Part One: “…that world view is killing us and needs to be replaced with another world view…”
"At the end of Naomi Klein’s two-day visit to Totnes, which included a talk (film of which is still to come) and meetings with many of the key players in Transition Town Totnes, I managed to grab an hour with her for an interview. Here, in two parts (part two tomorrow), is the discussion we had.
You’ve spent two days here in Totnes and met lots of people, and I wondered what your reflections are? What will you take away with you from your time here?
I’m still processing it I guess, but it’s been an amazing two days. What’s most striking to me is just how decentralised this process is and the sense of ownership that so many people have over it. There isn’t that “no I can’t really talk about it”, there’s a tremendous amount of people that have enough confidence to talk about it. Even at the event we did last night…. there were a lot of people in that room and people get nervous talking to hundreds of people, but people weren’t nervous about giving little speeches, which was really interesting.
In the format of that event, where I gave a talk and took some questions and then we opened it and people broke into groups and reported back – I was really struck that people didn’t leave! In North America, mostly, people would hear a speech and maybe stay for a few questions, but when it came to, “now we’re all going to participate and take the conversation to another level”, I think half the audience would walk out.
I got what I came for, because often, even with lectures, there’s a fairly consumerist approach to that and I always feel that these should be political spaces and so it was great to see that. In terms of the project that I’m working on, a big part of the reason I wanted to come was that there’s some really sophisticated thought going on here around what you call inner Transition, and so it was really wonderful to meet Sophy Banks and other people who are involved with that aspect of the project.
It’s really challenging for me because it’s definitely out of my comfort zone, but I know how important it is. I think that the failure to include the psychological, the spiritual, the mythological, and how we talk about traumatic political information, is a political failure and it’s something that I think the environmental movement really needs to learn. It was interesting, a lot of the people I spoke to today were talking about their experience at Greenham Common, and having come out of that movement and bringing that knowledge to the environmental movement.
I think that’s really something that has been missing. I think the movement has lost its feminine side. I have a bit of a thing about how we have to stop looking at the Earth from space – like with the astronaut’s eye view. I understand that theme of the planet being fragile as a breakthrough in environmental consciousness, but now I think we need to get over the idea that we’re hovering over the planet and can see it from space, and get back down in the dirt! It was really interesting to realise that it’s not a coincidence that this is happening here, that it’s because people have that history with other movements that have done this better and are bringing that collective history, that radical history to this project.
That was really interesting, because what I was talking about last night, about how we shouldn’t be surprised that there is a collapse in the belief in climate change on the right, because it is more of a challenge to that ideological world view. One thing that the women’s movement did really well was to understand that if you’re going to critique patriarchy, you’re essentially critiquing the world we all grew up with, right? But if you do that, you have to be around to pick up the pieces. You can’t just explode someone’s world view and walk out – “go be an activist!” I think it’s intensely political, that that component is so embedded here and that there’s so much collective wisdom around the psychology of change.
The other thing I was saying to Sophy and the group this morning was that the place where I had seen a Transition process up close and dramatically was when I was in Argentina for a couple of years, with the economic crisis that started in 2001. I was realising talking to this group of women today, all of whom are psychotherapists, that one of the things about Argentina that makes it really interesting is that it has the highest percentage of psychotherapists per capita! I think it was part of the reason why there was such a sophisticated political consciousness and a lot of psychologists and psychiatrists in Argentina are activists, and they do diagnose the wider society beyond the patient! That discussion of everyone understanding that they’re up against fear is quite unique.
Transition has thus far managed intentionally to really avoid being seen as political – it’s worked under the radar. One could argue that thus far it has been more effective for that. But how long do you imagine it’s possible to sustain that?
I think the more successful you are, the more you will hit up against entrenched power which will force you to have relationships with structures of power, whether it’s corporations or structures of government, that are less friendly than the ones you’ve had so far. I think there are several things that are unique about this community that have made it possible for you to have the oxygen and space to be able to take some control back, right? Because this is really about control.
