Burning Questions of Our Planet

Against the Current, No. 205, March/April 2020

Steve Leigh

The Burning Case for a Green New Deal
By Naomi Klein
Simon and Schuster, 2019, 320 pages, $27 hardcover.

AS WITH HER previous book This Changes Everything, Naomi Klein lays out an excellent case for a rapid transition to clean energy and leaving fossil fuels in the ground. Her strongest political point is that the Green transformation must be multi-issue. There are two reasons for this:

1) Logically the green transformation requires massive government involvement against narrow market-oriented private interests.

This fundamental restructuring of the economy must take up housing, education and re-education for the new green jobs; opposition to the U.S. military, the largest single user of fossil fuels in the world; support for Native peoples trying to preserve the earth; the need to transfer wealth to the Global South to deal with climate devastation; the need to allow in climate refugees and hence oppose xenophobia; redistribution of wealth from the top 10-20%, the largest contributor to climate change; and more.

2) In order to build a strong enough movement to bring this about, all sectors of poor and working people need to be involved. This demands a “just transition” for workers, ending environmental racist policies, taxing the rich so that the burden of transition doesn’t fall on the people the movement must mobilize, etc.

The author stresses that she agrees with rightwing opponents of a Green transition in one key respect: It will require a fundamental transformation of the economy and society. They oppose it not just because they want to protect fossil fuel profits, but because they want to preserve the wealth and power of the top one percent in all respects.

This implies that the strategy of soft-pedaling what it will take to make the transition is wrong. Ecosocialists cannot logically deny that the need for a radical transformation will upend current power and economic relations.

We won’t fool the right wing by a “moderate” strategy, and we won’t successfully mobilize everyone who needs to be mobilized by appealing to the middle of the road. Climate denial will not be beaten by radical change denial!

Klein  points out that it is not just climate change deniers against whom we need to organize. The reality of climate change is so clear that many hard right people have become “Eco-Fascists,” whose ideology says that declining living standards and access to resources means that what is left should be saved for the superior race, for U.S. citizens. etc.

Their “ solution” to the climate crisis is to further victimize the poor and people of color: Close the borders, kick out immigrants of color etc. This was the clear position of the mass murderer of Muslims in ChristChurch New Zealand. His massacre ironically caused a police crack down which ended a rally against global warming nearby! (42-47)

Capitalism is the Disaster

More generally, Klein correctly sees the climate issue as the way the rich can impose even more attacks on the poor, referencing the “Disaster Capitalism” that she explained in her Shock Doctrine. Overall, she shows clearly that the solution must be collective, democratic and solidaristic rather than individualistic, hierarchical and competitive.

Finally, she makes the very important point that we need structural change. Lifestyle change will not cut it. (132). She extends this analysis to warn activists not to burn themselves out by believing that they alone can change the world. (136) We need to be part of a mass movement.

Her radical critique of the current political system extends to the Democratic Party’s version of the Green New Deal (264) which she feels leaves out a lot: challenging the military; cancelling the debt of the Global South; and the need to leave all fossil fuels in the ground.

[On many of these points, see Howie Hawkins’ extensive discussion of “The Real Green New Deal” in Against the Current 203, November-December 2019 — ed.]

Naomi Klein is an excellent writer and as usual makes a solid case for radical transformation of the energy system.

Yet this is exactly what’s frustrating about Klein’s writing on this topic. Her prescriptions don’t meet her analysis. Just as with This Changes Everything, she sees “capitalism” as an enemy of ecological sanity, but her definition of capitalism is often limited to its current brutal form of “neoliberal capitalism.”

Thus, even while targeting capitalism her solutions often assume the continuation of the market system. Accordingly, she also has too much faith in the ability of the capitalist state to enact the changes needed, even if under mass pressure. This alternates with her suspicion of central government and a call for local initiatives.

Her proposals (page 82 onward) show this clearly: 1) Expanded public sphere; 2) more planning in a mixed economy; 3) regulate the corporations; 4) local initiatives; 5) cut consumption of the top 20%;  6) tax the rich. These are mostly fine as partial measures, but assume the continuation of capitalism and therefore don’t get at the root of the problem.

Capitalism, not only in its neoliberal form, is anti-ecological in multiple ways:

1) It relies on continual expansion without regard to ecology or real human need.

2) Its commitment to profit, which is enforced by competition, means that pollution is considered an “externality.” Each competitive unit must cut its costs, both in terms of labor and its relation to the environment.

3) In its current form, capitalist production relies on fossil fuels. The whole industrial system is founded on this. It’s not just the oil, coal, natural gas, etc. industries that benefit economically from global warming, it is all the industries interconnected with them.

4) The capitalist state must support those industries in order to compete in the world market and system of states.  This state is run for and by capital. It is not democratic and cannot be made to be so.

All this means that the creation of ecologically sane capitalism through reform is impossible. The movement for ecological sanity can win reforms that lessen capitalist destruction. However, since the root of the problem is capitalism itself, the whole system must be replaced.

The capitalist state needs to be eliminated, replaced with actual democratic structures that can transform the economy. To end the threat of global ecocide, we need to eliminate private and bureaucratic ownership, not just regulate it. We need complete democratic control of the economy from the bottom up. Profit must be eliminated and replaced by human need.

On the way to this goal, On Fire —The Burning Case for a Green New Deal is a useful analysis of the problem, even if its prescriptions fall short.

March-April 2020, ATC 205

1 comment

  1. Dear editor,

    Naomi Klein offered a firsthand solution to climate devastation and her approach is very informative, but at the same time we don’t really want to lay the burden at the door steps of governments because it will reciprocally implies politics, capitalism, private interests and definitely the majority would crash away.

    Yes, we do need a collective cooperation regardless of the political system. We have all seen the power of democracy and it can easily corrupt individuals and community. Klein should not forget that climate change issue concern the same population who had already been affected by democracy.

    Where do the eco-fascists and the so-called ecologists get their resources? It is such a pity that we should attempt to tackle the world’s global issue with racist principles. Closing borders, massacre of any religious denominational attendants will not solve any problem. Capitalism might not be the worst disaster as it uses like any other system, the same available natural resources

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