Note: A longer version of this interview will appear in the Winter 2015 issue of YES! Magazine. You can preorder it here.
Once every five or 10 years, Naomi Klein publishes a book that changes the way we see things. With No Logo, published in 1999, she explored corporate power in a globalized world and the movements springing up to resist it. The Shock Doctrine, published in 2007, showed how governments collude with big corporations to take advantage of natural and human-made disasters to push through deeply unpopular change.
Her newest book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate is another transformational book.
”Many of the past great social movements won on the legal and cultural side but not on the economic sides.”
If you want to understand why governments failed to confront the climate challenge years ago, while we still had time to do so without massive disruption to our economy, this is the book to read. Klein reveals that the forces at work preventing action on the climate are part of a coherent whole—a whole that she and many activists and intellectuals, especially in the Global South, call neoliberalism: the combination of privatization, government tax and spending cuts, deregulation, and “free” trade that enormously benefit big corporations and Wall Street but are impoverishing nearly everyone else.
But what is so valuable about Klein’s book is that it lays out what we need to do to step up to what is now a climate emergency.
The choice becomes a clear one: we could continue with the neoliberal business-as-usual status quo, which, scientists say, will result in a temperature increase of 4-6 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.
Or we could take on this emergency with everything we’ve got. This other path means building just, local economies, paying back the climate debt owed to the poorest regions of the world (see below), divesting from fossil fuels and reinvesting in sustainable local economies. And, she says, we’ll also need to insist that our governments say “no” to big projects—like the Keystone XL pipeline—that facilitate increased extraction of fossil fuels and say “yes” to a rapid conversion to renewable energy resources.
If all of that sounds too good to be true, Klein is practical about how it can be achieved, drawing on years of reporting from the front lines of the climate struggle. As a starting point, the second option will require that the many social movements now pressing for a more just and sustainable world find common cause.
I spoke to Naomi Klein on September 28, shortly before her talk at Seattle Town Hall. Here’s a lightly edited selection from our conversation.
Sarah van Gelder: What was it like for you to be part of the People’s Climate March in New York City? Did you experience the coming together of social movements that you you were hoping to see when you wrote This Changes Everything?
“The hope is that climate is the biggest tent.”
Naomi Klein: Oh, yeah. The march was a glimpse of the movement we need. It wasn’t just that it was so diverse. It was that the most energetic parts of the march were the nurses unions—they were just incredible, and the transit workers, and the South Bronx contingent, which was made up of so many young people making the connections between climate justice and things like health and jobs.
The sense of threat from climate change and the hope were so powerful. It was in every way different from the last big climate march at a U.N. gathering I attended, which was in Copenhagen in 2009.
van Gelder: How was the New York march different?
Klein: There were a few big marches in Copenhagen, but it felt like only professional activists were there. This was called “The People’s Climate March,” and it felt like a people’s march. It didn’t just feel like activists and NGOs. It felt like communities, and that was because of a really remarkable, often painful, coalition that was built.
One of the things that happened is that the big NGOs that were involved checked their branding at the door and actually made real space for communities to lead and speak. It wasn’t perfect. But I’ve been to a lot of NGO-organized events where the branding just completely takes over, and I think for the first time some of our big NGOs realized it’s way better if you don’t.
And I think that part of it is the whole funder model where it’s all about getting your photo op and showing “Our brand’s here!” and then going to a foundation and going, "Look! We did this. Look at our logo. It’s everywhere."
Now people get so pissed off when organizing is done that way. They know they’re being used as props. This has not been an easy lesson to learn, and I’m not saying everybody’s learned it, but this was the first time that I’ve seen real progress in this regard.
And I think that because everybody is so happy with how the march turned out that with any luck, this will lead to real lasting change in how we build a movement.
van Gelder: You talk in your book about the notion of “unfinished liberation struggles.” You argue that many of the people’s movements we celebrate—civil rights, anti-apartheid, women’s rights—succeeded in many ways but failed to win economic power. Did you see in the People’s Climate March renewed attention to these “unfinished liberation struggles”?
Klein: When you see the kind of hope that climate action represents—to people in places like the South Bronx and other low-income communities of color in the U.S., but also in countries like Bolivia—it is because it directly addresses foundational issues around why our societies are so unequal.
This is why I think justice has to be front and center. I think there’s still a sense in a lot of the mainstream green discourse that it’s too divisive to foreground economic justice.
There never were the investments in the public sphere that the Civil Rights movement demanded.
But when you hear countries making the argument that there’s a climate debt, it’s clear the roots of that debt go back to the early days of fossil fuels. Colonialism predates coal, but coal supercharged the colonial project and allowed the pillaging of the Global South and locked us into these incredibly unequal extractive relationships.
So we in the Global North have built up an ecological debt. Fossil fuels built the modern world. And the countries that have a 200-year head start on emitting carbon have a special responsibility to both cut emissions first and fastest, and also to help countries that have not been contributing to this problem for nearly as long to leapfrog over fossil fuels and not be forced once again to choose between poverty and pollution. This is a process by which we begin to heal these colonial wounds.
And so yeah, in the book I talk about this as the unfinished business of liberation because so many of the past great social movements won on the legal and cultural side but not on the economic sides, so there never were reparations for slavery. There never were the investments in the public sphere that the Civil Rights movement demanded.
So the hope, the dream, is that in responding to climate change through a justice lens—through a lens that is not afraid to look at history and the real roots of inequality—we build this movement of movements that brings together all of these struggles that are still alive.
It’s not like the civil rights struggle is over in the United States. It’s that everybody is in their compartment, their little silo. And the hope is that climate is the biggest tent. It’s our atmosphere. We're all in it. We don’t have to build the tent. We're in the tent. We just have to know we’re in the tent.
A longer version of this interview will be published in the winter 2015 issue of YES! Magazine, available for preorder here.