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What is the Theory of Change in Naomi Klein’s “On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal”?

Summary:
By Lambert Strether of Corrente Naomi Klein has just launched On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal (Simon & Schuster (2019; search for independent bookstore near you). While I confess I have not yet purchased the book, On Fire has gotten a lot of play — some from Klein herself, touring — and the nature of that play is interesting in itself. So consider this a meta-review. First, I’ll look briefly at Klein as a figure, and review my own position on a Green New Deal (GND). Then, I’ll collect several “takes” on the book. Finally, I’ll ask if a clear “theory of change” can be reverse-engineered out of those takes; that is, assuming that the desired verdict is in favor of the Green New Deal, do the takes on the book provide (#1) a clear explanation of why there is not already a GND,

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By Lambert Strether of Corrente

Naomi Klein has just launched On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal (Simon & Schuster (2019; search for independent bookstore near you). While I confess I have not yet purchased the book, On Fire has gotten a lot of play — some from Klein herself, touring — and the nature of that play is interesting in itself. So consider this a meta-review. First, I’ll look briefly at Klein as a figure, and review my own position on a Green New Deal (GND). Then, I’ll collect several “takes” on the book. Finally, I’ll ask if a clear “theory of change” can be reverse-engineered out of those takes; that is, assuming that the desired verdict is in favor of the Green New Deal, do the takes on the book provide (#1) a clear explanation of why there is not already a GND, and (#2) a strategy to get the GND. Spoiler alert: On the evidence of the takes, including those of Klein herself, the answer is… no (I’m aware of the dangers of kicking a puppy, but so be it.)

So, to Klein the figure. Readers will be familar with Klein’s Shock Doctrine, with its theory of “disaster capitalism.” Klein has a real track record as a writer who can powerfully communicate complex ideas, and has a real knack for skating to where the puck is going to be; Shock Doctrine was published in 2007, right before the Crash, for example. Klein has been working on climate change for awhile. From Elle, “Progressive Prophet Naomi Klein Sees The Future. Can It Be Changed?“:

Klein has never liked marching and has described herself as physically incapable of chanting, but she has become increasingly involved in climate activism. In 2011, she was arrested for the first time, protesting the Keystone XL pipeline outside the White House. She was instrumental in developing the divestment movement, which has led to $8 trillion being disinvested from fossil fuels. She also helped organize The Leap Manifesto, a document written in 2015 by a coalition of indigenous leaders, environmental activists, and union heads based around what Klein later described as a key insight: that many progressive battles could be addressed through a so-called “Marshall Plan for the Earth.”

(2015’s “Marshall Plan for the Earth” turned into 2019’s GND.) Writing in Nature (“Radical reform and the Green New Deal“) Michael Mann of hockey stick fame has this to say:

Klein has been a leading voice at the intersection of social and environmental movements for two decades — ever since she inspired a generation to reflect on the blight of consumerism with No Logo (1999). And she does not disappoint here. She provides a lucid and compelling case for the Green New Deal (GND). This set of proposed federal policies, advocated by Democratic representative for New York Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez [AOC], aims to mobilize massive societal resources to prevent a dangerous rise in Earth’s temperature of more than 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.

Next, let me review my own position on AOC’s GND here, here, and here. From the last piece:

The Green New Deal is a DEAL. All agree that the entire society most be mobilized for the GND to succeed (and though few say it, the dreaded lifestyle and consumption changes will have to be part of that). The deal for the working class is if they participate in GND mobilization, they are restored to a life of dignity: Real work for real money, the chance to take care of their families (even for those whose family numbers one), medical care, the rentiers’ boot off their neck, and clean air and water. In other words, universal concrete material benefits. That is the deal. That is a new deal, a deal that hasn’t been offered for most of my lifetime, and never for young people. That is the green new deal. And it’s a GND for the 90%, not 60 [familiy blogging] siloed NGOs. And all deals have (at least) two sides: This one has the “climate” side, and it has the “justice” side. One for the other. That’s how and why the Green New Deal will work as a deal. You might even call it a covenant, if you’re religiously inclined.

(It’s no wonder Pelosi, being Pelosi, sidetracked the GND into a toothless committee with no subpoena power not heard from since.) To make my views clear, the GND is a deal between those who own our carbon-optimized means of production and distribution (“the billionaire class”), and the working class who make the wheels for all that turn generally. Such a deal is the only way mobilization can take place. And it’s win-win: The elites get to live on a planet that hasn’t been cooked, and they get to avoid the Mad Max-style dystopia that will surely engulf them (modulo an utterly dystopian future, where those elites who didn’t make it to Mars find out that betting on AI and robots was a really dumb idea, because all that tech works about as well as the Internet of Sh*t). And the working class gets to live on a planet that hasn’t been cooked with some measure of dignity. The legislation provides a platform to work the details out, as the first two pieces explain. That is my view. I can’t tell if my views overlap with Klein’s or not. Could be me!

And now, to the takes. I’ll do a review of the book first, and then Klein herself.

1) “Is the Green New Deal Realistic? Two Sympathetic Authors Weigh In” [Jeff Goodell, New York Times].

Implicit in the plan is a fundamental reimagining of the role of government, one that harks back to F.D.R.’s New Deal in the 1930s. It is also a rethinking of how to break the logjam on climate policy in Washington. Instead of fighting incremental battles on cap-and-trade and carbon tax, the Green New Deal seeks to ignite a popular movement that breaks through today’s toxic partisanship with sheer human will.

Thankfully, Klein is not interested in fleshing out policy details… She’s interested in making a moral argument for why it is necessary. To Klein, climate change isn’t simply another important issue; it’s “a message, one that is telling us that many of Western culture’s most cherished ideas are no longer viable.”

She views this crisis as one “born of the central fiction on which our economic model is based: that nature is limitless, that we will always be able to find more of what we need.” The days of these Enlightenment ideals are over, Klein says: Our current world is “built on false promises, discounted futures and sacrificial people; it was rigged to blow from the start.”

So for Goodell, Klein’s answer to (#1) (“why there is not already a GND”) is two-fold: “the logjam on climate policy in Washington,” and “cherished ideas”/”the central fiction,” and (#2) (“strategy to get the GND”) is “a popular movement that breaks through today’s toxic partisanship with sheer human will.” Let’s see if the other takes have the same takeaway message: Electoral politics and bad ideas are the problem; a popular movement is the solution.

2) “‘On Fire’: In New Book, Naomi Klein Makes the Case for a Green New Deal to Save the Planet” (interview) [Democracy Now]. This part two of a multipart series (one, three, four, and five)

[KLEIN:] But it isn’t a single carbon-based policy, like a tax, you know, or cap and trade. It’s really about transforming the economy and making it fairer. Right? So, it’s battling poverty, it’s battling racism, it’s battling all forms of inequality and exclusion, at the same time as we radically lower our emissions, because we do know that if we are going to lower our emissions in time, it is going to take transformations of how we live in cities, how we move ourselves around, how we grow our food, where we get our energy from. So, essentially what the Green new Deal is saying: If we’re going to do all that, why wouldn’t we tackle all of these systemic economic and social crises at the same time? Because we live in a time of multiple, overlapping crises.

As a sidebar: The obvious answer is that we shouldn’t tackle all that because we don’t have to. Michael Mann writes: “I share her concern over each of these societal afflictions, but I wonder at the assertion that it’s not possible to address climate change without solving all that plagues us.” I disagree with Mann, because as I said above, the Green New Deal is a Deal, and we can’t mobilize without it. More from Klein:

And one of the reasons is that this crisis landed on our laps as a species at the worst possible moment in human evolution that a collective crisis of this nature could have landed on their laps — in our laps, which is the late 1980s, the high point of the sort of free-market zealotry… right when Margaret Thatcher is saying there is no alternative, there is no such thing as society. This was a huge problem, because here we’re being told that, really, we can’t do anything collectively… we have to cut existing government programs, we have to privatize everything, when here we’re facing a crisis that requires unprecedented collective action, unprecedented collective investment, and yet we’re handing the tools over to private, for-profit companies…. And so, I think the important — what is important about reminding ourselves, OK, well, in the face of the Great Depression, in the face of the deepest economic crisis this country has ever faced, there was huge collective action, and — you know, whether it was the Civilian Conservation Corps planting 2.3 billion trees, setting up hundreds of camps across the country, tackling soil erosion, 800 new state parks, whether it’s hundreds of thousands of new works of art during the original New Deal, or, as you said, Juan, the Marshall Plan, which reminds us of another time of collective action. You know, as you said, it wasn’t just governments handing down these programs from on high out of the goodness of their hearts. It was the push and pull of social strife, strikes, militant action, rising socialism.

So here, Klein’s answer to (#1) (“why there is not already a GND”) is “free-market zealotry,” and (#2) (“strategy to get the GND”) is “collective action”, “the push and pull of social strife, strikes, militant action, rising socialism.” So Klein’s take is similar but not identical to Goodellls: Again, bad ideas are the problem; but collective action (very much not identical to “sheer human will,” if you know anything about the 1930s) is the solution.

3) “Naomi Klein: ‘We are seeing the beginnings of the era of climate barbarism'” [Naomi Klein, Guardian].

I feel a tremendous excitement and a sense of relief, that we are finally talking about solutions on the scale of the crisis we face. That we’re not talking about a little carbon tax or a cap and trade scheme as a silver bullet. We’re talking about transforming our economy. This system is failing the majority of people anyway, which is why we’re in this period of such profound political destabilisation – that is giving us the Trumps and the Brexits, and all of these strongman leaders – so why don’t we figure out how to change everything from bottom to top, and do it in a way that addresses all of these other crises at the same time? There is every chance we will miss the mark, but every fraction of a degree warming that we are able to hold off is a victory and every policy that we are able to win that makes our societies more humane, the more we will weather the inevitable shocks and storms to come without slipping into barbarism.

So here, Klein’s answer to (#1) (“why there is not already a GND”) is some version of thinking small (“we’re not talking about a little carbon tax”) and (#2) (“strategy to get the GND”) is “figure out how to change everything from bottom to top,” with social strife (“profound political destabilisation”) as a driver. Again, bad ideas are the problem; and some sort of collective action (“figure out”) is the answer.

4) “The Dawn of Climate Fascism” [Naomi Klein, The Intercept][1].

This is a crisis overwhelmingly created by the wealthiest strata of society: Almost 50 percent of global emissions are produced by the richest 10 percent of the world’s population; the wealthiest 20 percent are responsible for 70 percent….

The climate science will no longer be denied; what will be denied is the idea that the nations that are the largest historical emitters of carbon owe anything to the black and brown people impacted by that pollution. This will be denied based on the only rationale possible: that those non-white and non-Christian people are lesser than, are the other, are dangerous invaders.

… And unless there is a radical change not only in politics but in the underlying values that govern our politics, this is how the wealthy world is going to “adapt” to more climate disruption: by fully unleashing the toxic ideologies that rank the relative value of human lives in order to justify the monstrous discarding of huge swaths of humanity[2].

It’s going to take a lot more than a carbon tax or cap-and-trade. It’s going to take an all-out war on pollution and poverty and racism and colonialism and despair all at the same time.

So here, Klein’s answer to (#1) (“why there is not already a GND”) is “the wealthiest strata of society,” defined globally as as “the richest 10 percent of the world’s population, and (#2) (“strategy to get the GND”) is “a radical change in politics,” and “all out war.” Here, bad ideas are not the problem, but wealth (seen as income, apparently, or possessions, and not as a social relation) and the nature of the change mobilization (“all-out war”) is not specified.

6) “The Green New Deal: A Fight for Our Lives” [Naomi Klein, New York Review of Books]. (I think this is by far the best of by Klein, and it repays reading in full.)

My own view is that as flawed as each historical analogy necessarily is, each is still useful to study and invoke. Every one, in its own way, presents a sharp contrast to the tepid market-based approaches—whether carbon trading, offsetting, or taxing—that have characterized government responses to the climate crisis for decades. The New Deal, the World War II mobilizations, and the Marshall Plan all remind us that another approach to profound crisis was always possible and still is today. Faced with the collective emergencies that punctuated those decades, the response was to enlist entire societies, from individual consumers to workers to large manufacturers to every level of government, in deep transformations with clear common goals.

There are, moreover, all kinds of ways to raise financing, including means that attack untenable levels of wealth concentration and shift the burden to those most responsible for climate pollution. And it’s not hard to figure out who that is. We know, thanks to research from the Climate Accountability Institute, that a whopping 71 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions since 1988 can be traced to just one hundred corporate and state fossil-fuel giants, dubbed the “Carbon Majors.” In light of this, there are a variety of ‘polluter pays’ measures that can be taken to ensure that those most responsible for this crisis do the most to underwrite the transition[3]—through legal damages, through higher royalties, and by having their subsidies slashed. Direct fossil-fuel subsidies are worth about $775 billion a year globally, and more than $20 billion in the United States alone.

