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 2019 – 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 Connect with me there, for more talking about books.

‘An NZNO leadership willing to face reality’ – Letter to Kai Tiaki

It was sad to see in October’s coverage of the NZNO annual general meeting that membership had dropped by 0.9 percent over the 2019/20 year, to end on 31 March at 51,643. But I was struck by chief executive Memo Musa’s comment about this to the AGM, that “the trajectory still pointed to growth”. 

As a union, we have power in numbers. So a trajectory of growth would be good news for members. It would mean more union strength to deliver for each one of us, and more resources to support nursing. Sadly, however, this doesn’t appear to be the case. 

Just six days before the AGM, on 11 September, the chief executive had emailed all members with the results of the Board by-election. The notice stated that total membership (the number of eligible voters) was now 50,418. In other words, there had been a further 2.4 percent drop the in five months from 31 March. 

NZNO won an award at the 2019 Congress of the International Council of Nurses, for having at least three quarters of New Zealand’s practising nurses as members. This was based on an NZNO membership return submitted in 2018 and the Nursing Council’s register, as at 31 March 2019. If the awards ceremony was held today, NZNO would not qualify.

The chief executive also told this year’s AGM that, “NZNO was ‘lucky’ compared to other unions, many of which were seeing a decrease or ‘stunted’ growth”. 

The day before these words appeared in the October Kai Tiaki, a headline on Stuff announced, “Covid-19 boosts NZ union membership”. According to the Stuff article, “Union members as a proportion of the workforce rose over the three months to June, to 19.8 per cent compared with 19.1 per cent in the December quarter 2019, according to Statistics New Zealand data released by the Council of Trade Unions. Union membership rose by about 12,000 to 411,000 by the end of June, from 399,000 in March.”

Musa’s account to the 2020 AGM had the story back to front. Over the two years from September 2018 up until the 2020 Board election, while other unions have been growing, NZNO membership dropped by 4.4 percent from 52,712 to 50,418. This is not a “trajectory of growth”. 

NZNO members deserve the truth. And NZNO staff – whose livelihoods depend on the number of fee-paying members – are entitled to no less. 

The fall of 2,294 members since September 2018 is the largest numerical drop over a two-year period in NZNO’s history. This is sapping our union strength, and shaving more than a million dollars off NZNO’s annual income. It should be ringing alarm bells for all our leaders and triggering urgent corrective action. To rebuild our organisation, we need a leadership willing to face reality and be held to account. 

Grant Brookes, RN

First published (slightly abridged) in Kai Tiaki Nursing New Zealand, December 2020. The resignation of NZNO chief executive was announced two days after the letter was submitted for publication.

Newtown Union Health Service – Chairperson’s report to the 2020 AGM

Newtown Union Health Service is a not-for-profit community service providing healthcare for community service card holders, low income earners, union members and their families. NUHS is community owned and has provided affordable, accessible, appropriate, quality, not-for-profit and community based primary health care in Wellington since May 1987. Established with the support of local trade unions, two seats on the NUHS Policy Board are reserved for representatives endorsed by the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions Te Kauae Kaimahi. Since 2013, I have filled one of these positions – serving for the last four years as the Policy Board Chairperson. In the interests of getting the NUHS story out more widely, it was agreed by the Policy Board that I may re-publish my report to the 2020 AGM on this blog. The entire NUHS Annual Report 2019/20 is available online here.

“He waka eke noa – We are all in this together”. The story of NUHS over the past year has been inseparable from the story of Aotearoa New Zealand, as we united against Covid-19 and for healthy communities. Although the first known infection of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus in this country did not occur until two thirds of the way through 2019/20, the pandemic strongly shaped our year as a whole. 

The role of NUHS staff as essential front-line health workers against the virus was recognised and accorded a higher priority. An immediate increase in Covid-19 Response and Sustainability Funding enabled NUHS to react quickly to making sure we had the tools needed to continue providing a health service while keeping patients safe. NUHS was also contracted by Tū Ora PHO to provide an Outreach Service in Strathmore and Kilbirnie, the Mobile Swabbing service for the Wellington area and to start delivering a Covid-19 Pacific Response Package for Pacific peoples.

Some differences in timing of income and expenditure relating to the Covid-19 response contributed to an end of year surplus of $257,444, against a break-even Budget. The pandemic also made the introduction of a Hardship Fund in the 2019/20 Budget, for patients experiencing financial difficulties as a result of health care costs, particularly timely. 

