Articulator-in-chief of the anti-capitalism movement since 1999 – when her debut bestseller ‘No Logo’ exposed the sweatshop culture underwriting the West’s most beloved brands – Naomi Klein remains the radical voice of reason on the global left. For many others she’s something else entirely: she’s routinely branded a conspiracy theorist by anti-intellect internet right-wingers, and was once publicly called a ‘whackjob’ by an advisor to Barack Obama.
But in person the 44-year-old Canadian author is about as understated and self-deprecating as it’s feasible for a firebrand humanist-feminist folk hero to be. Between wry reflections on her work’s supposed shortcomings and the occasional what-I-should-have-said-was, she emits the rigorous, persuasive conviction that over the years has sent consumer brands, governments and – with her latest book ‘This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate’ – fossil-fuel giants scurrying for their spin-doctors. Yet she insists she always has ‘a crisis with books, which is “What’s the point? Who’s going to read this? What difference is it going to make?” But I’ve been so lucky because my books have consistently come out, amazingly, in these movement moments.’
This graciously downplays the force of polemic in ‘This Changes Everything’, arguments fired by her progressive agenda but solidified by five years of scrupulous and comprehensive research. In it Klein throws the ongoing scientific tussles over climate change into an arena of full-blown ideological warfare. She dismisses the consumer-action tactics of ‘Big Green’ – the NGOs and environmental groups who see climate salvation in cutting household emissions, car pooling and shopping for green-labelled groceries. And instead she states the case that the earth can only avoid catastrophic overheating if the people mobilise and capitalism’s most sacred cows are upended: if governments are forced to start intervening in markets, if their free-trade principles are shaken from their skulls and if communities can wrestle back control over their own infrastructures and natural resources. And this has to happen in virtually every country in the world. By 2017. Or else, in the scientific jargon of one geophysics professor – whose address to the 2012 American Geophysical Union conference Klein recounts in her book – the earth is more or less fucked.
Back in 2008 there seemed to be a strong political consensus on climate change – everyone from Richard Branson to President-Elect Obama was vowing to take action. Yet in ‘This Changes Everything’ you detail how that will has faded, and worldwide industrial carbon emissions have dramatically accelerated in the last five years. What happened?
The economic crisis happened. And the only part of the global economy that’s been doing well have been the commodities. In fact, we’ve been in the middle of a commodities boom and the countries that have been doing relatively well are the ones that are more dependent on fossil fuel. So my country’s [Canada] been doing well, Australia’s been doing well, a lot of Latin America… All of that went into hyperdrive as other parts of the global economy collapsed. Desperation has been the push into more and more extraction.
Your book presents the climate crisis as a clash of worldviews: the consensus around climate vs the consensus of free-market ideology. But in that face-off aren’t Adam Smith and Alan Greenspan always going to beat anti-frackers and Greenpeace?
But that free-market ideological stranglehold is weak – it’s weaker than it’s been at any point in my lifetime. Even in the United States – where I thought we were going to take so much flak for calling my book ‘Capitalism vs the Climate’ – even there capitalism is seen by many as a battered brand. Frank Luntz, who’s the most influential Republican wordsmith/messenger/doctor-of-doom – tells his Republican clients, ‘Don’t use the word “capitalism” because people associate it with greed.’
And look at the UK. A majority of people say they’re in favour of nationalising the energy companies and the rail. So the neoliberal consensus is not in good shape. I think it is a very ripe moment for deep political change – if a coherent agenda emerges.
Do you see it emerging?
There is a generation of young people that basically think [the existing political order]is all a sham. But I think what’s lacking is a vision of what to have instead, and the force to fight for that vision. I think we’ve had a lot of oppositional movements that have been very strong. UK Uncut: I’d always thought they were a really cool movement because they’d target corporations that hadn’t paid their taxes. So you’re not just saying ‘Don’t cut’; you’re saying, ‘Here’s where our money is – go fight.’ That’s the kind of thing we need more of, but even that is not enough. There has to be an articulated vision of a different economic system. My hope with this book is that it’ll contribute to that process of kicking our asses to do that.
What would you say to critics within the green movement who argue your overt politicising of the climate debate isn’t helpful?
Generally I think the people who say that are in denial about how ideological the debate has actually been. And they can’t see it because they’re in it. It’s extremely ideological to set up a carbon market rather than regulate polluters. It’s extremely ideological to give people shopping advice instead of telling them to join a movement and act collectively. So there is a really neoliberal wing of the green movement that doesn’t even see itself as political because they’re swimming in the waters of neoliberalism.
Why are most of the ‘Big Green’ NGOs failing to tackle the new fossil-fuel goldrush head on?
The Big Green groups have never been a ‘movement’ in the sense of counter-cultural social movements. If we think about mass movements that changed history, they’re outsider groups, who build their numbers because they don’t have power. That’s what trade unions did, that’s what the civil rights movement did, that’s what the women’s movement has done. When you don’t have access, you have to build counter-power. The thing about the environmental movement is that much of it started as hunting clubs and gentlemen’s elites – it was started by royalty [the UK’s original Nature Conservancy, which led to the World Wildlife Fund, was established by royal charter in 1949], I mean it was that elite. And I think these insider groups just couldn’t imagine being on the outside – because they never were outsiders.
Why do the multinational oil, coal and gas companies keep getting a free pass to extract where and what they want?
The way journalists articulate why the carbon issue isn’t going anywhere, where their cynicism comes from, is that there isn’t urgency from the climate side. That even people who say they care about climate change don’t care about it that much. And that’s the message that politicians get. The message they hear is: OK, on the one side we have the fossil fuel companies. They are really fucking motivated. They really, really, really want to dig up that carbon, because it represents trillions of dollars to them, and they play dirty and they fight to win. And then on the other side you have the polite lobbying, people complimenting you for making very little headway – it used to be Obama could do no wrong; whatever he did was like, ‘Great first step!’
As an activist how far should you go? Is breaking the law OK?
I think it’s a really personal question. I was arrested for the first time in my life protesting the Keystone XL pipeline [outside the White House in 2011]. I’d never done anything like that before, and I think that was very much about expressing that sense of urgency. I was arrested alongside a climate scientist named Jason Box, a leading a rock star glaciologist. More and more scientists are deciding to engage in direct action. But the divestment movement is another way to fight [A recent form of protest has seen prestigious institutions such as universities cutting financial ties with fossil-fuel companies], which has become hugely important for the scholars and scientists who are doing the research. Glasgow University has just divested [withdrawing £18 million in investment from the fossil-fuel industry in October 2014], and there was a wonderful letter signed by 100 Harvard professors and lecturers calling on Harvard to divest.
For someone who’s feeling overwhelmed by the scale of the climate problem, what’s the one thing they can do to combat inertia?
Get in a room with lots of other people. I think a lot of this is about consuming really, really scary information alone. There’s only so much you can sustain a feeling of hope without a community of people who are keeping you hopeful. Because this is overwhelming, this is global scale, this is existential.
Right now you have this majority of liberals who care about climate change, who know that it’s real, but if you ask them to rank it among issues they’ll put it dead last, after everything else. So the actual practical issue is how do you build a force that can fight hard, and fight with urgency? And that is why this has to be a climate justice movement, not just a climate movement. Because the only way to fight the multinationals, against forces with so much to lose, is to have an army on your side with even more to gain. It’s only when people are fighting for their health, for their water, for the jobs that they desperately need, they fight like hell and they fight to win.
‘This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate’ is out now in hardback through Allen Lane (UK), £20.