His philosophy was based on the idea that if we continue to treat our habitat with an ill conscience, it will eventually come back to haunt us. Since he made that statement, our earth has warmed an almost full 1 degree. Scientists project that if we don’t cut the amount of emissions we’re using by the end of the century the earth’s temperature will rise by a further 2-4 degrees causing the collapse of biodiverse systems on unprecedented levels. Firebrand academic and globally renowned intellectual Naomi Klein much like George Perkins Marsh is well aware of this and has been working behind the scenes for decades trying to get us to see the link between our consumption fueled lives and the impact it is having on our planet. In 1999 she wrote the juggernaut bestseller No Logo a passionate protest against our suffocating branding era, followed up by Shock Doctrine in 2007 which explored the political opportunism inextricably tied to turbulent times.
These are turbulent times, and there is plenty of opportunism for both left and right to go around. But within that vacuum Naomi Klein proposes a new deal that can help save our planet, it is called The Green New Deal, fashioned on the New Deal Implemented by FDR back in the mid-20th Century this deal proposes similar sweeping programs that would see us usher in a major renovation to our outdated capitalist system. If we don’t implement these radical changes, the alternative as Naomi Klein puts it is unthinkable. In this exclusive interview, Naomi Klein opens up to us about the right’s insistence at not taking these issues seriously, how our own identities have helped fuel this crisis and the implications of a second-term Donald Trump presidency.
"We don't know when those mass moments will suddenly tip and people that you've written off as apathetic are suddenly ready to risk everything."
The Green New Deal you write about in your latest book On Fire is based on the New Deal implemented back in the 20th century by FDR. In the mid 20th century, extensive social programmes were being implemented to help rebuild America in a post-Depression/World War II world.
The Green New Deal that you propose is similar. The key difference here is that the New Deal back in the 20th century was more about realigning people’s income, whereas the Green New Deal is more about re-aligning people’s priorities. Would you agree with that?
The Green New Deal is different. There is no doubt. The original new deal was about battling poverty and massive inequality. It was about having an economic stimulus for a country in profound depression.
But one of the things that often gets forgotten is that there was also an ecological crisis going on in the 1930s. It was known as The Dust Bowl. There were 2.3 billion trees planted by the Civilian Conservation Corps, which were these armies of unemployed young people who were sent out to rural areas to plant trees, and do soil protection and stream restoration. When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez first announced her plans to champion the Green New Deal in Congress, she said explicitly that this is about fighting climate change and poverty. It’s a war on poverty. So I think it has quite a lot in common, actually, with the original New Deal.
One of the things you discuss in the book is the recent French uprising, the ‘gilets jaunes’. You talk about their response to Emanuel Macron’s introduction of the Green Tax which raised the price of diesel. You paraphrase their response to this, “The government cares about the end of the world. We care about the end of the month.”
How do you reconcile this idea of speaking to people who are losing their jobs around the world, who are suffering hardship whose sentiment maybe, ‘We don’t care about the end of the world or the environmental crisis that we face, we just want to get to the end of the month.’
I think the Green New Deal framework, is precisely about exploding this false dichotomy between jobs and the environment, or caring about the end of the world and caring about the end of the month. The reason why people perceive that as a choice is because the only responses to the climate crisis that their governments have ever proposed have been ones that increase the cost of living for working people, that make their energy bills go up, that make the price of the pump go up. Meanwhile, they see the wealthiest people receiving tax breaks, they don’t see any serious regulation being enforced on the oil and gas companies, so there is a rebellion against the fundamental unfairness of it all.
The Green New Deal says you shouldn’t have to choose between caring about the end of the month and caring about the end of the world. We’re pretty sure everyone cares about both, on some level. So let’s design policies that will radically reduce our emissions, but have these concrete bread-and-butter benefits for working people, and people who aren’t working and need to be working. We can create millions of good unionised jobs. There can be a job guarantee to make sure nobody is left behind.
“Climate change is no longer possible to deny.” Naomi Klein (AP/Reuters)
There seems to be a general malaise about the climate crisis. How do we get people, in general, to care with their hearts and their minds as well?
I don’t think it is that hard, because people are living it. We’ve seen an incredible shift in public opinion polls just over the past year because so many more people are directly experiencing it, whether it’s with flooding, or record-breaking heat, or wildfire, this is no longer seen as an abstraction. When I wrote my first book about climate change five years ago there was this polling that would ask people to rank climate change in contrast to other issues such as healthcare, jobs and so on, and it would reliably come in last.
The latest polling shows concerns about climate change and desire for climate action rivalling healthcare as the number one issue. It’s not about this crisis being more significant than that crisis. It’s about, how do we multitask? How do we do a lot of things at once? Because the climate crisis is not the only crisis we face. But in answer to your question about this. I think there’s a significant generational shift happening where even conservative young people are listing climate change among their top concerns. That’s very different from their parents.
We’re obviously at a point right now, where systems that have allowed our society to flourish can no longer support the way we live. Is the resistance from the right the most significant obstacle we face today in order to implement the appropriate changes regarding climate change?
I think that we’re at a fork in the road, where climate change is no longer possible to deny, even though there are still a few hold outs. What’s really frightening is that these far-right figures have a response to climate change and it is to militarise our borders, blame immigrants, let them drown, and tell people to look after your own.
It’s precisely because times are hard that we need to not care about anyone but ourselves. On the other side, you have a growing internationalism which I think is symbolised by the youth climate strikes, which is this global movement of young people around the world fighting for each other, irrespective of national borders. They’re saying, we have to act, and we have to figure out how to share what is left.
"What's really frightening is that these far-right figures have a response to climate change and it is to militarise our borders, blame immigrants, let them drown, and tell people to look after your own."
You’ve been writing these conscious raising books for so long, No Logo, The Shock Doctrine. Millions of people listen to you. Do you ever find it frustrating that your words can’t reach sides that are blocked or possibly face resistance? That maybe you’re talking into the same echo-chamber when you’re trying to galvanise support from both sides?
I find it a lot less frustrating than in the past because I think these ideas are becoming more and more mainstream. When I published This Changes Everything which makes a strong argument as to why we need a response to climate change rather than building a more just economy, it was treated as extreme and out there. Now here we are, in the States, in a race to lead the democratic party where all of the top candidates are saying that they endorse a Green New Deal and are trying to outdo each other in how many trillions of dollars they’re pledging to spend on climate action and who has the boldest policies. So things are shifting.
Often if you put a new idea out into the culture, there’s going to be a resistance. But you never know how new ideas are going to spread or what’s going to happen with them. I don’t spend too much time worrying about whether or not people are listening to me or not. I don’t feel like I’m in an echo-chamber because so many more people are open to these ideas than when I first started writing and talking about them.
I’m reminded of a quote by Adam Smith, one of the founding fathers of the modern marketplace who said, “Consumption is the sole end purpose of all production.” I feel as if consumption lies deep within the DNA of our markets. And the reality is that we’re facing a moment where the climate crisis is forcing people to put down their toys, and many people don’t want to put down their toys.
It’s a big question, and as you know several of the essays in the book are dealing with this case of bad timing where at the moment we are reckoning with this crisis, we are more disconnected from each other, we are more disconnected from nature because we’re all glued to our screens. We’ve all been told to be our own brand. So we equate our consumption with our identity. If someone tells us we need to shop less it doesn’t feel like an inconvenience, it feels like an existential attack, because your identity is wrapped up in what you buy, so it’s hard.
But everything in the world right now feels existential.
Right. But what I will tell you is I find it interesting that the people who are most open to deep change are Generation Z, who are the young people who have grown up amidst multiple system failures. Not just the ecological breakdown but also in the rubble of late capitalism, and so many of the promises broken about what economic life would be, whether that means buying a home or getting a job.
Also, a lot of the techno-utopianism that I swallowed back when I was in university is wearing pretty thin. People feel stressed out by how much they’re supposed to be online. They may do it, but I think there’s a greater awareness that it’s not making them happy, that it’s interfering with their mental health, with their sleep. I teach undergrads, and it is not an uphill battle to get young people to talk about how hard it is to face the pressure of performing online nonstop. I feel that people are looking for a way out. It’s untenable.
Image: Kalpesh Lathigra
You paraphrase Bill McKibben the American environmentalist and author, who calls the climate activists of the world “The antibodies rising up to fight the planet’s fever.” Do you think the Extinction/ Greta/Sunrise movement has the momentum or the ammunition to overturn public opinion? Because it still feels slightly muted. Perhaps for optics sake, we need a Hong Kong-style uprising, that includes the general population, not just the idealists from the left.
Do we need a vast uprising? Always! Look, being old enough to have been a part of some of those moments when suddenly something tips and the whole society is out in the streets, as they are in Hong Kong, or as they were recently in Puerto Rico, successfully demanding their governor to resign. Those politically effervescent moments, it’s impossible to plan for them. You never know what the tipping point is going to be. In Hong Kong, it was an extradition law. Why that and not something else? You don’t know why. But it’s a dam breaking.
What I can tell you from having been through Occupy and the Movement of the Squares, and Argentina’s political uprising and having watched from afar what happened with the so-called Arab Spring. What I can say is that we don’t know when those mass moments will suddenly tip and people that you’ve written off as apathetic are suddenly ready to risk everything. You just don’t know.
What we do know from the past couple of decades is that if one of those moments happen and we aren’t ready with our alternative, we will lose an opening we cannot afford to lose. That’s why it’s so important that movements have come together to articulate what the next economy looks like. That’s what the Green New Deal is.
Cynically speaking, could there be a way within the Shock Doctrine vacuum that capitalism finds a way to co-opt climate change to its favour?
Of course, and this is what The Shock Doctrine is about, and this is why I feel such urgency for there to be a democratic response to climate change that is really about benefiting the maximum number of people. What our system is built to do is the opposite. Our system is built to exploit crisis and use it as an opportunity to build an even more unequal society. You don’t need to be a conspiracy theorist for that to happen. That’s just what happens if we take a less than fair approach to climate change. You’re living it right now with Brexit, right? Where it’s very clear that a massive economic crisis in the UK – a no-deal Brexit would be very profitable for a small but powerful sector of Britain’s elite.
I’m not saying it’s likely that we will respond to climate change in a way that is hopeful, that is unifying us with a common purpose, that builds a fairer economy. What I’m saying is that there is still a pathway. There is still a chance. And the alternative is so horrific that the only conversation I’m interested in having is, how do we improve our chances?
"I think a second term, Donald Trump is a hell of a lot scarier than a first-term Donald Trump."
If Donald Trump, the harbinger of chaos, remains in power for another four years, what kind of four years in terms of the environmental landscape do you envision?
I think a second term, Donald Trump is a hell of a lot scarier than a first-term Donald Trump. Look at Modi. Look at what he’s done in his second term. The way he’s taken that electoral victory. These guys do not repeat themselves in the second term — they up the ante.
If you don’t see the solutions enacted for climate change that we need in the ten, eleven, twelve years deadline that they talk about – what would you want your legacy to be?
Does anybody have a legacy if we blow this? I don’t think about that. We have a war against the future going on right now. Legacies don’t matter if we don’t do this. I’ve never been someone particularly concerned with personal legacies at any rate. I see myself as part of a vibrant social movement that takes different forms in different moments but has fundamentally been fighting for some core principles of justice and fairness, and valuing human life. And also non-human life, and the beauty of the planet. I care about the legacy of that movement because all of our lives depend on it.
On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal is out now through Penguin
Feature images of Naomi Klein by Kalpesh Lathigra