Naomi Klein is laughing down the phone as we discuss an article about her in the Financial Times from 2014. ‘I don’t think the FT has ever really gotten me,’ she says, in reference to a comment about her not being an earnest agitator. The article claims she is not an avid marcher, she flies regularly, and is not a vegetarian. I wonder if it’s all still true? ‘I don’t eat meat [although she eats some carefully sourced fish], I fly way less, and I go to marches. I love being in mass demonstrations and feeling the power of tens or hundreds of thousands of people who want and believe many of the same things, but I think movements have roles for different people.’
Her aim is to push through rapid change, and while writing is where she feels most comfortable, she’s passionate about joining in the activist movement and contributing to the debate as much as possible. ‘The point is to get it done, it’s not just to write books,’ she says, exasperated at the notion. It’s a key message from On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal, a series of essays that argue the time for incremental change is long gone, and that ‘sweeping industrial and infrastructure overall’ is badly needed.
Indeed, one whole chapter, titled Stop Trying to Save the World All By Yourself (taken from her June 2015 College of the Atlantic Commencement address - see below), starts: ‘The very idea that we, as atomised individuals, could play a significant part in stabilising the planet’s climate is objectively nuts.’ It’s not that Klein is against individual action, indeed she cites the College of the Atlantic itself for leading the charge as one of the first schools to divest from fossil fuels. Stanford and Oxford Universities have followed suit. ‘Local matters, but local is not enough,’ she says. ‘I really don’t like spending very much time telling people how to consume, or holding up my life as an example for how we should live because I profoundly believe that we will get absolutely nowhere until we remember that we are far more powerful when we organise ourselves into collective structures.’
Her book instead calls for a hopeful vision of the future, with many different players from policymakers and activists to creatives all contributing to change the overwhelming sense that we are ‘fundamentally selfish, gratification-seeking units’.
‘Movements have always needed writers and artists and people who don’t have the temperament to be the person at the front with the megaphone,’ she tells me. One stunning example of this hopeful messaging is her collaboration with superstar congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and illustrator Molly Crabapple in a video published at the website where she is a senior correspondent, The Intercept. The film, set a couple of decades into the future, rejects the idea that a dystopian future is a forgone conclusion. Instead, Ocasio-Cortez weaves a tale of jobs, opportunity and environmental saviour, set against Crabapple’s beautiful drawings. The film concludes: ‘we can be whatever we have the courage to see.’
Yet for all her talent as a writer and debater, Klein’s new book is not the most accessible work of non-fiction. While it might not have 70 pages of endnotes, as in her New York Times bestseller, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, it does read like it was written for a policymaker. Making it a toolkit was entirely intentional, but she tells me she hopes the book will reach ‘the millions of people right now who have realised that there has to be a positive agenda that is put forward, that this rejectionist approach to resistance is not going to cut it.’
Klein believes that the landscape she is writing into has changed dramatically in the past five years since she published This Changes Everything. ‘You just have to stick around for a while and it becomes mainstream,’ she says dryly. Where her arguments used to be seen as too extreme to be taken seriously, she says public opinion is shifting.
‘When I published This Changes Everything in 2014, I think the most frustrating thing was that it was still really tough to get politicians, even movements on the left, to stop treating climate change as an issue that was in competition with economic justice,’ she says. ‘I remember being in Greece after the economic crisis with people who were saying things like “people can’t focus on the environment when they have to put food on the table”. It was incredibly frustrating for me that it was such a difficult concept to comprehend, the idea that actually we can radially lower emissions in a way that creates millions of jobs and helps families put food on their table.’
Now, however, with the likes of Ocasio-Cortez and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders taking up the Green New Deal in the US, and the Green New Deal for Europe being proposed on this side of the Atlantic, attitudes are changing. More than that, the climate emergency has become the defining topic of our time, and Klein believes even middle-grounder politicians are realising they need to address the issue. ‘I think the people who cast themselves as “realists” while telling us it’s unrealistic to save our only home in a way that preserves its habitability for us, increasingly look absurd. What is realism in a world on fire?’ she asks.
Middle grounders are not the only ones she takes on. No stone is left unturned in her new book, which calls out politicians for continuing to fund fossil fuels (she notes that direct fossil fuel subsidies are worth about $775bn a year globally), Pope Francis for slamming countries on their ‘ecological dereliction’ while at the same time the Vatican fails to hold its own leaders to account for the ‘systematic sexual abuse of children and nuns’, and world governments for environmental racism, pointing out that those who are most poor and marginalised on the planet often suffer the worst effects of climate change.
This is a major argument throughout the book. Klein wants to drum in that any type of sweeping change needs to be inclusive, to make the world a fairer, more equitable place. She calls it the triple crisis of our time: ‘imminent ecological unravelling, gaping economic inequality (including racial and gender wealth gaps) and surging white supremacy.’ She makes this point most impactfully with her analysis of how French president Emmanuel Macron royally messed up his introduction of the fuel tax designed to make driving more expensive, thereby reducing consumption and raising funds for climate programmes. ‘Too often, when politicians introduce climate policies divorced from a broader agenda of economic justice, the policies they introduce are actively unjust – and the public responds accordingly,’ she writes. In this case, tens of thousands of workers took to the streets adorned in yellow high-visibility vests, chanting angrily about being asked to choose between the end of the world and the end of the month, with some protests even escalating into riots.
Klein’s biggest fear is that the climate emergency, and poorly thought through policies, makes space for ‘the far right… the facist right, which is speaking to people’s fears, which is speaking to the reality of breakdown in emergency. It is filling the void left by the supposedly serious centrists with hate, racism and fascism.’ She sees the Green New Deal as an urgent alternative vision, offering ‘an irresistible story of the future, connecting the dots among the many parts of daily life that stand to be transformed, from health care to employment, daycare to jail cell, clean air to leisure time.’
The game changer in all of this, according to Klein, has been the civil disobedience seen on a massive scale through the likes of Extinction Rebellion, Greta Thunberg and mass student protests. She cites an example in late 2018, when the youth-led Sunrise Movement occupied the office of the US Democratic party right after it had won an election. ‘They were expecting congratulations and confetti and instead they had their office occupied by a bunch of teenagers and people in their early twenties who said, “what’s your plan, we’re in a climate emergency we need a Green New Deal”.’
It was this pressure that created an opening for leaders such as Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders to come forward in the US. ‘Politicians aren’t the only ones who can declare an emergency. People can declare an emergency from below and I think finally that’s what we’re seeing from the student strikes and the incredible leadership of Greta Thunberg,’ she says. It is these organised actions which have fundamentally moved the dial, according to Klein. ‘I think it’s why we’re finally seeing policies proposed on the scale of the crisis.’
Klein’s book doesn’t just point out that the world is on fire, take down those who are to blame and lift up those who can implement change, it fuels those with a burning desire for change. And in these extraordinary times it should also appeal to a new set of readers looking for extreme solutions to match the extremity of the crisis. This is Klein doing what she does best: ‘not being polite and not playing by the rules,’ she says.
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