Book review | On Fire

Naomi Klein presents the climate crisis for civilisation in stark terms. All is not lost, she says, but important debates and conversations need to be had.

In her latest essay collection, On Fire: The Burning Case for A Green New Deal (Penguin 2019), Canadian journalist and activist Naomi Klein presents the stakes of the climate crisis for civilisation. From the burning forests of North America to the parched city of Cape Town, the book is a portrait of a world on the precipice.

As Klein demonstrates, the neoliberal status quo of extractive industries and wasteful consumerism is ensuring a bleak near future of constant weather disruption, miserable austerity and even more horrific class, racial and gender domination.

Klein rejects the illusory promise that governments and the free market will somehow find last minute solutions to resolve this existential threat. Rather, political mobilisation, mass civil disobedience and the refusal to participate in a broken system are the deciding forces that can slow down our death-delivering economy before it takes everything down with it.

Along with detailing the severity of our current situation, Klein offers an urgent, realisable vision for a post-carbon future. The book argues for a Green New Deal, where climate change and inequality are tackled together. Although written from the perspective of the global North, the book offers a wealth of evidence as to how the roll-out of clean technology and the restoration of damaged ecosystems can be combined with immediate material gains for workers and the unemployed. Rather than the environment standing in the way of economic development, mitigating and adapting to global warming can make life tangibly better for the vast majority of humanity.

Climate justice

Klein is strongly influenced by the concept of climate justice. This framework analyses the climate crisis as the result of centuries of colonial plunder and capitalist exploitation. In essence, the Global North owes the South a mammoth debt. Along with restructuring internal economies, wealthier countries will have to be held accountable in subsiding and supporting a just transition in the poorer countries already at the frontlines of extreme weather.   

But the chaotic spectre of ecological breakdown is also an opportunity. The overwhelming scientific evidence is that without radical systemic change, the horizons of the future will be dark and narrow. The material reality is that progressive, emancipatory politics are the last bulwark against an unimaginably horrific global collapse.

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From creating more habitable and beautiful cities and communities, to drastically improved public services and fewer work hours, adapting to climate breakdown necessitates confronting socioeconomic inequality.

In the South African context, a just transition could address endemic inequality and the brutal legacies of colonialism and apartheid. The move towards renewables can create millions of new jobs and save South Africans from Eskom’s death spiral, while ensuring that workers in mining and fossil fuels are reskilled and retrained. It provides the impetus to reimagine our government, food systems and daily lives in ways that could give our broken society a new sense of purpose and possibility.

End of history’s counter-narrative   

With her hugely influential books, No Logo (2000) and The Shock Doctrine (2007), Klein was at the forefront of reporting on the dirty realties of the post-Cold War neoliberal consensus. In the 2000s, when its cheerleaders were proclaiming a glorious “end of history”, she showed a counter-narrative of corporate manipulation, hellish sweatshops, disaster capitalism and the authoritarianism of the war on terror. 

This latest work shows neoliberalism as an ironic victim of its own success. Having decimated every barrier to the expansion of the market, global capitalism is now destroying our world’s basic life-support systems.  

The result is that we live in a culture of cognitive dissonance. We suffer through the grind and anxiety of daily life under late capitalism, while haunted by the sense that an apocalyptic end is around the corner. In 2019, new political forces are organising around this sense of fear. 

22 March 2015: Naomi Klein, Canadian author, journalist and social activist, who in her latest publication, On Fire: The Burning Case for A Green New Deal, presents the climate emergency’s stakes. (Photograph by Adam Berry/Getty Images)
22 March 2015: Naomi Klein, Canadian author, journalist and social activist, who in her latest publication, On Fire: The Burning Case for A Green New Deal, presents the climate emergency’s stakes. (Photograph by Adam Berry/Getty Images)

The right is already responding to climate change with ethnonationalism and calls for the richer countries to fortify themselves against migration. Disturbingly, Klein identifies a nascent “eco-fascism”, a brutal worldview that justifies sacrificing the poor to climate chaos. This year, both the Christchurch and El Paso terror attacks were carried out by shooters who claimed that immigrants need to be killed to protect dwindling resources. 

However, a deep sense of dread is also fuelling progressive responses. The existing climate justice movement has been given a new sense of urgency by the children’s climate strike, a bold initiative by youth facing the prospect of a grim, or even, no future. The title of the book, in fact, comes from the eviscerating words Swedish teen activist Greta Thunberg used against the global elites smugly gathered at this year’s Davos summit: “Adults keep saying: ‘We owe it to the young people to give them hope.’ But I don’t want your hope. I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic. I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act. I want you to act as you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if our house is on fire. Because it is.”

Green rebranding

The idea of a Green New Deal is winning support from the left wing of the Democratic Party and Labour in the United Kingdom. But some radical and socialist critics of the policies have argued that it fails to decisively break with the logic of capitalism, class rule and extractive imperialism, instead offering a green rebranding of the status quo. While there is no space to unpack these arguments in this review, serious debates and discussions need to be had. 

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Nevertheless, Klein offers an expansive, cautiously optimistic vision of how to reclaim the future. She joins thinkers like Paul Mason and Aaron Bastani in arguing that the left needs to rewire the course of technological modernity and assert the possibility of an emancipated, liberated society.  Global warming is not some religious judgement from on high. It’s the product of centuries of greed, racism, sexism and other social evils of our hierarchical societies. On Fire is a call to think boldly about the world we want. At the end of a dark, pessimistic decade, it’s a reminder that building a world with less want, scarcity and exploitation and with more freedom and liberty for ordinary people is not only desirable, it’s also achievable. It’s also  the only way out of the climate barbarism into which capitalism is descending.

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