When I spoke with Naomi Klein in August, it was day 13 of Greta Thunberg’s transatlantic crossing on the Malizia II, a zero-emissions racing sailboat. Thunberg, the 16-year-old Swedish climate activist who doesn’t fly because of the carbon impact, was making her way to Manhattan for the UN Climate Action summit. Klein’s new book, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal, opens with a portrait of Thunberg and a discussion of the youth climate movement. For decades, Klein writes, children have been used as mere rhetorical devices in the discourse of climate change. We have been implored to act on climate change for the sake of “our children.” But, as Klein told me, it is “obvious that this has not worked to inspire decision-makers to do what was necessary.” Now, young people are no longer content to be treated as tropes. “They are speaking and striking and marching for themselves, and they are issuing the verdicts about the entire political class that has failed them.”
The essays collected in On Fire also come together around a central verdict: that the climate crisis cannot be separated from centuries of human exploitation. Colonialism, indigenous genocide, slavery, and climate disruption all share a history. Not only did these historical processes establish the extractive industries that have led to climate change, but they established an extractive mindset, “a way of viewing both the natural world and the majority of its inhabitants as resources to use up and then discard,” Klein writes. Climate activism must fight both. We need a “shift in worldview at every level.”
For Klein, the Green New Deal represents precisely this. Formulated by climate activists and proposed by representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey, the Green New Deal offers a way to transform our infrastructure at the scale and speed required by climate change while simultaneously transforming the economic model and underlying worldview that has caused it. Detractors may call it a random laundry list of progressive initiatives, but for Klein the brilliance of the Green New Deal lies in its supposition that its initiatives—from renewable energy to universal health care—are anything but unrelated. Ecological breakdown and economic injustice are inextricably linked. The solution must be holistic. The Green New Deal offers a way both to “get clean” and “begin to redress the founding crimes of our nations.”
We spoke about the politics of the climate crisis and the “almost unbearably high” stakes of the 2020 election. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Lynne Feeley: Many of the essays in the book focus on what you call the “deep stories” that are interfering with people’s willingness to confront the climate crisis. Can you discuss what these stories are and how they are blocking climate action?
Naomi Klein: Some are the economic stories of neoliberalism—about how things go terribly wrong when people try to work together and how, if we just get out of the way of the market and let it do its magic, the benefits will trickle down to everyone else. I’ve written a lot over the years about how the orthodoxy of neoliberalism—privatization, deregulation, low taxes, cuts to social spending—conflicts very, very frontally with what we need to do in the face of the climate crisis.
But the deeper story is about our relationship to the natural world. In settler colonial countries like the United States, Canada (where I was born), and Australia, continents were “discovered” at a point when Europe was hitting its own ecological boundaries, when it had felled its great forests, when its own fish stocks had collapsed, and when it had hunted its great animals to extinction. These lands were imagined as a kind of supersized Europe. If you look back at the way the early European explorers were describing this cornucopia of nature that they had found, it was, “We will never run out of nature again.”
So the idea of limitless nature is baked into the stories of settler colonial countries. I think this is why resistance to climate action is, in many ways, strongest in these countries, why it is not just a threat to a right-wing worldview that thinks that the market is always right, but really a fundamental threat to their national narratives.
Climate change is threatening to people who have a very rigid, dominance-based worldview. The truth is that everybody who has grown up in Western culture with these narratives is not free from them. I think we have to identify what the narratives are that make it hard to really fathom that we are in a crisis as profound as we are in. But we also need new stories to get out of this crisis, or we need different stories, and some of those stories aren’t going to be new at all.
LF: You write that as the climate crisis lays bare the fiction of the colonial mindset, we’re seeing “a terrifying resurgence of the ugliest and most violent parts of these colonial narratives,” including eco-fascism and ethnonationalism. How do you see the connection between the climate crisis and the resurgence of white nationalism?
NK: On one level it’s very straightforward. We now have more people on the move than any point since the Second World War. Mass migration is going to be a fact of life in the era of climate disruption, which is upon us. Climate disruption is a direct cause of migration, and it’s also an indirect cause of migration, because climate stresses act as an accelerant in many armed conflicts. In many cases it’s intersecting with different forms of violence. It’s acting as an accelerant. Climate stress basically makes any problem you have worse—and this often drives people to move.
We’re faced with a very clear choice about how we’re going to deal with this reality. Are we going to completely reimagine our borders? Are we going to understand that this was a crisis that was created in the rich world that is being felt first and worst by the poorest people on the planet? Are we going to open our arms and open our borders to many more people? Or are we going to fortify those borders and just say we’re going to look after our own?
The rise in eco-fascism is saying that we’re going to do the latter. And when that happens, and thousands of people start drowning in the Mediterranean, and when you have people locked up under abhorrent conditions in detention camps, whether in Texas, whether in Libya, whether in Manus and Nauru, there have to be theories to justify that barbarism—theories that say that some people’s lives are worth more than others’ and that reassert that brutal hierarchy of life. So in the same ways that pseudoscientific racism emerged as a means to justify the barbarism of slavery and colonial land theft, we are now in the midst of a resurgence of these same brutal worldviews, to justify the current and future sacrificing of human life in the face of climate disruption.
LF: You write that, in the long term, climate change threatens everyone, but in the short term, “it discriminates.”
NK: It does discriminate. People sometimes refer to Donald Trump as a climate change denier. I don’t think he’s a climate change denier. He absolutely knows that climate change is happening. But he believes he will be fine. That’s why he’s concerning himself with how to buy Greenland—to take advantage of the melting ice to get at the oil and gas. Somebody who doesn’t believe climate change is happening would not be interested in Greenland. Greenland is only interesting to him because the ice is melting and opening up trade routes and freeing up fossil fuel reserves. There’s just indifference and a belief that wealth will be insulation. Some go quite far and imagine setting up a space station, like Jeff Bezos, or colonies on Mars, and some people imagine themselves in their gilded mansions here on Earth, as the waters rise. I would put Trump in that gilded-mansion category.
LF: Your essay “Season of Smoke” is a personal narrative of the summer of 2017, when you were on the Sunshine Coast in British Columbia. It’s different from the others, in part because your son, Toma, is at the center of it. Why did you choose the personal narrative form, and what role does your son play in your thinking about the climate crisis?
NK: When we think about disasters, we think of very dramatic events. I’ve written a lot about those over the years. But that experience of just being in the smoke for well over a month, being aware of how much of the continent was similarly choking on smoke—it isn’t dramatic. It’s just this low-level kind of despair, the physical manifestation of lack of possibility. I decided to write it as a diary, as opposed to a reported piece, to capture that—just the length of it, the grind of it. I wasn’t sure I was going to do anything with it, and I didn’t think anybody would want to publish it particularly. It’s definitely one of the sadder pieces. People are constantly accusing me of being hopeful just because I haven’t completely given up. Is that really what qualifies as hope these days?
In terms of writing about my son, Toma, I actually have mixed feelings about it. I think we write about what we know and we write about our lives. There’s certainly room for clinical writing on climate change, and we have lots of it, and we need those good scientific papers. But for people who are really trying to reach people’s hearts and motivate them, I don’t think we should take ourselves out of it. I think we need to put ourselves into it. We need to help other people find ways to express their grief and their anger and their hope and their love of what they want to protect, by doing it ourselves, by risking doing it ourselves.
But I really do not like setting up any kind of hierarchy that mothers care more about the planet than other people because they’re mothers. There’s a real kind of politicizing of motherhood—the mother as fierce protector—that I don’t like at all. I am someone who became a mother late in life. I had Toma when I was 42, and for the decade before I became a mother, I would really bristle in environmental spaces when people were constantly, I felt, wielding their motherhood or their parenthood as a sort of means by which to assert some higher authority. I don’t think I have any higher authority because I’m a mother. I know that some of the people who are fighting hardest to protect all of our kids are not parents. So even as I write about my son and about some of the particular experiences I have as a mother, I really don’t want to put it on any kind of special plane.
LF: You write that much of what will determine the success of the Green New Deal will involve actions taken by social movements, but you end the book with a discussion of the 2020 election in the US. How do you see the stakes of the election when it comes to climate justice?
NK: The stakes of the election are almost unbearably high. It’s why I wrote the book and decided to put it out now and why I’ll be doing whatever I can to help push people toward supporting a candidate with the most ambitious Green New Deal platform—so that they win the primaries and then the general.
This is the most important electoral cycle of my lifetime. It’s why I moved to the US. I want to give everything I personally can to [help secure] the best possible outcome. I’m not overstating any power that I have. I just don’t want to be watching it from the outside. I want to be in it. [Laughs.] Oh! I can’t say that. I sound like Beto O’Rourke!
I think we desperately need a new story and a sense of common purpose. The Green New Deal is really our best shot at building that kind of common purpose—of putting electoral power behind the movements that are organizing from below and pushing for their vision. It isn’t something that can be delivered by any single politician.