Naomi Klein on Climate Chaos: “I Don’t Think Baby Boomers Did This. I Think Capitalism Did.”

The author and activist weighs in on the presidential race, youth movements and the Right’s response to climate change.

Will Meyer

Author Naomi Klein speaks at the Climate Crisis Summit November 9 in Des Moines, Iowa, at an event with presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.). (Stephen Maturen/Getty Images)

Niger­ian writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa helped lead a resis­tance move­ment against the eco­log­i­cal geno­cide” car­ried out to facil­i­tate Shell’s expan­sion into the Niger Delta dur­ing the 1990s. The Niger­ian gov­ern­ment, eager for oil prof­its, assist­ed Shell in remov­ing the only thing in their way: the Ogani peo­ple who were peace­ful­ly resist­ing encroach­ment on their native lands. The state’s mil­i­tary was accused of behav­ing like a pri­vate police force” for the oil giant, killing and tor­tur­ing thou­sands. On May 10, 1994, Saro-Wiwa pre­dict­ed, They are going to arrest us all and exe­cute us. All for Shell.” Twelve days lat­er he and eight oth­er indige­nous Ogo­ni activists were arrest­ed by the Niger­ian mil­i­tary; they were mur­dered the fol­low­ing year, 24 years ago this month. 

I think that Bernie’s Green New Deal plan is the best plan mainly because of the international scope of it.

Saro-Wiwa has appeared in three of Nao­mi Klein’s books: First in No Logo: Tak­ing Aim at the Brand Bul­lies (1999), about the rise of cor­po­rate glob­al­iza­tion, Saro-Wiwa’s sto­ry was told as an exam­ple of anti-cor­po­rate activism. Then, in This Changes Every­thing: Cap­i­tal­ism vs. the Cli­mate (2014), Klein showed how Saro-Wiwa’s anti-cor­po­rate activism was also cli­mate activism. 

In her newest book, On Fire: The (Burn­ing) Case for a Green New Deal (2019), she uses the case of Saro-Wiwa to demon­strate how fos­sil fuel sac­ri­fice zones” span the globe — and makes the case that a Green New Deal is our best chance to build a world with­out sac­ri­fic­ing peo­ple and places and change course from reck­less fos­sil fuel expan­sion towards an eco­log­i­cal­ly just econ­o­my, one that doesn’t pit jobs against the envi­ron­ment, or the Glob­al North against the Glob­al South. 

Klein, an icon­ic jour­nal­ist and intel­lec­tu­al, has always advo­cat­ed for a world where Saro-Wiwa wouldn’t have been mur­dered and his peo­ples’ lands not destroyed by a multi­na­tion­al fos­sil fuel com­pa­ny. Her books pay close atten­tion to how cap­i­tal­ism oper­ates on a glob­al scale — one crit­ic called The Shock Doc­trine (2007), which details how the Right exploit dis­as­ters to advance dereg­u­la­tion and pri­va­ti­za­tion, a mas­ter nar­ra­tive of our time.” I spoke with Klein via tele­phone about her new book, which is the lat­est install­ment in this larg­er sto­ry. Our con­ver­sa­tion fol­lowed the rise of cli­mate bar­barism and eco-fas­cism, as well as the nar­row path for­ward for the Left to win glob­al jus­tice and a Green New Deal.

In many ways the Green New Deal is a course cor­rec­tive both eco­nom­i­cal­ly and envi­ron­men­tal­ly to the sta­tus quo of the last 40 years. How so? 

When I was writ­ing The Shock Doc­trine, I was in New Orleans after Hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na and watch­ing the way our cur­rent eco­nom­ic sys­tem actu­al­ly responds to the shock of the kind we are going to see more of in a warm­ing world. What I was writ­ing about then was the infra­struc­ture of dis­as­ter cap­i­tal­ism descend­ing onto this still-flood­ed city — the pri­va­ti­za­tion of the school sys­tem, of the hos­pi­tals, of pub­lic hous­ing, and real­iz­ing that there wasn’t a counter response really. 

