Saturday 13 September 2014

Facing climate change head-on means changing capitalism: Naomi Klein

Cartoon creatures populate the books Naomi Klein reads most often these days.

“All the books are about animals,” the Toronto author says of the bedtime stories she shares with her 2-year-old son, Toma.

“And at a certain point it just struck me that so many of the books . . . were about animals that are facing (climate related) extinction crises and that he may never see some of the animals he’s reading about.”

Still, the species that most concerns Klein is her own.

And like a conclusive majority of climate scientists, she sees man-made, carbon-based global warming as settled fact and an immediate threat to human civilization.

In her own book, This Changes Everything, Capitalism vs The Climate, Klein advances this existential conundrum:

Capitalism, as it’s conceived and conducted today; capitalism that relies on globalization, unbridled consumerism, deregulation and perpetual economic expansion, is irreconcilable with a livable climate.

And since humans have no control over the natural laws that govern a carbon-stoked climate, she argues, capitalism will have to change.

The Star spoke with Klein about her new book — to be published Sept. 20 by Knopf Canada.

Following is an edited version of the conversation.

You were once in denial about climate change. You didn’t deny the science, but like so many others you turned cringingly away from the worsening news. What made you change your mind to take a hard look and write a book about it?

What changed for me was hearing the argument for the existence of a climate debt, which is the idea that in order to address the crisis . . . which was created by the wealthiest countries in the world and is being felt most acutely by some of the poorest countries in the world, there needs to be a process of redress.

Core inequalities need to be tackled through redistribution of wealth and technology. And this was explained to me as a chance to heal the world; to heal some of the deepest and most lasting wounds left by colonialism. And I suddenly saw that though this crisis continues to be existentially terrifying, it could also be a catalyst for really inspiring change and social justice.

I want to talk about those changes, but again, many people continue to ignore or outright deny climate change. And this denial is based largely on the (oil-interest inspired) belief that the science is still unsettled. How would you suggest that manufactured scientific controversy be surmounted?

In the book I make a distinction between hard denial and soft denial. The hard denial is it’s not happening — the science is wrong, it’s a conspiracy. That’s actually quite a small percentage of the population, particularly in Canada. Overwhelmingly, Canadians believe that climate change is real.

Where the impact of the oil lobby and misinformation campaigns have been very effective (is in feeding) that soft denial of “I can’t bear to look.”

I think that state of not looking, in Canada, is very much about this really successful talking point about if we take this crisis seriously, our economy will collapse. Everything good that is happening in the country is because of the oil boom.

In Canada, (that) has been a much more effective way of preventing us from focusing on the climate crisis than outright scientific denial of the facts.

And that’s why I hope the book will play a constructive role in this debate because I am outlining an economic future that is not collapse, that is not grim, that is in fact, I hope, more exciting and inspiring than the economic choices we are being presented as Canadians.

I think just highlighting other economic alternatives . . . success stories where that false dichotomy has been rejected, opens up the possibilities to look.

There is certainly big money behind the most important player in this debate, the United States, and that money reaches deep into the halls of Congress where people appear to be paid to deny the existence of the problem. But you argue in the book that big money isn’t the root of the problem, it’s the means of generating that big money that’s at fault. You argue that, in fact, capitalism as it’s currently practiced is incompatible with saving the planet. Can you explain that?

Well, I think that in terms of responding decisively to climate change I do think that big money is at the heart of the suppression of that response.

Both by . . . bribing politicians and serving as (an election-campaign) disciplinary force for politicians — you get the money if you do the right thing. But if you don’t do the right thing from the perspective of the oil companies then that same money is used to attack you in television ads and so on.

But in terms of what you’re saying about what the book argues about capitalism, I think the resistance by some of the most powerful players in the world . . . to a decisive response to climate change (comes about) because there is an understanding that we've allowed the crisis to deepen to such an extent that if we were to cut our emissions in line with what science is telling us, then the cuts would be so deep that they would present a fundamental challenge to the logic of growth for growth’s sake, which is the logic of the core of our economic system.

That doesn’t mean there can’t be parts of our economy that grow, there can and must be . . . in order to respond to climate change. But as that happens, we also need to contract those parts of our economy that are destabilizing the climate and are just fuelling mindless consumption.

Some of the aspects of that perpetual growth economy are rampant consumerism, globalization and deregulation . . . those seem ingrained and backed by irresistible (business) forces. How do you convince enough of those people who are more concerned with a bigger TV and the newest logo-bearing product that they can rise up and face those powerful interests?

I think that is the key question and it is to me the greatest crime of neo-liberal ideological messaging; that so many of us have been convinced that all we are is self-interested, gratification-seeking units.

We (believe) we’re so unidimensional in our values and desires that we are incapable of responding collectively to an existential crisis and incapable of acting collectively for a greater good.

Well, we know that historically, this has not been the case. We know that in the midst of the Great Depression we came together and built some of the social programs we’re proudest of. We know the same is true of wartime rationing. There’s an incredible statistic I have in the book about how use of public transit in Canada increased by 95 per cent during the Second World War.

So really, what we’re saying when we say we can’t do this — and this is what we’re told again and again, we can’t do this, there is something wrong with us, we’re too selfish, we’re too greedy — is that this idea of the “we” of who we are has changed.

Maybe our grandparents could do things like act collectively and come together at times of crisis . . . (but) it’s almost like we think we’re a different species from our grandparents.

First published at the Toronto Star

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