Naomi Klein, “On Fire”

I finished Naomi Klein‘s “On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal” last week, and it’s been really hard to think about anything else. I haven’t been reading climate emergency books; I’ve really been thinking about the biodiversity crisis, with authors like Douglas Tallamy and Edward O. Wilson at the top of my reading stack. Diving deep into climate change has been a hard turn; all the more so due to what’s happened in the two years since this 2019 book was published.

The book is a series of essays that Klein wrote about the climate from 2011 to 2019. It starts off with a rousing description of Greta Thunberg and the School Strike Movement of 2019. Klein really portrays well the overwhelming momentum that movement had at the time, as well as Greta Thunberg’s deep personal effect on world politics. It’s clear how Thunberg’s unforgiving and relentless hard talk to world politicians reflects the emergency’s own cold, unwavering advance. The immense wave of youth action in 2019, and the introduction of the Green New Deal in the US Congress, make the time of the writing seem like the unavoidable tipping point for some kind of movement on climate change.

Painfully, the first essay brings that crashing down. It’s written in 2011, after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the largest marine oil spill in human history, when 210 million gallons of oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico for over five months. Klein’s contemporaneous essay really conveys the sense of despair that this catastrophe caused; the feeling that things would not ever be the same. That we simply couldn’t go on with business as usual.

As we all know now, after ten years, business is more usual than ever. I don’t know about you, but until reading this essay, I hadn’t thought about the Deepwater Horizon spill since about when it happened. This story is gut-wrenching because it reminds us how easy it is to forget even the worst environmental catastrophes once the cameras stop rolling and the attention of the world moves on to something else. The things that force us to finally face up to our problems can also be forgotten. We don’t like having to face our problems. We want to forget.

Essay after essay feels like this. The one about Laudato si’, the 2015 papal encyclical calling for swift global action on climate change, seems like another watershed. But even by the time of the essay’s writing, the Catholic Church was facing criticism world-wide for sexual abuse cases, which have, among other things, prevented the Church from linking up with others on the climate question.

The essay about Klein’s summer on the British Columbia coast while wildfires raged inland and smoke obscured the sky for weeks is also a difficult read. It describes a new kind of world, where natural catastrophe becomes commonplace, interminable, and unexceptional. One detail that cuts especially hard is her young child’s response, on hearing of the wildfires: “But what about the animals?! We have to go help them.” Realising how low a priority the wildlife is, and what a cruel blow it is for a child to learn of that low priority, is difficult.

There are some heartening parts. Klein’s discussion of the Leap Manifesto, an environmental agenda put forth by activists and civic leaders ahead of the 2015 Canadian federal campaign, is wonderful. The Manifesto, which foreshadows the Green New Deal in marrying climate change mitigation with social reform to bring all members of society into alignment on climate action, was markedly different from any of the major parties’ platforms. It challenged the longtime status quo of environmental inaction and low ambitions. It changed the discourse on climate.

The book finishes with an essay about Klein’s film with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called A Message From the Future. AOC had just been elected for her first term, and had just partnered with Ed Markey to propose Green New Deal legislation. In the film, AOC plays herself from several decades in the future, thinking about how the Green New Deal helped people participate in climate action while simultaneously building a more just and equal economy.

The view from the other side of 2020 feels much different than it did in 2019. First, the Green New Deal was supported by 18 of 19 major Democratic presidential candidates in 2019… and it was the 19th one who got elected. The Biden Administration originally included climate action in its omnibus Build Back Better Act, but many of the climate provisions were stripped in negotiations with conservative Democrats in the Senate. And the Act itself is hanging on by a thread, as Congress took a win for its separate infrastructure bill and is distracted by the upcoming 2022 election cycle. The echo of an echo of the Green New Deal in the US is looking quite wan.

We’ve also just come out of COP26, the UN’s climate conference where the world’s leaders came together to make wildly ambitious promises to do extraordinary work on the climate decades from now, as they plan growing exploitation of fossil fuels today. The sense of the need for action is there, and it seems like even the most recalcitrant countries participated, but it’s all about Free Beer Tomorrow, and never about what’s going to happen right now. Because extravagant promises made at international conferences don’t bear the force of law, and they’re really easy for everyone to forget.

Most sobering, of course, has been the right-populist reaction against COVID-19 measures since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, after Klein’s book came out. Despite the overwhelming scientific consensus, we’ve seen vicious, self-destructive behaviour by people in the US and elsewhere to resist public health action to fight the spread of the disease. How can we imagine that these same people will stand with us when it comes time for us to implement a Green New Deal? And how much longer can we put the effort to deal with the climate catastrophe on hold while we deal with the more immediate catastrophe, unendingly grinding us down?

The most painful part of this book has been being reminded of how short our collective memory is, and how easy it is to get distracted. There’s always one more thing to do, one more topic to focus on, before we get around to making real change to fight the climate emergency. I’m reminded more than anything of the film Memento, in which the protagonist’s damaged short-term memory makes him unable to focus on a goal for more than a few minutes before he blanks out entirely. Like the protagonist, we need to build structures and processes to remind us of what’s important, keep it top of mind, and keep others from lying to us and manipulating us against our own best interests.

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