Everything changes. As Buddhists, we know this. But perhaps too often we’re content to let things be. In her latest book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, the Canadian journalist and social activist Naomi Klein makes a compelling case for all of us—Buddhists and otherwise—to join arms and demand the changes we need to make before we reach the point of no return. For Klein, climate change is a symptom of an even bigger problem: global capitalism. Thus, healing the earth, she says, will also mean healing the wounds of slavery and colonialism to create a more racially and economically just world.
The author of two previous bestsellers, The Shock Doctrine and No Logo, Klein recently spoke with Tricycle contributing editor Sam Mowe about climate change as a narrative crisis, the importance of connecting different social movements, and how she maintains a sense of possibility and purpose while facing overwhelming challenges.
Do you consider climate change to be a spiritual crisis? I consider climate change to be a profound narrative crisis for Western civilization, one that is inextricably linked to questions of worldview and spirituality. I came to this issue from more of a hard-politics background, but I’ve found that it is much more about the stories that our culture tells about itself and our relationship with nature. Are we apart from nature or of it? Is the earth a living system or a machine for us to dominate?
I always try to follow my research where it leads me, but sometimes it leads me into areas that I don’t consider myself best equipped to be a spokesperson for—and that’s the strange tension in which I find myself currently around these more spiritual questions and climate change. That’s not the kind of writing I do. It’s not the kind of speaking I do. But I am trying to push myself beyond my comfort zone. Recently I got an invitation from the Vatican to come and help launch their encyclical on climate change. Now I’m struggling with what it means to be a secular feminist Jew at the Vatican.
Can you say more about climate change as a narrative crisis? What narratives are failing us? What climate change deeply challenges is the narrative that emerged in the 1600s in the British countryside, which was that the earth is an inert machine—or a prone woman, depending on the metaphor of choice—that could be entirely understood and dominated by the genius of man. This was a new idea at the time, and it displaced a relationship to the natural world that was much more humble and reciprocal. Before, the earth was seen as a living system or as a mother, and we approached nature with humility, reverence, and a healthy dose of fear. Then, because of breakthroughs in science, a new idea emerged. We started to think,We are becoming a god and we will eventually know absolutely everything there is to know. And you can understand why, with these huge breakthroughs in understanding, it seemed as if the momentum would eventually lead to everything being known.
But this idea was just an idea until the commercial steam engine was invented in the 1700s. Before the commercial steam engine and the industrial use of coal, the ships could only sail when the winds blew. The factories had to be built wherever there was rushing water, and even the wealthiest and most powerful people in the new industrial age still had to negotiate with nature; they weren’t the boss of it. If you look at the marketing materials for Watt’s commercial steam engine, you’ll see that it explicitly sold itself with the notion “Now we finally will be free, and we finally will be able to go wherever we want, build wherever we want, whenever we want.” Now we are truly the boss.
It was this very powerful convergence of ideology and technology—the ideology of mastery and the technology of the commercial harnessing of fossil fuels—that created the illusion that we really were able to master nature completely.
Climate change is a narrative crisis because those ideas are what built the modern world. That combination of ideology and technology were major building blocks of modern capitalism. It turns out that all this time that we were telling ourselves we were in charge, we were burning fossil fuels and greenhouse gases that were accumulating in the atmosphere. So now comes the earth’s response of climate change, which is a delayed response but a ferocious one that, frankly, puts us in our place. The response is this: “You’re just a guest here, and you never were in charge. You never were the boss.”
Do you think that emphasizing our connection to the natural world will be an important element of any narrative that will work moving forward? Part of what fuels manic consumption is the desire to fill gaps in our lives that emerge because of severed connections of various kinds—with community, with one another, and also with the natural world.
We tend to think about connections to nature as something you have to get out of the city in order to build. We’ll say, let’s take urban kids to the wilderness. I think doing that is really valuable, and I believe everybody should be able to experience that. But I also think that we have to be able to engage with the fact that we are still profoundly dependent on nature even when we are in urban environments.
How do we do that? There are different practices that can help us make this connection. I had a yoga teacher for years who was really good at getting large groups of people at the YMCA to think about the earth beneath the concrete, to connect with the fact that animals all over our world were breathing the same air as us. These practices are critical for us to realize that especially in our protected, air-conditioned bubbles, we are dependent on the natural systems that are being destabilized by climate change.
Cities are so much more vulnerable because of their density, and because of our lack of self-sufficiency and basic survival skills when we lose power or when we find ourselves in the middle of a storm. Our illusions of separateness break down very suddenly when there’s a disaster. I think the task is to break them down without disaster and then celebrate our connections.
You mentioned yoga. Are there other, nonspiritual practices that can help dispel illusions of separateness? Things like urban agriculture also foster that knowledge, as well as educating ourselves about where our water and our power come from, which should be part of our basic understanding of our world. It’s a real failing that our education systems don’t teach us the basics about how we function in cities. We should think of that as environmental education, not just teaching kids, “This is an old growth forest and this is shale rock.”
One of the things you do in This Changes Everything is connect the climate justice movement to other movements, like those working to create racial and economic equality. Doesn’t taking all these things on at once make things more difficult than they need to be? I don’t see the climate crisis as being separable from economic and racial justice. We are now collectively dealing with the impacts of an industrial model that always had sacrificial places and sacrificial people. There was this Faustian bargain at the center of the fossil fuel economy from the very start—the sacrifice of coal miners’ lungs and of coal mining communities—and it was accompanied by a deepening of theories of racial and class superiority. Because you can’t have a system built on sacrificial places and sacrificial people unless you have a theory that justifies their sacrifice.
The promise of climate justice—as opposed to just climate action—is that, in changing our economy to respond to climate change, we can do more than move away from fossil fuels. We can heal the centuries-old wounds that were intrinsic to an extractivist economy and an extractivist worldview. We can get at the root of the problem.
What started you thinking along these lines of connecting different movements? I came to this issue out of my last book, a very, very bleak book called The Shock Doctrine. It is about how disasters of all kinds—terrorist attacks, wars, economic crashes, and also so-called natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina—are increasingly being used to fast-forward our very brutal system of winner-take-all capitalism.
The Shock Doctrine begins and ends with Hurricane Katrina. When I was in New Orleans covering the aftermath, I felt like I was seeing a glimpse of the future that we will have if we don’t get off this road really fast. Katrina showed us how a disaster within our current systems can bring out the absolute worst in people, at least on a systemic level.
Within days of the flood, developers were going to Baton Rouge with their wish lists: “Bulldoze the public housing projects, put up condominiums. This is our plan for the waterfront that has no place for poor black people.” They were celebrating the fact that the storm had cleared out New Orleans’ poor African-American residents so that the city could be remade as a corporate playground. We had Blackwater replacing the police. We saw ugly manifestations of American racism where people who were just trying to get food and diapers for their kids were called looters. Citizens were called refugees in their own country.
All of this is why I see climate change as a moral issue, and why we need to talk not only about carbon but also about a shift in values and worldviews. This is why we need to talk explicitly about racism, because if we don’t, then the way we will respond to climate change will be a moral catastrophe. Actually, it’s already a moral catastrophe. We’re already writing off island nations because their GDP isn’t big enough. We’re already basically saying, Sub-Saharan Africa can burn. That’s what it means to set a maximum temperature increase target of 2 degrees Celsius, which is what our governments did in Copenhagen in 2009.
Within that sacrifice zone mentality, it’s really easy to imagine the fortressing of our borders. Easy to imagine how our nations will seal themselves off from climate refugees. Climate change is not just about being afraid of sea levels rising. It’s not just about the weather. It’s about how an economic system that glorifies individualism—and one that is based on an often unstated but very real hierarchy of humanity—will respond to heavy weather. And it’s that cocktail that scares me.
What are the broad outlines of the future as you imagine it? What excites me is that our response to climate change could be one that systematically attempts to heal the wounds of colonialism and slavery, to close the gaps of inequality that scar our world. A lot of environmentalists hear that and say, “Wow, you’re really making this a lot harder than it was already.” My counterresponse to that is, “Well, we have had two and a half decades of treating this like it’s a technocratic problem, that it’s just about proving that solar energy is viable and getting the right agreement at the UN. And that hasn’t worked.”
The reason why it hasn’t worked is that responding to climate change is expensive, and it requires that some of the most powerful and wealthiest interests in our society become less powerful and less wealthy. What I’m trying to outline in the book is not just a moral response to climate change. It’s also a political strategy to build a movement powerful and fired-up enough to take on those vested interests.
To be concrete, I think that the communities that have been the sacrifice zones of yesterday—whether it’s indigenous reservations or the poorest neighborhoods in the United States that have the dirtiest power plants and the highest asthma rates—are the places that should own and control a great deal of the generation of renewable energy. The jobs should go first to the people who live there. And those jobs should pay a living wage. When we think about the types of policies we want to champion, we should be championing things like cheap or even free public transit, because those types of policies help the poorest people in the United States. That way you are fighting climate change, inequality, and racism all at once.
We live in a time of overlapping crises, and we need to connect the dots, because we don’t have time to solve each crisis sequentially. We need a movement that addresses all of them, one that brings hope and the possibility of a better future. That’s why we have to bring services and dignified jobs to the most neglected areas. We see climate action as something that only takes away from people. Instead we need to lay out a vision for the future that people will fight for, because it’s better than what they have right now.
Won’t we also need to make certain sacrifices? There are people—including me—who are going to have less. They will fly less and consume less and have smaller homes. But there will be so many more people who will have a tangibly better life, and they will be willing to fight for that future. That’s what climate justice means. If we aren’t able to connect climate action to the bread-and-butter issues—we need jobs, we need resources, we need better services, we need to believe that there’s a future for our kids—then we will be outgunned by the fossil fuel industry again and again and again as we have been for decades.
Sorry for the military metaphor. No guns.
Do you think we sometimes overemphasize what we can accomplish with our individual consumer choices and sacrifices? Should we focus on the bigger picture? What powerful forces fear most is not what we do as individuals, like changing our lightbulbs or going vegan. They fear what we do when we act together as organized and mobilized groups. As groups we can go after the legitimacy of their profits. This is what the student-led fossil fuel divestment movement is doing, and it has these companies pretty panicked. They care when we come together to block their pipelines. They care when we demand that our governments build the infrastructure that will get us to 100 percent renewable energy.
This is not to say that we should lead wasteful lives and burn as much carbon as possible. Lifestyle changes are part of the solution and will ultimately make us healthier and happier. But we shouldn’t confuse that scale of action with the deep structural changes that are required to lower our emissions in line with climate science.
What do you think about writers who describe a kind of wisdom in letting go of our human urge to control? Right, and we can watch the scenery on the way down. Frankly, I think that is a morally reprehensible position.
Of course, there are parts of it that appeal to me as well, but then I remember that in most parts of the world people are fighting for their lives. They don’t have the option to just decide to give up. That stance of letting it all go betrays a position of such extraordinary privilege.
There’s a sense of kinship around the discourse that sees humans as the God species—we can fix it all with GMOs and nuclear and geoengineering—and the discourse that sees humans as a cancer on the earth—everything would be fine if we were gone, so let’s just celebrate our annihilation. Both of these put humans at the center of the story. And in a weird way, they’re flip sides of the same coin. Neither of them embraces the idea that humans actually are nature. Both of these are stories of apartness.
Some of that “we’re a cancer” stuff resonates with me. I go back and forth between being hopeful and hopeless, and between feeling really motivated and feeling like it’s too late. Yeah. I find that this strain of “it’s too late” and “there’s sort of a beauty in surrender” is getting stronger. A lot of people I respect, who are wonderful writers, are going down that path. Roy Scranton, for example, wrote Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene, which connects Buddhist theory with the idea that it’s too late. But the scientists I trust the most don’t think it’s too late; it’s just really, really hard.
That’s why I am not without hope, although I’ll point out that that’s different than saying “I am hopeful.” A few weeks ago I was at a conference in Oakland that was convened by the Berkeley School of Law professor john a. powell, called “Othering and Belonging.” Professor powell says he considers himself not as an optimist or a pessimist, but as a “possibilist.” It is still possible for us to prevent catastrophic climate change, and it is possible for us to build a movement that could do so. So long as that is possible, then we have a moral responsibility to work toward enlarging that sense of possibility. And it’s unacceptable to give up in the face of that still outstanding possibility, because the stakes are too high. That’s the way I feel. I don’t feel optimistic, but I’m a possibilist.
How are you able to maintain this sense of possibility and purpose when your vision seems very unlikely to happen? As I’ve been saying, it’s in connecting this movement to other movements. That’s what gives me hope, because I think that if this is just about the people who already define themselves as environmentalists and spiritually-ecologically enlightened, then we’re cooked. We know we’re not a powerful enough movement to do this on our own.
I think part of the reason why we feel so hopeless is that we are so separate. But let’s look at what’s happening in social movements in the United States. You’ve got a whole new civil rights movement of young people that is profoundly morally based, saying “Black lives matter.” There’s also an explosion of organizing around the demand for a minimum wage of $15 an hour, as well as growing movements calling to get money out of politics and end corporate personhood. And then you have the student divestment movement, which has taken off in ways that we never could have anticipated, and all these anti-extraction battles and so on, the anti-fracking movement winning massive victories, like the one in New York State.
This is why we need a lens that brings us together, because if we do that, we won’t feel hopeless. We are so segmented into our little issue silos, so we feel powerless because we are powerless when we’re separate. But if we can find the courage to come together despite the incredible difficulties of building those sorts of coalitions, we might actually win something.
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