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.

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Will Meyer is a writer, musician and co-editor of The Shoestring, a local publication in western Massachusetts.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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