Naomi Klein on the Great Clash Between Capitalism and the Climate
Naomi Klein's new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate is coming out just as the UN is meeting on climate change, and a massive rally to protest the lack of progress on global warming is shaping up in Manhattan on Sunday. Klein is the author of The Shock Doctrine, one of the most influential books of the past 50 years. She sees her new book as the natural successor to The Shock Doctrine as she deepens her critique and insists we need to fundamentally rethink our approach to climate. The inconvenient truth about global warming is that it isn't really about carbon, but rather capitalism. Our economic model is waging war on the earth, and unless capitalism is dramatically changed, we are doomed. Yet Klein is no pessimist. She sees the seeds of a broad cross-sectional mass movement emerging that will lead to a transformation of our failed economic system to something radically better. Sunday's People's Climate March in New York is a key step toward a future we must create in order to survive and thrive.
AlterNet editors Don Hazen and Jan Frel spoke with Klein via phone in Canada, where she lives, on Friday, Sept. 12, prior to her traveling to New York and participating in a wide range of protest events, debates and discussions. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and readability.
AlterNet: Let's start with the big climate march on Sunday and your support of and involvement in it. Do you have a reaction to Chris Hedges' critique of the march which seems to be consistent with your critique of the big enviro groups in your book? Basically he says the demands are amorphous, anybody can join, it doesn't have much meaning.
Naomi Klein: Knowing the amount of work, energy and coalition-building and care that has gone into the organizing, the march -- which obviously isn't perfect -- but I think it was grossly mischaracterized as being simply some big green thing. When It's actually been incredibly grassroots.
Do I think a march is going to do anything? No. The point is this march is different in that it's a manifestation of real rooted movements that are fighting fracking in their backyard, and refineries that are giving their kids asthma, and students who are demanding divestment of fossil fuels at their universities, and faith groups who are doing the same in their churches and synagogues. And what the march will be is a moment where people feel the size of this movement, and it will give people the strength to go home and continue at these moments of convergence too. Every once in a while it's nice to see how big you are. Especially since so many of these movements are local. It can feel small and isolated. There haven't been many moments of convergence like this for the climate movement, so I think it's great.
And I don't see the point of throwing stones. The decision was made to have an open call so that any group could endorse the march as long as they abided by certain organizing principles. And so the groups that are drawing attention, some of which I've gone after in the book, are not the groups who organized it. They're just groups that endorsed because, for whatever reason, they thought it would be useful for them. Which I think speaks to more of the strength of this movement, and that everyone wants to be a part of it. But I just think to dismiss all of this incredible organizing in this kind of guilt-by-association way, frankly I'm a little offended by that.
AlterNet: Hedges seems to have sit-ins and protest at the U.N. as his priority.
Klein: Well there's going to be direct action. And I support the direct action, I support the Flood Wall Street action on Monday as well, and the people who are organizing that also support the climate march. So I don't see what the point of sowing these divisions is right now. I'm not saying it's perfect. But there was a big debate about the fact that Zionist groups are also marching. And the response to that is that there's going to be a really strong Free Palestine bloc, which I think is fantastic, and they have all my support ... I'll just leave it there.
AlterNet: Here's a different kind of question. You mentioned privatization and deregulation as pillars of neoliberalism, which of course are true, but shouldn't we add militarization? And there's nothing like wars to really screw up the environment. And since 9/11 we've had nothing but war, and now we're heading into a new war with massive pollution. And there's no end in sight: more bombs, more deaths, more messes. How do you reconcile the constant presence of war all over the world with the need to change everything in terms of the climate?
Klein: Well, it's a huge piece of the puzzle and I think a lot of the original peace organizing activities in the region had fossil fuels at their heart, and continue to. So it's intimately linked. It's something I do talk about—the pollution associated with the military, carbon pollution, and also the need to just get that money, huge resources that are spent on the military, and funnel it toward the building of the new economy that we need. Because part of what's standing in our way is that we're told that we're broke all the time. And we're not broke, it's just that the money is in the wrong places. So we need to get more of the resources from polluters, whether they're fossil fuel companies or whether it's the military.
But I could easily have had a chapter in the book on drawing stronger connections between the anti-war movement and the climate movement. It's a big book and it does a lot, but it doesn't do everything. And my greatest hope, frankly, and this is already happening in conversations about the book, is that it will inspire lots of smart people to go, hey it's about this, and what about this, this is also a climate issue. And my reaction is, yes, exactly, write that. Having the anti-war movement more engaged in climate and vice-versa, is exactly what we need.
AlterNet: Speaking of how a book can't do everything, your previous book, The Shock Doctrine, had a tremendous impact and influenced many people. The book basically makes the case that capitalism is at its worst when there are crises. And as the climate crisis gets worse, isn't the response of capitalism going to get worse if we believe what you wrote in your previous book? Do you see any contradiction here?
Klein: I don't think it's a contradiction. I think that's exactly why I wrote this book. The Shock Doctrine really ends with the disaster of apartheid in New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina and this is the future that we will have if we stay on this road. We can count on neoliberalism to respond to climate change as an opportunity for land grabbing, for trading weather futures. If we don't radically change course the weather is going to get hotter, things are going to get way more brutal. And I think we, on some level, know that.
That's why every disaster flick seems to be about a future of post-apocalyptic 1 percent, the 1 percent of the 1 percent at the front of the train or up on a planet of their own. Whatever it is—Hunger Games, Elysium, Snowpiercer—we just keep telling ourselves the same story. What I argue in The Shock Doctrine is that crisis either makes us fall apart or makes us grow up.
And there are precedents of crises being progressive moments. That's what brought us the New Deal. We responded to crisis in a way that actually got at the roots of why the crisis was happening. So that's when you had the most dramatic regulation of the banking sector. And that's when you had the kind of huge investments in the public sphere that we need in this moment. So we are capable of responding to crisis differently than in the way that I described in The Shock Doctrine. And the fact is that I argue in The Shock Doctrine that the whole technique was developed by right-wing think tanks because they knew that in natural crises, if you don't get in there, they will become progressive moments. The Right is afraid of another New Deal moment. In the states, the right wing is all about undoing the gains of the New Deal and making sure it never happens again. That's why the whole think tank infrastructure exists. And that's why that whole tactic was developed.
So, yes, there are lots of precedents for crises being moments where inequality is deepened unless things get a whole lot worse. And no one knows that better than me. I don't see there's a contradiction there. I'm trying to prevent that from happening with climate change. For me, it follows quite naturally.
AlterNet: So would you say you are more optimistic after writing this book than after writing Shock Doctrine?
Klein: What makes me optimistic is that I see a lot of movement. I saw a lot of things changing in the first couple of years I was writing this book. At first I think I was really quite depressed because I was seeing Shock Doctrine tactics repeated all over Europe in the context of the economic crisis, and in the U.S., and even though people were resisting, it wasn't working to prevent even worse things from happening. And the climate science is never fun. But in the last few years of this research, there's just been such an explosion of grassroots activism. And this new militancy within the climate movement, led by indigenous people and by young people. As I say at the end of the book, it's been happening so fast that I couldn't write fast enough to keep up with it. So I feel more hopeful because I feel like we are at the beginning of a real movement moment.
I think things are changing and it isn't about a brand-new movement. It's about so many of our past movements coming together. I've talked to journalists who say, "well movements don't work, look at Occupy." Occupy didn't disappear. Everybody who was engaged during Occupy is still deeply involved in trying to fight for a better world, and lots of them are now engaged on climate change, and a lot of them are involved in the Flood Wall Street organizing. And many were involved in Occupy Sandy. So movements change and different strings come together, and I think we're in one of those movements of convergence where we're seeing patterns, we're seeing common threads, and people are feeling more courageous, too. So that always makes me feel hopeful.
AlterNet: As your book opens, you talk about your "aha" moment, meeting with the young Bolivian ambassador AngÃ©lica Navarro Llanos, and how her imagination of how first-world countries, the major polluters, must come to the aid of third-world countries suffering from climate change through mostly no fault of their own. Can you tell us how her vision helped shape your vision?