As the operational team under the management of Fiona Osten adopted new ways of working under changing Covid-19 alert levels, the Policy Board provided monitoring and oversight of compliance with the evolving restrictions and guidelines. A particular focus for the Policy Board, under alert levels 2 to 4, was compliance with health and safety guidelines for NUHS staff. 

The pandemic also impacted on longer-term projects. Major work to extend the life of the building at 14 Hall Avenue, due to take place this year, was not able to begin. The Policy Board was able to allocate funding, however, so that a new roof and other external remediation is expected to be completed in 2020/21, without recourse to borrowing. 

Long-term work in our wider environment was affected, as well. In 2018/19, the Government responded favourably to 38 of the 40 recommendations in the Report of the Mental Health and Addictions Inquiry, He Ara Oranga, including several with ramifications for our service. However, implementation of these recommendations this year was delayed firstly by the pandemic and then by the approach of the general election.

It was a similar story with the Health and Disability Services Review. We were fortunate to receive some early insights into this review from panel member Margaret Southwick, who spoke at our 2019 AGM. When the final report was released in June, the Government accepted the direction of travel outlined in the Review, but detail of the changes will not become clear until the new Government gets to work after the election.

Yet by pulling together, the Policy Board did achieve some long-term goals this year. Work on updating the Constitution, which began back in 2014, was finally brought to a conclusion when the new NUHS Constitution was approved at the 2019 AGM. A major change to membership criteria means that membership of the NUHS incorporated society is no longer automatic for, or limited to, enrolled patients. Under the new Constitution, membership will now be voluntary and membership applications will be considered from supporters of the service who are not enrolled patients. These changes were prompted and guided by legal advice from Oakley Moran on current best practice for incorporated societies. Processes to operationalise the new membership system were developed over the course of 2019/20 and will be implemented in time for the 2020 AGM. 

Long-proposed governance training was undertaken. And work on reviewing and updating the organisation’s strategic plan was also completed. The new NUHS Strategic Plan 2020-25, as approved by the Policy Board, is appended to this report. 

Our efforts to seek wider unity with stakeholders has also borne fruit. Joint work with Whitireia tertiary institute this year to develop online learning packages for Primary Health Care Nurses has resulted in a set of four Refugee Health Modules. Further Nurse Education Learning Modules are planned. 

Our relationship with Tū Ora Compass PHO continues to deepen, too. We have appreciated the opportunity to participate in discussions around changing the voting system for the election of PHO Board members. And our role in the Riddiford House Incorporated Society, of which NUHS is a member, has expanded to take on the secretariat function.

We continued our excellent relationship with University of Otago, Wellington medical student teaching, including being adaptable and innovative in changes prompted by the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown. A growing relationship with Wesley Community Action bodes well for the future.

2020/21 has also been a year of individual achievements at NUHS. Serena Moran successfully completed all of the requirements laid down by the Nursing Council of New Zealand Te Kaunihera Tapuhi o Aotearoa to become our first Nurse Practitioner (NP). The requirements include a minimum of 300 hours of clinical supervision from another NP or senior doctor, which NUHS GP Dr Jonathan Kennedy was proud to provide.

Nurse Fou Etuale joined the team of Nurse Vaccinators sent to Samoa by the New Zealand Government to help with the measles outbreak. And three NUHS staff were recognised in the inaugural Primary Health Care Awards He Tohu Mauri Ora. Dianne Theobald was runner up for Practice Nurse of the Year. Pharmacist Linda Bryant won the Green Cross Health Award for Outstanding Contribution to Health while Dr Nikki Turner was runner-up for the same award. 

The composition of the Policy Board has remained largely stable in 2019/20, as it was in the previous financial year, with gradual evolutions rather than wholesale changes in our line-up. At the 2019 AGM, the Policy Board farewelled our inaugural community representative from the Massey University student body, Jacob Paterson. Fortunately, his Massey University successor elected at that meeting, Amy Palmer, has made an equally valuable contribution. 

At the end of the 2020/21 year, we were saddened but also happy to farewell community representative Ibrahim Omer, who stepped aside after being named as a list candidate for the Labour Party. We congratulate Ibrahim on his journey to become New Zealand’s first African MP, in the certain knowledge that he carries the health and wellbeing of the people in his heart. 

I acknowledge too the remaining Board members who have helped us unite this year for health – Tāngata Whenua rep Fiona Da Vanzo, union rep Sam Gribben, community reps Barbara Lambourne and Roger Shaw and Treasurer Julie Lamb. I am also grateful to Board Minute Taker Vanessa Gray and Finance Leader Giordano Rigutto, whose support has underpinned our collective achievements.

Nō reira, me maumahara tātou ki tēnei whakatauki, “Ko te toki tē tangatanga i te rā. He toki, he tāngata” So at this time, let’s all remember this saying, “We are the adze whose bindings cannot be loosened by the sun. People together grow in strength”. 

Grant Brookes, Chairperson NUHS Policy Board

‘What’s really happening in our Mental Health Unit’ – Letter to Kai Tiaki

We write in response to an article about our service in the October issue of Kai Tiaki Nursing New Zealand. Under the headline, “Acute mental health units being upgraded” (p8), it was reported that, “A new six-bed inpatient mental health facility at Wellington Hospital will be ready in 2021.” 

Unfortunately, there is nothing in that statement that is true. 

As a standard topic for media sensationalism, mental health services in Wellington sadly suffer from inaccurate reporting, on a regular basis. So we would like to take this opportunity to inform fellow health professionals, in this privileged professional forum, about what is really happening at Te Whare o Matairangi. 

Kai Tiaki New Zealand was correct to report that our 30-bed mental health inpatient unit was one of those named in August by chief ombudsman Peter Boshier as breaching the United Nations’ Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment, for our use of seclusion rooms to home patients. 

As Stuff has reported, staff had been raising these issues with senior management long before the Chief Ombudsman’s visit. In February this year, for instance, we put them in writing in a collective letter to the chief executive and board of Capital and Coast DHB and the general manager of the mental health, addictions and intellectual disabilities (MHAID) directorate. 

Our letter expressed our concerns as health professionals at the use of inappropriate rooms in our seclusion area to house patients, as well as many other concerns over the safety of staff and patients. 

Although this work has been led by the mental health union, the Public Service Association, we are collaborating closely with NZNO and we are receiving support from the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists. 

In recent meetings with the MHAID directorate leadership team, we have been encouraged by their willingness to acknowledge, and act upon our concerns. We have also met with officials at the Ministry of Health. 

Although the solutions under discussion do not include a new six-bed inpatient mental health facility at Wellington Hospital, we are hopeful that our collective action and union solidarity will yield results which address our concerns and those of Chief Ombudsman Peter Boshier. 

  • Ian Monzari, PSA delegate
  • Grant Brookes, RN

The co-editors reply: We apologise for the error in our report last month about mental health unit upgrades. Six new units for the highest needs intellectual disability and mental health patients at Capital & Coast District Health Board will in fact be attached to the current forensic intellectual disability facility at the Rātonga-Rua o Porirua mental health campus in Keneperu, not Wellington Hospital, as reported. Completion is scheduled for 2021.
An updated news story is on p8.

‘No more pokies!’ – A submission on the City Council’s Gambling Venues Policy, on behalf of Unions Wellington

Unions Wellington is the Local Affiliate Council of the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions Te Kauae Kaimahi (NZCTU), bringing together tens of thousands of union members in our city. Currently led by a committee of six members and staff from affiliated unions, we are the united voice for working people and their families in the Capital.

Our Constitutional Objects, which include promoting and protecting the economic, social, industrial, political and educational interests of working people in Wellington, led us to make a submission as part of Wellington City Council’s review of its Gambling Venues Policy.

We consulted our parent body, the NZCTU, considered the position of working people in the city and consulted with representatives of the unionised workers in health and social services who provide support to individuals and communities experiencing gambling harm.

It was great to work with the rest of the Unions Wellington committee to produce the submission, based on a Public Health approach, calling on the City Council to:

  1. Implement a sinking lid, which allows no new venues or machines in Wellington.
  2. Support the ActionStation submission (“No More Pokies in Wellington”), and specifically to implement a gambling venues policy that provides:
    ★ A ban on any new venues including TAB venues: No new pokies venues will be permitted in Wellington.
    ★ No relocations: If a venue with pokies is forced to close or voluntarily closes, the Council will not permit the pokie machines to be relocated to any venue within the Council area.
    ★ No venue mergers: Where pubs and clubs that host pokies merge, they will no longer be permitted to host pokies.

Our full submission is available at: