Naomi Klein on Cause of Climate Crisis: "Capitalism Is Stupid"
Wednesday, 24 September 2014 09:46By Sarah Jaffe, Truthout | Interview/News Analysis
Naomi Klein (Photo: Ed Kashi)
Naomi Klein is out to change hearts and minds around climate change.
Her new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate out now from Simon & Schuster, is a broad challenge to those who want a livable planet: We need to come up with a livable economic system too. Deeply researched and personally reported, Klein's third book takes us from the tar sands in Alberta ("Earth, skinned alive") to the oil-soaked waters of the Gulf of Mexico ("a miscarriage"), from climate denier conferences to a meeting of would-be geoengineers, as she traces the path of destruction that capitalism and a mindset she terms "extractivism" - that is perhaps even older - have left on the Earth.
At one point, Klein concedes, it might have been possible to stop the climate crisis with a few regulations here, a carbon tax there. But we're too far gone for that, and nothing but a full-on change in how humans relate to the Earth and to each other will save us now.
The good news is that Klein has written an immensely hopeful book, a book about people who believe they can make change and who are doing it in the face of a political and economic system that would seem to doom them to failure. She doesn't define what comes after capitalism, leaving that to the social movements she describes being born all over the world, but sketches its broad outlines, letting us know what this new climate justice movement is against - but also what it is for - and making a case for a broad redistributive justice movement that would include already-existing movements for racial justice, feminism and decolonization.
The problem is, capitalism is stupid ... in that it doesn't actually think.
Truthout's Sarah Jaffe caught up with Klein on the eve of the People's Climate March and of the United NationsClimate Summit in New York to talk about why liberalism is not enough, why billionaires can't save us, and what we need to do to save ourselves.
Sarah Jaffe for Truthout: You've written two other books, No Logo and The Shock Doctrine, that helped to name and understand a particular historic moment. How was this book a direct outgrowth of your previous work, and how has your worldview changed in the years since those other books?
Naomi Klein: In many ways this is a direct continuation of The Shock Doctrine, in that that book begins and ends with Hurricane Katrina and a glimpse of a future in which our world becomes more and more disaster-prone, with an unstable climate and an unstable economy, and each shock pushes us further apart. It's the vision of the future that I think we actually take so for granted that we just keep repeating that same vision in every sci-fi apocalyptic movie that gets produced. It's a small group of winners and hordes of locked-out losers.
The Shock Doctrine was about the worst of humanity in crisis. A lot of people asked me, after it was published, whether or not there could be a progressive response. I remember the first event I did for The Shock Doctrine, before it actually came out, in New Orleans and Saket Soni, a fantastic organizer [with the National Guestworker Alliance and the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice], stood up and he said, "OK, they have disaster capitalism, we need disaster collectivism!" I used to quote him all the time. I end that book talking about how there are progressive precedents for crisis being moments of tremendous progressive victory and indeed this is why the right learned how to get in there fast before that could happen, that's what the Shock Doctrine is.
Going back to No Logo, which was more about tracking the rise of the global production chain, part of what [This Changes Everything] is saying is, we knew that they were combing the world for the cheapest possible labor, and we know the effects of that. I think what was less clear at the time is that there was a direct connection between cheap labor and dirty energy, because if you're a corporation and all you care about is cutting your production costs, that's all that matters, it's going to be cheap, abused labor that doesn't have the freedom to organize, and it's going to be coal, the cheapest and dirtiest of the fossil fuels.
So the explosion of the so-called global economy has coincided with an emissions explosion, and why would we be surprised by that, in retrospect? But I think when we were fighting those free-trade deals, a lot of us didn't understand the climate dimension of that battle. It's all one long story.
In this book, you say what people just aren't supposed to say: that fixing the climate is incompatible with capitalism. In particular, you point out the ways that the profit motive has proved corrupting, in some cases to green groups themselves, in other cases to the supposedly beneficent pledges made by the superrich. Can you talk a little bit about how profit hasn't been able to, and won't be able to, solve the crisis?
There's a chapter in the book on why the billionaires won't save us, and the point of that chapter is not to play gotcha with Michael Bloomberg and Richard Branson. It's actually to say OK, let's say that these are the most enlightened billionaires on the planet. And let's say that they at various points have had the shit scared out of them about climate change. But locked within the imperatives of their model, it's possible for Michael Bloomberg to simultaneously understand the medium-term risk of fossil fuels and to back reports like "Risky Business" that are all about warnings about the billions of dollars in costs that come with a destabilized climate, and Michael Bloomberg, as an investor, to choose, in a very short-term way, to put his billions in oil and gas, which is what he does.
There was this idea that it was just a process of convincing very wealthy people that this really was a problem, and that there really were costs down the road and that in the long term it would be better to prevent it from happening.
The problem is, capitalism is stupid. You know that cover of Bloomberg Businessweek, "It's Global Warming, Stupid," well, it is global warming, but capitalism is stupid in that it doesn't actually think. It seeks the maximum short-term profit. I think people are mistaking the fact that there are billionaires out there that do get the extent of the problem and really do talk a good game about carbon bubbles and the economic risk, for the idea that that's going to translate into action. Where that becomes really dangerous is that the UN believes this too. I keep getting press releases from the UN about how the best part of the summit is that it has unprecedented participation from multinationals and CEOs from Bank of America and Walmart and McDonald's and Amoco. It's still this same idea that getting people around the table with the right information and the right incentives in place will solve this from the top, and there won't need to be any friction.
I think the real difference is that now there's a movement on the outside that says no, that understands that the imperatives for the fossil fuel industry are fundamentally incompatible with a livable climate. That's the point of the carbon tracker research that kicked off the fossil fuel divestment movement because students look at those numbers and go OK, my university is investing in companies that have made a bet against my future. You can debate fossil fuel divestment as a tactic, but I think that it's important to understand what you're up against, and I think there's much more clarity in the movement now than there has been in decades.
You write about the elite background of the environmental movement, the people who would go hunting with Teddy Roosevelt to convince him to conserve something. Green groups have often seemed to forget the people and focus on saving animals, land, and, as you note in the book, are often taking money from polluters even as they profess to fight them. Do you think these problems are connected?
Yes. I think the environmental movement is not a social movement like we normally think of social movements. It's not a movement of outsiders, and it never really was, except for the environmental justice movement, which has always from its birth been in a relationship of tension with the green NGOs.
I think it follows seamlessly from those early hunting trips to having BP on your board of directors. The real issue is that at earlier stages of capitalism I think it was easier to reconcile saving a river or saving a mountain with the overall imperatives of expansion and growth, but we're now at a point where that's not the case, we need to cut too much and too quickly.
Their model used to be "Sue the Bastards" and it became, . . . "Make Markets for the Bastards."
The other real turning point, as I say in the book, was what happened in the 1980s. It was Nixon who introduced some of the best top-down environmental regulations. There is a Republican tradition in this country of regulating polluters. But that tradition long ago died. Nobody gets regulated anymore, including polluters. What happened in the '80s is that it became clear that in order to hang on to that insider status that these green groups needed to change. Some groups decided forget it, we're going to go on the outside, and there were breakaways and new groups formed that were more militant. And other groups changed with the times.
The Environmental Defense Fund is a really interesting example because they were inspired byRachel Carson; they are the group that deserves a huge amount of the credit for why DDT was banned. Their model used to be "Sue the Bastards," and it became, in Eric Pooley's words, "Make Markets for the Bastards." That's the model that continues to this day, and that's the model that we're going to see at the UN [this] week.
Large parts of the environmental movement have always been part of the inside game, and when the inside changed, and neoliberalism took over, the movement changed along with it. That left it uniquely ill-equipped to deal with a crisis like climate change. So we wasted a lot of time with carbon trading and carbon offsetting and touting natural gas as a bridge fuel and basically doing anything but getting off fossil fuels.