The neoliberal era, the past 35 years, a lot of it has been about not just policies of deregulation, privatisation, but locking in those policies so it’s very legally hard to change the rules – locking the policies and trying to throw away the key. That’s why so much effort is put in to putting these trade agreements into place, so that it then becomes illegal for you to source locally. The central fights around free trade were that these trade regimes said to countries that you had to treat all corporations equally – it is illegal to favour your national corporations.
That was the centre piece of the free trade fight. They made it an act of discrimination, as if they were oppressed minorities! They took away the power to localise. I can say that if this got too successful in my country, in Canada, we would end up in a trade court for discriminating against American corporations, so then we would end up in an inherently political sphere. I don’t think there’s any reason necessarily to rush it, but I do think that as you’re more successful as it spreads to more regulated countries and those Transition projects grow, there will necessarily be more confrontation.
I came here from California – I was giving a couple of speeches in California and I went to Oakland and spent a day with people associated with this really exciting plan, which is partially inspired by what you’re doing here. They don’t call it Transition but the people there know about what’s going on here. They’ve developed an energy plan with their local government in Oakland and it’s a group called Oakland Climate Action Coalition, it’s out of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights and this is the group that Van Jones started. That centre hosted this Coalition that helped write this climate plan – and it’s the most ambitious climate plan of any municipality in the US.
They have an emission reduction target of 36% below 2005 levels which is not enough, but a lot better than what they’re doing on Capitol Hill. What’s interesting is that Oakland couldn’t be more different to Totnes! In some ways, you do have a history of resistance: to GMOs, nuclear – it’s not like it’s an apolitical community by any means. Oakland is the birthplace of the Black Panthers, it’s dealing with outrageous criminal justice polices, mass incarceration of youth of colour, and that’s the context in which the Ella Baker Centre emerged, fighting police violence and mass incarceration.
One of the organisers there said to me “it’s really strange for us to be working with our local council because as an organisation we have always been in confrontation with local authorities in the form of the police”. I guess I’m just raising this because some of the discourse here implies that you have to choose whether or not you work with local authorities or have a relationship of some resistance or confrontation, whereas there, because it’s a much more economically disadvantaged community dealing with a very different set of issues, they’re developing an organising model where they continue to have a relationship of resistance with local authorities around criminal justice – that’s their reason for being.
At the same time, they did work with their local council to draft this visionary climate policy. I hope that it’s possible to do both at the same time, because I think we have to engage with our political structures to the extent that we can, but if we pretend that our political differences don’t exist and that we’re all friends in every arena, then we erase very real systems of oppression. I know this issue of diversity comes up a lot here and I think that certainly in some communities in the US, if you’re not talking about the systems that are actively oppressing those communities then you don’t have any hope of being a genuine hope for those communities. What do you think? Does that make any sense?
It does, yeah. It’s an ongoing debate within Transition and certainly here in Totnes, about being explicitly linked to one or other political party. I think it’s very interesting , last night you talked about the need to come out fighting against climate change and with a broad coalition and coherent response, and arguing and linking it with economics and so on.
You are doing that in your actions.
Yes, but politically, the thing about that that’s interesting is that actually the question of relocalisation is much more familiar territory for the right than for the left.
Here. Certainly at the moment with the Conservative agenda it’s very much around localism and devolving power to local councils and all that kind of stuff – at the same time as cutting money from everywhere. But actually, that idea of supporting local economies is actually an idea that sits much more comfortably with the right than with the left. Certainly in terms of Transition, there’s more familiar territory, in some aspects of what we’re trying to do, on the right than on the left, which has been interesting.
I think we don’t have exactly that same tradition, but the idea of self-sufficiency is a core value in any rural community. It’s a little bit more foreign in cities – what does self reliance or security mean in cities? But anybody who has this tradition of living on the land – those ideas are not threatening there, they’re very resonant. But I don’t think we have the same thing you have here of a powerful right party that talks about local economy because free trade is so much a part…..this is why maybe I see it as more political than you do because free trade has been rammed down our throats so aggressively and it’s been a big political battle.
We are locked in with these trade deals so the idea that we could do relocalisation in a depolitical way in the North American context is….a bit of a fantasy I think. We are going up against the most powerful, political project – and actually not just of the right, it is the neoliberal project.
It was interesting here, we tried to get funding from the local council to do a local food directory and we were told that they couldn’t fund it because it would be classed as supporting protectionism. It was extraordinary! That stuff is very much out there.
Even the phrase ‘protectionism’. Transition is a protectionist project, you are trying to protect yourself! But it’s been a dirty word for so long. It is an ideological shift. I really don’t know the answer – you know your community and you clearly know how to get things done here. You’re using language that is not alienating people and you’re building bridges across these divides. I wasn’t saying last night “you need to do this”, but I think more broadly, there is something going on where a world view is saying that there will always be more, that there are no limits, there’s a new frontier around the corner, technology will come and save us, that that world view is killing us and that that world view needs to be replaced with another world view.
I think that we can’t be surprised that the people that believe in that world view most proudly and unapologetically and have a great deal of their identity tied up in that world view are going to respond very angrily to this information. I don’t think we deal with that enough, because I think the way to deal with that is to say, “okay, this is about world views and we do have another world view.” Maybe I use a language that is too overtly political and I should talk about world views instead of ideologies, instead of politics, but to me it is so linked to politics – the whole frontier ethos.
Who embodies that in the US? Sarah Palin. She comes along at this moment where polar bears are on the cover of Newsweek and we’re finally realising there are limits to how much we can expand and suddenly this person magically appears that no one’s ever seen before and announces that there’s Alaska and you can come up and “drill, baby drill!” People are cheering and screaming, “drill baby, drill!” It’s turned into kitsch this last stage, this last gasp of the frontier project! It’s just so incredibly kitschy.
Sarah Palin’s a laugh because she has her own reality TV show where we’re celebrating the beauty of the frontier at the same time she’s inviting energy companies to come up and drill and it’s super sexualised and it’s absolutely weird. Something is going on, and there’s a franticness to this desire to protect this world view. I think in the same way you recognise the need to have an inner Transition process, we need to have an environmental movement that understands that if you are going to challenge and collapse that world view, you have to talk about why a different world view could lead to better lives.
That, to me, is a conversation about politics, economics and power. It isn’t just a conversation about psychology. Because if you don’t engage in that then we have no hope of countering this last very dangerous gasp. I guess the other issue that I’m still struggling with here is that one of the questions that comes up a lot is how does change happen? It seems to me that the premise you’re working from here is that change is going to be forced upon us by peak oil and my fear is that we have too much oil – too much unconventional fuel of various sources; not just oil but natural gas, coal.
These new technologies will allow us to go well beyond the environmental tipping point. James Hansen came up to Canada recently and he said, “if you go after the tar sands, we’ll go beyond the tipping point”. I think there’s differences to if you’re living on an island, to living in North America where there’s this frenzy going on, this last pillage of the last remaining fossil fuels. What we’re being told is that there’s enough natural gas and coal to last us for another 100 years, we don’t even know what’s under the melting Arctic ice!
I’m worried that we need a strategy of change that doesn’t rely on the coming of an oil shock, a price shock – we need to change without the market forcing us to change. That may well be different here, because I think you are in a more precarious energy situation than we are in North America. In some ways I think it would be a blessing if we were in a more precarious energy situation, because it would force that change, but everything I’m seeing right now, what really terrifies me is that if these stories that we tell ourselves about how there will always be more, and another frontier, are manifesting themselves in this Jared Diamond-esque hell, a suicidal collapse. I don’t feel that we have the luxury to wait for change to be imposed from the outside and just have to decide whether we’re going to manage it or not.
