Q&A with Naomi Klein
Canadian author and award-winning journalist Naomi Klein will speak this evening about her latest book, “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate,” at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Klein, a Dai Ho Chun Distinguished Chair, speaks from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at the campus center ballroom. The event is free and open to the public.
When published in September 2014, "This Changes Everything" debuted at No. 5 on the New York Times bestseller list.
In the book, Klein argues that climate change is a wake-up call delivered in the language of fires, floods and droughts, requiring heavy-duty interventions — much more than just people changing their light bulbs.
Klein also points out that our economic system and planetary system are at war.
“Or more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life,” she writes. “What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources: what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature.”
At the same time, she documents some inspiring movements and examples of change that give us hope. An accompanying feature documentary by husband Avi Lewis is expected this fall.
Klein, 44, is also a contributing editor for Harper’s, a reporter for Rolling Stone and a syndicated columnist for The Nation and The Guardian. Her earlier books include “No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies” and “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.” She sits on the board of directors of 350.org, a global grassroots movement to solve the climate crisis.
No tickets are required for the event, which is first come, first serve. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. Visit manoa.hawaii.edu for more information.
The Green Leaf sat down on Tuesday, Feb. 24, for a conversation with Klein about Keystone, climate change in Hawaii and motherhood.
Nina Wu: What's your reaction to the news that President Obama vetoed the Keystone XL pipeline bill?
Naomi Klein: Big day. It's a true victory for the climate movement, and, you know, victories are few and far between, so you have to pause and savor them. It's not a full victory because now we need to actually get it rejected. But I think it's really significant this is the first time he's used the presidential veto, and he used it for a pipeline project that when it was first introduced, was considered such a shoo-in that TransCanada went ahead and bought the pipe. This was not supposed to be a fight, and we turned it into a fight...I was arrested.
NW: You were amongst the protestors in D.C.? So the protests against Keystone were not futile?
NK: It was the only time I was ever arrested for civil disobedience. I was arrested during the first wave of arrests outside the White House... I think when it comes to an issue this big, that's the thing we're up against more than anything else, is the people's feeling that they can't make a difference. And I think that's another reason why the Keystone fight has been important. Climate change is so big, it's so global, that people don't know where to start. So I think, for awhile, it was, okay, I'll just start really small, like change my light bulbs. And I will bring my own cup. And it's like, okay this isn't working.
The thing about the Keystone campaign is that it was a way to start small in the scheme of things, but a lot bigger than just changing your light bulb. I mean, taking on a multi-billion-dollar infrastructure project that is linked to the largest climate crime scene on the planet, which is the Alberta tar sands, and now people are seeing that it can have a real impact. But the impact, honestly, is much, much bigger than the fact that Obama vetoed it or even that it looks like we're going to win this fight. The impact is that it inspired so many other campaigns based on the same principle.
A friend of mine on the 350.org board of directors, KC Golden wrote this piece called the Keystone principle. And the principle is, "When you're in a hole, stop digging."...If we're going to be spending money on new infrastructure projects, it should be the infrastructure of the future, not the past.
ON CLIMATE CHANGE DENIAL
NW: You admitted in the book that at first, you were in denial about climate change for quite some time. I think a lot of people are still in that state of denial or "ecological amnesia," as you call it, including here in Hawaii. You said it was this conversation with [Bolivia's ambassador to the World Trade Organization Angelica Navarro Llanos] that got you started. What was it about that conversation that brought you out of denial?
NK: It was hearing a vision articulated by someone which showed a response to climate change which was inspiring as opposed to just — often the way we talk about climate change is all the things we will have to give up. She was talking about how, if we look at this crisis honestly, it can be a catalyst for long-delayed justice and it can be the framework in which we build a much fairer and more exciting world. The reason why we have this sort of amnesia where we're in the state of knowing, not knowing about climate change, is just that we don't see a way out...
A lot of what we hear about climate change is scary and apocalyptic...For me, it was hearing that vision from someone that made me decide to stop looking away. And I'm hoping that the book can serve that purpose for other people...I think we are at a point now where there are some exciting things we can look to, like what's happening in Germany, for instance...