The very first thing that should happen is for these subsidies to be shifted to investments in renewables and efficiency.

As a sidebar: “[T]here are a variety of ‘polluter pays’ measures that can be taken.” Really? Is private property that sacrosanct? Can’t we nationalize our fossil-fuel giants, as we could have done with the big banks in the Crash?

Finally, Klein’s answer to (#1) (“why there is not already a GND”) is “attack untenable levels of wealth concentration,” and “one hundred corporate and state fossil-fuel giants, and (#2) (“strategy to get the GND”) is “to enlist entire societies.” Again, fortunately, bad ideas are not the problem, but capital (if I may leap there from “wealth concentration”) and the nature of the change is mobilization.

7) Finally, of everything in her book, what does Klein think is most important? She tweets:

So apparently “the wealthiest strata of society” and “one hundred corporate and state fossil-fuel giants” are of secondary importance. So now I’m a little lost. I think this framing is particularly important, since it leads the innocent to make ridiculous statements. From Vic Barrett, a plaintiff in Juliana v. United States:

[2] Distressingly, Barrett also says:

And I think with the climate crisis, what’s particularly like damning about it all, is that people of color, black people, have always been stewards of the earth, they’ve always been stewards of nature and have always taken care of the earth and what we have around us. And so, the fact that these systems, these white supremacist systems, have turned the earth against us is really what motivates me to keep doing the work and keep tapping into my ancestry and keep thinking about who I am and why I’m doing this.

A moment’s thought will show that if China is part of the climate change problem, then white supremacy is not the controlling factor.

* * *

I don’t mean to imply that Klein is writing in bad faith, or that Klein lacks expertise, or that her writing and her activism are not important and useful. And her writing is so voluminous, it’s entirely possible that I’m just wrong, and I’ve missed the sort of rigor I’m looking for. However, I think it’s reasonable to ask her to provide (#1) a clear explanation of why there is not already a GND, and (#2) a strategy to get the GND. Based on the takes, and based on Klein’s own writing, I don’t think Klein does. The house afire metaphor is a good one:

These precedents remind us of something equally important: we don’t need to figure out every detail before we begin. Every one of these earlier mobilizations contained multiple false starts, improvisations, and course corrections. What matters is that we begin the process right away. As Greta Thunberg says, “We cannot solve an emergency without treating it like an emergency.” We have to “act as if the house is on fire, because it is.”

If you are a fireman fighting a fire, you need, as it were, a theory of the fire:

In some cases, the use of water is undesirable. This is because some chemical products react with water to produce poisonous gases, or they may even burn when they come into contact with water (e.g., sodium). Another problem is that some products float on water, such as hydrocarbons (gasoline, oil, and alcohol, etc.); a burning layer can then be spread by the fire. If a pressurized fuel tank is endangered by fire it is necessary to avoid heat shocks that may damage the tank if it is sprayed with cooling water; the resulting decompression might produce a BLEVE (boiling liquid expanding vapor explosion). Electrical fires cannot be extinguished with water since the water could act as a conductor.

It’s not enough to know that you have a house on fire, or even that you desperately wish to extinguish it. Is the cause of the fire electrical, or not? Should we use water, or not? For our home, the earth, is the fire caused by bad ideas? White supremacy? Income disparity? Capital? And if combined, how? Surely our answer as to why there is no GND, and what we should do to get one, will vary, according to our theory of the cause of the fire? Given a theory of the fire, what is to be done? “Furious activity is no substitute for understanding,” as programmer H.H. Williams once said.

NOTES

[1] As readers know, I am a fan of Robert O. Paxton, who defines fascism as follows: “Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion.” If you’re an idealist, you can map that right onto the Christ Church shooter. If you’re not, you have more difficulty: You look for the “a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants,” and look in vain. That said, fascism is mutable; perhaps lone wolves are enough (though they certainly were not in the Reconstruction South, fascism’s Patient Zero). It’s not enough just to sling the adjective around, as so often is done on the Twitter.

[2] The argument could be made that the fall in life expectancy in the United States that Case and Deaton identify as “deaths of despair” shows that this “monstrous discarding” is already underway; uncomfortably for Klein’s thesis, the impact is greatest among whites (and, even more uncomfortably, there is no impact among the professional classes or the wealthy).

[3] Naomi Klein needs to talk to Stephanie Kelton.

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