A polluted beach in Alabama during the BP oil spill disaster of 2010. Photo: Kari Goodnough/Bloomberg
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Steven Poole on Naomi Klein: Could climate change action rejuvenate worldwide democracy?

In her new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism v the Climate, Naomi Klein provides a vividly reported and densely researched argument for how our future should look.

This Changes Everything: Capitalism v the Climate 
Naomi Klein
Allen Lane, 566pp, £20

Right-wing deniers of the robust findings of modern atmospheric science sometimes claim that the whole idea of global warming is just a front. What “warmers”, as they call them, really want is allegedly not just a sharp reduction in fossil-fuel emissions but a wholesale socioeconomic transition to tree-hugging socialism. Such cynics will be gladdened by Naomi Klein’s new book. For in it she does explicitly argue that the present “climate emergency” provides an excellent excuse for global revolution.

This is, for Naomi Klein, an acceptable version of “the shock doctrine”. In her brilliant 2007 book of that name, she demonstrated forensically that neoliberals have repeatedly exploited natural disasters, wars and economic crises to push through policies proclaimed necessary as a response but that they had always wanted anyway. (The rollbacks of public services after the 2008 financial crisis in the name of urgent “austerity” provided ample further confirmation of her thesis.) The shock doctrine, however, is apparently fine if it’s for a good cause. Here, global warming can be half welcomed as a “galvanising force” or a “catalyst” for building “societies that are safer and fairer in all kinds of other ways as well”.

Of course, Klein also believes – as do almost all scientists and non-specialists who aren’t shills for the oil companies – that anthropogenic global warming is happening. Yet the way she expresses the facts is often with the kind of exaggeration on to which self-proclaimed “sceptics” will gleefully fasten. She writes of a “crisis that threatens our survival as a species”, which it almost certainly doesn’t, though you would think that threatening famine, disease and flooding for hundreds of millions or billions of people was severe enough. Nor is global warming a threat to “life on earth” as a whole. Klein writes of “a battle between capitalism and the planet”, though the planet is in no danger at all.

Klein believes that we need to keep the rise in global average temperature within 2° Celsius to avoid the most catastrophic and brutal changes. She therefore spends the early parts of her book impatiently dismissing potential solutions that, in her view, will take too long, or are otherwise undesirable. In the United States and China, she writes, “The solar market continues to grow impressively. But it is not happening fast enough.” (And yet Germany already gets nearly a third of all its energy from a mix of renewables.)

Worse still than a too-slow solution is a hubristic one. Klein rehearses persuasively the reasons why geo-engineering – for instance, imitating the cooling effect of volcanoes by spraying tonnes of sulphate particles into the high atmosphere – is extremely risky. And nuclear power is bad because . . . Well, why exactly? Klein musters an impressive company of boo words in the following sentence: “Nuclear is a heavy industrial technology, based on extraction, run in a corporatist manner, with long ties to the military-industrial complex.” It represents, she continues, one of the “big corporate, big military, big engineering responses to climate change”.

Yet, like the shock doctrine, “big engineering” is bad only when it’s not good. For, elsewhere, Klein argues that the world needs an enormous public works programme to build new systems of “mass transit” and high-density housing. Figuring out how transport infrastructure escapes being counted as “big engineering” and therefore something to be sneered at is left as an exercise for the reader.

Klein argues with much more detailed and persuasive reporting against carbon markets, or the disturbingly comfortable relationship between some environmental organisations and oil companies. She is especially good on the failure of Barack Obama to take meaningful action on the climate, and on the depredations of “extractivism”, which in its modern form leads to fracking and the hell-scape of the Alberta tar sands.

Unfortunately, Klein periodically veers into hippie-ish mumbo-jumbo. She happily cites not only scientific evidence but eccentric sociological pronouncements by psychoanalysts and she accuses poor old Francis Bacon, one of the fathers of modern empirical science, of having a pathological desire to violate Mother Earth. This reader hurried swiftly on.

Having dismissed market-based or technological approaches that she deems too slow, Klein lavishes more attention – and patience – on grass-roots activism and nurturing environmentalism. This is typified by the indigenous peoples of her native Canada, who, as she demonstrates in a series of cheering scenes, are stopping new pipelines and drilling by asserting ancient land rights that as yet have not been definitively rejected by any court. (Though when some First Nation Canadians build a ceremonial bonfire to “burn continuously for days”, Klein doesn’t complain about the carbon emissions.)

Such on-the-ground battles are increasingly being won elsewhere in the world – including in the forests of Greece, or in rural Britain – giving rise to what Klein perceives as a virtual nation of environmental resistance that she christens “Blockadia”.

“The goal becomes not to build a few gigantic green solutions,” she concludes, “but to infinitely multiply smaller ones.” More Blockadia, more renewable energy and more confiscatory taxes on oil profits, on the way to a rejuvenated worldwide democracy: Klein portrays all this as the grand culmination of centuries of civil-rights struggles. Indeed, it seems that almost as great as her sincere and often movingly expressed fear of what decades’ more warming will do to our currently familiar environments and ecosystems is her fear of some solution to global warming that will not require a worldwide political transformation.

Any fix that enables “business as usual” to continue – a triumph of “big engineering”, say, in the form of nuclear fusion – won’t usher in all of the other things that Klein finds desirable and that many readers will, too, such as a universal basic income, renationalisation of utilities and better public transport. Yet, despite her pleas, science alone cannot tell us that these nice things are part of the mandatory response to global warming.

So how should Klein’s vividly reported, densely researched (with the aid of several assistants) and passionately argued book be considered as a rhetorical intervention? Evidently it isn’t designed to change the minds of denialists, nor will it seduce the global rich, who, she darkly warns, will have to pay.

It will not appeal to those who think that inventing genetically modified crops to feed more people during droughts is a good idea, whatever happens to the climate. (Klein dismisses such work because it is mostly done by – boo! – “agribusiness giants”; the reader’s suspicion that she has not quite worked out how her preferred form of non-industrial agriculture could feed the world’s population is not assuaged by her admiring reference to the anti-GM activist Vandana Shiva.) And it won’t appeal to those who judge that, although Klein’s vision of a more equitable world is all very splendid, it is not likely to happen any time soon.

But in using her powerful authorial brand to urge it at such length, Klein hopes to make it more likely – to help usher in “a people’s shock, a blow from below”. As such, the book is a utopian call to arms, much like the Communist Manifesto. Whatever else it does, it will also provide welcome confirmation for the conspiracy theories of her enemies. 

Steven Poole’s most recent book is “Who Touched Base in My Thought Shower?: A Treasury of Unbearable Office Jargon” (Sceptre, £8.99)

Update, 22 September: This piece originally referred to Klein reporting against "carbon tax". This should have read "carbon markets", and we have updated it accordingly.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: What Next?

PHOTO: URSZULA SOLTYS
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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist