Naomi Klein laughs more than one might expect. The acclaimed author, journalist, and climate justice activist has spent her illustrious career delving into some of the most depressing topics available, from the evils of neoliberalism—an ideology mixing laissez-faire liberalism with rabid free-market capitalism—to capitalism's own horrors, to the looming climate crisis. Her work examines the dire straits humanity must navigate in order to survive and unearths alarming truths years before anyone's been ready to hear them. Yet in conversation, Klein is earnest, enthusiastic, even wry. Though she has been devoted to covering the climate crisis for years and has been praised as one of the leading public intellectuals on the topic, she continually points toward the younger generation of activists as a source of inspiration.
She just released her seventh book, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal, which collects a decade's worth of her writing on climate change and the slow death of the planet. From the Great Barrier Reef—which she describes as a "rotting underwater mass grave"—to the Democratic Republic of Congo, where children's "lungs are filled with dust from mining cobalt for the phones that have become extensions of our arms," Klein paints a compelling and utterly terrifying picture of the havoc that humankind has wrought upon on this beautiful blue marble. In the process, she explores forces like eco-fascism and U.S. imperialism and breaks down the kind of mass collective effort needed to force decisive action before it's too late.
And the woman who's been called "the intellectual godmother of the Green New Deal" by environmentalist Bill McKibben and "one of the few revolutionary public intellectuals of great integrity and vision" by Cornel West wants to make clear that she is not here to save us, or to make anyone feel better.
"It's never going to be OK that we have lost the vast majority of the Great Barrier Reef, it's never going to be OK that the Arctic has been forever transformed, and the people who rely on ice to protect millennia-old cultures will never get that back," she told VICE. "I'm not here to make this OK. People sometimes say to me, 'Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good; why are you such a rabid anti-capitalist?' And it's like, you think this is perfect?" She laughed. _"_This is about survival. 'Perfect' left the station."
Here's the rest of our conversation, condensed for clarity and length.
VICE: One of the saddest points you make in the book is the fact that, we had a chance to stop this back in the 80s, but were kneecapped by neoliberalism, and our own tendency to think only of the present. Why do you think things are different now?
Naomi Klein: I think part of it is the fact that we're not talking about a crisis off in the distance, we are talking about a crisis that we are inside of. There's a lot of people who have direct experiences now with unprecedented flooding, unprecedented wildfires, unprecedented storms. I think the scientific community has learned to speak in a language that is a lot clearer and more direct, and that's made a big difference. The IPCC report from a year ago that talked about 12 years to cut emissions in half, that really doesn't open up the kind of procrastination when you talk about "3 percent cuts below 2005 levels by 2050," and people are just like, "Whoa, that's a lot of numbers." [laughs] What I write about in the book in terms of this tragic case of bad historical timing is that we face this collective crisis that demands this collective action and these huge investments in the public sphere at the moment when we're being told there is no such thing as society, everything collective is sinister, and we actually need to auction off the public sphere.
I think that the biggest shift is we now have a generation of young people who came of age in the rubble of the financial crisis, and who have seen that it is possible to marshal trillions of dollars to save banks and auto companies and insurance companies. They also just didn't get the neoliberal hard sell that my generation got; we may still be in the grips of neoliberalism, but it's kind of a zombie ideology without true believers and true defenders, and so I think that that's the reason why we now have solutions on the scale of the crisis and we now have politicians willing to talk about marshaling the kind of resources that it would actually take.
I'd like to talk about your thoughts on the rise of eco-fascism —a racist belief that the only way to withstand the scarcity and turmoil of a climate catastrophe is via eugenics, hoarding resources, and repression of migration—and what needs to be done in order to cut this nascent movement off at the knees. It seems obvious that his is something that is going to be a huge problem.
I think it already is a huge problem… We are seeing this with some of the mass killers in Christchurch and also in El Paso, where in his manifesto he says that Americans aren't going to change their way of life, and the planet can't handle it if other people have the American way of life, so he's specifically saying you can't have immigration because Americans have to hoard their high-carbon lifestyle for themselves. That is extraordinary, and maybe the most blatant expression of, honestly, what the United States has been saying in climate negotiations since the  Rio Earth Summit, when the first Bush administration said that "the American way of life is not up for negotiation." So here we are now, three decades later, and you have killers saying, We're going to keep shopping, but you're not allowed to.
It's like we're careening towards an extra racist Mad Max reboot.
That's exactly what it's like. For a long time, I would always get these questions like, "How are we going to change the minds of Fox News-watching climate deniers?" and I would always say, "Don't worry about them, let's worry about the people who don't deny climate change but just think we're doomed, or there's nothing we can do, or don't see it as their issue." The truth is, the only thing scarier than the Fox News-addled, racist, far-right fanatic who denies climate change is a Fox News-addled, far-right, racist who doesn't deny climate change, and folds it into their hateful worldview, and uses it in the only way that they can logically use it: to justify the fortressing of majority white countries, and saying, "We're going to let people die because we have a hierarchy of humanity."
That feeds into the increasing popularity of the prepper/survivalist movement; the idea that, "I gotta take care of me and mine—as for the rest of you, good luck."
Absolutely, and I think that this is why I've never taken climate change denial very seriously. I don't think it matters that Trump has tweeted that it's a Chinese hoax. Trump knows that climate change is real, he's had to redesign his golf courses because of sea level rise. He knows. He thinks his wealth is going to insulate him and his kids and his grandkids. That is what elites believe around the world, that they can afford to buy their way out of a couple generations of this. Jeff Bezos thinks we should all have space colonies; I don't think he thinks everybody's going to get to go.
For a lot of people, the crisis is already here. It's being experienced by incarcerated people, who are being forced to work in insanely hot temperatures, frozen in Brooklyn jails, and left behind when hurricanes strike.
Right, or being paid a dollar a day to fight wildfires in California.
And the climate justice movement hasn't spent as much time talking about how incarcerated people and people who are being detained are on the front lines of this crisis. I don't think there is such a thing as climate justice without prison abolition, or at least, a focus on how the carceral state factors in. How can we bring more people into that part of the conversation?
People are already dealing with all of it—are already being left to drown, are already being put in concentration camps. In this country, the primary means to rehabilitate lands that have been poisoned by coal mining is to build a supermax prison on top of it. These connections are screaming to be made, and I think the real question is, why haven't they been made? What are the forces that have kept us from connecting the dots? The answers are hard. The answers have to do with funding, have to do with white supremacy within our movements; they have to do with this idea that somehow climate is a more marketable issue than fighting mass incarceration or for migrant rights. It has to do with foundations that don't want the people they fund to talk about capitalism and imperialism and colonialism. I think this model has failed us all so profoundly that there just has to be some real talk. It's not that these people don't know it or get it, it actually takes real effort to not make these connections. I think we need some spaces to talk honestly about why we haven't, and we need to just stop.
What's exciting about the moment we're in now with the Green New Deal on the agenda is that it is not about policy, it is about what the next economy should look like, what our society should look like, and what values should govern our society as we enter into a period of ongoing climate disruption. This is not about stopping climate change; we are trying to stop it from getting a whole lot worse. But it is going to get worse.
I wanted to ask you your thoughts on the just transition away from fossil fuels, and how that will impact the working class in this country, specifically those in the energy and manufacturing sectors. The uncertainty there is why the labor movement has gone back and forth in their support for the Green New Deal. What do you think a just transition would look like?
I think a core principle of a just transition is that no worker is left behind, and while this transition is indeed a crisis for the owners of coal companies and the owners of oil and gas companies, it should be a tremendous opportunity for the workers in these sectors because there are many many more jobs that will be created if we do what we need to do to cut emissions in time. What we have to fight for is to make sure that jobs are union jobs, that workers have a guarantee of the same salary level and same benefits level as they transition, that they're democratic participants in the designing of their retraining programs, and the green movement has to be honest that we've treated these jobs as if they're interchangeable.
Many of the jobs in the renewables are non-union jobs. Elon Musk is a union buster. We've just been saying, "Oh, you'll lose this job and you'll have another job installing solar panels," and we're not reckoning with the fact that a lot of renewable energy jobs pay $13 an hour and are non-union, precarious jobs. We haven't centered the priorities of the labor movement nearly enough in our discussions, and that is starting to change; it's in Bernie's plan, it's in the AOC resolution. But the problem is there's a lot of mistrust because of years of doing it wrong, and there's mistrust in the other direction, because there are some trade unions that are not representing their members, who are representing the interests of their bosses in the building trades. So there's a lot of work that needs to be done on both sides, but there is no reason why we can't do it.
You've been documenting this for a decade, and have seen things get increasingly worse. How do you keep the despair at bay? Is there any room left for hope, or are we past it?
You know, I get teary multiple times a day, because we've lost a shit-ton of this beautiful world, that kids today have a right to. Young people should not be having to spend their time doing what politicians should be doing. They should be allowed to be kids. When I met these young people who are suing the U.S. government, the 21 defendants, these kids are amazing kids, but they shouldn't have to be doing this. This is not how they should be spending their teen years.
But what makes me not just give into despair is that I really see a huge generational shift at work. I think that the people that are in their 20s now who have never known an economic system that was not failing them on every front, have a tremendous appetite and excitement for transformation. This is not Al Gore's environmental movement that was saying, "Everything is fine except for the inconvenient matter of carbon emissions in the atmosphere." It's actually a movement that understands that the system is itself a crisis, that our carbon budget puts us on a tight and unyielding deadline that says we must change now.
We can't afford to lose, but there's real excitement about that change, because there has been an honest reckoning with the fact that the system is failing people on so many fronts, and benefitting such a small number. When I was making these arguments just five years ago, it was treated as so out there and marginal, so that is a really big shift, and it gives me a lot of hope.
Follow Kim Kelly on Twitter.