Interview: Naomi Klein on motherhood, climate justice, and the failures of the environmental movement

This week in the Phoenix, Wen Stephenson profiles Naomi Klein -- "black-clad and sharp-tongued mistress of the global anti-corporate left, friend to Occupiers and scourge of oil barons" -- as she turns her attention to the cause of climate justice. Below is a longer excerpt from their conversation -- about Klein's alliance with's Bill McKibben, her views on the environmental movement, and the ways in which her struggles to become a parent informed her views on climate (and vice versa). This interview took place on November 8, 2012. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Wen Stephenson: How did your collaboration with Bill McKibben and come about? What led you personally into this? 

Naomi Klein: My first engagement with the climate issue was around the issue of climate debt. I was actually doing research about reparations for slavery, writing a long piece for Harper's, in 2008. I've always been very interested in the Durban anti-racism conference [in Durban, South Africa]. In the lead-up to that UN conference in September 2001, the reparations movement in the United States and in Africa really took off. It was becoming incredibly mainstream. Manning Marable was having pieces published in Time magazine, it was on the op-ed pages of The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post.

But a lot of things got blown off the agenda on [Sept. 11, 2001]. One of them was the fact that we were actually having a discussion about reparations in that moment. And so "Durban II," in 2008, was in Geneva, and I wanted to write a piece looking at what had happened to the reparations debate. So I went to Geneva for that conference, and it was very interesting. Somebody said to me, this movement has changed, now it's about climate debt -- and we believe we can make the argument for a North-South transfer of wealth much better now on the issue of climate, with concrete scientific targets, because the numbers are so clear. We know who emitted the carbon, we know who's dealing with the effects, it's a much clearer case. And it has the same results -- you actually get some payback. I had my first meeting with a group of activists in Geneva about climate debt. That's how I entered the issue.

And then I went to Copenhagen, in 2009, and I was mostly covering the demands for climate debt and reparations, since that was really the strong demand coming from the global south in Copenhagen. That's where I met Bill for the first time. And I was so impressed with 350, at Copenhagen, and what strong advocates they were for the island nations and for science. All the big NGOs just seemed to be playing politics -- you know, what can we get here? -- and I loved the way 350 didn't do any of that. They just focused on what science demands. So everybody's talking about 2 degrees [C], and they're talking about 1.5, for the island nations to survive.

Copenhagen was so transformative for me, on many levels, both because it was a disappointment and also because, when you spend time with people representing the island nations and sub-Saharan Africa, you know, they're using words like "genocide" to describe climate change. And it makes the American delegates very, very uncomfortable.

We don't have language to describe what it means to knowingly allow a nation to disappear because it's not convenient for us to stop it. So we can say it's not genocide, because genocide is the willful destruction of culture. We don't want your culture to disappear, we just don't care enough to stop it. Our goal is not for you to lose your country, our goal is just for us to be able to continue doing what we're doing. But we know that in doing what we're doing, it will have this effect, and we're going to do it anyway. What is that? We can't plead ignorance. We're making a decision. What do you call that? It certainly feels like genocide to the people who are experiencing it.

So that was where 350 really first came on my radar. I was so impressed with the way they were loyal to the science, and the way they were standing so firmly in solidarity, particularly with the island states.

WS: So, how did "Do the Math" come about?

NK: "Do the Math" is a movement that grew out of numbers. I was reading the original "Carbon Bubble" report, which was produced by this group, the Carbon Tracker Initiative, in the UK. It's called "Unburnable Carbon: Are the world's financial markets carrying a carbon bubble?" It's really kind of a weird report, because it's geared toward regulators in the UK, and it's making the case to regulators that there is a bubble in the market, much like the subprime mortgage bubble -- and after the subprime bubble, market regulators are supposed to be taking bubbles seriously, and doing something to prevent another shock. So they make this case they've found a bubble. The world's governments came together in Copenhagen and agreed to keep the global temperature from rising more than 2 degrees [C], and we know that X amount of carbon can go into the atmosphere to give us a chance of meeting that goal, we all agree on this, and yet, if you look at what these companies are doing, if you look at the reserves these companies have, the carbon they already have in reserve, then we're five times over that amount.  So you have a problem, regulator. This can't happen, obviously. This bubble's going to burst. 

