This article was originally published at BillMoyers.com, the website of the television program, Moyers & Company.
In her new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Naomi Klein argues that if we had taken action years ago when scientists first established that human activities were changing our climate, we might have been able to deal with the problem of global warming with only minimal disruption to our economic system. But as we approach a tipping point, and the consequences of climate change come into sharper focus, that time has passed, and we now have to acknowledge that preserving humans’ habitat requires a paradigm change.
But Klein doesn’t just offer us a depressing litany of the damage we’ve already done. She calls on us to seriously rethink the way our economy is structured to address not only climate change, but also other longstanding social problems like persistent global poverty and rising inequality.
I spoke with Klein about the fundamental challenges—and opportunities—that come from dealing with a warming planet at this stage of the game. Below is a transcript of our discussion that’s been edited for length and clarity.
Joshua Holland: Please briefly lay out the thesis of the book and then we can drill down into a few points.
Naomi Klein: The thesis of the book is that by responding robustly to climate change—in line with what scientists tell us we have to do—we have a once-in-a-century opportunity to solve some of the biggest and most intractable problems facing our economy. I’m talking about creating countless good jobs, rebuilding ailing infrastructure to help protect us from the heavy weather that we’ve already locked in, and lowering our emissions so it doesn’t get markedly worse.
We also have an incredible opportunity to address our most intransigent economic problem, which is inequality within our countries, and also between our countries. We can also have safer, more livable cities and cleaner air. So there is a lot of potentially good news.
The bad news is that we can’t do any of this by just changing our light bulbs or politely lobbying governments behind the scenes. We need to have a robust public debate about what values we want to have govern our society. The argument I make in the first part of the book is that the reason we’ve failed so spectacularly to rise to this existential crisis—and by failed I mean our emissions are up 61 percent since we started working on this issue in the early 1990s—is because the things we have to do clash fundamentally with the core ideology that has reigned in this same period, which is market fundamentalism.
This is a crisis with spectacularly bad timing because it fell in our laps at the very moment that history was being declared over and liberals around the world were exporting this market fundamentalism. They’re telling us we can’t regulate just when we need to regulate and that we can’t invest in the public sphere just when we need to do exactly that. They say there’s no such thing as society, when what we need more than anything is to come together and act collectively.
JH: You talk about many of the ways that modern capitalism as we know it has failed a lot of people. And you’re calling for this dramatic rethink of how we structure our economy. I kept thinking that this is like your book The Shock Doctrine in reverse – we have a crisis and also an opportunity. Only it’s not an opportunity for a small group of us to get filthy rich but rather to advance the greater good. Was that conscious?
NK: It’s definitely conscious—I call it a “people shock.” It’s an inverse of The Shock Doctrine in the sense that what I documented in that book is how crises are systematically used by our elite to capitalize on fear and disorientation to push through policies that consolidate wealth at the top.
Here I’m arguing that we need to get smart in the midst of crisis, and the truth is that it either goes one way or the other: One of the things I learned while I was writing The Shock Doctrine is that crisis either makes us grow up fast or fall apart. And I’m saying that we can grow up really fast—that we can come together in this crisis. We’ve done it before.
We really need to receive the message that this crisis is sending, which is that our current system is failing. It’s failing on multiple levels. And the solutions are not ones that will consolidate wealth, but would do the exact opposite. And those policies tend to be popular, so you don’t need to engage in the sort of devious trickery that I documented in The Shock Doctrine.
JH: I’ve long had a problem with the idea that our under-regulated form of capitalism, where corporations wield huge amounts of power, is the only form of capitalism we can imagine. Is it capitalism that’s inherently oppositional to saving humanity, or is it what some have called “ravage capitalism?”
NK: I agree with you that there are different forms of capitalism. This deregulated corporatism we have now is a particular strain. We’ve had others in the past.
Because this crisis hit us when it did—when this perverted strain of capitalism was so triumphant—we have not only failed to act to solve the problem, we’ve actively made it much worse.
That said, I don’t think the solution is just reverting to a more mixed economy. As Michael Mann, the climate scientist at Penn State, said, there’s a “procrastination penalty” when it comes to emissions. All this time that we’ve been failing to respond, emissions have been going up, and they stick around, they accumulate. Because we have waited so long, we now need to cut our emissions so deeply and rapidly that it does present a challenge to economic growth. This is why I called the book Capitalism vs. the Climate —because I do think the logic of economic growth is very much at the heart of this system. Maybe it is possible to have a form of capitalism that doesn’t focus on growth, but it’s really hard to pry apart the capitalism that we have from the idea of endless growth.
JH: You don’t take it easy on the big environmental groups in this book – you reject the idea that they can politely persuade powerful economic actors to do what’s necessary to address this problem. But what about the argument that transitioning to a sustainable, green economy would require huge investments, lead to new technological innovations and employ lots of people? The classic green jobs argument doesn’t see capitalism as being inherently incompatible with protecting the climate.
