January 24, 2016
If there was one message that came across loud and clear on a pleasant Sunday evening at the annual George M. Ewing Canandaigua Forum with author and social activist Naomi Klein, it was that we must stop pretending that we have non-radical options left. The air is in crisis. The water is in crisis. The soil is in crisis. The entire climate of our planet is in crisis. We are in crisis.
But so is the whole paradigm of corporate domination and exploitation. And here lies the silver lining in Klein’s otherwise bleak assessment of the world’s economic, social and spiritual condition. In This Changes Everything Klein argues that “climate change pits what the planet needs to maintain stability against what our economic model needs to maintain itself…but since that economic model is failing the vast majority of people on multiple fronts that might not be such a bad thing.”
Wearing a blue scarf in solidarity with the local “We are Seneca Lake” movement- and admitting that she spent 5 years of her early life living in Rochester- the prolific writer of such seminal texts as No Logo and The Shock Doctrine suggested that we think about global warming as a celebration of limits. Now that we have brought the earth to this tipping point, there is a new opportunity to change our fundamental ways of existing on this planet. Klein stated that there is no other way to avoid catastrophic destruction to every living system than to change the way we build houses, grow food, use water, drive cars, design communities, raise children, seek out entertainment, create economies and govern ourselves.
For Klein, the challenges are immense but the opportunity to recreate what community can be is a deeply moving hope which inspires her to keep working. As terrible as the climate crisis has been for millions of impoverished peoples from all over the world, it is also a chance for our race to start over. In other words now is the time to rethink and redesign everything! Under this new emerging paradigm, there can no longer exist insurmountable gaps between rich and poor nations; there can no longer exist uninhibited free market trade policies that destroy the very biology of the earth; there can no longer exist frenetic consumption rates and mean spirited mindlessness that disenfranchises so many of our fellow citizens. The end of corporate rule has arrived, and for Klein- a self described “secular Jewish socialist feminist”- this is good news indeed.
But the situation is much too dire to do anything gradually. “We must swerve from the path we are on” she says, and we must invest massively in the public sphere. “Our one way relationship with the natural world is over. The masters of the universe have been given a demotion.”
Watching and listening to Ms. Klein on stage, it became evident that her most impressive ability as a spokesperson for the burgeoning climate justice movement is her savvy blend of common sense, wry wit, and profound sensitivity to injustice. No one is immune to her scathing critiques. For example, she openly acknowledged the many positive contributions that former mayor Michael Bloomberg has made to the climate issue, but at the same time she exposed his investments in oil and gas companies. Regarding the Paris Accords, she claimed that the mainstream media was far too deferential to corporations such as Exxon, and that the agreement lacked any policies to make it a reality. She also talked passionately about the total crackdown on public dissent during the conference. Only by the end of the summit were protesters allowed to freely assemble on the streets in Paris. From Klein’s perspective, the entire conversation about climate change was shifted to a conversation about security after the horrific terrorist attacks just three weeks before.
Throughout the evening Klein was at her best when she made the links between what is happening to our climate and what is happening to our civilization. She pointed out that thinking and acting on climate change is not about showing how this issue eclipses all other priorities such as poverty and hunger. That is a losing proposition. What needs to happen is “a connecting of the dots.” We need to see how all of these issues are interconnected and how they require systemic solutions. Klein cited the example of Syria. The reason Syria’s society fell apart so quickly had a lot to do with a historic drought which destroyed the nation’s food supply prior to the outbreak of civil war. And at home incredible tragedies like Hurricane Katrina stress how climate change exacerbates social realities such as sexism, racism and economic inequality. Klein remarked, “Katrina was so shocking we can’t metabolize it. Blackwater on the streets…large scale dislocation of black residents… efforts to end public housing…I thought to myself how the science fiction story Children of Men is happening now.” She then went on to say that class struggles like The Fight for $15 is in no way separate from the vast potential we have to reconstruct a different economy based on renewable jobs, energy democracy, and transforming public infrastructure. It is all the same fight.
Several times throughout her conversation with award winning journalist Michael Winship, Ms. Klein reiterated her main thesis that shocks to the system can be positive. This is one of those moments where we can not only avoid the worst of what is possible but we can imagine a new possible all together. Klein is not talking about stopping climate change. She is talking about preventing the most catastrophic effects of climate change and promising that if we are successful at doing so, we will undergo a radical cultural transformation. Dramatic change is inevitable but how we change is up to us. If we choose to bury our heads in the sand and pretend like the world is doing just fine the way things are, we will face a future of inconceivable sadness, relentless wickedness, and immeasurable waste. This is a world where people and other living things will be made bankrupt by blind forces of insatiable greed and malice. It is a world where vigilante violence will become an everyday affair; and where private security forces work for billionaires to keep the masses sedated, sequestered and sent off “their” land. It is a world where the tensions between the public sphere and the private sphere will evaporate due to the total obliteration of civil freedom. In short, it is a world where all of the traditional social ills will be made incurable by the existential diseases of mistrust, envy and delusion. As Klein put it: “It’s not just about things getting hotter and wetter, it is about things getting meaner.”
All in all, this was a tremendous event. The FLCC community should be proud for hosting such a remarkable teacher and communicator. Having said that, I do have one critique which is not uncommon in this line of work. The audience was 95% white, 18-80 in age, middle to upper class, liberal/progressive minded, and basically from areas adjacent to the Finger Lakes. This means that people of color were by and large not there to be part of this conversation; it means that children and young adults were primarily at home on their computers or in front of their television rather than soaking up this wisdom; it means that the poor and marginalized were left outside to be talked about rather than conversed with; and it means that the true believers in industry, corporatism, and libertarian values were unable to hear a fascinating public intellectual explain her progressive meta-narrative in a relaxed and cerebral setting. Although Klein herself doubts the efficacy of trying to convince these people to embrace her worldview, I do not see how we can rebuild this new economy without them. In many cases they are our engineers, architects, mathematicians, explorers, governors, administrators, artists, and more. We need them.
This criticism aside, everyone who was in attendance to hear Klein’s message came away with a more comprehensive understanding of the world. What more can you ask for from a speaker?