By Naomi Klein
LET’S REWIND A BIT, to the week Donald Trump won the U.S. presidential election. At that moment, I was reeling from witnessing not one catastrophe but two. And I don’t think we can understand the true danger of the Trump disaster unless we grapple with both of them.
I was in Australia for work, but I was also very conscious that, because of the carbon involved in that kind of travel, I might not be able to return for a long time. So I decided to visit, for the first time in my life, the Great Barrier Reef, off the coast of Queensland, a World Heritage Site and Earth’s largest natural structure made up of living creatures. It was simultaneously the most beautiful and the most frightening thing I had ever seen.
As my Australia trip was approaching, I realized that my feelings about seeing the reef were tied up in my being the mother of a four-year-old boy, Toma. As parents, we can sometimes make the mistake of exposing kids too early to all the threats and dangers facing the natural world. The first book about nature that a lot of children read is Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, which is all about pollution and beautiful places being turned into garbage and all the animals dying and disappearing and choking. It’s really scary. I read it to Toma when he was two and watched the terror cross his face. And I thought, “No, this is completely wrong.” Now we read stories about fast-talking squirrels and books that celebrate nature’s beauty and wonder. Even if I know these books are about species that are on the brink of extinction, Toma doesn’t need to worry about that yet. I figure that my job is to try to create as many positive experiences as possible that will attach him to the natural world. You need to love something first before you can protect and defend it.
I also wanted to go to the reef in my role as a journalist. Over the previous two years, something unprecedented in recorded history had happened. Because of record-breaking temperatures, more than 90 percent of the Great Barrier Reef had been impacted by what’s known as a “mass bleaching event.” It’s hard to stress just how cataclysmic the bleaching has been. When coral is bleached, those beautiful, intensely colored creatures—an ecosystem as rich and teeming as the Amazon rainforest—turn ghostly and bone-white. Bleached coral can recover if temperatures quickly go back down to normal levels. This time, they hadn’t gone back down—so almost a quarter of the reef has died. Unlike many other climate change-related events, this wasn’t some dramatic storm or wildfire—just silent, watery death.
We went out on the reef with a team of extraordinarily dedicated marine biologists (all of whom were emotionally shattered by what they had been documenting) and a film crew from the Guardian. We started filming in the parts of the reef that are still alive, and we managed to get Toma to put on a snorkel. The scientists were incredibly patient with him, and there were about five solid minutes when he really was able to have a flash of true wonder—he “saw Nemo”; he saw a sea cucumber. I think he even saw a sea turtle. These parts of the reef, the ones that are neither bleached nor dead, are only a fraction of the whole, but they are still glorious—a riot of life, of electric-colored coral and fish, sea turtles and sharks swimming by.
We didn’t take Toma on the boat when we filmed the dead and bleached parts of the reef. And it was a graveyard. It was as if a cosmic switch had been flipped and suddenly one of the most beautiful places on Earth had been turned into one of the ugliest. The coral bones were covered in a goo of decaying life—a brown goo. You just wanted to get away from there. Our wetsuits stank of death.
One of the most unjust aspects of climate disruption (and there are many) is that our actions as adults today will have their most severe impact on the lives of generations yet to come, as well as kids alive today who are too young to impact policy—kids like Toma and his friends and their generation the world over. These children have done nothing to create the crisis, but they are the ones who will deal with the most extreme weather—the storms and droughts and fires and rising seas—and all the social and economic stresses that will flow as a result. They are the ones growing up amid a mass extinction, robbed of so much beauty and so much of the companionship that comes from being surrounded by other life-forms.
By the end of the day, we were all completely wiped out. We had seen so much death, so much loss, but my son had also had this special experience. That night, tucking him into bed in our motel room, I said, “Toma, today is the day when you discovered there is a secret world under the sea.” And he just looked up at me with an expression of pure bliss and said, “I saw it.” I burst into tears, some mixture of joy and heartbreak at the knowledge that just as he is becoming aware of this beauty in the world, all this magic, it is being drained away.
THE STAKES IN THE 2016 ELECTION were enormously high for a great many reasons, from the millions who stood to lose their health insurance to those targeted by racist attacks as Trump fanned the flames of rising white nationalism; from the families that stood to be torn apart by cruel immigration policies to the prospect of women losing the right to decide whether or not to become mothers, to the reality of sexual assault being normalized and trivialized at the highest reaches of power. With so many lives on the line, there is nothing to be gained by ranking issues by urgency and playing “my crisis is bigger than your crisis.” If it’s happening to you, if it’s your family being torn apart or you who are being singled out for police harassment, or your grandmother who cannot afford a life-saving treatment, or your drinking water that’s laced with lead—it’s all a five-alarm fire.
Climate change isn’t more important than any of these other issues, but it does have a different relationship to time. When the politics of climate change go wrong—and they are very, very wrong right now—we don’t get to try again in four years. Because in four years, Earth will have been radically changed by all the gases emitted in the interim, and our chances of averting an irreversible catastrophe will have shrunk.
This may sound alarmist, but I have interviewed the leading scientists in the world on this question, and their research shows that it’s simply a neutral description of reality. The window during which there is time to lower emissions sufficiently to avoid truly catastrophic warming is closing rapidly. Lots of social movements have adopted Samuel Beckett’s famous line “Try again. Fail again. Fail better” as a lighthearted motto. I’ve always liked the attitude; we can’t be perfect, we won’t always win, but we should strive to improve. The trouble is, Beckett’s dictum doesn’t work for climate—not at this stage in the game. If we keep failing to lower emissions, if we keep failing to kick-start the transition in earnest away from fossil fuels and to an economy based on renewables, if we keep dodging the question of wasteful consumption and the quest for more and more and bigger and bigger, there won’t be more opportunities to fail better. Nearly everything is moving faster than the climate change modeling projected, including Arctic sea-ice loss, ice sheet collapse, ocean warming, sea level rise, and coral bleaching. The next time voters in countries around the world go to the polls, more sea ice will have melted, more coastal land will have been lost, more species will have disappeared for good. The chance for us to keep temperatures below what it would take for island nations such as, say, Tuvalu or the Maldives to be saved from drowning becomes that much slimmer. These are irreversible changes—we don’t get a do-over on a drowned country.
The latest peer-reviewed science tells us that if we want a good shot at protecting coastal cities in my son’s lifetime—including metropolises like New York City and Mumbai—then we need to get off fossil fuels with superhuman speed. A paper from Oxford University that came out during the U.S. presidential campaign, published in the Applied Energy journal, concluded that for humanity to have a fifty-fifty chance of meeting the temperature targets set in the climate accord negotiated in Paris at the end of 2015, every new power plant would have to be zero-carbon starting in 2018. That’s the second year of the Trump presidency.
For most of us—including me—this is very hard information to wrap our heads around, because we are used to narratives that reassure us about the inevitability of eventual progress. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It’s a powerful idea that sadly doesn’t work for the climate crisis. The wealthy governments of the world have procrastinated for so long, and made the problem so much worse in the meantime, that the arc has to bend very, very fast now—or the shot at justice is gone for good. We are almost at midnight on the climate clock.
MANY HAVE HOPED THAT the existential urgency of the climate crisis—and early shocks like superstorms and reef die-offs—would serve as a collective wake-up call, becoming the catalyst for humanity to change to a cleaner and fairer economic model in a hurry. That kind of rapid democratic transformation would be the inverse of what I have called “the shock doctrine”—the use of crisis by the powerful to push through regressive, pro-corporate reforms.
And there is precedent for great shocks serving this kind of progressive function. Indeed, up until the ’80s—before shock doctrine tactics became the norm—crises that were obviously born of financial greed and corporate malfeasance often provoked some of the most momentous progressive victories in modern history.
In the United States, after the carnage of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, blacks and their radical allies pushed for economic justice and greater social rights. They won major victories, including free public education for all children—although it would take another century before schools were desegregated. The horrific 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York City, which took the lives of 146 young immigrant garment workers, catalyzed hundreds of thousands of workers into militancy—eventually leading to an overhaul of the state labor code, caps on overtime, new rules for child labor, and breakthroughs in health and fire safety regulations.
Most significantly, it was only thanks to the collective response from below to the Great Crash of 1929 that the New Deal became possible. The strike wave of the mid-1930s—the Teamsters’ rebellion and the Minneapolis general strike, the 83-day shutdown of the West Coast by longshore workers, and the Flint sit-down strikes in the auto plants—established the power of industrial unions and forced owners to share a great deal more wealth with their workers. In this same period, as a response to the suffering brought on by the Great Depression, mass movements demanded sweeping social programs such as Social Security and unemployment insurance (programs from which the majority of African American and many women workers were notably excluded). In the same period, tough new rules regulating the financial sector were introduced, at real cost to unfettered profit making. Across the industrialized world, pressure from social movements created the conditions for programs like the New Deal, featuring ambitious investments in public infrastructure—utilities, transportation systems, housing, and more—on a scale comparable to what the climate crisis calls for today. (Just as the wreckage of the Second World War provided another such catalyst.)
In 1969, there was an oil spill in Santa Barbara, which coated California’s beautiful beaches, and it was something like a Great Crash for the environment—a shock millions responded to by demanding fundamental change. Many of North America’s toughest laws protecting air, water, and endangered species can trace their roots back to the popular anger that exploded in response to that disaster.
In all these cases, a painful crisis served as a wake-up call, ushering in meaningful legislation that created a fairer and safer society—thanks in no small part to the hard work of organizers who had been preparing the ground for years before the shocks hit. These were far from perfect reforms, not full-scale transformations, and yet they were directly responsible for winning much of the modern social safety net as well as the regulatory structures that protect so many workers and public health.
So why did those crises produce such visionary change, while more recent ones—Hurricane Katrina, the subprime mortgage debacle, BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster—have left so little progressive public policy behind?
Here is one theory: The interplay between lofty dreams and earthly victories has always been at the heart of moments of deep transformation. The breakthroughs won for workers and their families after the Civil War and during the Great Depression, as well as for civil rights and the environment in the ’60s and early ’70s, were not just responses to crises. They were responses to crises that unfolded in times when people dared to dream big, out loud, in public—explosions of utopian imagination.
Our moment of crisis today could catalyze similar transformations—but first we need to reclaim the utopian tradition that animated so many transcendent social movements in the past. It means having the courage to paint a picture of a different world, one which, even if it exists only in our minds, can fuel us as we engage in winnable battles. Because, as Oscar Wilde wrote in 1891, “a map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, sets sail.”
Part of that voyage is not just talking and writing about the future we want—but building it as we go. It’s a principle I saw in action (and prayer, and song) in Standing Rock.
I WENT TO NORTH DAKOTA less than a month after Trump was elected. The forecast called for an epic snowstorm, and it was already starting to come down as we arrived, the low hills and heavy sky a monochromatic white.
Days earlier, the governor had announced plans to clear the camps of the thousands of “water protectors” who had gathered on the outskirts of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation to try to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline. A company called Energy Transfer Partners was determined to build the oil pipeline under Lake Oahe, the sole source of drinking water for the Standing Rock Sioux, as well as under another section of the Missouri River, which provides drinking water for 17 million people. If the pipeline ruptured, the tribal leaders argued, their people would have no safe water and their sacred sites would be desecrated. The movement’s Lakota-language slogan, heard around the world, was Mni Wiconi—”water is life.”
After months of confrontations with private security and highly militarized police, it seemed the governor now felt, with Trump on the way to the White House, that the coast was clear to crush the movement with force. The blows had been coming for months—about 750 people would be arrested by the time the camps were cleared—and when I arrived, Standing Rock had already become the site of the most violent state repression in recent U.S. history. With the issuing of the eviction order, many were calling December 5, 2016, the Standing Rock Sioux’s “last stand,” and I along with many others had traveled there to stand with them.
One of my first conversations at Standing Rock was with legendary Lakota elder LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, who in many ways had got all this resistance going when she opened the first camp on her land, the Sacred Stone Camp. That was in April 2016. Eight months later, here she was, eyes still sparkling, betraying not a bit of fatigue despite playing den mother to thousands of people who had come from across the world to be part of this historic movement.
Brave Bull Allard told me she had come to understand that, although stopping the pipeline was crucial, there was something greater at work in this convergence. She said the camps were now a place where indigenous and nonindigenous people alike were learning to live in relationship and community with the land. This moment was also about exposing visitors to the traditions and ceremonies that had been kept alive despite hundreds of years of genocidal attacks on indigenous people and culture. This, she told me, is why the traditions survived the onslaught. “We knew this day was coming—the unification of all the tribes. . . . We are here to protect the earth and the water. This is why we are still alive. To do this very thing we are doing. To help humanity answer its most pressing question: How do we live with the earth again, not against it?”
At Standing Rock, I found myself thinking a lot about what it means to be a protector. Leaders of the movement there had insisted from day one that they were not “protesters” out to make trouble, but “water protectors” determined to stop a whole other order of trouble. I thought about my own duty to be a protector—of my son and his friends and the kids yet to come, in the face of the rocky future we’ve locked in for all of them.
Amid the tears and the sage smoke, we felt the touch of history. Since the election, I had been longing for some kind of gathering of progressive thinkers and organizers—to strategize, unite, and find a way through the next four years of Trump’s daily barrage. I pictured it happening at a university, in big halls. I didn’t expect to find that space at Standing Rock. But that is indeed where I discovered it, in the camps’ combination of reaction and contemplation, and in the constant learning-by-doing modeled by Brave Bull Allard and so many other leaders there.
At Standing Rock, they did not, in the end, manage to stop the pipeline—at least not yet. In a flagrant betrayal of treaty and land rights, Trump immediately reversed Obama’s decision and allowed the company—flanked by layers of militarized police—to ram the pipe under Lake Oahe, without the consent of the Standing Rock Sioux. As I write, oil is flowing beneath the community’s drinking water reservoir, and the pipe could burst at any time. That outrage is being challenged in the courts, and extensive pressure is being put on the banks that financed the project. Roughly $80 million (and counting) has been pulled from the banks that have invested in the pipeline.
But the oil still flows.
I WILL NEVER FORGET the experience of being at the main camp when the news arrived, after the months of resistance, that the Obama administration had finally denied the pipeline permit. I happened to be standing with Tokata Iron Eyes, a fiercely grounded yet playful 13-year-old from Standing Rock who had helped kick-start the movement against the pipeline. I turned on my phone video and asked her how she felt about the breaking news. “Like I have my future back,” she replied, and then she burst into tears. I did, too.
Thanks to Trump, Tokata has again lost that sense of safety. And yet his action cannot and does not erase the profound learning that took place during all those months on the land. The modeling of a form of resistance that, with one hand, said no to an imminent threat and, with the other, worked tirelessly to build the yes that is the world we want and need.
Reposted with permission from our media associate SIERRA Magazine.