In her latest book, This Changes Everything (2014), Canadian writer and activist Naomi Klein argues that unrestrained capitalism is at the root of the climate crisis and that the global response to climate change has, thus far, been shaped by wealth and power.
Earlier in the month I had the chance to speak with Naomi Klein on the eve of her appearance at the Sydney Festival of Dangerous Ideas. The transcript of our discussion is set out below and you can listen to the podcast of our discussion here.
Naomi Klein, your book, This Changes Everything has proven hugely popular in tackling the vexed issue of climate change. Unlike a lot of the existing debate on the topic, you’re quite explicit that climate change is not so much an environmental issue but one that derives fundamentally from our economic system of neoliberal capitalism. What particular events led you to this realisation?
Well I guess the key event for me was Hurricane Katrina ten years ago. At the time I was working on my previous book on The Shock Doctrine and that book begins and ends with Hurricane Katrina. I reported quite extensively on the storm and its aftermath as an example of what I call disaster capitalism. The disaster in New Orleans was really about a collision between climate change (between heavy weather linked to climate change) and the legacy of neoliberal capitalism (and the reality of neoliberal capitalism), as well as American racism, and those three forces intersected in the most toxic way imaginable. Both during the storm and in the years since, in the way that storm was capitalised upon by elites in the United States.
So what I saw in New Orleans was just how really antithetical a political ideology is that does not believe in the state. How antithetical that ideology is to what needs to happen in the face of climate change. At the time, Paul Krugman called it the ‘can’t do government’ and it couldn’t do anything in the face of this disaster. So FEMA, the agency that should have been evacuating people and dealing with this disaster couldn’t find New Orleans for five days and Americans were completely shocked across the political spectrum. It was a totally hollowed out state.
Then it was also incapable, and this is what’s more important, of learning the lessons of the disaster. The lesson of that disaster is climate change is real, we need to get off fossil fuels and we need to invest in the public sphere both to deal with the impacts of climate change and to stop making it worse. We need to change our energy system, we need to have public transit, we need to change the way we move ourselves around. None of that happened. In fact New Orleans has become a laboratory for privatisation of various kinds. It’s a much more unequal city than it was before the storm.
So, this is what climate change looks like in hyper-capitalism and it looks like New Orleans and it’s not a pretty sight.
You argue that the current climate crisis is a product of what you term ‘bad timing’. Could you elaborate on that?
Scientists have understood the connection between greenhouse gases and warming for a long time but the issue had its tipping point moment in the late 1980s. That was the moment when we all lost our plausible deniability; 1988 was the year when governments first had an intergovernmental meeting to talk about the need for emission reductions. That was really the turning point year. It was also the year that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was formed.
One thing you can only see with hindsight is what an epic case of bad timing it was. What else was happening in 1988? Well Canada and the US signed their first free trade deal that became the prototype for NAFTA and then all these other trade deals that have proliferated around the world. It’s the year before the Berlin Wall collapsed. It’s right when Francis Fukuyama declared history over, and this single ideological project was then spread throughout the world. Privatisation, deregulation, cuts to government spending. Sometimes it’s called neoliberalism, sometimes it’s called market fundamentalism, sometimes it’s call the Washington Consensus, the French call it pensée unique, there’s no consensus about what to call it. We know what it is because we’re all living it. That is an epic case of bad timing because at its core it is a war on the collective. It’s a war on the idea of collective action it’s a liberation project for capital, that’s what it is and it’s been a very successful one.
It’s not compatible with a crisis like climate change because climate change is the essence of a collective crisis that requires that we act together within our countries, between our countries. A winner-take-all ideology does not compute with a crisis like this that requires that we see how we are interdependent.
But there’s more to it than that. We were systematically selling off exactly the parts of our economies that we most needed to control if we were going to take climate change seriously. Our rail systems, our energy grids, our water, this is what neoliberalism did. That makes what we need to do so much harder. Just because something is publicly controlled doesn’t mean that it’s good, doesn’t mean that it’s environmentally conscious, but if a public has the ability to have a say over their energy grid, they can say they want it to change and that’s what we really haven’t been able to do.
That’s why I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the countries that have taken some of the boldest moves in the face of the climate crisis are ones that are most socially democratic. It’s not a coincidence that the Scandinavian countries have some of the most enlightened climate policies (and put a big asterisk next to Norway). Or that Germany which never fully embraced neo-liberalism for historical reasons, though they prescribe it with brutality on the rest of Europe, they know at home that it’s very dangerous for them to get rid of their safety net. Germany, because of that, has been willing to introduce a very ambitious feed-in tariff programme that has transformed their energy grid very rapidly. So that’s the conflict.
You make a very strong argument that neo-liberal economics is driving humanity’s greenhouse gas emissions. However I was also struck by your point that these are modern expressions of an older logic particularly the view that nature is something we can ‘bend to our will’. To what extent then is the problem, neo liberal capitalism, or our reliance on fossil fuels, or is it something deeper in the relationship between humanity and the natural world?
We’ve been talking about this collision between neoliberalism and climate change and it does go deeper than that. Now because we’ve waited so long we need to be cutting our emissions so rapidly that it is isn’t in any way compatible with the growth based economic system. The Tyndall Centre says that wealthy countries like Australia or where I live, Canada, we need to be cutting our emissions by eight to 10 per cent a year. There isn’t an economist in the world that can tell you how you do that within a growth based economic system which is why the book is not called ‘neoliberalism versus the climate’. It’s called ‘capitalism versus the climate’ because that growth imperative is at the heart of our system.
Your question about whether it’s even deeper than capitalism and whether it’s something about humanity, it’s a complicated question. I think it is something deeper than capitalism and we know that industrial socialist economies have been equally violent towards the planet, whether it’s Mao’s ‘war on nature’, that’s what it was called, proudly, the war against nature. How’s that for a slogan? We know that the only time there’s been a sustained drop in greenhouse gas emissions, has occurred at two points. One when the Soviet Union collapsed in the 1990s and one when capitalism collapsed in 2008, they both led to severe drops.
So what we know is that the Earth responds well to both of these systems crashing. Now we don’t want to crash, we want a great transition to another economic system.
The part that I disagree with is the idea that this is about humanity. It’s not all of humanity that is responsible for this. In fact it’s quite a small minority of humanity so I think that really at the core of what we’re dealing with is an idea that took hold in the 1600s in a very specific place, England, and spread to other parts of Europe.
That was the idea that the Earth is a machine that all could be known and the key philosophers of this were Francis Bacon and René Descartes who said man could be the masters and possessors of nature. This is still a minority view if we look at the whole globe. Most people on earth actually approach the natural world with reverence, humility and a healthy dose of fear. I really think you have to be careful of throwing words like ‘humanity’ around.
The other thing that’s complicated about it is that this idea emerged at the same time as industrial capitalism was emerging. So you really can’t pry it apart from the emergence of capitalism. What came first right? The fact that the Industrial Revolution was kicking off or that René Descartes had that idea. What we do know is that it took the commercial steam engine, the marketing of the commercial steam engine in the late 1700s. To take that idea which was just a theory, this idea that we could separate ourselves from nature and dominate it and know it and no longer be at its mercy, and turn that into an apparent reality.
So it was the combination of an idea and a technology that allowed us to really convince ourselves, this small subset of humanity that nature was a thing and that we could be the boss.
I think the reason why climate change is so threatening is that it is a rebuke, a fundamental rebuke of that idea and it is saying to us that we were never the boss. This was an illusion and in the book I quote Robert Manne who says this very eloquently. This is a civilisational crisis, this is a narrative crisis because all the time we were liberating ourselves from nature because we were able to sail our ships whenever we wanted. We didn’t have to wait for winds to fill the sails because we were the boss. We could build our factories wherever we wanted. We didn’t have to look for rushing water as they did before with the industrial burning of coal. All that time we were burning carbon and it was accumulating in the atmosphere. The response didn’t come right away.
So we had the illusion of a one way relationship but it was a fantasy. That’s the thing about climate change that makes it more than just an issue. That makes it this narrative crisis, this civilisational crisis because now all that carbon that has been accumulating over hundreds of years is creating a response that is making us feel very weak indeed. We are up against forces that show us that we were never the bosses that we imagined ourselves to be. I think that it’s a crisis of story, it’s a crisis of relationship but I would be very careful about attributing it to humanity. Because it comes from a place and not all humans believed it and still don’t.
Indeed. Of course there are many in business and government who promote a vision of green capitalism. That the answer is to use market forces to price carbon, to drive decarbonisation and decouple growth from its material impacts. What are your thoughts on such arguments? Is green capitalism and green growth a myth?
Is it a myth? I think it needs to be pried apart in that there are green pockets within capitalism and it is possible to have some marginal growth while lowering emissions, I think that’s true. Certainly transitioning away from fossil fuels, if you do make the sorts of investments that we’re talking about, changing an energy grid, changing a transit system, this is going to create huge numbers of jobs and there is going to be growth. The problem is there also has to be contraction at the same time because we need to be lowering our emissions.
So people who get carried away with the green growth idea, they know how to add but they’re not so good at the subtraction part and I quote Kevin Anderson who is a really important climate scientist and emission reduction specialist at the Tyndall Centre, he’s the deputy director and used to be director. I quote him a lot in the book and this quote isn’t in the book because he said it since the book came out but he said you have to make a distinction between going more slowly down the wrong road and getting on the right road. A lot of this green growth stuff is about going more slowly down the wrong road.
Indeed. In the latter half of your book you focus on social movements that are emerging in response to the climate crisis particularly the phenomenon you term ‘Blockadia’. For me this was quite an optimistic message. Who are the natural leaders of the climate justice movement and how do we make sure their voices are heard, given that many are acting at a very grass roots level?
The people who are leading this movement are the people who are most directly impacted by extraction and other forms of fossil fuel infrastructure whether it is pipelines crossing their lands or coal export terminals impacting their fishing grounds. So overwhelmingly it’s people who still live off the land which means that they’re overwhelmingly indigenous people or farmers and fishing people. They are building this movement with incredible speed and I think what’s exciting is the intersection of this place based movement that is really driven by love of space.
One of my favourite quotes from the book is from a woman named Alexis Bonogofsky who is a goat rancher in Montana and she says this is what the coal companies will never understand, that our movement isn’t driven by hatred of them. It’s not driven by hatred of the coal companies, it’s driven by love, love will save this place. I think that just from everything I’ve seen that is absolutely the driving force. It’s love of land, love of one’s kids and a duty to protect for future generations a different relationship to the land that is non-extractive.
It isn’t even about stewardship in the sense of just taking care of the land so that it takes care of us. It’s more about an ethos of caring for the land and caring for one another.
I mean the exciting part, just to finish the thought, is that intersection between these very local struggles and technologies that allow these different various front lines of Blockadia to learn about one another and to find each other and to feel themselves part of a truly global movement. So when there was a huge climate march in New York City last September when there was a UN climate conference, what was beautiful about that march wasn’t just that it was huge, and it was huge. It was the largest climate march in history, 400,000 people. It was that it was this collection of impacted people led by indigenous people at the front, a huge anti fracking movement that has since succeeded in banning fracking in all of New York State. A big contingent from the South Bronx who had signs about the very high asthma levels that their kids were suffering but also demanding green jobs for their communities and services that would make their lives tangibly better.
I think what’s significant about this is not just that it’s a movement that looks like our countries. Our movement should look like our countries as opposed to a tiny subset of our countries which is what they do often look like. It’s also that I think that this kind of movement where people have so much on the line for better and worse. It has the potential to bring much needed jobs and services to really neglected communities and also better health. These are in many cases really life and death struggles.
People in a movement like that fight differently. They fight really hard because they can’t afford to lose and I think too often what the climate movement has suffered from this kind of thing is that this is a movement for people who don’t have anything better to care about or something like that. There’s this thing of it’s a luxury concern for people who are very privileged. I think what’s really changing is the emergence of the climate justice movement taking centre stage which brings together those daily economic concerns through justice, jobs, services, health and the need for climate action. That kind of movement I think has a much better chance of winning against players in the fossil fuel companies who are themselves fighting for their lives. They are fighting for their lives because if we win their business model is cooked. So I think that that’s very exciting.
Your question about how do we hear more from them, I do think that’s a very important question for the green movement which still is scandalously white and middle class. Even the leadership is too male in a movement that at the grass roots is overwhelming led by women. It’s a huge problem and I think it’s a problem on a lot of different levels. This is a movement that is asking governments to change very rapidly and I think that the onus is really on the climate movement, the environmental movement to model change.
If we are going to ask our government to change so quickly then I think we also have to look at our own house and say why have we been having these same discussions for 30 years about why we’re too white or too middle class, and doing so little about it in terms of sharing resources and sharing the spotlight? If we can’t change then how do we expect to have any credibility asking our governments to change?
Politicians here in Australia are fond of pointing out we’ve barely one per cent of world emissions so Australia can’t really claim a leading role in climate action. What do you make of this argument and what do you think Australia’s proper role in climate action should be?
Look Australia has the highest per capita emissions anywhere in the developed world. Australia wants to open the largest coal mine anywhere in the world. Australia has some of the dirtiest coal fired power plants in the world. Australia is not irrelevant and this is just an excuse that we’ve been hearing for too long and this is why we have international negotiations by the way. We have international negotiations because nobody can do this on their own. We have to come together and we have to do it in a way that we all agree to.
There is a UN climate convention that agrees to the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities, which means that the solutions should reflect the fact that Australia had a 200 year head start on burning coal. So that means that there’s a greater responsibility to lead and when countries like Australia, Canada and the United States make a bold commitments that makes it harder for countries like China and India to resist. It strengthens the movements in countries like China and India that are wanting to leap frog over fossil fuels and those movements are increasing strong. So I think that’s a pretty ridiculous argument.
Naomi Klein thank you for your time, it’s been a great pleasure speaking with you.
Thank you, it’s a pleasure.