Naomi Klein: 'Now is not the time for small steps. Now is the time for boldness'

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Speech given by Naomi Klein (pictured) on September 5 to the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, Sydney Opera House, Sydney.


Thank you so much Ann and everyone else at FODI [the Festival of Dangerous Ideas], my publisher Penguin and all the other amazing speakers who are part of this festival. And I want to thank you for your acknowledgement of country. Out of respect I’d also like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land, past and present, here in Sydney and the elders of the over 500 Aboriginal nations across Australia, where I’m told 5000 other people are also joining us via livestream.

When British colonisers first came to this land they treated it as if these nations did not exist: as if it were empty land, unsettled, terra nullius. These early settlers encountered people of course. It’s in all of the colonial records. But the humanity of those people, and the complex culture they had built, was not recognised under law. Humanity, nullified. That highly profitable refusal to see the full humanity of others, made possible by crude theories of superiority, is the foundational sin of your country, as it is of mine. In Canada, where I come from, we often signed treaties [with the indigenous peoples]. But we broke them with impunity so it’s really not all that different.

If our respective nations had truly learned from the violence of our past, done the hard work of change, then perhaps it would be adequate to acknowledge as we have today what our ancestors failed to do – that we are on indigenous lands – and then we could swiftly move on to other things. But unfortunately I fear that we have not learned from that foundational sin.

If anything, it feels like the categories of nullified humans is expanding all the time and that racism still plays a central enabling role. Indigenous peoples are still being disappeared into your country’s prisons – and my county’s – at shockingly high rates. Indigenous land rights are still being denied through various forms of legal trickery to make way for mining and drilling that will render those lands unrecognisable.

And, in the midst of the global refugee crisis, both of our governments, and many others, highly restrictive immigration policies are effectively nullifying the humanity of whole categories of people, denying them safe haven from wars in which our states are often directly complicit. Conflicts like the Syrian one that have been badly exacerbated by drought linked to climate change. And of course we also disproportionately complicit in that too.

We tell ourselves stories to make all of this seem okay, as our ancestors did. We tell ourselves, perhaps, that migrants from conflict zones are dangerous to us whether because they will steal our jobs or blow us up. But really we are part of a system that is doing the same thing, the same old thing, in denying the full humanity of others and with that humanity their full human rights, refusing to share our wealth, as ill-gotten as it may be.

This week all Canadians have been confronted with the unbearable truth: that Alyan Kurdi, the three year old boy whose tiny drowned body has become the tragic symbol of this moral crisis, should by all rights living safely in Vancouver right now. Instead he, his brother and his mother all died off the Turkish coast. Alyan’s aunt, who lives in Canada, had been trying to sponsor members of her family to come as refugees but the increasingly hostile bureaucratic process that my country has failed her and failed her family.

Desperate and with Canada unwelcoming, the family decided to trust their fates to that precarious plastic boat and those fake lifejackets. Our government has closed the door on so many others, accepting 10,000 fewer Syrian refugees than they had promised. But Canadians have never before been so directly confronted with visual evidence of the true costs of our government’s policy.

Politicians are good at that kind of thing – hiding the human costs of policy. Here I believe you call it Operation Sovereign Borders. That policy, which sees your Navy ruthlessly intercept boats of migrant, bringing them to detention facilities far from prying eyes, run by private companies, proving that no misery is too great to turn into a profit-making opportunity.

Terrible things happen in those camps, but workers sign gag-orders and cameras are judiciously kept out. All of which helps prevent the consciences of good people from being shocked as they have been this week by the image of Alyan Kurdi’s small body on that beach.

So obscure are the camps that Australian migrant rights advocates have started calling them “black sites”. It speaks to the reality that people are being wilfully disappeared again. Not for being terrorists as the US has done with its black sites in its so-called war on terror, but simply because their need is inconvenient.

Tony Abbott has been in the news a lot this week marketing his black sites as a humane solution for Europe: a way, says your prime minister to quote “keep people safe”. Yes that’s right. Prison camps for safety from the man who brought you coal, good for humanity. Up is down. War is peace.

