Famed Canadian journalist Naomi Klein's talks to Megaphone about the fight for climate justice and the future of capitalism
Change the story, change everything
One thing that is becoming more and more clear in the fight against climate change is that the science doesn't matter. Not in the sense that it isn't true (it is) or its conclusions are debatable (they aren't), but in the sense that the science is not persuading the people it needs to persuade to do the things they need to be persuaded to do.
With almost all-97 per cent-of the world's climate experts agreeing that humans are causing global warming, we can't ask much more of science. We know that surface warming beyond two degrees centigrade of pre-industrial global average temperatures will be catastrophic and likely irreversible. And unless the planet, collectively, agrees to wholesale changes to our consumption habits and economic system, we will exceed the two-degree threshold within 30 years.
I know you've heard this before. It's one of the reasons Naomi Klein confesses at the beginning of her new film, This Changes Everything, that she has "always kinda hated films about climate change." We get it, it's bleak. And yet nothing has changed. Climate ennui is the new climate denial.
Klein's film, co-created with Avi Lewis and based on her 2014 book of the same name, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2015. It's undeniably a climate change film, but it attempts a different tack. "What if the real problem," Klein's voiceover asks, "is a story? One we've been telling ourselves for 400 years."
That story, according to Klein's film, is that climate change is inextricably tied to human nature. We can't help ourselves, goes the argument. Humans, as a species, are individualist, present-oriented and self-interested. But what if that's not true? Or, to put it another way, what if that story doesn't have to be true?
"If we can tell another story about who humans are and what we're capable of," Klein tells me over the phone, "then maybe we can look at this issue from which so many of us are averting our eyes right now."
It's a compelling plan. Change the story, change everything. But can it be that simple? "Stories are wondrous things," Thomas King warned in his 2003 Massey Lectures. "And they are dangerous."
And stories are not easy to change.
Not inevitability, but tyranny
The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates recently mused about the historical comparison between the fossil fuel industry today and the antebellum American slave- based economy. He was making the case of the virtual impossibility for white people to disentangle ourselves from the moral implications of the slave trade.
He's right, of course. But the other side of the coin is equally true: fossil fuel and extraction industries are destroying our planet, displacing and impoverishing hundreds of millions of vulnerable people. This is an indisputable fact. And yet, no matter who you are and where you live, you cannot opt out. Fossil fuel will find you.
A favourite ploy of oil executives on the talk radio circuit is to ask climate change activists on the same panel if they took a gas-powered bus to the station, then chuckle at their own joke. It's always struck me that this is not an argument in the oil industry's favour: the carbon economy is so pervasive and so coercive that even those who are dedicating their lives to stopping it cannot escape it. That's not inevitability, that's tyranny.
It's hard to overstate the extent to which climate change saturates our lives now. It's in our weather reports and our economic coverage. In many countries, including Canada, the local economy might as well be synonymous with its fossil fuel exports. Its reach can even be felt in Canada's national game: Brantford, Ontario-the home of legendary ice hockey champion "The Great One" -no longer gets cold enough to maintain a backyard ice rink like the kind Walter Gretzky built for his son.
As This Changes Everything points out, we are so addicted to the story of fossil fuels that governments and industry are willing to entertain Paul Crutzen's geoengineering solution to global warming: inject sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere in the hopes it will reflect the sun's rays and lower global temperatures. "In other words," Klein narrates in This Changes Everything, "let's solve the problem of pollution with more pollution."
There's a moment roughly halfway through This Changes Everything where Klein is interviewing a courageous young Greek activist fighting a Canadian- owned copper and gold mine in her community. Mary Christianou from the Halkidiki Citizens Committee muses about the scope of the task before her and her allies: stopping Eldorado Gold from clear-cutting old growth forest and reengineering the local water systems to build a giant open pit mine.
But she also worries that even if they are successful at stopping the mine this time, it won't be enough. She is unsure whether it will address the "core problem." Sensing something more, Klein presses her. "What's the core problem?" Klein asks. "Do you want me to state it on camera?" Christianou is almost squirming in discomfort.
"Yeah, I would say it is the economic system," the activist says. A long beat. Then: "Capitalism, I guess."
It's the first time the word is uttered in the film, and the effect is clear: we all know that this is the story that needs changing, but it is both obvious and incredibly difficult to even say aloud.
"That was very deliberate on our part," Klein tells me. "Our hope is that by the time the word 'capitalism' is said, people have seen enough and felt enough and come to their own conclusions."
Klein's 2014 book was subtitled "Capitalism vs. the Climate," but the majority of those readers would have been bred on her earlier work in The Shock Doctrine and No Logo, searing indictments of an economic system that seeks out disorder, rewards sociopathy and turns human catastrophe into economic opportunity. The film is likely to reach a far broader and far different audience not as primed for such an assessment.
American writer John Dos Passos was asked if he believed that capitalism would lead to inevitable failure and collapse. "Sure," he answered. "But the question is when. We've got the failure, at least from my point of view. What I don't see is the collapse."
Or, as Klein might say, failure isn't a bug in the system; it's a feature. We could look at the 2008 stock market crash that ended up enriching those responsible for the disaster. Or we could look at the way the IMF first facilitated the collapse of the Greek economy and then exploited the crisis to humiliate a left-wing government and privatize the country's resources and institutions.
But capitalism's biggest failure is also its greatest success: we're not permitted to acknowledge that it exists.
"I thought it was really revealing that something as powerful as the economic system that dominates our globe is seen as unsayable," Klein says. "That's just weird, right?"
"I think it really makes our jobs harder when we can't even describe the system we live under accurately."
It's tempting to propose that Christianou's hesitation stands in as a metaphorfor our own historical moment. After decades of neoliberal dominance, popular movements unafraid to specifically name capitalism as the chief architect of inequality are entering the mainstream.
"People are ready to talk about the system," Klein says. "And that's why it's surprising the whole sort-of U.S political pundit class that Bernie Sanders is surging ahead of Hillary Clinton in the polls or that Jeremy Corbyn just won the leadership of the [British] Labour party. You know, they get it wrong a lot, these so-called experts on what the public is capable of."
This Changes Everything shows that the public is capable of quite a lot. It documents a series of local movements on a global scale. Communities, sometimes as small as a single family, take on oil companies, mining conglomerates and massive BioTech firms in Alberta's Cold Lake, Montana, Greece, India and elsewhere.
And these local struggles are collectively pushing their governments to do more: the stand-out example in the film is Germany's renewable energy transition, driven by communities converting local power grids from carbon-based energy to solar and wind. One-quarter of Germany's electricity came from renewable energy sources in 2013, much of it locally owned.
You could say that the public depicted in the film is collectively gathering the courage to join Christianou in chorus: "Capitalism, I guess."
"Transition is inevitable, justice is not"
Klein was born in Montreal but her family in Vancouver and the Sunshine Coast has kept her close to British Columbia. Her son, Toma, was born in B.C. in 2012. She spoke at a 2011 demonstration against the Pantages Theatre demolition in the Downtown Eastside and enjoys close ties with many Vancouver activists and advocacy organizations.
During her Vancouver book launch last year, Klein made special mention of Vancouver's proud activist history and cited the city's perennial fight against gentrification as a front-line battle against climate change.
"When people in the Downtown Eastside fight against gentrification that pushes transit users out of downtown and moves in people who drive their BMWs everywhere," she told an audience at UBC's Chan Centre at the time, "they are climate activists whether they are talking about climate change or not."
I asked her about these comments and for Klein, the struggle for homes and dignity in the Downtown Eastside remains inextricable from the struggle against climate change. Every green-focused activist needs to keep one thing foremost in their mind: put justice at the centre.
"That was something that I learned from climate activists in the Bay area," Klein told me. "If you aren't fighting for affordable housing, then you can build as much transit as you want but the people who use it are going to be forced out." And, she adds, in a colonial state like Canada, climate change is frequently responsible for forcing people offtheir land in the first place. "A lot of people in the Downtown Eastside are Indigenous and come from places where the land has become unlivable."
This holistic, interconnected philosophy is the driving force behind Klein's work- when she says "everything," she means it.
In September, Klein launched The Leap Manifesto, an unabashed crie du coeur calling for nothing less than a 100 per cent clean economy by 2050, open borders and an utterly transformed relationship with Canada's First Nations. The document was authored by 60 people over two days in the spring and co-signed by activists, scholars, artists, Indigenous leaders, journalists and scientists across Canada.
The Leap Manifesto, like This Changes Everything, aims not just to reduce emissions or footprints, but to tell a different story. One that "must begin by respecting the inherent rights and title of the original caretakers of this land" and let local communities "collectively control these new energy systems" whenever possible.
"As we transition to a green economy, as we transition to renewable energy," Klein tells me, "we [want to] do it in a way that is most effective and also solves multiple problems at once, including income inequality. Or begins to." She cites the slogan from the Oakland-based collective Movement Generation: "Transition is inevitable, justice is not."
This is the key message of the film, of the book and certainly of the Leap Manifesto- and, arguably, of Klein's life's work. Her book No Logo turned 15 years old last year, a book almost synonymous with the anti- globalization movement. And the shift in strategy is evident in the titles of the two groundbreaking works that bookend her career: from resistance to revolution.
"The truth is, is that after eight years of Harper, however long it's been- and even before that, in the whole neoliberal era, because it's not like things were wonderful under the Liberals-this has been a period of defensive action, by and large, saying 'no' to cutbacks of defending a largely unacceptable status quo," Klein says.
"And so what this vision statement is about is the 'yes.' It's actually trying to map an economy that is inspiring, a society that is one we would fight for, as opposed to just fighting against."
Well, it's a lovely story. But it has its work cut out.