Panel discussion of Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate.

Susan Goldman
Thursday, December 1, 2016

Most of us here are aware that we need to decrease carbon emissions drastically and prevent an increase of the temperature to no more than 2 degrees centigrade to avoid catastrophe and chaos.

I know many of you believe it is too late to make the necessary changes to prevent climate related destruction, that this global capitalist system is too entrenched and cohesive to be disrupted. The neoliberal free market ideology is not compatible with slowing climate change and mitigating its effects. Without a major adjustment to the economic system and increased political and social will, the radical changes we need are impossible. We can view the climate crisis through different lenses, and that may change from day to day. I vacillate between 1] we can do this, humans have proven a willingness to sacrifice, cooperate and be generous to 2] It’s hopeless with the endless war and hyper consumption that surrounds us. Naomi’s premise is, that with these climate change threats, we are presented with an opportunity to transform our economic system and build something radically better. The question she asked, “History knocked on your door, did you answer?” is a clarion call.

I will focus on two themes. First, what could be done that might change the tragic course we’re on, no matter how improbable and the many obstacles we face, and second, on the land, air and water rights of indigenous peoples, and on climate debt.

Naomi supports the view that we have to work from the bottom up, locally. The people of communities, native and non-native, must form an alliance in the cities and rural areas in which they live, and rise up.

So what’s a model for change?

The two pronged approach is first, building alternative local institutions for a green future that could be a model for creating alternatives on a grander scale. And second, resistance to the extractivist industries, for example, civil disobedience, legal actions, which has been coined “Blockadia”. You can’t have one without the other. BUILD and RESIST. This approach is working and changes are happening. The scale is small and is a model that needs to grow exponentially to make a difference. Naomi refers to the words of John Jordan, a long time ecological activist in Britain and France, describing resistance and alternatives as “The twin strands of the DNA of social change. One without the other is useless.”

Examples of the first “strand”, building alternative institutions, abound in “This Changes Everything” and elsewhere. Here are 3 examples:

1] The growing number of Transition Towns that started in Britain and are an offshoot of communities concerned about peak oil and climate change. They have been working at creating sustainable, resilient towns and now there are more than 500 “official” Transition Towns in more than 38 countries. Google “Transition Towns” and you’ll find numerous sustainable ideas, including growing food locally, Eco friendly housing, local currency, bartering, clean renewable energy sources, to name a few.

2] In cities destroyed by out-sourcing and the economic crash of 2008, like Cleveland and Detroit, alternative models have sprung up, including worker owned co-ops, solar energy, wind turbines and organic farming and local agriculture.

3] Communities devastated by climate related superstorms have bounced back to create alternatives. One example from the “Beautiful solutions” website connected to “This Changes Everything” is the Rockaways community in New York after hurricane Sandy in October 2012. Occupy Sandy and other groups helped local residents build and finance their own worker-owned companies and established Rockaways residents as critical voices in determining their economic future. Two new cooperatives, Roca Mia Construction and La Mies Bakery, have already launched. Little by little, Worker-Owned Rockaways Cooperatives is planting the seeds for a new, community-led economy in the Rockaways.

That second “strand” of the DNA of social change, Blockadia, is seen in the banning of fracking in New York state, France and other cities, states and countries, in civil disobedience, in legal action, and in arrests at sites where industries are attempting to mine or frack or drill, and the local citizens don’t want their land, air and water polluted.

One of the best of many Blockadia stories is the fight against the Arch Coal company’s Otter Creek coal mine in Montana. An alliance has formed between the Lummi Indians of the Washington coast where the tankers would be loading the coal from ports and exporting to Asian countries, with the Northern Cheyenne Indians of Montana where the coal mine would be excavated and the Tongue river railroad built for transporting the coal to the Washington coast. Joining the Indian Alliance and resistance movement are ranchers and farmers in Montana, forming what’s being called the “Cowboy and Indian” alliance. Their fight continues.

So a model for change, 1] BUILD alternative communities AND 2] RESIST not only extractivist industries, but also an economic system that’s increasing inequality and promoting war in its policies. This model for change may be a drop in the bucket for what we need, but it’s a model that “we the people” have control over.

The work of indigenous communities to halt the energy extraction frenzy, with their treaty rights to control their land, is being honored in the courts and by the UN, and they have won some battles. In a recent interview with YES magazine, Naomi explains: “Colonialism predates coal, but coal supercharged the colonial project, allowing the pillaging of the Global South, and locked us into these incredibly unequal extractive relationships. We in the Global North have built up an ecological debt. Fossil fuels built the modern world. And the countries that have a 200-year head start on emitting carbon have a special responsibility to both cut emissions first and fastest, and also to help countries that have not been contributing to this problem for nearly as long to leapfrog over fossil fuels and not be forced to choose between poverty and pollution. This is a process by which we begin to heal these colonial wounds.”

Naomi goes on to discuss the relationships she built with strong indigenous women on the forefront, fighting these battles against extractivist industries.

“All are deeply connected to where they live. And they are all relatively young women. There are particular challenges about being a woman in that kind of leadership role, but the joy that all of them bring to the struggle … I mean, it’s not simple. It’s painful. But it is so much about love of community and love of place.

Jess in particular, when she talks about the fight against the Northern Gateway Pipeline, she’s so eloquent in describing this as being a transformative process of people becoming more deeply connected to one another and to the land and water.”

Naomi ends by saying, “That’s been the most inspiring thing for me—watching this new generation of women leaders come up with great confidence and humility and eloquence and just love. They’re driven by love. And they’re fierce.”

The choices that so many living off the land, and often impoverished and marginalized, have to make, between working for an industry that’s contributing to the destruction of their land, water and air, but on the other hand, providing a much needed livelihood, or to choose to continue struggling to feed a family, in poverty and often in debt, complicates the fight to protect their land from mining and fossil fuel industries.

Reading one of the last chapters titled, “Love Will Change This Place”, I kept thinking about my campesina friend, Ana Maria.  Knowing Ana Maria has enriched my life in a way no other experience has. She is 67 years old and lives in a community about 30 miles outside of SMA . She doesn't read or write. She never heard of New York. She hates television. She loves walking her many acres of ejido land, the communal land distributed to the peasants after the 1910 Mexican revolution. Since 2008, we’ve taken many hikes on the land together. My intermediate Spanish allows me to understand her stories of growing up and raising her 5 children in desperate poverty. The river that now only runs a couple of weeks a year, ran all year, when she was raising her children and washing them and their clothes in the river. She has pointed out a plant she used, to clean them, because they could not afford to buy soap. With her daughter, they walked into town to sell goat cheese from a basket. They cut wood to sell. No social programs existed back then.

The bond that exists between us, is from our mutual love of the outdoors and hiking. Ana Maria knows every inch of the land, the hills, nestled below Margara Mountain. It’s beautiful. There’s the little adobe home in which she raised her children, still standing and used. As we walk the trails, she points out all the plants and their medicinal properties. She knows where all the caves are, and especially where the honey bees are. I’ve watched her, from a distance, as she swats the bees away, fanning a branch in front of her face, as her sons collect the honey. We’ve picked those blueberry type fruit from the garumbullos. She can peel a tuna fruit that blooms on the nopal cactus in a few seconds with a machete.

Ana Maria is the matriarch of the family, strong and warm, with pride and strength. Living on the land gives her sustenance and is clearly part of her soul.  The land has sustained her through struggles and suffering. Ana Maria is a fierce woman of the land, filled with love.

It’s through knowing my friend, that I realize the importance of land to peasants who have little else materially. The land is what makes them strong and rich. How many millions of Ana Marias are having their land, water and air threatened or destroyed by fossil fuel and mining companies desperately looking to make a short term profit. These companies and their workers are not connected, rooted to this land. They are transient and have different motives than the indigenous people who are rooted to the land, often descending from many generations, and whose traditional way of life on that land, sustains them.

My experiences with my friend have heightened my awareness of climate change being a social as well as an environmental issue and raises several questions. Do we in wealthier nations, since we have contributed the most to carbon emissions and destruction of their land, have an obligation to insure that the indigenous people, the first Nations, are able to live on their land? And, in addition, preserve their traditional cultures by funding alternative energies, institutions, so that they can continue thriving off their land? Do we have this climate debt to pay?

I want to end with this short fitting poem by poet laureate, Wendell Berry:

"No amount of fiddling with Capitalism
to regulate and humanize it,
can for long disguise its failure
to conserve the wealth and health of nature:
eroded, wasted or degraded soils;
damaged or destroyed ecosystems;
extinction of biodiversity species;
whole landscape defaced, gouged, flooded
or blown up;
thoughtless squandering of fossil fuels and fossil waters,
of mineable minerals and ores;
natural health and beauty displaced by a heartless
and sickening ugliness.
Perhaps, its greatest success
is an astounding increase in the destructiveness
and therefore the profitability of war."