And while I’m on the topic of oxymorons I would be remiss if I did not mention the Ethics Centre, co-curator of this wonderful festival. On its board, retired Major General James Moylan, one of the main architects of the ‘sovereign border’ policy – a policy not just devoid of ethics by any rational standard but, as the New York Times put it a couple of days ago, “inhumane, brutal and of dubious legality”.

Though he is a board member, the Ethics Centre does not share Moylan’s views on immigration I’m told, nor does it fund this festival, still, given the association a bunch of us speakers recently issued a statement strongly separating ourselves from the immigration policies Moylan has helped introduce in Australia, particularly because he is actively trying to export those policies to Europe.

This is the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, sure, and we’re all very risqué. But it is time to say that some ideas are just too damn dangerous, especially when those ideas are acted out on real bodies in the real world, which makes them more than ideas, it makes them international crimes.

Our statement, which was signed by Johann Hari, Laurie Penny, Tariq Ali and Jon Ronson, it wasn’t very polite nor is it, as you may have gathered, what I’m doing right now. Biting the hand and all of that. And I’m a Canadian so this hurts me; we are polite. We writers were scolded a little bit, told by the head of the Ethics Centre that we should have raised our concerns privately first. And perhaps we should have, only that’s part of the problem isn’t it? All of this going on in the shadows, out of the public glare, out of sight out of mind, all of this being polite about ideas that just have no place in polite company.

Now a few of you are thinking: “This is not what I came here for. I came here to find out about the book, how capitalism is waging war on life on Earth. Something relaxing, not so upsetting.” Before anyone goes to the box office demanding a refund for your undelivered anti-capitalism let me shift to the connection between capitalism and the very live debates about migrant rights and climate change.

Because there is a bright line connected the degradation in the way we treat human beings, whether they are refugees from Syria trying desperately to reach Greece or whether they’re Greek citizens suffering under unending attacks to their standard of living, bloodlessly called ‘austerity’, and the degradation of the planetary systems on which all of life depends. Indeed, Greece is told that the way to get out of debt is to drill for oil and gas in the Ionian and Aegean Seas. The same forces, the same logic, are behind all of these attacks on life.

Because a culture that places so little value on human beings that it allows them to be thrown to the waves is also going to allow poor people’s countries to disappear beneath the waves because that is a threat to today’s profits. And that same system will figure out how to profit from that misery tomorrow.

That is what our current system is doing and it’s why I make the argument that climate change is not just about carbon pollution it’s the collision between carbon pollution and a toxic ideology of market fundamentalism that has made it impossible for our shackled leaders to respond while they simultaneously make the problem so much worse. It’s also how Barack Obama can say all the right things about climate change as he visits the Arctic and simultaneously open it to Shell’s Arctic drilling.

We suffer from this case of bad timing and you see it so clearly here in Australia with your government so under the grip of this ideological project. Slashing the taxes that tax the polluters to try to get us off fossil fuels, whether the carbon tax or the mining tax, the dismantling of environmental laws, the totally inadequate emission reduction targets, which according to all experts won’t be met because there is no regulation ensuring they will be met. This is the collision and the result is not just hotter weather. It’s a meaner, crueller society and that is the connection with what we are seeing with the refugee crisis. And that’s why we have to challenge this system head-on.

I make the argument in the book that we need a “movement of movements” and we need to build coalitions across traditional divisions. We need environmentalists working with trade unions and farmers working with indigenous people. And just to prove how diverse this movement must be I’m going to quote the Pope, which is a bit odd for a secular Jewish feminist.

I don’t agree with every word in his historic encyclical on climate change but I would urge everyone to read this remarkable document because it is truly a revolutionary meditation on these overlapping crises and how they intersect. It’s also really quite beautiful. Several themes come up again and again in the encyclical and one them I think is particularly relevant to these themes I’ve been talking about and that so many of us are struggling with right now.

There is a term that is used five times in the encyclical and that term is “throwaway culture”. Essentially it refers to that process that systematically the precious into trash, that writes off people and places as if they do not matter. He says that that is the same process that is turning the planet into “an immense pile of filth”.

The “throwaway culture” is based on the core idea that we can take what we want and toss away the rest and just because we can’t see it we convince ourselves that it doesn’t really exist. There are a lot of places they typify this logic, a lot of sacrifice zones out there. But there is one place, more than any other I have studied, that brings these expressions of the throwaway culture together. I think if we look at it, it really clarifies how many fronts we need to work on and the need for system change.

