In her latest book, Naomi Klein continues the cause of her career: arguing that a fundamentally new economic system is the only way to save society and the planet.
By Alyssa Battistoni
On Fire: The (Burning) Case for the Green New Deal opens with the image of schoolchildren going on strike for the climate, following the Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, whose blunt challenges to political leaders around the world have rocketed her to global fame. It’s an opening that reflects the monumental shift in the conversation around climate change over the course of the past year, advanced by young people in particular — from Thunberg’s School Strikes for Climate to the Sunrise Movement’s sit-ins in the US— and the emergence of the Green New Deal (GND) as a central demand.
Yet rather than digging into the events of the past year or arguing for a particular set of policies or programs, On Fire makes the case for the Green New Deal by tracing the evolution of climate politics over the past decade. Setting the recent surge of GND momentum against ten years of Klein’s reporting — on the BP oil spill, the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipeline protests, and wildfires in British Columbia — serves as a reminder of how much it has taken to get to this point.
In 2011, Klein was protesting the Keystone XL pipeline at the White House. In October 2013, she wrote about the need for “political revolution” in response to increasingly dire climate science, and chronicled its opening flares — people taking action to stop fracking in England, disrupt oil drilling in Russian waters, and sue tar sands companies for violating indigenous sovereignty. Disruptive action, that is, didn’t start with Sunrise or Extinction Rebellion. Even the pieces that narrate her own alarming encounters with a warming world, like her unsettling account of two weeks spent anxiously vacationing on the British Columbia coast in 2017 while forests to the north burned, always turn in the end to politics — a refreshing change from the proliferating genre of anguished meditations on climate doom.
Amid the many authors publishing books on climate change in recent years, Klein remains the most prominent analyst of climate in relation to capitalism; this collection also serves as a reminder of how long she has been making that case.
Capitalism vs. the Climate
Her first major essay on climate change, 2011’s “Capitalism vs. the Climate,” argued that it is not a coincidence that many on the Right deny climate change: conservatives have correctly realised that climate change poses a severe challenge to the principles of capitalism.
For many conservatives, then, climate change appeared to be little more than a “Trojan horse designed to abolish capitalism and replace it with some form of eco-socialism.” Klein argues that conservative deniers were perfectly reasonable: action on climate change will require public investment, wealth redistribution, strict regulation, and a host of other things that conservatives oppose.
She reiterates a similar argument at the start of On Fire, this time with reference not to conservative think tanks but “the specter of ecofascism.” Klein argues that “climate disruption demands a reckoning on the terrain most repellent to conservative minds: wealth redistribution, resource sharing, and reparations.” Instead of denying climate change outright, the Right will now use it as a justification for hardening borders.
An essay on Edward Said, Palestine, and Israel’s “green colonialism” illustrates Klein’s worry more extensively. Israel’s “separation barrier” in the West Bank, she points out, is not only comparable to right-wing chants to “build the wall” — in fact, the existence of the former has fuelled the latter.
Paradoxically, the Right is internationalist in its inspirations, if nationalist in its policies. Yet what goes mostly unaddressed is the ongoing transformation of the Right, as the capitalist “globalists” indicted in the original “Capitalism vs. the Climate” essay increasingly come under attack from right populists. The former get relatively short shrift in this book, but they remain formidable opponents. As the age of Exxon-funded climate denial comes to an end, what new tack will corporations seeking to derail a Green New Deal take, and how will they relate to their erstwhile allies of the nationalist right? How will the right populists like Missouri senator Josh Hawley relate to business conservatives like Utah senator Mitt Romney? What challenges, and opportunities, does this realignment present for the Left?
Support from the left
On that note, we could today make a similar observation from the opposite direction. It is not a coincidence that the strongest and most compelling frameworks for tackling climate change are coming from the Left: Ocasio-Cortez, of course; but also Bernie Sanders, whose climate plan recently won him an A rating from Sunrise. What is often described as Klein’s “prescience” is better understood as her perspective: by following the development of global capitalism and the movements of the international left for the past two decades, Klein has been able to see emerging phenomena more clearly than many mainstream political observers.
As Daniel Denvir recently observed about the 1999 World Trade Organisation protests, “in Seattle, we saw Green New Deal politics in rudimentary form: that labour and environment united was the only way forward.” We shouldn’t be surprised that our best chronicler of that movement is now at the forefront of the Green New Deal.
In fact, Klein was making the case for the Green New Deal eight years ago: in the wake of Occupy, she argued, “There is a wide-open opportunity to seize the terrain from the right.” That, she argued, would mean “making a persuasive case that the real solutions to the climate crisis are also our best hope of building a fairer and much more enlightened economic system — one that closes deep inequalities, strengthens and transforms the public sphere, generates plentiful, dignified work, and radically reins in corporate power.” In essays throughout the book that span years of writing, Klein repeatedly argues for “integrated solutions” that “radically bring down emissions while tackling structural inequality and making life tangibly better for the majority.”
Yet for the most part, the writing collected in this book focuses less on those who might benefit from the likes of a Green New Deal than on those disproportionately impacted by climate change. In one essay, Klein uses Edward Said’s concept of “othering” to describe how and why certain people and communities come to bear the most significant environmental burdens: as she argues, the “Faustian pact” of industrialism was that “the heaviest risks would be outsourced, offloaded, onto the other.”
Today, she claims, “our fossil fuel-powered economy requires sacrifice zones.” Though the rhetoric is different, such arguments have a long lineage in socialist thought. In the nineteenth century, Friedrich Engels chronicled horrific air and water pollution as part of the condition of the working class in Manchester; socialists today would do well to follow him in seeing environmental justice organising as an expression of class struggle. The sacrifice zone is a useful concept for connecting the economic language of “externalities” — the pollution and waste that come along with production — to the moral and political critiques made by environmental justice activists. Capitalism happens not just in the factory but in the atmosphere; class struggle, too, is present not only in workplace struggles but in fights over who will bear the costs of capitalist production.
But it is true that connecting those struggles over who pays the costs of our current system to struggles over who might benefit from the future world we hope to build can be challenging. The central movement animating Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate was Blockadia, what she described as a “roving transnational conflict zone” of people determined to stop new fossil-fuel extraction projects. At the time, my most significant critique of This Changes Everything was the seeming mismatch between the strategies and sites of this political movement, which was oriented toward local struggles and stopping environmental harms, and the vision of a better future she laid out at the start of the book, which would require a mass movement oriented toward securing social goods.
But Klein, and climate movements, kept moving.
She was extensively involved in the collection of labour, environmental, and indigenous groups that authored the Leap Manifesto in Canada in 2016, a short but powerful statement outlining a new direction for the Canadian left, an exciting new vision of energy democracy, low-carbon care work, and decarbonisation for the public good.
But as Klein details in “The Leap Years,” a 2016 lecture, it was under siege from the start: politicians fixated on its call for an end to fossil-fuel infrastructure went beyond the usual charges of environmental job-killing to decry it as an “existential threat” and a “philosophy of economic nihilism.” Klein is admirably forthcoming about these difficulties. And set in the context of a decade of struggle, the manifesto appears not as a failed project, but as an experiment from which we can and should learn lessons.
For Klein, many of these lessons come in the form of meditations on the values underpinning modern Western life. The problem goes deeper than we tend to think, she argues. For example, Klein analyses the Leap Manifesto’s failures as stemming from the conditions of Canada’s origins: when European settlers arrived in the New World, it appeared to be a land of limitless bounty — oceans thick with fish, skies clouded by birds, seemingly endless forests of giant trees. Treating this land as if it was inexhaustible, settlers — more specifically, commercial enterprises like the Hudson Bay fur trading company — quickly exhausted it.
Her 2010 piece on the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, “A Hole in the World,” similarly sees BP’s boasts of the “deepest well ever drilled” as an extension of the drive to dominate nature that began with the scientific revolution in the sixteenth century. The spill and BP’s failure to contain it thus represented a “crash course in deep ecology” — a reminder that the earth is still alive and uncontrollable.
My concern is that Klein may be too thorough in her diagnosis. Although she is surely right to trace these deeper currents, the leap across centuries in the space of a few pages can have a disorienting effect, and perhaps a demobilising one. It suggests that the task before us is truly so tremendous — changing everything, beginning with our very understanding of the world — that it can feel impossible to undertake in the span of a few years. If a political project like the Leap Manifesto was doomed by its collision with the ideology that underpinned Canada’s origins, why would the Green New Deal be any more likely to succeed?
“Culture of endless taking”
At the same time, Klein sometimes seems to suggest that once we change our view of the world — often described in terms of “narratives” or “stories” — changes in the way we live will follow. In order to change our policies, Klein argued in “Capitalism vs. the Climate,” we first must “confront the underlying values of rampant greed and individualism that created the economic crisis,” which in turn means “embodying, in highly visible ways, radically different ways of treating one another and relating to the natural world.”
To say this, Klein argues, is not a matter of “lifestyle” — about what goods we prefer to buy or what we like to eat. (Across essays, Klein forcefully, and refreshingly, rejects the idea of consumer choice as a form of politics, insisting that politics requires collective action.) Yet she has a tendency to describe features of capitalism in terms of culture: we suffer from “a culture of endless taking,” “a culture of grabbing and going,” a “cult of shopping,” and so on.
Interrogating our inherited stories, narratives, mythologies, and values — our ideologies, say — is surely necessary. But new stories alone will not get us out of this mess. I would suggest a different order of operations: we do need to change many aspects of our relationships to the natural world and to one another. But we should not expect those changes to come in advance of changes in the material conditions of our lives, however imperative they may be.
This, in fact, is the premise of the Green New Deal: that we tackle climate change not by changing our values in the abstract, but by changing the material realities that shape them. (I think Klein would agree.) Only when green jobs are an option can people give up environmentally destructive work; only when public transportation is quick, reliable, and affordable can you dispense with a car; only when you can afford to retrofit your home will you do so.
And while the school strikes have done a lot to change the discourse, the fact remains that we have a long way to go in changing those material realities. Thunberg, blunt as ever, recently declared that the strikes have “achieved nothing,” since carbon emissions have yet to budge. Klein’s book is a helpful reminder that it is too soon to tell: movements build over the course not of months but years. Yet Thunberg’s impatience is a helpful spur to take a hard look at our prospects, at where the climate left is building power and where we expect more to come from.
School strikes are stirring, but politicians’ laudatory words for the courageous young people of the world will not be matched with action until real consequences seem likely to result. That will mean bringing other forms of power to bear: from the tenants’ movements driving forward Green New Deal legislation, to the growing force of canvassers and organisers who have catapulted long-shot candidates to victories, to the power of traditional strikes to withhold labour.
I wish that such movements and their potential to deliver a Green New Deal had gotten more time in this book. But I have no doubt that Klein will be reporting on them — and organising with them — every step of the way.
By Alyssa Battistoni.