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"If we continue with 'business-as-usual' we will warm our planet to levels that our climate scientists tell us our catastrophic," argues Klein. "That means we need a different kind of 'business-as-usual.'" (Image: CBC / Screenshot)

Naomi Klein: 'Grassroots Movement From Below' vs. 'Business-as-Usual'

Following award of prominent literary prize in Canada, author and activist says individuals have done much to respond to climate change — now it's time for government and industry to do the same.

Jon Queally

Author and activist Naomi Klein was awarded Canada's top annual prize for non-fiction writing this week, the Hilary Weston Prize presented by the Writers' Trust of Canada, for her recently published book, 'This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate.'

According to the citation offered by the jurors:

Klein’s This Changes Everything is a ground-breaking work on how climate change changes everything. Written with an elegant blend of science, statistics, field reports and personal insight, it does not paralyze but buoys the reader. The book's exploration of climate change from the perspective of how capitalism functions produces fresh insights and its examination of the interconnectedness between our relationship with nature and the creation of better, fairer societies presents a radical proposal. Klein’s urgency and outrage is balanced by meticulous documentation and passionate argument. Heart and mind go hand in hand in this magisterial response to a present crisis.

Klein admitted being quite surprised by the award—saying from the podium that "this wasn't suppose to happen." Directly after receiving the award, the author explained the nature of her surprise to Brian Bethune at MacLean's by saying, “The book is a really radical thesis and this is an establishment prize.” Hilary Weston is a former liutenant governor of Ontario and is married to Galen Weston, who runs a food and retail empire in the country. The family is recognized as the second-wealthiest in Canada.

"Frankly, I think it goes beyond just a change in government. All three of the major opposition parties [in Canada] are all pretty much signed onto expansion of the tar sands. I actually think it's going to take a grassroots movement that is already rising from the bottom up, putting pressure on all the political parties." ”I suppose I have [Prime Minister] Stephen Harper to thank for the book’s success," Klein told Bethune. "Every day, he tells Canadians they have to choose between economic prosperity and environmental and climatic protection, and Canadians know that’s not true. They know they don’t have to make that choice. But we do have to talk about change; we need this conversation.”

In a post-award interview with CBC Books, Klein said that perhaps the award would allow "even people who disagree with my politics" to engage with the book. "For me, I want the book to stimulate debate, I don't just want the book to entrench people's positions," she said.

In a subsequent televised interview with the CBC's Andrew Nichols on Wednesday, Klein said that while it was very nice to be recognized for her writing and the quality of the work—the prize is decided by a jury of writers—she thinks the real strength of the book, and readers' attraction to it, ultimately hinges on its subject matter.

What the book is really calling for, explained Klein, is having a more "strategic economy" in which the sectors that are fueling climate change—with special focus on the fossil fuel industry—are wound down and the sectors that have lesser negative impacts on the planet's natural systems are revved up. "We know what we need to do in the face of this crisis," she said. "It's just that we have an economic system that seems to be locking us into this one particular road. So we need to talk about that system, not just the carbon."

And when Nichols asked if she was essentially advocating for a new economic system, Klein quickly answered, "I am."

She continued, "We are barreling along this road that is leading us towards 4 to 6 degrees celsius of warming. This is what the World Bank is saying, this is what PriceWaterhouseCoopers is saying. This isn't a controversial position. [Those institutions] calls this 'business as usual.' They say if we continue with 'business-as-usual' we will warm our planet to levels that our climate scientists tell us our catastrophic. That means we need a different kind of 'business-as-usual.'"

And part of that, is moving beyond the idea that individual actions—like changing light bulbs, composting, and riding bikes—can save us. Many Canadians, she said, have already made those important changes, but what that proves is that the scale of change is neither dramatic enough nor aimed at the right targets. "Because we have government policies that encourage an economic model based on resource extraction," Klein explained, "It's undoing all of these really good things that people are already doing."

"This not just about the Left. This is a conversation we all need to have."

"We know there's a willingness to change, even a desire to change," she said. "But it has to be done fairly and everybody has to change—not just individuals but also our largest corporations have to change. And if that happened, actually, there would less sacrifice and less onus on individuals. We need a 'polluter pays' framework. One of the arguments I make in the book is that the price of this transition can't just be off-loaded onto individuals. The fossil fuel companies know that they're destabilizing the planet's climate and we need to get more of their profits to pay for this transition."

Nichols referenced Klein's own associated with the political Left  in Canada and asked if it would take a change in government to affect the kind of change she is seeking.

"Frankly, I think it goes beyond just a change in government," Klein said. "All three of the major opposition parties [in Canada] are all pretty much signed onto expansion of the tar sands. I actually think it's going to take a grassroots movement that is already rising from the bottom up, putting pressure on all the political parties."

In a parting question, Nichols asked Klein what, if anything, the receipt of the Weston Prize might change.

"As you said," she answered, "I'm political and I'm associated with one side of the political spectrum, but this [award] is a pretty establishment prize, wtih the name of one of the most establishment families in Canada attached to it... But my hope is that the recognition of the prize will say that this not just about the Left. This is a conversation we all need to have."

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