Klein: I was in Geneva at the time writing a story for Harpers about reparations for slavery and colonialism and was covering a UN conference where somebody told me that I should meet with AngÃ©lica Navarro Llanos. And I did and she put the case to me that the perennial question of how we address these deep scars left behind by colonialism and slavery that has so distorted the distribution of wealth around the world and within our own countries in the Global North—that climate change could be a tool to heal these wounds.
Because, of course, the history of colonialism and the history of slavery are intimately tied to the history of fossil fuels. You know, coal built the modern world. And when European countries gained access to the steam engine, that sort of supercharged the unequal exchange between North and South. And while that was happening we were also pouring carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. And the thing about carbon is it sticks around for a couple of hundred years and is steadily warming the planet. So the legacy of that today is the legacy of climate change. So in addressing climate change in a just way that recognizes historical responsibility, which our governments have all agreed to do when they signed the UN Climate Convention, we have an opportunity to address these core inequalities. We have another chance, really.
And that was AngÃ©lica's argument. If we live up to our historical responsibilities and have a just climate response it would mean that the countries that created the crisis would lead the way, would cut our emissions first, but also help developing countries to pull themselves out of poverty without repeating our errors by leapfrogging over fossil fuels and moving straight to clean energy. Which would mean that this could really be a tremendous force for social justice.
And when she laid out this case, which she called the Marshall Plan for the Earth, I suddenly saw how climate change could be a catalyst for tremendously positive change. And then as I started paying attention to climate negotiations and going to Copenhagen and covering the Copenhagen Summit, it became clear that this issue of whether or not the Global North is going to live up to its responsibilities, whether there's going to be a just response, its the fundamental issue at the heart of the negotiations. And it's why so little progress has been made because Northern countries generally refuse to acknowledge that responsibility. And that's the intractable problem.
AlterNet: As you point out clearly in the book, climate deniers know full well the ramifications of dealing with climate change. It's going to mean a huge dent in capitalism, which is probably why they're deniers. How will they be convinced to provide the billions of dollars for the Marshall Plan when they're going to think, at least economically, that they're going to be victims of climate change as well?
Klein: Well, I don't think this is about convincing climate deniers. It's about engaging a much larger constituency of people who do believe that climate change is real, or don't actively deny the science, but are looking away because there doesn't seem to be a way out of this crisis that is in any way hopeful, is any way inspiring, is any way doable. So really the book is a call for a revival of the kind of broad-based social movements that have won mass progressive victories in the past. We don't have that anymore. We have slick NGOs, and everybody's in their silos, and everybody tackles their issue and they only talk to each other. And climate change connects the dots between so many issues: labor, women's rights, indigenous rights, reparations, the decay of our cities, the dismantling of the public sphere, racial justice, immigration. And why wouldn't it be? This is our home, this is not an issue. So it is a framework, really, for bringing movements together.
And that is the only way that we have ever changed our economy. If we think about it, how did social movements win the victories of the New Deal? Or win social security and healthcare? All of the great progressive victories of the past have been won by large broad-based social movements. And climate change hasn't had that kind of movement before. There's been a theory that you had to do it from the top down. It had to be a former vice-president and billionaires and Hollywood celebrities who are going to get together and fix this for us. And I think that's part of the reason why a lot of lefties tuned out, because it seems to be this very elite group. And it was, but it doesn't have to be.
And I think that that's really changing. We're going to see in New York in the Climate March, the face of a much broader grassroots climate movement that is born out of frontline struggles against fossil fuel extraction. And it's the flip side of the fossil fuel frenzy that has been ripping up our continent of late, and these fossil fuel companies have been so aggressive in laying claim to more and more land and more and more waterways that they've built their own opposition in the form of the anti-fracking movement, and the anti-tar sands and anti-tar sands pipeline movement, anti-coal movement. They've gone into a lot of hostile territory. People are fighting back but they're also connecting with one another. And I think what will be exciting about the Climate March is that a lot of these connections are happening online, and are happening in small pockets, but I think we're going to see the physical manifestations of that on the streets of New York.
AlterNet: Following up on your last answer you must have grappled many times as you wrote this book with the effects that messages of looming apocalypse have on people. Setting up the situation where informing people of the nature of the problem encourages them to do nothing about it, not unlike, say, telling someone that their shoelaces are untied. Did you feel like you arrived at the best way to convey these messages for social change?
Naomi Klein: Because the climate movement has been so ineffective, it's very sort of faddish in terms of messaging. So one year it will be okay, scare people, make them really scared. And then the next year, okay don't scare people. And I don't think there's anything wrong with scaring people if it's true. I think we need to be honest that this is a scary moment and we don't have that much time left. What I think is ineffective is thinking that just scaring people is going to turn people into activists. Just scaring people just makes people scared. And when people are scared, they want to curl up in a ball.
I think it's the combination of telling the truth about how serious the situation is and that we're out of deadlines, that this is the real one, and that there's nowhere to run to. We need to leap, but we need somewhere to leap to that is exciting. Like you go to a UN conference and it's on mitigating climate change. Is that the best we can do, mitigate it? It just sounds terrible. And is there a way that we can survive? Is there a way that we can have better cities, and better communities, and better relationships, and better jobs, and a better relationship to work, and can we address so many other things that aren't working in our societies?
So I think if we allow ourselves to dream a little bit and take a picture of a place that could leap to, I believe that we may leap. And I say leap because I'm not here to be Pollyannaish about this. I don’t believe we are doomed, nor do I believe that success is guaranteed. I think we've got a shot and we have to do our best. But in terms of being afraid of scaring people and painting pictures of looming apocalypse, when the World Bank is telling you you're headed for 4 degrees warming, and the International Energy Agency is saying no, it's 6 degrees, you've got to listen up, and pay attention to what that actually means. Because those temperatures, first of all, are in Celsius. Somebody made the argument that the big problem of climate change is that it's all in Celsius and Americans think it's vaguely Communist.
At any rate, I think it's the combination of that real fear and we should be scared. And the deadline, and I really believe in deadlines because I'm a writer, and I know how important deadlines are, and having somewhere to run. I think that's the combination.
AlterNet: One followup on this question of "we." There is the mass society but there's pretty clear evidence from history and in our industrial past, that the strongest arrangements are between manufacturers, financiers and governments that preside over them. And say, for example, in the case of Bangladesh, where there were factories that collapsed, and huge media attention, there were only just the slightest tweaks in the arrangements between those parties. So you have, say, a warning from the International Energy Agency, but how do you actually get the folks who are part of "we" but really have a much bigger role in the way society is structured in reforming those agreements when they're hugely profitable and they're the means of staying powerful. Have you entertained the possibility that those are the very parties that are going to need to have a way to stay rich and powerful revealed to them without extracting carbon-based fuels?
Klein: It's not that there's no money to be made and no wealth in a green economy, in a renewable economy, or regenerative economy. That it's not going to generate the kind of wealth that fossil fuels develop. Fossil fuels really do create a hyper-stratified economy. It's the nature of the resources that they are concentrated, and you need a huge amount of infrastructure to get them out and to transport them. And that lends itself to huge profits and they're big enough that you can buy off politicians.
And the problem with renewable energy is not that you can't make money off of it, but you're never going to make that kind of huge money off of it because it's inherently decentralized. The air and wind are free, first of all, and they're everywhere. So it's a different kind of economy. It's a more decentralized economy. It's a more level economy. So does power concede anything without a fight? No. It doesn't mean that there's no role for the powerful in this, but the idea that they're just going to do it for us is basically the model that the UN is still advancing. If you look at the plans for the official summit in New York, it's all about the politicians and it's the idea that they are going to address this problem out of the goodness of their hearts… Well it's not going to happen that day. So we haven't quite solved it. We haven't solved the problem of entrenched wealth. I'm going to leave that to you guys.
Visit Naomi Klein's official website to learn more about her new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate.