This Changes Everything: a chat with Naomi Klein
Storming past the publishers who said climate change wouldn’t sell, Naomi Klein’s new book is breaking barriers on both sides of the Atlantic. Kim Bryan, media officer at CAT had a conversation with the author about publishing, powering-down and what’s next for the climate movement.
It is rare for a book about climate change to find itself on TheNew York Times best sellers list but Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything, released in November 2014, has done just that. In her most provocative book yet the author of the global bestsellers The Shock Doctrine andNo Logo tackles the most profound threat humanity has ever faced: the war our economic model is waging against life on earth. Extremely well researched and written the book exposes the myths clouding the climate debate, arguing that it is not just about carbon but about capitalism.
“The convenient truth is that we can seize this existential crisis to transform our failed economic system and build something radically better.”
1. In an interview with the Guardian when This Changes Everything first came out you said, “We tried it your way and we don’t have another decade to waste.” How do you see the climate movement developing quickly enough – how can we make this movement bigger and better?
I think that the truth is we needed this movement yesterday; what we are hearing from climate scientists is that we need to be cutting our emissions dramatically. The climate scientists that I relied on for the book – Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows-Larkin from the Tyndall Centre – talk about cuts between 8-10% per year, and they have being saying this for a couple of years. The urgency is huge.
But the idea that the environmental movement alone could become powerful enough to turn this tanker around is a fantasy. My approach is based on the premise that this kind of movement building can only happen through a convergence of existing movements as opposed to building up one movement. My hope, and this is based on seeing this start to happen, is that particularly because the next round of climate negotiations is happening in Paris at the end of the year is that we are going to see a convergence of movements. For example in the UK at the moment the Green Party are growing rapidly yet at the same time Labour abstained from the fracking moratorium vote. This is the tremendous cost of movements being overtly siloed, a really tragic example of the cost of divisions between the labour movement and the environmental movement.
Currently the huge anti-austerity movements in Europe have tremendous momentum: Syrzia have won their first election victory in Greece and there is similar momentum behind Podemos in Spain. The Paris climate negotiations could be a moment where there is a convergence between the climate justice, anti-austerity and labour movements. And – unless we see that coming together of movements and that convergence – we don’t stand a chance
2. The book is a call for an economic transformation away from the capitalist system, yet it is on The New York Times best sellers list. What’s your formula for being able to take radical material, chuck it into the mainstream and people being able to hear it?
There are many books that are well written and researched that do not end up on the best sellers lists; a lot of it is about luck. I got lucky with my first book, No Logo [a look at branding, advertising, marketing and market dominance], and that created a situation where I could get good book advances to spend on research, set up a mini think tank and spend 5 years writing and researching; it is an amazing privilege. It’s also about hitting the moment and not believing the nay-sayers who tell you that this will never sell…The feedback from a lot of publishers was that no one wants to hear about climate change, that climate books never sell…I guess the publishers took a risk with me because of my previous books. I discovered quite early on that publishers know what they are talking about. With No Logo I could not find a US publisher for a very long time; I have a stack of rejection letters telling me, “I really like this book, but Americans just want to read memoirs of eating disorders.” There is just this ongoing pattern of cultural gate keepers who decide what books to sell, buy and invest in and give the kind of advances that allow people to hire research teams. These people are in the business of deciding what the public wants, which is why every explosion of social movements comes as a surprise to our media outlets: they perennially convince themselves that the public is apathetic, and then something like Occupy happens.
3. What are some of the main critiques that you have heard about the book that you take seriously?
This Changes Everything is about making connections and movements, and my genuine, deepest hope for the book is that people will pick up the thesis and improve it and add to it. We launched a blog to go alongside the book, which is wide open to people to add to the thesis. That includes pointing out things that I should have done much more. I knew when I was writing the book that there should have been a whole chapter about the intersection between feminism, women’s rights and climate change. I know there could have been, should have been, a whole chapter on militarisation and war.
Some of it is the limits of time and space but I also see this is an ongoing project. The idea behind creating these spaces and tools is so the topic can be debated. I take those critiques to heart but I try not to beat myself up about it as I know the limits of what one book can do. I find it a little depressing if the spirit of the critiques is about berating me. I feel like: yes, do it, add to it, be part of it. That said, I think there have been really smart critiques about the ideological inconsistencies within the book. Part of the book is more transformational in terms of talking about needing a post-capitalist system and there are other parts talking about changes which are feasible within a mixed economy, which are about building up the public sphere and the commons within a system broadly resembling our own – changing it dramatically but not overturning it. I think those critiques are smart, I find them interesting but I think some of them come from a more academic place from the one that I write in. I am not looking for the purity of my politics and I do take an attitude of ‘whatever works’ and that we should spell out these ideas. The critiques are interesting but they don’t make me want to have written a different book. I think the truth is that radical and reformist ideas can co-exist and create space for one another.
4. One of the main projects at CAT is Zero Carbon Britain, where we show how we can power down through energy efficiency measures and meet that reduced energy demand with 100% renewables. We have listened to what the science is saying, proving that the technology says we can – as have many other groups and organisations. What are the main reasons you attribute towards the reluctance of politicians and industry to make the transition to a zero carbon future?
Firstly, it is really important to continue to make that case; the truth is that message still has not got out there. There has been so much misinformation about renewable energy, and all of these talking points about how unreliable it is and about how it’s not ready. Yet in the last year there has been a huge shift, a massive leap forward: for example, some of the changes that Germany has been making over the past decade are finally piercing the public consciousness. That is not a paper that is being produced; it is something that is happening in a large economy which those in the north can relate to. Just because CAT have been saying it for a long time, it is not a moment to be discouraged; it is a moment to do everything you can to popularise this research.
The other part of the answer I explore in the book is this hugely unfortunate case of bad timing for the climate crisis. It is possible for us to change the fundamentals of how our society functions, but when we talk about moving away from fossil fuels we are talking about the underpinnings of our economy – our societies are built on fossil fuels – so these are not small shifts. The fact that we are talking about making them within the context of a triumph of neo-liberal ideology has been absolutely debilitating; this is what the book brings to the debate that has been missing. It is something we can only see in retrospect, the extent to which neo-liberalism has undermined what governments thought of their very role. So yes, you can do it, but you have to roll up your sleeves and plan the kind of society and economy you want to have. That very idea became heretical in the period when it most needed to happen. We don’t have politicians that think that way, we have politicians that see their role as getting out of the way of business so they can maximise their profit. Then the politicians can brag about GDP growth as the measure of progress. That’s what they do, they don’t think about what sort of societies we should have and set out to deliberately plan them in ways that would require a huge amount of intervention. That’s why at the centre of this book is an argument that we will not win this battle unless we are willing to have a full-throated battle of ideas about the role of government in society, the role of collective action, the role of planning – because that’s underneath this failure of action on climate change. Put in another way, yes it’s possible but it will never be as profitable; it’s not that money can’t be made in a post-carbon economy but you are never going to have the kind of super-profits that have been the prize of the neo-liberal era. The core point is that it requires a radically different view of the role of government than the one we have.
5. CAT aims to inform, inspire and enable practical solutions for sustainable living. As part of the release of your book you have created a website called Beautiful Solutions; what are some of the projects there that stand out to you?
There are so many. When we were doing research about gold mines in northern Greece (which was one of the responses to the economic crisis in Greece: the government started auctioning off its public assets, as so often happens, including its water systems in many large cities). In Thessaloniki, as a response to this, rather than simply defending a public state institution model for controlling the water, they came forward with a different ownership model based on the water as commons.
There are also recuperated work places, which was a subject of a documentary film that we made during the financial crash in Argentina… Instead of accepting unemployment due to workplace closure, workers form horizontal assemblies and ‘recuperate’ (take back) their workplace, resist eviction, and begin producing again. Many recuperated workplaces organise horizontally and with equal remuneration. This phenomenon has been spreading, from the South to the North, with recent recuperation in Greece, Italy and France. These are really good examples of an organic solution that, in the context of the right kind of planning and coalition-building, is also a climate solution. A lot of these factories are being re-imagined as not just workers’ co-ops but also as green workers’ co-ops.
We don’t see our role as laying out a ten-point political plan but I do think that is a role that social movements need to do democratically together in this political moment. It is not enough to point to a beautiful solution pocket here and there; we need more ambition in this political moment. We need to remember we are not starting from scratch. We are starting from a great position of being able to point to solutions that work. Some are even working on a large scale like the German energy transition, but it’s about being able to bring everything together. In Germany it’s working on the transition side but it is not working on the emissions side. The support for renewables is not being coupled with a strong ‘leave it the ground’ legislative response to coal. The oppositional work that is being done, fighting the pipe lines and the extractive industries, is the flip side of this inspiring alternative work. There are those that say we can just drop the resistance and work on our beautiful transition, but we don’t have that luxury; we have to work on both at the same time.
6. When was the last time you felt overwhelmed and like there is no way we can do it? What do you do to get over it?
I feel most overwhelmed when I take on too much myself, and I feel it least when I am reminded of how many of us are doing this work. It was wonderful that the book launch coincided with the week of the huge climate convergence in NYC, with 400,000 people marching in the streets. I have been able to carry that with me through the bleaker moments. One of the things that happens when you go out and talk about this stuff is that you are confronted with people’s despair. It happens many times at Q&A sessions where people stand up and vent their heartbreak and their hopelessness. Particularly in the US, where people are up against a political system that is bought and paid for, there are a lot of progressive people that have given up. Particularly of an older generation; younger people have tremendous hope and optimism and they can’t afford to give up, but someone standing up in a room saying, “I use to believe I could change it but I don’t any more” – that is contagious. I understand why people feel this way but it kills me that people don’t understand how dangerous it is to publicly give up in front of another generation that has not given up. So, for me, I have found it critical to not try to do this in any way alone. The best events I have had are when I have shared the stage with local activists who are doing the work. I am doing an event in Berlin, and speaking alongside me will be someone to talk about the plans to turn Berlin’s energy grid into co-op and someone fighting coal extraction in Cologne. The feeling in the room will be totally different if they hear from people doing the work rather than just talking about it… The combination of theory and practice is what people are hungry for, and that helps me.
We need to be articulating a very clear vision for the next economy, [with] a justice-based transition away from fossil fuels
7. 2015 is a big year for the climate, with the talks in Paris, yet it is quite hard to remain hopeful as so many climate talks have failed in the past. What would be a good outcome?
It is important not to set up a similar dynamic to Copenhagen, where unreasonable levels of hope were projected onto a single meeting. It was almost a supplicant relationship to political leaders – appealing to their consciences and responsibility to future generations. My hope is that what happens at the Paris climate talks is much less to do with what happens inside and much more about what can happen outside in terms of building the convergences between the climate justice and anti-austerity coalitions. We need to be articulating a very clear vision for the next economy, [with] a justice-based transition away from fossil fuels. If the movement can articulate that during the Paris climate talks then we can get a lot done in the years after. It’s less about hoping that our leaders are going to have an about-face and it’s about what we do in the lead up and outside and afterwards.
“There is a lot of excitement about new political configurations in Europe and Paris is an opportunity; is a time to bring together that convergence. The responsibility is with us and not with the leaders to build that counter power – and eventually we will take power.”
8. I agree that it’s a very exciting time… Thank you very much for speaking with us today, Naomi.
Thanks so much for all your work; I think CAT is amazing.
About the author:
Kim Bryan is a media officer at the Centre for Alternative Technology; she also writes freelance articles on energy, environmental and social justice issues.