NK: I think there’s a very strong green jobs argument to be made, but a lot of these groups don’t want to talk about the need to really step back and design the economy that we want. They think we can put a few incentives in place, leave it to the market, and that will get us there. But there has to be much more top-down regulation. We need to say “no” to the fossil fuel companies that want to open up all these carbon reserves.
So yes, we have to switch to the green technologies. Yes, it will create lots of jobs. I’m not disputing that. But at the same time, if we’re going to get off fossil fuels by midcentury, which we need to do, we are also going to need to consume less. And that’s the piece that nobody wants to talk about. These big green groups are only interested in talking about win-win solutions. Ideas that are genuinely a threat to elites like keeping fossil fuel reserves in the ground are basically off the table.
JH: What about people who aren’t elites? You’re talking about a drastic rethink of our economy and our society. Do you worry that people are more fearful of that kind of change than they are of the threat of a changing climate, which is still somewhat remote for many of us?
NK: I think the opposite is true, in that there’s a huge amount of debate and discontent about our economic model right now. There’s a huge appetite for addressing inequality, for a model that promises to create better jobs and different kinds of jobs and values work differently and has stronger communities. I think most of us actually know there’s a problem with capitalism right now and that by shifting the focus to our economy, climate change becomes a convenient truth rather than an inconvenient truth. Because we need to fix the economy anyway, right?
Again and again we pit the economy against the environment. When the economic crisis hit Europe, all this austerity came down and not only were millions of people laid off and public services cut back, but Europeans were also told they could no longer afford their green policies anymore. So the system isn’t working for workers and it isn’t working for the environment. This economic system is failing us on so many levels, and it also happens to be destabilizing the systems on which all life depends.
The fact that there is so much science backing up the need for a different system should be hugely motivating—like a shot of adrenaline for our movement.
JH: Throughout the book I got the sense that you, like many people, have completely given up on our institutional capacity to deal with these problems. You talk about how our elites have failed to address this. You write that slavery wasn’t a crisis for American elites until abolitionism came along. You write that Apartheid wasn’t a crisis for South Africa’s elites until the anti-Apartheid movement turned it into a crisis. What is the equivalent here – how do we make an ecological crisis that for the moment disproportionally hurts the poor into a crisis felt by our elites?
NK: Every once in a while you’ll hear a politician like John Kerry say that climate change is like a weapon of mass destruction, but they’re certainly not on a war footing with this crisis. In fact, they’re doubling down. But a grassroots movement can declare a crisis when our elites are not behaving as if they see it that way.
In that passage from the book, I’m making the point that it’s not just about waiting for our politicians to say, “This is really, really serious.” Social movements have the ability to lend that sense of urgency to an issue. In fact, this is how change happens. This is how change has always happened. So during the upcoming climate summit in New York there will be huge numbers of people on the street sending the message to our leaders that we believe this to be a crisis that requires a real sense of urgency.
JH: You take us to the frontlines of this grassroots battle to push back against fossil fuel companies. We meet people all over the world who already are being impacted by global warming and are fighting back, like “Blockadia.” What is “Blockadia” and what was it like researching these efforts?
NK: “Blockadia” is a term that was first coined in the movement against the Keystone XL Pipeline in Texas. These are the people who are blocking the fossil fuel projects with their bodies and in the courts and in the streets. And we see these choke-points being developed and people are realizing, “If we block the coal ports in Washington State and Oregon, then there’s no point digging it out in Montana because they’re not going to be able to get the coal shipped out to China. So let’s pour our energy into stopping those coal ports.” And that’s what people have been doing. The same is true of the pipeline fights – and not just against the Keystone Pipeline, but the Northern Gateway Pipeline and others as well. And people in Alberta are really panicked because they’re landlocked — they don’t have a way to get their tar sands oil to the sea.
The best moments for me researching the book were just hanging out with people who really love where they live. I have a chapter in the book called "Love and Water," and I quote an activist named Alexis Bonogofsky in Billings, Montana. She’s a rancher and an environmental activist, and she talks about taking on the coal companies and she says: “You know, the thing that Arch Coal doesn’t understand is that it’s not hate and anger that will save this place. Love will save this place.” And so often when I was in this transnational space called Blockadia, I felt that this is a genuinely positive movement. It’s a movement driven by people falling in love with where they live because they’re faced with the prospect of losing something as fundamental as clean water or clean air.
It’s really a beautiful movement, and that’s counterbalanced this grim work of immersing myself in the scary science. Communities are being transformed through this resistance. And not just by saying no to these projects that they don’t want, but also by building real alternatives to those projects and proving to themselves and their neighbors that another economy is both possible and desirable.