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Naomi Klein may be the most hopeful person on earth. Despite her shattering assessment of the mostly inevitable consequences of global climate change in her 2014 book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, the Canadian author and activist believes in humanity’s ability to change course.
“Climate change isn’t an ‘issue’ to add to the list of things to worry about, next to healthcare and taxes,” Klein writes. “It’s a civilizational wake-up call. A powerful message—spoken in the language of fires, floods, droughts, and extinction—telling us that we need an entirely new economic model and a new way of sharing this planet. Telling us that we need to evolve.”
A contributor to publications including The Nation and The Progressive, and the author of previous books including The Shock Doctrine, on how powerful interests use concocted crises to get their way, Klein is no Pollyanna in sizing up the enormity of the challenge. It will require, among other things, finagling “extinction for the richest and most powerful industry the world has ever known—the oil and gas industry.” But her prescription is even more ambitious than that: “The solution to global warming is not to fix the world, it is to fix ourselves.”
Klein argues that humans can recreate the world and the nature of their relationship to it because they have to. Her book has been called “the most momentous and conscientious environmental book since Silent Spring” in The New York Times and “the first truly honest book ever written about climate change” in Time magazine. And now it is the subject of a companion documentary film, also called This Changes Everything, that Klein is travelling the world to promote. (For information on screenings, check the film website.)
I spoke with Klein by phone in mid-October, while she was in Seattle, attending a screening. We talked about her book, her qualified optimism, her thoughts on Pope Francis and President Obama, and her views on how humanity must change, or else.
Q: Your book presents two possible futures: Either humanity makes a dramatic break from past practice, especially its embrace of the capitalistic economic system, or else we drift inevitably toward unparalleled catastrophe. Given how deeply committed our political and social structure is to the dictates of capitalism, isn’t the latter scenario more likely?
Naomi Klein: Yes. (Laughs.) I don’t make the argument that the odds are in our favor. I make the argument that the stakes are so high that [we have] a tremendous and unparalleled moral responsibility to do everything possible to increase those odds. Now I will say that there is more space to debate the costs of capitalism than at any point in my lifetime. It was even debated in the first Democratic presidential candidate debate. There are some real signs of hunger, from the elections in Greece, to Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader of the Labour Party, to Bernie’s campaign, to the response to Pope Francis.
So I think that if it were only about climate change, there would be no chance. But the fact that this economic model is failing people on so many fronts simultaneously creates the potential for a kind of coalition politics that is bounded by science and which uses the science-based deadline that climate change puts us on, to act boldly and quickly.
But if I were betting, I wouldn’t bet on our side, no.
Q: You suggest that the real problem driving climate change is not human nature or even greenhouse gases, but a story that we’ve been telling ourselves for the last 400 years. Can you elaborate?
Klein: Climate change, among other things, is a narrative crisis. And that narrative was born in the 1600s, championed by the likes of Francis Bacon and René Descartes. They had this idea, revolutionary at the time, that the earth was not this living system, a mother to be feared and revered, but rather this inert thing, but which all could be known, and from which wealth could be extracted infinitely.
But the idea that we could dominate nature and act without consequence is exploded by climate change. Climate change puts humans in our place in a way that is profoundly disturbing to a dominance-based worldview. But it is something to be embraced, if you have a worldview based on interconnection—which is increasingly where most scientists are.
Q: You note that climate change will affect poorer countries disproportionately and force the mass exodus of people from low-lying island states and sub-Saharan Africa, asking, “How will we treat the climate change refugees who arrive on our shores in leaky boats?” Does the current wave of anti-immigrant sentiment in Hungary and among Republican presidential candidates suggest an answer?
Klein: When we think about a hotter future, it is not just about the heat, the drought, and the storms. It’s also about societies becoming meaner, because that is what a winner-takes-all type of capitalist society does in the face of scarcity. And we are seeing this now in the refugee crisis, absolutely. That crisis has its roots in resource wars, in which access to fossil fuels played a central role. And one of the accelerants of the civil conflict in Syria was climate change. Syria experienced a record drought in the years leading up to this outbreak of violence.
We’re seeing the best and the worst of what humans are capable of. Humans are complex. Humans are selfish and greedy and racist and awful and beautiful and filled with solidarity and compassion all at the same time. And different systems light up different parts of ourselves. So we’ve seen the turning of our backs on a refugee crisis we had a major hand in creating; and we’ve also seen tremendous acts of generosity—thousands of people in Iceland and Germany opening their homes, and community organizing to sponsor refugees.
We need to recognize that complexity and think about what systems bring out our better selves, versus our worst selves, because that will determine how we respond to this crisis.
Q: One of the most devastating parts of your book is how it exposes the utter folly of this notion that human innovation will somehow find a way to suck all those bad greenhouse gases away. But doesn’t technology have to be part of the response, and can’t the free market help this process along?
Klein: Technology is part of it, and the fact that the price of solar has gone down by 95 percent in the past six years, the fact that it is on par with fossil fuels in terms of costs in many major markets now, is a huge part of of what makes this challenge hopeful. Technologies are getting better all the time. This is due to a combination of factors, not just the market. Germany has sunk billions into research and development that we’re all benefiting from. But the market has also played a role. I think where it becomes dangerous is when we tell ourselves that the market will fix it for us, or that technology will fix it for us, and we can just relax.
Q: In a commencement address you gave at the College of the Atlantic, you said, “The hard truth is that the answer to the question ‘What can I, as an individual, do to stop climate change?’ is: nothing.” Explain what you mean by this.
Klein: Part of what we are up against is the triumph of market logic—this idea that our greatest power is as consumers. There are definitely things that you can do as an individual that will minimize your contribution to the problem: You can stop eating meat, you can stop flying, you can turn your life into a low-carbon experiment if you want to. But those acts as individuals are no match for this transformation of the global economy that we are talking about.
Individual actions matter, in that they prove to us that the things we need to do to lower our emissions actually improve our quality of life—make us healthier, make us happier. This sets an example for others and fuels us in our political work. But it isn’t a substitute for political work.
Q: You were invited by the Vatican to discuss Pope Francis’s climate-change encyclical, which reaches essentially the same conclusion as you have, that responding to climate change requires fundamental changes to our economic model of consumer capitalism. What difference does it make that Pope Francis has taken up this cause? Aren’t Catholics pretty adept at ignoring the teachings and positions of the church?
Klein: They are, but I think this Pope is a transformative leader, so he is harder to ignore than perhaps Benedict. I always urge people to read the encyclical, regardless of their faith or lack thereof. I’m a secular feminist and I find it a deeply inspiring document, beautifully written. And look at the way that people reacted to Francis in his visit to the United States. You saw his ability to touch people. I think that he is using his power and platform in an extremely inspiring way.
Q: You’ve been criticized by Katha Pollitt for not seeing the Pope’s “blind spot”—the church’s embrace of gender inequality and its opposition to contraception, even as overpopulation is certainly not making it easier to address the problem of climate change. Isn’t the Catholic Church part of the problem?
Klein: First of all, it’s not true that I don’t see the blind spot. I very deliberately introduced myself as a feminist when I was at the Vatican. When I was writing my book, I debated whether to make the argument that women’s reproductive freedoms were part of the battle against climate change. And what I heard [from other feminists] was a great deal of trepidation about instrumentalizing reproductive rights for the goal of getting action on climate change.
In a patriarchal society, if you say that we need to control population in the face of climate change, then there are many precedents for how particularly women of color are victimized by that process, like mass-sterilization campaigns in India, and so on. So I strongly believe in women’s right to choose, and in the right to contraception. But I don’t believe in it because of climate change; I believe in it because I believe in it. I think these rights should be championed on their own merits.
I also believe that population control is often a way to change the subject from the consumption habits of wealthy, mostly white people in the world, to the procreation habits of poor, mostly brown and black people in the world, as a way of letting ourselves off the hook. If you look at the numbers, the greatest population growth and highest birth rates are in the parts of the world with the lowest emissions. What’s driving emission growth is Western-style consumption.
Q: How would you rate President Obama on the issue of addressing climate change?
Klein: In the past six months, we’ve seen more leadership than during his entire presidency. And it’s too little, too late. The reductions are nowhere near where they need to go. As the President, he has opened up vast new territories to fossil-fuel extraction, including public lands that he did not have to open. I think the decision to let Shell drill in the Arctic was disastrous, and we can be tremendously thankful that, in large part because of the damage it was doing to its brand, the activism, and also the price of oil, Shell has decided for now that it isn’t worth its while.
I do think the restrictions imposed by the Obama administration slowed them down, but it would have been so much more significant to just say no. In the moment when fossil-fuel companies have five times more carbon in their proven reserves, we need to show what it looks like for powerful political leaders to say, “You have to leave it in the ground.”
Q: For a brief while, some years back, it looked as though taking steps to address climate change might be an area of bipartisan agreement. Now it seems that Republicans, including the ones running for President, are united in dismissing this as, to quote Chris Christie, “some wild left-wing idea.” How did this issue get so twisted up in partisan politics?
Klein: Republicans understand that doing the things we need to do in the face of climate change are utterly antithetical to their political project. If you don’t believe in government, if you don’t believe in taxing corporations or the wealthy, if you don’t believe there is a role for collective action, then there’s not going to be a response to climate change. And even when you have so-called bipartisan efforts by people like [former South Carolina Republican Congressman] Bob Inglis, who support a revenue-neutral carbon tax that is offset by cuts to income and corporate taxes, it’s not much better than denial, because it would do nothing to solve the problem.
So the argument that I make is that we need to change the ideology of the country; that’s the project. The right did that successfully with Reagan and Thatcher. They dramatically moved the pole to the right. And we’re not going to get anywhere until we move the pole in the other direction.
Bill Lueders in associate editor of The Progressive.