Naomi Klein: How We Can Take on Corporate Power and Expand the Environmental Movement

Editor's Note: Last year when Rainforest Action Network turned 25, AlterNet's Don Hazen wrote, "Rainforest Action Network has always been a darling of progressives, a group many people respect for all the right reasons. RAN successfully challenges corporate power and remains focused on the grassroots. Over the years, RAN has exercised a creative aggressiveness that larger, more mainstream environmental groups seem to lack." Now, as the organization is about to celebrate its 26th birthday, RAN's executive director Rebecca Tarbotton interviews bestselling author and activist Naomi Klein. Much like RAN, Klein has consistently been a voice for economic justice, international people's movements and environmental sanity. Her sharp critique of corporate power has shaped a generation of activists. This week, Klein heads from New York's Occupy Wall Street protests to San Francisco where she will be honored with a World Rainforest Award at the annual REVEL.

Naomi Klein and Rebecca Tarbotton were recently together at the Tar Sands Action in Washington, DC, which inspired the following dialogue.

Rebecca Tarbotton: RAN is now in its 26th year, and I've been thinking a lot about our corporate campaigning model. As someone with expertise in analyzing corporate power, what have you seen as successful models for shifting the behavior of these multinational giants? Where is their weak underbelly?

Naomi Klein: The terrain is a hell of a lot more complicated than when I published No Logo 11 years ago and targets need to be chosen much more carefully. It sometimes works better not to go after the oil or coal company directly, but to go after the banks that lend them money, or the large corporations that buy their dirty energy (I'm thinking of the Bank of America, Facebook and Royal Bank of Canada campaigns here).

This can be more effective because the banks and corporate customers are less invested in the dirty business model themselves, so they have more flexibility to change course, whereas an oil company or a coal company isn't going to see the light and stop being an oil or a coal company. It can also work to use national values to our advantage -- Scandinavian investors are particularly receptive to ethical concerns. But the truth is that I've never believed that we can change the world one corporation at a time. What we can do is use corporate campaigns to make things so uncomfortable for a few big corporate players that this builds leverage for across-the-board regulation, which should always be the goal.

RT: You were recently arrested in Washington, DC, along with 1,252 others, during a two-week sit-in at the White House demanding President Obama deny the permit for a 1,700-mile tar sands pipeline. Do you think we are witnessing a historic moment for the climate movement in this country?

NK: I think we've never really had a climate movement, at least not a mass movement. We had climate campaigns, which raised awareness, but that's different. What is changing is that a new generation of young activists fully understands that change isn't going to come until a mass movement exists, one capable of exerting real political, social and economic pressure from outside the halls of power. The mass civil disobedience against Keystone XL was a huge step in that direction and it was thrilling to be a part of it.

RT: What are the key issues you think environmentalists should be focusing on?

NK: Expanding the movement beyond traditional environmentalists, and tapping into the broader public outrage at corporate greed and economic recklessness. If you are targeting Bank of America because it's lending money to coal companies, you need to be in coalition with all the other groups out there that are pissed at Bank of America for other reasons, first and foremost home foreclosures. The same logic that has trashed the economy is trashing the planet and we need to make those connections incessantly, because that's how you build a truly mass movement. In some ways, the task is less to get self-described environmentalists to focus on economic justice than it is to find ways to make environmental issues more relevant to those pre-occupied with economic justice.

I also think we need to keep focusing on the geographic choke points where we can keep coal and unconventional oil in the ground. Once again, it doesn't always make sense to go after the central target (the coal mine or oil well). The arteries are more vulnerable because the communities they pass through are less economically invested in a dirty business model. I think the tar sands has the potential to help build a massive continent-wide climate movement, precisely because it has so many arteries (multiple new pipelines in the works, machinery that needs to be transported, refinery expansions, export ports, tanker routes, etc.).

RT: What advice would you give to young activists who may be daunted by the problems we face and the work it would take to fix them?

The failures of our current economic model are now so obvious to the vast majority of people on the planet that there is political space to think big. This is the kind of moment in which deep transformation is possible. So of course it's daunting, but it's also exciting.

This week, RAN launched a campaign to give bank customers an opportunity to show their discontent with Bank of America by pledging to close their accounts. The "not one more dollar" pledges will be bundled--much like the big banks packaged mortgages for sale--and presented to Bank of America executives in protest of the bank's funding of coal, the country's number-one contributor to climate change. Find out more about the campaign and close your account here


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