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18 March 2021

“We all struggle with despair“: Naomi Klein on overcoming doomism with climate action

Klein’s new handbook-style account of the climate crisis is not only an attempt to help youth activists hone their voices, but a clarion call to her own generation.

By India Bourke

Seven years ago the author and activist Naomi Klein dedicated her new book, This Changes Everything, to her son, Toma. The choice of dedication was both entirely normal and also achingly apt: while writing about links between climate breakdown and capitalism’s pursuit of perpetual growth, Klein had herself repeatedly tried and failed to stay pregnant. It had dawned on her, as she’d reported on the devastation caused by BP’s 2010 oil spill, that she was experiencing “a kinship of the infertile”.

Finally and inexplicably, just two years after her trip to the oil-strew gulf, Klein carried her baby to term. Klein’s body had given her a second chance, and she has likewise continued to demand humanity give the planet a second (and third and fourth) chance to thrive too.

Her writing has since galvanised an ever louder and more authoritative climate movement; partnering on a film with US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and forging an alliance with the Pope. Yet for much of that same time, Klein has also wrestled with the question of when and how to share her climate knowledge with her son.

“I’d love to protect young people from the frightening reality,” she tells me over a zoom call from her home in Canada – but by the summer of 2017, it was something she felt she could no longer do. A holiday to British Columbia landed her own family in the middle of the wildfire emergency that devastated over a million hectares and saw thousands evacuate the region.

Unable to shield her five-year-old son from the pervasive smog and raging skin rashes, the question concerning Klein now shifted: given that the world has failed to safeguard young people, how can it “empower” them instead?

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Part of her answer to this dilemma is a new book aimed directly at young readers, How to Change Everything.

On the tour for her previous book, On Fire, Klein was “surprised” to find activists as young as 13 helping organise eventsas well as by the lack of reading material which they said spoke to their age group. “Everything she’d learned about capitalism she’d learned from WALL-E,” Klein recalls of one young activist she met.

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To this end, her latest book powers through a range of ideas – from the fundamental science of feedback loops and tipping points, to political concepts as timely as climate justice. “The richer parts of the world need to ‘step up’ and pay their climate debts,” Klein writes on paying back developing nations for the historic climate damage caused. In contrast, the utility of geoengineering meets with a cooler reception: “who gets to decide whether or not to dump vast quantities of fertilizers into the sea or shoot aerosols into the sky?”

But behind its educational and activist mission is an even more typically Klein-ian agenda: to not just look what’s broken in the face, but to also understand how it might yet be fixed – as much as in the way we think and feel as in the technical response.

“The information can come in a wave that isn’t balanced with a credible sense of hope,” she tells me. There is too often a “mismatch”, between the global disaster portrayed and the very “individual-scale” ideas about how to respond, she explains with reference to David Attenborough documentaries.

It’s a discrepancy that Klein fears can easily risk allowing young people – or anyone –  to slip into despair. And it’s a risk she battles by threading stories of impact and success throughout her book. For the story of oil pipeline expansion, there is also that of the youth “solar warriors” who have come to their land’s defence; for descriptions of sinking islands, there is a youth-led legal case to demand justice.

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In doing so, Klein’s new book also helps weave a path through a wider challenge facing the environmental movement: how far the conversation around crisis should be led by worst-case thinking.

Some prominent environmentalists, like the climate scientist and author Michael Mann, fear that a new culture of “doomsayers” and “defeatists” could undermine action on emissions reduction, leading instead to division and delay. He has even highlighted the risk that those who favour “inactivism” might stir up despair among environmental progressives – who then, perhaps unintentionally, raise the profile of narratives that include an almost end-times turn to self-sufficiency and retreat.

When I ask Klein, though, about whether she is worried about this side of the climate conversation – for example, that seen in among some Extinction Rebellion youth activists in the UK – she answers with a typically thoughtful mix of empathy and insight. “I think there are ways that preparing for the worst-case scenario doesn’t rule out activism that tries to prevent that scenario,” she says of fears of societal collapse.

[See also: The rise of the climate dude]

“I think all of us who engage with the science – and are not in a state of total denial about where we are on the climate clock and how little time we have left, and how much change would have to happen if we were to prevent catastrophic warming – we all struggle with despair. I don’t know anybody, young or old, who doesn’t experience a range of emotions.”

Through balances like this, Klein’s approach manages to maintain radical hopes for system change, while also fending off tendencies towards defeatism or anti-democratic thinking. “I’m clear in what I write that this is really a call for deeper democracy,” she says.

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This inclusive and open attitude is one on which Klein feels many youth activists are already leading the way. “They’re reaching for the underlying drivers of crisis,” she notes of their often shared passion for wider human rights struggles – such as Black Lives Matter and trans rights.

“I’m also really moved and inspired by the solidarity the Fridays for the Future Network has shown to their ‘sister’, Disha Ravi, and in the standing up to the online bullying campaign led by the Modi government,” she says of the Indian authorities’ recent crackdown on support for the farmer’s protests within the country. “I honestly think [the youth activists] have put the adult climate movement to shame.”

Ultimately, Klein sees young environmental activists calling for adults to protect their generation’s “existential right” to a future – regardless of the specific nature of the threat.

“Whether that future could be snuffed out by racist police violence, or a mass shooter in their school, or a pipeline bursting under their water reservoir, or the failure to act in the face of the climate crisis: all of it is a system that seems to be betting against their future. So I think it’s more productive to find common threads, rather than imagining that it’s somehow more manageable for young people to carve up the world into a bunch of separate issues that they feel they have to choose between.”

In seeking out the shared roots of struggles, therefore, Klein’s new handbook-style account of the climate crisis is not just an attempt to help youth activists hone their voices, but also a clarion call to her own generation.

“The book is a celebration of a youth movement that is internationalist, multi-racial and peaceful  but militant [and] radical”, Klein says. Against the wider background of a rising threat of eco-facism and racist hate, Klein believes such an approach “is our only hope”.

[See also: Claims of conspiracy behind India’s farmers’ prtests carry a warning for the world]