montreal in 1970 to progressive parents (her family left the USA during the Vietnam War) Klein’s Mother, Bonnie Sherr Klein, was a feminist filmmaker and her father, Michael Klein, helped establish public health centres. Despite her involvement in many progressive social movements over the past decades, Klein came late to the climate movement, and says she wants her new book not simply to speak to activists, but to provide a bridge to those who care, but still find themselves looking away.
Apocalypse is everywhere in our popular culture. And yet we hear from our political leaders that nothing is wrong — if anything we’re going to up the ante. It’s such a profound cognitive dissonance”
“That’s why I started the book owning up to my own climate denial,” she says. “I think it’s a pretty natural response to living in a culture that creates such unresolved tensions. On the one hand, we are getting this incredibly frightening, destabilising news about our collective safety. Apocalypse is everywhere in our popular culture. And yet we hear from our political leaders that nothing is wrong — if anything we’re going to up the ante. It’s such a profound cognitive dissonance.”
But underpinning her book is a compelling optimism, which springs off from the notion that placing justice at the centre of the climate movement will engage large new communities of active people who have not in the past been invited to the table. “We need to reframe the discussion so it’s not just about climate action, but it’s about climate justice. It’s not just that it’s the moral thing to, but it’s also that if we don’t deal with these festering inequalities, then we aren’t going to deal with climate change.”
Klein goes on, “In settler colonial states like Australia and Canada the way we respond to climate change really raises painful histories and difficult questions about land rights. It means asking if Indigenous communities have the resources to bring renewable energy to their territory and the skills and training to manage them — and to ensure the profits and proceeds from that energy production stay in their community so that we close the persistent inequality.”
Only mass social movements can save us now, because we know where the current system, left unchecked, is headed”
Taken to the international level, climate change forces rich countries like Australia to face up to our colonial, fossil fuel dependent history, and impels us to take greater responsibility for the fact that we have been digging up and burning fossil fuels for hundreds of years. “If we refuse to be part of an international system that helps developing countries leapfrog over fossil fuels, then we’ll be locked into the same extractivist logic.”
Part of the compelling genius of Klein’s book is that she is able to describe what the required mass transition would look like.The first step, she insists, must be to command the engagement of disparate communities all over the planet to recognise climate change as a global emergency requiring a collective response.
“It would look different where ever we live, but it would look a little bit like what’s happening in Germany now with a highly engaged citizenry. The public are taking back control over their energy grid and engaging communities in amazing ways from small towns to big cities. That involves referendums, participation of so many levels — a really strong engagement.”
Through forensic journalism and clear headed writing, Klein dissects the failures of parts of the Green movement to instigate a convincing climate narrative — pointing to the hypocrisy of several leading US environment groups to break away from being tied to the fossil fuel industry.
“I think for NGOs it’s a moment to ask some deep questions,” she says. “We now know that lobbying behind closed doors isn’t going to do it, because we’ve been trying that for two and half decades and we know emissions are up by 60 per cent. What’s the relationship going to be between some of the big environmental brands and the new social movements rising up against fracking and other new extractivist infrastructure?”
“The challenge now is not to try to co-opt it or own these grassroots movements, but to provide a supportive role with research, with communications — and make space for new voices. It’s crucial now to create space for people on the front lines of this crisis to speak for themselves with that tremendous moral clarity that comes from being directly impacted. Those are transformative moments. NGOs need to decide which side they are on,” says Klein.
What emerges from the close to 500 pages of This Changes Everything is nothing less than an urgent and inspiring call to action, underpinned by the hopeful proclamation that we may still stand a chance of saving the earth from unthinkable calamity — if we are able to bring all the threads together of the groups demanding justice from the more brutal edges of the current economic system, as well as dismantling the marriage of the state and the fossil fuel industry. But that’s a big if.
The solutions to the climate crisis, argues Klein, are to be found through building a bottom-up mass-movement demanding change to the energy status away from fossil fuels towards renewables, mass divestment away from polluting industries, and non-violent direct action. It comes down to the capacity of people to simply recognise what is happening to the environment and making the decision to take action themselves.
“There is not much else offering hope right now,” says Klein. “I feel that maintaining hope in the midst of crisis of this scale is really a matter of ethics. What gives me hope is that climate change puts some really clear parameters around how we need to change — we need to stay within this carbon budget and we need to cut our emissions by around 10 per cent a year — and we need to start doing it now. I actually think that’s pretty helpful — it gets us started.”
“I can see it happening if we can bring all these justice movements together. So long as I can see it happening, I’m going to hold out some hope.”