Dur­ing that time, I researched why [econ­o­mist] Mil­ton Fried­man and oth­ers were so obsessed with the need to have a strat­e­gy for dif­fer­ent kinds of cri­sis, what became clear was that they believed that every­thing had gone wrong dur­ing the New Deal. That the great crash of 1929 had been used to push this rad­i­cal agen­da. They actu­al­ly under­stood that when cap­i­tal­ism pro­duces these crises, it’s much more organ­ic for soci­eties to move to the left than it is for them to move to the right. You have to work real­ly hard to get them to move to the right. So it’s fit­ting in a way that we’re talk­ing about a Green New Deal because it brings this full circle. 

I some­times quote my friend Saket Soni, a labor orga­niz­er, who said: They have dis­as­ter cap­i­tal­ism, we need dis­as­ter col­lec­tivism.” In oth­er words, what is our plan for how we want to trans­form soci­ety in the con­text of the sys­tem fail­ures that are being pro­duced? You know, I see the sort of inter­sec­tion­al vision in a Green New Deal as that kind of counter shock. I’ve been involved in oth­er projects like it, like the Leap Man­i­festo in Cana­da [which artic­u­lates a move­ment-backed trans­for­ma­tion of soci­ety], and this has been a grad­ual process on the Left of real­iz­ing that we real­ly need to have a vision for what­ev­er the cri­sis is. We need­ed it in Greece, we need­ed it after the 2008 melt­down, and we need­ed it in Egypt. Too often there have been these sys­tem crises and real­ly regres­sive forces have their shock doc­trine” plan and the Left doesn’t have a demo­c­ra­t­ic coun­ter­part. And I think the sig­nif­i­cance of the Green New Deal is that for the first time the Left does have a plan. 

As you men­tion in the book’s intro­duc­tion, cap­i­tal­ism is adapt­ing to the cli­mate emer­gency. Instead of a Green New Deal, what is actu­al­ly being offered is eco­fas­cism and cli­mate bar­barism. What’s the dif­fer­ence between these two terms? 

What I’m call­ing cli­mate bar­barism is de fac­to what is hap­pen­ing at the bor­ders. Politi­cians know [cli­mate change is] real whether or not they deny it. Just recent­ly we have new evi­dence that the Trump admin­is­tra­tion has known very well that the mass migra­tion that’s hap­pen­ing from Cen­tral Amer­i­ca is inti­mate­ly linked to drought-relat­ed cli­mate disruption. 

And their response was to cut hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars of aid to Cen­tral Amer­i­ca and expand the infra­struc­ture of incar­cer­a­tion, fam­i­ly sep­a­ra­tion and the mil­i­ta­riza­tion of the bor­der. [Eds. note: After this inter­view took place, Trump restored some law enforce­ment and secu­ri­ty” aid to Hon­duras, El Sal­vador and Guatemala. In return, the coun­tries agreed to help deter migrants from seek­ing asy­lum in the Unit­ed States.] They have used the specter of the invad­ing oth­er” as a uni­fy­ing force for their polit­i­cal project. This is a form of cli­mate change adap­ta­tion that we’re see­ing with these bar­bar­ic prac­tices, such as the con­struc­tion of con­cen­tra­tion camps, whether they’re in Texas, in Libya, or off the shore of Aus­tralia in places like Nau­ru or Manus; this has been the sto­ry of the decade. 

Eco­fas­cism is more of an artic­u­lat­ed ide­ol­o­gy that we’re start­ing to hear. A sec­tor of the far Right is no longer deny­ing cli­mate change and is using the real­i­ty that we are enter­ing a peri­od where more and more peo­ple are going to be on the move as a ratio­nale for extreme vio­lence. We saw that in Christchurch, New Zealand, the per­son who killed more than 50 peo­ple at those two mosques specif­i­cal­ly call­ing him­self an eth­no-nation­al­ist, eco-fas­cist” and say­ing that in the con­text of eco­log­i­cal break­down you can’t have migra­tion to pre­dom­i­nant­ly white countries. 

