Naomi Klein on pitting capitalism against the climate

With the release of Klein’s new book on climate change, she speaks with OpenCanada about new economic models, collective action and indigenous rights.

By: /
September 16, 2014
A child holds up a sign as he takes part in the "People's Climate March" in New York City, September, 2014. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

As one of Canada’s most well-known activists and journalists, Naomi Klein surprises few when she comes out with a new, hard-hitting, call-to-action tome. Her latest, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, took no less than five years to write, following the release of bestsellers The Shock Doctrine and No Logo.

Before its release on Sept. 16, Klein launched the book in front of a packed house in Toronto, describing to the audience the momentum she documents in her book: “It is a movement so driven by love of place; it’s really about people falling in love more deeply with where they live. It’s not an ‘anti’ movement. It’s such a positive movement.”

Klein sat down with OpenCanada Managing Editor Eva Salinas on the eve of her book’s release to discuss this movement, the economic model it challenges, and how upholding native land rights may be one of the best chances we have to protect the planet.

Naomi Klein

Did you have a specific audience in mind for this book?

Mainly I had in mind my own readers, the people who read The Shock Doctrine, who read No Logo. I usually have a sort of specific kind of person, some composite person in mind; I used to say I wrote No Logo for my 19-year-old self. I always pitch my books to a younger reader, and I do try to write for women, and people who are engaged already, politically, but really need the ammo. I think with a lot of the information in the book, people will learn things they don’t know but they will also have their sense of things confirmed with really, really solid facts and examples and that can be emboldening. So that’s who I tend to think of; I never think of powerful people reading my books, really the opposite, I think of people who could become more powerful through having empowering information.

When you were recognized at the International Studies Association annual convention this year as an ‘outstanding activist scholar’, I believe you called for activism to be something that people weren’t as afraid of, whether they were scholars or journalists or everyday consumers. Do you think that there are barriers to why people might make a small change in their life, but not be as politically engaged on the bigger policy issues?

I think as a culture we don’t necessarily know how to act collectively as well as previous generations did. Many of us don’t have traditional jobs, we have a series of contracts and even if we do have a job, maybe we have multiple jobs and they are probably not unionized. And so a lot of people get involved in politics through their trade union, or maybe we move a lot and we’re not as connected to our neighbours and we spend a hell of a lot of time staring at screens. So we don’t necessarily know exactly how to act collectively when confronted with a huge problem like climate change.

"The project is about more than just ‘what is the specific action;’ it’s the very idea that there is this public sphere in which we can be active."

And that is a casualty in many ways of the economic model that I am writing about because there has been a kind of erosion of the public sphere and we don’t have as many of those public spaces where you can have those political discussions, so that’s why I think the environmental movement was so prone to boil it down to a shopping decision: ‘So what can we do? Well, you can buy this instead of that…’

So we were addressed not as citizens, not as members of our communities or people active in our kids' schools but we just get addressed as shoppers. That’s always been an issue since I wrote No Logo, where I was like ‘OK, this is a book about a global trade system that is systematically driving down wages, we need to change that system.’ ‘OK, what should I buy?’ – that was the first question at every speech because we’ve lost touch with our non-consumer selves. Not to say we’re not consumers. Yeah, we buy things, we’re shoppers, but that’s not all we are. We are active in our workplaces, we’re active at our kids' schools, we’re active in our neighbourhoods. We could be more active. So definitely the project is about reviving the idea of collective action, and it’s more than just ‘what is the specific action;’ it’s the very idea that there is this public sphere in which we can be active.

On the challenge of collective action, you wrote of this kind of decentralized, hub-and-spokes system in Fences and Windows during the 1999 trade protests in Seattle, at the beginnings of that movement. On one hand, you can applaud it for having a different power structure than corporations because it is decentralized, but on the other hand, can that be effective? That was a big question around the Occupy movement; there were too many voices. How do you address those two issues?

In the book, I say that I have defended these amorphous structures in the past and that I have become less patient with them. I think part of it is just getting older and having been part of a few movements that I think didn’t make the most of extraordinary political openings. They are rare those moments, when suddenly you are able to shift the conversation and people are focused and people are going ‘OK, what’s next?’ If you don’t have an answer to that, you’re going to lose that moment. I’ve experienced that a couple of times.

In the case of the so-called anti-globalization movement, a lot of that had to do with September 11, 2001, and the conversation being changed on us. And in many ways that led me to write The Shock Doctrine about how crises are used by elites to change the conversation and have the conversation that they want to have. But it wasn’t just that, it is also that the pendulum swung too far away from institutions and sort of more traditional political solutions for understandable reasons because I think those centralized state solutions had become overly bureaucratized.

I think we're starting to see a new engagement with political power and policy among a new generation of activists who did come out of Occupy. For instance you have a councilor who was elected in Seattle [Kshama Sawant] who was one of the key people at Occupy Seattle and she's fought and won a major campaign to raise the minimum wage to $15 in Seattle. She ran for office, but she had that movement power behind her. In Spain, you had the huge movement of ‘The Squares’ that was their version of Occupy, and there is a political party called Podemos that has emerged from it, and it’s a very non-traditional political party. They still have these values of decentralization at their heart, but they are not opting out of politics.

And the student activists elected in Chile.

Exactly. So I think we’re starting to see the pendulum swing back, not all the way and I don’t think it should swing all the way. Now what’s exciting to me is seeing the emergence of policies, like the one I go into in some depth in the book; the German renewable energy transition that I talk about in chapter 4. This is movement victory where Germany is probably the strongest environmental movement in the world, the strongest anti-nuclear movement in the world. They demanded an energy transition and even a conservative government like Angela Merkel’s has had to respond and introduce these very bold policies that have transformed the country's energy in a dramatic way. So now 25 per cent of Germany's electricity comes from renewable energy, much of it small scale.

What’s interesting about the German example is that it’s the most impressive and most rapid transition to renewable energy anywhere in the world but it isn’t happening through big centralized solutions, it’s happening through a bold national policy of introducing a feed-in tariff that has specific incentives to encourage small players. So you have for instance 900 energy co-ops that have emerged; you have hundreds of towns that have launched their own energy utilities. So it’s grassroots, it’s participatory democracy, its decentralized, but it's not just small-is-beautiful, ‘do your own thing in your little pocket;’ it’s a bold national policy. Well designed policies based on these principles of decentralization. And that kind of interplay between grassroots and government is quite new and really exciting.

So your main argument is that we need a different kind of economic model – but as that seems more big-picture or long-term, in the meantime we need as many kinds of smaller initiatives, whether they are under a national framework or really local?

The main message of the book, in political terms, is that we are not going to get anywhere close to where we need to get, in terms of emission reductions, unless we have an ideological battle of ideas about what role we think government should play. We can quibble about the policies; about whether a carbon tax is better than cap-and-trade or whatever. The point is, we’re not doing much of anything and there’s political paralysis both in saying no to fossil fuel companies who are doubling down on the dirtiest forms of energy and also paralysis in introducing the types of policies like Germany's that would put the right incentives in place.

"This is the big lie that people have been sold; that you have to choose between a healthy environment and a good economy."

What’s interesting about Germany is that even though they have this fantastic transition to renewable energy, their emissions are still going up because Merkel is willing to put these incentives in place for renewables, but she’s not willing to say no to coal. So coal extraction continues and now they are just exporting power.

If we think about it in the Canadian context, the Harper government is essentially an extension of the oil and gas industry and they don’t even try to hide it; they do their PR for them; they are international salesmen for them; they do their spying for them. I mean there is just a complete merger of oil and state in this country and that’s based on an ideological belief that the role of government is to pave the way for maximum profits and this is called economic growth and job creation. And the interests of big business, indeed the biggest business of all, are equated with the interests of the public.

With climate change you see how mistaken that equation is because of course it is in our collective interest to protect the life systems of the earth, but this is the big lie that people have been sold; that you have to choose between a healthy environment and a good economy.

Does it reinforce that idea at all, that it is one or the other, when you say ‘capitalism vs. the climate’ – in that you’re saying one has to win and one has to lose?

Arguably maybe, but I don’t equate capitalism with the economy. I think we can change our economy. We cannot change the laws of nature but we can change the economy. I start the book with a Kim Stanley Robinson quote, the science fiction writer, where he talks about how much easier it is to imagine these sci-fi geo-engineering responses to climate change than it is to imagine rationally changing the rules of capitalism. There is a conflict between the interests of an economic system based on short-term growth above all else and the stability of the planet.

What I am saying is the Harper government is equating progress with those short-term interests. It isn’t true that we can’t have a healthy economy and also protect the environment. We can. But there needs to be an ideological shift. There have to be parts of our economy that contract, while we deliberately expand other parts of our economy. We have to design, we have to really get in there, and all we are told we should do is just get out of the way.

My impression is what helped keep your motivation during the writing of this book, amid all the depressing research, was a momentum of positive action. And yet Mexico just privatized its energy sector, and there seems support as strong as ever for privatization. What do you say to those developments running concurrently?

I think these are deeply contradictory times, and there’s no end of bad news that you can point to. But there’s a lot more good news you can point to. You can look at Germany, where hundreds of cities and towns have taken back control over their energy system from private players. That’s new. The steady privatization of energy, that has been going on for years.

The fact that there is a very lively debate in China right now about air pollution and its connection to all of those coal plants they are building. We often feel helpless because it’s like, ‘Well, what are we supposed to do about climate change if China is opening up a new coal plant every week?’ Well, this is not just about us. It’s about what Chinese people think of those coal plants and there’s really been a massive amount of dissent, expressed under very difficult circumstances where there are penalties for that dissent, about the cost of what some Chinese call low-quality growth. I mean their government is doing the same thing our government is doing – just chasing growth no matter the environment cost. But in China, people are literally choking on it in their major cities.

When I started writing this book, there were no signs of that level of resistance in China. The governing party did not feel the need to make speeches about how they need to scale back economic growth and that they’re doing enough. They’ve just introduced a cap-and-trade system and they have a more ambitious renewable energy system than we do in Canada. So we should think about that when we use China as an excuse.

Is your message geared toward polluters in the West; what about the criticism that these changes or perceived economic limits will make it hard for the developing world to play catch-up?

I don’t think it is only geared towards Canadians; I think there is a huge amount of dissatisfaction globally at the grassroots level of the real costs of this economic model. I think that we need to know more about what’s going on in China, in India and the huge amount of dissent there about the extractive economy.

I do write in the book about the need for us to respond to climate change equitably. One of the ways that I think climate change changes everything is that there really is no way to make real progress on climate change unless we talk about historical emissions and the reasons why our world is as unequal as it is. That’s intimately tied to the history of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels super-powered the economies in Europe and North America, which allowed relationships to be developed that were enormously imbalanced that last to this day. All the while the greenhouse gases from that industrial revolution were accumulating in the atmosphere.

"There’s this sort of feeling of ‘OK, don’t be polarizing about it; don’t make it political.’ But it is political."

So now that this has reached a crisis for humanity, our governments want to respond as if none of the past matters and everybody’s on equal footing. You go to a UN conference on climate and the push-back from the developing world is ‘Wait a minute, this is a crisis that you have a 200-year start on creating. You need to lead.’ We can have that argument and do nothing, or we can actually come together. We talk about acting collectively, and that we don’t know how to do it at home, but we also don’t know how to do it internationally.

I make the argument in the book that this is why climate change denial is so much stronger on the right than the left. In Canada, 41 per cent of self-identified Conservatives deny that climate change is happening, where as 76 per cent of people who identify as supporters of the NDP believe it and around 70 per cent of Liberals do. If part of your worldview is there is something really fundamentally wrong with collective action, then climate change presents an irreconcilable problem for you. So it’s easier to deny the science than it is to re-examine your worldview.

There’s this sort of feeling  of ‘OK, don’t be polarizing about it; don’t make it political.’ But it is political. You look at the polling, you look at who believes it, who’s denying, who’s pouring money into denying it. It’s already political. So by admitting that, I don’t think I’m politicizing it.

Is there a parallel between the lack of interest or engagement on environmental issues and indigenous issues in Canada at all?

I certainly don’t see a lack of interest. I think part of that comes from the fact that my family all lives out in British Columbia. I wrote the book out there, I moved back (to Toronto) after my son was born because I wanted to be in a city, but I wrote the book on the Sunshine Coast, which is where my family is and I mean, my God, British Columbia is so engaged on all the issue of pipelines, tankers. I mean everybody’s lawn has a ‘no tanker’ sign. You have, as I describe later in the book, communities like Bella Bella, B.C., where when Enbridge's joint review panel came to town, a third of Bella Bella was out on the streets to greet them. Or Prince Rupert, B.C., or communities where you’re not used to seeing large demonstrations, the whole town comes out, they feel so passionately about this.

Then what is the connection missing elsewhere?

I think what is really interesting about what’s happening around the Northern Gateway pipeline, but similarly in New Brunswick around fracking and the dispute around Elsipogtog, more and more non-indigenous people are understanding that First Nations land rights as affirmed by the Canadian Supreme Court, and reaffirmed by the Canadian Supreme Court, represent the most robust barrier to the Harper government's determination to ram through extractive projects against the will of the local population.

So what was really extraordinary for me was witnessing in B.C. the way in which the attacks on environmental standards and the pushing of these industrial projects was creating new consciousness among non-indigenous Canadians. Presenting the rights of the people to log on their traditional territory as an attack on taking something away from the rest of the country – that’s the way it has been reported on for most of my life. That it was some kind of zero-sum game.

Now what I document in the book are these amazing coming-togethers of different communities where for the first time in my memory, more and more non-native Canadians are saying we are so grateful that these rights exist and we now understand that by helping to protect them and holding up our government’s side of the treaty, we have the best chance of protecting our water, of protecting the planet. I’ve seen these really moving exchanges like that. And I see real progress. Whether it gets reported in the media is another issue. But there’s no way that this is static.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.