Book review: ‘On Fire – The Burning Case for a Green New Deal’, by Naomi Klein

The climate emergency existed long before the Government declared it. 

It’s been present not only in distant places, as rising seas gradually swallow low-lying cities like New York and London, and entire Pacific nations. It is present in New Zealand here and now, in the more frequent water rationing seen in Auckland and Northland, more fires on Christchurch’s Port Hills, more floods and uninsurable properties and more communities like Matatā, where 25 Bay of Plenty families are being forced from their own homes, as part of this country’s “managed retreat” from vulnerable land. 

No-one seriously believes that switching to energy-efficient light bulbs, getting an electric car and paying an extra $4 to “offset the carbon” emitted by a Wellington to Auckland flight will stop the coming catastrophes. But what alternative do we have? 

In the Introduction to her book, On Fire, Naomi Klein considers approximate historical precedents for today’s unprecedented climate crisis. According to some, she says, “the only precedents that show the scale and speed of change required in the face of the climate crisis are the World War II mobilizations that saw Western powers transform their manufacturing sectors and consumption patterns to fight Hitler’s Germany… Some argue that a better analogy than the war effort was the reconstruction afterward – specifically, the Marshall Plan.”

“Each precedent”, she observes, “has its own glaring weaknesses and contradictions”. But there is one which she chooses to give her book a subtitle. It was the call made by protesters who occupied the halls of the US Congress in November 2018. Given legislative form by House representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey three months later, and harking back to president Franklin D Roosevelt’s sweeping package of policies to battle the poverty of the Great Depression and the ecological collapse of the Dust Bowl, it’s “The Green New Deal”.

Following the Introduction, Naomi Klein’s book consists of 16 previously published essays and speeches, dating from 2010 to 2019 and arranged in chronological order. 

I have followed Naomi Klein’s writing ever since I came across her first book, No Logo, as a young activist in the global justice movement in Europe at the start of the millennium. This latest book, On Fire – The Burning Case of a Green New Deal, is one of her best. 

If I say that it isn’t quite as good as her last one on climate change, that’s hardly a criticism. In my view, that 2014 predecessor – This Changes Everything – was the Non-Fiction Work of the Decade, which I referenced in interviews as president of NZNO. 

The issue with On Fire is that its 16 collected pieces are a little bit uneven. The weakest, to my mind, is the Edward W. Said Memorial Lecture, delivered in 2016. 

It was always going to be tough to talk about climate change while honouring this great Palestinian intellectual. Edward Said increased our understanding enormously about culture and imperialism, but as Naomi Klein acknowledges, he also dismissed environmentalism as “the indulgence of spoiled tree-huggers who lack a proper cause”. 

It is a strength of the Green New Deal, and of Naomi Klein’s writing in general, that they recognise the interconnections between the innumerable damaging effects of capitalism. And a point that she makes in the Said Lecture – that the oil companies which are responsible for climate change also fuel wars in the Middle East – is valid. But attempting to prove the connection by drawing a line on the map through the locations of US drone strikes, and looking for a link to average annual rainfall in those places, is stretching credibility. 

The other 15 chapters document the mounting environmental damage caused by capitalism, expose the forces which have sabotaged collective efforts to make sure Earth remains habitable and give encouragement and direction to the multiplicity of struggles for humanity’s survival and a socially just future.

In such a sea of brilliance, it’s hard to pick the gems. But there were three key messages, in three chapters, which stood out for me. 

The first was contained in Naomi Klein’s address to the graduating class of 2015 at the College of the Atlantic.

“In wealthy countries,” she told those graduands, “we are told how powerful we are as individuals all the time. As consumers. Even individual activists.”

Reflecting back on her time as a 26-year old researching No Logo, she remembered how “you expressed your political beliefs, first and very often last, through personal lifestyle choices. By loudly proclaiming your vegetarianism. By shopping fair trade and local, and boycotting big, evil brands.” Today that could be going dairy-free or camping out on Parliament’s lawn until a climate emergency is declared. 

But the message in her address was simple: “The very idea that we, as atomized individuals, even as lots of atomized individuals, could play a significant part in stabilizing the planet’s climate system or changing the global economy is objectively nuts. We can only meet this tremendous challenge together, as part of a massive and organised global movement.”

The second key message for me was about stories we tell ourselves, as a country, and how these national mythologies are reflected in governmental action on climate change. And judging by Naomi Klein’s 2016 Lafontaine-Baldwin Lecture in Toronto, Ontario, it seems that these stories are pretty similar in Canada and in New Zealand. 

“A story cherished by a lot of powerful interests in this country”, she says, is that “we are a moderate people, steady-as-she-goes kind of folks. In a world of hotheads, we like to tell ourselves that we split the difference, choose the middle path. No sudden movement for us, and certainly no leaping.”

Reading this I was reminded of how Climate Change Minister James Shaw was absolutely committed form the outset to crafting a Zero Carbon Bill which had bipartisan support – and accepting all of the National Party’s bottom lines. “You need a consistency in public policy”, said the Minister, “so that investors can make long-term decisions”. Steady-as-she-goes. No sudden movement, for him. 

