For a long time, climate change was treated by environmentalists as a great equalizer, the one issue that affected everyone, rich or poor. They failed to account for the myriad ways by which the superrich would protect themselves from the less savory effects of the economic model that made them so wealthy. In the past six years, we have seen the emergence of private fire fighters in the United States, hired by insurance companies to offer a "concierge" service to their wealthier clients, as well as the short-lived "HelpJet" — a charter airline in Florida that offered 5-star evacuation services from hurricane zones. "No standing in lines, no hassle with crowds, just a first class experience that turns a problem into a vacation." And, post-Sandy, upscale real estate agents are predicting that back-up power generators will be the new status symbol with the penthouse and mansion set.
It seems that for some, climate change is imagined less as a clear and present danger than as a kind of spa vacation; nothing that the right combination of bespoke services and well-curated accessories can't overcome. That, at least, was the impression left by Barney's pre-Sandy sale — which offered deals on Sencha green tea, backgammon sets and $500 throw blankets so its high-end customers could "settle in with style". Let the rest of the world eat "social strategies, formal or informal."
So we know how the shock doctors are readying to exploit the climate crisis, and we know from the past how that would turn out. But here is the real question: could this crisis present a different kind of opportunity, one that disperses power into the hands of the many rather than consolidating it the hands of the few; one that radically expands the commons, rather than auctions it off in pieces? In short, could Sandy be the beginning of A People's Shock?
I think it can. As I outlined last year in these pages, there are changes we can make that actually have a chance of getting our emissions down to the level science demands. These include re-localizing our economies (so we are going to need those farmers where they are); vastly expanding and reimagining the public sphere to not just hold back the next storm but to prevent even worse disruptions in the future; regulating the hell out of corporations and reducing their poisonous political power; and reinventing economics so it no longer defines success as the endless expansion of consumption.
These are approaches to the crisis would help rebuild the real economy at a time when most of us have had it with speculative bubbles. They would create lasting jobs at a time when they are urgently needed. And they would strengthen our ties to one another and to our communities — goals that, while abstract, can nonetheless save lives in a crisis.
Just as the Great Depression and the Second World War launched populist movements that claimed as their proud legacies social safety nets across the industrialized world, so climate change can be a historic moment to usher in the next great wave of progressive change. Moreover, none of the anti-democratic trickery I described in The Shock Doctrine is necessary to advance this agenda. Far from seizing on the climate crisis to push through unpopular policies, our task is to seize upon it to demand a truly populist agenda.
The reconstruction from Sandy is a great place to start road testing these ideas. Unlike the disaster capitalists who use crisis to end-run democracy, a People's Recovery (as many from the Occupy movement are already demanding) would call for new democratic processes, including neighborhood assemblies, to decide how hard-hit communities should be rebuilt. The overriding principle must be addressing the twin crises of inequality and climate change at the same time. For starters, that means reconstruction that doesn't just create jobs but jobs that pay a living wage. It means not just more public transit, but energy efficient affordable housing along those transit lines. It also means not just more renewable power, but democratic community control over those projects.
But at the same time as we ramp up alternatives, we need to step up the fight against the forces actively making the climate crisis worse. Regardless of who wins the election, that means standing firm against the continued expansion of the fossil fuel sector into new and high-risk territories, whether through tar sands, fracking, coal exports to China or Arctic drilling. It also means recognizing the limits of political pressure and going after the fossil fuel companies directly, as we are doing at 350.org with our "Do The Math" tour. These companies have shown that they are willing to burn five times as much carbon as the most conservative estimates say is compatible with a livable planet. We've done the math, and we simply can't let them.
We find ourselves in a race against time: either this crisis will become an opportunity for an evolutionary leap, a holistic readjustment of our relationship with the natural world. Or it will become an opportunity for the biggest disaster capitalism free-for-all in human history, leaving the world even more brutally cleaved between winners and losers.
When I wrote The Shock Doctrine, I was documenting crimes of the past. The good news is that this is a crime in progress; it is still within our power to stop it. Let's make sure that this time, the good guys win.