So I read this report and thought, we are screwed. I didn't think, Oh, there's a bubble, it's going to pop. I thought, we're the bubble -- we're going to pop. Because, with all respect to the wonderful people who did this report, on which the whole "Do the Math" concept is based, I think it's very naïve to treat this as a market bubble. What's actually happening is these fossil fuel companies have looked at that 2-degree target, with their lawyers, and decided it's bullshit. They looked at the fact that the deal in Copenhagen wasn't binding -- that these governments have no intention of keeping carbon levels below what it would take to stay below 2 degrees -- and they've come to the conclusion that they can get away with this. They've decided to go ahead and destroy the planet. And their shareholders agree.

So I called Bill and said, these are crazy numbers, we need to do something about this. And he was already on it, he'd been looking at the same numbers, and was thinking about what we could do. And we decided that divestment was the way to go -- that was the way we're going to get their attention. Because this is not a crisis for the fossil fuel industry unless we turn it into one. And that's our job. That's the job of the movement. 

And the fact that it's youth-led is so powerful. It starts with young people saying to those who've been entrusted with their education and preparing them for the future, saying, why are you gambling against my future? Do you believe in my future, or not?

I think this is part of a broader moment for young people, realizing that this whole culture, this whole economy, is betting against their future. The focus on rising tuitions, and student debt, and joblessness -- young people are already feeling that their elders, the people who should be making sure they have possibilities in their future, are conspiring against that future in all of these ways, by weighing them down with debt, creating an economy where their hope for a job with dignity is so diminished. Young people are already fighting for their future on those fronts. And this is the ultimate fight for their future. 

I don't think young people should be abandoning those other fights for the climate fight. I think we need to see this as all of a piece. And we need to be fighting for their future on all these fronts.

WS: Maybe this is a generational thing, but I know there are traditional green types who take real offense at this idea that the fossil fuel industry is the enemy -- in other words, that we ourselves are not the enemy, but Exxon is -- as though you and Bill, and all the rest of us, are letting ourselves off the hook.

NK: There are two things I'd say. One is, yeah, it's gonna be really hard work to get off fossil fuels. If you're trying to get off any kind of drug, the work is yours, the hard work of detox, nobody can do it for you. Nobody's going to make it easy to get off fossil fuels. But the first rule is, get the pushers out of your face. And that's the role the fossil fuel companies play. They are making it intolerably, impossibly hard for us to do that hard work of getting off the stuff.

WS: By keeping the price of it artificially low?

NK: Yes, and bombarding us with advertising, and buying our politicians, and the rest of it. So we need to go after them, so that we can do that hard work. It isn't an either/or.

But that said, I think there's a real misanthropic streak in the green movement. There's this masochistic tendency to totally blame ourselves for all of these failures. We just don't want to change, we're just too selfish, we're suicidal, and that's who we are. All these human nature arguments that get made to explain why we've failed to act on climate.

And what I see is, actually, this movement has risen up, again and again, and we've made these resolutions -- we're gonna recycle, we're gonna bicycle, we've gotten geared up for Rio and geared up for Copenhagen -- and the movement rises up, and then it disappears. You have the Inconvenient Truth moment, and then it disappears. So the question is, why? Why are we so unable to sustain momentum, and who is sabotaging this movement? And part of it is the fossil fuel companies, directly sabotaging it, with denialism and misinformation.

But part of it is people are paying attention. In Canada, I'd say we've got a pretty strong environmental movement. I live in a city, Toronto, where every Wednesday everybody puts their green composting box outside their house. It's bigger than a garbage can. And it's amazing, the success of the composting. People don't think of it as a movement, but you know, you make it easy enough for people, and people do it. You rarely see a plastic bag in my neighborhood. In fact, my neighborhood was just totally redesigned to be less car friendly -- and people lived with two years of construction for that to happen.

