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.

WS: By keeping the price of it artificially low?

NK: Yes, and bombarding us with advertising, and buying our politicians, and the rest of it. So we need to go after them, so that we can do that hard work. It isn't an either/or.

But that said, I think there's a real misanthropic streak in the green movement. There's this masochistic tendency to totally blame ourselves for all of these failures. We just don't want to change, we're just too selfish, we're suicidal, and that's who we are. All these human nature arguments that get made to explain why we've failed to act on climate.

And what I see is, actually, this movement has risen up, again and again, and we've made these resolutions — we're gonna recycle, we're gonna bicycle, we've gotten geared up for Rio and geared up for Copenhagen — and the movement rises up, and then it disappears. You have the Inconvenient Truth moment, and then it disappears. So the question is, why? Why are we so unable to sustain momentum, and who is sabotaging this movement? And part of it is the fossil fuel companies, directly sabotaging it, with denialism and misinformation.

But part of it is people are paying attention. In Canada, I'd say we've got a pretty strong environmental movement. I live in a city, Toronto, where every Wednesday everybody puts their green composting box outside their house. It's bigger than a garbage can. And it's amazing, the success of the composting. People don't think of it as a movement, but you know, you make it easy enough for people, and people do it. You rarely see a plastic bag in my neighborhood. In fact, my neighborhood was just totally redesigned to be less car friendly — and people lived with two years of construction for that to happen.

But then you pick up the paper, and you read that your country has increased its emissions by 30 percent because of the tar sands. In other words, what the fossil fuel industry is doing is undoing everything we are doing. And then you just feel like a chump.

I think that the green movement has a lot to answer for — for personalizing this issue, and making it about changing your light bulbs and recycling. But this has been changing, and I think the Keystone fight was key. In Canada, the environmental movement and the economic justice movement have been so galvanized by the anti-Keystone fight. We are fighting like hell to prevent pipelines through to the west coast, and we're winning. It's amazing what has happened on the west coast. It's the most beautiful movement I've ever been a part of.

So we are already making that leap from just individual action to fighting the pipelines, fighting the oil companies, but we can't fight it one pipeline at a time — we know it's not a sustainable model, we know we can't fight them one megaproject at a time. And that's where "Do the Math" comes in. We have to go after their business model, and that's what we're doing.

WS: You're known for the phrase "move the center." Is that what you're trying to do with "Do the Math"?

NK: Oh, yeah. Look, when I said "move the center," you know what I was always saying is, you know, let's nationalize the oil companies. [laughter]

WS: Right  and you're also quoted saying we need to go out and say some "crazy stuff." [laughter] So is DTM saying crazy stuff?

NK: I don't think it is. I mean, it's definitely moving the center. But I don't think it's crazy.

I think we will get to a point where saying we should nationalize the oil companies won't sound crazy either. Because the bills are just going to add up. Cleaning up the mess that they have made is just going to get so expensive that we are going to have to ask why we are paying for it, and not them. And if they are so phenomenally profitable, how about using the profits from these rogue companies to both clean up the mess they've made and to get off of the stuff? Oil companies have told us in the past that they're going to do this voluntarily, that was the whole BP "Beyond Petroleum" swindle. But they are not in any way, shape or form doing this on their own, and every time I hear another quarterly report, and just astronomical profits going out the door into the hands of shareholders, that is money we don't have to meet this crisis.

WS: And not just into the hands of shareholders, but into new exploration, into tar sands, etc.

NK: Exactly. So I don't think it's crazy at all. When I say go out there and say some crazy shit, I mean say stuff that sounds crazy to other people, but it doesn't sound crazy to me.

WS: When we step back and think about this from a mainstream media standpoint...

NK: You know what's crazy is letting the corporations who've left us with the most expensive mess in history to clean up, just keep all the money they've made for themselves. No. That's insane.

WS: What do you think it signifies to see Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein on stage together? What does that represent?

NK: Climate change is the human rights struggle of our time. And it's too important to be left to the environmentalists alone. [laughter] I mean, we need the environmental movement, but not if they're going to be afraid of the left. And not if they're going to be driven by their fears of losing funding. Got no time for that.

Frankly, I was surprised when Bill first invited me on the 350 board, because I'm sort of used to the environmental movement seeing me as a pain in the ass. You know, when I talk about reparations and climate debt — I took a lot of flack for that, in Copenhagen, and afterwards, because it's seen as being off-message. And inconvenient. An inconvenient truth that can't be sold to the American public. You're just supposed to shut up about things like that. So I was surprised when Bill invited me to be on the board, because I sort of thought that I was toxic. And I think it just speaks to 350's deep understanding that these movements have to come together. It's been so exciting to be part of that. I am just so proud of 350. When I'm feeling bad, I just go to the website and read what's going on. The organization keeps getting more sophisticated with every campaign. Watching that kind of lightning-fast progression, in a two-year period, is staggering.

WS: I recently interviewed Gus Speth about his new book, America the Possible, and there are a lot of similarities to your argument in The Nation and the new book. Great minds think alike...

NK: But some people write faster than others. [laughter]

WS: Right. And like him, you stress the interconnectedness of our economic system and the climate crisis, and the need for system change  at the economic, political, and cultural levels. Of course, as we all know, that's a huge, huge order to fill  and a lot of people, including allies of the climate movement, as soon as they hear talk of "system change," or anything so seemingly radical, just tune out. Like, "Are you kidding? We can't even get a carbon tax." Which gets to one of the points I was making in my Phoenix piece, that we're not having the kind of national conversation we need to have about climate  not only in terms of what the science tells us about the severity and urgency of the crisis, but in terms of what we need to do about it.  And it's not just on the right where there's denial. The center, the center-left, even the left, aren't facing up to it. It's as though climate change challenges too many underlying assumptions. Even progressives still tie their ideas of economic justice to the GDP growth imperative. But can there be economic justice without climate justice? Can we separate these two things?

NK: Well, there certainly can't be climate action, real climate solutions, without economic justice. Because if we look at it on the international level, what has bogged down every round of UN negotiations on climate, it's the issue of "common but differentiated responsibility," the basic principle of equity — that the people who are most responsible for creating this crisis should take the lead and bear a heavier burden, and there should be a right to develop a certain amount, to pull oneself out of poverty. Not the right to live a life of excess, but the right to have clean water and food and shelter, and meet somewhere in the middle. And that has been the issue over and over and over again, which has created the impasse and led the US to walk away in the first place, in that unprecedented vote in Congress against the Kyoto Protocol, where there was an absolutely unanimous rejection.

So the refusal to accept the importance of economic justice is the reason we have had no climate action. It's just that simple. And it happens every time countries get together and negotiate, because the developing world is not going to move on this issue, on the right to pull themselves out of poverty. It gets cast in the US media as the right to have as dirty a model of development as they want, but that's not the case, that's not what's being demanded at the negotiating table. So you can't have a solution to climate change without really reckoning with economic justice issues in the global arena.

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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