I consider Naomi Klein an excellent journalist and have gained tremendously from her work—especially her books The Shock Doctrine and This Changes Everything. Her interviews, meetings, reports, events, statistics, and data are always compelling, and usually new-to-me information that must be confronted. For these reasons, I deeply appreciate her work.
On the other hand, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal is a different kind of book, one in which she is essentially pitching her favorite solution for the climate crisis. What is that solution? A total remake of everything in society that solves virtually all of the social problems—inequality, racism, misogyny, injustice, consumerism, capitalism… a veritable laundry list of progressive complaints—which she and others call the Green New Deal. We’ve all heard of it. Little has come of the Green New Deal since the book was written in 2019, but the thinking underlying it has persisted, and that thinking is the problem.
Klein is making a fatal mistake—the same one so many climate activists are making today. They see the pending climate disaster not as a specific problem to address in specific terms, but rather as the outcome of a corrupt system that must be overturned. She quotes a core goal of the Ocasio-Cortez/Markey Green New Deal resolution: “stopping current, preventing future, and repairing historic oppression of indigenous peoples, communities of color, migrant communities, deindustrialized communities, depopulated rural communities, the poor, low income workers, women, the elderly, the unused, people with disabilities, and youth.” To which I ask myself: What about carbon?
You see, this is the precise problem with a very large slice of the climate movement. We are letting every issue we have with capitalism, every injustice, and every problem in the world overwhelm the actually critical work of dealing with carbon. As much as people like Klein want to claim that you cannot solve climate change without a total remake of the economy, it's not true. The energy industry will be disrupted, and so will the home appliance and industrial equipment industries, but there is more to an economy, a society, and a political system than that. Transition the energy sector to all renewable energy, then extract and store carbon from the atmosphere, and you solve the problem, whether or not you meet all these social justice goals. On the other hand, no one has been able to show convincingly that solving the social justice issues mentioned is in any way determinative of a climate change solution.
One of Klein’s best works was her expose of the Shock Doctrine, which is the idea that when disasters strike, hyper-conservative forces see those disasters as an opportunity to rape the public sector, privatize, and run away with the wealth. Milton Freidman, the people at the University of Chicago, and many of the old neoconservatives were instrumental in this doctrine. It was applied to everything from Pinochet's Chile to Bush's invasion of Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, and the 2008 financial crisis. It is a powerful insight backed up by many details and strong research. You can even see it working in post-hurricane Puerto Rico today.
So it is with a certain shock of my own that I see Klein applying the same idea, but from the other side. The thought seems to be: The earth is on the edge of catastrophe, and we are seeing more and more terrible events, so let's put together a whole new theory of being that we can use and apply to the clean slate once it happens. Friends, it is no different. She and the Green New Deal colleagues are not solving climate change, they are setting up for an economic revolution once the catastrophe strikes, and in so doing, they betray the movement they profess to support.
You see, you cannot solve climate change by ending racism. You cannot solve climate change by closing the wealth gap. You cannot solve climate change by ensuring equal rights for women. No. You solve climate change by ending carbon emissions and extracting the overage already in the atmosphere and locking it in the ground. You bring carbon down to 350 ppm or less. Social solutions, as important as they are, don’t do that.
To solve climate change, we need to stay focused on the problem at hand—carbon and other GHG. The economic, social, and justice revolutions being advocated distract us from the very pressing problem of reducing atmospheric carbon. While it is certainly true that climate change is a disruptive force to capitalism, we need to solve it whether capitalism survives or not. So the language Klein uses is definitively not helpful:
“In this time of rising seas and rising fascism, these are the stark choices before us. There are options besides full-blown climate barbarism, but given how far down that road we are, there is no point pretending that they are easy. It's going to take a lot more than a carbon tax or cap-and-trade. It's going to take an all-out war on pollution and poverty and racism and colonialism and despair all at the same time." (p50-1)
Do you see it again? No war on carbon, or methane, or other GHGs. Why not? Because such a war would undermine the ideology of total societal transformation—it would undermine the opportunity of climate change.
Commenting on a 2018 NY Times piece by Nathaniel Rich in which Rich makes the spurious claim that human nature was the cause of not acting on what the science knew in the 1908s, Klein puts the blame elsewhere:
“Yep, you and me. Not, according to Rich, the fossil fuel companies who sat in on every major policy meeting described in the piece. (Imagine tobacco executives being repeatedly invited by the US government to come up with policies to ban smoking. When those meeting failed to yield anything substantive, would we conclude that the reason was that humans just want to die? Might we perhaps determine instead that the political system is corrupt and busted?)” (p245)
The comparison between fossil fuel and tobacco is a red herring at best, and I can't help but conclude it is meant to mislead. Tobacco, after all, serves no pressing public need. Energy does. Fossil fuel companies are corrupt in many ways and they hid their known data and funded anti-information campaigns on climate—they were awful in that way. At the same time, they also serve enormous human needs—to heat our homes, move our vehicles, keep industry running, deliver our food, and so on. Energy is at the very center of modern economics, by which I mean not Wall Street, but the actual production and distribution of goods. The conclusion that everything just had to be conspiracy and corruption even though we had, in the 1980s, no viable alternatives for heat, transportation, and manufacturing, exposes the commitment to an ideological position not that different from the ideological commitment of the free market fundamentalists Klein so rightly loathes.
The problem with blame is that it lets us all off the hook. Blame the oil companies, blame capitalism, blame the CEOs, blame corruption, blah, blah, blah. The implication is that when those who we blame correct their behavior, everything will be okay. Therefore, we need to overhaul the system that puts these people in place. Suddenly, the analysis goes to all the other societal ills, and the mind goes numb—we can hardly fathom that other world, and so we just throw up our hands in despair.
In another section of the book, Klein discusses the perspective of Brad Werner, a scientist presenting at the 2012 meeting of the American Geophysical Union. Werner tried to assess the forces at work driving us toward climate Armageddon. His measuring determines that the forces of the dominant economy are hurtling us toward an inevitably dark future, while the primary countervailing forces are those of social resistance, because they may be the only force that can actually slow it down. “… he is saying that his research shows that our entire economic paradigm is a threat to ecological stability. And, indeed, that challenging this economic paradigm, through mass movement counterpressure, is humanity’s best shot at avoiding catastrophe.” (p113)
If so, God help us.
I say that because mass movement counterpressure almost never wins anything, and one of the reasons is precisely what Klein and the Green New Deal advocates are doing—hijacking a specific, definable, winnable issue that needs real attention and fast, and complicating it by projecting their pet projects onto it in the hopes of getting a bigger or different win for those pet projects. In doing so, they steal the energy and the focus of the real movement. Hence, even when a movement does win, there is always a question—what did we win? No one knows.
Klein claims that we need an all-out, full society commitment, but she focuses that commitment on an impossible task—overturning capitalism and replacing it with something that enormous numbers of people and people with enormous power will resist. No doubt, we need the full society commitment, but I would hold the direction and goal need to be different.
“That, most fundamentally, is why the historical precedents from the 1930s through to the 1950s are still useful. They remind us that another approach to profound crisis was always possible and still is today. Faced with the collective emergencies that punctuated those decades, the response was to enlist entire societies, from individual consumers to workers to large manufacturers to every level of government, in deep transition with clear common goals.
“Past problem solvers did not look for a single “silver bullet” or “killer app”; nor did they tinker and wait for the market to trickle down fixes for them. In each instance, government deployed a barrage of robust policy tools… all at once.” (p 38-9)
The key to this success is not, as Klein seems to think, the full commitment. It is those last words of the first quoted paragraph: "clear common goals." It should be self-evident to anyone living at this time of history, and is obviously self-evident to Klein based on her commentary, that we do not have clear common goals around racism, misogyny, inequality, and all of the remaining laundry list of progressive issues she and the New Green Deal people are advocating. The consensus just isn't there, and it never will be.
You see, for all the other good that may have gone along with the original New Deal, there was one clear common goal: Put people back to work. Whatever else the war may have wrought, there was one clear goal: Beat the Nazis and the Japanese armies. Any other goods that fell out of those efforts were incidental, not causal. A laundry list of benefits may have resulted, but those benefits were not the goal. The goal was simple and clear, and everyone knew what it was.
We can also do this on climate. There is one goal: Reduce carbon in the atmosphere. That means two things: Eliminate emissions and reduce atmospheric carbon. It's just that simple. The "full society" commitment then, like in the 1930s and 1940s, is organized around everyone understanding and contributing, to the best of their ability and circumstances, to make the difference they can make. Some will invent new technology. Some will reduce their home use of energy. Some will overhaul a business's operations. Some will install rooftop solar, and some will develop wind farms. Some will degrow their lives. Some will plant trees to reforest. Everyone can be called to greater and greater contributions, but the question we will all ask each other is this: What are you doing to help? And the societal ethic will be one of indignation if you aren't helping enough. This, my friends, is how you get a real transformation. Set an understandable goal and orient everyone to that goal.
For my part, I've heard enough of degrowth, the Green New Deal, and attacks on consumerism. Those don't help. I've also heard enough of climate denialism, free-market fundamentalist stupidity, and just plain disinformation. In many ways, these ideas on one side feed and bring to the fore their opposites on the other. We don't need to be distracted by those debates. In fact, we can't allow ourselves to continue with that if we are to solve this problem. One goal: Reduce carbon in the atmosphere. That's truly the only thing that matters.
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""We are letting every issue we have with capitalism, every injustice, and every problem in the world overwhelm the actually critical work of dealing with carbon. ""
Exactly. You've put into words what I've been feeling. We need to focus. We can't become distracted by other important problems, urgent as they may be.
Thanks for your clarity.
"Transition the energy sector to all renewable energy, then extract and store carbon from the atmosphere, and you solve the problem, whether or not you meet all these social justice goals." This a blind spot that many people speaking about the approaching challenges have yet to understand in how the system is interrelated. Energy/ economy/ human population are all highly correlated at nearly 1:1:1. And there are material limits to the scale of rebuildable energy infrastructure that is possible. In hoping for a seamless electrification of everything and transition to 100% rebuildable energy as fossil Carbon leaves us by decision and depletion, we are going to come up way short. Things will be much smaller and simpler again in the near future. We will need a whole new way of organizing society to equitably share what surplus can remain and maintain social cohesion.