Naomi Klein

28 October 2013 – Canadian author Naomi Klein, famous for her book No Logo will publish a book on climate change next year. In this interview with Jason Mark, editor at the Earth Island Journal Klein says the “Big Green” groups are becoming deeply irrelevant because they have lost sight of the enemy and have chosen to work through the corporate world rather than fight it.

Corporate partnerships, she says, are not  “sue the bastards;” it’s, “work through corporate partnerships with the bastards.” Some green groups “get a lot of money from corporations and rich donors and foundations, but their whole model is in crisis.”

As the planet heads into catastrophic climate change, and as The Australian Greens’ foothold in most parts of the electorate slipped backwards in the last federal election, Klein offers a challenging insight that needs to be examined.

Part of the problem was the way that the environmental movement responded to end of the Cold War when it became the next “communism” to be fought by the right. Another part of the problem is the beginnings of the environmental movement among the elite and a certain reticence to give that up.

Here is an extract:

During your career you’ve written about the power of brand names, populist movements around the world, and free market fundamentalism. Why now a book and film on climate change?

You know, The Shock Doctrine, my last book, ends with climate change. It ends with a vision of a dystopic future where you have weak infrastructure colliding with heavy weather, as we saw with Hurricane Katrina. And rather than working to prevent future disasters by having lower emissions, you have all these attempts to take advantage of that crisis. At the time, it seemed to me that climate change was potentially going to be the biggest disaster-capitalism free-for-all that we’ve seen yet. So it was quite a logical progression for me to go from writing about disaster-capitalism in The Shock Doctrine to writing about climate change. As I was writing The Shock Doctrine, I was covering the Iraq War and profiteering from the war, and I started to see these patterns repeat in the aftermath of natural disasters, like the Asian tsunami and then Hurricane Katrina. There are chapters in that book on both of those events. Then I came to the idea that climate change could be a kind of a “people’s shock,” an answer to the shock doctrine – not just another opportunity by the disaster capitalists to feed off of misery, but an opportunity for progressive forces to deepen democracy and really improve livelihoods around the world. Then I came across the idea of “climate debt” when I was doing a piece on reparations for Harper’s magazine. I had a meeting with Bolivia’s climate negotiator in Geneva – her name is Angélica Navarro – and she put the case to me that climate change could be an opportunity for a global Green Marshall Plan with the North paying climate debts in the form of huge green development project.

In the wake of Hurricane Sandy you wrote about the potential of a “people’s shock.” Do you see that it’s happening, a global grassroots response to some of the extreme weather we’re experiencing?

I see a people’s shock happening broadly, where on lots of different fronts you have constituencies coming forward who have been fighting, for instance, for sustainable agriculture for many, many years, and now realize that it’s also a climate solution. You have a lot of reframing of issues – and not in an opportunistic way, just another layer of understanding. Here in Canada, the people who oppose the tar sands most forcefully are Indigenous people living downstream from the tar sands. They are not opposing it because of climate change – they are opposing it because it poisons their bodies. But the fact that it’s also ruining the planet adds another layer of urgency. And it’s that layering of climate change on top of other issues that holds a huge amount of potential.

In terms of Hurricane Sandy, I really do see some hopeful, grassroots responses, particularly in the Rockaways, where people were very organized right from the beginning, where Occupy Sandy was very strong, where new networks emerged. The first phase is just recovery, and now as you have a corporate-driven reconstruction process descending, those organized communities are in a position to respond, to go to the meetings, to take on the real estate developers, to talk about another vision of public housing that is way better than what’s there right now. So yeah, it’s definitely happening. Right now it’s under the radar, but I’m following it quite closely.

In a piece you wrote for The Nation in November 2011 you suggested that when it comes to climate change, there’s a dual denialism at work – conservatives deny the science while some liberals deny the political implications of the science. Why do you think that some environmentalists are resistant to grappling with climate change’s implications for the market and for economics?

Well, I think there is a very a deep denialism in the environmental movement among the Big Green groups. And to be very honest with you, I think it’s been more damaging than the right-wing denialism in terms of how much ground we’ve lost. Because it has steered us in directions that have yielded very poor results. I think if we look at the track record of Kyoto, of the UN Clean Development Mechanism, the European Union’s emissions trading scheme – we now have close to a decade that we can measure these schemes against, and it’s disastrous. Not only are emissions up, but you have no end of scams to point to, which gives fodder to the right. The right took on cap-and-trade by saying it’s going to bankrupt us, it’s handouts to corporations, and, by the way, it’s not going to work. And they were right on all counts. Not in the bankrupting part, but they were right that this was a massive corporate giveaway, and they were right that it wasn’t going to bring us anywhere near what scientists were saying we needed to do lower emissions. So I think it’s a really important question why the green groups have been so unwilling to follow science to its logical conclusions. I think the scientists Kevin Anderson and his colleague Alice Bows at the Tyndall Centre have been the most courageous on this because they don’t just take on the green groups, they take on their fellow scientists for the way in which neoliberal economic orthodoxy has infiltrated the scientific establishment. It’s really scary reading. Because they have been saying, for at least for a decade, that getting to the emissions reduction levels that we need to get to in the developed world is not compatible with economic growth.

What we know is that the environmental movement had a series of dazzling victories in the late 60s and in the 70s where the whole legal framework for responding to pollution and to protecting wildlife came into law. It was just victory after victory after victory. And these were what came to be called “command-and-control” pieces of legislation. It was “don’t do that.” That substance is banned or tightly regulated. It was a top-down regulatory approach. And then it came to screeching halt when Regan was elected. And he essentially waged war on the environmental movement very openly. We started to see some of the language that is common among those deniers – to equate environmentalism with Communism and so on. As the Cold War dwindled, environmentalism became the next target, the next Communism. Now, the movement at that stage could have responded in one of the two ways. It could have fought back and defended the values it stood for at that point, and tried to resist the steamroller that was neoliberalism in its early days. Or it could have adapted itself to this new reality, and changed itself to fit the rise of corporatist government. And it did the latter. Very consciously if you read what [Environmental Defense Fund president] Fred Krupp was saying at the time.

It was go along or get along.

Exactly. We now understand it’s about corporate partnerships. It’s not, “sue the bastards;” it’s, “work through corporate partnerships with the bastards.” There is no enemy anymore.

More than that, it’s casting corporations as the solution, as the willing participants and part of this solution. That’s the model that has lasted to this day.

I go back to something even like the fight over NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement. The Big Green groups, with very few exceptions, lined up in favor of NAFTA, despite the fact that their memberships were revolting, and sold the deal very aggressively to the public. That’s the model that has been globalized through the World Trade Organization, and that is responsible in many ways for the levels of soaring emissions. We’ve globalized an utterly untenable economic model of hyperconsumerism. It’s now successfully spreading across the world, and it’s killing us.

It’s not that the green groups were spectators to this – they were partners in this. They were willing participants in this. It’s not every green group. It’s not Greenpeace, it’s not Friends of the Earth, it’s not, for the most part, the Sierra Club. It’s not 350.org, because it didn’t even exist yet. But I think it goes back to the elite roots of the movement, and the fact that when a lot of these conservation groups began there was kind of a noblesse oblige approach to conservation. It was about elites getting together and hiking and deciding to save nature. And then the elites changed. So if the environmental movement was going to decide to fight, they would have had to give up their elite status. And weren’t willing to give up their elite status. I think that’s a huge part of the reason why emissions are where they are.

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