This Changes Everything, Again
By Casey WilliamsNovember 13, 2019
On Fire by Naomi Klein
Naomi Klein’s new book, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal, tackles questions of power head on. Written in the lucid, urgent prose that characterizes much of Klein’s work, the book collects essays published over the last 10 years, a period Klein calls the “lost decade,” when lawmakers missed a crucial opportunity to start decarbonizing the global economy. Klein’s thinking, admirably consistent, develops over this period in subtle but telling ways. The concern with denialism that hangs over “Capitalism vs. The Climate,” first published in 2011, gradually fades, as the facts of planetary warming become harder to deny and “emotional appeals” fail to move the world’s elite to action. Meanwhile, Klein’s sense of strategy sharpens. Though she has long stressed the importance of a coordinated climate movement — involving fossil fuel divestment, pipeline blockades, boycotts, and electoral campaigning — her recent essays pinpoint where such a movement derives its power: working people. Emphasizing labor’s role in forcing a New Deal in the 1930s, the book closes with several essays, one brand new, on the Green New Deal (GND), for which Klein makes a convincing, nuts-and-bolts case.
In 2014, Klein announced that global warming “changes everything.” Today, after five years of legislative paralysis, everything seems to have changed again. This summer, hundreds died in European heat waves, while millions struggled to eat in a rainless East Africa. Deadly wildfires now regularly menace the Western United States and Canada, and Atlantic hurricanes, like the one that killed 50 people in the Bahamas in September, are growing steadily worse. More horrors are on their way. In October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report detailing the devastations that await us should average global temperatures climb more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. The planet has already warmed one degree since the Industrial Revolution, and is on track to warm four more by century’s end — a catastrophic possibility. To stop that from happening, the report’s authors called for “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”
They gave us 12 years.
“Now we have only eleven,” Klein writes, declaring a “climate emergency” for the planet. The language of emergency has drawn fire from some critics, who caution that the powerful and well connected can, and do, use such language to consolidate power, suspend democracy, and direct violence at scapegoats close at hand, often migrants. Klein understands this. “[W]e need to constantly guard against this state of emergency becoming a state of exception,” she writes. Such caution is especially prudent now, in the wake of anti-immigrant massacres in El Paso, Texas, and in Christchurch, New Zealand, where a white nationalist murdered 50 people in two mosques during Friday prayers and live-streamed the killings on the internet. Writing in emotional terms about the massacre — carried out by a self-described “eco-fascist,” only blocks from a youth climate strike attended by hundreds — Klein observes a “lethal dialogue” between climate-induced migration and the resurgence of global ethno-nationalist politics. She describes how easily climate change, and the displacement it often entails, can be weaponized by the extreme right.
“This is the dawn of climate barbarism,” Klein warns. As the world warms, “many who currently claim to deny climate change will simply switch abruptly to the sinister worldview espoused by the Christchurch killer, a recognition that we are indeed facing a convulsive future and that is all the more reason for wealthy, white-majority countries to fortress their borders.”
Such a worldview is abhorrent but not aberrant, and it fits neatly with the imperatives of capital accumulation. To protect private property from dangerous weather and desperate people, capitalists are already turning to exclusion and violence to defend their assets. A “climate change shock doctrine is a real and present danger,” Klein writes, describing how international banks and their government allies forced through a series of brutal austerity measures in Puerto Rico, including privatizing the electric utility, in the years before and after Hurricane Maria smashed the island in 2017. Referring to the approximately three thousand Puerto Ricans who died during and after the storm, Klein writes that it was a “combination of grinding austerity and an extraordinary hurricane that stole so many precious lives.” The normalized violence of austerity and corporate looting may prove to be a greater, and more insidious, threat than nationalism as the world warms, Klein suggests. That is perhaps why Klein, who is attentive to the dangers of eco-fascism, saves her most acid denunciations for liberal leaders, like Emmanuel Macron and Justin Trudeau, who slap carbon taxes on working people and “then shower subsidies, handouts, and licenses on the fossil fuel and agribusiness giants driving ecological breakdown.” Violence takes many forms.
Yet despite a “mounting sense of peril,” Klein also observes an “unfamiliar sense of promise,” owing largely to organizing around the Green New Deal. Just months after the IPCC released its 2018 report, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) introduced their Green New Deal resolution in Congress. Proposing to eliminate US carbon emissions by 2030 “through a fair and just transition for all communities and workers,” the resolution calls for new renewable energy infrastructure, decarbonized production, low-carbon public transit, and millions of well-paid union jobs — all while guaranteeing free health care, child care, education, and a clean environment for all. Crucially, the resolution acknowledges the ongoing debt owed to “frontline and vulnerable communities” — workers, the poor, Indigenous groups, people of color, women, the elderly, people with disabilities, children — and insists that these communities must anchor the transition to a post-fossil fuel society.
Klein of course supports the AOC-Markey resolution (which resembles the Leap Manifesto, a Canadian plan on which Klein has worked). But she has edits. For one, Klein suggests that the GND, which currently does not mention fossil fuels, should explicitly target the fossil fuel corporations that profit from planetary destruction, including through taxation, asset seizure, and nationalization. Noting as well that Roosevelt’s New Deal paved the way for an era of carbon-intensive consumerism, Klein cautions that a “green jobs guarantee” should aim not at “climate Keynesianism” — i.e., economic growth fueled by consumer spending — but rather at a more fundamental retooling of the economy. It’s worth noting that many of Klein’s edits can be found in the GND plan Bernie Sanders rolled out in August. The candidate’s plan includes a moratorium on new fossil fuel exploration, a plan to decommodify energy through cooperatively owned utilities, a proposal to cut military spending, and a commitment to redirect fossil fuel subsidies and assets to green infrastructure projects. Sanders’s GND would also establish a $40 billion fund for frontline communities and commit $200 billion to the Green Climate Fund to assist other countries’ decarbonization efforts.
Though derided by many moderates as unrealistic, Green New Deal proposals have drawn enthusiastic support, especially from young people. Klein praises the student-led Sunrise Movement, which has pressured Democratic lawmakers to support decarbonization, and opens the book with a long meditation on the proliferating youth climate strikes, which have mobilized hundreds of thousands of students in the fight for a habitable planet. This wave of youth mobilization has come amid bigger changes in the US political climate. Wage stagnation, declining benefits, and deteriorating environments have made the status quo untenable for millions of people. Meanwhile, a rash of successful teachers’ strikes, growing union activity, and the ascendance of Democratic Socialists like AOC and Sanders have made socialism a viable political position and shown that ordinary people have the power to demand the working conditions, communities, and futures they deserve. Such popular power, channeled into ecosocialist proposals, “represents more than just an electoral alternative — it’s our one and only planetary lifeline,” Klein writes.
There’s no question that Klein is a utopian thinker. But she’s also a realist. Among On Fire’s most valuable contributions is Klein’s effort to reclaim the language of “realism” from the do-nothings — the political and business elites who, for years, have dismissed decarbonization proposals as childish fantasies. Klein calls on the moral authority of 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg to argue that the prevailing sense of what is feasible can and must change. Thunberg, who speaks openly about having autism, describes her condition as a “superpower.” It eliminates cognitive dissonance and permits an unusual moral clarity: if burning fossil fuels makes the planet uninhabitable for most people, we must stop burning fossil fuels. For Klein, Thunberg’s perspicacity and conviction contain a crucial lesson: choosing to believe that the carbon-intensive, deteriorating, and brutally unequal world of petromodernity can endure despite overwhelming evidence of climate catastrophe — that is the fantasy.
Teaching us to “close the gap between what we know about the urgency of the climate crisis and how we behave,” Thunberg stands in for a new kind of climate realism. It’s a realism that prioritizes the demands of social and environmental well-being over the artificial constraints of the national budget, which always has cash for Guantánamo, but never for greenspace. Hundreds of thousands of students have joined Thunberg in demanding immediate decarbonization, refusing to attend school on certain days until lawmakers act, or until power shifts. These students share something else, Klein observes: “[T]hey are the first for whom climate disruption on a planetary scale is not a future threat, but a lived reality.” Their experience of worsening weather gives them a different sense of what is possible, and what is a fairy tale dressed up in the language of actuarial pragmatism. Against the cold insistence that “there is no alternative” to neoliberal capitalism, their experience reveals that there are only alternatives: worsening inequality, or economic transformation.