“Now, it’s a very nice story”, Naomi Klein continues. “Moderation is an asset in all sorts of circumstances. It’s a good approach for alcohol consumption, for instance, and hot fudge sundaes… [But] when it comes to climate change, incrementalism and moderation are actually a huge problem… When you have gone as badly off course as we have, moderate actions don’t lead to moderate outcomes. They lead to dangerously radical ones.”

Which is why New Zealand’s Zero Carbon Act 2020 – which sets lofty goals to be met 30 years into the future, through yet-to-be-determined gradual steps, while plowing ahead today with fossil-fuelled, “shovel ready”, business as usual – represents failure. If we want a moderate and harmonious future, we now have to get more radical. 

My last key message from this book begins with an historical observation about the original inspiration for the Green New Deal: “It must always be remembered that President Franklin D Roosevelt rolled out the New Deal in the midst of a historic wave of labor unrest: There was the Teamster Rebellion and the Minneapolis general strike in 1934, the eighty-three-day shutdown of West Coast ports by longshore workers that same year, and the Flint autoworkers sit-down strikes in 1936 and 1937.”

Writing in 2019, Naomi Klein concludes that, “The single largest determining factor in whether a Green New Deal mobilization pulls us back from the climate cliff will be the actions taken by social movements in the coming years. Because as important as it is to elect politicians who are up for this fight, the decisive questions are not going to be solved through elections alone. At their core, they are about building political power – enough to change the calculus of what is possible.”

She concedes that, “Right now, civil society is nowhere near as strong or as organised as it was in the 1930s, when the huge concessions of the New Deal era were won – although there are certainly signs of strength, from movements against mass incarceration and deportations, to #MeToo, to the wave of teachers’ strikes, to Indigenous-led pipeline blockades, to fossil fuel divestment, to the Women’s Marches, to School Strikes for Climate, to the Sunrise Movement, to the momentum for Medicare for All, and much more.” 

Signs of strength have been apparent in Aotearoa, too – including in the union movement where my own activism is focused. My election as president of the New Zealand Nurses Organisation in 2015 came along with a groundswell of support for union action on pay and staffing levels, on the social determinants of health – and for action on climate change. But effective action requires collective leadership which is both responsive to the mood for change and visionary.  

“Right now”, continues Naomi Klein, “the Green New Deal is being characterised as an unrelated grab bag because most of us have been trained to avoid a systemic and historical analysis of capitalism and to divide pretty much every crisis our system produces (economic inequality, violence against women, white supremacy, unending wars, ecological unraveling) into walled-off silos… For this reason, one of the most pressing tasks ahead is to use every tool possible to make the case for how our overlapping crises are indeed inextricably linked – and can be overcome only with a holistic vision for social and economic transformation.”

Delegates at the 2015 NZNO AGM voted strongly in favour of a remit I had drafted, for the union to divest from fossil fuels. I sought to channel the groundswell for climate action into NZNO support for the 2015 People’s Climate March and helped to produce an NZNO Position Statement on Climate Change

But I was personally disappointed, as the impetus was soon stifled by NZNO’s rigid internal silos and top-level resistance and indifference. The leadership of the NZNO Rūnanga, for instance, had little time for anything outside of the Māori and Iwi Provider Sector (and certainly little time for climate change). The industrial leadership had long resisted calls for a more holistic vision, including a bicultural equity lens. The idea of linking the various crises facing peoples and planet (or even all the crises facing different groups of members within the union) to one overarching system was inconceivable.

So when I was asked by union members at the Tai Tokerau Regional Convention in 2019, “What is NZNO’s position on climate change and how active are we and where is the accountability?, my answer was sadly limited to slim pickings. It represented the efforts of just a dozen or so self-motivated individuals in NZNO, over the four-year period.

Other unions however are seeing how the overlapping crises of capitalism are linked. They might not put it in exactly those terms, but they’re responding to a mood for change with a more holistic vision. 

The PSA, where I’m putting my energies now, has formed an Eco Network of union activists who build “organisation to improve workplace sustainability, and contribute to global campaigning for environmental justice and action on climate change”. 

“Climate change is a whole of union issue”, declares the PSA, and every member network in the union is engaging with it, from the PSA Pasefika Network to the Deaf and Disabled Network, from the Women’s Network to Te Rūnanga o Ngā Toa Āwhina. After a 2019 survey found that climate change was among the top three issues for PSA members, a responsive PSA Biennial Congress last month voted to strengthen the Eco Network and give it more reach. 

“[The Green New Deal] is not a magic cure for racism or misogyny or homphobia – we still have to confront those evils head on”, writes Naomi Klein, near the end of her book. “But it… would give a great many of us a sense of working together toward something bigger than ourselves. Something we are all part of creating… That kind of shared mission is something our late capitalist culture badly needs right now.”

For my union colleagues, this book will be gold. But to anyone concerned about climate or inequality (which is most people), I would also recommend it. On Fire – The Burning Case for a Green New Deal is filled with short, easy-to-read pieces you can dip in and out of. After you read it, think about going back to the longer and deeper account in This Changes Everything. And let’s keep talking, about how we can work on this future together. 

• First published on goodreads.com. Connect with me there, for more talking about books.

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