“It feels like everything could tip very quickly”: Naomi Klein takes on the climate crisis

Klein, who has done more to popularise the inseparability of capitalism and climate change than perhaps any other author, talks Extinction Rebellion and mainstream environmentalism.

NS

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Twenty years ago, Naomi Klein’s No Logo was published on the crest of swelling unease about economic globalisation. Her analysis raged against corporate greed, sweat-shop labour and an increasingly voracious marketing culture that seemed to absorb all forms of critique.

In November 1999, while the book was still at the printers, thousands of activists shut down a meeting of the World Trade Organisation in Seattle in protest at a financial system of deregulated capitalism that was taking the world by storm. No Logo became a manifesto for the anti-globalisation zeitgeist that would define grassroots politics for the next decade.

The book foreshadowed crazy ideas: corporations were becoming more powerful than governments, and one day you could become your own global brand. Yet the world that Klein foretold has now come into being.

“What’s more powerful now… is the idea that every single person has to be their own brand, and the application of the logic of corporate branding to our very selves. It’s an insidious change that has everything to do with social media,” Klein tells me when we meet in London. The superbrands of the late Nineties were easy to identify; now, digital technology has made it less possible than ever to live a life unmediated by corporate power.

Klein is in London promoting her new book, On Fire, a crescendo of essays from the past ten years that concludes with an argument for the Green New Deal. The proposal, which encompasses dramatic increases in green energy investment and green jobs creation, is gaining political sway on both sides of the Atlantic.

We meet for coffee in the bar of an expensive hotel that smells like pot-pourri; outside, Extinction Rebellion (XR) protesters are defying a ban initiated by the Metropolitan Police. The fortnight preceding our meeting, XR activists seized central London in a string of colourful uprisings. “It feels like one of those moments where everything could tip very quickly,” she tells me. “This is not tapping into people who saw themselves as climate activists – it’s tapping into something much broader.”

Klein, 49, has done more to popularise the inseparability of capitalism and climate change than perhaps any other author. In a series of books published over the past decade, she documented the human costs of ecological plunder and argued that environmental breakdown is rooted in capitalism’s quest for perpetual growth. “We have a handful of years to turn this around, and in those handful of years, I’m all in, all the time,’’ she says. Listening to her, it’s possible to feel a sense of calm; where much of the discourse about climate change redounds to the apocalyptic script of a climate-fiction novel, she has a resolute sense not only of what’s at stake, but of how we might fix it.

Klein has long railed against the dangers of “disaster capitalism”. In The Shock Doctrine (2007), she traced how elites exploited national crises and natural disasters to push through free-market policies. Today, she worries that without a concrete plan, climate activists may leave open the door to a similar possibility. “I’m extremely wary of just asking powerful interests to declare [a] climate emergency, and deferring the question of what we mean by climate action,” she says.

Though Klein commends XR, which has forced the UK government to declare a climate emergency and commit to citizens’ assemblies, she worries that “asking those in power to declare an emergency and waiting to articulate what their solutions should be” could open up a “vacuum”. “The time for simply calling for ‘action’, amorphous action, has passed,” she adds.

Mainstream environmentalism has long been criticised for being too elite, too concerned with pristine wilderness and charismatic species, and too apathetic to the reality that environmental harms are distributed along poverty and race lines.

In the US, for example, people of colour live with 66 per cent more air pollution than white citizens. Klein’s contention is that we should be learning from the movements at the front lines of environmental change.

One senses her frustration at big environmental groups that have avoided talking about the economic roots of climate breakdown. “The most well-funded green groups in the world are more focused on wilderness; they’re more focused on animals, on conservation. They take a tonne of money from fossil fuel companies, mining companies, and their whole business model is to shake down the extractive sectors and banks, and to… protect patches of wilderness,” Klein says.

Fixating on “nature” and “wilderness” rather than the ground under our feet can descend into something more troubling: the protection of a nativist social order. In On Fire, Klein argues that we’re already living through the dawn of climate barbarism, with terrorists such as the Christchurch gunman openly identifying as “eco-fascists”. “There’s a strong strain of ‘close it down, protect our own’,’’ she says. “Hypernationalism and native protectionism [are] a very likely outcome in many majority-white countries.”

“People know, whether they link it to climate change or not, that we are in an era of mass migration and that the space in which it is going to be safe for humans to live on this planet is contracting. It will continue to contract,” she says. “This is why it’s important to have a plan.”

Hettie O'Brien is the New Statesman’s online editor. 

This article appears in the 30 October 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone