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.