Interviewing author Naomi Klein, the bond between our home countries — hers Canada, mine Australia — is obvious.
“We suck!” Klein exclaims. “Both of us, we have incredibly right-wing governments, our prime ministers love each other, and they both have a single idea about how to have a thriving economy, which is just to dig and dig and dig and dig and put the stuff from the ground onto boats and sell it to Asia.”
At last year’s United Nations climate talks in Warsaw, Australia just pipped Canada for the title of climate villain of the year, winning the “fossil fool” anti-award from a bunch of NGOs, and it will be a tough contest again at the talks now underway in Lima. Australia has become the world’s first country to abolish a carbon price, with Prime Minister Tony Abbott wrecking climate action across the board and doubling down on coal and gas exports. Canada’s Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper pulled his country out of the Kyoto Protocol at the end of 2011, and the country overshot its Kyoto targets by a third in a headlong rush to extract oil from Alberta’s tar sands.
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Klein, journalist and celebrated author of worldwide bestsellers No Logo (2000) and Shock Doctrine (2007), has spent the last five years working on her latest book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, which was released in September with an accompanying documentary directed by her husband, Avi Lewis.
An anti-globalisation activist, Klein was a latecomer to the climate debate, and in This Changes Everything writes that she herself “denied climate change for longer than I care to admit”. But in 2009 Klein met Bolivia’s UN ambassador, Angelica Navarro Llanos, who was calling for a “Marshall Plan for the Earth” to massively redistribute wealth and technology to help developing countries both leapfrog fossil fuels and prepare for impending climate damage. Klein saw that climate change could become a catalysing force for positive change — “the best argument progressives have ever had” to overthrow market fundamentalism and tackle inequality.
This Changes Everything shows how, unfortunately, awareness of the need to tackle climate change, beginning with the first global conference to discuss emissions reduction targets in Toronto in 1988, has coincided almost precisely with the rise of neoliberalism, the end-of-history triumphalism that followed the fall of the Berlin wall. The dominance of neoliberal ideology — from anti-democratic trade rules to privatisation, deregulation and lower taxes — has robbed us of our ability to tackle climate change with the urgency necessary to make the planet safe again.
Klein identifies extractivism — common to many socialist and capitalist countries since the industrial revolution — as the deeper philosophy responsible for our climate predicament. Extractivism, a term coined by the indigenous resistance to mega-industrial projects in Latin America, is a “non-reciprocal, dominance-based relationship with the earth, one purely of taking”.
“When I was reporting on Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans I had the distinct feeling that I was looking at a glimpse of our future …”
Which is where Canada and Australia come back in: we’ve both got it bad. As Klein told Crikey: “I feel the extractivist world view is deepest in settler-colonial states like Australia and Canada and the United States and New Zealand where, when our countries were settled by Europeans, they were settled based on this idea of limitless nature. Coming from resource-constrained Europe, our lands were conceived of as infinitely vast, and I think that created a really ingrained behaviour around nature which was, you don’t have to be responsible for what we’re doing, there is always more. Like the way in Canada that we conceive of the north, right, it’s just like a place that goes on forever, and that created the context [in which] the Alberta tar sands could happen — the largest industrial project on Earth, with tailing ponds you can see from space.”
Australia has an ugly role in Klein’s book, courtesy partly of our shameful contribution to the plight of Nauru. We plundered the country’s phosphate to fertilise our soils, we gave scandalous investment advice that helped bankrupt a country that once had the world’s highest GDP per capita, and now we make them a “dumping ground” for asylum seekers:
“In what has become known as ‘the Pacific Solution’ Australian navy and customs ships intercept boats of migrants and immediately fly them 3000 km to Nauru … [where they are] crammed into a rat-infested guarded camp made up of rows of crowded, stiflingly hot tents. The island imprisonment can last up to five years, with the migrants in a state of constant limbo about their status, something the Australian government hopes will serve as a deterrent to future refugees.”
It is no passing reference. Klein describes our attempts to prevent scrutiny of the Nauru detention centre; the UN High Commissioner for Refugees report querying whether it breached international law including prohibitions on “torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”; and former Salvation Army employee Mark Isaacs’ likening the camp to “death factories”.
For Klein, Nauru’s plight is not just emblematic of the inevitable failure of extractivism, it signals the looming nightmare of “escalating barbarism to separate the losers from the winners” as climate change worsens. This is the most frightening aspect of her book, and follows on from Shock Doctrine, which coined the term “disaster capitalism” to describe profiteering from tragedy and crisis. It’s not just greedy corporations hoping to make a buck from the meltdown; climate change has clear geopolitical significance, and the Right — more than the Left — is onto it. After describing a climate denialist conference put on by the arch-conservative Heartland Institute, Klein cites a 2011 article by right-wing blogger Jim Geraghty that envisaged global warming underpinning a second century of American dominance, because “many potentially threatening states will find themselves in much more dire circumstances”. As she writes: “Got that? Since people who scare Americans are unlucky enough to live in poor, hot places, climate change will cook them, leaving the United States to rise like a phoenix from the flames of global warming.”
Klein does not argue hard-line climate deniers would actually welcome the death of untold millions from climate disaster. As she told Crikey: “I don’t think it’s sort of an active desire, but there is some pretty heavy-duty indifference there, I’ll tell you. Judging by the humour that one hears at a Heartland conference, there’s a lot of callousness there.
“My last book was about what I called disaster capitalism — it’s about precisely that kind of profiteering and brutal opportunism in the midst of disaster,” she said. “I’ve reported on this in the Asian tsunami, after Hurricane Katrina, in the invasion of Iraq, I’ve seen this first hand again and again and again.
“When I was reporting on Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans I had the distinct feeling that I was looking at a glimpse of our future if we stay on the road we’re on, where we will have increasingly heavy weather colliding with weaker and weaker public infrastructure and an absolutely brutal state that didn’t just neglect and abandon the people of New Orleans, it then came in with guns and started shooting people and privatised security. It was utterly dystopian. This is not about a sci-fi movie, this is about what we’ve actually done in the midst of crisis, so I’m not just sort of motivated by a very, very utopian vision of the future. I’m motivated by a pretty hard-nosed realistic view of our present.”
Part two of Crikey’s interview with Naomi Klein will be published on Monday.