If there was one message that resonated loud and clear at this years annual FLCC 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 old paradigm of corporate exploitation and natural domination. If there is a silver lining in Klein’s otherwise bleak assessment of the world’s economic, social and spiritual condition, it is her hope that the climate crisis will lead to transformative social change. In her groundbreaking book 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 sharing 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 so many of the earth’s vital systems to the precipice of collapse, we have ironically set ourselves up for a phenomenal opportunity. We are now in a position to fundamental alter the ways in which we exist on this planet. Her charge was nothing less than to change the way we build houses, grow food, consume water, drive cars, design urban communities, raise children, seek out entertainment, and even govern ourselves. Everything must change if we are to survive through this century.
Klein is hardly utopian. She acknowledged how immense this cultural paradigm shift truly is. But the chance to recreate community is a deeply moving prospect which inspires her to keep working in spite of the challenges. As terrible as the climate crisis has already been for millions of impoverished peoples from all over the world, this crisis is an invitation to press reset. In other words we can start over with a brand new infrastructure based on renewable energy, sustainable practices, and people centered economies. 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; uninhibited free market trade policies that destroy the biology of our planet; frenetic consumption rates which strangle the life force of individuals; and mean spirited mindlessness that leads to the disenfranchisement of countless global citizens. If we choose to re-calibrate and start afresh, the end of corporate rule will finally arrive, 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, it became evident that her most impressive ability as a spokesperson for the burgeoning climate justice movement is how she combines a wry wit with a profound sensitivity to injustice. No one is immune to her scathing indictments. She freely credited Michael Bloomberg for making positive contributions to the climate movement while simultaneously exposing his investments in big oil. 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 spoke convincingly about the crackdown on public dissent during the conference. Only at the end of the summit were protesters allowed to 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.
She also had choice words for President Obama. Although he has been more progressive in his final year in office, she argued that Copenhagen was a disaster and that he missed several key opportunities to address climate change when he had the political capital to do so.
These are surely probing and necessary accusations, but 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 racism, poverty and hunger. That approach will always be 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. For example, Klein contended that Syria’s society fell apart so quickly because of a historic drought which destroyed the nation’s food supply prior to the outbreak of civil war. At home, incredible tragedies like Hurricane Katrina stress how climate change exacerbates social realities including sexism, racism and economic inequality. Klein stated that “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, community supported agriculture, and energy democratization. It’s all the same fight.
On several occasions Ms. Klein reiterated her main thesis that shocks to the system can be positive. For her, this is one of those rare moments where we can not only avoid the worst of what is possible but we can re-engineer a new ‘possible’ all together. Here it is important to keep in mind that 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 we will undergo a radical cultural transformation. Unfortunately, dramatic change to the biochemistry of our planet’s ecosystems is inevitable. But what matters now is how we adapt to these radical changes. If we choose to bury our heads in the sand and pretend like the world is doing just fine, we will face a future of inconceivable sadness, wickedness, and waste. This is dystopic future 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 creative 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 sees it, “It’s not just about things getting hotter and wetter, it’s about things getting meaner.”
All in all, this was a tremendous event. The Finger Lakes Community College community should be proud for hosting such a remarkable intellect, teacher, and communicator.
She is not without controversy. That being said, 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 the Finger Lakes region. That means people of color were primarily absent from conversation; it means that children and young adults were mostly at home on their computers or in front of their television rather than soaking up this wisdom; and it means that the poor and marginalized were left outside to be talked about rather than conversed with. It also means that the true disciples of industry and corporatism missed a great opportunity 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 type of people, I do not see how we can rebuild a 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, I am sure that most everyone who was in attendance came away with a more comprehensive understanding of the world. What more can you ask for from a speaker?