The place I’m referring to is one that most people in the world have never heard of but it’s a place Australians know quite a lot about. That place is Nauru. I write about it in This Changes Everything but I rarely speak about it. I’ve never lectured about it before, in part because if feels too complicated to explain. But I thought I would talk a little bit about that section in the book so I’m just going to read a very abridged version if you don’t mind.

For thousands of years Naurans lived on the surface of their island, sustaining themselves on fish and fowl. That began to change when a colonial officer picked up a rock that was later discovered to made of almost pure phosphate of lime. A German-British firm began mining, later replaced by a British-Australian-New Zealand venture. Nauru started developing at record speed. The catch was that it was simultaneously disappearing.

By the 1960s Nauru still looked nice enough when approached from the sea but it was a mirage. Behind the narrow fringe of coconut palms circling the coast lay a ravaged interior. Seen from above, the forest and topsoil of the oval island were being voraciously stripped away. The phosphate mined down to the island’s sharply protruding bones, leaving behind a forest of ghostly coral totems.

With the centre now uninhabitable and largely infertile, life on Nauru unfolded along that thin coastal strip. Now none of this came as a surprise. Nauru’s successive waves of colonisers had a simple plan for the country. They would keep mining phosphate until the island was an empty shell.

“When the phosphate supply is exhausted in 30 to 40 years time the experts predict that the estimated population will not be able to live on this pleasant little island,” a Nauruan council member said rather stiffly in a 60s-era black and white video produced by the Australian government. Nauru, in other words, was designed as a disposable country.

It’s not that these extractive companies or the Australian government had anything against the place, no genocidal intent per se. It’s just that one dead island that few people knew existed seemed like an acceptable sacrifice to make in the name of progress.

Later, Nauru became the target of a more virtual form of extraction. In the 1990s, aided greatly by the wave of financial deregulation unleashed in this period, the island became a prime money laundering haven. For a time Nauru was home to roughly 400 phantom banks that were utterly unencumbered by monitoring, oversight, regulation, taxes or bricks and mortar. They did not actually exist.

These schemes have caught up with Nauru too and now the country faces a double bankruptcy. With 90% of the island depleted from mining, it faces ecological bankruptcy. With a debt of at least $800 million, Nauru faces financial bankruptcy as well. But these are not Nauru’s only problems. It now turns out that the island nation is highly vulnerable to climate change.

Speaking to the 1997 UN conference that adopted the Kyoto Protocol, Nauru’s then-president very evocatively described an image that I’ve never been able to get out of my head. He said: “We are trapped: a wasteland at our back, and to our front a terrifying rising flood of biblical proportions.” Few places on Earth embody the suicidal results of building our economies on polluting extraction more graphically than Nauru.

Thanks to its mining of phosphate Nauru has spent the last century disappearing from the inside out. Now thanks to our collective mining of fossil fuels it is disappearing from the outside in. Nauru is a warning.

For a couple of hundred years we have been telling ourselves that we can dig the midnight black remains of other life forms out of the bowels of the Earth, burn them in massive quantities and have the airborne gases and particles released in the atmosphere and think because we cannot see them they will have no effect whatsoever. Or if they do then we will just invent something to fix it as we humans always have.

We tell ourselves all kinds of implausible no consequences stories all the time about how we can ravage the world and suffer no adverse effects. Indeed, we are always surprised when it turns out otherwise. We extract and do not replenish and wonder why the fish have disappeared, why the soil requires ever more inputs like phosphate to stay fertile. We occupy countries and arm their militias and wonder why they hate us. We drive down wages, ship jobs overseas, destroy worker protections and hollow out local economies and wonder why people can’t afford to shop as much as they used too. We offer those people cheap credit instead of steady jobs and wonder why nobody saw that system being so prone to collapse.

At every stage our actions are marked by a lack of respect for the powers we are unleashing. A certainty, or at least a hope, that the nature we have turned into garbage and the people we treat like garbage will not come back to haunt us. And Nauru knows all about this because in the past decade it has become a dumping ground of another sort.

In an effort to raise more revenue it is, as you all know, a refugee detention centre for the government of Australia. There are great efforts made to stop images from Nauru but they are getting out nonetheless. Horrifying photographs who have sewn their mouths shut using paperclips as needles.

Mark Issacs, a former Salvation Army employee who worked there, has said that Nauru is all about taking resilient men and grinding them into dust, on an island that itself was systematically ground into dust. It’s a harrowing image, as harrowing as enlisting the people who could very well be the climate refugees of tomorrow to play warden to the political and economic and war refugees of today.

Reviewing this island’s painful history it strikes me that so much of what has gone on there has to do with this idea of the middle of nowhere. This idea that we can just throw away without consequences. So if Nauru is what the Pope calls a “throwaway culture” and that is the problem then the task is clear, and that is to a culture of caretaking, in which no one and nowhere is thrown away. In which the inherent value of people and all life is foundational.

Now what would such a society look like? What would it mean to fight climate change, social exclusion, economic injustice, racism and gender inequality all at the same time? What would intersectional – that most trendy of phrases – mean if it was actually about solutions, not just problems?

It would mean recognising that we have so many crises in front of us that we actually can’t afford the time to fix them sequentially. At this late stage baby-steps won’t do. Steps in the right direction won’t do. What we need to do is leap to the next economy, the next system, now.

Since the book came out a year ago I’ve been lucky to be part of these amazing conversations in different countries, particularly in my own country Canada, but also in the US and a little bit in Europe, about what that leap to the next economy would look like. I’ve been in rooms filled with incredible activists, including here in Australia over the past 10 days, brainstorming about how if we all came together and stopped pitting our issues against each other, if we came out of our silos and started to imagine a holistic solution, what it would look like.

So brace yourself, I’m going to get specific and propose a series of interlocking policies. The change may be transformative but it’s anything by vague. We actually know how to do this. It starts by respecting the inherent rights and title of the original caretakers of our countries. Indigenous communities have been at the forefront of protecting rivers, forests, coasts and lands from out-of-control industrial activity. And they still are from the Alberta tar sands in my country to the ill-fated Carmichael mine in your country.

We can all bolster this crucial role and begin to repair our relationship by fully implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which requires that mining companies and any actors have prior and informed consent before any activity takes place on indigenous lands.

Caring for one another and caring for the planet could be the economy’s fastest growing sector. Many more people could have higher waged jobs with fewer work hours, leaving us ample time to enjoy time with our loved ones and flourish in our communities.

The latest research out of Stanford University shows us that it’s feasible to power our economies with 100% renewable energy in the next 20 to 30 years. We could have a 100% clean economy here in Australian, and in Canada where I live, by mid-century – not by the end of the century as our leaders are meaninglessly pledging.

If this is possible, if the technology is there, it means there is no longer an excuse for building any new infrastructure projects that lock us into increased extraction decades into the future. That’s why the iron law needs to be “when you are in a hole, stop digging”. No new coalmines.

But more than that, since we are capable of powering our lives without poisoning anyone the idea, the very idea, that racist notion of the sacrifice zone belongs in the dustbin of history next to Manifest Destiny. No new infrastructure projects, and this is not just about changing where we get our energy. It’s also about changing who profits from the generation of energy, how it is producing and changing our economic system. This is often called Energy Democracy.

What this means is that wherever possible communities should collectively control the renewable energy that they are generating. They should control it democratically and keep their profits in the community to pay for services. This is what has really been working in Germany, which is now getting 30% of its electricity from renewables – 80% on a sunny day. They have created 400,000 good jobs – tell that to Tony Abbott who says you have to choose between jobs and the environment. They’ve done this [in Germany] by taking back control of their energy grids, voting in big cities like Hamburg to reverse the privatisation of their energy systems because they believe the profit motive is standing in their way.

The other principle should be that indigenous people, particularly in countries like Australia, should be first to receive public support to own their own clean energy projects. So too should communities currently dealing with the heavier health impacts of polluting industrial activities. Yesterday’s sacrifice zones need to be transformed into today’s super empowerment zones. If we generate power in this way it doesn’t merely light our homes, it redistributes wealth, it deepens our democracy, it strengthens our economy and it starts to heal the wounds that, in a very tangible way, date back to our country’s founding. This is what climate justice looks like.

