If we’re going to save the planet, do we have to get rid of capitalism first? It’s not an abstract question these days. As the traditional political landscape shifts beneath our feet, with the rise on one hand of right-wing populism and on the other of a resurgent environmentalist movement, a stark ideological divide is emerging.
In the US especially, Republicans including Donald Trump refuse to accept the scientific evidence for man-made climate change. On the left, the argument is made increasingly forcefully that profit-driven corporate capitalism will never allow the radical social changes that will be needed if we are to have any chance of addressing the climate crisis.
Into this fray steps influential Canadian author Naomi Klein, whose 1999 book, No Logo, lit a touchpaper for the anti-globalist, anti-corporate protest movement by laying out the connections between heavily branded consumer capitalism and the abuse and exploitation of workers in sweatshops and factories in the developing world.
Over the past decade, Klein’s attention has turned increasingly to the climate crisis and, her new book, On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal, makes the argument for a radical, anti-capitalist solution to the challenge.
"I was certainly aware of the environmental impacts of corporate malfeasance when I wrote No Logo 20 years ago," says Klein when we speak on the Irish Times Inside Politics podcast. "It focused on the labour aspect of the deregulated corporate globalisation that we were seeing in that period, but also the environmental impacts. But I wasn't thinking on a planetary scale."
That changed when she covered the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2007. "I really saw the intersection of the economic policies that I had been writing about – privatisation, deregulation – and what that looked like when you had climate change layered on top. You had this record-breaking storm that broke through the neglected storm defences and it was absolutely disastrous. So, it was really Hurricane Katrina that was my wake-up call."
It could be argued that only in the past few years has the left started to consider how the climate crisis fits with its other concerns. “I think for a lot of people who are really in the thick of, just life and death struggles, it was hard, for a long time to feel like climate change was as urgent,” says Klein.
“It wasn’t so much that people didn’t care, but there was a sense that you had these big slick green NGOs who were focused on it and we were the ones who were fighting for people to have enough money to live, not to be evicted, not to be abused by the police.
For a long time we talked about climate change as a problem of the future, not of the present. And that has really shifted
“For a long time we talked about climate change as a problem of the future, not of the present. And that has really shifted. We really understand now that climate change is an accelerant to all of these other abuses: whether it’s fuelling armed conflict, exacerbating poverty, fuelling white nationalism, because in the face of mass migration, you have these demagogues fuelling racist responses.
"I mean, climate change just makes everything worse, right? It doesn't just make things wetter and hotter, it also makes things meaner and crueller. You see that manifested in a lot of ways. For instance, in Puerto Rico, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, there's been a spike in domestic violence and femicide. It just puts that extra stress on a society."
Isn’t it also the case, though, that green issues have been – and still are – seen as a middle-class preoccupation, or even a luxury? Klein believes that’s in part because of mistakes made by the green movement itself in the past.
“This is something that I’ve been writing about for a long time,” she says. “A lot of the European and North American green movement was very much in the thralls of the market logic of the 1990s, putting forward so-called market-based solutions to climate change that had a lot to do with appealing to people as consumers – ‘buy this, not that’ – which assumes a certain amount of disposable income. Or championing policies that increase the cost of living for working people while avoiding going after big polluters.
“And so, I think the response to climate change gained a reputation, understandably, as being something that was just going to make life harder for working people.”
She points to the revolt of the gilets jaunes in France against Emmanuel Macron's carbon tax. "The kinds of climate policies that he introduced were ones that increased the cost of petrol for working people at the same time as he's handing tax breaks to the ultra-rich. This is how climate action has gained this reputation as a luxury issue for people who can afford it."
Instead, she sees more grounds for hope, as the title of her book suggests, in the Green New Deal being promulgated by left-wing Democrats in the US. Inspired by Franklin D Roosevelt’s policies of the 1930s, it proposes massive state investment in infrastructure, carbon alternatives, workers’ rights and the reduction of economic inequality.
"I think the significance of the emergence of a Green New Deal in the United States and other parts of the world is that we finally have a green agenda that marries the need for us to radically lower emissions with those bread-and-butter issues for good jobs, for services, key services like healthcare and education that are free or affordable for working people," Klein says.
Trump as distraction
Pessimists argue that we humans simply aren’t built for a challenge on this scale, that our evolutionary development has left us with a cognitive deficit that leaves us unable to cope with an enormous, terrifying, impending, but not immediate disaster of this magnitude. If that’s true, perhaps Trump is just a welcome distraction from the problem we face.
“Well there’s no doubt that he’s a distraction machine,” says Klein. “His one true gift is changing the subject multiple times a day. Keeping people in a state of mental scrambledness, much like scrolling through one’s Twitter feed.”
She writes admiringly in the book about 16-year-old activist Greta Thunberg’s extraordinary single-mindedness in a distracted world. “One of her great gifts is her focus and it’s something to appreciate about neurodiversity,” she says.
“It’s interesting that so many young people who are on the autism spectrum are becoming climate change leaders, One of the gifts many people who are on the autism spectrum have is that ability to focus, to not be distracted and not take their social cues from people around them.”
Given the scientific evidence, though, and the political realties around us, it is difficult, surely, to be optimistic, I suggest. Klein disagrees.
With the original New Deal and the Marshall Plan, there are historical precedents for times when humans have done big things very quickly in the face of crisis
“The reason why I focus on the Green New Deal and also take some solace from the history of the original New Deal and the Marshall Plan is that there are historical precedents for times when humans have done big things very quickly in the face of crisis,” she says.
“One of the great strengths of the Green New Deal framework is that we are not just asking people to take action for some abstract idea of the environment or saving the planet.
“This is a massive jobs programme. If we design it right, we could be creating many millions of unionised jobs which people desperately need. We would be getting at the roots of a mental health crisis and social isolation. We are in this period of this profound social fragmentation and one of the things that this framework gives us is a sense of common purpose which I think people desperately need right now.
“On the question of whether or not I’m hopeful, I have a seven year old. I was taking him to summer camp and he was asking me about the fires in the Amazon that he’d heard about on the radio and he was completely horrified by that.
“You know, I don’t feel that it’s fair to just give up because our odds aren’t good – and I admit that they’re not. If I were approaching this as a wager, I would bet against us. But this isn’t a wager. This is our one and only home. This is our future and our children’s future.
“So if there’s any chance that we could get ourselves to safety then the only thing that matters is that we do everything possible to improve our odds, to enlarge our chances. So, I don’t spend any time thinking about whether or not we should be hopeful. I think about how we improve the conditions for hope and that takes action. We have to earn that hope with our actions.”
On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal is published by Allen Lane. The International Literature Festival Dublin will present Naomi Klein in a public conversation with Lorna Gold at the National Stadium, Dublin, on Friday, October 18th. ilfdublin.ie