You’ve been very supportive of the UK and the USUncut movement, and they’re doing great work mobilising people around the impact of the cuts that are being imposed here, as well as pointing out the inequalities around tax and so on….but is there not, in campaigning against the cuts without also an analysis that notes that actually for the UK to meet its climate change target, by 2050 we need to have the size of carbon footprint that Mozambique has today, and also the end of cheap energy and the vast scale of the debt we have and all of that might combine to mean the end of growth… do you think that if we have a movement that’s against cuts, we’re creating unrealistic expectations that we can get back to growth and we can live in a world where we don’t have cuts anymore? Do you think it sets unrealistic expectations for the future?
I don’t think that their position, certainly in the US, is that there don’t have to be any cuts. Rather it’s that we’re cutting the wrong things, and even if this is not being said by the organisations, I can say it. I think we’re cutting the services that would be most crucial in the context of extreme weather and more natural disasters. We saw that in New Orleans – what happens in a city where the public sector has been gutted?
If we look at who’s getting cut in Wisconsin, it’s the public sector, front line workers. And particularly in the US we have such a bloated military budget. People aren’t saying, “this is sustainable”, they’re saying, “your priorities are insane.” I do think it would be useful to have a layer added to that discussion about climate and so far it’s not, movements are very silo-ed.
I think that the need for education and resilient public infrastructure in the context of climate change has to be part of an anti-cuts movement; an understanding of the role of education, of public funding of research. This is all part of thinking about Transition and developing the technologies we need and making sure they’re in public hands and making sure we can do the technology transfers we want to do. This conversation should be much more integrated.
What’s interesting is that a lot of these Uncut activisits within the UK are also climate activists, but they separate the two roles. It’s not that they don’t have a green awareness, it’s that so far, with this discourse, people feel they have to wear different hats when they’re doing their anti cuts work or when they’re doing their green work. Even when you read their bios on Twitter you see they’re a member of UK Uncut and Bright Green! Bring them together! It’s only a matter of time.
But I don’t see any contradiction between protecting public infrastructure and understanding that we’re going to be facing a much more turbulent future and that we need a zero carbon future – I don’t think that’s a contradiction. We will need that public infrastructure, a decentralised, community-owned public infrastructure but not a privatised public infrastructure, not a gutted public infrastructure that has been cut and cut and left to rot like New Orleans was.
If you look at all of the studies around which countries are the most vulnerable to climate change – the countries that top the list, it’s not just about geography, it’s about the fact that we understand that countries are most vulnerable to climate change if they don’t have public infrastructure to deal with disasters. The fact that we’re investing so heavily in military and border control at the same time we’re cutting infrastructure – it’s a choice about how we are going to deal with climate change.
It says, “we’re going to try and fortress ourselves and protect what we’ve got”. I think with a lot of government models there are choices to be made, even if it’s not made explicit that the reason we’re investing so much in borders has to do with the fact that we know there are going to be more climate refugees. That isn’t made explicit but I’m convinced it’s part of what’s driving a huge amount of spending on the fortress industry."
Part Two. “we must address inequality if we’re going to deal with climate change”.
"You talked last night about the need for a new coalition in response to climate change, on that could come out fighting… this is the focus of your new book, but I wonder if you are in a position to start sketching out what that might look like?
I’m not sure I’m ready to do that. The only thing I can say is that people, as you know here, people don’t get involved just because it’s climate. People go to a protest because of climate change but they don’t do what they’re doing in Wisconsin – occupying the state capital for almost a month – and this is why politicians feel they can ignore climate issues. Even the people who care, as opposed to the people that deny anything is happening, even the people who care don’t care that much! They always rank it at the bottom of a list of all these other issues. They care more about education, they care more about unemployment, they care more about health.
So obviously the task is one of integration and to show how climate is connected to health, it’s to show how a more resilient future needs an education system and to me it needs a powerful public education system. I think that there is something to learn from the coalitions that emerged around the so called anti-globalisation movement and the commonalities that emerged. I don’t think any of this is a new idea, but I do think there needs to be a really clear vision for what’s going to happen to people who lose their jobs and livelihoods, and this is something I don’t think the environmental movement has ever done that well.