NW: They seem to be at the forefront of alternative energy. (More than 25 percent of Germany's energy comes from renewables)
NK: And it happened fast. When you have this really powerful combination of strong social movements, which they had in Germany (strong anti-nuclear, strong environmental movement), and leadership willing to listen, things can start moving at lightning speed. They've gotten to 25 percent renewable energy within, basically, a decade. But more than that, it's created 400,000 jobs.
They've developed a model where a lot of the ownership of the new, renewable energy is happening at the community level, through coops, through municipalities. They're keeping resources in their community, using it to pay for social services. What I hear from people in Germany is it's a pro-democracy movement...They're empowered and it's happening at a time when people feel very disempowered in Europe...
NW: Maybe Germany could be an inspiration for what could happen in Hawaii. There's a culture of complacency here. Why should people in Hawaii stop living in denial or be concerned about climate change?
NK: Hawaii is really on the front lines of climate change. I think people have a lot of first-hand experience with how their natural environment is already changing, they're seeing coastal erosion, they understand that whole parts of their city important to the economy could be under water at the rate we're going.
NW. Waikiki. The major resorts...
NK. It's kind of amazing, you just see this architecture of denial, in a sense. To be honest with you, everywhere I've gone, I've been told, in this place, people don't care. Everyone thinks they're particularly complacent. I think part of it is there are a lot of people who are newcomers to Hawaii and don't have the knowledge of the land, know what's new and not new.
On the other hand, Hawaii also has such a vibrant, indigenous rights community and so many indigenous people who have kept alive a worldview that has a deep understanding of human responsibility to not just take from nature, but to take care for future generations. That we're not talking about something we're apart from, we're talking about our community...There are people here, still, who are very connected to the land...
You have unique challenges. I think one of the challenges is always, whenever there's a small population, there's a feeling of does it really matter what we do? There's also an opportunity to be a model, to have the possibility of building a genuinely regenerative economy. If Germany can do it with very little sunlight, you have such extraordinary potential to be a renewable-based system...
ON CLIMATE SUMMITS
NW: You write that the annual United Nations climate summit has started to seem less like a forum for serious negotiation than "a very costly, high-carbon group therapy session." Do you think there's still any potential for the UN climate summits to accomplish anything, or would a divestment movement be more effective? Should we give up hope with summits?
NK: I don't think we should give up hope, but I think what we're seeing with the Keystone decision is that when you have strong social movements with very clear demands, you can affect policy. I think it's going to take a very strong, global climate movement making demands on political leaders to get the kind of commitment level that we want. I think in Copenhagen in 2009 which was the last critical juncture for UN climate negotiations — the next one's in Paris in December — there was this posture of begging political leaders to please lead. I think where we are, five years later, people understand that the leadership's coming from below.
It's not just Keystone. New York State banned fracking because of this huge movement. France has banned fracking. So there are a lot of victories you can point to. We are at a pretty exciting time ahead of the Paris negotiations. I don't think there's going to be a breakthrough deal, but I think the movement is going to sharpen its demands ahead of Paris. There are two key factors – the movement is growing, we saw 400,000 people on the streets of NYC in September, four times the size of the largest climate march previously.
NW: People are emerging out of apathy and denial.
NK: It's also a different kind of climate movement. It's not just slick, green NGOs - it's this quilt of all of these local communities that are fighting extraction or refineries in their backyard, and know that investments in renewable energy and public transit are a key to creating jobs and opportunities for their communities. So it's not abstract...it's not like we just care about parts per million or carbon in the atmosphere. It's really connected to health and education and jobs.
NW: Things tangible to people's everyday lives.
NK: That's how climate has lost. If you have to choose between jobs and climate, you're going to choose jobs. So we need solutions that don't force those choices on people...Two key factors, the fact this movement is gaining strength, has tasted success, and, the fact that oil prices are in the toilet right now — that's actually a real opportunity to demand a transformation of energy sources.
ON LOW OIL PRICES
NW: You see it as an opportunity?
NK: I do. Right now, I was just reading a piece in The Guardian yesterday. Oil and gas companies are losing so much money that they're now demanding all kinds of new subsidies and tax breaks. If governments are going to do that, they may as well invest in the energy systems that will prevent climate change as opposed to the ones that will lock us in. So I think there's a huge opportunity on several fronts to take advantage of the price drop. For starters, it gives us a little bit of breathing room. For instance, the Alberta tar sands only started to boom when oil hit $100 a barrel because it's so expensive to do this mining process... You burn three times more carbon in order to get the carbon out. It's very expensive to do that. So it only makes economic sense if the price oil is high.
Just yesterday, Shell announced it was suspending a massive, new expansion project in the tar sands. This is the second big project they've put on ice. The French company, Total, has canceled a project in the tar sands...This is not happening because of activism, this is happening because of the market. It's a window - what goes down will go up, but I think there is an opportunity now, when you're up against an industry that is basically in a profit frenzy, which is what the oil and gas industry has been in, it's really hard to fight a machine like that. Those levels of profit are really addictive. Exxon earned $46 billion in profits in a single year, and this happened twice within the past decade. It's not by coincidence...It's a big opportunity for the divestment movement.
In general, banking on a volatile commodity is a very risky thing to do...This is a moment when we can win some big victories. The tar sands is contracting on its own. This is a moment to say, what are we doing? I see the Keystone veto as part of that. In addition, it's possible to talk about a good carbon tax in a moment when the price of oil is down...When people are paying astronomical amounts at the pump, it's hard for government to introduce a tax on gas because people are already suffering. When the prices are dipping and they're thinking about buying another SUV, that's a good time to introduce a carbon tax...None of this can happen on its own. You have to fight for it, but the chances of winning are much improved...
ON BEING PERFECT
NW: On a personal level, has climate change made you decide to do some of these small things, like bring your own jar for water everywhere you speak?
NK: The truth is, I've been pretty focused on consumption for a long time. First book I wrote was "No Logo" and how the culture of endless shopping had colonized my generation. I've been thinking for much of my adult life about why we feel we need to shop as much as we do...Even though I wasn't thinking about it through a climate lens...I think about a lot of it through my son, who's 2...I really wanted to buy as little as I could.
As a new parent, it's particularly clear how much we are displacing our anxieties through shopping. When you're having your first kid, you're so anxious, and this whole culture steps in and says, buy this, buy that...and you're supposed to spend your whole pregnancy shopping. I cut my flying to a tenth of what it was. I, by no means, would hold myself up as an example.
I do think it's almost important to say I'm far from perfect. I think we have this idea if you use fossil fuels, then you don't have a right to have an opinion or criticize them because then you're a hypocrite and you got caught. I think that's a recipe for having a really small movement. We all use fossil fuels, we live in a culture that was built on fossil fuels. We're in it. So if in order to be part of a movement to get off fossil fuels, you have to already be off fossil fuels, then you'll have a movement of 10 people.
ON MOTHERHOOD ("This Changes Everything" is dedicated to Klein's son, Toma, 2)
NW: Speaking of, in the last chapter (Chapter 13: The Right to Regenerate), you share your personal struggle in getting pregnant before your son was born. What made you decide to include that chapter, and how does it tie in with the battle against climate change?
NK: This theme came through in my research, at the heart of this crisis is the extractive worldview — not just the extractive industry with oil, gas and coal, but this whole relationship with the land — that thinks we can take and take and never deal with the consequences of our actions. So I was really struggling with, what is the antithesis of an extractivist worldview? And landed on this idea that it's a regenerative-based world view, the idea of protecting cycles of fertility. The fact I was going through, in my own life, this often painful process of trying to conceive a child and losing several pregnancies while doing this made it really real to me. I felt it in my body. I always make this distinction as a writer between intellectual knowledge and body knowledge. That's why I think I think it's important to not only research from your computer but actually go places, and feel it in your body...
NW: To actually live it.
NK: That's why I included it. Also because I feel like coming back to where we started, climate change — this issue is so big. It feels abstract, it feels far away. I wanted to share with readers some of the things that made it personal to me, made it small to me. The other thing is we often talk about climate change in technocratic language and the truth is, this is a really emotional subject. We're triggering deep, existential fears — we're talking about our home, our source of all safety becoming dangerous to us. I feel like we need a language that acknowledges emotion...
So I just wanted to experiment with different ways of talking about this... For me, when I read people writing about this in more personal ways, it makes me think, OK, what is my personal entry point? I think it helps us talk about this thing that we're all trying not to talk about.