There's a growing movement to push foundations and universities to divest from fossil fuels, though critics have argued that this won't change the behavior of fossil fuel companies. In the book, you argue for the value of this movement and also talk about the move to "reinvest" that money in cleaner technologies. Can you explain why you support the divestment movement and what is happening with reinvestment?
One of the things that has been most pronounced in the resurgence and emergence of these anti-extractive fights, anti-pipeline fights, is that more and more people are coming to the same conclusion, which is that we can't just say no - we also have to be providing people with real economic alternatives. We're just going to be fighting against the worst possible ideas unless we can show people that there's actually another economic model that will bring them jobs and a better way of life. I hear this again and again, see it again and again: frontline activists going, "We need to build an economic alternative right here." Communities in England that are fighting fracking have decided to launch their own renewable energy co-ops. First Nations communities in Canada where they're fighting the Tar Sands are simultaneously launching renewable energy projects because the extractive industries right now are the only ones offering jobs. It's critical to show that there are these alternatives if we aren't just going to be scrambling all the time.
I think renewable energy is threatening precisely because it lends itself to decentralization.
The problem is always funding. There's no shortage of great alternatives out there that are justice-based. In building these alternatives, you're also strengthening the resistance to fossil fuels. What we're hearing from frontline communities is that this is what's most important to embolden communities to fight back. I highlight something like the Black Mesa Water Coalition: They have shut down a coal power plant and are successfully fighting coal, but there's limits to how much they can win, they say, unless they can show that there's another way to bring resources to the communities. They have this great proposal to have a utility-scale solar project on Navajo land, land that used to be a coal mine, it's been decommissioned. It's a beautiful elegant plan. This is the kind of thing that needs to be funded. And it isn't being funded by government.
So if we think about the capital that is being moved from fossil fuels right now - and it is being moved: A lot of schools are saying no, but a few have said yes; a lot of cities have said yes; a whole bunch of foundations are now on board. I'm really excited by the prospect of that capital going into investing in a just transition; that can really show how possible and inspiring this transition is.
But we can't mistake that for the scale of action. We need the scale of action like we're seeing in Germany, where you have a national feed-in tariff that is shifting that country with incredible speed to renewable energy. In the meantime, until we get there, we also need some really good examples of this working.
There are so many brilliant technologies that do exist to challenge the crisis, you note - just this week we heard that Burlington, Vermont is now getting all of its power from renewable sources. Yet the people who propose to save the earth with technology are more interested in terrifying types of geoengineering. Why do you think solar energy isn't exciting enough for them?
I think renewable energy is threatening precisely because it lends itself to decentralization. It's not that money can't be made, but it lends itself to more people making less money. Some people have talked about fossil fuels as technologies of the 1%, or the 1% of the 1%, because as soon as you have an extractive-based technology - I'd include nuclear in that - the resource itself is concentrated in specific locations; it's not available everywhere; it takes a lot of money to get it out; it takes a lot of money to refine it; it takes a lot of money to transport it. That means you're only going to have a few big players who are going to profit a lot.
What we can have is more deliberate growth and that does mean valuing work that we currently don't value at all.
So it's not that you can't have all kinds of economic opportunities in a renewables-based economy. But it is going to be a more level economy because you have so many players. That's what's worked best in Germany, the multiplication of these small-scale projects. You've got some big projects as well, but you have 900 new energy co-ops, hundreds of municipal-scale renewable energy utilities popping up. It's not about whether you can make money off this. It's about whether a few people are going to continue to make the kind of stupid money that is actually the barrier to progress. I think the answer is no, and that's why they're fighting tooth and nail to protect that model and are willing to entertain dimming the sun and fertilizing the seas before they entertain putting up solar panels on a mass scale.
Your subtitle is Capitalism vs. the Climate, but you actually go beyond capitalism and challenge the whole mindset of what you call "extractivism." I kept finding myself thinking, at various times, that the book was also about "patriarchy vs. the climate" and "colonialism vs. the climate." There's a theme that runs through the book where you talk about the need to revalue caring work, women's reproductive labor, even mention the Wages for Housework movement. I would love to hear you talk about what kind of work we need to value, what kinds of values we need to have in order to create a new system beyond capitalism.
It's a great question. It is beyond - that's why I talk about extractivism as a mindset. Some people talk about it as instrumentalism, which is really just about "I'm going to take from you and get whatever I can out of you." That's how we relate to each other, and that's how we relate to the earth. It's not a reciprocal relationship, it isn't a regenerative relationship. We need to get at the core of how we got here in the first place, which was this mentality of this intense hierarchy between people who supposedly mattered and people who didn't matter, places that supposedly mattered and places that didn't matter and could therefore be sacrificed.
It is important to understand the clash between the kind of economic growth that we have and the constraints presented to us by atmospheric science. We can't just keep growing our economy. But that said, there are low-carbon parts of our economy that we want to expand and can expand. What we can't have is stupid growth in the same way that we can't have stupid profits. What we can have is more deliberate growth, and that does mean valuing work that we currently don't value at all.
When we do that work of valuing work that is now being belittled and mistreated, what we start doing is creating more economic options for people and for communities, and that in turn makes it less likely for people to make those impossible decisions that so many communities are being asked to make right now; whether to have water or whether to have a mine; or whether to have a refinery in their backyard.
That's why I talk about basic income as well, that there has to be a stronger social safety net because when people don't have options, they're going to make bad choices. Let's have better choices on the table.
You write about the hope that has come since you started work on this book, the new movements, the new attention. What more hopeful signs have you seen since you finished the book?
I'm excited about the energy of this moment where I see a lot of people engaging in climate change that I know weren't engaged just a year ago. It's really exciting to see a lot of people who were involved in Occupy Wall Street getting involved in Flood Wall Street. I think those connections are being made really fast by some really smart people who've already shown that they can change the debate.
Having spent a few weeks talking mostly to journalists about the book, a lot of mainstream journalists outside of the US, I think that the moment we're in is essentially about whether or not we believe in social movements. It's really striking to me. If somebody, a progressive person who has experience with social movements and believes in social movements reads the book, they tell me that they feel inspired and hopeful and excited. But a lot of the liberal journalists who I've been speaking to tell me that they read the book, and it just fills them with despair because they don't believe in activism. I expected to be having arguments about the science; I expected to be having arguments about the policy: I've had basically none of those. I'm having arguments about whether or not there's a reason to have any hope at all. That's a hard thing to do all day!
I think there's something about climate change - I'm realizing this more and more since finishing the book - that really demarcates the difference between liberals and radicals, liberals and leftists in the sense that if you are really committed to that sort of reasonable centrist reformist model, top-down model of change, and you also are willing to look at the science and look at the, be honest about the kind of economy we're in, then you're filled with despair. Look at Ezra Kleinwriting "7 reasons America will fail on climate change." If you believe that the only way the world changes is through a combination of policy wonks and enlightened leaders, then you will be in despair because you will look at the aligned, entrenched interests in a dysfunctional democracy, and you will say "we're cooked."
If, however, you believe that social movements have grabbed the wheel of history before and might just do it again, if you've caught glimpses of that in your life, the moments when suddenly it seems that everything's changing, then you still hold out that hope.
I'm looking forward to being around activists for a few days!
Sarah Jaffe is an independent journalist covering labor, social and economic justice, and politics for The Atlantic, The Guardian, In These Times, Truthout and many other publications. She is the cohost ofBelabored, a labor podcast hosted by Dissent magazine, and a frequent guest on other TV and radio programs. She lives in Brooklyn with a rescue dog and too many books.
Donations can be sent to the Baltimore Nonviolence Center, 325 E. 25th St., Baltimore, MD 21218. Ph: 410-366-1637; Email: mobuszewski [at] verizon.net. Go to http://baltimorenonviolencecenter.blogspot.com/
"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs