Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, by Naomi Klein (Simon & Schuster). Click here for information about the book and Naomi’s September/October 2014 tour dates. The Nation will be livestreaming her sold-out US book launch on September 18 at 6 pm EST; you can watch that here.
About a year ago, I was having dinner with some newfound friends in Athens. I had an interview scheduled for the next morning with Alexis Tsipras, the leader of Greece’s official opposition party and one of the few sources of hope in a Europe ravaged by austerity. I asked the group for ideas about what questions I should put to the young politician. Someone suggested: “History knocked on your door—did you answer?”
At the time, Tsipras’s party, Syriza, was putting up a fine fight against austerity. Yet it was struggling to articulate a positive economic vision of its own. I was particularly struck that the party did not oppose the governing coalition’s embrace of new oil and gas exploration, a threat to Greece’s beautiful seas as well as to the climate as a whole. Instead, it argued that any funds raised by the effort should be spent on pensions, not used to pay back creditors. In other words, the party was not providing an alternative to extractivism; it simply had more equitable plans for distributing the spoils—something that can be said of most left-governed countries in Latin America.
When we met the next day, Tsipras was frank that concerns about the environmental crisis had been entirely upstaged by more immediate ones. “We were a party that had the environment and climate change in the center of our interest,” he told me. “But after these years of depression in Greece, we forgot climate change.”
This is, of course, entirely understandable. It is also a terrible missed opportunity—and not just for one party in one country in the world. The research I’ve done over the past five years has convinced me that climate change represents a historic opening for progressive transformation. As part of the project of getting our emissions down to the levels so many climate scientists recommend, we have the chance to advance policies that dramatically improve lives, close the gap between rich and poor, create huge numbers of good jobs, and reinvigorate democracy from the ground up. Rather than the ultimate expression of the shock doctrine I wrote about in my last book—a frenzy of new resource grabs and repression by the 1 percent—climate change can be a “People’s Shock,” a blow from below. It can disperse power into the hands of the many, rather than consolidating it in the hands of a few, and it can radically expand the commons, rather than auctioning it off in pieces. Getting to the root of why we are facing serial crises in the first place would leave us with both a more habitable climate than the one we are headed for and a far more just economy than the one we have now.