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Revolt to save the planet

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As the climate movement intensifies, Sarah Bates says a new book by activist and author Naomi Klein raises serious questions about what action can win a sustainable world
Issue 2672
The Green New Deal is a key demand of the new climate movement (Pic: Guy Smallman)

‘It’s going to take an all-out war on pollution and poverty and racism and colonialism and despair all at the same time.”

That’s the rallying cry from author Naomi Klein in her latest book, On Fire—The Burning Case for a Green New Deal.

It’s partly a collection of her previous speeches and essays, covering everything from the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in 2010 to conferences organised by super-rich climate deniers.

Its focus is the call for a Green New Deal (GND), which has become a key demand of climate activists.

The GND is a demand for a “ten-year national mobilisation” for a programme of investment focused on mitigating and adapting to climate chaos.

It wants green jobs,100 percent renewable energy, zero-emissions transport, local involvement in planning decisions and less pollution from the agricultural sector. The raft of radical demands includes green jobs on a family wage, high-quality healthcare, affordable housing and high quality education for everyone.

Klein is uncompromising about how desperately serious change is needed—and who, or what, is to blame.

Why capitalism can’t solve the climate crisis
Why capitalism can’t solve the climate crisis
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“Responding to climate change requires that we break every rule in the free-market playbook and that we do so with great urgency,” she argues.

For Klein, capitalism is squarely in the firing line. And the system comes in for an eviscerating takedown in the book.

She describes it as “the biggest obstacle” in fighting for a society that can challenge extreme weather, rising sea levels, climate refugees and heightened war, poverty and racism.

How did we reach the stage where the planet is teetering on the brink of climate catastrophe? Klein makes a good case for the 1980s being a key turning point.

She says panic about climate change was high profile in the mass media for the first time in the 1980s. But at the same time a “global neoliberal revolution went supernova”.

Klein says the growing concern for the planet was “swamped by a tide of elite, free-market fanaticism”.

“It was this convergence of historical trends” Klein argues, “that derailed the momentum”.

But it’s not just a certain brand of unrestricted capitalism that’s the problem—it’s the entire system itself.

It’s a system where bosses ruthlessly exploit the vast majority of people and make money from their labour. The rich see Earth as simply a set of resources that they can plunder.It can seem that the impacts of climate chaos are so dramatic that everyone has an interest in fighting it. But capitalism is an illogical system.

Each individual boss looks to protect their own stake in the game, without any consideration for the wider impact of their actions.

That’s why competing energy companies pour billions of pounds into searching the same areas for the next oil reserves.These decisions make sense for each individual firm—but as a whole their actions spell disaster for the planet.

And bosses’ influence isn’t just limited to the board room.

For instance, fossil fuel lobbyists have spent decades pouring scorn on climate science, and throwing money at governments to influence policy.

Klein compares the involvement of fossil fuel fat cats in state planning to “tobacco executives being repeatedly invited by the US government to come up with policies to ban smoking”. This hints at some of the more fundamental problems with the GND.

Of course, socialists would support all the proposals suggested by the GND.


But with the initial bill voted down by the US Senate, and governments riddled with corruption and the influence of big business, how would we win them?

Klein argues that one of the most important aspects of the GND is how it could unite movements against racism and sexism, and for workers’ rights.

“If it became law, despite all the powers arrayed against it, it would give a great many of us a sense of working together toward something bigger than ourselves”, she said.

It’s right that ordinary people mount battles for improving society in the here and now. But the ultimate goal shouldn’t be improving the current system, but overthrowing it.

It’s possible to build a society guided by the principles of collective decision making and rational production, not based around profit.

Klein agrees, calling capitalism “a tiny blip in the collective story of our species”.

She argues for people to “confront that economic order and try to replace it with something that is rooted in both human and planetary security, one that does not place as its centre the quest for growth and profit at all costs”.

The question is how?

Klein may be right to say that an explosion of neoliberalism coincided with, and restricted, an understanding of climate and ecological crisis 30 years ago. But the “supernova” of the 1980s didn’t come out of nowhere.

It followed a “stagflation” crisis in the 1970s—a combination of rising inflation, recession and a falling rate of profit.

This spelt disaster for the bosses, who until then had accepted a level of state intervention in the economy.

In other words, the explosion of neoliberalism a decade later wasn’t caused by nasty people with dangerous ideas, but produced by a crisis of capitalism.

For revolutionary socialists, the path for transformative change lies in challenging this system as a whole—not just a certain brand of unregulated capitalism.

That will require a mass movement to wrestle power from the rich in society.

It would mean a revolutionary process involving millions of people in Britain and billions across the world.

Arguments and debate about how to fight climate chaos is important, but it can’t end there.

People will need to be organised and confident enough to challenge the existing order.

Fossil fuel companies aren’t just going to walk away from the source of their wealth and profits. They will fight any resistance from ordinary people tooth and nail.

And under capitalism the rule of the rich is protected by the militarised section of the state, the police.

Police don’t always respond to protests with violence. It depends on the balance of forces—and sometimes they use other tactics.

But if a movement presents a serious threat, they will respond with brute force, detain demonstrators and use the full force of the law to prosecute them.

This can be seen when activists chain themselves to the gates of a fracking site, or graffiti climate justice slogans over the headquarters of Shell.

This doesn’t happen because Shell has some sort of conspiratorial relationship with Scotland Yard. Rather, it’s because the role of the police is to maintain the status quo and protect the wealthy.

A socialist world wouldn’t see the rule of the few protected by gangs of armed thugs like the police.

It would be based on sharing Earth’s resources so that everyone’s needs were met. 


Production would be based around what was useful and sustainable for wider society—not what is most profitable for bosses.

And all decisions would be made by democratic bodies made up of elected, accountable and removable people.

It wouldn’t be a system directed by unelected bureaucrats, special advisers or billionaire landowners.

We have seen glimpses of how society could be run differently. In Russia in 1917 ordinary people overthrew their rulers and organised society for themselves.

Unfortunately the revolution in Russia, and other revolutionary movements, have ultimately been crushed by the rich and powerful.

But they still show how ordinary people have the potential to run society. Part of what makes the climate strikes, anti-fracking camps and Extinction Rebellion occupations so inspiring is that they are all organised by ordinary people.

Many of these activists never thought they would be gluing themselves to fracking machinery, building a barricade or leading chanting on a megaphone.

But ordinary people have the skills, motivation and experience to shape a movement and win real changes.

Socialism would take workers’ collective knowledge and existing technology to throw everything at the climate crisis and treat it like the emergency it is.

As Klein says, “When the future of life is at stake, there is nothing we cannot achieve.”

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