Review: On Fire by Naomi Klein

Katherine Hearst reviews On Fire, a wide-ranging examination of the climate crisis that argues for a comprehensive ‘Green New Deal’. 

Naomi Klein, On fire: the Burning Case for a Green New Deal, (London: Allen Lane, 2020). 320 pp. £20.00

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On Fire opens with an image of school children marching out of their lessons and onto the streets holding aloft cardboard placards that read ‘There is no planet B.’ This euphoric description of the climate strikers is a fitting opening for a collection of essays charting the evolution of climate politics told through the voices of social movements that have shaped them.

The strength of Klein’s reporting is that it is rooted in voices from the climate movement that are often ignored by the mainstream media. Her rigorous journalism, honed by her years of activism, draws on a plethora of voices: not just scientists and experts, but school children, artists, workers, flood victims.

The impassioned words of 15 year old school kids are given greater moral authority and weight than the measured language of experts and governments that ‘masks the unfathomable stakes of our moment’. She praises the clarity of the strikers’ voices, that give ‘validation to the raw terror so many of us have been suppressing’.

Klein writes with a similar clarity and urgency. She validates our own terror and speaks candidly about her own fear and grief for her son, Toma. She admits to the flashes of panic, and feelings of desperate loneliness that many of us feel while scrolling through forest fires and floods in our news feeds.

But like Greta Thunberg and the school strikers, she also inspires us to hope.

Klein’s writing has been criticised for being ‘too inspiring’. However, On Fire charts not only the evolution of social movements but the barriers confronting them: deniers, lobbyists, slick and ‘woke’ politicians like Justin Trudeau; and perhaps more threatening, the ‘deep stories’ that underpin ‘Western’ culture about the right of certain people to plunder the earth’s resources.

The ‘othering’ of peoples doesn’t just fuel denialism, it fans the flames of the far right; Klein’s warns of the emergence of a ‘twisted kind of environmentalism’ that legitimises racial violence. She gives a harrowing description of the Christchurch mosque shooting, perpetrated by a  terrorist who cited ecological motivations for his actions. With overt climate denialism losing traction, ‘climate barbarism’ is attracting those seeking to protect their economic interests.

This mounting sense of peril is countered by an ‘unfamiliar sense of promise.’ Klein finds this promise not in individual saviours, but in collective action.. Despite her praise of the school strike founder, Greta Thunberg, Klein is quick to note that she is the spark that lit the wildfire of the climate strikes.

A career spent documenting the development of global capitalism and the social movements that have resisted it has given her writing a depth of insight that distinguishes her voice from other environmental journalists. Her roving eye refuses to see issues in silos. She witnessed a similar ‘indifference to life’ in the oil spills on the gulf coast, as on the factory floors where young girls making computers were treated like machines.

The breadth of her vision enables her to trace connections between seemingly disparate crises and people. The school strikers, she notes, were inspired by another group of teenagers – the Florida activists who led waves of school walk-outs to demand tighter gun controls. She reminds us that Greta Thunberg is not the first person to shout ‘fire.’ Black and brown voices from the Marshall Islands and the Philippines have been shouting for  decades, but their calls have fallen on deaf ears.

Klein weaves their voices and many others into a compelling and bold vision of an alternative: the Green New Deal. She notes that this proposed package of policies designed to avert the worst effects of climate breakdown and simultaneously address social inequality is nothing new. The principles of climate justice have been spelt out  both by communities of colour in the US and frontline communities in the global south.

This radical programme would be powered by the same force behind Franklin D Roosevelt (FDR)’s New Deal – pressure from below. The sweeping policies designed to battle the poverty of the Great Depression was not the work of a single politician, she reminds us, but the culmination of mass work stoppages. She cites the 1934 Minneapolis general strike, and the 83-day shutdown of West Coast ports by longshore workers in the same year as some of the defining forces that shaped the more radical elements of the New Deal.

FDR himself admitted that the reason more social benefits were added to the New Deal in 1935 was because of the demand by the populist Louisiana Senator Huey Long that all Americans should be paid an annual income of 21,000 dollars. The New Deal was adopted at a time of widespread militancy in order to avert further unrest.

Similarly, Klein warns, ‘movements will make or break the Green New Deal.’ She identifies them as the single largest determining factor in averting climate catastrophe. The role of grassroots militancy in shaping FDR’s sweeping package of policies is significant to the formulation of the Green New Deal which, she argues, is flawed and will need to be toughened by pressure from below.

Without this participatory democracy, proposals for a just transition are a skeleton framework which omits too much; it needs to be more explicit about keeping carbon in the ground, about restricting the military carbon footprint, and about reparations to the global south. It also fails to address a probable emissions spike produced by a ‘consumption tidal wave’ resulting from mass job creation.

Klein proposes rigorous regulation and carbon audits to avert this spike but also contends that to be truly transformative the Green New Deal must deliver something more amorphous – a collective vision to unite movements and challenge a culture that relies on endless consumption as a source of pleasure and identity.

We seem to be glimpsing the emergence of a collective shared purpose in community responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite calls to ‘socially distance,’ communities have come together. The emergence of mutual aid networks, the waves of strikes by Amazon workers, construction teams, and bus drivers demanding workplace closures are evidence of that collective purpose.

In the wake of the Covid-19 crisis,we are also seeing a re-evaluating of ‘key work.’ The labour of care is denigrated and underpaid, but a pandemic has made clear what  jobs matter; the bus drivers, supermarket staff, carers and nurses. These same metrics for ‘valuable labour’ lie at the core of the Green New Deal.

Re-reading On Fire in the midst of the Covid-19 crisis is clarifying. Klein’s view of crises and struggles as intricately connected is often dismissed as oversimplified and forced. Covid-19 has demonstrated that she is right, that it’s all intimately connected. It has made clear that the same interests that strip workers of sick pay and charge them for healthcare are deepening this public health crisis.

It has also enabled us to do what we previously could not – imagine what is possible when we act collectively.

 

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