Naomi Klein is right: The climate crisis is such a clear and present danger to the future of human civilization, that the fight for climate solutions should be the top priority of every activist movement for any worthy cause today.
Of course, writing in her 2015 book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, Klein doesn’t want her fellow progressives to think that she’s trying to demote to second priority such issues as healthcare for all; rights for women, people of color and indigenous people; and economic fairness for the poor and middle class.
Instead, Klein promises people involved in other causes that fighting climate change will be the best chance in decades to make good progress on all the issues that the Left cares about.
Climate change, Klein argues,
…could be the best argument progressive have ever had to demand the rebuilding and reviving of local economies; to reclaim our democracies from corrosive corporate influence; to block harmful free trade deals and rewrite old ones; to invest in starving public infrastructure like mass transit and affordable housing; to take back ownership of essential services like energy and water; to remake our sick agricultural system into something much healthier; to open borders to migrants whose displacement is linked to climate impacts; to finally respect Indigenous land rights — all of which would help to end grotesque levels of inequality within our nations and between them.
To me most of this sounds like things that will help increase sustainability and improve the quality of life for Americans and people around the world.
But it remains to be seen whether a famously fractured Left will be willing to unite under the banner of climate solutions after decades of fighting separately for different priorities.
“LGBTQ for Climate”? “Pro-Choice for Climate”? “Guaranteed Minimum Income for Climate”? I’m not sure I’ll hold my breath till that happens.
Conservatives Need Not Apply
What I do know is that, by trying to build an alliance of progressives under the umbrella of climate solutions, Klein is excluding a lot of people in the middle and on the right who care about climate and clean energy but aren’t necessarily ready to swallow the whole meal of social and economic causes served up by the Left.
For example, my book The Solar Patriot profiles several leading conservatives who accept climate science and feel that America needs to act against the climate crisis. They also support clean energy both to cut fossil fuel pollution and for other, particularly conservative reasons — especially to promote individual freedom, family resilience, national security and economic opportunity.
Some people who are not on the left already support many of the changes that Klein lists, not only solar power but also strengthening local economies and local autonomy against corporations that would despoil their communities.
But unfortunately, Klein insists on drawing a simplistic distinction between two kinds of psychologies — a progressive one that values equality and a conservative mindset that insists on hierarchy. And if you’re unfortunate enough to adhere to the latter, then there’s not much place for you in Klein’s climate/progressive movement. Your only role seems to be to get out of the way.
Klein seems to feel the same for people who care about religion or feel a patriotic attachment to their own country. Given that Klein wants the climate movement to help people go beyond selfishness in all areas of life and culture, it seems shortsighted to give up on two of the motivations that have been most successful in getting people to care about others.
From Pope Francis and Bishop Tutu on down, religious leaders have raised compelling voices urging people in a selfish world to put aside their ego to love each other and to love the earth.
Likewise, when it comes to patriotism, in the United States a century of environmental progress has been made in the name of saving America’s amber waves of grain and purple mountain majesty.
Klein is wrong to dismiss love of God and love of country as ways to encourage love of creation and love of homeland. In place of these powerful appeals to the heart, for which humans have been willing to live with purpose and die with conviction for centuries, Klein offers an appeal to secular humanism and logic. It’s all head and no heart. That’s a poor way to get people to give their all in a fight to determine the fate of civilization.
Everybody against Exxon
What Klein is right about is that to succeed, the climate movement will need to build unlikely alliances, like the Cowboy and Indian alliance that helped fight the Keystone XL pipeline. But her tent needs to be bigger.
“Blockadia,” the new movement around the world to fight new fossil fuel projects, from natural gas fracking in Britain to mountain-top removal coal mining in Appalachia to the horrific tar sands mining in Alberta to pipelines everywhere, already includes a rainbow of new activists as diverse as the places around the world where locals and their land are threatened by mining and drilling.
I especially appreciate how Klein balances tales of outrage with those of victory and hope. A successful mass movement needs both.
Outrage we’ve heard before — abuses by fossil fuel companies abetted by governments. The Alberta tar sands provide Klein’s primary outrage story, which she supplements with tales of petro-capitalist predation around the world, from Alaska to Australia.
We need to hear more about victories and the heroes who achieved them. That’s where Klein’s book really shines.
The stories of brave activists in fossil fuel war zones across the globe offer heroes for our time, such as writer and human-rights activist Ken Saro-Wiwa in Nigeria, who was hanged in 1995 by an oil-friendly Nigerian regime for his successful efforts to protect lands of the Ogoni people in the Niger Delta from disastrous oil drilling by Shell.
And these heroes hearken back to a time in the past when activists fought for democracy and freedom against seemingly insurmountable odds — and won.
Abolitionism for the Climate Change Era
Perhaps the best part of This Changes Everything comes at the very end of the book, where Klein considers precedents for the kind of mass movement she thinks we need to win against the climate crisis.
Here’s where she really shines. For many climate books, heavy on science, the only history they care about is natural history — what happened to the climate a million or ten million years ago based on ice-core samples or other paleoclimatological data. Other climate writers, those more concerned with politics, do look back on human history and specifically to previous political movements as models for the climate movement. But their vision tends to be nearsighted, and “history” for many books seeking precedents for the climate movement seems to go back no further than the Civil Rights and anti-war protests of the 1960s.
To her eternal credit, Klein takes a major step forward by casting her glance for precedents much further back — specifically, 150 years back to the movement to abolish slavery in the nineteenth century. This historical vista is most welcome.
Abolition is a powerful parallel, since, as Klein writes, three decades of insider lobbying in the halls of national governments or the United Nations has clearly failed to get serious action to cut fossil fuel pollution. “Only mass social movements can save us now.”
And abolition was a mass movement that achieved victory against great odds.
In the climate movement, as in the movement to end slavery, the real challenge was not social issues like race or free-market ideology. The issue was money.
It turns out that, keeping enough fossil fuels in the ground to avert disaster now will destroy about the same amount of wealth as that held by slaveowners when they lost their “property” in emancipation, about $10 trillion in today’s money, according to writer Chris Hayes.
That crystallizes the problem clearly and shows the enormity of the task at hand for solving the climate crisis. Much wealth held by powerful people will have to be destroyed. And fossil fuel companies will have to change or die. Since those are still the richest and most powerful companies ever to exist, such a battle will be as hard-fought as the battle to end slavery.
Unfortunately, true to Klein’s apparent lack of interest in religion, her summary of why the abolition movement succeeded fails to mention the role of activists, especially Quakers and New England Congregationalists, who appealed to Christian morality to denounce the keeping of slaves as an abomination in the eyes of God.
Abolishing slavery in the United States started with religion but ended in a bloody Civil War. Fossil fuel rule must be ended in a peaceful way. That path remains to be charted, but the heroes of Blockadia offer examples for the rest of us to follow. We must resist, resist, resist.
And we cannot justify destroying all that wealth by offering financial compensation elsewhere. Yes, some people will do well selling solar power. But arguing finances cheapens what should be a moral crusade, just as the abolition movement was.
We will not win the battle for a stable climate by trying to beat the bean counters at their own game — arguing, for instance, that it is more cost-effective to invest in emission reduction now than disaster response later. We will win by asserting that such calculations are morally monstrous, since they imply that there is an acceptable price for allowing entire countries to disappear, for leaving untold millions to die on parched land, for depriving today’s children of their right to live in a world teeming with the wonders and beauties of creation.
The nineteenth century freed slaves not to boost the economy but to do the right thing and restore human dignity. Today, we must fight the climate crisis not to save money on seawalls or make money in solar panels, but to prevent human suffering. And that means doing the right thing just because it’s right.
— Erik Curren