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Naomi Klein: "The moral crisis is inextricable from the ecological crisis"

The renowned author speaks to openDemocracy about the challenges of building a sustainable future in a climate of rising authoritarianism.

Naomi Klein Aaron White
16 September 2019
Naomi Klein in conversation with Greta Thunberg at the ‘Right to a Future’ event sponsored by The Intercept at the New York Society for Ethical Culture in Manhattan, September 9, 2019
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Albin Lohr-Jones/SIPA USA/PA Images

For the past two decades, Naomi Klein has been a leading voice exposing the social and environmental injustices of neoliberal capitalism. From revealing the appalling conditions experienced by those working at the bottom of the global supply chain, to documenting the 'shock doctrine' agenda imposed by disaster capitalists during times of crisis – Klein has never shied away from speaking truth to power.

Klein’s forthcoming book, 'On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal', takes the reader through a journey of essays and lectures spanning the last decade, exploring how our contemporary crises, from the ecological to the moral, reinforce each other. Weaving through the past, present and future, Klein makes an impassioned case for a global Green New Deal – and calls for a mass mobilization that transcends traditional political and economic boundaries.

In an exclusive interview for openDemocracy, Aaron White spoke with Klein about the challenges of building a sustainable future at a time when authoritarianism is on the rise around the world.

Aaron White: You begin ‘On Fire’ with anecdotes from the student climate strikers. What is unique about these global student mobilizations that we are seeing right now?

Naomi Klein: The size of them frankly is pretty staggering. We have had huge climate marches before. But in a lot of cities, particularly in Europe right now, Fridays are becoming days of mass action, again and again. So it’s not like a one off where a whole years worth of organizing goes into one march.

What’s happening in places like Milan is every Friday you are seeing tens of thousands of students on the street. And so I think that’s a difference, and the existential urgency that young people are bringing – a moral clarity. This is not an abstract issue, this is not a far off issue, they are fighting for their right to a future.

There are many people on this planet who have known that they are fighting for their right to their future for a very long time. People living in low lying islands in the Pacific have been fighting for their right to a future, for their right to exist. I would say because of systemic racism, their voices have not captured global attention in the way that the voices of young people have.

But it's been kind of a dam breaking for people that finally understand that the nature of this crisis has shifted. It is no longer a future threat. We have no more time to waste. We have already lost a huge amount, and that sense of urgency and clarity that young people are bringing has changed the debate which in a weird way had been kind of frozen. The discourse around climate change had not adapted as the decades had passed and emissions continued to soar and the impacts began to bite. There was still a way in which it was still being talked about in this sort of bureaucratic language – even using the phrase ‘climate change’ as opposed to a ‘climate emergency’ or a ‘climate crisis.’ There was a way in which habit had set in, in particularly the UN discourse around climate change, and the young climate strikers have really exploded that.

AW: How do you view the role of these social movements pushing the agenda, as opposed to traditional political procedures? And how can we sustain these movements to force a Green New Deal forward which will almost inevitably be met by the full strength of the corporate, media, and political establishment?

NK: Well I think that certainly in the United States and in other countries as well, these are social movements that are outside of politics but they are absolutely engaging in the political process. Sunrise first came to national attention by occupying Nancy Pelosi’s office and by working with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey on the Green New Deal resolution.

So there’s an inside outside strategy at play and there is a constant engagement at pushing the boundaries of acceptable discourse and acceptable behavior within the political context – making it unacceptable to accept fossil fuel money for instance, which is a huge breakthrough. If you think about the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton was sort of blindsided by the idea that she shouldn’t be taking money from fossil fuel companies. And now every candidate, including icons of centrism like Joe Biden, are having to at least say they are not taking money from fossil fuel executives even though we know that’s not true. Or the push to have a climate debate which so far has been unsuccessful but has had a huge impact in terms of what the networks have done. CNN’s 7 hours town hall, MSNBC is doing another marathon just on climate change – this is the most extensive coverage of the climate crisis that we have seen in years from these networks.

So this huge change is happening because of this strategy. These are movements that have identified pressure points and have continued to work those pressure points. And with this strategy, the hope is to have a candidate that emerges from the primaries that runs against Donald Trump who has a bold Green New Deal at the center of their platform and then for that candidate to win in the general election. That is the strategy. It is by no means guaranteed, but it is I would argue our best hope.

And then as you say, the real work would begin. Because the pushback would be so tremendous if the Democrats do the right thing and choose a candidate ready to take on corporate power in a serious way and bring in a Green New Deal – we don’t know how the establishment powers are going to react. Are they going to run an independent like Michael Bloomberg and split the vote? We don’t know what they’re going to do, but they’re going to do something.

AW: Left political parties internationally are calling for a Green New Deal, such as the UK Labour Party and the European Spring project. How can we strengthen and build international left coordination politically, which is something that the right has been particularly adept at doing in the last several years?

NK: Absolutely. The fact that this is happening is a product of the fact that there is more cross pollination across borders. We are all learning from each other – learning from taking good ideas and making them better and learning from each others' mistakes.

I am on the board of DiEM25 which is behind the European Spring project, and I have had several conversations with the UK Labour party leadership about the Green New Deal and our experience with The Leap in Canada. And you can already see how the different proposals are improving on one another.

I think one of the weaknesses of the original Green New Deal framing was that there wasn’t enough on climate debt – the fact that the US and other wealthy countries owe a debt to poorer countries who are on the front lines of this crisis, and did the least to contribute to it. Paying off that debt is not about saying, 'oh well, you can buy made in America solar panels' – that’s economic imperialism. Paying that debt is about saying, 'you have a right to your own economic development, to leapfrog over fossil fuels, and have the resources to keep fossil fuels in the ground in your countries and still have the resources to keep people out of poverty.' So what we’re seeing with the UK Labour party right now is a much more serious engagement with those international climate debts. We see it with Bernie’s plans as well.

So we’re in a great place right now, where people are one-upping each other for who can come up with the best plan.

The moral crisis unfolding in our countries is inextricable from the ecological crisis.

AW: Refugees from the Bahamas were recently denied entry to the US, which is the latest sign of the intersection between the climate crisis and a xenophobic right. How do you see the global rise of authoritarianism and the demonization of immigrants in relation to the ideological foundations that have facilitated the climate crisis?

NK: I think that savage ideas surge when they are needed to rationalize savage policy. The age of scientific racism emerged in parallel to the transatlantic slave trade and the most brutal periods of colonial land theft and genocide. There needed to be theories of human hierarchy that put white christian people at the top, mostly men, and everybody else in descending order on a pyramid in order to justify this kind of barbarism.

Because in settler colonial nations we’ve never really reckoned with the violence in our national narratives, the ideas never really go away – there are just periods when they are more virulent than others. The periods when they are more virulent are when they are needed to justify policy. They were virulent in the Reagan years with the introduction of some of the most brutal neoliberal policies and cuts to welfare used to vilify the poor and to justify attacking the social safety net that continued through to the 1990s.

But we are in an era now where relatively wealthy countries (this is not just about Trump, it is true of Europe, Australia and Canada) are responding to the fact that there are an unprecedented number of people on the move on this planet looking for safety, by fortressing their borders and allowing people to die – whether it’s in the desert in Arizona, the Mediterranean, or in Australia’s obscene concentration camps on the islands of Nauru and Manus.

And so if you’re going to do that to people, you need to have theories that somehow make it okay to your base. And those are the theories that Trump ran on: they’re rapists, they’re killers, they’re not sending us their best. You have to vilify people if you’re going to let them die. You have to animalize people if you are going to treat them like animals. The moral crisis unfolding in our countries is inextricable from the ecological crisis.

AW: In your recent book, I enjoyed how you say we need to use creativity and the arts to build a counter narrative, which can help counteract this moral crisis. Can you discuss the role you see of the arts in supporting a Green New Deal?

NK: One of the most powerful forces that we are up against when it comes to just activating our basic survival instinct is a really profound sense that we are incapable of anything but the most hackneyed cli-fi script that we’ve all seen in various apocalyptic dramas on Netflix or the big screen – that have told us again and again variations of the same story. That the future unfolds against a backdrop of scarcity and ecological poisoning, and that there will be a small group of people that will hoard all of the resources and everybody else will be locked out, animalized and excluded.

And because we’ve been told that story alongside the story that we’ve heard from neoliberal economists for so long – which is that all we are is a collection of our basest wants, we are only about personal gratification, democracy is equated with shopping, etc. All of that has made us believe that we are not capable of collective action, and more than that, when we try to do anything collectively, terrible things happen. It is true that there are harrowing examples of collectivism gone awry in our history. But there are also examples when people come together and accomplish amazing things.

So I think in the face of the message that people are relentlessly getting – that apocalypse is a foregone conclusion and that we are set on this course where all we can become are worse versions of ourselves – we need different stories of the future that wake up the possibility that there are other possible outcomes, that there are other ways we can go. There is only so much that rhetoric can do in convincing people of that.

When we made the short film with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, A Message from the Future, which told the story of the decade of the Green New Deal and this period of rapid transformation when people came together instead of apart; when they didn’t have to fear the other because there were so many jobs they didn’t have enough workers; when care work was recognized as part of the green economy and paid accordingly. When we put that out with the beautiful artwork of Molly Crabapple, the response was unlike anything any of us had seen before. We had ten million views in a week. And more than that, all of us were getting messages particularly from educators saying, ‘my whole class watched it and cried.’ We realized that we just tapped into a hunger for an awakening of a utopian imagination. And it’s sad that a utopia is associated with the most basic right to survive and have a decent life. But I think that it’s something that only art can reawaken for us, that we need these different stories of the future.

And it’s really worth remembering that art was absolutely central to the successes of the original New Deal. FDR saw artists as workers, like any other, who needed to feed their families and needed to have programs to give them work. A lot of art that was created in this period was completely apolitical. It was just about recognizing that people had a right to beauty in their neighborhoods; that art is not the purview of elites in big cities, but everybody has a right to it, everybody has creativity inside of them – so it was a real democratization of creativity.

One of the things that I’ve been banging on about for a long time is that art is low carbon work. And I think that a big part of what we need to do as we think about a Green New Deal is to expand the definition of what a green job is. Too often, we still think about the guy with a hard hat putting up a solar panel – it is that, but it’s so much more than that. Making art is low carbon, teaching kids is low carbon, healing the sick can be low carbon, and these sectors can be reimagined to be zero carbon if we invest in that organizing work.

So I see art and creativity as absolutely central to winning and sustaining people. This is hard work, and people need to be fed as full human beings not just with food, but their spirits need to be fed as well. Art keeps people in movements because it gives us moments of beauty, release and community.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

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