But then you pick up the paper, and you read that your country has increased its emissions by 30 percent because of the tar sands. In other words, what the fossil fuel industry is doing is undoing everything we are doing. And then you just feel like a chump.

I think that the green movement has a lot to answer for -- for personalizing this issue, and making it about changing your light bulbs and recycling. But this has been changing, and I think the Keystone fight was key. In Canada, the environmental movement and the economic justice movement have been so galvanized by the anti-Keystone fight. We are fighting like hell to prevent pipelines through to the west coast, and we're winning. It's amazing what has happened on the west coast. It's the most beautiful movement I've ever been a part of.

So we are already making that leap from just individual action to fighting the pipelines, fighting the oil companies, but we can't fight it one pipeline at a time -- we know it's not a sustainable model, we know we can't fight them one megaproject at a time. And that's where "Do the Math" comes in. We have to go after their business model, and that's what we're doing.

WS: You're known for the phrase "move the center." Is that what you're trying to do with "Do the Math"?

NK: Oh, yeah. Look, when I said "move the center," you know what I was always saying is, you know, let's nationalize the oil companies. [laughter]

WS: Right -- and you're also quoted saying we need to go out and say some "crazy stuff." [laughter] So is DTM saying crazy stuff?

NK: I don't think it is. I mean, it's definitely moving the center. But I don't think it's crazy.

I think we will get to a point where saying we should nationalize the oil companies won't sound crazy either. Because the bills are just going to add up. Cleaning up the mess that they have made is just going to get so expensive that we are going to have to ask why we are paying for it, and not them. And if they are so phenomenally profitable, how about using the profits from these rogue companies to both clean up the mess they've made and to get off of the stuff? Oil companies have told us in the past that they're going to do this voluntarily, that was the whole BP "Beyond Petroleum" swindle. But they are not in any way, shape or form doing this on their own, and every time I hear another quarterly report, and just astronomical profits going out the door into the hands of shareholders, that is money we don't have to meet this crisis.

WS: And not just into the hands of shareholders, but into new exploration, into tar sands, etc.

NK: Exactly. So I don't think it's crazy at all. When I say go out there and say some crazy shit, I mean say stuff that sounds crazy to other people, but it doesn't sound crazy to me.

WS: When we step back and think about this from a mainstream media standpoint...

NK: You know what's crazy is letting the corporations who've left us with the most expensive mess in history to clean up, just keep all the money they've made for themselves. No. That's insane.

WS: What do you think it signifies to see Bill McKibben and Naomi Klein on stage together? What does that represent?

NK: Climate change is the human rights struggle of our time. And it's too important to be left to the environmentalists alone. [laughter] I mean, we need the environmental movement, but not if they're going to be afraid of the left. And not if they're going to be driven by their fears of losing funding. Got no time for that.

Frankly, I was surprised when Bill first invited me on the 350 board, because I'm sort of used to the environmental movement seeing me as a pain in the ass. You know, when I talk about reparations and climate debt -- I took a lot of flack for that, in Copenhagen, and afterwards, because it's seen as being off-message. And inconvenient. An inconvenient truth that can't be sold to the American public. You're just supposed to shut up about things like that. So I was surprised when Bill invited me to be on the board, because I sort of thought that I was toxic. And I think it just speaks to 350's deep understanding that these movements have to come together. It's been so exciting to be part of that. I am just so proud of 350. When I'm feeling bad, I just go to the website and read what's going on. The organization keeps getting more sophisticated with every campaign. Watching that kind of lightning-fast progression, in a two-year period, is staggering.

WS: I recently interviewed Gus Speth about his new book, America the Possible, and there are a lot of similarities to your argument in The Nation and the new book. Great minds think alike...

NK: But some people write faster than others. [laughter]

WS: Right. And like him, you stress the interconnectedness of our economic system and the climate crisis, and the need for system change -- at the economic, political, and cultural levels. Of course, as we all know, that's a huge, huge order to fill -- and a lot of people, including allies of the climate movement, as soon as they hear talk of "system change," or anything so seemingly radical, just tune out. Like, "Are you kidding? We can't even get a carbon tax." Which gets to one of the points I was making in my Phoenix piece, that we're not having the kind of national conversation we need to have about climate -- not only in terms of what the science tells us about the severity and urgency of the crisis, but in terms of what we need to do about it.  And it's not just on the right where there's denial. The center, the center-left, even the left, aren't facing up to it. It's as though climate change challenges too many underlying assumptions. Even progressives still tie their ideas of economic justice to the GDP growth imperative. But can there be economic justice without climate justice? Can we separate these two things?

NK: Well, there certainly can't be climate action, real climate solutions, without economic justice. Because if we look at it on the international level, what has bogged down every round of UN negotiations on climate, it's the issue of "common but differentiated responsibility," the basic principle of equity -- that the people who are most responsible for creating this crisis should take the lead and bear a heavier burden, and there should be a right to develop a certain amount, to pull oneself out of poverty. Not the right to live a life of excess, but the right to have clean water and food and shelter, and meet somewhere in the middle. And that has been the issue over and over and over again, which has created the impasse and led the US to walk away in the first place, in that unprecedented vote in Congress against the Kyoto Protocol, where there was an absolutely unanimous rejection.

So the refusal to accept the importance of economic justice is the reason we have had no climate action. It's just that simple. And it happens every time countries get together and negotiate, because the developing world is not going to move on this issue, on the right to pull themselves out of poverty. It gets cast in the US media as the right to have as dirty a model of development as they want, but that's not the case, that's not what's being demanded at the negotiating table. So you can't have a solution to climate change without really reckoning with economic justice issues in the global arena.

But in terms of whether you can have economic justice without climate justice, I don't think we can have anything without climate action. And that's the point.  This is our meta-issue. We've all gotta get inside it, because this is our home. We are already inside it, like it or not. And it's inside us. So the idea that we can somehow divorce from it is a fantasy. And it's one of the fantasies that we have to let go of, in order to have the kind of transformation we need.

WS: Even in the places you'd expect climate to get a lot more attention, in left and center-left magazines and journals, climate is barely mentioned. Though The Nation has done fairly well -- they publish your stuff and Mark Hertsgaard's...

NK: But it still isn't integrated.

WS: Right. When they write their election endorsement editorial, climate gets a passing mention.

NK: Yeah, climate gets a passing mention. And it's still firmly in the growth paradigm, in terms of measuring progress.

I mean, this is what's got to change. And I think it will change, because it's already changing in Europe. I think the mainstream left, center-left discussion in Germany, France, Greece, includes a sophisticated discussion about growth -- the so-called "de-growth" movement is very strong there. It hasn't come to North America yet, but it will. It has to. Because the way we talk about this makes no sense.

Everybody on the left realizes that this economic model is failing us spectacularly, on multiple levels, but we're still acting as if our goal is to save it, and resuscitate it, and get back to growth, still measuring progress along those lines. 

But the levels of denial are so complicated. We've spent a lot of time focusing on right-wing denial, the sort of hard denial. And it's entertaining and it's outrageous, and it makes for good articles, but it's actually a lot less important and a lot less interesting than looking at the way we are all in denial.

We are all in denial. All of us. And what I find, in exploring this with people, is that people are holding back a tremendous amount of anxiety. They're holding it at bay. And it takes a tremendous amount of work and effort to hold back what they know. Anybody who knows about climate change is terrified. I mean, anybody who tells me they're apathetic about climate, they don't care, what I believe is that they care too much, and they don't see a way out, and so it's a form of self-protection, you don't let yourself care about something that you have no idea how to fix -- because it's just too terrifying, and it would derail your whole life.

So that's why I think there has to be a narrative, there has to be a plan for how we integrate so much of what we're already doing into a common project, because so long as people feel like nothing that they know now applies, then they will work really hard to keep this information at bay.

WS: I want to ask you about your decision to have a baby. Because as a parent myself, I've got two young children, and as a climate activist, I find it moving, and inspiring. And I'm just curious how you explain it.

NK: Um... [long pause] Well, to be honest, for a long time, I just couldn't see a future for a child that wasn't some, like, Mad Max climate warrior thing. And, you know, I'd joke about it with my husband, like, you want to have a little climate warrior? [laughter] And it seems like that was the best thing I could imagine for a child. I couldn't see a future that wasn't just incredibly grim -- maybe I'd seen too much sci-fi and read too much climate science. But I just couldn't see it. 

That wasn't the only reason I didn't want to have kids. It was also that I couldn't see how I'd do the kind of work that I do, the amount of travel, and the kind of high-risk travel that I was doing, with a kid. Especially in the years I was writing The Shock Doctrine, going to Iraq and going to tsunami zones. I'd done a lot of disaster hopping to write about disasters. Men with kids can do that, and nobody thinks they're terrible people. But it is not the same for women. So it was a combination, feeling like there really aren't a lot of women out there doing what I do, and I didn't want to take myself out of the game, I didn't want to put myself on the bench.

I do feel that the assumption that all women should have children is a problem, so I don't want to say anything that makes it sound like everybody should. I had genuine ambivalence about it. But then, I think, it was feeling more optimistic about the political moment, to be honest, that made me feel like I could see other possibilities. Something shifted after 2008. I could imagine a future that was not Mad Maxian. [laughter] Not that there's any guarantee, but I could imagine it.

So, that's why I started late. And then it was really, really hard for me to have a kid. I was 38 when I started trying, and in the end I was told I wasn't able to have kids, for a bunch of different reasons. So I had totally given up. Toma is a miracle child -- it was a big surprise. It was not the triumph of modern technology, although I know that works for some people. I feel incredibly lucky and incredibly blessed.

But while I was struggling with infertility, for four years, I did a lot of research -- and it shaped how I saw the climate crisis. I started to notice that this is how extinction happens. And if you view the ecological crisis through a feminist lens, and through a woman's lens, what you see is that a lot of creatures are having trouble with fertility. The whole world is having a fertility crisis right now. I've found dozens and dozens of examples of the way climate change is impacting fertility. I think the saddest example are the leatherback turtles, who bury their eggs in the sand, but the sand is now getting so hot that the eggs are just cooking. I mean, this is a species that's as old as the dinosaurs, and they just can't handle that increased degree. So I feel like my own struggle with fertility has helped me understand some parts of the climate crisis.

But I used to feel really alienated from the environmental movement, because of the whole language of the "Earth Mother," and "connecting" -- women are given validity in this movement, a lot of times, because of the ability to create life. And so, what does that mean for people who can't? It means you're not a real environmentalist? And there's always this talk about doing it for your kids and for your grandkids. I know so many people are struggling with this, and I don't want this movement to exclude them.

Maybe in a world of abundance, Earth Mothers have a particular way of connecting, but in the world that we actually live in, where so many life forms are struggling for survival, I think in some ways women who can't conceive, or struggle with conception, or decide not to conceive, have their own ways of connecting with this crisis that need to be validated. So I'm really trying not to play the Earth Mother card.

WS: At the end of a recent piece on "Do the Math," I quoted Bob Dylan's "Masters of War" -- "You've thrown the worst fear/ That could ever be hurled/ Fear to bring children/ Into the world..." He's addressing the military-industrial complex, but it could just as well be the carbon-industrial complex today.

NK: That Dylan quote is amazing. And it does speak to why I didn't have a kid earlier.

The only other thing I'd say is that realizing that I did want to have a kid, and that I wasn't having a kid because of the mess that had been made of this world -- I guess what I want to say is, I don't want to give them that power. I'd rather fight like hell than to give these evil motherfuckers the power to extinguish the desire to create life.

We don't all have to do it. But if we want to do it, if we want to be part of this amazing process that we share in common with all living things, I'm certainly not going to give these guys the power to take that away from me.

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