Naomi Klein on the Failures of the Environmental Movement

      A worker holds up a climate change protest sign outside the lignite-fired power station in Jänschwalde, Germany, which belongs to Vattenfall, a Swedish group.

But in terms of whether you can have economic justice without climate justice, I don't think we can have anything without climate action. And that's the point.  This is our meta-issue. We've all gotta get inside it, because this is our home. We are already inside it, like it or not. And it's inside us. So the idea that we can somehow divorce from it is a fantasy. And it's one of the fantasies that we have to let go of, in order to have the kind of transformation we need.

WS: Even in the places you'd expect climate to get a lot more attention, in left and center-left magazines and journals, climate is barely mentioned. ThoughThe Nation has done fairly well  they publish your stuff and Mark Hertsgaard's...

NK: But it still isn't integrated.

WS: Right. When they write their election endorsement editorial, climate gets a passing mention.

NK: Yeah, climate gets a passing mention. And it's still firmly in the growth paradigm, in terms of measuring progress.

I mean, this is what's got to change. And I think it will change, because it's already changing in Europe. I think the mainstream left, center-left discussion in Germany, France, Greece, includes a sophisticated discussion about growth — the so-called "de-growth" movement is very strong there. It hasn't come to North America yet, but it will. It has to. Because the way we talk about this makes no sense.

Everybody on the left realizes that this economic model is failing us spectacularly, on multiple levels, but we're still acting as if our goal is to save it, and resuscitate it, and get back to growth, still measuring progress along those lines. 

But the levels of denial are so complicated. We've spent a lot of time focusing on right-wing denial, the sort of hard denial. And it's entertaining and it's outrageous, and it makes for good articles, but it's actually a lot less important and a lot less interesting than looking at the way we are all in denial.

We are all in denial. All of us. And what I find, in exploring this with people, is that people are holding back a tremendous amount of anxiety. They're holding it at bay. And it takes a tremendous amount of work and effort to hold back what they know. Anybody who knows about climate change is terrified. I mean, anybody who tells me they're apathetic about climate, they don't care, what I believe is that they care too much, and they don't see a way out, and so it's a form of self-protection, you don't let yourself care about something that you have no idea how to fix — because it's just too terrifying, and it would derail your whole life.

So that's why I think there has to be a narrative, there has to be a plan for how we integrate so much of what we're already doing into a common project, because so long as people feel like nothing that they know now applies, then they will work really hard to keep this information at bay.

WS: I want to ask you about your decision to have a baby. Because as a parent myself, I've got two young children, and as a climate activist, I find it moving, and inspiring. And I'm just curious how you explain it.

NK: Um... [long pause] Well, to be honest, for a long time, I just couldn't see a future for a child that wasn't some, like, Mad Max climate warrior thing. And, you know, I'd joke about it with my husband, like, you want to have a little climate warrior? [laughter] And it seems like that was the best thing I could imagine for a child. I couldn't see a future that wasn't just incredibly grim — maybe I'd seen too much sci-fi and read too much climate science. But I just couldn't see it. 

That wasn't the only reason I didn't want to have kids. It was also that I couldn't see how I'd do the kind of work that I do, the amount of travel, and the kind of high-risk travel that I was doing, with a kid. Especially in the years I was writingThe Shock Doctrine, going to Iraq and going to tsunami zones. I'd done a lot of disaster hopping to write about disasters. Men with kids can do that, and nobody thinks they're terrible people. But it is not the same for women. So it was a combination, feeling like there really aren't a lot of women out there doing what I do, and I didn't want to take myself out of the game, I didn't want to put myself on the bench.

I do feel that the assumption that all women should have children is a problem, so I don't want to say anything that makes it sound like everybody should. I had genuine ambivalence about it. But then, I think, it was feeling more optimistic about the political moment, to be honest, that made me feel like I could see other possibilities. Something shifted after 2008. I could imagine a future that was not Mad Maxian. [laughter] Not that there's any guarantee, but I could imagine it.

So, that's why I started late. And then it was really, really hard for me to have a kid. I was 38 when I started trying, and in the end I was told I wasn't able to have kids, for a bunch of different reasons. So I had totally given up. Toma is a miracle child — it was a big surprise. It was not the triumph of modern technology, although I know that works for some people. I feel incredibly lucky and incredibly blessed.

But while I was struggling with infertility, for four years, I did a lot of research — and it shaped how I saw the climate crisis. I started to notice that this is how extinction happens. And if you view the ecological crisis through a feminist lens, and through a woman's lens, what you see is that a lot of creatures are having trouble with fertility. The whole world is having a fertility crisis right now. I've found dozens and dozens of examples of the way climate change is impacting fertility. I think the saddest example are the leatherback turtles, who bury their eggs in the sand, but the sand is now getting so hot that the eggs are just cooking. I mean, this is a species that's as old as the dinosaurs, and they just can't handle that increased degree. So I feel like my own struggle with fertility has helped me understand some parts of the climate crisis.

But I used to feel really alienated from the environmental movement, because of the whole language of the "Earth Mother," and "connecting" — women are given validity in this movement, a lot of times, because of the ability to create life. And so, what does that mean for people who can't? It means you're not a real environmentalist? And there's always this talk about doing it for your kids and for your grandkids. I know so many people are struggling with this, and I don't want this movement to exclude them.

Maybe in a world of abundance, Earth Mothers have a particular way of connecting, but in the world that we actually live in, where so many life forms are struggling for survival, I think in some ways women who can't conceive, or struggle with conception, or decide not to conceive, have their own ways of connecting with this crisis that need to be validated. So I'm really trying not to play the Earth Mother card.

WS: At the end of a recent piece on "Do the Math," I quoted Bob Dylan's "Masters of War"  "You've thrown the worst fear/ That could ever be hurled/ Fear to bring children/ Into the world..." He's addressing the military-industrial complex, but it could just as well be the carbon-industrial complex today.

NK: That Dylan quote is amazing. And it does speak to why I didn't have a kid earlier.

The only other thing I'd say is that realizing that I did want to have a kid, and that I wasn't having a kid because of the mess that had been made of this world — I guess what I want to say is, I don't want to give them that power. I'd rather fight like hell than to give these evil motherfuckers the power to extinguish the desire to create life.

We don't all have to do it. But if we want to do it, if we want to be part of this amazing process that we share in common with all living things, I'm certainly not going to give these guys the power to take that away from me.


Tags: bill mckibben, climate change, environment, global warming, naomi klein

    • Naomi Klein
    • Naomi Klein is an award-winning journalist, syndicated columnist and author of the international bestsellers, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism and No Logo. Her regular columns for The Nation magazine and the Guardian newspaper are syndicated internation...

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