"You're having the core conversation of our time."
That was the message delivered on Tuesday by author Naomi Klein to participants of a conference whose focus is on "concrete steps towards a society beyond the imperative of growth."
Klein's opening address to the Fourth International Conference on Degrowth for Ecological Sustainability and Social Equity, which kicked off Tuesday in the German city of Leipzig, made perfect sense, as the themes of her new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism Vs. The Climate, overlap those of the conference — that addressing the climate crisis is incompatible with the current growth-focused economy.
"The premise from which my book begins is one that I think we all pretty much agree on," Klein said, "that when it comes to addressing the climate crisis, we ... have failed catastrophically."
The world's track records on climate action "are not something to be proud of," she said, and they have set us on on a trajectory to live in a world that could see as much as a 6-degree rise in temperature from pre-industrial levels.
The "status quo is not an option," Klein said. "Radical change of some kind, whether physical or political, are our only options left."
"This is why the climate crisis challenges centrist liberals most of all because they subscribe to an ideology that is so resistant to the idea of radical change, to the idea of anything but incremental, reformist change."
As she argues in This Changes Everything, she said in her address that "our failure, most of all, has to do with the tragic, bad timing of this particular crisis." Scientific consensus on emissions-drive carbon crisis has been in for over 50 years, yet it took until the late 1980s when noted climate scientist James Hansen testified before Congress about the link between emissions and warming for it to hit a turning point in North America, she explained. Yet, she said, this same moment in time marked a so-called triumph of "liberal ideology." It was the time of the rise of "free trade" and WTO trade tribunals, austerity policies that clash with measures that could prevent and deal with climate disruption, the global north's refusal to own up to climate debts it owes the global south, and the privatization of energy sector fueled by profit motive. These liberal triumphs "systematically sabotaged the actions that were needed to respond to this crisis," she charged.
But "this moment isn't just about dropping out and building our alternatives and talking about our perfect degrowth future, and it isn't just about confronting the carbon criminals. We have to do both at the same time. We have to have our resistance and our alternatives woven together," she said.
Having even a 50/50 chance of keeping the planet under a 2-degree level of warming "is incompatible with economic growth," Klein said.
Instead, "what we need to do is have a deliberate economy. That's an economy that grows in areas that are light on the Earth — the caring professions, care-giving, teaching, arts — that expands in how we treat each other and contracts when it comes to the mindless use of resources, particularly finite resources."
In contrast to the kind of "shock doctrine" Klein has written about extensively, "climate change can be a people's shock, a blow from below." It can take power out of the hands of the few into the hands of the many. "It can radically expand the commons rather than auctioning it off in pieces and where right-wing shock doctors exploit emergencies, both real and manufactured, in order to push through policies that make us even more prone to crisis, the kinds of transformations that we must fight for do the exact opposite."
At the core of this, she said, is the notion that the climate crisis "is a civilizational wake-up call, a powerful message spoken in the language of fires, floods, droughts and extinctions, telling us that we need an entirely new economic model, a new way of sharing the planet, telling us that we need to evolve."
Klein began her address with a quote from the late Rebecca Tarbotton, who was executive director of Rainforest Action Network, and which appears at the beginning of her new book: "What we're really talking about... is transforming everything about the way we live on this planet." Indeed, to look at the program (pdf) of the degrowth conference is to see seeds of such transformation. From discussions on post-extractivism to food sovereignty to monetary and financial systems, a new vision of such a transformation is underway.
Watch Klein's full address in this video uploaded to YouTube by The Extraenvironmentalist: