“How does it feel to see 200,000 people coming to New York for your book launch?” asked Bill McKibben, co-founder of 350.org, when introducing journalist and author Naomi Klein at the New School before a talk about her new book on climate change, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. While that number may be an exaggeration, there is no doubt that Klein’s “change everything” mantra is energizing the 350-organized movement threatening to “Flood Wall Street” by Monday, September 22. Not only Wall Street is under deluge; today’s People’s Climate March, billed as the largest ever march of its kind, intends to have its say during the UN Summit on climate change. Klein’s book has provided a rallying cry for the marchers: “to change everything we need everyone.”
At the book event this past Thursday, Klein, author of a previous bestseller The Shock Doctrine, explained why this time around she believes the shock will come from below: “Climate change can be a people’s shock, one that disperses rather than consolidates power.” How? Climate change requires cutting emissions in the West by 8-10%, and that level of reduction will happen only when we change everything. Klein says that means changing our core economic model which pits capitalism against climate and a few people against the entire planet. The logic at the heart of Klein’s argument is that we have to fight inequality in order to fight climate change. As she sees it, imposing austerity measures on the ordinary and tax cuts on the wealthy are part and parcel of the same ideology that continuously expands tar sands and burns fossil fuels. As a result, a small elite club grows wealthier from ravaging the natural world while the disadvantaged—such as First Nation communities in the oil-rich Alberta province of her native Canada—suffer disproportionate devastation. To those who believe consumption is the engine that drives the global economy, Klein answers: “Contract parts of the economy that are at war with the world, and expand the low carbon parts of the economy.” Sound hard? Maybe. But if we can “sacrifice so much in the name of ‘balanced budgets,'" why not try this instead?
The current climate (pun intended) is perhaps conducive for Klein, long regarded as a hero by progressives, to make a broader impact. This Changes Everything comes only a few months after French economist Thomas Piketty (who she mentions in her book) created a stir by asserting that capitalism increases inequality. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s special envoy for climate change, former Irish President Mary Robinson, is also known for framing climate change as a social justice and equality issue. Meanwhile, bestsellers like Adam Minter’s Junkyard Planet are telling us uncomfortable truths, such as how our massive recycling industry has little to do with environment and much to do with trade. Still, isn’t changing everything a tall order? No. Klein opines that many of us are climate activists even if we don’t know it. Climate change affects everything: healthcare, workers' rights, immigration policy, and more. Klein sees climate as the unifying, overarching narrative, whether it's the fight for good jobs and safe working conditions or forced migration of people because of environmental degradation.
The march today may bring out hundreds of back-to-the-land hipsters, but those sharing the stage with Klein on Thursday evening were grassroots activists. ”The fight for mother earth is a worker’s fight,” noted Estela Vasquez, Executive Vice President of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), connecting the dots between clean environment, decent jobs, and healthcare for all. Environmental activists Clayton Thomas-Muller and Esperanza Martinez, from Canada and Ecuador respectively, talked about movements such as the Quebec Students Strike (against austerity policies affecting the cost of education) and the Yasuni National Park referendum (which sought to prevent companies from drilling oil in one of the world’s most biodiverse places). These panelists echoed Klein’s optimism that change is coming from the bottom up. Each spoke with passion about capitalism versus climate, frequently alluding to slavery, colonization of indigenous lands, and the ecological debt owed to the global South.
Notably absent was any discussion about “green billionaires”—corporate donors and investors in climate change action who feature prominently (and unflatteringly) in Klein’s book and columns. Perhaps Klein felt that bringing up "the 1%" would dampen the festive spirit leading up to the weekend march. She stayed on message and continued to emphasize the positive transformational potential of this crisis. “Can climate change turn the world right side up?" she asked. Climate change deniers (yes, they still lurk among us) and cynical believers may be dismissive. But an eloquent argument from an acclaimed writer like Klein is just the right kind of fuel—for those marching today in the commercial capital of the nation with the world’s largest per capita carbon footprint.
Deepali Srivastava is Content Director at Kite Global Advisors and New Media Writing Instructor at Hofstra University. Srivastava is an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared on MSNBC.com and Business Standard (an Indian business daily). She has a Masters in International Political Economy and Development from Fordham University. Follow her on Twitter @deepalisriv.
Image via Quartz.