Suzanne Goldenberg: The climate-change movement is making little headway against corporate vested interests, says the author of Shock Doctrine. But how does she think her new book, This Changes Everything, will help galvanise people?
Naomi Klein is the star of the new American left. At 44, the writer and activist has twice written blockbusters combining ground-level reporting and economic analysis that challenged people to take a hard look at what they took for granted: their shopping choices, America’s place in the world, and the devastating effects of arcane trade policy and rampant free market ideology. Along the way she gained a following that spans academics, celebrities and street and factory protesters.
Her first book, No Logo, about the power of brands over sweatshop workers in Asia who made the products (and the consumers in America and Europe who consumed them), politicised a generation of twentysomethings. It became the handbook of the anti- globalisation protests, and inspired two Radiohead albums.
Seven years later, her second book, Shock Doctrine, analysed how wars, coups and natural disasters were used as a pretext to impose so-called “free market” measures. Now Klein is back, writing about capitalism, only this time the fate of the entire planet is at stake. With her new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate, Klein hopes to set off the kind of powerful mass movement that could – finally – produce the radical changes needed to avoid a global warming catastrophe and fix capitalism at the same time. She argues that we have all been thinking about the climate crisis the wrong way around: it’s about capitalism – not carbon – the extreme anti-regulatory version that has seized global economies since the 1980s and has set us on a course of destruction and deepening inequality.
“I think we are on a collision course,” she says. Twenty-five years ago, when the first climate scientist was called to testify to Congress and make global warming a policy challenge, there might have still been time for big industries to shrink their carbon footprints. But governments at the time were seized with the idea that there should be no restraints on industry. “During that time,” Klein writes, “we also expanded the road from a two lane, carbon-spewing highway to a six-lane superhighway.”
When we meet in her Toronto home, Klein is juggling a schedule that combines the standard author book readings and television interviews and planning for an event in New York City billed as the biggest climate march ever seen. Her husband, film-maker Avi Lewis, is out shooting a companion film due for release in January. The two text back and forth during our chat.
Klein does not easily fit into most people’s view of a committed environmentalist. She drives a car (it is a hybrid). She flies, already a lot more than most people, and is set to rack up air miles that would make her, by her own admission, “a climate criminal”. There is a brightly coloured plastic playhouse in the garden that was probably made in China. Yet she confesses to getting weepy when she thinks about the future under climate change.
In a long conversation over the dining table, Klein says she is not about to purge her life of plastics or fossil fuels. She says she is not going to be trapped into “gotcha games” about personal habits. And she is definitely not going to subscribe to the idea that climate change ranks above all other causes.
“I think there has been this really bad habit of environmentalists being insufferably smug, where they are sort of saying: ‘This is the issue that beats all other issues’ or, ‘Your issue doesn’t matter because nothing matters if the earth is fried.’” Klein says committed environmentalists aren’t her target anyway. “What I hope is less about what the greens will do, but what people who don’t consider themselves part of the green movement will do,” she says. “This book is not written for the environmental movement. It is written much more for people who would never read a book about climate change but are engaged with economic justice of other kinds.”
That is where Klein believes she can do the most good. “I want to act, if I can, as a bridge for people who read Shock Doctrine or No Logo. People who are sitting out for whatever reasons.”
Klein admits that even with her reputation for producing brainy economic analysis, and a crack research team to which she gives generous credit in the book and in conversation, it took three years of “marinating” in the material. “I have amazing research help. Basically what I spend my money on is research,” she says. “The way in which people talk about climate is just so wonky and so abstract and such a boys’ club that it makes a lot of women just roll their eyes or feel that they are somehow not qualified,” she says. “I certainly had to fight that feeling in myself in order to write about it.”
The idea of writing about climate change took hold of Klein around the time of the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit – legendary now as a failure of international diplomacy. The summit of world leaders, convening soon after the US had its first “green president” in Barack Obama, was supposed to put the major economies on a glide path to cutting emissions.