Now if also means an end to corporate trade deals that give corporations the power to interfere with our attempts to rebuild our local economies, to regulate corporations, to stop damaging extractive projects. Under these trade rules provinces and states that have banned fracking are facing trade challenges. Germany is facing a huge trade challenge for its energy transition, it is being sued for 4.7 billion euros by a private company that says this transition – the kind of transition that we all need to embrace – is standing in the way of the right to earn profit from coal and nuclear. We simply afford to allow trade to trump the planet.

Now a lot of people say that we can’t afford it. But we can afford it. We live in a time of unprecedented prosperity and we just need to release that money. We can do it, as Australia has in the past with carbon taxes, with higher royalty rates in extraction and with financial transaction taxes. We need to invest in the public sphere on a massive scale to protect ourselves from the heavy weather we’ve already locked in, but also because so much public sector work and so much care giving work – healthcare, teaching – is already low-carbon work. Artists are low-carbon workers, not just the people who put up solar panels. We need to embrace this. We need to enlarge these parts of the economy. We need to redefine what a “green job” is.

One thing is certain. It is long past time to declare that austerity, which has systematically attacked these low-carbon sectors, is a fossilised form of thinking that has become a threat to life on Earth.

So once you start talking about this it raises all kinds of other issues. The fact that corporations have way too much power over our political system. We need to be talking about campaign finance reform and why elections need to be 100% publically financed. We need to shut that revolving door between business and government.

We need to change the media. I was asked before I came here that why is it that climate change denial is so strong in Australia and the US and the UK and I gave this elaborate answer about how it was the frontier mentality and about countries with a strong colonial history, but then I was thinking about it and thought “well there is also something else, those are all countries where Rupert Murdoch owns a huge amount of the media sphere”.

We need to change everything. But you know what, everything isn’t working for us anyway. If the only problem with our economic system was this slight problem of rising sea levels we’d have a real problem. This economic system is failing the vast majority of people on this planet, with or without climate change.

It is a moral crisis. Climate change supercharges this transformational imperative and tells us that we cannot afford to lose. It puts us on a firm, unyielding science-based deadline. It tells us to get out of our silos and build the movements we know we need.

I began today’s talk by speaking about that harrowing image of abandonment and neglect that has been filling our screens over the past few days of Alyan Kurdi and his broken family. And I’m sorry that I got emotional. As a mother who desperately misses her three year old son I have found these past days so far from home and family very difficult. But let’s also recall that there have been other images and stories too.

Tourists fishing refugees out of the water and caring for them. Ten thousand people in Iceland volunteering to open their homes to refugees. Spontaneous refugee welcome rallies, protests, petitions from London to Toronto and Melbourne. One does not cancel the other out. We humans are all these things. The people who turn away, choosing not to see what is right in front of us and the people who reach across vast oceans to help. The people who throw away so casually and the people who care so much it hurts.

We are all of it. Both sides of us are real. But we have a culture that systematically tries to repress that caring part of ourselves, while actively encouraging the careless part. So the task is to build a culture that does the opposite, that encourages the caring and discourages the careless.

The path is clear. It’s exciting. It’s difficult as hell. But we must always remember this: difficult is not the same as impossible. Huge social movements have changed the world before through a magical combination of culture, theory, spirituality, policy and law. We can do it again. We will be told it’s impractical, unrealistic, unserious and making the perfect the enemy of the good – as if perfect didn’t leave the station more than 20 years ago – all of that. But I want to end with some words from Nauru, which is not just a prison camp, which is not just a nation wracked with economic and political scandal. It’s also a country looking into the abyss. They come from Marlene Moses who has long served as Nauru’s ambassador to the UN. She said this in 2012.

She was speaking in her capacity of not just representing Nauru but all small island nation states. She said this: “As leaders we have a responsibility to fully articulate the risks our people face. If the politics are not favourable to speaking truthfully then clearly we must devote more energy to changing the politics.” This is our sacred duty to those our countries have harmed in the past, to those suffering needlessly in the present and to all those who have a right to a safe and bright future. Now is not the time for small steps. Now is the time for boldness. Now is the time to leap.