On Fire

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For 20 years Naomi Klein has been one of the foremost activists, journalists and writers within the anti-capitalist and environmental movements. From No-Logo, a book that epitomised the anti-capitalist politics of the Seattle generation, to This Changes Everything, a polemic that put the blame for the climate crisis squarely on capitalism, her books are powerful critiques of a world that puts profit before people and planet.

But On Fire is possibly Klein’s best book. It burns with anger at the way the rich and powerful have failed to act on climate change because it means challenging their right to make money. In particular, it shows how, in her words, “natural extremes come head-to-head with social, racial and economic ones”.

Klein is absolutely clear that no discussion about the dangers from climate disaster can ignore the very real question of how it impacts on the Global South, on indigenous communities and along racial lines. Solidarity with refugees, and the deaths in the Mediterranean, are a key part of this argument; one included in her keynote speech at the 2017 Labour Party conference.

She emphasises the way that environmental disaster exacerbates other social divisions. Writing about the 2016 forest fires in Alberta she tells how hundreds of South African workers drafted to fight the fires discovered they were being paid much less than their Canadian colleagues, and immediately went on strike. Rather than pay them more, the workers were sent home.

Because these are collected essays that span the last decade or so, we get a sense of Klein’s own developing anxiety around the climate disaster. One chapter focuses on her experiences during 2017 as a family holiday is ruined by smog from record-breaking forest fires. A footnote added for this book notes the “grim” record was broken by even larger fires in 2018.

But unlike those frustrating climate travelogues where authors show their sudden realisation of the scale of the crisis after travels to stricken parts of the world, Klein already understands the problem and its origin.

In a chapter on the climate deniers she listens to at a right-wing conference, Klein shows how fossil fuel companies have funded and encouraged denial. But she notes another important point. Those that argue against the reality of climate change because they see it as a way for the left to attack capitalism are, ironically, right in a way. For if you follow the logic of the science, the conclusion has to be that capitalism has to go. Some scientists, she says, are reaching “transformative, even revolutionary, conclusions”.

This is why you often meet scientists and academics on protests, and why many more activists are drawing the conclusion that “system change” is the answer. Faced with the scale of the crisis, and the need to stop extractive industries, transform our economies and transition to zero carbon in the next decade, the scale of the task is enormous. What sort of response is needed?

Well, one important point that Klein makes as a chapter heading is to “Stop trying to save the world all by yourself”. In other words, we need social movements. But those movements have to have alternatives, and one theme of On Fire is what those alternatives are and how they can be won.

Klein helped author the LEAP manifesto, a Canadian alternative economic plan similar to Britain’s One Million Climate Jobs report. These, and other plans, such as the Green New Deal championed by left Democrats in the US, are Klein’s inspiration. But her emphasis is not top down.

Looking at the experience of the 1930s New Deal in America and the Marshall Plan for rebuilding post-war Europe, she points out that both were improved because of US and European social movements and left-wing organisation. The Green New Deal must also offer real improvements to ordinary people — better healthcare and education as well as jobs that reduce emissions.

She emphasises the need for a just transition for those workers in high-carbon industry and the central need for justice for oppressed groups. While I’m not sure that Klein’s understanding of socialism is quite the same as that of Socialist Review, it is not far off. It is certainly one that originates in the activity of mass movements and ordinary people challenging the system itself.

Given the scale of the crisis it is not easy to be hopeful. But Klein’s book is run through with inspiration from social movements (much of the introduction is about Greta Thunberg). So her emphasis on the need to “confront that [capitalist] economic order and replace it with something that is rooted in both human and planetary security, one that does not place at its centre the quest for growth and profit at all costs” is inspirational. I urge you to read this book.