Some say technical wizardry and unleashed market forces can come to our rescue, as green entrepreneurs chase the gold of alternative energy. But in “On Fire: The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal,” Naomi Klein makes a keenly argued, well-researched and impassioned case for why market capitalism cannot get us out of this mess and the only way to avert a climate breakdown is to undertake a radical reset of our entire economy. This will require a vast expansion of public investment, including sectors far beyond those directly associated with energy and climate resilience, such as health care, education and labor rights. Given that Klein was promoting a similar program before she explicitly tied it to climate action, one has to ask whether this truth is a little too convenient. In “The Shock Doctrine” (2007), she described “disaster capitalism,” in which corporations and the politicians they control never let a good crisis go to waste, using the pretext of emergencies to achieve neoliberal goals of privatization and erosion of the public sphere. Here it’s fair to ask if Klein and her colleagues in the Green New Deal movement are practicing “disaster socialism,” seeking to use the climate threat to vastly expand the role of government and quash corporate influence. Klein enthuses that “battling climate change is a once-in-a-century chance to build a fairer and more democratic economy,” and she doesn’t mince words about her belief that “climate change supercharges the preexisting case for virtually every progressive demand on the books, binding them into a coherent agenda based on a clear scientific imperative.”
Is the Green New Deal a plot to use the climate emergency as a pretense for socialism? Klein is well aware of this accusation. She makes her best case for why an effective societal response to the climate crisis must include a rejuvenation of genuine democracy that wrests power from the petrochemical and extractive industries; forces a more equitable distribution of resources; subsidizes massive new investments in energy, transit and housing infrastructure; and protects those whose lives are upended by the rapid economic transition. Parts of the argument are somewhat strained. Yes, we need comprehensive health-care reform, but does it absolutely have to be part of a climate package? Klein insists it does because an improved and fairer health system will help Americans weather the necessary economic dislocations and the expected increase in natural disasters.
Is the only plausible way to avert a climate breakdown a full transformation of our society from corporate to social democracy? Can’t we put out the climate fire first and then get the rest of our house in order? I don’t think this book will convince anyone who is not already fairly open to these ideas. Klein is not subtle about applying her ideological lens to the problem. However, if you are sympathetic to the goals of the Green New Deal but are as yet unconvinced, as I was before reading “On Fire,” you need to read this book. Klein marshals the most powerful arguments for why climate change cannot be effectively addressed without a simultaneous deep reckoning with our society’s other ills of wealth and income inequality, racial discrimination, and crumbling infrastructure.
As a scientist I was on the lookout for misrepresentations. It is, of course, not strictly true that “science says that political revolution is our only hope.” (Wouldn’t it be great if science could give us a blueprint for how to organize ourselves as a society?) But science does tell us that our current course, absent a radical and rapid change in our energy supplies, will lead to disaster. I am bothered by the fetishization of somewhat arbitrary deadlines, as in: “We are fighting for our lives. And we don’t have twelve years anymore; now we have only eleven. And soon it will be just ten.” But we are facing an existential threat, and perhaps the repetition of these numbers will help people appreciate the urgency, which is real. Basic quantitative reasoning confirms one of Klein’s central arguments — that the survival of a healthy biosphere on this finite planet is inconsistent with an economic system dependent on continuous growth. Whether or not one accepts every detail of the Green New Deal as currently conceived, it is hard to deny that a successful fix to the climate crisis will involve a radical reduction in corporations’ influence over our political process.
Klein’s tone is urgent but hopeful. She reminds us that looming disaster can sometimes bring out the best in people, awakening transformative impulses in the nick of time. She highlights the work of inspiring young activists to show us that no future is written in stone and that we have the choice, and the obligation, to change course. She sketches an alternative future, possibly within our grasp, which is imaginative and inspiring, a world where “day-to-day life for working people has been improved in countless ways, with more time for leisure and art, truly accessible and affordable public transit and housing, yawning racial and gender wealth gaps closed at last, and city life that is not an unending battle against traffic, noise and pollution.” The Green New Deal draws upon Roosevelt’s New Deal as historical analogy and proof-of-concept that we are capable of responding to crisis with creative transformation. Klein proposes that once again, government-supported artists should play a vital role, helping us imagine and realize our societal renovation as Works Progress Administration artists did in the 1930s.
Although Klein and the Green New Deal will be accused of building a Trojan horse for socialism, in the vision laid out in “On Fire,” capitalism is not discarded, just somewhat tamed. Klein talks about “democratic eco-socialism,” but the examples she holds up are Sweden and Denmark, places where capitalism is alive and well. The future United States she describes is not Venezuela. The pursuit of wealth is not eliminated, but obscene excess is constrained, with resources channeled back into supporting infrastructure for a cleaner, fairer economy and safety nets for those displaced in the transition. The market is alive but defanged. There’s still room in this picture for entrepreneurship and competition, with riches coming to those who can invent an efficient carbon-sucking widget. They would just have to pay their workers a decent wage and give back a fair share. Maybe it will really be all of the above: green capitalism chasing a new alternative gold rush within the sturdy guardrails provided by a strengthened public sector.
It’s not enough to lament the world we would have had if we had acted sooner or to picture the future we want to avoid. We need something to aspire to, to work toward. Dwight Eisenhower famously said that plans are useless but planning is indispensable. But here the plan is essential. It is lacking in detail, grandiose and surely flawed in some respects. But the people need a vision, and “On Fire” challenges us to choose the Green New Deal or try to find a better one — in a hurry. At present it is still a vague outline, not a detailed policy proposal. But this plan, or some version of it, is going to be part of our urgent national and international conversation on this most pressing of issues. Reading this book will equip you to enter into that dialogue with a rich understanding of the rationale. Klein lays it out vehemently and clearly for us to debate, adapt and improve upon if necessary. Time is of the essence, and we’d better choose right.
The (Burning) Case for a Green New Deal
Simon & Schuster.
308 pp. $27