I used to call myself an activist-journalist but I’m not sure that that fits anymore. Now, when I’m writing a book, I think I’m primarily a writer, and when I’m launching a book, I think I’m probably primarily an activist.
This book started off being about climate debt and how climate change could be a catalyst for healing the wounds of colonialism and building a more equal world; there really needs to be a transfer of wealth and technology from the global north to the global south in order to break the climate deadlock. But as I started to immerse myself in the world of climate justice, I saw all of these ways in which the urgency of the climate threat supercharged other issues, such as indigenous rights, land redistribution, public housing, mass transit and healthcare.
Everything fits inside this issue; this is about our home. It’s not even really an issue – it’s everything. You can’t file climate change next to health care and taxes, which is the way [politicians] talk about it. There’s a poll they do every year in the USA where people rank the issues that they care about, and climate change always comes in last. But it’s absurd; you can’t rank this issue as if it were on a par with other issues.
Confronting climate change involves confronting the core logic of our economy. We’ve failed to rise to this crisis because market triumphalism tells us that we can’t intervene in the market, and that we have to leave the market to solve all of our problems. It also tells us that there’s something vaguely suspect about collective action, and it has waged war on the public sphere.
In terms of a whole economy, I think we need selective degrowth and to plan our economies again. That would mean that lower-carbon parts of our economies could grow and other parts could contract. Our country used to have industrial strategies. People used to make plans and it didn’t used to be considered communist to do so, but today, planning is a dirty word.
The attempts to make the climate crisis conform to the dominant logic of market fundamentalism have taken us down some very dangerous routes, such as carbon trading, advocating natural gas as a bridge fuel – which has been disastrous, as fracking has emerged as the key way of extracting it – or simply accepting that people are consumers and environmental groups handing out shopping advice as their main form of communication.
I think that the greatest crime of the triumph of market ideology is convincing a great many people that we’re incapable of saving ourselves, and even that we’re unworthy of being saved because we’re so selfish and greedy. This is the image that has been held up to us. If we’re going to respond to this crisis with the depth of change and the speed of change that’s required we need a transformational movement. And transformational movements don’t just hold up a mirror to society and say, ‘Okay, if this is what you’re like, we’re just going to cater to that.’
The transformational movements of the past – civil rights, feminism, abolitionism – deliberately sought to change the values of their culture and understood that human beings are a mass of contradictions. Yes, we’re selfish, we’re greedy, but we’re also generous and altruistic, and have a genuine sense of solidarity, and different parts of ourselves are lit up at different moments. We’re capable of surprising ourselves, particularly in moments of crisis. That’s the lesson of wartime victory gardens and rationing and even just the outpourings of generosity in the aftermath of natural disasters. People find parts of themselves in crisis that they didn’t know they had.
We need to see ourselves as political actors rather than consumers. This isn’t about individual consumption, it’s about confronting a system that has made it really difficult for us to make good choices.
At the 2009 Copenhagen climate change conference, we were like supplicants pleading with Barack Obama and Angela Merkel to fix this for us. It was so personalised. But now we know that our leaders aren’t going to do this on their own. It isn’t about appealing to their conscience. They represent a power structure that’s locked in and that’s the structure we need to change. Now we’re in a moment that begins with the loss of faith in leadership, and from there goes on to a taking of collective responsibility. If we can’t trust them, that means we’re on our own, so what are our ideas and what are we going to do now?
1970 Born in Montreal, Canada
1989–93 Studied philosophy and English at the University of Toronto
2000 Published No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies
2004 Released The Take (together with her husband Avi Lewis), a documentary film about a group of workers in Argentina who take over a closed factory and restart production as a collective
2007 Published The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism
2014 Published This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate
This story was published in the September 2014 edition of Geographical Magazine