I just finished reading Naomi Klein’s new book, On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal, and I think it should definitely be included in the complimentary gift basket that all climate activists receive when they join the movement. Didn’t you get yours, yet? Orders have been a little backed up lately due to increased demand. But seriously, the author is as prolific as she is passionate, and with this anthology of articles and essays spanning the last decade, she is trying to use her prominence and power as a deft and incisive story-teller about the social, political, and ecological crimes of capitalism to build momentum for transformative action on climate change - and, more specifically, to bolster the fight for a federal Green New Deal.

What On Fire lays out with increasing and compelling urgency through every essay is an explanation of the problem we are facing, a set of principles for the intersecting solutions that are needed, and a formula for how the essential stakeholders need to share and build power collectively for a historically transformational agenda. So much of On Fire resonates deeply with my experience as an organizer for thirty years in the environmental justice movement, and yet, I wanted more. And I wanted a different ending.

So I am making a call out for some fan(non)fiction for the movement here.

I was introduced to the existence of fanfiction when, after reading the books over and over again, my Harry-Potter-obsessed 10-year old went to the internet to find more stories and alternate endings for her favorite characters. At least, that’s what I think she was doing. Anyway, I think that a good way to build off of what is useful and good about On Fire is to offer some alternate endings and new stories about how we win on climate justice.

But first, let’s talk about some of the truly valuable and much-needed clarity that Klein brings to the fight for climate solutions.

As a community organizer who has spent over twenty years organizing in poor and working-class Asian American immigrant and refugee communities at the intersection of poverty, racism, pollution and climate change, reading Klein’s book and writing this review has been…hard. Because, from now on, the climate disasters detailed in each chapter of On Fire — from devastating hurricanes and wildfires to disaster capitalism and carbon market scams to eco-fascism and rising climate ethnonationalism — indicate what we already know to be true: we are no longer occasional visitors to the intersecting threats of climate change; we live here now.

As I am writing this, thousands of Bahamians are without food, shelter, medical care, or clean drinking water in the wake of hurricane Dorian. When Dorian made landfall it was a category 5 hurricane, with winds up to 220 mph and a 20-foot wall of water inundating the Abaco Islands. The extent of the devastation is not yet known, with dozens confirmed dead and thousands unaccounted for. And, like clockwork, the United States Customs and Border Patrol are now making it difficult, if not impossible, for Bahamians to seek refuge in the United States, and the administration has refused to offer them even Temporary Protected Status.

At the same time, climate change is now one of the highest-ranking issues among likely Democratic voters, the majority of Democratic candidates running for president have endorsed the Green New Deal, and high school students and young people have just kicked off a week of global, youth-led Climate Strikes and protests. It was one of the largest organized climate protests in history.

It feels like multiple chapters of the book are being played out in real time - the crisis and the opportunity. On Fire is pleading with us to understand that it is well past time to face them both.

I have long been a huge fan of Klein’s writing. No Logo, published in 1999, was the first of several of her books that have shaped my understanding of the impacts of globalization and neoliberalism. Her books have also made me feel like someone is actually listening to real people -and real communities- who face the brunt of the ruthless efficiency of capitalism and its many enablers. And just like with No Logo, I found myself nodding in agreement with most of what On Fire has to offer. Klein weaves intimate storytelling into complicated deconstructions of political, economic, and ecological systems and grounds these stories in past events that we don’t often recognize as connected or even significant.

While Klein is certainly in a position to make this curated set of writings a pointed I told you so, she decidedly takes no joy in her accurate predictions of the current state of the climate crisis. She doesn’t dwell in what we’ve screwed up any longer than is necessary, so she can move as quickly as possible to what-we-MUST-do-NOW. The entire book is a vehicle to advance the growing movement to support a federal Green New Deal as we approach the 2020 elections and beyond.

So, I didn’t read On Fire as a cold academic analysis or just to scare the crap out of myself about the future we are facing. I read Naomi Klein’s book as an organizer reading the landscape for clues about how we build collective forces powerful enough to win the changes that we most need in the places that need it the most. I am not asking myself how consistent the author’s style is across these pieces or how much I relate to the personal stories detailed in the articles. Rather, I am asking, what is this telling us about the movements we need to build? But first…

How Did We Get Here?

Multiple themes run through On Fire, and while some may critique the repetition as redundant, I think there is power in the consistency. The first of those themes is about trying to answer the question, just how the hell did we get into this mess?

Arguably, you could go back a few centuries in the timeline to find evidence of Western civilization’s desire to dominate nature, including people. But Klein takes us back to 1623 when Sir Francis Bacon’s De dignitati et augmentis scientiarum demonstrated a “new ethos that nature is to be ‘put in constraint, molded, and made as it were new by art and the hand of man.’” And she returns many times over the course of the book to deconstruct the “expansionist, extractive mind-set that has so long governed our relationship to nature,” that “the climate crisis calls into question so fundamentally.”

But, the more simple answer? Surprise! It’s capitalism.

If, as Klein states, “Climate change is a message, one that is telling us that many of Western culture’s most cherished ideas are no longer viable.” Then, the MOST cherished of those ideas is definitely capitalism. It’s not only the dark and violent history of genocidal conquest and colonialism for the sake of endless growth and greed and the many ways white supremacy and patriarchy serve the interests of the “winners” in a system of capitalism. It’s also, and importantly, that “…those taking on the failures of capitalism and those fighting for climate action remain two solitudes, with the small but valiant climate justice movement (drawing the connections between racism, inequality, and environmental vulnerability) stringing up a few swaying bridges between them.”

It is not an accident that the most “politically viable” attempts to address the climate crisis - the ones most driven by politicians, by mainstream progressive policy institutions and think tanks, by most large national environmental and conservation organizations, and no surprise, by philanthropists and private foundations - have universally sought to solve the problem through elements of the problem itself. We’re given “market-based solutions” to the climate crisis like cap and trade, carbon offsets, and carbon trading. The belief, so strong and so unified, is that the only plausible solutions must be gently held within the cradle of the markets and must not disrupt or offend our basic right to endlessly grow, consume, trade, or buy our way out of any problem.

In fact, the almost religious belief that our power to address the climate crisis is limited to our power as individual consumers just ensures that we will never solve it. Buy this lightbulb, recycle this bottle, don’t eat meat, buy an electric car, offset your air travel, drink almond milk, no wait, don’t drink almond milk!

That’s not to say that individual choices aren’t important. In fact, we do need to stop replacing one “bad” product with one “good” product and just stop buying so much shit altogether. And let’s not forget that with income inequality as severe as it is right now in the United States, wealthy consumers have a disproportionately negative consumer impact on the burning of fossil fuels. So stop blaming immigrants and refugees for climate change. However, what is so deeply problematic, the author argues, is that this role as “manic consumers” not only creates a false notion that it does good to address what is a systemic problem at an individual level, but it is also actually disempowers people and takes them further away from the only solution big enough for the scale of the problem: collective action that takes power away from industrial polluters and giant corporations.

Essentially, “we have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism…,” and doing those things would require building collective power in a way that would fundamentally challenge our belief that we are only powerful as individual consumers taking individual actions.

Another indicator that our economy is at the root cause of the climate crisis? Right-wing climate deniers have long been completely freaking out about climate change being a Trojan horse for socialism. They may not clearly acknowledge that the, “airborne waste of industrial capitalism is causing the planet to warm,” (I love that quote) but, climate deniers on the Right have been “taking a hard look at what it would take to lower global emissions as drastically and as rapidly as climate science demands,” and “claiming that climate change is a plot to redistribute wealth, raise taxes, increase government intervention and regulation is not wrong [emphasis added].”

Liberal free-market environmentalists have been trying hard to cling to the framework of the extractive fossil fuel economy by refusing to support living wages for renewable energy workers, by pushing for carbon trading systems that allow industrial polluters to increase their emissions, and by claiming repeatedly but meekly that our lifestyles are never going to have to change. Meanwhile, the Right feels that their lifestyle, and more importantly, their position of power, is threatened by addressing climate change. As Klein puts it, ”Given the expansive challenge that climate change poses to the industrial capitalist economic system, it should not be surprising that conservative white males’ strong system-justifying attitudes would be triggered to deny climate change.”

What Do We Do Now and How Do We Do It?

If one of the greatest weaknesses of the mainstream climate movement is the denial that total systems change is necessary to avoid catastrophic scenarios in our future climate, then the other great weakness is an inability to articulate a vision for what we do want and our path there. On Fire is a catalogue of that vision, and for Klein and many others, a Green New Deal is the pathway.

As Klein herself asserts, the concept of a Green New Deal is not new; it is just newly popularized to a much broader audience. Communities at the frontlines of the climate crisis here in the US, who are facing the worst of the impacts of an extractive economy and fighting for the local solutions to the climate crisis that rise to the scale of the problem, have been calling this pathway a Just Transition. The Just Transition framework itself has its origins in collaborative efforts from the 1990s, led by the Just Transition Alliance, to bring together rank and file workers from toxic and extractive industries with fence line community members most impacted by the pollution from these industries.

Call it what you want. There have been efforts to address the intersecting threats of poverty, racism, pollution, and climate change for decades. And they have been mostly led by Indigenous communities, by communities of color, by poor and working class and immigrant and refugee communities all over the US. Frontline communities understand that a transition is already underway. If we do nothing, a transition of our energy system, but also our political, social, and economic system, will be based on authoritarianism and white supremacy, and it will benefit the already wealthy and protect their interests. We are literally and metaphorically building a border wall with solar panels on top.

Transition is inevitable, but justice is not.

Naomi Klein has been writing about the need for a Just Transition for years, and with in On Fire, you see the evolution of a vision as she tells the stories of frontline communities from around the globe. These are some of the essential themes that are throughlines for the (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal:

Admitting We Have A Problem.

We have to start by acknowledging that the root cause of climate change is an economic system that works really well for corporations and for the super rich but is broken for the rest of us. Climate change is a symptom of the failure of capitalism, a brutal and unfair economy, racial and gender inequality, racist and patriarchal ideology, the outsized power of corporations, and a total lack of real democracy. We can’t design solutions to the crisis without an understanding of what we are trying to fix.

Climate Change Is A Threat Multiplier Of Inequality.

Climate change is an existential threat to everyone on the planet, but people living on the frontlines - poor communities and communities of color, Indigenous communities, immigrant and refugee communities - are being hit first and worst. The quality of life issues that frontline communities face everyday-poverty, pollution, unhealthy environments, lack of safe affordable housing, underemployment, lack of healthcare, unsafe workplaces, police brutality, lack of access to healthy foods, underfunded public education, and so many more - are all made worse by a chaotic climate. Every hurricane, wildfire, flood, drought, and ecosystem collapse has short- and long-term impacts that do actually discriminate.

Climate chaos is not just about the weather. As Klein says chillingly, “Climate change isn’t just about things getting hotter and wetter: under our current economic and political order, it’s about things getting meaner and uglier.” Conflict, war, increased militarism, and militarized borders are all part of a climate cycle of violence. “There is no clean, safe, nontoxic or peaceful way to run an economy powered by fossil fuels. Just as bombs follow oil, and drones follow drought, so boats follow both: boats filled with refugees fleeing homes on the aridity line ravaged by war and drought.”

There is also no coincidence that the disturbing growth of anti-immigration and anti-refugee authoritarian nationalism spreading across multiple continents, especially here in the United States, coincides with the rapid acceleration of climate disasters worldwide. Today, Guatemalan children fleeing starvation from massive crop failures caused by climate change are being separated from their parents and caged in detention centers or blocked from even entering with their families at the militarized border of the United States.

Solutions To The Climate Crisis Must Be Intersectional

Because the problem is intersectional. One of the reasons Klein is so enthusiastic about the Green New Deal is that it demonstrates the connection between the many interwoven issues that need to be tackled together to address the scale of the problem. She says, “We face so many overlapping and intersectional crises that we can’t afford to fix them one at a time. We need integrated solutions, solutions that radically bring down emissions while creating huge numbers of good unionized job and delivering meaningful justice to those who have been most abused and excluded under the current extractive economy. ” Klein continues this line of thought in a postscript lifting up, “…the urgency of an intersectional approach to social and political change: if we pick and choose which urgent crisis to take seriously, the end result will be an inability to effect change on any of them. Only a fearless and holistic approach, which sacrifices no issue on the altar of any other, will deliver the deep transformation we need.

Justice At The Center Of Climate Solutions: “There is no climate breakthrough without justice…”

In addition to the intersectionality of issues, Klein repeats in many ways, “When it comes to climate action, it’s abundantly clear that we will not build the power necessary or win unless we embed justice - particularly racial but also gender and economic justice - at the center of low-carbon policies.”

On Fire reiterates that bold action is a requirement to addressing climate change. We can’t just play around the edges of a broken system. S he argues, “As we get green we, we have to get fair. More than that, as we get clean, we can begin to redress the founding crimes of our nations: land theft, genocide, slavery. Yes, the hardest stuff. Because we haven’t just been procrastinating climate action all these years. We’ve been procrastinating and delaying the most basic demands of justice and reparation. And we are out of time on every front.”

We need not just repair for the injustices of the past but also ensure that our actions on climate do not repeat the structured inequalities and oppression of the previous system. As Klein warns her readers, “…we need to up our ambition and show exactly how battling climate change is a once-in-a century chance to build a fairer and more democratic economy. Because as we rapidly transition off fossil fuels, we cannot replicate the wealth concentration and the injustices of the oil and coal economy, in which hundreds of billions in profits have been privatized and the tremendous risks are socialized.”

No More Sacrifice Zones.

Through mining, drilling, transporting, refining, and burning coal, oil, and gas, the extractive economy has created neighborhoods, communities, entire mountain ranges, and rural areas that are considered sacrifice zones. These are lands and people that have been acceptable to pollute and poison for centuries. Overwhelmingly, Indigenous communities and communities of color are disproportionately overburdened by the “toxic burden,” Klein says, “of our addiction to fossil fuels, with markedly higher rates of respiratory illnesses and cancer.” These are the same communities who are most vulnerable to the impacts of climate change.

In Richmond, CA, my organization has been organizing in the Laotian refugee community for more than two decades around the health and economic impacts of the Chevron oil refinery in the neighborhood. For years APEN and our allies have been fighting California’s “progressive” climate laws that allow the Chevron refinery to increase their climate pollution in Richmond as long as they buy pollution “allowances,” or better yet, “offset” their pollution by paying for forest projects that displace Indigenous people from their lands in Brazil. Creating two sacrifice zones with one cap and trade policy!

On Fire details the many ways that the Right is already constructing and implementing legal arguments and policy tools to allow this “ranking the relative value of humans” to expand as the climate continues to warm. Klein cautions us to recognize the “Intersection between hard-right ideology and climate deniers… their dominance based worldview provides them with the intellectual tools to write off huge swaths of humanity in the developing world. Recognizing the threat posed by empathy-exterminating mind-set is a matter of great urgency, because climate change will test our moral character like little before.” The testing has already begun, and I think if you ask a Syrian refugee they would tell you that we’ve failed.

The critical point that On Fire is arguing is that these issues are central, not tangential, to solutions to climate change. We can’t create the new green economy on the backs of the people whose labor built the previous economy or the people who were not just left out of it but were most harmed by it. There is a constant drive from traditional environmentalists, and increasingly from recent converts to the climate movement, to use the “urgency” argument that says we must move quickly. That, “First we will save the planet then we will worry about poverty, police violence, gender discrimination, and racism,” as Klein noted, failing to understand that connecting these issues to the solutions is the key to building support and the momentum to move quickly. Urgency, she says, “doesn’t mean that climate change trumps everything else. It means we need to create integrated solutions, ones that radically bring down emissions while tackling structural inequality and making life tangibly better for the majority.”

Frontlines Of The Problem, Frontlines Of The Solutions: Leadership Matters

“To build a truly inclusive movement, there needs to be a truly inclusive vision that starts with and is led by the most brutalized and excluded.”

For these intersectional solutions to work, they must come from the communities that have borne the brunt of the extractive economy and those who will be harmed the most by the transition. Frontline workers and frontline communities need to see themselves and their vision reflected in the solutions and the leadership for the Green New Deal.

Klein plays this theme out in several chapters of On Fire—“…it’s got to be about justice: economic justice, racial justice, gender justice, migrant justice, historical justice. Not as afterthoughts but as animating principles. This will only happen when we take leadership from those most impacted.” And she finishes that thought elsewhere with, “All this should be done because it’s right and just, but also because it’s smart. The hard truth is: Environmentalists can’t win the emission-reduction fights on our own. It’s not a slight against anyone; the lift is just too heavy. This transformation represents a revolution in how we live, work, and consume… To change everything, it takes everyone.”

Which brings me to the fan(non)fiction.

“Stop Trying To Save The World All By Yourselves.”

This might be a bit dark, but this is actually my favorite quote from the whole book: “The hard truth is that the answer to the question ‘What can I, as an individual, do to stop climate change?’ Is: nothing. You can’t do anything. In fact, the very idea that we, as 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 organized movement.”

I agree so deeply with this point. Now I want to follow it to another movement reality that builds onto the foundation that On Fire has carefully laid down.

The “small but valiant climate justice movement” is a character that Klein refers to throughout On Fire to provide wisdom on almost every main theme that I have pulled out of these writings. I kept wanting to ask the author as the book went on, What else could we learn from what the climate justice movement has been offering about building a movement to win?

Beyond Mobilizing To Organizing

What does it mean to actually have a “massive and organized movement” that is grounded in principles of justice, that is intersectional, and has visible leadership from frontline communities and workers?

Marches are awesome. When they are done well, they are an expression of support, motivating to our base, capable of moving a narrative, and able to signal core principles and vision. They can be incredibly powerful, but in and of themselves, they are not power. They are a tactic and a tool. Anything that moves people without engaging them in the process - to march, to vote, to sign an online petition - is episodic.

I say this because the climate movement seems to be measuring our success, sometimes, on how many people we can turn out to a march as opposed to how a march can help us move our agenda. Of course the two are related, but it is also a matter of emphasis.

Overall, there are very limited resources for climate justice work. Of that work, there is a diminishingly small amount of resources going to support base-building and grassroots organizing - strategies that build in-person relationships, develop political leadership, engage frontline community members in understanding their own power, develop skills to analyze power relations in policy campaigns, hold decision-makers accountable, and grow a base of informed and supportive members and voters. Perhaps most importantly, these are strategies that build the power of organizations. A “massive and organized movement” absolutely depends on the vitality of grassroots organizing, and this tends to be the last strategy to be resourced at any scale.

I am certainly not the first person to say this. I am merely repeating what I’ve learned from amazing and strategic organizers and from my own experience in organizing for the past 30 years: there are no shortcuts to organizing. If we want to win, we need to dramatically shift resources to grassroots organizing and base-building in Indigenous, Black, Latinx, Asian American and Pacific Islander, poor and working class, immigrant and refugee communities. We need to strengthen the rights of organized labor. We need to support multi-racial alliances, networks, and coalitions.

It is not enough to say that we should be centering a climate policy agenda on the demands of frontline communities. We have to support the power-building strategies of frontline communities as well. It is true that frontline communities are essential to building the power to win but not as mere numbers to be mobilized to a march, or to the voting booth. Frontline communities and workers need to be well-resourced to engage in sustained grassroots organizing and continuing to develop leadership from the ground up. This is the core strategy at the backbone of every win for social movements in history, so why do we keep trying to magically win without it?

The Inconvenient Truth About Greta Thunberg

I know that I am wading into dangerous territory here, but let me preface that I am not criticizing 16-year old Greta Thunberg in any way. Klein spends much of the introduction of On Fire talking about Greta’s back story, and I found it fascinating and moving. I am the mother of two teenage daughters, and I was captivated by Greta’s experience and inspired by her courage.

What I do want to say about the Greta mega-media phenomenon, not about Greta herself, is that we are once again trying to find a savior - in this case a super child from Sweden, the Great North - to save us. And while her story and her message are compelling to many, the way it is being told is that she is the new, single, leader of the global climate movement and that she alone can do it. I think there is room in our collective climate movement for Greta’s story of single-minded determination and eloquent pleas for action from her government. But I do think it is worth asking ourselves why this is the story that is cutting through on climate right now and what other narratives does this reinforce that are not helpful to building the power we need to win?

Why did Greta Thunberg need to make a journey across the entire expanse of the Atlantic Ocean by sailboat to speak to the United Nations about climate action? Was there really not a single young climate activist from the Bronx or from Brooklyn with a compelling personal story about the need for action on climate justice? Was there not one young person of color who has been impacted by climate pollution or Hurricane Sandy to stand up and say that it is time for the older generation to take bold action like our lives depend on it? It is not even about the words that Greta is saying - because she herself talks about the need for young people to get involved, to march, and to vote. She said, famously, to the United Nations, “I don’t need your hope; I need you to act.” She understands that it will take millions of people collectively to win. But the narrative that is sticking is that Greta Thunberg has, single-handedly, created the youth climate strike movement.

This is much like the narrative that Rosa Parks single-handedly sparked the Montgomery bus boycott because one day she just got tired and decided to sit down and would not move to the back of the bus. Whereas, Rosa Parks was a trained organizer and civil rights leader who was part of an intentional and planned public action to contest for power against Jim Crow laws and racial segregation in the South.

It doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game, but the way our media, even “progressive” media, is structured, there are disproportionately tiny amounts of airtime and media space for frontline stories, leadership, and solutions. Even though we have established that we need frontline power to win. Understanding power is absolutely critical to how we win, and reinforcing narratives that remove frontline voices and stories from the picture is ultimately disempowering, gets in the way of strategic collective action, and, let’s just say it, racist.

It Has Been Us All Along

I’m sure that there are multitudes of alternative endings for this story, and my hope is that we all start adding on to the pool of fan(non)fiction for how we win transformative climate solutions that truly benefit frontline and working families. The climate crisis is telling us that we have reached the limits of political and economic boundaries of survivability and we need everyone to jump in here. We need all of the creativity, imagination, strategic thinking, songs, poetry, and stories from our collective wisdom that we can get.

We also need the courage to say what we know to be true: We already have answers about how to build power, how to use our cumulative strength, how to be fair and just, and how to win.


Created with Sketch.

Related Articles