Naomi Klein is an award-winning journalist and author of a number of bestselling books addressing some of our most pressing political and environmental challenges. I read this book, On Fire, on my trip to British Columbia, some of it on the boat to Mayne Island, where we passed a few sea otters and saw patches of virgin forest. However, on the main Vancouver Island, 91% of the ancient forest has been felled. Naomi herself recounts her holiday in the area in 2017 when fires were raging and smoke blotted out the blue sky that she and her family had been so looking forward to, illustrating only too graphically the picture she paints in this book. It consists of a collection of more than a decade of her impassioned reports, articles and speeches ‘from the frontline of climate breakdown’ and conveying a real sense of urgency and emergency.
As I write, only yesterday Greta Thunberg completed her Atlantic voyage back from the UN in New York. Although she is usually reported as calling for us to act on the science reported by the IPCC in relation to carbon emissions, her concerns are in fact much wider. Specifically, she states that if the emissions have to stop, then we must stop the emissions, but she is well aware of the wider and unsustainable impact of humans on the environment, leading her to say that ‘once you’ve done your homework, you realise that we need new politics… new economics, a whole new way of thinking... we must stop competing with each other. We need to start cooperating and sharing the remaining resources of this planet in the fair way.’ Naomi has taken up her metaphor of the house being on fire, urging us to declare a planetary state of emergency and support the rapid introduction of a Green New Deal as a necessary and profound civilisational transformation or system change.
The need for a system change arises from the interlocking nature of the crises we face, but it can also be supported economically in terms of massive creation of new jobs. Colonisation was the first manifestation of globalisation as Western countries sought the equivalent of a spare planet to raise their own living standards by crushing and exploiting indigenous people (the anthropological section of the British Columbia Museum illustrates this only too poignantly, including the suppression of local languages and therefore cultures). Limitless consumption built into the philosophy of capitalist economic growth is directly related to the ‘ecological depletion at the heart of the climate crisis.’
In a chapter entitled Capitalism versus the Climate, Naomi reaches the heart of the issue. At the beginning of the chapter she states that ‘there is simply no way to square a belief system that vilifies collective action and venerates total market freedom with a problem that demands collective action on an unprecedented scale and a dramatic reining in of the market forces that created and are deepening that crisis.’ This goes back specifically to neoliberal economics and politics with the deregulation of the financial markets in the late 1980s encouraging casino capitalism and culminating inevitably in the crisis of 2008 with bailing out the banks and the severe fallout of austerity, itself related to the rise of the populism we see today. In the US, denial of human responsibility for climate change is linked to a right-wing free market politics and economics. These very people realise that the necessary action on climate and the environment more generally ‘can be done only by radically reordering our economic and political systems in ways antithetical to their free-market belief system.’ Naomi's inconvenient truth is that they are not wrong - and that this accounts for the strength of resistance and accusations that the Green New Deal is nothing less than redistributive eco-socialism. The premise of this free-market way of thinking is that nature is limitless, which we now realise is incorrect, whether applied to oceans, freshwater, topsoil or biodiversity: ‘the expansionist, extractive mindset that so long governed our relationship to nature is what the climate crisis calls into question so fundamentally.’ (p. 79) Hence the need for a new civilisational paradigm and the crisis in the idea of ‘progress’ embedded in our enlightenment outlook; hence also the resistance from ‘Heartlanders’ who oppose the real-world implications of dealing with environmental overload. The fundamental challenge, though, is that ‘climate change is a collective problem, and it demands collective action’, an unprecedented scale of international cooperation at a time when many countries are still intent on looking after their own narrow interests.
In this chapter, Naomi suggests six lines of policy: reviving and reinventing the public sphere, remembering how to plan, reining in corporations, re-localising production, ending the cult of shopping, and taxing the rich and filthy. Overconsumption based on an ideology of economic growth and continuously rising profits is at the root of our ecological crisis, leading to the dilemma identified by Tim Jackson that we need to ‘trash the system’ if we are not to ‘crash the planet’. At the very least, this entails the transformation of capitalism from a shareholder to a stakeholder model and radically redefining economic and well-being indicators. More far-reachingly, as many ecological thinkers (including the Prince of Wales) have been arguing for decades, we need ‘an alternative worldview to rival the one at the heart of the ecological crisis – this time, one embedded in interdependence rather than hyper-individualism, reciprocity rather than dominance, and cooperation rather than hierarchy.’ (p. 98)
Naomi's own proposals are articulated in The Leap Manifesto for climate justice based on an ethic and duty to care (and repair), not only for land, water and air, but also for one another; this means transforming the culture of taking and grabbing to one of giving. The Leap also implies that incrementalism and moderation are a huge problem in circumstances when a leap is required. The gap between what we are doing and what we need to do is simply too wide, which is why politicians are floundering in their efforts to shore up the current system with a few green modifications and tweaks. There will also be mounting pressure from environmental migration, and we have already seen the impact on Europe of associated political migration (a severe drought exacerbated political tensions in Syria). Needless to say, The Leap has engendered fierce resistance from the current establishment, but this time we are slamming into hard ecological limits and there is no spare continent to use for parts - as I have pointed out in other reviews, Earth Overshoot Day now occurs at the end of July, meaning that we are using the renewable biomass of 1.4 planets as it is.
Reading this eloquent and widely informed book makes one realise that a Green New Deal representing deep system change is in fact a realistic necessity, but based on a longer term realism rather than the short-term expediency and immediacy dominating the current UK election campaign. It is only a matter of time before this becomes an evolutionary imperative. However, my argument would go further than ecological and political interdependence and interconnectedness, to the oneness of all life (it is easy to remain narrowly anthropocentric rather than biocentric) and to the oneness of consciousness as a spiritual underpinning. I believe that more and more people are getting a direct sense of this oneness and interconnectedness and realising its implications for how we arrange our affairs in relation to the whole of life. I discuss a parallel shift in my review of Riane Eisler and Douglas Fry’s book elsewhere in this issue, and I regard both books as essential reading for our time.