Interview: Naomi Klein

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“Only mass social movements can save us now. Because we know where the current system, left unchecked, is headed. Our economic system and our planetary system are at war.”

Naomi Klein’s latest work, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate, is a scathing polemic against free market capitalism. Over the course of our interview, although she is warm, anecdotal and funny, underlying her every word is this irrepressible urgency. It feels fitting that my own meeting with her is incredibly rushed, with her schedule only allowing me ten minutes of her time. Naomi and I are both conscious that our time is running out.

When I initially ask her about the process of coming to write the book, it seems less a conscious choice than a compulsion; this is a book she had to write. “I wrote the book because I think that this has been the elephant in the room of climate debate. And we’re out of time.”

Klein’s elephant in the room is, of course, capitalism; capitalism in the broadest possible sense of the term, as an ideology and a material reality, a philosophy and an economic system. Capitalism, according to Klein, tells us that “we just need to come up with cleverest technologies and then the problem will be solved. The truth is that technologies are fast evolving, and we’re still going in the wrong direction.”

Faith in the free market explains the reason why, despite our collective awareness of climate change, we are still hurtling rapidly towards extinction. She tells me, “Oil companies are among the most profitable corporations in history. The Big Five oil companies have made $900 billion in profits from fossil fuels from 2001 to 2010. Free trade agreements, governments, lobbying power all collude in their favour to protect an elite minority.”

However, Klein goes on to reject the idea that she is politicizing climate change; climate change has always been political. “I don’t believe I’m inserting ideology into the climate debate – although some people claim that I am – I think that ideology has shaped our climate debate since the start. It has been highly ideological to assume that we should respond to this crisis with consumer choice or by creating markets. It’s just that we don’t see it as ideological, because capitalism is the dominant ideology.”

Klein, therefore, attempts to reveal the struggle between opposing political currents, and the ways in which these have dictated our response to climate change. “All I’m trying to do is reveal the way in which ideology has shaped our response, and how that has been such a central factor to the failure of that response.” That being said, this revelation is not an end in itself: Klein again employs the language of the crusade in asserting that “We will stay locked in on this high-emissions pathway until we have the ideological battle we have been avoiding.”

This Changes Everything is undoubtedly a call-to-arms. It poignantly describes moments where there was a real possibility of environmental change: Kyoto, Copenhagen, the many broken promises of Obama’s presidency. I ask where she thinks we are now, whether we are at another critical historical moment. “Yes, I think that we are at another one of those peak moments. And the story of our climate engagement is a story of these peaks and valleys.”

“There were recently 400,000 people on streets of New York. It was the largest climate demonstration in history, and that very much felt like a turning point, because that march was a manifestation of the new spirit of climate activism which I document in the book. This is the flipside of the carbon boom.”

Energy corporations have, with consistent governmental support, responded to the impending disappearance of fossil fuel reserves with ever more aggressive and intense methods of extraction. And the ‘flipside’ is an intensification of the war on both sides. “In North America and Europe, fossil fuel companies are going down this extreme energy road and creating new carbon frontiers.

These [methods of extraction] are different from previous technologies just in terms of the sheer amount of land that is impacted. The amount of people who are in the crosshairs right now have built a movement.”

As fossil fuel companies desperately and aggressively try to seek out and exploit these new frontiers, they affect greater and greater numbers of people. Localism is a theme to which Klein repeatedly returns in her book, as a social doctrine which has broadened and diversified climate activism, forming new and unlikely coalitions. “It’s not a professionalized movement of NGOs, it’s a grassroots community movement built on love of place, that is much more passionate and feels a sense of urgency in a way that I
would say the last incarnation of the climate movement did not. Even in Texas, right, there’s a huge movement against the Keystone XL pipeline and it has to do with a sort of ‘don’t mess with Texas’ attitude. So it crosses ideological lines.”

But how do the local and the global interact? How can small, grassroots campaigns hope to overthrow a transnational capitalism? For Klein, climate activism is only just beginning to assert itself as a global movement with unified aims and principles.

She says, “Something shifted a couple of years ago when climate became a layer uniting all of these different anti-extraction movements, and it started to be articulated as a movement against extreme energy.” She goes on to talk to me about her own group, 350, who are opposed to the Keystone XL
pipeline. “There’s been a lot of coalition building between these different movements across America.”

Despite her book’s devastating exposition of the power of multinational corporations, its poignant tales of the destruction of communities and broken promises, Klein’s is fundamentally a message of hope and possibility. Every grim prediction of a carbon-heavy future is qualified with an if. She holds a belief that is increasingly common on the left: that the climate emergency, due to its urgency and its literally universal impact, could be a catalyst for sweeping social reforms.

“The central agenda which Klein’s latest work aims to alter is the fatalist acceptance of the inevitability of climate change. “The environmental crisis neither trumps nor distracts from our most pressing political and economic causes: it supercharges each one of them with existential energy.” My own conversation with her ends on a similarly hopeful note. “Climate has always ranked low and traditionally been seen on the Left as this luxury issue – if you don’t have anything real to care about, you can care about climate change. But not any more. People are making connections and we are building a movement”

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