So what can the Left demand in response to cli­mate bar­barism and eco­fas­cism? Open bor­ders? Glob­al reparations? 

Even under that best case sce­nario, there’s going to be many mil­lions of peo­ple on the move. There’s a core jus­tice ques­tion here about what the big his­tor­i­cal emit­ters like the Unit­ed States, Cana­da, the Euro­pean Union and Aus­tralia — [the ques­tion of] what we owe, what are our debts? Some of our debts are finan­cial. And here, Bernie Sanders is the only can­di­date tak­ing this seri­ous­ly. Even if he isn’t using the lan­guage of debt, he is using the lan­guage of jus­tice and he’s talk­ing about putting $200 bil­lion into the UN cli­mate fund which is real­ly a trans­for­ma­tive amount. The Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion com­mit­ted 3 bil­lion and I don’t think they ever paid it up [Eds. note: Oba­ma ful­filled $1 bil­lion of this pledge, and the remain­ing $2 bil­lion was can­celled by Trump], so its a huge shift. And it’s mon­ey with­out strings attached, which is very sig­nif­i­cant because part of what we hear from some of the oth­er can­di­dates is, We’re gonna help oth­er coun­tries green their economies by sell­ing them cheap made-in-Amer­i­ca solar pan­els.” That’s actu­al­ly eco­nom­ic impe­ri­al­ism that locks in rela­tion­ships of depen­den­cy, which doesn’t offer real eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ty, and it’s more of the same, in terms of unequal eco­nom­ic rela­tion­ships. So, I think part of what we owe is finan­cial, which means no strings attached financ­ing for com­mu­ni­ties — and I say com­mu­ni­ties because in some cas­es it does need to bypass nation­al gov­ern­ments — to leapfrog direct­ly to clean ener­gy, to keep car­bon in the ground and leave forests intact. 

But we also owe asy­lum. Peo­ple are gonna be dis­placed through no fault of their own, and they have a right to move, they have a right to safe­ty, and most peo­ple do not want to move from their home­lands if they have a choice. There is no such thing as a cli­mate refugee under inter­na­tion­al law, and that needs to change. 

A lot has changed since you’ve been fol­low­ing the Left. Today, the Left seems to have both social move­ment savvy and also elec­toral ambi­tion. What’s your assess­ment of what you’ve learned since your days in the Glob­al Jus­tice move­ment of the 1990s? 

I think the biggest shift is just gen­er­a­tional­ly, peo­ple are not afraid to get their hands dirty with elec­toral pol­i­tics. But they simul­ta­ne­ous­ly con­tin­ue to under­stand the impor­tance of inde­pen­dent social move­ments. I think there’s just more peo­ple involved, so there’s more capac­i­ty to do a few things at once: build inde­pen­dent social move­ments, have an elec­toral strat­e­gy, have a direct con­fronta­tion­al strat­e­gy with elect­ed offi­cials and devel­op pol­i­cy alter­na­tives, which is what the Green New Deal is. And to me, that last part is the most impor­tant because I think this is the first time where I think if there was a break­through polit­i­cal moment, like an Occu­py moment, or an Arab Spring moment, or like a move­ment of the Squares in Europe, that we would be very clear about what the alter­na­tive poli­cies are that we want to fight for. 

I think the cli­mate move­ment needs to do more on migrant rights, needs to do more on mass incar­cer­a­tion, more on mil­i­tarism and war and con­nect­ing these strug­gles. But I think we’re in as good a place as we’ve ever been in terms of hav­ing the poten­tial to weave togeth­er a tru­ly holis­tic agen­da of the next econ­o­my built on dif­fer­ent val­ues. We also have a kind of ide­o­log­i­cal infra­struc­ture through the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca and oth­ers, where the whole sort of issue-based silo approach is being reject­ed and peo­ple are not afraid to talk about an ide­o­log­i­cal project, which is anoth­er huge shift. So, if there is that kind of an open­ing, which I believe there will be very soon, we won’t find our­selves in that real­ly quite trag­ic sit­u­a­tion of hav­ing opened up polit­i­cal space and not know­ing what to fill it with. Which then leaves us open to oppor­tunists on the Right to come in and fill that vacuum. 

Look­ing toward 2020, do the Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates go far enough on cli­mate and the Green New Deal?

I think there’s a range. And I think that I still feel a lit­tle bit like it’s not inte­grat­ed enough into anyone’s stump speech to be hon­est. I think that Bernie’s Green New Deal plan is the best plan main­ly because of what I said around the inter­na­tion­al scope of it. I feel real­ly pas­sion­ate­ly that there’s no such thing as a nation­al Green New Deal. This is an inter­na­tion­al, glob­al cri­sis, right?

And there’s real­ly strong ele­ments to Warren’s plan. She took a lot from Jay Inslee, which was a great plan, but I real­ly object to the nation­al­ism of it [War­ren calls her approach eco­nom­ic patri­o­tism”]. I agree with Yanis Varo­ufakis, we’re not going to beat the Right on the ter­rain of nation­al­ism. They have it cor­nered and I also think it’s moral­ly rep­re­hen­si­ble in the con­text of an inter­na­tion­al cri­sis that the Unit­ed States is his­tor­i­cal­ly the biggest con­trib­u­tor to. So that’s why I back Bernie’s plan. 

I think we’re still a lit­tle bit trapped in this sort of a check­list approach instead of a coher­ent, holis­tic vision. I think that it has real­ly helped that a cou­ple of the net­works have giv­en the can­di­dates pro­longed space to talk about their cli­mate plat­forms and that is start­ing to improve. I think all of the can­di­dates could do a bet­ter job get­ting that the GND is a frame, it’s not one item on the checklist.

Teenagers are ris­ing up and many are act­ing from a place of, The grown-ups won’t act, so we will.” Still, being a teenag­er is hard, kids pick on each oth­er and there’s a lot of pres­sure; it isn’t easy to orga­nize. Many of them car­ry the twin bur­dens of being a teenag­er and sav­ing the world. What advice do you have for that generation?

[laughs] I think they know that it’s an unfair bur­den. And I think the main thing is just that they try to take care of each oth­er and be kind, and orga­nize in a way that leaves room and space for the emo­tion­al spec­trum of this work. I think they have to leave room for their own grief and for their own feel­ings of hope­less­ness. They don’t have to be dri­ving all the time. Nobody can be in that state all the time. I find it so inspir­ing when we see these lit­tle moments where these young activists are stand­ing up for each oth­er and pro­tect­ing each oth­er. I think that’s why that adorable viral video of a young boy pro­tect­ing Gre­ta [Thun­berg] and friends from the cam­eras was so sweet. 

I think it’s impor­tant also to build an inter­gen­er­a­tional move­ment. Young peo­ple are lead­ing the strike move­ment, but I wor­ry a lit­tle bit about the fram­ing of this as gen­er­a­tional war­fare because I think it’s very depoliti­ciz­ing. I don’t think Baby Boomers did this. I think cap­i­tal­ism did, and there’s some­thing both depoliti­ciz­ing and iso­lat­ing about the gen­er­a­tional frame. There are peo­ple in every gen­er­a­tion who tried so hard to stop this from hap­pen­ing, who raised the alarm, and peo­ple who died in the strug­gle. I think move­ments that are just of young peo­ple tend to be short lived. On the oth­er hand, indige­nous move­ments, and many oth­er move­ments that have been fight­ing for hun­dreds of years, have a role for every gen­er­a­tion to play, and that’s part of how we pro­tect these young peo­ple with so much courage.

Will Mey­er is a writer, musi­cian and co-edi­tor of The Shoe­string, a local pub­li­ca­tion in west­ern Massachusetts.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH