I am not a climate-change activist. When I suggested reviewing This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein, it was because the book was written by the same woman who awakened our global consciousness with No Logo and The Shock Doctrine. I should have known before opening it that her latest book would aptly articulate in its opening pages my own cognitive dissonance around issues of personal consumption, social justice and climate change. Fortunately, Randy Banderob, editor of Education Forum, and I had a chance to sit down and ask her some questions on behalf of our membership.
NANCI: California is in the grip of a three-year drought and this week, Buffalo received its annual forecast for snow in one day. Climate change?
NAOMI: It’s difficult to point to any one event and say this is climate change. Warming temperatures and events that would happen anyway are intensified by climate change. Climate change isn’t causing the drought; it’s intensifying the drought and its impacts. It’s not that a storm wouldn’t happen anyway. A phrase that gets used a lot is that the dice are being loaded. A real turning point in North America was Superstorm Sandy when New York City had to shut down. One headline declared, “It’s Global Warming, Stupid!” That unlocked something in us and I think more people are now making the connections between extreme weather and climate change.
NANCI: Obviously This Changes Everything is meant to be a clarion call to the world on climate change. Just how bad is it?
NAOMI: I start the book with quotes from some of the most conservative state institutions on the planet like the World Bank and the International Energy Agency. These are institutions associated with the establishment and they are saying if we stay on this course, temperatures will warm to a level that is incompatible with civilization. That is the road we are on. If we think about different kinds of crises that humanity has faced before, such as the prospect of nuclear annihilation, this is an existential threat. If we warm temperatures four to six degrees it isn’t at all clear we can survive. All of the climate models break down and things go non-linear. Specifically, we’re talking about many coastal cities and countries disappearing, as well as widespread crop failure. Particularly terrifying about this crisis is that unlike previous crises that humanity has faced, the only one you could point to that puts as many people simultaneously in danger is the threat of nuclear war.
NANCI: I came to your book pretty ignorant, so I could relate to the opening where you talk about different people’s approaches to not facing climate change or the fear of not even wanting to mentally go there.
NAOMI: Well, that’s great because I think the book is very much addressed not to people who deny climate change, because I don’t think I’m going to change their minds, but people who are in that state of simultaneously knowing and not knowing or who actively look away. A lot of us are aware of the extent to which we suppress this knowledge and the age of online news makes us hyper-aware. You know, when you are sifting through a bunch of headlines online and one of them is about some celebrity sex scandal and another one is about melting ice caps and you’re like, hmmm, and then click on the scandal. What scares me most is not anything in those climate models. I find them scary but I find crop failure scary. I find rising sea levels scary, but what scares me most is not what the earth will do, but what we humans will do in the face of that. My last book, The Shock Doctrine, was about some horrific examples of how our economic system is built to take advantage of crisis and disasters. It’s that collision between heavy weather and a brutal economic system that encourages profiteering. I think we’ll see increasing racism, fortressing our borders and scapegoating. That’s why I spend a lot of time in the book talking about how we need a shift in values and world view, because that is the part of this crisis that is scariest.
NANCI: Are you advocating for something where the progressive side uses the shock doctrine or sees this crisis as an opportunity to institute changes to the way society is structured?
NAOMI: The book is absolutely about how progressives should respond to crisis. The Shock Doctrine is not just about responding forcefully to crisis. Of course we should, because crises are messages. They are powerful signs telling us that there’s something broken in our system. If Wall Street melts down, it’s saying, “Hey guys, you need to fix this. It’s unstable.” And if we’re seeing more natural disasters, that’s telling us there’s an underlying problem. The Shock Doctrine was never saying it is wrong to have a forceful response to crisis. It was about a particular strategy of harnessing crisis to override democracy and to push through very unpopular policies that politicians wouldn’t be able to push through otherwise. I call it a people’s shock, where we respond to a very real crisis by actually trying to solve the underlying issues. The irony of The Shock Doctrine and these tactics is that the so-called solution is often proposed and pushed through by the right to make the underlying problem worse. For example, after Hurricane Katrina there was a crisis born of heavy weather and infrastructure and the Republican response to that was well, let’s do away with the public sphere, let’s drill for more oil in Alaska and build more refineries on the Gulf Coast to fuel the climate crisis. At the time, I thought that it’s amazing the left won’t talk about climate change. We’re so afraid of being seen as opportunistic that we go mute during crisis, particularly during a natural disaster, where lives are being lost.
NANCI: Is there a gender element at play in our view of the natural world? Is this a deeply ingrained historical narrative?
NAOMI: There’s never been a non-gendered view of the natural world because ancient societies have always seen the earth as female or feminized. The idea of the earth as mother, provider and creator of life is probably the oldest idea of fertility. A counter narrative emerged in the 1600s of the earth as something to be conquered and where man was the engineer of the earth. The earth was then cast as a prone woman and a lot of the Francis Bacon quotes I have in the book also characterized the earth as feminine, but the earth was essentially a chained woman who was being dominated by men. What’s important to understand about this extractivist world view is that it’s a dominance-based logic. It’s the idea that one can totally dominate nature and people and then extract what we need from them in a non-reciprocal way. It doesn’t require consent. This is at the heart of the industrial project and I think at the heart of what we need to change.
NANCI: It was also central to the frontier narrative, expansionism and the Gold Rush era, so it’s woven throughout history and it gets remodelled with each generation, despite being essentially the same tale.
NAOMI: It is, and I think this idea runs deepest in settler colonial states like Canada, the U.S., Australia and New Zealand because the idea of the boundless frontier that could be extracted endlessly was so core to our national narrative. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Canada and Australia are the biggest climate criminals at the moment and Stephen Harper and Tony Abbott get along so well with the G20.
NANCI: Are the environmental and labour movements at odds with one another?
NAOMI: They shouldn’t be. We have this dichotomy where the union leadership in Canada understands there are way more jobs in a transition to the next economy than just defending the current resource-extracting status quo. Mark Lee, one of the directors of the Climate Justice Project at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives of British Columbia, has done excellent research on this. Mark looked at the Northern Gateway Pipeline and how many jobs would be created by that $5-billion investment and compared this to how many jobs would be created in transit, energy efficiency and renewable energy. The numbers show that if the money were invested in those sectors, there would be seven to eight times more jobs than if the same amount were invested in oil and gas. Pipelines are the worst of all because they’re temporary construction jobs. Moreover, the union leadership understands their members are best positioned to get new green jobs because it’s the same skill set. There’s some retraining, but they need pipe fitters and engineers and these are the same tradespeople who would be losing their jobs in oil and gas.
NANCI: What do you think is getting in the way of that message with labour?
NAOMI: I think labour is so under siege here. Intellectually we understand, but a few jobs in the hand are easier to fight for than many more jobs that don’t yet exist. The issue is that labour movements can’t win that battle on their own. Labour can’t transform the entire national debate. For that you need a broadbased social movement that includes other stakeholders like students, women and Aboriginal groups alongside labour. This is why the book is ultimately about how climate can form the basis for building that social movement, because I don’t think there is real hope without unions. Unions understand there are so many more jobs in a clean transition but they are still fighting for jobs moving dirty oil across the country.
NANCI: Private- and public-sector unions rely on pension plans to provide workers with a secure future. How does their investment play out in a world experiencing climate change?
NAOMI: There has been an incredible movement since I’ve been writing this book that was spreading quickly and I had to keep updating the numbers and that’s the fossil-fuel divestment movement, which really didn’t exist three years ago. Now it is in half a dozen countries, hundreds of campuses, faith organizations, non-profits, foundations and universities. They question the ethics of where public and private-interest institutions invest their money. Universities and foundations are being forced to ask themselves if where they invest is aligned with their values. This is a familiar question and we’ve had lots of debates about various kinds of unethical investments.
NANCI: How are teachers and educational workers uniquely positioned to be a benefit to the environmental movement? When our members read this, they’re going to wonder what they can do. Is there a particular niche role?
NAOMI: One of the problems with the climate debate is it’s been hyper-specialized. It’s very wonky on different levels because of the denial movement. Scientists feel they need to qualify just to keep themselves from getting attacked and they become less and less intelligible to regular people. High school teachers, more than university professors, know how to make information understandable. It needs to be much more interdisciplinary too. Educators are wary of getting into a deep discussion about climate change. It is not just a job for the chemistry teacher or the environmental-club supervisor either.
NANCI: I have to tell you your book hooked me at the beginning. I knew very little about climate change. It hasn’t been my issue and then as I got into This Changes Everything, it began to take root in my psyche as my issue.
NAOMI: Well, that’s so good because honestly, my single goal for this book is to speak to people who don’t feel like it’s their issue, because the other thing we didn’t even talk about is the public sphere, defence of the public sphere, and that’s really key right now. If we’re going to deal with climate change, we need a public sphere.
PHOTO: ANYA CHIBIS