For Klein, a global economic overhaul is very much in the cards. But students cutting class is not enough to make it happen. As labor organizer Jane McAlevey has argued, “to halt and reverse the carbon economy, save the planet, and create a future with jobs that youth will look forward to requires far more power and a serious strategy.” Power lies in people’s ability to collectively withdraw their labor, on which the economy depends, McAlevey observes. Any viable strategy for transitioning beyond fossil capitalism therefore requires moving from student strikes (which are important, but do not interrupt capital flows) to majority strikes in key sectors. There’s only one way to do that: organize. McAlevey cites successful teachers’ strikes in Los Angeles, Chicago, and West Virginia as evidence that such organizing is possible.
It is entirely necessary, too. Perhaps the most important chapter in On Fire is the penultimate, titled “Movements Will Make, or Break, the Green New Deal,” first published in February 2019, where Klein argues that mass popular pressure will determine the fate of decarbonization efforts, and therefore the planet. Klein writes that “any administration attempting to implement a Green New Deal will need powerful social movements both backing them up and pushing them to do more.” “Social movements” refers to a variety of essential projects — from Water Protectors blocking pipeline construction on Indigenous lands to Sunrise activists occupying congressional offices. But labor organizing will be especially key. For all its exclusions, Roosevelt’s New Deal would not have happened without sustained pressure from organized, militant workers. In 1934 alone, “there were 1,856 work stoppages involving 1,470,000 workers,” writes historian Irving Bernstein. Strike activity was especially widespread in the South, which is today witnessing an explosion of new organizing, as teachers’ unions, the “Fight for $15” movement, and others reignite and redefine working-class struggle. Citing these and other actions, Klein observes that “the New Deal was adopted by Roosevelt at a time of such progressive and left militancy that its programs (which seem radical by today’s standards) appeared at the time to be the only way to hold back full-scale revolution.”
Is “full-scale revolution” likely in 2019? Clearly not. But Klein spies a path to power.
A first step is for workers in every sector (hospitals, schools, universities, tech, manufacturing, media, and more) to make their own plans for how to rapidly decarbonize while furthering the Green New Deal’s mission to eliminate poverty, create good jobs, and close the racial and gender wealth divides.
This is already happening. In North Carolina, where I live, the NC Climate and Jobs Roundtable has been organizing workers around the twin principles of environmental and worker justice for several years now. Although labor has seen some high-profile defections from the Green New Deal, local worker organizations, many coordinated by the Labor Network for Sustainability, are thinking seriously about what a massive clean infrastructure overhaul would look like.
Throughout On Fire, Klein insists that such organizing can inspire a new sense of common purpose. For four decades, neoliberal policies have assaulted anything resembling a public, eating away at people’s sense of belonging and self-worth. In exchange for the hollow pleasures of solitary consumerism, a Green New Deal substitutes collective projects that can nurture meaningful social bonds so often lacking from modern life. These would be projects rooted not in sacrifice, but in a new kind of abundance. Even if it means ditching cars and beef and ubiquitous screens, a just transition to a post-fossil world will create “new pleasures and new spaces where we can build abundance,” Klein writes — including public parks, museums, theaters, sports facilities, and more.
This is the point of “A Message from the Future with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez” — a seven-minute video co-produced by Klein and discussed in the book’s final chapter. In the video, set a few decades from now, Ocasio-Cortez describes a world made possible by the Green New Deal — a future of high-speed trains, pleasant and affordable housing, healthy environments, public art and more, all the fruits of a collective project that “didn’t just change the infrastructure,” but also “changed how we did things.” The value of this imaginative exercise cannot be overstated. Decarbonizing the economy will be hard. What may be harder is escaping the “strategies of containment” that kneecap radical propositions before they get off the ground. Chief among these is the belief that while incremental progress is all but guaranteed — given the moral arc’s fortuitous bend — the basic organization of society cannot be altered. For decades, moderates have derailed serious climate action by stressing its presumed impossibility. Artwork like “A Message from the Future” can reset the parameters of the possible — breaking neoliberalism’s stranglehold on imagination and insisting that a better world is not only possible, but also necessary and eminently achievable.
That Klein can make this point in affecting, jargon-free language has caused some to foolishly question her ecosocialist credentials. But make no mistake: Klein is perhaps the most important ecosocialist writer today. She doesn’t write for people with power, but for the people who are poised to take it. She not only openly advocates for ecosocialism — specifically, “a new form of democratic ecosocialism, with the humility to learn from Indigenous teachings about the duties to future generations and the interconnection of all life” — but also articulates her position with a clarity and moral force designed to win people to the cause. Such work is not just indispensable. It is the whole point.
Casey Williams is a freelance writer and PhD Candidate in Literature at Duke University.
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