During a Hobo Residency this spring semester at Northern Arizona University I was able to hear Naomi Klein give a talk, (R)evolution of Climate Change: How the Climate Crisis Can Spur Economic & Political Transformation. Having gotten involved with radical politics in 2001, I feel like I’ve grown up reading her work from No Logo
and Fences and Windows
, through many articles especially in The Nation
, to The Shock Doctrine
: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism
, which I actually picked up from the Iron Rail Infoshop the second time I was in New Orleans volunteering after Hurricane Katrina making it particularly relevant, and watching The Take and a handful of other videos. On reflection, the fact that the climate crisis was being framed in a context that could spur economic transformation, should have made me apprehensive going into the talk, but I wasn’t thinking too deeply about the name of the talk at that point.
Klein started off speaking about how she hasn’t given many public talks over the last four years because she has been working on a new book which is currently in the final edits called This Changes Everything, the “This” being climate change.
She talked about how long she was in soft denial of climate change, and systematically about the various ways people try to ignore it including personal struggles, but how Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy showed this is a struggle people cannot ignore.
Next Klein addressed the predictions for the rise of temperatures on our current trajectory as an example of what will happen if we do nothing, and why we need to change how we think, relate to each other, even govern, everything needs to change. I feel like such implications can’t be downplayed in their radical potential, but it seemed like most times this sort of rhetoric was used, it wasn’t expanded on much. There are all sorts of ways we can change how we think, relate to each other and govern that would not make things better for many or most people even if they dealt with climate change.
Klein backtracked to 1988 as being the starting point for the emergence of the science behind climate change being connected to greenhouse gases. She contextualized this by talking about how the Berlin Wall came down the next year and then began the era of global market fundamentalism that we are in, and has led to a 60% rise in emissions.
Klein considers it the fundamental problem that people consider the economic change we need, to be scarier than climate change. She said many of the necessary changes are exciting, and solve other problems we have anyways. She compared the transformation to the abolition of slavery and the New Deal. When talking about abolitionism, Klein stressed its initial grassroots nature and how it eventually came to totally change society in the U$. Talking about the era after the New Deal, she said she recently found out that in 1946 40% of the fresh produce consumed in the U$ was still being grown in the backyard Victory Gardens that had been a big part of the domestic side of the recently ended war drive, but what we need now will be bottom up.
The Ontario Green Energy plan to get off coal by 2015 was discussed next, and how they’ve been able to get down to just one coal burning plant when they used to be very dependent on it. This plan was a response to the high point of the current economic crisis which saw many plant closures from the Big Three U$ auto-manufacturers in that province. The Ontario government tried to offset these plant closures by creating Green jobs. 30,000 were created, and many ex-autoworkers started to make solar panels and wind turbines for local use. She emphasized how many of the workers and their families were proud of the work they did for the first time.
Because of protectionist, local sourcing written into the plan, Japan and the European Union took Canada to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and won, Ontario promptly shutting down its program. But this has caused many people to realize the need to change the laws that govern global trade. Similarly in Quebec, a fracking ban has been challenged by a U$ corporation under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Next Klein talked at length about how a grassroots movement emerged in Boulder, Colorado initially to Green the coal powered grid, but moved to re-municipalize the energy system since the private company that ran it refused to get off coal. This has been happening on a large scale in Germany where in Hamburg, the second largest city, a ballot initiative for re-municipalization of electricity has won. In Berlin a similar vote got a majority, but voter turn out was too low to make the super majority needed to win. Then the small scale, decentralized Green energy being used in Germany was described.
The brutal flooding this winter in the UK was talked about, and how Cameron’s austerity measures effected this through massive funding cuts to the organizations that should have been dealing with the flooding. Klein compared this in detail to Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.
Tar Sands and fracking projects came up next, and how they have created the movements that oppose extraction. Klein talked about how one of the most exciting aspects of this resistance is the indigenous leadership in North America.
This was followed by campaigns for fossil fuel divestment such as the Do the Math Tour, and how schools, cities, churches and foundations are divesting from fossil fuels, and some in turn are investing in Green energy.
For particularly local relevance she talked about the Black Mesa Water Coalition, and the struggle against coal mining and burning for power on Dine land.
Then Klein backtracked to how her views on global warming started to change when she met with a Bolivian governmental representative who talked about the need for Green development, speaking to the UN in 2009. She advocated a Green Marshal Plan for development in the Third World. The contextualization of how this fit into the history of colonialism and the current crises of economics and the environment was a moment of clarity for Klein.
Klein ended her talk by reiterating the need for a movement similar to that of the abolitionists, and expanded this to how the women’s movement has helped bring attention to the ongoing crises women face, and how we need to stop looking away from climate change.
During questions and answers, Klein was asked about China’s rise to prominence in the global economy. She said China is opening a coal burning plant a week, but Third World development has been used as an excuse to not cut First World emissions for far too long and this needs to stop, we need to get beyond this and “our economic model is at war with Earth and we need to change.” We can’t pretend that colonization and the Industrial Revolution didn’t happen, we can’t ignore our history. Confronting our history can be liberatory. She also talked about how the anti-China messaging of many big Green groups in the U$ drives her crazy and how we go nowhere with this sort of hyper-patriotism. This is something that has also been bugging me for a while, so I was glad to hear a white person say it. It has been reminding me for years about how bad it sucked to be half Japanese and moving to the Rust Belt in 1989 when the Japanese-U$ trade deficit was being blamed for all our economic problems and all the racism and xenophobia that came with that. Klein talked about how we need to foster internationalism and humanism. “If we are going to win this, we need to have a values change.”
Klein was asked about the negative industrial aspects of Green energy, and she admitted it’s an important thing to examine, but talked about how complicated this is. We need to consume less, and the transition will include urban planning adding more public transit and designing cities away from car culture in general. She also talked about cleaner ways to recycle.
The topic of re-municipalization was returned to, trying to fight against urban sprawl, and how the leaders globally in Green energy are generally places where there is more public ownership.
Then the Transition Town Movement was discussed. When visiting its birthplace in the UK, Klein stressed how one of its major components isn’t just giving people bad news, but hanging out with people and creating the space to process the information and make plans for the change we need. She also emphasized how many of the participants in the Transition Town Movement had come out of other struggles such as the Women’s Movement. I think this was one of her most well articulated points when it came to exactly how a grassroots response to climate change will look from Klein’s perspective.
When asked about Green Washing, Klein responded with how it creates an illusion of the scale of the problem. It makes the threat seem small. She said in the 1980s many environmentalists decided to not go directly after polluters, and how carbon offsetting and many other bad ideas that won’t work came out of this and she thinks it’s “scandalous.” The emerging, grassroots climate movement will either turn to these groups to proper solutions or make them irrelevant. “We’re actually acting like this is a war ’cause it is.” The need to protect water is the driving force behind the movement against fossil fuels and it’s a largely women led movement all over the world, that’s exciting, and it starts with water and goes up.
As long as I’ve been reading her work I’ve felt like Klein dwells in a gray area between radical and liberal, and this talk seemed to bring that out in a more contradictory sense than anything else I’ve read or heard by her. Though she consistently emphasized grassroots and radical change on every level of society, when it came to actual examples of change she came back overwhelmingly to the state and corporations again and again. I caught myself wondering if she has taken a turn to the right or if she was playing down some of her more radical ideas since she was speaking in front of a big state school audience? I’m still very excited about her next book, though I’m a bit apprehensive now too.