There’s a lot of literature out there about what a just Transition would look like and what sort of retraining would be in place and how you get past that fear. But I think there are a lot of opportunities for the labour and environmental movements to work together…and this is why I think what you’re doing here is so important, that it’s about articulating a coherent vision of Transition that includes every sector. I think that needs to be done everywhere. Then I think the coalitions emerge really organically.
People can see their place in that vision. But obviously where unemployment is more of an issue, where affordable housing is more of an issue, those issues have to be placed more at the centre. Talking to people here, it doesn’t seem like people are all that concerned about jobs, about creating jobs out of this. Whereas I think in most parts of the world that’s the first question – how am I going to make a living? Seeing that this could be an opportunity not just for a healthier life with more community connection but that there could be more economic stability than they currently have. That would be a major motivator. There has to be a way of talking about that outside of the growth paradigm, which is why you end up just talking about everything! I don’t see how you can do this without talking about economic models and politics – it’s an intensely political thing, you are talking about capitalism.
Last night you were talking very much about the need to name capitalism and be explicit about it. The danger with that, you were saying, was that if you don’t support capitalism you by default must support socialism or communism. What’s the fourth ‘ism’? Is that what you’re trying to sketch out with this book?
What I’m trying to sketch out are the areas where we concretely benefit from dealing with climate change. I think more and more people are understanding that we have a deep crisis of inequality and what I’m trying to sketch out is how you must address inequality if you’re going to deal with climate change, both within our countries and between our countries. That is something that we don’t need to be terrified of, it’s actually something liberatory and exciting and I think that the number of people in the world who would be empowered by that vision is much greater than the number of people that would be frightened by that vision, but there are definitely people in the world who are frightened by that vision.
This is why I don’t think it serves to pretend that this is the issue that transcends all politics – it doesn’t! There has to be a redistribution of resources and the people that have the vast majority of those resources now are going to protect what they have. As soon as this starts feeling really threatening there will necessarily be some confrontations. This is what I was saying last night – the fact that American supremacy is threatened by climate action because a just climate response would see the US and other rich countries having less so that others could have more is what has stood in the way.
So what do we do about it, not talk about it? I get flack from some of the big green groups because I talk about climate debt and reparation and they say, “you’re just making our work harder, you’re just giving fodder to the right.” There is so much self-censorship around these issues. I wonder what would happen if we started telling the truth. Because this idea that we’re going to pull something over on people and maybe sneak it in – I don’t think it’s working.
Maybe it did work, but like I said, the whole discourse on the right is about how climate change is a socialist plot to bring in world government and redistribution of wealth! That’s the discussion that’s going on. We’re not in any way responding to it and laying out a world view and saying, “yeah, we do believe in internationalism and here’s why. We do believe in redistribution of wealth and here’s why we do think it will benefit your community and the vast majority of people on this planet and here’s why we don’t have to be afraid of it.”
We’re just going, “Green jobs, green capitalism, change your light bulbs, this isn’t as scary as you think.” It isn’t as scary as they think, but not because it isn’t a dramatic change. It’s not as scary as they think because we need those changes on a dramatic level in so many ways – it’s actually a gift to have the opportunity to change. But the idea that we can avoid a discussion, to me, is a failure to recognise that the discussion is happening, we’re just not participating in it, or letting them entirely define the terms of what we believe in. I don’t believe in world government but I do believe in an international climate agreement. So let’s talk about it!
One question we always get asked when we talk about resilience and localisation is that question about if Totnes, for example, were to become completely self sufficient, self-reliant, producing, say, 80% of its food seasonally around the year, aren’t you condemning farmers in the developing world to misery and so on? Our response is always that the food system that has given us the means to bring food from all around the world and to turn rural economies around the world into export economies has been a horribly disastrous process, and generally by the time an economy is air freighting its green beans to Marks and Spencers in London, something generally went horribly wrong about ten years before, and that actually what we need is a process of building food resilience in both of those places.
There is a much more vibrant food security movement in the global south.
Exactly. So I wondered what your thought were on those two things and the balance between those two things, and whether there is the risk that becoming more localised here could be detrimental to the developing world or actually if done properly could be beneficial to both parties.
I think that food security is a much more urgent issue to poorer countries. They’re already very vulnerable to the price shocks connected to the price of oil and other factors – we’ve seen food riots and it’s connected to the revolutions or attempted revolutions we’re seeing at the moment. It’s just a lie that this is some sort of precious northern issue and we have the privilege to think about it and we’re starving the rest of the world in our attempt to have more food security.
By the same token, you hear the same argument against the movements of the global south for small plot farming, ecological farming methods, saying this will not feed the world. If you want to feed the world it’s GMOs and large scale farming… these are the debates that are going on around whether Africa needs a ‘Green Revolution’. This is the oldest argument – we’re currently being told we’re part of a plot to starve Africa. But to me this is why it is important to talk about what our genuine, ecological, colonial and climate debts are to the global south, because I do think there needs to be a distribution of technology and other resources to the global south in recognition of those debts, as well as debt cancellation. We need to do this at the same time as we in the North get off fossil fuels, which of course also benefits developing countries that are highly vulnerable to climate change. Because it is true that in the absence of any kind of industrial capacity, which is the case for some countries in the world, they do have to export agricultural and other raw resources in order to buy the basics like eye glasses and we have to be aware of that. So the question is: how can that capacity be developed in low-carbon ways for all of us, and there is no way to do that without talking about historical debts and historical responsibility.
The climate crisis is not a crisis that is being felt most intensely by the people most responsible for creating it. The way we address climate change has to recognise the profound injustice of the way this crisis is playing out, and it must recognise the global south’s right to develop. We’re going to have to meet in the middle somewhere. We’re going to be growing less and there has to be room for growth in some other countries. It’s not just a matter of recognising the debts owed to the global South, it’s also about recognising the debts owed to indigenous people and descendants of slaves within the global North.
Of course this is really controversial to say. As soon as you start talking about why these persistent inequalities are in still place you come up against this central narrative of the right to reinvent yourself constantly and the right to act as if every new day is a brand new invention! But the truth is that unless we talk about the roots of inequality, we will not face the climate crisis.
For example, the last remaining fossil fuels, most of them, are on indigenous land because they’re the most remote areas, and so the fact that we have not dealt with these debts and the fact that there is so much inequality and poverty on Indian reservations in North America is the reason why some of these communities are willing to drill for oil and dig for coal, because it’s their only choice left.
I recently visited the Northern Cheyenne native reservation in Montana. They’ve been protecting their land for 60 years from coal development because it violates their spiritual beliefs, but they’ve got something like 80% unemployment, as well as massive problems of meth addiction. So finally some people are saying: “you know, maybe we’ll dig up that coal.” One of the key leaders in that community, a key leader against coal development, he said to me “I can’t keep asking my people to suffer with me”, meaning he can’t keep asking the community to sacrifice if this is the only option for getting out of poverty.
They’ve got all kinds of ideas for green development, for what they could do to create jobs instead of digging up the coal, but they can’t get the support for those projects. Why should they get the support? Well, you can’t talk about why they should get the support unless you talk about colonialism, and unless you talk about why this group of people are on that reservation, how a history of violence and theft and racism still plays out in people’s bodies and minds, and what they lost and what they’re owed. This is the hardest discussion to have, but it’s intimately connected to the climate crisis because unless we have that discussion and close these gaps, that fossil fuel will eventually be burned and it will hurt us all.
I feel like this is the moment to come to terms with our history in so many ways, because this is a crisis born of the industrial project that was fuelled by colonial extraction and mass dislocation. It all comes together with this crisis. When we talk about storytelling, all of our stories are in crisis and we need new stories about how we got here, at whose expense, who paid the price, how we’re going to do things differently. That means learning from the very people who got the worst deal out of the industrial era."