'We Need Hope and Fear in Equal Measure': An Interview With Naomi Klein

Author of 'This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate' on the epic battle for the planet's future

Naomi Klein Credit: Christopher Wahl

Ever since she released her the anti-globalization manifesto, No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies, 15 years ago, Naomi Klein has been progressivism's most visible, most charmingly articulate spokesperson. In her gripping and dramatic new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, Klein turns to climate change, writes of a decisive battle for the fate of the earth in which we either take back control of the planet from the capitalists who are destroying it or watch it all burn. We caught up with her near her home in Toronto to discuss the challenges ahead and how she has willed herself to be optimistic about the fate of the planet.

In This Changes Everything, you argue that global warming is both a crisis and an opportunity, on a scale we've never seen before. Bigger than the Great Depression, more momentous than the threat of nuclear war, and more hopeful than Civil Rights and the anti-war movement. What do you mean?
The original title for the book was "The Message," but we dropped that after enough people told me that it was too weird and Biblical. But the idea was that climate change isn't an issue, it's a message. It is a message, telling us that our system is failing, that there's something fundamentally wrong with the way we're organizing our economy and thinking about our place on the planet.

The Right understands this better than most Liberals, and that is why they deny climate change so vehemently. The more hardcore Conservative you are, the more tightly identified you are with defending the interest of capital as an interest of the system, based on hyper-competition, the more likely it is that you vehemently deny climate change. Because if climate change is real, your worldview will come crashing down around you.

It just comes down to this core question: "Is hyper-competition going to rule our world, or is cooperation going to rule our world?" And the truth is, if hyper-competition is going to rule our world, we have no hope. None. This, I think, is one of the reasons that climate change is particularly challenging to Americans. Americans can't solve this on their own. The growth in emissions is coming from the developing world. So if we are going to get out of this, it's going to come out of a process of cooperation and collaboration. That's why it really requires a paradigm shift.

But human beings are both cooperative and competitive. Assuming that we can't just get rid of human competitiveness, or evolve out of it, somehow, how do we make that turn toward cooperation?
There is some pretty powerful self-interest in wanting a future that is not just running storm-to-storm. The argument that I make is not that we aren't competitive, and selfish, and greedy. We are. We're all of these things. We're complicated, competitive, greedy and nasty, and kind and generous and compassionate. But we live in a culture that has held up a distorted mirror, that has said, "We are only this one thing." And we've built an economic model that tells us that maximizing our self-interest is going to lead to the maximum benefit for the most number of people. That's the trick of free market economic theory, it doesn't just ask you to only be selfish and not care about others. It tells you that by being selfish, you are helping others. And, in fact, by trying to directly help others, you will hurt them. This is what people reared on Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman have been told.

That hasn't worked out very well. And even if it were true in the economic theory, it most certainly is not true in the ecological sphere, and ecology trumps economy, at the end of the day. It's about the balance. It's about what parts of ourselves we light up. And we know that different parts of ourselves can be lit up at different moments. We saw that after the Great Depression. We've seen it during wartime.

I don't believe there are precedents for what we have to do. I say in the book that I think the closest we've come is the abolition movement. But it is a deeply imperfect analogy. I think we have a few glimpses that, taken together, show the potential for both the ability to put collective interest above narrow, financial self-interest.

We are living in this do-or-die moment. What we do in the next 20 years determines the fate of generations to come. I really do believe that. So that is a huge responsibility. It's a huge honor. It's a huge burden. So we can disappear into our technology and deeper and deeper into virtual life, or we can rise to this historical moment.

I know I'm going to spend a ton of this book tour arguing with people about whether or not hope is rational. But it's just like, what's the alternative? If you win this argument with me and get me to concede that I'm really hopeless about it, and that the prospects are incredibly bleak, what's the prize for you?

Americans can't solve this on their own. That's why it really requires a paradigm shift.

You said there's no precedent for what we have to do, so what is that's giving you that hope?
It's been a lot of work and effort for me to believe in a more hopeful vision of the future than the one that I have seen and documented around the world. But I have caught glimpses of it. I've also caught glimpses of this other possibility, and I think it had a huge influence on me. I lived in Argentina for a couple of years after the economy collapsed in 2001, and saw that society transform itself and come together. It was a genuine, revolutionary moment, and it was an absolutely beautiful moment as this country that had been this poster child for neoliberalism realized that the whole thing had been an illusion. They overthrew five presidents in three weeks, and then there was this explosion of participatory democracy, neighborhood councils meeting on every street corner. I was lucky in that I got to see that, and I've seen it in moments. Anyone who was in Seattle during the WTO protests. People who were part of Occupy Wall Street in New York had that moment where people come together. "Wait a minute, everything we've been told about ourselves and our city is wrong." People hunger for this connection.

I wanted to ask you more about that. I mean, you've had glimpses, I've had glimpses. You call it "Blockadia," and you say that sometimes it's just a feeling or just a mood. There's that beautiful sense of carnival and community when the normal rules we operate under, which are the competitive, capitalist ones, are sort of taken into suspension. But I'm a little bit skeptical of the language of liberation. Beyond that initial rush of excitement, what's the vision for actually accomplishing the changes you say are necessary?
The argument I make in the book is that we talk about the challenge as if it's a challenge of policy or technology, but in fact, we've known for a very long time what the policies are and what the technologies are. And what we've lacked is… people call it "political will," but I don't think it's just political will. It's that we no longer believe that we have the right to introduce world policy that benefits the majority. When's the last time we did that? We know what to do, but we don't believe. We don't have the strength of our convictions to demand it and we've lost faith in government. We've lost faith in policy.

And part of that is that we have a generation of activists now who are products of neoliberalism and they may talk a good game about revolution, but they're terrified of engaging in policy. But that is starting to change. We now have fabulous research that now shows us that we can have an economy 100 percent fueled by renewable energy.

I think what's happening in Germany is a game-changer. It's not perfect, because Merkel isn't standing up to the coal lobby, so they're continuing to export coal. But the fact that in a decade, Germany now has 25 percent of its energy coming from renewables, primarily decentralized wind and solar… This is an advanced industrial economy. The equivalent in the U.S. is between four and six percent.

So is it a mystery? No. We need to put a price on carbon. It needs to be a high price. We need to close off the fossil fuel frontiers, as in, say "No. No, you can't drill in the Arctic." It's so obvious what to do. The technology is there, the economics are there. But we need to believe enough in these solutions to fight for them, because our politicians aren't going to do it for us.

It seems that our generation, Gen X or whatever we are, has been reluctant to take on the responsibility of power. We're much more comfortable being critics. Where are the leaders of the social movement you see forming? Where are the heroes? Where are they coming from?
In the States, it hasn't emerged yet whereas in Europe you have this history of the large social movement convergence, often because you still have strong trade unions that are playing the role of bringing people together.

What was extraordinary about Seattle wasn't the numbers in the streets, but that it was labor, environment, women's groups, students, everybody together. And I think part of the reason I wrote The Shock Doctrine, which came out a few years later, was because it was sort of mourning the loss of that moment in North American when where we were talking about the issues and the unreliable economic system. And then, suddenly, we were just talking about Bush.

It was like a big umbrella, Everybody could get underneath it, but it kind of made us dumb. We lost some really key intellectual ground in just Bush-bashing. And, frankly, I don't think we've fully regained it. But climate change, if we're willing to look at it deeply and not just with furtive glances, forces us to talk about the underlying economic system, and has the potential to bring all of these different constituencies together – which, to me, is the key thing that needs to happen in North America.

It needs to happen everywhere, but it seems to be the biggest challenge in North America, is the breaking of silos, and the understanding of an underlying economic logic. Like, the streets are on fire in Ferguson, the earth is on fire. These two things are not unconnected.

So that comes back the question of framing and narrative, right? The French sociologist Bruno Latour says that if we really want to be serious about global warming, we need to declare a war. That it's really really all-or-nothing - if ExxonMobil and the Koch brothers and Shell are trying to kill us all…
Should we kill them? Is that what you're asking? [Laughs] I don't think we need a war, I think we need peace. [Laughs] I know that sounds a little flaky but I think we've been at war with the earth. And we need peace. And we need healing. Post-war Reconstruction is a better analogy than war itself. Not that we're very good at that. Visiting the tar sands, you really feel "This is a war." There's cannons going off to scare away the birds to keep them from landing. It is such a no-holds-barred war with the world. The machinery and the bravado around the weaponry of these mega-trucks and the three-story dump trucks and the rest of it.

If the usual gang, ExxonMobil, all of these others, are committed to a war against the earth, how do we make them stop?
That's the right question: "What are the effective weapons, and what are the weak points in their armor?" The fossil fuel divestment movement is an attempt to define one of those weaknesses. It's a really tricky question. The traditional, hardcore side of the green movement has been like, okay, you blow up dams, you stake trees… But I don't think that those sort of warlike tactics are the ones that are going to stop the fossil fuel companies from extracting five times more carbon than the atmosphere can sustainably absorb. There has to be a vision. It has to be convincing and exciting and inspiring, and then we need to fight for it.

Do you have a sense, beyond policy, of what that vision of the future might look like?
I don't spend a lot of the book talking about solutions, because it feels cliché to me. We know. We need smart grids, and light rail, and public transit. And we can point to cities that are doing it, but it represents an investment. This is why I talk more about the ideology than the policy. To me, it's much more relevant to me that we don't believe in the public sphere to lay out what the light rail system would look like or where the windmills should go.

I believe in the public sphere. I believe in civil society. But those are kind of abstract, right? In terms of the value question, what's your ideology? Is it just this idea of regeneration or cooperation?
For me, a big part of this is the people that have gotten the worse deal, historically, have to get the best deal in this new transformation. That's where my vision of transformation differs from the traditional sort of green vision of, "Yeah, we need a lot of windmills and a lot of public transit."

What would light up communities that have the most to gain is the idea that this could be used as a tool for justice long-denied. When I say that this is the unfinished business of liberation, I mean the great liberation movements of the 20th century that won partial victory but lost on the economic front again and again. Yeah, you got the vote, but you got shitty schools, and shitty services, and no public transit. Could the response to climate change bring that transit, build better schools and revitalize the public sphere – or vitalize it for the first time? That, to me, is truly exciting.

There is this sort of discourse now in the environmental community, "We have to stop scaring people." I think that's bullshit. But the idea that we should just let go of the fear, because people are tired of being scared? I have no idea who thought of that terrible idea. We need fear and hope in equal measure. We absolutely should be scared. But fear alone will not mobilize people, or it will mobilize them in scary ways.

I think a lot of us respond well to deadlines. And we're on a deadline. This is what the climate scientists have been screaming about for 18 years, and now it's like, "Okay. Time's up."

Can you say something about how the book came together?
It was a five-year writing process, which is usually how long it takes me to write a book. But this process was harder. It was slower in coming. Part of the reason was just changing topics from economics to climate science. Generally, I think people write too many books. And I do think that, for a big, nonfiction book, it should take as long as it takes to get a PhD, especially if you're going into new territory.

But then there was also the psychological side of it. I was pretty depressed on a bunch of different fronts. One of them was just, like, seeing the patterns that I wrote about in The Shock Doctrine repeat themselves. After I wrote that book, Alfonso Cuarón made a short movie about it. The tagline was, "Information is shock resistance." And I believed that. I was like, "Okay, if we know this is going on, while it's going on, they won't be able to get away with it," you know what I mean?

After September 11th, we didn't know the ways in which our disorientation and our fear were being taken advantage of. And the thing about the 2008 economic crisis was, we did know. We knew, and they got away with it anyway. We knew, and we named it. Whether you call it the "Shock Doctrine," or whatever you called it. There were incredible responses. Millions of people in the streets, saying, "We won't pay for your crisis," in Italy, in Spain, everywhere. And they still had to pay for the crisis. I think it made me lose faith in the power of ideas, to some extent, and I didn't know what to do at that point. I was getting all of these speaking invitations to go all over Europe, and go to Egypt, and I joked with my husband, I was like, "Why? What's the point? Like, they're doing it, and they're getting away with it." I found it just devastating, watching history repeat in that way.

And then I started going through all this personal stuff around infertility, and getting sick and losing all of these pregnancies. And like I say in the book, in lots of ways it made it harder to wrestle with this topic, but I also see it as a gift. I really do see deep value in having bodily experience with natural boundaries. We push, we bend, but we break. Not that one is ever happy to go through something like that, but I definitely learned a lot. I think illness, all illnesses, teach us. Anything that teaches us about our fallibility is important, whether it's our intellectual fallibility or our physical fallibility

You talk some in the book about how important your son is to thinking about climate change. Did you decide to be more hopeful because of him?
No, I don't think so. The project predates him. [Laughs] I mean, he helped me see some of it through his eyes, and I think that's great. I think anything that helps you keep in touch with those feelings of grief and loss, I think that's helpful. I think we need to feel it as deeply as you can, because the distance is what makes it harder.

One of the things that I found hardest about the environmental movement was the endless kid stuff. "For the kids, for the children, for the grandchildren." As someone who couldn't have kids at that point, and was trying to, I really found it hard to be around. I don't want to say anything that reinforces the idea that somehow being a mom made me care about the earth. No. [Laughs] The truth is I put off having kids for so long because I didn't think I would be able to do the work I do with a kid. And it remains to be seen whether I can or not. But I do think, for a lot of people, thinking about their kids' future and their grandkids' future, it's a fairly huge driving force. Young people in particular have a very important role to play leading this movement. Not people as young as Toma, but he's a little inarticulate, and is very into trucks. Very into trucks. [Laughs] I took him to the tar sands, and he was like, "Trucks. Big trucks."