Klein came to the meeting planning to write about the great fight between rich and poor countries over the historic responsibility the US and Europe bore for causing climate change. She had dared to hope at one point that a climate deal would be the great equaliser – compensating Africa and Asia for colonialism. But the summit collapsed under the weight of those expectations. Leaders from Africa and small south Pacific Island states, which are slowly drowning under rising sea levels, wanted a more aggressive action that would limit the temperature rise to 1.5C; leaders from rich countries deemed the proposal bad for businesses and rejected it for fear it could cost them votes.
“I wasn’t prepared for the naming of that inaction by the industrialised world as racism,” Klein says. “I was struck by the fact that African delegates were using words such as genocide, describing a two-degree temperature target as allowing Africa to burn.” She pauses. “I found the Copenhagen experience pretty devastating.”
It was a difficult time for Klein personally as well. After the publication of Shock Doctrine, she was on the road for almost two years. She barely saw her husband. While she was travelling the world giving speeches and being hailed as an inspirational figure, Klein found herself in a rut. “I think I was profoundly depressed about 2008-2009,” she says. “I have always told myself that I would not spread hopelessness.” There are figures on the American left who just get up on stage and do these doom and apocalyptic presentations and it can be quite compelling. But I have seen it enough that I have told myself that if I ever get to that point, I will stay home.” She became convinced it was time to retreat, at least for a while. “I just didn’t feel that I had anything to offer, where I wasn’t just indulging my own despair.”
There were other difficulties. Klein writes in the book of the surprising realisation that she did want children after all, and of her struggles through what she calls the “fertility factory” and miscarriages before she finally became pregnant. Her son, Toma, turned two this summer. The book is dedicated to him. But as she was preparing for publication, Klein was diagnosed, and operated on, for thyroid cancer; she says flatly she will not discuss the illness beyond that.
For readers of Klein’s earlier works – or of Thomas Piketty’s analysis of inequality – the central message of the book will sound familiar. Capitalism, since it was unshackled by the deregulation of the 1980s, has widened the gap between rich and poor. The top 3% held 55% of all wealth last year, up from 45% in 1989. The bottom 90% controlled 24.7% of wealth, according to statistics released this month by the Federal Reserve.
“It is not like everything is fine except for the problem that the temperature is going up a little bit,” Klein says. “If the only problem with capitalism was this slight temperature increase, we would really be cooked. But the fact is that there are lots of problems with this system, and on top of all of those problems, it is destabilising our planet’s life support system.”
Klein believes the gap between the 1% and everyone else and the powerlessness of local governments to take control are casualties of global capital. To follow the course of action she prescribes would require a hostile takeover of large parts of the environmental movement. But that would be entirely warranted, it seems. Environmental groups have wasted time trying to recruit big business and billionaires to adopt pro-climate measures, she says. In the meantime, economies have continued to spew out carbon pollution, making a climate fix far more difficult.
“We need an ideological battle. It is still considered politically unthinkable just to introduce straight-up, polluter-pays punitive measures – particularly in the US.” To Klein, environmentalists should have just gone to war on business, and on the whole concept of capitalism.
In a devastating chapter, she details how the US’s biggest environmental group, the Nature Conservancy, earned money from oil and gas drilling on a parcel of Texas land it had set aside for conservation. She writes about the nightmarish scenarios surrounding geoengineering, or hacking the planet, by spraying seawater into the sky to create cloud cover, or simulating a volcanic eruption to fill the lower atmosphere with ash.
Elsewhere, Klein takes on Richard Branson for failing to live up to his promise to set aside $3bn to fight climate change. “So much hope was put in this parade of billionaires to try and reconcile capitalism with climate,” she says. “When Branson entered the climate game, he posited it specifically as an alternative to regulation. He said ‘the governments aren’t going to do this, we’re going to do this. Go to the UN climate summit in a couple of weeks and it’s all going to be the new green economy and the head of Bank of America sitting down with the president of Mexico – and we are all going to do it together.’” She remains irritated. “That is a dangerous idea at this stage of history. We now have two decades to measure that model. We are not talking about a theory here, we are talking about a track record. I think it’s fair to say: ‘OK, we tried it your way and we don’t have another decade to waste.”
In truth, Klein is vague in her book and our conversation about exactly how this would come about. In the book she talks about “an effervescent moment” – when popular protests converge to bring about real change – which comes after a section in the book titled “Magical Thinking”. There is a curious failure to really get to grips with questions about a real-world solution – Klein must have anticipated being asked. Especially given that she has often been acutely focused on what popular movements need to do to bring about concrete change; her message to Occupy, for instance, was that the movement needed to impose clear structures and institutions. If capitalism is going to destroy the world, why wouldn’t capitalism fix itself – if only for its own survival?
“I don’t know if capitalism wants anything. The system itself doesn’t think as an entity – it thinks as a collection of self-interested profit-seeking units.” Asked why Obama is such a peripheral figure in her book, Klein is ambiguous. “I do think Obama is interesting but more in the sense of an absence,” she says. “Obama should have used the economic bailout of 2009 to impose new rules on car companies,” she says. (In fact, Obama used the bailout to spend up to $100bn on home retrofits, subways, and other climate-friendly measures. Klein overlooks these entirely.) “The fact that Obama blew that moment, to me, is one of the great tragedies of our times.”
The fix she proposes broadly relies on scattered groups of climate organisers, grassroots and indigenous people’s groups that have been ready to take on corporate power in a way that Big Green is not. Klein admits that most environmental groups are too white, male, and middle class to connect with women, African-Americans, Latinos and the poor who will bear the brunt of climate change. She recalls that in their first manifestos, the Occupy protesters never even mentioned global warming.
Klein is on the board of one of those emerging grassroots groups: 350.orghas played a lead role in reframing a mundane pipeline project, the Keystone XL, until it was seen as one of the most critical environmental decisions of Obama’s presidency. The Keystone XL project, meant to transport tar sands crude from the vast Alberta tar sands, would probably be well on its way to completion, if the protests by 350.org and Nebraska landowners had not made the project a national issue. Obama has repeatedly put off making a decision about the pipeline. But the deciding factor in that delay was almost certainly the wealthy Democratic donors pushing behind the scenes, and threatening to cut off election funding.
Even so, Klein continues to sees the Keystone fight, widespread local protests against fracking and campus divestment campaigns as the way forward on climate change. She argues there is little scope for individuals on their own to accomplish much, giving the examples of Toronto’s impressive carbon-cutting efforts. “It’s been kind of disastrous,” she says. “While we are all doing these green things, our country’s emissions are soaring because of the tar sands. People start feeling kind of like jerks. We are just sort of like suckers.”
She goes so far as to lump centrist environmental leaders together with groups such as the Heartland Institute, which denies the existence of climate change. “Between the Heartlanders who recognise that climate change is a profound threat to our economic and social systems and therefore deny its scientific reality, and those who claim climate change requires only minor tweaks to business-as-usual and therefore allow themselves to believe in its reality, it’s not clear who is more deluded,” Klein writes in the book.
Those are fighting words. Over the past few years, the oil and coal lobbies and, increasingly, super-rich ultra-conservatives in America have spent close to $1bn a year building a network of rightwing organisations that have blocked efforts to cut the emissions that cause climate change – often by claiming that climate change is not even happening. More than half of the Republicans elected to Congress now deny the existence of climate change.
There are already signs of a pushback on Twitter from some environmental bloggers, even before the book’s release. But Klein – who over the years has endured pro-corporate backlash of her two earlier books and a ferocious assault for criticising Israel’s conduct against the Palestinians, says she is ready for it. “I think I have been through attacks that are far more personal and far more intense than what I am going to experience with this book.”
She says she sees a new breed of climate activist, ready to go after corporate power in a way that Big Green is not. “They are going after the fossil fuel companies directly as opposed to just trying to go into business with them and gently cajole them into doing the right thing,” she says.
At the same time she argues there has been a shift in attitudes about how people treat one another.
“I am not in despair. I am excited by what I am seeing. I think that the task is enormous. I think we are nowhere close to where we need to be, but I think we are on a track. There is a track,” she says.
• This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate by Naomi Klein is published by Allen Lane on 16 September.